Kenyon’s reputation as a literary haven is in large part due to the Kenyon Review, one of the most respected literary magazines in the country. These days, many students interact with the Review either through its Associates program, which employs students to help evaluate submissions, or through one of the many events and readings it holds on campus; fewer students know much about its history. While the magazine boasts a long list of famous contributors over the years, its rise to prominence owes just as much to a once-dominant movement of literary analysis with curious ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
New Criticism, pioneered by Kenyon Review founder John Crowe Ransom and named after his 1941 book The New Criticism, argued that literary criticism should analyze the elements of literary works themselves with absolutely no reference to the social, political, historical, or personal context of the work’s author. It wanted to look at writing “as a kind of object,” according to Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English Adele Davidson ’75. This formalist method was a response to the increasingly modern world and its infatuation with the objectivity of science. “They were trying to argue that the study of literature is a valid form of knowledge,” Davidson said.
For much of the mid-twentieth century, New Criticism was extremely popular among literary critics in the U.S. because of this claim to a more empirical approach. Its success launched Ransom and the Kenyon Review into literary fame. “[Kenyon] was a place that had graduated writers before, certainly, but it was Ransom who made it a mecca,” College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73 said. Some of Kenyon’s most famous literary alumni, like E.L. Doctorow ’52 H’76 and Robert Lowell ‘40, came to the College to study under Ransom.
In her book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders suggests another reason for New Criticism and the Kenyon Review’s prominence in the middle of the century: the support of the CIA. James Jesus Angleton, a leader of CIA counterintelligence during much of the Cold War, was enthralled with contemporary literature, especially that of the New Critics. By secretly funding groups like the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), the CIA promoted the distribution of thousands of copies of the Review and other American magazines abroad.
Beyond increasing the Kenyon Review’s readership, the CIA indirectly funded the magazine through grants from the CCF and even hired many of Ransom’s pupils. One of those hirees, Robie Macauley ’41, succeeded Ransom as the editor of the Review in 1959 while still working for the CIA. Ransom was aware of the connection, at one point remarking to a colleague that he had high hopes for Macauley “if he doesn’t take a job with Central Intelligence, as I’ve heard he’s going to do.” The CIA itself considered Ransom an important “asset,” though it’s unclear if he was actively helping the agency recruit.
In 1966, after The New York Times published a six-part investigation into the activities of the CIA, including the information that it was privately funding the CCF, the organization’s grants to the Review and other magazines like it dried up. Three years later, the Review folded under financial troubles and a declining reputation. (It started back up again in 1979 under new leadership.)
Saunders’ work raises the question as to why Angleton and the CIA were so interested in New Criticism. Angleton is perhaps most famous for his involvement in Cold War counter-espionage programs and his paranoia that there were Russian moles at the highest level of the CIA. His beliefs reflected the hardline anti-communist attitudes that the U.S. so ardently touted during that period. So what would a staunch Cold Warrior want to do with a movement of literary criticism and the magazine that grew from it?
A closer look at New Criticism and its origins might help. Before Ransom was known for the Kenyon Review and New Criticism, he spearheaded another movement in the 1930s called Southern Agrarianism. Agrarianism is a philosophical and political system dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s writings on the ideal democratic system. It is based on the notion that a farmer’s way of life brings out humanity’s best qualities: gumption, integrity, morality, and self-sufficiency.
Ransom and 11 of his like-minded peers wrote a manifesto in 1930 reviving the call for Agrarianism, this time with a Southern twist. They defended U.S. Southern values in response to heightened criticism from the American intellectual community over slavery and the Confederacy. “How far shall the South surrender its moral, social, and economic autonomy to the victorious principle of Union?” they asked.
Clearly, the movement carries strong racist undertones. Intellectuals of the time highly criticized Southern Agrarianism as a backwards reactionary movement of nostalgia for the hyper-conservative antebellum U.S. South. Davidson said that pastoral movements like Southern Agrarianism are fraught with anxieties about change. “It talks about shepherds and farmers, but it’s really driven by a response against some of the excesses of urban life,” she added.
