Tinker Tailor Writer Spy

Joel Whitney on propaganda, The Paris Review’s long entanglement with the CIA and the threat of Putinism in the US

Finks — Joel Whitney’s new book about how the CIA used The Paris Review and its writers as propaganda tools during the Cold War — is vital to our understanding of American literary history and how it intersects with global politics. The book is a wide-ranging, slo-mo scorcher. The names implicated have been etched into the cultural landscape: Baldwin, Plimpton, Hemingway, Matthiessen. Whitney handles their history, a complicated web of secret handshakes, hidden patrons, and unsavory affiliations, with the skill of a tireless researcher and natural storyteller. Over the course of a month, I spoke with Whitney about America’s great literary voices of the fifties and sixties, how some were co-opted and others resisted, and how the experience of the cultural Cold War resonates with today’s political scene.

Darley Stewart: In your original Salon essay, you write that the ties between The Paris Review and the CIA “started modestly” — beginning with ad exchanges and reprints of interviews in the Congress’s official magazines, then intensifying to such an extent that our most celebrated apolitical literary magazine became a “covert international weapon of soft power.”

Can you tell me a bit about the significance of covert power, and what it meant to you to write the first Salon essay that eventually became Finks?

Joel Whitney: I talk about the modest start because I didn’t want to overstate things. I do see how easy and innocent it feels to let other outlets amplify your work.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA’s cultural propaganda front, began syndicating The Paris Review’s author interviews in the 1950s and this syndication casually aligned with the Congress’s need to show that the United States had more gifts beyond Cadillacs, hamburgers and tanks. We had cultural creators and literary and artistic and musical geniuses. And we still do.

How fine it would have felt to get extra subsidies in the form of syndication payments.

The Paris Review selling its author interviews to magazines like Mundo Nuevo in Latin America, Der Monat in Berlin, Jiyu in Japan or Preuves in France would obviously not have seemed like a big deal and would have seemed like an opportunity. But when you look more closely you see that the interview subjects were not being consulted.

Stewart: How so?

Whitney: In some cases left-wing writers who had been interviewed by the magazine which boasted of its apolitical identity in its earliest manifestos — these leftists like Hemingway — could wind up in a magazine sponsored by the CIA. This would have been a step further, thanks to secrecy, and a step too far for many of them. They might have demurred, had they been consulted. But the syndication deals with friendly magazines like The Paris Review grew so that the Congress could just take what it wanted and pay what it could haggle The Paris Review to accept later on. The secrecy of this was what enabled The Paris Review to scheme to share a staffer with the Congress — who would go through a security clearance of sorts — to work at a literary magazine, salary paid, half by the magazine and half by the CIA.

A modest start, a slippery slope.

Stewart: Why did The Paris Review want to establish its early reputation as apolitical?

Whitney: This seems to have been a sincere desire on the part, say, of Doc Humes, and maybe James Baldwin, to be the antithesis of McCarthyism, cultural or political, back home. Immy Humes talks about how the vision for The Paris Review morphed out of conversations between her dad, the writer Doc Humes, and author James Baldwin. Baldwin was reading Partisan Review and was in Paris as an admirer of Richard Wright. There may have been strains of leftism in Baldwin then. And he was part of the milieu of New York Intellectuals, Baldwin much younger, and merely reading them, who followed Trotsky’s view that aesthetics should be shielded from the needs of the state, or the needs of politics.

Baldwin never got credit for his early involvement in the magazine as he focused on his writing while The Paris Review launched. But this sense of the safe space aligned with their fear of the McCarthyite witch hunts which really got moving when they were already in Paris. Then Peter Matthiessen came in and he was in the CIA looking for a cover. If the magazine had no politics, we can surmise, this would have better aligned with his need for a cover project. Not to mention that some of The Paris Review founders proved to be pretty conservative. An apolitical outward stance would allow the editors to form around a kind of early bellelettrist detente and it would have felt like a more relaxed space where these contradictions and possibly competing impulses could rest while one encountered their first Philip Roth story or early poems of Robert Bly.

Stewart: What was the messiest part of the process in working on Finks, and how do you expect that experience to inform your other projects?

Whitney: The messiest part was turning in sections while still feeling like I was researching other sections. I saw all the stories of the various writers as linked, and I felt usually that someone who lived through this world would possibly have been less mesmerized by it — of course the CIA had its fingers in magazines and abstract expressionism, etc. — and that sense of wonder was tied to my sense of needing to know more before publishing.

I could go on reading biographies of these figures for decades. It helps me understand how my old Columbia professor, Michael Scammell, could take twenty years on his biography of Arthur Koestler. But I don’t think any of us, my publishers or myself, wanted to sit on our hands that long. So to let myself off the hook a little I told myself I was writing a long essay, and that anything that I’d left out I would write as smaller essays in support of the book. But I was literally getting back the finished copy-edit from my editor and holding it past the deadline he set for me, and adding whole or partial chapters after he’d thought I was done. It grew to about three times the length I’d pitched. I believe he wanted to kill me.

