By Joel  Whitney

OR Books. 329 pages. £20/$25.  ISBN 978-1-68219-024-1


By John Rodden

University of Illinois Press. 132 pages.  $19.95. ISBN 978-0-252-08194-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m looking at a couple of copies of The Paris Review from around 1954/55, along with some issues of Partisan Review and Encounter from the same period. And I can’t help being impressed by the range of writers appearing in them: Ralph Ellison, Albert Moravia, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Delmore Schwartz, Hannah Arendt, Robert Penn Warren, John Berryman, Elizabeth Hardwick, Leslie Fiedler, Daniel Bell, Raymond Aron, Dwight Macdonald, Albert Camus, Stuart Hampshire, Philip Toynbee. I’ve selected only a few names from those appearing on the contents pages of the magazines, and there are many more. It’s like a roll-call of the literary and intellectual fraternity of the period.

The question that comes to mind when I pull these old magazines from my bookshelves is how many of the writers mentioned knew, or even suspected, that the publications concerned were in receipt of funding from the CIA? And if they did know, or suspected, did it bother them?  After all, they could have perhaps justifiably taken the view that their work wasn’t censored in any way, nor were they required to tailor it to suit an overt anti-Russian programme or an overt pro-Western (and especially pro-American) point of view. In other words, they weren’t being asked to write propaganda.  And most of the writers and others like them, were no doubt firmly opposed to communism and conditions in the Soviet Union, even if some had leaned to the Left in earlier years.

When the fact of CIA support for cultural activities became public in the early-1960s there were many expressions of denial and dismay, some of which were probably feigned. It’s difficult to believe that the people named above, and others like them, didn’t sometimes pause to wonder just how the publications they wrote for managed to survive. It’s true that the CIA didn’t directly subsidise them and money was channelled through seemingly reputable individuals and organisations.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) attracted what many people might describe as the great and the good. Bertrand Russell, Benedetto Croce, Arthur Koestler, Arthur Schlesinger, and others like them.  Frances Stone Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta Books, London, 1999) provides an excellent account of the founding and activities of the CCF. Saunders quotes the CIA’s Tom Braden as saying, “Of course they knew”, when, in 1967, Partisan Review published a statement, signed by a number of noted intellectuals and writers, claiming that they didn’t know about CIA funding of “literary and intellectual publications and organisations”.   

Joel Whitney’s purpose in Finks is to look at how the CIA used literature to further its efforts to promote a programme of activities that would demonstrate how the West was superior to the Soviet Union, and its satellites, when it came to cultural matters. As well as providing funds for magazines like Paris Review, Partisan Review, Encounter, which would have otherwise most likely closed down due to distribution difficulties and their relatively small circulations, the organisation financed the publication of books.  A classic example was the English-language editions of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It was considered something of a coup for the CIA to have had a hand in getting the book into print in America and Britain.

One of the cases of CIA funding that Whitney deals with in some detail concerns The Paris Review, a little magazine that was started, as its title suggests, in the French capital by a group of young Americans living there in the early-1950s. What is especially intriguing is that one of the group, the novelist, Peter Matthiessen, was a CIA agent, though the others involved (among them, George Plimpton and H.L. Humes) claimed not to have known this, or at least not until much later.

Matthiessen wrote a novel, Partisans, while in Paris, though Whitney doesn’t mention it, and it demonstrated a knowledge of the workings of the French Communist Party, which at that time (the book was published in 1955) was a particularly powerful force in French politics. But Matthiessen wasn’t in Paris to check on the local communists, and it’s more than probable that his brief was to keep an eye on the American expatriate community which included more than a few writers who had left America when their radical involvements were brought to light. There were others, such as the black writers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes, who also thought that they would encounter less racism in France.

Humes wasn’t black, nor was he then a political militant. He wrote a large and very good novel, The Underground City (1958), which was about the French resistance in the war years, and the Communist Party in the post-war period. One of the characters in the book was an American “former secret agent”. It’s unlikely that Humes was aware in the 1950s that one of his colleagues at The Paris Review worked for the CIA, though he may well have known that it was rumoured among the expatriate community that embassy employees kept track of what they were doing.