Ransom must have realized this. In 1945, after the movement had fizzled out during World War II, he renounced it as a nostalgic fantasy. A common view of the transition from Southern Agrarianism to New Criticism, according to the scholar Edward Pickering in his article “The Roots of New Criticism,” is that the Agrarians abandoned hopes of beautifying society and shifted their focus to beautifying what they could control, namely their art. Thus they created a movement of analysis that could produce empirical, evaluative judgments about a text as a perfectable form while still preserving the guiding ideals of Agrarianism. Ransom was already distancing himself from his defense of Southern values by the time he launched the Review in 1939. “He kept some of the more rural and agrarian ideas without so much of the Southern baggage,” Davidson said.
This appreciation for simplicity carried on into the rest of Ransom’s life. His granddaughter, Liz Forman, still lives in Gambier. She remembers Ransom for his enjoyment of life’s small pleasures. Though his status as the most important faculty member of the College kept Ransom busy, Forman stressed that he always found time for gardening and his grandchildren. He made breakfast for them every morning. “He wasn’t like, ‘I’m too busy thinking great thoughts. Keep the kids away,’” she said.
She recalled an anecdote indicative of Ransom’s personality. As he was driving to Mount Vernon one day in his truck, he picked up a hitchhiking Kenyon student on the side of the road. Ransom, who was wearing his gardening clothes, struck up a conversation with the student about his classes at Kenyon. The student assumed his ride was a local farmer and told Ransom all about his experience, unaware that he was speaking to a man with much more knowledge about Kenyon than a student. “I’m sure [Ransom] enjoyed the conversation and really wanted to know what the student thought,” Forman said.
It’s easy to imagine why Angleton and the CIA would value Ransom’s nostalgic rural American values during the Cold War. From one perspective, Ransom and the Kenyon Review appear to reflect an idealized American ethos perfect for winning over minds choosing between communism and liberal capitalism. And New Criticism, for its eschewment of sociopolitical context, appears to have attractive apolitical connotations for a U.S. fearful of the appeal of communism across the world (though no one has concretely proved this as the CIA’s motive). Mark Walhout, a professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, holds that New Criticism’s value to the U.S. actually lay in its promotion of steady close-reading. In his article “The New Criticism and the Crisis of American Liberalism: The Poetics of the Cold War” published in the journal College English, he argued that it was imperative that the world develop nuanced and cool-headed decision-making skills in its current volatile political climate.
Either way, the CIA’s past support of the Kenyon Review and New Criticism could have some uncomfortable implications for their respective legacies. Does this patronage compromise the magazine’s integrity? Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, the associate editor of the Review, reflected on this past in a 2007 blog post on the magazine’s website titled “On Literature and Politics, Part II.” He argues that New Criticism, despite turning away from the revolutionary politics of the moment, did have political implications. By upholding a timeless literary tradition that exists for itself, it required qualifying works to resist the influence of any outside forces, especially patrons: “the poem has to satisfy our hunger for complexity on its own, not simply as a manifestation of economic or political necessity.”
Nevertheless, New Criticism has undeniably fallen from its throne since the mid-twentieth century. Davidson explained that if it is mentioned in contemporary classes, it is as a relic of the past. But she noted its lasting impact on the structure of literary criticism: “Probably the greatest legacy of New Criticism has been the kind of pedagogical approach that says there are techniques that you can use to read a work of literature and try to understand what’s going on within it.” New Criticism is no longer the dominant framework of the study of English, but it’s a big reason that such a framework exists.
So no matter how much and for what reasons the CIA supported New Criticism and the Kenyon Review in their heydays, the two have made lasting contributions to the literary world. Lobanov-Rostovsky concludes his blog post by pointing to several important and potentially subversive works published by the Kenyon Review during the Cold War like Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and Ransom’s “Prelude to an Evening.” He writes, “Good writers always bite the hands that feed them, and not only because they’re hungry… What could be more revolutionary?”