I hereby forgive the CIA for Abstract Expressionism
May 31, 2012, 05:32 AM
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One of the interesting unanswered questions about post-WWII arts and literature (e.g., the Mad Men era) is how much was it funded and molded by the CIA as part of a "twilight struggle" to make America look cooler than the Soviet Union. For example, old CIA agents have long claimed to have played a sizable role in the triumph of abstract expressionist (or "New York School") painting. 

It`s useful to conceive of the CIA not as omnipotently manipulating everything. Instead, think of The Agency as players in an international version of the municipal "favor bank" explicated in The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Thus, the fact that, say, President Obama`s best known private sector job was at a newsletter company, Business International, that had admittedly served as a cover story front for at least four CIA agents doesn`t mean that Obama is a creation of the CIA, but it does serve to point to his parents` connections to American power in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kenya.

What about the CIA as a patron of literature? The highbrow Anglo-American magazine Encounter, co-founded by English poet Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol, was long ago revealed to be something of a CIA front. Questions have also persisted about the funding of the literary magazine The Paris Review, long edited by bon vivant George Plimpton, ever since the magazine`s founder, nature writer Peter Matthiessen, admitted to some help from the CIA. 

A long new article in Salon fleshes out The Paris Review`s relationship with the CIA. I haven`t read the whole thing, but I have to say that the idea of my tax dollars being used to fund George Plimpton`s lifestyle is probably the best news I`ve had all day. 

I`m sure nobody under about 45 remembers Plimpton, but he was a consistently delightful figure in the media during my childhood, a Park Avenue honk who would come up with these strange participatory journalistic exercises, such as, in Paper Lion, going through the Detroit Lions training camp as their fourth string quarterback, even quarterbacking three downs in an NFL exhibition game.

A fellow who worked for me in the 1980s repairing personal computers had previously interned at the Paris Review for Plimpton (my friend`s grandfather had gone to prep school with Plimpton`s father), and he had lots of good Plimpton stories.

Also, I noticed that the Salon article by Joel Whitney wanders off to the topic of Yale`s American Studies Ph.D. program. I realize the following excerpt will be kind of dull, but I was struck by it because I just recalled another writer, one even more famous that Plimpton, who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale in 1957, somebody whose name will be back in the news later this year (if all goes according to plan):

The weaponization of culture starts at Yale. Prof. Norman Holmes Pearson is cited on the Paris Review web site as the intelligence officer who recruited Matthiessen (Yale College, 1950) into the CIA. This fact may explain the subtle cultural politics of the supposedly apolitical Paris Review. Pearson’s career is a mashup of literature and spying. A friend of the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (aka, “H.D.”), he hired H.D.’s daughter as his secretary. She then became that of his assistant, the CIA’s bogeyman, James Jesus Angleton. After an illustrious record during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services alongside CIA founding light William Donovan and CIA director Allen Dulles, Pearson returned to academe to take charge of Yale’s fledgling American Studies program.

How does covert propaganda or intelligence work link up with American Studies? Answer: Monomania and the Cold War. Consider a letter from Yale’s dean at this time to its president:

From such a study we will gain strength, both individually and as a nation … strength, which we need so badly in our time to face the changing, and in part, hostile world  … This is an argument … for the establishment of a strong program of American Studies at Yale, which in many respects is our most native university … In the international scene it is clear that our government has not been too effective in blazoning to Europe and Asia, as a weapon in the “cold war” the merits of our way of thinking and living … Until we put more vigor and conviction into our own cause … it is not likely that we shall be able to convince the wavering peoples of the world that we have something infinitely better than Communism … 

Yale’s American studies “would be ‘positive,’” as one academic has written, “not a matter of preaching against communism, but one of advocacy for the American alternative.” Where the CIA would get into the game — call it cultural propaganda or psychological warfare — it would avail itself of both “positive” and “negative” means, celebrating American cultural achievements on one hand while attacking Soviet ideas and policies on the other. 

 

For decades I`ve been reading that "New Journalists," such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, made themselves the centerpieces of their articles, but I`ve always found that to be much truer for Thompson than Wolfe. I`ve read over a million words by Wolfe — and I`m a rather close reader — but he remains a somewhat engimatic character to me. 

One reason for Wolfe`s relative reticence about himself is that he`s an unrepentant white Southerner. His agronomist father edited The Southern Planter and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy.

But, that aside, I`m struck by a couple of bullet points from his biography:

  • While Thompson liked to portray himself as a "Doctor of Journalism," Wolfe actually is Dr. Tom Wolfe, holder of a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies. This doesn`t come up much in his books, however. I can recall one passage in which he expresses loathing of grad school poverty. 
  • -Wolfe covered Castro`s Revolution in Cuba as a reporter for the Washington Post. That seems like rich material for any writer to mine in his subsequent works, but, as far as I can recall, Wolfe has been strikingly reticent on the subject. Wolfe`s upcoming novel about Miami,Back to Blood, will, presumably, make use in some fashion of his Cuban days

It now occurs to me that there could be common denominator between Wolfe`s Yale American Studies Ph.D. and his time in Cuba as a journalist.