It was in the 1960s that Humes was told that Matthiessen had been a CIA agent, and the information, he claimed, came from Matthiessen himself. Humes, then living in London, wrote to George Plimpton to try to persuade him to make the information public, and threatened to resign from any connection to the magazine. There was an amusing exchange during which Plimpton said that he could understand someone resigning because of the poetry that the magazine published, but not because of the alleged CIA links.

Plimpton wasn’t the only one to seemingly dislike the poetry editors’ choices. John Train. one-time managing editor and almost certainly a CIA agent (he later cropped up in Afghanistan and elsewhere), was on record as claiming that a lot of the poems in The Paris Review were not to the taste of most of its editorial staff: “with any particular poetry editor you tend to find yourself printing the works of his particular coterie” and very little of it was “memorable”.  I bought The Paris Review regularly throughout the 1960s and rarely found the poetry in its pages all that interesting.

It has to be said that Humes, by the mid-1960s, was not in good shape, as witness his behaviour when he returned to New York. He was paranoiac, though, as has been pointed out, some of his suspicions about being followed and spied on were not without foundations in fact. The FBI had an extensive file on him. 

The FBI also kept files on many of the New York Intellectuals and their magazine, Partisan Review. It would be valuable to know exactly who J. Edgar Hoover’s boys trailed and tracked. John Rodden, in Of G-Men and Eggheads, deals with just three, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Dwight Macdonald, but I would guess that most, if not all, of the others (Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, to name just two) associated with Partisan Review, came to the attention of the FBI at one time or another. The magazine was suspect in its eyes, which raises a question about relations between the CIA and the FBI. Although the long-standing editor, William Phillips, always denied that the magazine received any CIA money, it’s more than likely that some funding was channelled to it through the CCF or similar organisations. So, there may be some humour to be derived from a situation where the FBI was compiling reports on a publication and its writers financed, in part at least, by the CIA.

The FBI’s interest in Lionel Trilling came about because of his early contacts with Whittaker Chambers. Trillling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey, had a character clearly based on Chambers, who had left the Communist Party in the late-1930s and by the late-1940s was openly confessing to his misdemeanours as an operative in the communist “underground” in America. His court confrontations with Alger Hiss put both their names in the headlines. And Chambers’ autobiography, Witness, got praise and condemnation in equal measure. Trilling’s early encounters with left-wing organisations (he was never a member of the Communist Party) were long behind him, and by the late-1940s he was a highly-respectable professor at Columbia University. This didn’t stop the FBI from compiling a dossier on him, though Rodden suggests that he was never formally investigated. Most pages in the dossier relate to the Chambers/Hiss case, and the fact that Trilling had known Chambers during their student days together.

Something that does become clear, not only from Trilling’s experiences with the FBI but from what Rodden says generally, is that FBI operatives appeared to have little or no awareness of the nuances of left-wing politics. Trotskyists and Stalinists were all communists, and it was probably impossible to explain to an FBI agent just how many varieties of Trotskyists there were. Rodden also points out that no-one belonging to the FBI seems to have bothered to read anything that Trilling wrote, other than, perhaps, The Middle of the Journey.  They may not even have read that in any systematic way, and simply wanted to know if it said anything about Chambers they could use.

There was quite a difference between the FBI and the CIA, in that the latter could boast more than a few agents or associates who were also writers of some reputation. Peter Matthiessen has already been mentioned, but what about Sol Stein, author of The Touch of Treason, among other novels, and E. Howard Hunt, notorious for his part in the Watergate conspiracy, who wrote several novels and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship? He also produced a few pulp novels for Gold Medal Books including the aptly-titled House Dick, “a twisty tale of burglary and murder, of skulduggery under cover of darkness, of deception and loyalties – and of the price you pay when you trust the wrong people”.

If the FBI thought that dealing with Lionel Trilling was fairly straightforward, they must have been less than happy with Dwight Macdonald. A born maverick, he was noted for being argumentative and contradictory. He also had a record of radical involvements. In the 1950s he wrote a long, two-part essay for Encounter which gleefully recounted his adventures among the Trotskyists, his time with the Partisan Review people, his departure from their ranks, and the founding of his own publication, Politics. It was later used as the introduction to his Memoirs of a Revolutionist.

