The Covert Canon

The CIA and the Literary Canon: The Case of Encounter Magazine

Jason Harding, Tuesday 17 Nov 2015, CEIR Seminar Series

Roughly half an hour before Jason Harding (Durham University) arrived to give his paper on ‘The CIA and the Literary Canon: The Case of Encounter Magazine’, Anthony, Mikey and I were trying to think of a good hashtag for the talk’s live-feed on Twitter. HardingSeveral suggestions were made, including #HardingCIA, or simply #CIA. Anthony, however, cautiously suggested that these could attract unwarranted attention from the organisation, who are, in fact, now users of the social network.

With over one million followers, at first it seems strange that America’s Central Intelligence Agency would make use of a platform that has, in the past, had significant cyber-security issues. The organisation’s Tweets, however, draw very little attention to their work, which leaves their posts quite uninteresting. (They frequently circulate facts about former US Presidents, and post photographs of combat aircraft and military uniforms.) Yet behind this unadventurous façade, their presence on Twitter does suggest covert observance or undercover surveillance, and there is, of course, no way of tracking which pages they frequently monitor.

Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender

Harding’s paper raised similar questions about the CIA’s subliminal presence in the communication and circulation of ideas in Encounter Magazine, which was described by Matthew Spender (the son of the literary and arts editor Stephen Spender) as ‘perhaps the most influential cultural magazine in English.’ When it was revealed in the 1960s that the publication was being financed by the CIA, the results for Stephen Spender were devastating. At a London party in 1961, William Empson, the literary critic and poet, confronted Spender about the pro-American policy of Encounter, and, in anger, emptied the contents of his wine glass over him.

Spender, however, persistently defended the publication and its ‘liberal intelligence’ until his death in 1995, insisting that he had no knowledge of the CIA’s involvement in the magazine. Throughout his role as editor of Encounter, Spender asserted his association with the ‘heavyweights’ of literary modernism, posthumously publishing several extracts from Virginia Woolf’s diary, as well as unsuccessfully attempting to publish material from the D. H. Lawrence archive at the University of Cincinnati. T. S. Eliot, however, initially refused to publish his work in Encounter, arguing that the magazine was ‘obviously published under American auspices’, before subsequently becoming a contributor. Despite this, Encounter continually sought to position itself in the wider debates of literary modernism. When Frank Kermode succeeded Spender as literary editor, it became clear that the publication was attempting to further embed itself in intellectual discourses. Kermode’s most influential contribution to the publication appeared in a two-part article of 1966, in which he characterised two distinct forms of modernist writing: paleo-modernism (what we would now call High Modernism) and neo-modernism (closer to our current definition of postmodernism).

Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode

But beneath the high intellectualism of Encounter magazine, Harding suggests, there was a Cold War imperative to Kermode’s discriminations; his profound interest in apocalyptic fiction, most notably apparent in his study The Sense of an Ending (1967), highlights Kermode’s meditations on endings and beginnings, on those necessary fictions that require disciplined acts of faith in times of uncertainty. This, Harding argues, is particularly pertinent as a response to the revolutionary fervour of Communism and the ‘age of anxiety’ ushered in by the threat of nuclear extinction. Even Kermode’s literary criticism, then, mirrored the US government’s increasing anxieties during the Cold War era.

Reflecting on the magazine after the death of his father, Matthew Spender wrote: ‘[Encounter] stands for the parts of my father’s life that are the real enemies of literary promise: the contamination of art by power, [and] the ambiguous role of the intellectual in society.’ Continuing to combat the criticism of his father’s lack of intellectual autonomy, Matthew Spender’s statement blatantly challenges accusations that his father was, a ‘compromised accomplice of US cultural imperialism’. Harding concluded his paper by echoing Hugh Wilford’s argument that the CIA’s involvement in the publication did in fact promote ‘American cultural dominance’, but whether or not those who wrote for the magazine were complicit in this trajectory will continue to remain a mystery.

—Amber Jenkins


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s