cold war

Needless iconoclasm

Notes on an anthology of contemporary American poets in 1957

Ray B. West, editor of The Western Review (published for years out of the University of Iowa), went on a rare leave of absence and left things to an acting editor, Richard Freedman. (Paul Engle, faculty director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, served as the magazine’s advisory editor.) While Freedman was minding the editorial store, the magazine published as its Spring 1957 issue a selection of twenty-one poets who had come of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s – “essentially,” Freedman noted, “the generation which has developed since the Second World War.” Richard Stern chose the poets and poems.

Interview: modernist poetry & the cold war

C. Derick Varn interviewed me recently. Here is a link.

Experiment is exhausted, so it's time to interpret rather than explore

American Quarterly, which at the time was the true home in print of the surging postwar “American Studies” (or: “American Civilization”) movement in academe, sought out poet Louise Bogan to write a short summary of “Modernism in American Literature.” It was published in the Summer 1950 issue. Bogan (1897-1970) was very loosely associated with Euro-American poetic modernism of the 1920s, and perhaps it helped that her first book was published in 1923, the time of Harmonium. Her particular Eliot was the writer who’d discovered a modern mode as part of a “personal point of departure [from] Elizabeth drama and the irony of Jules Laforgue.”  She admired the way Yeats and Pound “achieved modernity” yet happily distinguished them from the real thing: “Eliot,” on the other hand, “was modern from the start.”

Bogan, in my view, was essentially done as a poet of significance in 1941, by which time, in any case, most of her poems had been published. She stayed with us a long time, though, and that’s because she’d been hired by the New Yorker to be their main poetry reviewer, holding that powerful position for 38 years, until 1969. I suspect most poetry people would thus know her from the byline on all those short New Yorker notices. (There is, to be sure, a corridor in the house of poetry along which Bogan is said to be “the most accomplished woman poet of the twentieth century.” So begins the introductory note on her at the Poetry Foundation web site.)

A few notes on the cultural cold war

Here's my introduction to a session featuring readings for the Rothenberg/Joris Poems for the Millenium back in 1998. In my 11-minute intro I tried to do something a little more than my usual brief, get-out-of-the-way segue to the main presenters. I wanted to say something in particular about Jerome Rothenberg's passage (as a young poet) through the cultural cold war. I make reference, for instance, to his discovery at the University of Michigan that in the 1950s Whitman was definitely on the outs — that Whitmanism in the 1950s was academically (if not also otherwise) dangerous. (To get to my comments about Rothenberg in the 50s, you can go immediately to a point halfway through the recording.)

With soul so dead, HUAC quotes Walter Scott

Quotation from a poem by Sir Walter Scott printed on the final page of a report published by the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Review of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, arranged by the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, and held in New York City, March 25, 26, and 27, 1949 (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives, 1950 [originally released, April 19, 1949]), p. [62]:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,--
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

Bob Perelman's history

I've recently published a long essay on the poetry of Bob Perelman. It's called "The President of This Sentence." It's about the convergence in Perelman's writing of two parallel and also, at times, convergent analyses--one of modernism's rise and fall; the other of the state of Cold War at the point of giving way to New Left and countercultural skepticism. Here is a link to the whole essay, and here is the opening paragraph:

Parataxis is unAmerican

Ernest Hemingway, Donald Davidson, domino theory

Donald Davidson, from "Grammar and Rhetoric: The Teacher's Problem" (1953):

In our time, the conjunction and has too often been the mark of a timid evasiveness in which I do not mean to indulge: "He was an old man who fished alone...," writes Ernest Hemingway, "and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." The philosophy of Hemingway, as man and writer, is latent in that characteristic conjunction and. It bothers Mr. Hemingway to think that there may be some relationship between objects other than a simple coupling. "A" and "B" are there. The inescapable act of vision tells him so. But Hemingway rarely ventures, through grammar and rhetoric, to go beyond saying that "A" and "B" are just there, together. Similiarly, our diplomats and Far Eastern Experts long had a habit of declaring that there was a Red Russia and a Red China, with the tender implication that such a conjunction was entirely innocent. Political theories for nearly two centuries have coordinated liberty and equality, but have too often failed to tell us, as history clearly shows, that liberty and equality are much more hostile than they are mutually friendly; that the prevalence of liberty may very well require some subordination of the principle of equality; or, on the other hand, that enforcement of equality by legal and governmental devices may be quite destuctive to the principle of liberty. [Source: The Quarterly Journal of Speech 39, 4 (December 1953), p. 425.]

