Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, by Juliana Spahr

Jess Cotton is not totally convinced by an account of the links between literature and state funding and nationalism

May 2, 2019
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In the past two decades, a series of publications has documented how the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA’s undercover programme of cultural intervention at home and in western Europe, deployed writers as weapons of the Cold War, promoting an idea of freedom that was often in direct contradiction to the ideas explored in their work. This story of deception and hypocrisy has been framed largely in terms of the sizeable funds the US government covertly committed to culture from 1950 to 1967, and the impact of an extensive grant system set up by four or five private foundations that financed the development of black culture in the aftermath of the 1919 race riots.

Much of the government’s interest in “autonomous” art forms seems directly connected to the central role that culture played in the Russian Revolution – in other words, it was a largely defensive move. Juliana Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram takes up the contradictions of these moments and makes an ambitious intervention into the field by charting how these issues have been determining factors in literary production throughout the 20th century, and how they continue to play out in contemporary literature.

Spahr is a well-known poet and professor of 20th-century literature and her arguments concentrate, for the most part, on the formation of poetry schools and the assimilation of avant-garde poetic traditions in the academy. The study jumps around historically but is largely concerned with a single question: why is contemporary literature not like literature in the 1970s, when it had strong ties to social movements? Whereas a poet such as Adrienne Rich (who was known for her political poetry in the 1970s) refused the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith saw no contradiction in accepting an invitation to read at the White House in 2011.

There is, of course, a considerable difference between accepting an award and giving a reading, receiving funding and upholding a governmental agenda; and that is where this rich and illuminating study gets into difficulty. For in trying to advance an argument about the assimilation of avant-garde writers in the face of the power of state funding, it often moves too swiftly between historical periods, schools and forms. We get an overall impression of the huge power that private funding, the academy and governmental sponsorship can have on literature but little sense of how this form of cultural diplomacy might have shifted a particular writer’s fortunes or the (even indirect) forms of censorship that this soft power might have led to. Spahr’s 2015 article in n+1 online magazine, co-written with C.O. Grossman, which documents US state reports on several of its prominent poets, is more effective in revealing the tight watch the government has kept on its writers, praising one for being “extremely cooperative and completely flexible”.

Literature, which depends on less obvious sources of funding than, say, music or the visual arts, is not an easy medium in which to chart these channels of influence, though the arguments Spahr makes are often compelling. What she tells us about the domestication of cultural resistance, however, ends up revealing another story about literature’s “stubborn relation to nationalism” – a story that feels important right now. On this, Du Bois’s Telegram offers a much-needed counter-argument to studies that are often oddly optimistic about literature’s independence from national agendas.

Jess Cotton received her PhD in English from University College London in 2018. She is currently writing a biographical study of John Ashbery, to be published next year.


Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment
By Juliana Spahr
Harvard University Press, 256pp, £23.95
ISBN 9780674986961
Published 30 November 2018

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Writers of least resistance

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