The Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson is best known for his World War II spy work with the OSS (and later the CIA), and for founding American Studies as an academic discipline. But Pearson was perhaps equally important as an impresario for American literary modernism, particularly its women writers. What appear at first like three seemingly separate spheres of activity—modernist literature, American studies, and national security—are in the context of the early Cold War closely linked. In the early 1950s, American cultural diplomats and intelligence agents felt it crucial for our national interests to explain American culture to skeptical European intellectuals, and to prove that the U.S. had advanced art and literature. Although few know about him, Pearson is perhaps the most important figure linking together these three disparate worlds, and his work as a critic, teacher, editor, analyst, recruiter, and collector did a great deal to change understanding of the relationship of literature, American culture, and America’s role in the Cold War not only in Europe, but at home as well.
Greg Barnhisel is a Professor of English at Duquesne University.