James Laughlin with poet Ezra Pound circa 1934 in Rapallo, Italy.
James Laughlin with poet Ezra Pound circa 1934 in Rapallo, Italy.
Arts & Humanities

The Selling of Modernism

How the CIA turned the work of subversive intellectuals into a weapon of the Cold War.

By Greg Barnishel '92 | December 1, 2015

My Reed profs and classmates cautioned me that getting a PhD in English would be a long, difficult, and risky thing to do, given the scarcity of professor jobs. They also said frankly that probably only five or six people would actually read my dissertation, the 300-page book I would spend lonely years researching and writing.

I didn’t increase my potential readership any by choosing to write on the difficult Ezra Pound. I’d been turned on to Pound in Prof. Ellen Stauder [1983–2013] and Prof. Gail Sherman’s [1981–] English Literary History—the class that, even after 20 years teaching literature, still forms my view of the literary tradition. A postgraduate year in Rome increased my fascination with the poet, who lived much of his life in Italy. 

I was less interested in Pound’s often-obscure poetry than in how he had become such a respected poet. During World War II, Pound did radio broadcasts for Mussolini’s Fascist government. He was charged with treason, captured, and returned to the U.S. for trial, and eventually confined to a mental institution for 13 years. The revolting and fascinating Pound brought up urgent questions for me about literature, politics, and culture. 

Graduate study can be so relentless and unrewarding that it’s crucial to have a problem you are driven to investigate. In Pound’s case I knew I’d found that compelling question. If the Dixie Chicks, for example, basically ended their careers with one offhanded comment about President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, how could a man who did propaganda broadcasts for an enemy nation, in wartime, become more eminent after that?

The answer, I concluded, was James Laughlin. A Pittsburgh steel heir, Laughlin stayed away from the family business. He wanted to be a poet, but Pound advised him to use the family money for good, and go into publishing.

Laughlin did just that, starting New Directions Books in his Harvard dorm room. My dissertation ultimately focused on how he published and marketed Pound in a way that turned a traitorous anti-Semite who wrote relentlessly difficult poetry into one of the acknowledged greats of American literature.

New Directions Books is still around, and the staff there allowed me to poke around the company files. This sure wasn’t the spreadsheet era—in the ’30s, sales were recorded in pencil on notecards! More exciting still was the opportunity to interview the mostly retired Laughlin at his estate in northwestern Connecticut.

Laughlin lived in an aristocratic yet frugal world. He had a Matisse in the dining room. He hadn’t bought it; it was a gift from Matisse’s granddaughter, who had been his secretary for a time. His cook served us tuna sandwiches (no crusts) and small cups of tomato soup for lunch.

I eventually published that dissertation, but I continued to learn more about Laughlin. Particularly intriguing to me was a four-year stretch in the mid-1950s, when he published a journal called Perspectives USA, which reprinted American modernist literature and highbrow magazine articles for European audiences.

The somewhat dull contents of the magazine were less provocative than the people involved. Laughlin edited it, but on the board of directors was a surprising array of notables: the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Laughlin’s childhood friend “Jack” Heinz (of the Heinz foods company), and William J. Casey, identified only as the president of “Business Reports, Inc.”

I knew, though, that a William J. Casey had headed the CIA under President Reagan, and some digging revealed that this same Casey had served, during World War II, in the London office of the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor of the CIA).

This really piqued my interest. I had already come across a number of people involved in both modernist literature and spycraft. Laughlin’s friend James Angleton, for instance, had run an avant-garde literary magazine at Yale, then became chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. Norman Holmes Pearson taught modernist literature, worked at OSS London, and recruited promising young men into CIA after the war.

What was the connection? In the ’30s and ’40s, modernist art and literature were widely seen as subversive, anarchistic, and communistic, immoral. How did these men reconcile their love for modernism with their work for the national-security establishment?

This question became the germ for my next book. Even back in graduate school, a number of my professors had made veiled comments about scholars and professors having connections with “The Company.” One even mentioned, conspiratorially, that he could get me an interview at Langley if I wanted. I couldn’t imagine a more unlikely combination. University English departments today are notoriously leftist. Now I learn they used to be fertile grounds for the CIA?

To start exploring this question, I returned to Laughlin and Perspectives USA. The magazine was Laughlin’s idea, but the money came from the Ford Foundation, which was swimming in cash in the early ’50s and wanted to help improve America’s image abroad, to prove to skeptical European leftist intellectuals that we were more than chewing gum, cowboy movies, and the A-bomb. In Laughlin’s papers at Harvard, I read about his ambitious plans for the magazine, Ford’s frosty response, and ultimately, the termination of the project.

I soon came across references to a small explosion among some fractious New York and London intellectuals in 1967, when they discovered that their literary/cultural magazine Encounter had been funded secretly by the CIA. The archives of Encounter and its parent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, demonstrated how British and American spies had created the organization in 1950, and tried—not always successfully—to steer it in the following years.

Brittle carbons and triplicate memos stored in the sublimely immense National Archives revealed the backstories to what the government had done out in the open. A 1947 State Department exhibition of abstract and modernist paintings sparked media and Congressional outrage at this “un-American” collection. Although the show was unceremoniously killed, abstract and modernist art gradually became a mainstay of our cultural diplomacy.

Voice of America radio and State Department book programs rounded out the broad endeavor that I came to call “Cold War modernism,” or the campaign of the U.S. establishment to brandish modernist art as Exhibit A to prove that American culture wasn’t an oxymoron. And it worked: by the end of the ’50s, Euroleftists’ loyalties to the West were no longer in doubt, and a growing number (at least outside France) even took American art and culture seriously.

It’s tempting to wrap this up by pointing out how this all started in my ELH class at Reed, with Prof. Stauder’s enthusiasm for Pound. To a degree it did, but that wasn’t the ultimate cause. Rather, both of these projects came from another legacy Reed has given me: curiosity and compulsion, the need I had, and have, to learn more about these people and these past times and these not-as-dead-as-they-seem controversies, even if the ultimate product (a degree, a book, or just a clever anecdote) is sometimes hard to predict.

Greg Barnhisel teaches in the English department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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