Stewart: That sounds intense.

Whitney: All in the service of telling the best version of this story. I was attempting to show the hypothetical size and breadth of the patronage program, hoping the reader would say to herself, If all these writers were involved, it must have been quite vast.

Stewart: We have discussed your love of reading letters. Reveal something for us in one of the letters that sparked some of your work but didn’t make it into the book.

Whitney: When Hemingway died, Dwight Macdonald attacked him in Encounter, the CIA’s London magazine. The opening scene, parodying Hemingway’s style, depicted Hemingway’s suicide, from the walk through the house to the pulling of the trigger. It was grotesque. He also tried to tie Hemingway into this area he would champion that was critical of the blending of kitsch and higher art. Plimpton noticed tons of errors in the piece. Plimpton the participatory writer was finally a critic. He wrote a twelve-page correction, yet Macdonald waited for the book version to come out and printed it as a sort of alternative view. In other words, rather than acknowledge specific errors, he tucked it into the back of the piece as an alternate take, which wasn’t Macdonald’s most intellectually honest moment. But better than nothing.

Stewart: That’s fascinating.

Whitney: Poor Plimpton; he loved Hemingway and had to tell Macdonald that the gun with which Hemingway literally blew his brains out was too long for Hemingway’s arms to reach the trigger. So in the distasteful scene attempting to spoof Hemingway while showing his darkest moment, Plimpton had to inform Macdonald that Hemingway shot himself using his toe, not his finger. It made me feel a lot of compassion for Plimpton and his love of Hemingway.

Their conversation was also part of where Plimpton would have formed the friendship with Macdonald that may have led Macdonald to dissect the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s complicated ties to the state for Plimpton. But at this moment in my research I hated Macdonald, I have to say, as dispassionately as I tried to take in the research and reading. But then later, when the CIA subsidies were revealed, Macdonald was the one who best encapsulated for his peers what Plimpton’s colleague Doc Humes believed: that secret patronage is antithetical to transparency and a free press. I read this exchange between Plimpton and Macdonald and saw Macdonald as cursing the dead man before his body was cold but then I reenvisioned Macdonald as courageous when he wrote his piece in Esquire to explain to his peers the very American value of transparency and how the CIA’s subsidies paid in secret perverted that. Doc Humes made the same case in a private letter to Plimpton the year before. Now a small chorus was forming. All hope was not lost.

Stewart: Some of the most fascinating parts of Finks are the chronicling of the unsung forbears to The Paris Review in its embryonic days. The influence of James Baldwin is particularly inspiring, wincingly beautiful, and we need that enrichment from authors who feed us on every level, from the aesthetic to the intellectual to the political. We need James Baldwin more than ever now, or so I feel. Baldwin: “I have never been afraid of Russia, China or Cuba but I am terrified of this country.” You argue that Baldwin’s essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” published in Zero, prior to the launch of TPR, has its more subversive ideas masked “under a mainstream anti-social realist (read, anti-Communist) title.” How does this title transform Baldwin’s piece into a protest essay?

Whitney: Arguing with your heroes and others’ heroes is the beginning of dissent, whether aesthetic or social or both. When Baldwin trolled social realism in the title with the phrase “everybody’s protest novel,” he was enacting a gesture that was fairly common to the New York Intellectuals. Having come up, many of them, as Trotskyites, they didn’t believe per se that politics trumped aesthetics, like socialists and leftists are still constantly accused of.

That was in Baldwin’s cultural DNA from a mix of sources, not just from reading the former Trotskyites of Partisan Review but also from some of Baldwin’s purely aesthetic sources, including his worship of Henry James. But while criticizing the protest novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and his hero Richard Wright, he was also engaging in social and aesthetic critique, and was therefore protesting after a fashion. That was all I meant; it was playful. He was killing his cohort’s and his own Buddhas and darlings and leaving them on the road. These were sacred cows he impaled and was tearing down in search of a better blend of aesthetics, character and social justice. Both books (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son) were written in a quest for social justice; Baldwin just wanted the characters, in the spirit perhaps of Henry James, to be more complex and human, rather than sentimental (Stowe) or demonic (Wright).

When it came to the Congress of Black Artists and Writers which Baldwin covered for Encounter, he was there, he may have vaguely known, writing about the American image among black writers in Paris and being paid by the CIA. He knew this later. Many of the writers came directly or indirectly to that conference from African and other developing nations. They were crawling out from the yoke of colonialism. And they were justifiably, rightly, angry. Baldwin winced at their anger, but then he heard them laughing at the US.

Stewart: Why?

