[Editor's note: the following is a guest post by Patrick Iber, a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. -- LDB]
How the CIA bought Juan Rulfo Some Land in the Country: Meditations on Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature”
by Patrick Iber
Did the CIA fund creative writing in Mexico? The answer is “yes.” In the second half of the twentieth-century, Mexico’s most prestigious creative writing center, Mexico City’s Centro Mexicano de Escritores, gave writers year-long grants to devote themselves exclusively to writing. Senior authors taught technique and supervised workshops based on the model of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Beginning in the late 1950s the CME began to receive funding from the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front, for its publications. Later, more money that was likely from the CIA arrived via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, facilitated by John Hunt, a novelist and CIA case officer who had once taught courses at Iowa. The Farfield Foundation, in the late 1960s, even helped Juan Rulfo, the CME’s prize graduate and teacher, purchase a parcel of land in the countryside.
This February, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a dynamic and engaging essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” by Eric Bennett, offering both an early look at the findings of his forthcoming book, and a story of how that work came to be. The hook at the beginning of his article is structurally the same as the one used here: “Did the CIA fund creative writing in America?” and the answer is also the same: it is “yes.” The mechanisms and timing were also identical: the Farfield Foundation, John Hunt, mid-to-late 1960s. But in spite of their similarities, putting the two cases side-by-side seems to me not to suggest a reading of the evidence that does not speak to the power of the CIA over culture at the height of the Cold War, but of the successful mobilization of Cold War politics by program directors seeking to fund necessarily unprofitable work. Put differently, it suggests that institutional writing programs used the CIA more than the other way around. Continue reading