Book Review: Cold War Modernists
by Greg Barnhisel
Columbia University Press, 2015
Greg Barnhisel, in his new book Cold War Modernists, tells the dramatic story of a mobilization no less fierce for being artistic rather than military. The setting is the 1950s, the first decade of the Cold War, when American “middlebrow” culture was commonly derided not only by the cultural censors of the Soviet Union but also by writers and modernist artists throughout the West itself. At the same time that the Politburo was condemning American art as bourgeois and decadent, avant garde critics were saying generally the same thing about the unedifying ways the expanding Eisenhower suburbs were choosing to entertain themselves. As Barnhisel is shrewd enough to notice, this two-way standoff was actually a three-way standoff that left each disaffected party in a fairly bleak position, and it was solved with a neat and slightly nefarious bit of inversion on the part of the US powers that be:
In the early 1950s, a key battleground of this war was the sympathies of influential leftist western European intellectuals, the vast majority of whom reviled what they saw as the shallow business-oriented culture of the United States and its “Coca-colonization” of the rest of the world, but who were leery of Stalinist dictatorship and militarism. In response, cultural diplomats offered American modernism in painting, literature, architecture, and music as evidence of the high cultural achievement of the United States.
Embryonic governmental organizations such as the Committee on Public Information (CPI) (“often referred to as the U.S government’s first official propaganda agency”) were “enormously influential for future cultural diplomats both for its techniques – who was targeted and how – and for its basic philosophy – that the creation of a positive image of the United States was a key element of the nation’s war effort.”
That “war effort” was fought on many cultural fronts, from dance to art to song to drama to the prose, and Barnhisel’s book is such a wonder of erudite compression that he manages to give all of them very carefully-detailed attention, although as is perhaps expected from a writer whose written extensively on the power of the printed word to shape ideas, books often get pride of place in his treatment here. The era saw a great many tomes such as Frank Tannenbaum’s Philosophy of Labor and especially Frederick Lewis Allen’s hugely successful The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950, books meant at once to sell domestically but also to explain the United States to an ideologically skeptical international audience:
In keeping with the Cold War liberal explanation of the strengths of American culture and of its role in the world, the United States as depicted in these books is unfailingly melioristic: we are a nation that had a special kind of origin but that does not suffer messianism; our democracy is energized by the reasonable exchange of views among responsible citizens; our artistic and literary heritage is strong and distinctive; we are not without problems but are using that democracy to improve ourselves. The competing forces of society are not, as in the Marxist arguments of Soviet books, in implacable conflict; instead, they negotiate and compromise in the common pursuit of a better America.
The various satellite agencies of the U.S government – agencies like CPI or USIA (United States Information Agency) – set to work employing artists, playwrights, and novelists as well, figures who could sometimes be fractious (the book’s ongoing threads about the tensions between people like T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner at times rise to almost Wodehousian levels of absurdity), especially when they found themselves in the unlikely position of goodwill ambassadors. And such carrots of artistic openness were alternated with sticks of cultural chauvinism; international groups staged ambitious works like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which they knew quite well were banned in Stalin’s Russia.
In many ways, the heart of Barnhisel’s story happens in books. Cold War Modernists‘ best two chapters are “Cold Warriors of the Book: American Book Programs in the 1950s” and “Encounter Magazine and the Twilight of Modernism,” in which our author tells in very satisfying detail the story of an unexpected engine of the whole movement he’s describing:
No cultural institution is more entwined with the history of modernist literature than the “little magazine.” Modernist literature entered the world in little magazines; in little magazines, modernism’s strains and factions and tendencies evolved and defined themselves; reviews and critical articles in little magazines allocated prestige and cultural capital to writers and movements; little magazines even provided financial support for modernist writers by paying for articles and bestowing prizes and jobs.
It’s in these chapters that we learn the at times quite dodgy story of magazines like Encounter, Criterion, and Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, all told with a verve that pays great tribute to the ungainly complexities of its subjects.
Barnhisel concludes his groundbreaking book by flatly declaring, “the end of the Eisenhower era, then, largely marks the end of the Cold War modernist project.” In a perhaps too pat formula, he maintains that by the dawn of the 1960s, the job of the Cold War modernist project – to “woo European leftists away from the Soviet Union,” had mostly been accomplished. By 1960, he writes, “after Soviet tanks extinguished reform in Poland and Hungary, only the most die-hard Communist still harbored illusions about the true nature of the Soviet state.” And although an argument could certainly be made that the effort to undermine that state – to win Soviet hearts and minds through the kind of ‘soft power’ cultural exchanges begun under Eisenhower – kept right on going throughout the sixties and seventies, Barnhisel has given the opening decade of those exchanges their definitive account.