The Big Read Blog (Archive)

‘Zhivago’ Anni Recalls Onset of Cold-War Literature Race

October 4, 2007
Washington, DC

Watching Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday Morning commemorate both the golden anniversary of Sputnik AND Gene Autry's centennial, I couldn?t help wondering what our society will find to commemorate 50 years from now -- the 50th anniversary of the 100th anniversary of Gene Autry's birth? Really, isn?t there any new news worth reporting? Maybe a certain nationwide reading program, which could do with a little extra national attention, might come in for a few lumens of limelight? As you probably already know, The Big Read is never far from my thoughts. That, plus maybe the morning coffee was a tad too strong, may have given rise to the following hallucination from the Sunday paper...

It may be difficult for American youngsters today to understand the nationwide panic that greeted Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago when it first streaked across the literary firmament 50 years ago this fall. Long crippled by Soviet-style social realism, the sparsely funded Russian fiction program shocked the world with Zhivago's meteoric rise. President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially dismissed the novel as only of "literary interest," but America's hitherto unquestioned superiority had plainly suffered a serious blow.

Meanwhile, youthful English majors had no such jingoistic pride to bruise. Across the nation, readers listened spellbound to the steady "ka-ching? ka-ching? ka-ching" ringing out from bookstore cash registers everywhere. Bobby Troupe and Julie London scored big with their novelty chart-topper, "Moon Over Stalingrad" and its uptempo flipside "Hot-Cha in the Dacha." Merchandising entrepreneurs did a land-office business in "Yuri & Lara" lunchboxes.

To his credit, Ike soon realized that he had gravely underestimated the threat to U.S. novelistic hegemony. He promptly chartered the National Aesthetics and Style Administration, a crash program designed, among other worthy goals, to close the "simile gap."

The fledgling agency's first results were hardly encouraging. Several early prototypes experienced problems in the idea stage. Some painstakingly developed characters never even made it off the page before imploding.

Gradually, however, U.S. efforts began to close the distance. By executive order, Ike put campus writing programs on a war footing. Federal funds began pouring into promising startups including the Stanford Writing Program, under the direction of Canadian defector Wallace Stegner. There, under Stegner's stern tutelage, such writers as Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Ernest J. Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) made their first tentative experiments in narrative-driven propulsion.

A small Christmas grant to writer Harper Lee resulted in the 1960 publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, restoring some measure of pride to the country's beleaguered literati. John F. Kennedy won the White House in 1960, in part by accusing the Eisenhower administration of being "soft on modernism." He soon committed the country to "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a novelist atop the bestseller list and returning him safely to the literary establishment." By 1969, with Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, American national literature had made good on Kennedy's vow.

Recalling those heady days, novelist Thomas Pynchon recently allowed as how "1958, to be sure, was another planet. When the Zhivago reviews hit, I remember sitting around the Cornell Student Union drinking Red Cap Ale with Richard Farina, Jules Siegel and Mike Curtis, all those guys. We swore we were going to do Pasternak one better ? not for America so much, but just for literature. I changed my major from engineering to English the next day."