Combatting Anti-Americanism during the Cold War: Faulkner, the State Department, and Latin America (1)

By Cohn, Deborah | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Combatting Anti-Americanism during the Cold War: Faulkner, the State Department, and Latin America (1)


Cohn, Deborah, The Mississippi Quarterly


IN 1950, WHEN FAULKNER WAS AWARDED THE NOBEL PRIZE, HE INITIALLY declined to travel to Stockholm to pick up the award. The US ambassador to Sweden sent an urgent cable to Secretary of State Dean Acheson expressing his concern at the situation, for Faulkner's refusal to travel had provoked both criticism and disappointment amongst the Swedes--especially those who had supported his candidacy for the award--threatening the US with international embarrassment: "Embassy believes most helpful if he could be induced to come to Stockholm. Muna Lee and other officers in Department personally acquainted Faulkner might be helpful persuading him change plans." (2) Lee, who was both a Southern poet and a State Department official, played her cards carefully (see Blotner, Biography 1347-49 for details), and within a week Acheson notified the ambassador that Faulkner had accepted the invitation. Faulkner was one of the "stars" of the festivities that year, impressing the public, the press, and critics alike. (3) The State Department took note of his success, and over the next few years persuaded him to serve as a goodwill ambassador in Japan, the Philippines, Greece, Iceland, Latin America, and elsewhere. On his trips he taught, spoke about his work, and commented on race relations in the US. Both his words and his very presence testified to American achievements in nations hostile to the US, and his visits were instrumental in tempering this sentiment (see Oakley "William Faulkner"). This essay studies Faulkner's two trips to Latin America, both of which were made at the behest and on the dime of the State Department, which sought to cultivate goodwill towards the US through cultural channels during a period of significant anti-American political sentiment in the region. I present the political motivations behind the invitations to Faulkner, demonstrating how his visits were planned as strategic elements in the State Department's efforts to promote US interests abroad, as well as in its propaganda wars against Communism, the eradication of which in Latin America was a primary foreign policy goal of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

While much has been published on the subject of Faulkner's influence on Latin American writers, the Southerner's trips to the region have received relatively little attention. In 1966, Joseph Blotner's "William Faulkner: Roving Ambassador" gave an overview of the writer's travels for the State Department, including his trips to Latin America; (4) he included much of this information, expanded, in his monumental two-volume biography of Faulkner. (5) Blotner's discussions draw on archival materials from the US Department of State, reproductions of which may be found in the Joseph Blotner-William Faulkner Collection at Special Collections in the University of Virginia Library and in the Blotner Papers at Southeast Missouri State University. While this essay uses many of these sources, I have also located a number of other documents, including several United States Information Service (USIS) reports on Faulkner's visits to Latin America, to which Blotner did not have access. (6) My work further differs from that of Blotner in its situation of Faulkner's trips to Latin America within the context of official US Cold War cultural politics and US relations with Latin America during this period. (7) This approach is deeply indebted to Lawrence Schwartz's groundbreaking study, Creating Faulkner's Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism, which demonstrates how Faulkner's rise to fame in the US during the 1940s and 1950s was directly correlated with a Cold War cultural project that promoted modernism as "an instrument of anti-Communism" (201) and discredited prewar realism and naturalism as "taint[ed] ... by an overt political orientation and ties to international" Communism and support of the Soviet Union" (202).

Faulkner's revamped reputation as a nonpolitical, modernist author who addressed "universal truths" and "old verities"--that is, as a writer with universal appeal--made him extremely attractive as a cultural emissary to the Department of State. …

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