What Has Literature Ever Done for You?

By Keegan Cook FinbergSeptember 16, 2019

What Has Literature Ever Done for You?

Du Bois’s Telegram by Juliana Spahr

CAN LITERATURE BE AN agent of political resistance? Has literature been an effective vehicle of social movements in the past? Today we often think of poetry as activism, but does even the most radical poetry really do anything to challenge oppressive forms of nationalism or to propose meaningful alternatives to the nation-state? To all these questions, Juliana Spahr’s new book, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, answers clearly: no, not really.

The titular telegram is one that W. E. B. Du Bois sent to the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in 1956 after he was prevented from attending. The telegram — which he asked to be read at the event — exposed that he was detained and silenced by the US State Department because of his political convictions. It goes on to warn that “[a]ny Negro-American who travels abroad must […] not discuss race conditions in the United States” or make any declarations which could be deemed controversial or against a US nationalist agenda, lest they be silenced too.

Taking Du Bois’s telegram as a concise statement of facts, Spahr is deeply skeptical of previous arguments that assert that literature can play a role in political resistance. Although such arguments might be made with theoretical sophistication, she claims that, with a couple notable exceptions, they rest on an optimistic ahistoricism that lacks analysis of structural issues, or, even worse, sees resistance itself as static. So, partially as a corrective, Spahr focuses on specific historical examples in order to investigate her hunch that literature has indeed become more nationalist in the last 100 years, and, in any case, not the actual place where resistance to the state happens.

Across the book, Spahr tracks moments in US literature that began as autonomous and politically resistant and illustrates how this potential was squashed, co-opted, suppressed, or watered down by various forms of government intervention including cultural diplomacy, harassment, the institutionalization of private foundations, or direct financial influence from the State Department. This interest in the way government has shaped and redirected literature toward its nationalist agendas is a proxy for a larger question about the relationship between literature and politics. Drawing from formulations of nationalism set by Myung Mi Kim, Benedict Anderson, and Pascale Casanova, Spahr’s study assumes that there are standard-language forms of literature that reinforce state agendas. Her interest, however, is in literature that uses nonstandard techniques to push against these conservative forms; her argument is that even these works wind up reinforcing the power of the state.

In the book’s most endearing moments, this historical materialist approach is also a personal fall-from-grace story. Spahr was trained to love leftist avant-garde literature in her PhD program at SUNY Buffalo, and there she cultivated the conviction that literature that used English in non-standard ways had the potential to change the world. But then, after her involvement in pro-sovereignty protests in Hawai‘i in the 1990s and Occupy Oakland in the 2010s, she feared that it all was for naught. She began to question the conviction that literature could do anything, then she became increasingly sure of it, and finally she set out to investigate, ultimately realizing that her mission with Du Bois’s Telegram was to use historical examples to illustrate the impossibility of literature embodying resistance.


The historical examples that Spahr illuminates in her study stretch from avant-garde modernism at the turn of the 20th century, through movement literatures of the 1960s and ’70s, to literature in English that includes other languages (published en masse at the turn of the 21st century), and ends with nationalist literature of the Bush era. The way the book is structured is telling. The first chapter is entitled “Turn of the Twenty-First Century: A Possible Literature of Resistance” and the last is entitled “Turn of the Twenty-First Century: The National Tradition.” Indeed, not only does the book start out with a sort of hopeful revolutionary potential that Spahr then illustrates is usurped into nationalism, but each chapter also follows this structure.

Spahr’s first example of “Stubborn Nationalism” is avant-garde modernism, which she describes as a response to “the large sweeping changes that colonialism brought to Europe.” This diverges from the more common story that casts modernism as a total political and aesthetic revolution (against, for example, the conservatism of the agrarian New Criticism). Instead, Spahr places modernism within a global framework that was at least working through issues of imperialism, even if it wasn’t anti-imperialist.

In line with many scholarly arguments about this period, Du Bois’s Telegram pinpoints a turn after World War II. If Gertrude Stein’s early writing is autonomous or resistant (Spahr thinks maybe it is in Tender Buttons), then her later work is unabashedly nationalist and also used directly for cultural diplomacy during the Cold War in the 1950s. Spahr connects studies about how private foundations worked with the State Department to studies exposing the FBI’s surveillance of black writers, to research on the larger impact of the cultural Cold War. For example, she describes how the CIA, taking a special interest in abstract modernism, used anticommunist advocacy groups and private foundations as conduits to fund little magazines, exhibitions, and conferences. Much of this ground has been covered by critics like Frances Stonor Saunders, Andrew Rubin, and Greg Barnhisel, but Spahr draws a bigger picture, illustrating how these phenomena affected decolonial movements in Africa, for example.