Whitney: Because the US refused to let W.E.B. Du Bois attend. He was too dangerous. This was ridiculous of the US to do, refuse a citizen a passport. So the delegation that was more centrist, the official delegation which included a now more anti-communist Wright (this is 8 years or so after Baldwin’s attack on Wright) watched as the more leftist among them read out Du Bois’s letter criticizing the United States for not letting him attend.

Baldwin takes all this in from everyone’s point of view: the CIA-sponsored delegation there to defend the US’s record, those there to criticize the US and other major anglo and Western colonial powers, and those trying to decide whom to align themselves with as they became independent. Baldwin seems to sympathize with all views, including the view that both the Soviets and the Americans were equally debased in their quest for domination. But he reports honestly to his paymasters, knowing they won’t like it, that the delegation’s influence in favor of the American image, its ability to do positive propaganda, was neutered and hamstrung by the US’s use of coercion and hypocrisy in not letting du Bois have a passport.

…I wish the US could learn that of all the places on earth, with such high ideals and so much advice for other peoples, our hypocrisy always stands out.

I reported moments like that because I wish the US could learn that of all the places on earth, with such high ideals and so much advice for other peoples, our hypocrisy always stands out. But it also revealed these conversations with his book editor, Sol Stein, a Congress operative via the American wing, who told him if he wrote with the proper focus the government would buy his books “in quantity” via the US Information Agency.

Stewart: The chapter on James Baldwin is devastating, for so many reasons, especially the passages on Faulkner’s Mississippi (and later, his “racial apologetics”), the bigoted discussion at Matthiessen’s house where Baldwin endured an hour of anti-gay statements among the expats, the censorship of Baldwin’s most direct political commentary in the USIA-sponsored TV panel on the day of the August March on Washington. And our racial politics now . . . I have no words of my own.

But I’ve been thinking lately of Maurice Ruffin’s essay:

“They read books. They watched films. They adopted the language of social justice. When they came around, we hugged, tossed nicknames back and forth, and exchanged complex handshakes. But they, unlike us, were shocked at the appearance of the disease, ugly blotches on the national MRI, because they didn’t live in our world. They only visited our world from time to time and despite their best efforts, the effects of white supremacy are non-transferable.”

Whitney: That’s an astounding quote that I hadn’t seen and it makes me shiver.

Stewart: Speaking of the shivers, what do you say to everything now? The reviews of Finks have been glowing and have rightly pointed out correlaries between the prehistory of our political and cultural corruption and our current political climate with a Trump presidency just around the corner.

Whitney: I’m hesitant to overstate how a book looking mostly at the cultural propaganda wing of the CIA in the 1950s and ‘60s pertains to our current moment. But there are obviously some overlapping concepts. The one major thing that has remained intact in the CIA’s DNA from that era until now is its secrecy, and how this secrecy leads to a kind of blurring — and the use of spectacle.

Stewart: Could you expand on that?

Whitney: From what I have read and mulled over, I remain suspicious, as a citizen, of any story we are coerced to accept as true with little more than an anonymous official’s word, and so little detail. But that’s a general thing. When it comes to the Russian hacking story, I have a ton of sympathy for my fellow Americans who are confused and animated by all this. But I feel like our rightful reflex to discredit Trump (who clearly lost the popular vote) has blurred with something that might be distracting us. We’ve believed that someone with government experience should run the government and that unfair coverage and expectations may have affected her prospects. I have sympathy with that view but I fear it may not go far enough. I’ve been watching the story unfold with tons of wonder but also with a feeling of great unease.

Stewart: Right.

Whitney: The unease is the result of a sneaking suspicion that the Russian hacking story is distracting us from our own election hackers. It all feels to me like an amazingly spectacular story that happens to conveniently change the subject. Republicans, after all, have been trying to overturn the Voting Rights Act provisions of the Johnson era with some success. They want and have implemented voter ID checks in dozens of states which turn minorities and the poor away. They redraw districts to make minorities into seeming — or at least electoral-map-based — majorities.

And Trump’s campaign strategy and those in the Republican-controlled states appear to have been a marginalization campaign. Greg Palast has made a compelling film that suggests just this. Republican cheating reared its head a number of ways in 2000 and 2004; it’s not unprecedented. Republicans have been engaged in something called Cross Border Check. No one wants to talk about this Putinism at home, if you will, so it gets normalized first by the major party of the reactionary right here in the United States and then by the one the rest of us vote for. I worry that the candidate taking the White House is not just the one who lost the popular vote, but even lost the antiquated electoral college vote, if you take away what looks from some angles like rampant electoral cheating.

Stewart: I’m more than a bit terrified. But I want to thank you for writing Finks. It feels urgent. You’ve told the truth about something you love, which as I recall we spoke about casually in early December, you said is the only way to love it. I agree.

More Like This

Thank You!