On Campus
Jun 04, 2009, 06:48AM

Creative Writing: Then and Now

And its place in the academy.

Is the rise of the creative-writing workshop, as McGurl claims, “the most important event in postwar American literary history”? Creative-writing courses did not suddenly spring into being in 1945. A course called Verse Making was available at Iowa in 1897, and from 1906 to 1925 George Pierce Baker taught a drama workshop at Harvard, the first graduate writing course in the country; Thomas Wolfe took it. The term (and the concept) “creative writing” dates from the nineteen-twenties, which is when Middlebury started the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where Robert Frost served as the world’s first writer-in-residence. In 1936, Iowa launched the Writers’ Workshop—officially, the Program in Creative Writing—under the direction of Wilbur Schramm, and began awarding the first M.F.A.s. In 1941, Schramm was replaced by Paul Engle, a prodigious creative-writing proselytizer and cultural Cold Warrior, who made Iowa into a global power in the field. Engle eventually brought writers from seventy countries to study at Iowa.There was a surge in creative-writing degree programs after the Second World War. The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins started in 1947; Stanford inaugurated its writing fellowships the same year; Cornell’s creative-writing program opened in 1948. As is the case with most new developments in higher education, changes in funding were responsible. Title II of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—the G.I. Bill—provided forty-eight months of tuition for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans, a much bigger number than anticipated, took up the offer, and by 1950 the government had spent more money on tuition and other college costs than on the Marshall Plan. The key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certificate programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.In the nineteen-sixties, the universe of higher education underwent a fantastic expansion. Between 1960 and 1969, enrollments doubled and more professors were hired than had been hired in the entire previous three hundred and twenty-five years. Most of the growth was in the public sector. At the height of the expansion, between 1965 and 1972, new community-college campuses were opening in the United States at the rate of one every week. A way for institutions to raise their academic profiles was to add graduate programs. (Once added, they became virtually impossible to subtract. This is one reason that there is an oversupply of Ph.D.s in the United States.) By 1975, there were fifteen creative-writing M.F.A. programs in the country. Today, there are a hundred and fifty-three. Creative-writing programs attract students (good for public universities, where enrollment may determine budgets), but, contrary to what many people assume, they are not generally cash cows. Most of the top programs—until recently, Columbia was the major exception—provide fellowship support for all their students, and the classes are tiny. In 2005-06, only four-tenths of one per cent of all master’s degrees awarded were in creative writing.The identification of certain writers with university creative-writing programs is, therefore, a postwar phenomenon. The list is long: John Hawkes (Brown), Guy Davenport (Kentucky), Robert Coover (Brown), Reynolds Price (Duke), Wallace Stegner (Stanford), Leslie Epstein (Boston University), Donald Barthelme (Houston), Tobias Wolff (Syracuse), E. L. Doctorow (New York University), William Kennedy (SUNY Albany), Robert Olen Butler (Florida State University). And many writers who are not normally imagined in an academic setting have circulated through the creative-writing system. Philip Roth has taught at several universities, including Iowa and Princeton. Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren both taught at Iowa. (Algren claimed to find writing programs worthless. He later complained, in a piece called “At Play in the Fields of Hackademe,” that “what it lacks in creativity, the Iowa Creative Workshop makes up in quietivity.” He is reported to have lost a lot of money playing poker while he was in Iowa City.)And it is remarkable how many fiction writers have come through university writing programs since the war—not just individual writers but entire cohorts. When Vonnegut was at Iowa, he taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving. Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”), and Tillie Olsen were all in a creative-writing workshop at Stanford at the same time. Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, and Richard Ford (a student of Doctorow, before Doctorow went to N.Y.U.) are products of the program at the University of California at Irvine. Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson all went to Columbia.


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