The U.S. Government and Literature

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I do book reviews for Library Journal on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes my editor will email me a list of books she has and let me pick what sounds interesting, other times a book appears in the mail and I have no idea what I am in for. A few weeks ago I got a book in the mail, Du Bois’s Telegram by Juliana Spahr. I was in the midst of a number of library books that couldn’t be renewed and had fast approaching due dates. The title of the book was a turn off, I had no interest in reading about Du Bois right then. So I procrastinated for as long as I could, which wasn’t long because I had a short due date on this one.

I reluctantly began reading the book, grumbled my way through the introduction that had some awkward jargon in it, and was about to grind my way through the book when Spahr really got my attention. The book wasn’t going to be about Du Bois at all! Spahr was merely taking a telegram he wrote to the Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956 as a jumping off point for her book. Du Bois was unable to attend the conference because the State Department denied him a passport.

In his telegram Du Bois said, “Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our State Department wishes the world to believe.” Could Du Bois really have been denied a passport because the U.S. government didn’t want him talking about race issues? Spahr decided to find out.

What she uncovers is a long history of the U.S. government interference in the production of literature here and abroad. Funding literary journals and publishers, providing grants to writers, sometimes even harassing and following authors who wrote movement literature or criticized the government. The Cold War was raging and the U.S. had to make sure that literary production fell into a nationalist line or at the very least was non-threatening to America’s image.

The government even helped fund this little start up writing program in Iowa that came to be known as the Iowa Writers Workshop. You can read all about that in some detail in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, How Iowa Flattened Literature.

This book turned out to be shocking to me. This is not the literary history I had been taught or the image I had of free and autonomous literary production. Spahr ends up concluding that since the government has managed to institutionalize the production of literature, it doesn’t have to do all that much to keep it under control these days. The institutionalization ensures that literature no longer has much political and cultural grit, no revolutionary zeal, no danger to incite. Of course something gets through now and then. Spahr names Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a recent example (an amazing and important book, read it if you can!), but for the most part, there are no rocking boats.

Spahr is a poet and professor of English and admits that she is deep in the institution. However, for a few years she taught a grad school class that looked at literature and tried to find a way for it to break out of institutional and corporate clutches. She gave up teaching the class because, short of revolution, no one could see a way clear.

There are a few books that have been written on the institutionalization of literature and what the MFA workshop has done to promote a certain type of writing as acceptably literary and make it difficult for anyone who steps too far out of the box. I haven’t read any of them but suddenly I am very interested.

I can’t help but wonder whether literature would be more vital, varied and exciting if the government had not exerted so much control over it. Not that good books don’t get written, they do, but how different would book culture and culture in general be if literature had been left to follow its own path? We spend so much time and energy worrying about print versus digital (I have been guilty of this!) and Amazon versus big chain bookstores versus independent bookstores that we have missed the bigger picture. And yes there are small presses publishing some exciting writing and even truly dangerous books. But they are small presses and unless you know about them or one of their books somehow manages to break out into a wider readership, they are not going to upset the current paradigm.

Thinking about the implications of Spahr’s book kind of made me want to break something. I have no idea how to change the way things are, but maybe the first step is spreading the word and talking about it. We as readers are part of the equation and have some power to either continue to accept the status quo or make some noise and start breaking down walls.

To that end, read Spahr’s book when it is published. Also, here are a few further readings that Spahr cites to:

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