This article explores the literary criticism of the South African writer Es'kia Mphahlele by placing it within the context of the cultural Cold War. As the author of The African Image (1962; revised edition, 1974), one of the landmark works in midcentury Afrocentric criticism, Mphahlele helped to usher in a new era for African literary criticism, pushing it away from négritude's politicized judgments and toward a more self-consciously academic format. This article examines how Mphahlele constructed this newly academicized form of literary criticism by borrowing liberally from aesthetic discourses normally associated with US and Soviet cultural diplomacy programs. In particular, it describes how Mphahlele adapted a modernist language of "character," taken from the writings of Lionel Trilling and E. M. Forster, only to apply this language to its ideological opposite: a social theory rooted in Marxian notions of class division. By doing so, Mpahahlele managed to find a way to generalize his own relationship to his South African audience—remote, uncertain, and riddled by class divisions—into a model for how literary criticism could represent an increasingly fragmented social sphere.