Between the lines

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife, Lesley Katon, has a sharp eye for wonderful old books and magazines. Whereas my attention tends to float past piles of debilitated pamphlets and injured hardbacks, she goes to work, unearthing publishing gems from years gone by. So the credit for spotting the unloved copies of Encounter magazine featured here goes to her. You can also see a larger selection of our Encounter covers over here.

Encounter was launched in 1953, the brainchild of poet Stephen Spender and author Irving Kristol, with journalist Melvin J. Lasky succeeding Kristol in 1958. The magazine drew together articles from many of the period’s most influential and provocative thinkers, and it gained a reputation for well-considered and sometimes controversial commentary on world politics, the arts and society. It also featured an eclectic mix of poetry and some terrific editorial design, not least a series of striking front covers.

For many liberals, Encounter was the magazine they had been waiting for. So it was a shock when Spender resigned and announced his discovery that Central Intelligence Agency money had helped finance the magazine for more than 10 years. It was alleged that funds had been supplied via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy group, but it wasn’t clear which members of the editorial team were complicit, if any, and there are varying accounts of how far editorial decisions were influenced by Langley. This book review on the CIA site provides some background, while this article suggests the effect of the Congress for Cultural Freedom may have been rather subtle. The following excerpt from the article proposes that the Congress was promoting a leftist agenda – as a means to a conservative end, of course:

The Congress for Cultural Freedom was… characterised by two main approaches: channelling state money through private sponsorship in order to prevent any artists involved noticing the CIA’s involvement, and funding “progressive” art, loosely aligned with the Non-Communist Left. Both to show how culturally progressive the West was, and to try to increase the status of artists aligned with the NCL over those who supported the Soviets.

Encounter closed in 1991. Reading today, I find it refreshingly unapologetic about its more demanding content, open to experiment in the creative writing it features and unafraid of writers making grand statements on matters of state. Despite the Cold War editorial shadow play, much of what it published seems thoughtful, considered and independent. With the benefit of hindsight, you can enjoy trying to spot the fault lines in the nuanced relationship between the magazine and US foreign policy. Reading between the lines, you start to develop a sense of the rhetoric and counter-rhetoric of the Cold War, both between West and East and within the West; of subtle ideological battles being fought in cultural space; of the push and pull of big ideas. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for more.


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