Macdonald wasn’t likely to be anyone’s servant when it came to what he wrote. He worked for Encounter in London for a year, and on his return to the United States wrote an essay, “America! America!”, which took a fairly jaundiced view of his native country. It was accepted for publication by Encounter, then rejected, and it was only later, with disclosure of CIA involvement in the CCF and, by extension, the financing of the magazine, that Macdonald could put two and two together and reason that worries about the withdrawal of the subsidy might have played a part in the decision not to use the essay. It could have provided ammunition for those with an anti-American agenda.

The essay was eventually published in Britain in a magazine called Twentieth Century, and in America in Dissent, the publication started by Irving Howe when he thought that Partisan Review was moving too far from politics in its choice of material. Howe had been associated with the Trotskyists for some years in the 1930s and 1940s, so was on the FBI’s list of “persons of interest”. Like Trilling and Macdonald, had the FBI bothered to read what Howe wrote they would have easily seen that he was an obvious anti-communist, though more than the others, he retained a greater degree of socialist commitment. That was probably enough to arouse suspicions, and the launching of Dissent, clearly a publication with a leftist slant, in 1954, a time when McCarthyism was still rampant, no doubt suggested to the authorities that Howe was someone to be watched. He was questioned, as were people he worked with, and lectures he gave were monitored, his mail was opened, and his movements recorded.

Rodden notes that Howe’s FBI file was bigger than either Trilling’s or Macdonald’s, but says that he would have been well aware that what he experienced was “an annoying pinprick” compared to what others in America had to deal with. University professors and schoolteachers lost their jobs, screenwriters were blacklisted, union activists fired, many others were harassed and forced to testify against colleagues and friends. If they refused to do so, they faced being sent to prison. Needless to say, the situation for writers and intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain was even worse. Howe, on the other hand, was free to come and go as he pleased, and had no problems getting published in established magazines, his books came out from well-known publishers, and he obtained teaching posts at prestigious universities.  Saying this does not in any way diminish Howe’s determination to court unpopularity by launching Dissent as an outlet for dissident voices in America.

The point that Rodden is making when he describes how the FBI kept track of what Trilling, Macdonald, and Howe had done in the 1930s and what they were doing in the 1940s and 1950s, is that it was unnecessary and unproductive. There was no evidence that any of them had ever engaged in the kind of subversive activities that could arouse suspicion. They were simply dissenting and, in the cases of Macdonald and Howe, asking legitimate questions about what was going on in their country. Trilling’s was mostly a quieter voice, and largely devoted to academic literary questions after his initial dabblings with left-wing politics in the 1930s.

Taken together these two books offer an informative view of a time when writers and intellectuals were probably in the limelight more than they are now. And thought sufficiently influential to warrant being checked on by the FBI, and subsidised by the CIA.  Were they compromised by publishing in magazines that received money from government sources? Tom Braden’s view of Encounter, as quoted in Who Paid the Piper? was “Let them publish what they want”, though he did admit to pulling the plug on one article attacking American policy. Was that Macdonald’s piece?

The question of any kind of government funding, openly or secretly, for publications is always subject to suspicions of possible censorship, of one kind or another. But writers and editors of magazines happily, in my experience, take money from the Arts Council and similar organisations in Britain. They probably couldn’t survive otherwise. And who knows on what basis the decisions regarding which writers or publications to subsidise are made? Do politics play a part in them?

The Cold War period, and in particular the years between 1945 and roughly 1965, was one of intense political activity when old certainties were fading fast, and it seemed important to present a united front in the West to the threat of communism. At the same time, the loyalties of many people were still in doubt owing to their earlier involvements. That doesn’t excuse the way in which the FBI hounded people for no reason other than that they had once been a member of a tiny Trotskyist group, or had signed a petition or two. Nor does it excuse the machinations of the CIA when it came to secretly financing cultural activities because of their usefulness in showing how the West was superior to Russia and its allies. But the atmosphere of the time, and the doubts in many minds about the sincerity of those on the left claiming to be working for peace, might explain why some writers and intellectuals thought that they ought to come out clearly about their commitments, and in doing so take CIA money (assuming they knew about it).  But, again, who knows?

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