Part of her strategy of creating a more global account includes citing some scholarship (Lynn Mally’s Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia, for example) to show that US cultural diplomacy and Soviet cultural diplomacy were not so different from each other:

As the Soviet Union federalized support for the arts, the United States established the Works Progress Administration. As the Soviet Union tended to fund and organize not only national events such as the Soviet Writers’ Congresses, but also events like 1949’s Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace that was held in New York and the First International Peace Conference held in Paris, so the Congress for Cultural Freedom organized the International Day of Resistance to Dictatorship and War in Paris the same year.

Putting these histories together is one of the many ways that Spahr refuses to either celebrate or condemn. The book never blames or takes sides. The tone is factual — even the most autonomous and resistant literature could not stay that way for long. This is not because individual writers grow greedy, complacent, or eschew previous commitments once the government supports them. Whether someone is a puppet for the state or whether she tries to use state funds to resist state agendas is not the point of Spahr’s study. Rather, the way that potentially revolutionary or resistant literature is neutralized or repressed through its nationalist packaging is what is at stake here. This focus is important for rebutting arguments about artists’ individual “agency,” even if they are part of conferences, cultural centers, and publications funded by the government.

The factual, blameless tone is also helpful for examining our contemporary moment, when nationalist projects have begun to incorporate literature that could be considered both avant-garde and political. (An emblematic moment of this trend is when Fluxus artist Alison Knowles and conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith read at the White House in 2011.) Spahr attributes this transformation of the avant-garde into nationalism to a few factors, notably the ways that higher education (and MFA programs in particular) have helped to consolidate nationalist literature. She also highlights the influence of literary nonprofits and foundations that support leftist missions with government funds.


Perhaps the biggest contribution of Du Bois’s Telegram is its research and writing on movement literatures. The revolutionary potential of literatures of the 1960s and ’70s that worked in tandem with Black Power or the Chicano movement, for example, is strong, and Spahr nourishes the flames on these pages. Spahr beautifully explicates Gwendolyn Brooks’s RIOT and Rodolfo Gonzales’s I Am Joaquin, illustrating their autonomy, their political impact, and their importance. She writes that they “very literally change the map” of the divide between modernism and the New Critical conservatism by offering a separate form and possibility. This moment of revolutionary resistance is short-lived, but instead of claiming that it died off, Spahr illustrates how, due to private funding, co-optation, gentrification, and privatization, it morphs into multicultural literature concerned with inclusion but not resistance. Spahr illustrates this process most clearly in her discussion of Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, which ended up funded and monitored by both the CIA and FBI, ultimately going from an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist arts space to a riot prevention program.

Just before she tells the story of how this organization and others were neutralized, Spahr makes what I consider to be a radical move for a scholar: she argues for not just more scholarly attention to this type of literature, but also that scholars allow the potential of movement literature to remain alive within their scholarship. She writes, “If scholars considered movement literature as a whole, rather than as a series of racially segregated subcategories such as Black Arts and Nuyorican and so on, it would be the dominant U.S. literary tradition in the last half of the twentieth century.” This provocation is immense in that it would change the way we read, teach, and study. Spahr continues,

In short, the moment that produced not only Gonzales’s I Am Joaquin and Brooks’s Riot is a moment when a more militant politics put a certain pressure on U.S. literary production and out of this pressure came works that were calls for revolution that challenged racialized and gendered universalism, were frequently contestatory towards capitalism, and refused accommodationist inclusions.

We should see these works as dominant, Spahr argues; we should amplify them in our works today, perhaps allowing them to live continuously.

I teach a class about literature and politics that jumps around the 20th century to cover politically resistant texts even though it is listed as a survey period coverage class for “American Literature: Post-Civil War to Present.” In this class, we read a few of the texts Spahr is also interested in here: Stein’s Tender Buttons, some works from the Black Arts Movement. I do what many teachers do; I try to allow these moments of potential to build on each other. It sounds like Spahr does this in her classes also. The parts of Du Bois’s Telegram that discuss students and classrooms are revelatory. For example, Spahr learns the importance of polyvocality in Stein’s work from her students at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, who point out that it is written in a sort of pidgin that uses techniques from oral literary traditions. These insights activate modernist texts anew.

It is in these small moments in the classroom and in the scholarly ignition of seemingly dead works that I see glimmers of revolution, or at least hopeful possibility of one. Without attention to these moments, Du Bois’s Telegram can be construed as so deeply pessimistic, not only about the potential of literature, but also about the possibilities of literary scholarship, that the whole project rings of a sort of conservativism. In this book, Spahr takes her job as a critic to mean reporting the facts, and the facts might be summarized this way: literature has not done anything in the 20th century, and in this current climate, it is impossible to see how it could make change in the future. Spahr admits that her matter-of-fact tone about the inner workings of the poetry world seems as if she has “been visiting from a foreign land,” and this can feel somewhat disconcerting, especially since in addition to being a scholar, Spahr is a poet of leftist resistance.


