Waugh’s Encounter

It has long been known that Encounter magazine, a leading cultural journal during the cold war, was secretly backed by funds from the CIA. This information came out during the protest movement in the Vietnam War period, and the magazine’s credibility never recovered. Now, however, according to a Canadian journalist, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning.

Robert Fulford, writing in the Canadian newspaper National Post, notes that:

…a less harsh view has emerged, arguing that the magazine’s high quality was, on reflection, more important than its financing. The Times Literary Supplement has run two pieces praising Encounter and suggesting the CIA scandal was a fuss about nothing. A revisionist opinion has poked through, notably in the reviews of the memoirs of Matthew Spender, Stephen’s sculptor son, and in discussion of Vincent Giroud’s biography of Nicolas Nabokov.

Nabokov (a cousin of the novelist) was head of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Paris-based CIA-front through which Encounter was funded. Spender was the British-based editor, sharing duties with Irving Kristol in the USA. Fulford says he was always impressed by the talent that the magazine attracted and remained so even after the CIA connection was revealed:

The writers ranged from Evelyn Waugh to Mary McCarthy and from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a leading American liberal, to Anthony Crosland, a Labour cabinet minister and theorist. Somehow Encounter managed to get the best work that most of these people, and a few dozen others, could produce…In Encounter Isaiah Berlin wrote wisely about 19th-century Russian literature and Hugh Trevor-Roper delivered a famous attack on the bloated reputation of Arnold Toynbee’s 10-volume Study of History. (“Every chapter of it has been shot to pieces by the experts.”) Waugh debated Nancy Mitford on upper-class and lower-class English usage.

According to the Encounter archives, available online, Waugh’s only contribution to the magazine is the one mentioned in Fulford’s article: “An open letter to the Hon. Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject from Evelyn Waugh.” This appeared in the December 1955 issue and related to the debate then raging over “U and Non-U” social practices and behavior. The article was later reprinted in an expanded version in Mitford’s collection of essays Noblesse Oblige and in Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews.

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