Why you should care

Because behind many of your favorite novelists was a bureaucrat funneling some money their fortunate way.

Literary patronage is an old problem, one that today is increasingly solved by mega-corporations: a mobile phone company funds one of England’s top literary prizes, the Orange; a financial services firm backs the Man Booker Prize; and Amtrak’s “writers’ residencies” — which give people free long-distance train rides on which they may write — isn’t the weirdest way writers have found a monetary safety net. But before this era of private sector funding, there was a time when many writers got their start with public funds — through government programs. Some of these were designed to inspire the creatives, and others did so entirely by accident.

The Works Progress Administration: 1930’s

Despite today’s battle for federal humanities funding, there was once an age when the federal government sponsored ethnography — a project W.H. Auden called “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state.” Under the umbrella of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, a massive agency meant to provide jobs to the hordes of unemployed during the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project incubated Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel. Their task, in many cases, was to be impassive documentarians, to wander their neighborhoods and take down the stories of their neighbors — all for about $25 a week.

Ellison’s Invisible Man is peppered with characters he met while taking down oral histories. Later, he reminisced that the histories taught him about dialogue.

Nostalgists of today — like journalists of the 1930s — love to romanticize the FWP for creating a rare intersection of literature and politics. The reality? Like many New Deal jobs aimed at former white-collar workers, the FWP bruised the egos of many of its employees, like John Cheever, who saw the work as menial and mind-numbing.

Indeed, despite the high-minded imaginings, the agency soon realized it couldn’t be picky about who it deemed a “writer,” and began to employ ex-white-collar professionals. The initial imagining of an enormous database of collective oral history was winnowed down to a more practical product: the creation of the American Guide series, or a series of travel guides.

But for a few, the job sunk in. Studs Terkel later employed the FWP techniques directly, even winning a Pulitzer Prize for his oral histories of World War II. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is peppered with characters he met while taking down oral histories. Years later, he reminisced that the histories taught him about dialogue — in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway admitted that his hated newspaper days had taught him sparseness.

The Ministry of Information: 1940’s

Though he later became one of the most powerful critics of government, George Orwell was once employed by the Ministry of Information — the looming building in London’s Bloomsbury district that later became his inspiration for the “Ministry of Truth” (or Minitrue) in 1949’s 1984. Also employed by the ministry: Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene. Orwell, for his part, was disappointed in this trend. He wrote at the time that many who “used to be writers” were “rapidly going native.”

But before Orwell stepped onto his soapbox, he was fluent in Newspeak. At his job interview — for a position that required him to broadcast government-approved propaganda over the airwaves to India — he appeared, at least to his interviewer, to “accept absolutely the need for propaganda to be directed by the Government.” During wartime, though, for a late 30-something like Orwell with a wife and bills to pay, well, the only option was to keep calm and carry on.

The CIA: 1960’s

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth revolves around a young woman just out of Cambridge who joins the ranks of the British Secret Service during the Cold War. Her job: to recruit and financially back writers who lean right of center to publish fiction critical of communists. McEwan’s story is a novel, but something like it did happen: The fairly left English magazine Encounter — which published Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf, among others — received funding from the CIA. These writers didn’t necessarily know where their money came from, but their funders may have been fangirling them from afar.

They thought they could win the Cold War by having better ideas, not by suppressing free speech.

It turns out the CIA may have been pursuing a global propaganda strategy through its affiliation with the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization meant to perform cultural guerrilla warfare against communism. Among recipients of the CCF’s money were a number of hip intellectual magazines throughout Africa, where people like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote. When Soyinka was later jailed, the CCF paid his bail.

As Peter Kalliney, a professor of literature at the University of Kentucky, said in a Library of Congress lecture, the explanation for this funding is that “a lot of these CIA characters saw themselves as politically left of center … rabidly anti-communists, but also rabidly anti McCarthyite. They thought they could win the Cold War by having better ideas, not by suppressing free speech.”

Ah, the patronage of yore. Wouldn’t it be nice?

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