Cold War language theory

On free speech and literary intention

Back in the late '80s I used the opportunity to write a review of two books about the Smith Act prosecutions of American communists to put together an essay on First Amendment theory, literary intention and the political interpretation of speech. It's called "Words with 'All the Effects of Force': Cold-War Interpretation" and was published in American Quarterly (volume 39, issue 2 - Summer 1987). Here is the essay as a PDF.

The Careful Young Men of 1957

In March of 1957, the Nation magazine ran a feature called "The Careful Young Men," with this subtitle: "Tomorrow's Leaders Analyzed by Today's Teachers." They sought contributions from English professors--all men as it turned out, not surprisingly--at mostly elite universities, soliciting comments on what students were thinking, writing and reading. These students, "tomorrow's leaders" per the subtitle, and the "careful young men" per the title, befit--lo and behold!--the general notion of Nation articles and editorials of this period: the Fifties were pretty much uniformly a time of quietude, caution and rising orthodoxy. That the late fifties was a time of extraordinary experimentation is nowhere indicated, not even marginally, not even in one sentence in one of the entries--not even as a hint or premonition. Of course I see the names of the contributors (Carlos Baker at Princeton, Stanley Kunitz of Queens College, Wallace Stegner at Stanford) and understand that a major problem here is the narrow choice of respondents. The obvious irony is that these male literary academics, for the most part lamenting the aesthetic conservatism of their students, evince no sense of the intellectual diversity--to mention only one form of diversity--that might be required to see the resistance and experimentation at the edges of their classrooms or perhaps outside their office windows or at the fringes of campus (or indeed far down the academic road, at places like Black Mountain). It may be that these gentlemen are writing in 1957 but thinking of their students of 1950-1954, the cowed McCarthyite generation recently graduated. Or it may be that the freer spirits on campus had stopped taking lit courses, or kept quiet whilst Stegner and Baker were lecturing at them, or saved their heterodoxy for the sloppy garrett and cheap coffee shop six blocks from campus.

Anyway, Kunitz notes that the students don't seem to have culture heroes who are themselves young, and seem to be stuck with Jung, Mann, Yeats and Eliot. Stegner claims that "only Eliot seems to arouse enthusiasm in students." (He's talking about a San Francisco-area campus in 1957! Can that generalization really hold even for students on the conservative Stanford campus of that time? I doubt it, but of course I'll need to do a little digging to confirm my hunch that he's wrong.) J. A. Bryant of the University of the South notes that the Hemingway these young men love is not the unallegiant expatriate Hem but the Hem who "symbolizes the virility and essential goodness of the American male and is identifiable with the warrior [and] the athlete." R. J. Kaufmann says that his students "like Joyce's Portrait very well up to the point in which he works out his elaborate aesthetic." John Willingham of Centenary College says there's no rebellion in these students at all--that they "envy the undergraduate of the twenties" [sic - not "the thirties"].

I should note that Leo Marx (then at Minnesota) wrote an exceptional piece for this feature, and so, to some degree, did Alan Swallow, whom we think of now as primarily a great publisher but who had then recently left the University of Denver but was in any case never really comfortable in the academy the way Stegner, Baker and Kunitz were.

Cold War Gaming Theory

In Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

I've been re-reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and co-leading a month-long discussion online with a few dozen adults. We discuss every aspect of the play by email. Lots of fun. As anyone who knows the play will remember, George and Martha play a series of always slightly varied games with each other. These are games played to vary the relationship (in part to create sexual excitement through, for instance, role-changing) but also as a means of altering the power dynamic between them. (George married Martha in part because her father is the president of the college where he is a not very successful history professor. So she's got the power but he shifts rules of the games they play in order to challenge those positions; she often likes the rule-shifting because it shows some evidence that George is not entirely flaccid.

So our group was talking about the elaborate games in this play, and I decided to explore the possible connection between what Albee is doing here in this 1962 work and the Cold War rage for game theory. Here is what I wrote to the group this morning:

- - -

Game theory developed rapidly and quite publicly in the period when Albee was first writing plays - in the late 60s. It reached its peak in the early 50s. Gamesmanship, following from militarily-applied gaming scenarios, is largely credited for the White House strategy in dealing with the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962. (Our play was written earlier and produced before the crisis in October that year, but audiences throughout that period would have been quite aware of cold-war versions of gaming as Martha and George engaged in their personal power struggles through ever-varying game scenarios.)

The way George and Martha interact - stepped up, psychological 'warfare'-style games whose rules shift ever more at the brink of danger - has always reminded me of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). This balance required open acknowledgment of each side's strengths and vulnerabilities. However, as "prisoner's dilemma" showed us, both players must assume the other is only concerned with self-interest; therefore, each must limit risk by adopting a dominant strategy.

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