Workshops of Empire

A brief excerpt from Eric Bennett’s new book about creative writing and the Cold War


These days, scholars regularly sound the death knell for the liberal arts. No one is really sure what will happen to literature as e-books and new publishing platforms flood the market. The value of MFA programs has become so contested that we debate whether writers are better off in a workshop or toiling away in the real world (usually New York City), gaining valuable life experience. But 60 years ago, there was no question: literature was going to save the world, and writing programs would produce its saviors. At the dawn of the Cold War, the MFA program was a rallying cry against the menace of Soviet totalitarianism and the memory of European fascism, and Wallace Stegner and Paul Engle were its founding fathers.

In his new book, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, Eric Bennett explores the idealogical underpinnings of the creative writing programs that continue to influence literature well into the 21st century. From Stegner’s Stanford program to Engle’s Iowa Writing Workshop, creative writing would, as Bennett writes, “inoculate weak minds against simplistic totalitarian ideologies, heal the spiritual wounds of global catastrophe, and just maybe prevent the like from happening again.”

How was literature going to save our democratic souls? Read this excerpt from the introduction and find out.

In the Yale Review in 1950 Wallace Stegner, a novelist and the founder of the Stanford program, offered a genealogy of Nazism and Stalinism that deemed the writer a crucial asset to democracy in the postwar world. It would be a mistake “to start considering men not as complex individuals, as little worlds each compact of love and honor and ambition and cheating and foolishness and cowardice and courage, but as units in a gigantic logistics problem, as ciphers from which large and meaningful statistics can be made.” Statistical analysis, instrumental logic, the power of science and social science, could produce knowledge later wielded with practical terror and moral bankruptcy—as concentration camps and atomic weapons. Literature, Stegner argued, defended and enlarged what technology and technocracy attacked or diminished or simply had no tools to perceive: human particularity. It illuminated our irreducibility and tragic dignity.

The poet John Berryman, in an early class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, brandishing a newspaper article about the Army-McCarthy hearings, proclaimed: “These fools will rule for a while and be replaced by other fools and crooks.” In contrast stood the poetry of Keats, which “will be with us for as long as our language endures.” Such at least was what his student, the poet Philip Levine, remembered Berryman saying. “These were among the darkest days of the Cold War,” Levine reflected, “and yet John was able to convince us—merely because he believed it so deeply—that nothing could be more important for us, for the nation, for humankind, than our becoming the finest poets we could become.” The institutional flowering of creative writing was inextricably associated with this strident veneration of the personal. The impulse was political and ideological, the expression belletristic.

In the twenty-first century, the origin stories of the writing workshops appear untouched by Stalin and Mao, McCarthy and Eisenhower, innocent of the image of the victims of genocide packed into freight trains, oblivious to the specter of Siberian prisons, free from the frigid exorbitance of the Cold War mindset.

Eric Bennett, excerpt from Workshops Of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During The Cold War, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2015 by the University of Iowa Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up