In the Cold War, was world literature English?

By | August 16, 2022

Guest post by Greg Barnhisel

What is “Cold War literature”? Does the term merely refer to novels and poems and plays that explicitly touch on nuclear war, spying, and fear of Communism, works like Nevil Shute’s On The Beach or Eugene Lederer’s The Ugly American? Or should we understand the term as describing a much broader set of texts characterized by themes like containment, paranoia, and a rejection of conformity? That umbrella would cover many more works, from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction.

It could also, of course, be simply a chronological signifier for anything written or published between 1946 and 1989, the years during which the “Free World” and the Communist bloc faced off. But that reduces world literature to merely an epiphenomenon of a European and American drama. In other words, that makes the literary production and reception of the rest of the world simply a sideshow act.

But as I’ve tried to show in my new anthology, The Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures, world literature of the time—even just literature written in the English language—wasn’t just commentary on the confrontation between the West and the Soviets. In fact, although many Cold War-fueled political and military conflicts took place in the so-called “Third World,” the Cold War meant something quite different in those places, and was often just one phase in the much longer process of decolonization. And the literature produced in those places reflected this.

To look at “world literature” in general during this period would be a task so immense as to be ultimately impossible. Fortunately for the book’s purposes, though, British colonization had imposed and implanted an English-language literary scene in many seemingly unlikely places: Uganda, India, China, South Africa, Australia. Contributors to The Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures such as Chris Ouma, Laetitia Zecchini, Yi-hung Liu, and Asha Rogers show how English-language writers far away from Britain and the U.S. used the Cold War as just one theme in their writing, which was often concerned with much more local and regional issues. But those writers were also taking part in the literary conversations happening at the center of the Anglo-American cultural empire.

And because at this time English had finally elbowed out French to become the lingua franca of world culture, the influence of its literature spread to non-Anglophone regions. In one of the most original and arresting chapters, Jirina Šmejkalová writes about the passion Czech writers—including her classmates at Charles University in Prague—had for the work of American poet Robinson Jeffers, whose work had been championed in Czechoslovakia by one influential editor and translator. But readers in Cuba, in Japan, and even in the Soviet Union were clamoring for English-language works, as Russell Cobb, Hiromi Ochi, Birgitte Beck Pristed and Rósa Magnúsdóttir show.

How they accessed that literature is a key theme of the book, which is about Cold War institutions as much as it is about Cold War cultures. Institutions such as international book fairs, the BBC, governmental cultural-diplomatic agencies such as the United States Information Service, university creative-writing programs, and even the notorious CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom deployed literature as a tool or weapon in the Cold War. But other institutions such as home-grown literary magazines or reading groups or underground publishers helped marginal, emerging, or dissenting groups of writers find their audiences—sometimes cloaked in Cold War rhetoric, sometimes rejecting it.

In comparison with today’s much more fragmented and polyglot world literary scene, The Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures looks back to a time when English-language writing, held up as a kind of world literature, had the promise of embodying not a monoculture but something more like what Jürgen Habermas called a “public sphere,” where a number of different conversations were crossing: about literature, about decolonization, about national self-determination, and even at times about the Cold War itself.

Cover of The Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures
linking to Bloomsbury's website page for the book at the url
The Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures

Greg Barnhisel is Professor of English at Duquesne University, USA. He is an internationally known scholar of the history of the book, modernism, and the cultural Cold War, with two monographs on those topics. In 2010, he edited the anthology, Pressing the Fight: Print, Propaganda, and the Cold War. He is one of the editors of the journal Book History and a series editor for the “Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book” series.

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