Spahr’s first scholarly book, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001) argued that there are certain works of formal innovation — works that use non-standard English — that are politically resistant, even “anarchic,” because they suggest a certain type of reading. There she argues that works by authors like Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “[allow] readers self-governance and autonomy, where the reading act is given as much authority as the authoring act.” These sorts of texts “concentrate on possibilities of response to various forms of oppression”; Spahr argues that they present a “way out of the abyss” by creating autonomous communities of reader-authors. This notion of autonomy is very different from the way she defines the same term in Du Bois’s Telegram. Whereas in Everybody’s Autonomy it could be a potential collective practice of literary production and study, in the newer book autonomous literature is “free from outside interference, from the market, from the government.” The interlocutors and influences in Du Bois’s Telegram are scholars like Anderson, Casanova, and Franco Moretti, who are interested in large-scale shifts rather than reading practices or the potential of individual works of literature.

This is where the personal narrative threaded into Du Bois’s Telegram is helpful. What happened between then and now is a deep leftist melancholia for Spahr and many of us; this bleak moment requires new methods. But is there some way to keep both impulses? Can we celebrate the potentiality of literary works — even activate them through scholarship — while also remaining attentive to larger structures and social formations that work to neutralize or redirect that potential? Is the pessimism in Du Bois’s Telegram a crucial part of the dialectic of revolutionary thought or is it a stagnant factuality that forecloses revolution altogether?

There are some answers at the end of Du Bois’s Telegram when Spahr combats claims about the revolutionary potential of books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, and Solmaz Sharif’s Look (works that could seemingly fall under the celebratory argument of Everybody’s Autonomy). Spahr explains that though these meaningful avant-garde and political books are getting more attention from the general public than works like these have in the past, their reach is still limited. She points out that they are all published by one press, all the writers came out of MFA programs, and “[t]he audience for this work is institutional and professional.”

Her claims about audience rely on recent NEA reports that show that Americans do not read much literature (she leans on the decade study which spans 2002–2012). However, more recent NEA studies have shown that poetry reading has rebounded. Between 2012 and 2017, 76 percent more adults reported that they read poetry and that number seems to have the highest concentration in young people (adults 18–24). My guess is that this number has to do with Instapoets, but also with politically resistant poets like Claudia Rankine. Citizen made its way into the public sphere in a much larger way than Du Bois’s Telegram acknowledges, charting best-seller lists, earning awards outside of the poetry category, and even provoking news stories with a flash of its cover at a Trump rally. The moments created around contemporary political poetry are akin to what Ernst Bloch calls concrete utopias, and what José Esteban Muñoz takes up as the realm of educated hope, “an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” It is possible for critics to take up this mantle and show how literature can at times successfully skirt an Adorno-esque notion that non-political art is actually fostering political awareness. But that doesn’t mean that they have to argue that merely reading Citizen or Look will decolonize or instantiate liberation either.

The last chapter of Du Bois’s Telegram asserts, “[l]iterature has been sequestered into irrelevance. The FBI no longer has to develop files on writers because the terms on which literature is written, who it is written for, and where it is possible to write it have changed.” Certainly, the book has masterfully told the story of the terms, ownership, and location of literary production. But irrelevance? Spahr does not quite let this be the last word, lightly reminding us that “[t]here are all these things literature can do,” even if it hasn’t yet, and ends the book with a short conclusion containing just a shard of something else. The educated hope that ends Du Bois’s Telegram is based on a nod to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s theory of the undercommons and Kristin Ross’s writing about the Paris Commune. If only all those MFAs without secure academic jobs — a similar situation to that which helped spark the Paris Commune when more than two-thirds of the graduates from the École des Beaux-Arts could not get work as artists — would start the revolution today, perhaps they could change these formations, Spahr suggests. I can’t help but think of all those disgruntled literature PhDs in and outside the academy who take the category of scholarship as a site of potentiality and autonomy, too. Whether we call it “study,” scholarship, literature, or some form of utopia imbued in any of these forms, revolutionary potential is not only a matter of facts but of collective imagination.


Keegan Cook Finberg is an assistant professor of English in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

LARB Contributor

Keegan Cook Finberg is an assistant professor of English in modern and contemporary literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is currently working on a book about the politics of post-1960s poetry in the United States. She is also a poet and the author of The Thought of Preservation (Ursus Americanus Press, 2019).


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