Tuesday, 8 April 2014


My discussion of Peter Matthiessen, following my obit of him for the Guardian (see the preceding post and follow the link to catch up) have generated quite a bit of comment (sadly, not on the blog itself). Most of it had two strands. One came from a few people who felt Matthiessen was not a great fiction writer, that travel and the natural world in non-fiction was his strength. I'm inclined to agree with them--I've always found his fiction a bit studied, perhaps too much influenced by the kind of awareness of American literary roots espoused by his second cousin (once removed) F.O. Matthiessen. It's tempting to see the Shadow Country trilogy as marking a change in that.

The other point, made by many on the Guardian's comments page, as well as in emails to me, was about the CIA link. They ranged from the paranoid to an excellent comparison by my friend Michael Goldfarb to Norman Mailer's much underrated Harlot's Ghost. But Mailer's novel is less about the politics of the CIA than the old boy network, centered on Yale, that formed the early CIA. I have no doubt the CIA funded the Paris Review, as I implied in the obit, but I don't know what kind of spying Matthiessen did for the agency. Keeping an eye on lefties in Paris seems innocuous enough, but of course that's the way Matthiessen would have wanted it to seem.

Robin Ramsey, the editor of Lobster, for whom I have written a number of pieces, forwarded me an article from Lobster 50, 'The Fiction Of The State' (you can find it at Lobster, here) which I either missed or don't recall. It's by Richard Cummings, who was a part of that circle in some ways, and is best known for a controversial biography of Allard Lowenstein, Pied Piper, which alleged that the anti-war Democratic congressman, head of Americans for Democratic Action and an early critic of the official verdict in the Robert Kennedy assassination, had been a CIA agent (and a closeted gay). Lowenstein was murdered in 1980 by a student he had befriended in the 60s. Cummings was accused of relying on guilt by association to make his case--he has apparently confirmed his thesis with CIA files--but you'll see guilt by association makes up a part of the basis of 'The Fiction Of The State' as well. Which is to be expected, because the whole business is about associations.

It's a fascinating, if  impressionistic, article (a lot of the names would mean nothing to most of you reading it, but they encapsulate the New York literary world of the 50s and 60s). It's interesting because anyone involved in that world remains captivated by it yet somehow able to see themselves apart from it...which applies to Cummings every bit as much as to Matthiessen. The influence of this group resembles that of the British upper classes via Oxbridge. For example, Cummings' editor at Brazilier was Ned Chase. Ned's son is Chevy (like Wallace Shawn or Carly Simon, the entertainment world is littered with the children of  New York editors!). More importantly, people in big New York law firms, often Yalies themselves, were the core of the CIA.

But if Cummings be correct, and the CIA was seriously fighting communism by trying to control what writers wrote, or ensure that certain ideas got spread through magazines like The Paris Review or Encounter, it makes you wonder what they were thinking, who they thought the real enemy was. Of course James Jesus Angleton edited a poetry magazine at Yale, and it's tempting to think he and the agency thought they could save the world from communism by simply improving on their undergraduate publications. But it's more realistic to think that they feared uppity intellectuals outside their waspy sphere more then they did the threat of godless communism in Russia.

Cummings is believable on the way Matthiessen forced out Harold Humes, (pictured right) and quotes two of Matthiessen's wives as confirming the wider extent of Matthiessen's CIA work--Cummings believes his own book about the CIA's covert war against Ethiopa, and his Lowenstein book, were both victims of CIA plots initiated by Matthiesen. It's easy to accept, because it reinforces the idea that all this energy might have been better directed elsewhere, and it speaks to the essential banality of the authoritarian mindset which is behind intelligence, working as an arm protective of corporate interest.

There's so much gossip about who married whom or had affairs with whom or got their money from whom that Cummings becomes very hard to follow. You can't help but think there's an element of jealousy that he himself wasn't ever fully admitted to the club. But what I find most interesting isn't Matthiessen or Plimpton as much as the idea the CIA considered Clement Greenberg to be in the front line against communism, which basically validates the thesis of Serge Guibault's book How New York Stole The Idea Of Modern Art. I'd always thought Guibault over stated his case, and certainly failed to give enough credit to the art, because to do so would weaken his argument, but if Cummings be right, Guibault if anything understates his case.

Basically the CIA seems to have wasted a lot of money in terms of political gain. On the other hand, their artistic judgement seems better than, say, that of the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Arts Council. So maybe their mission statement and budget ought simply to be adjusted?

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