English professor and Guggenheim recipient Peter Kalliney unravels the covert spread of American culture during the Cold War.
By Jennifer T. Allen
As a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, Peter J. Kalliney packed his bag, boarded a flight, and set off on a study abroad adventure at King’s College in London, England. Little did he know when the plane took off from the Newark, NJ, airport that the impending experience would spark an interest leading to a Guggenheim Fellowship 25 years later.
“London is an extremely multicultural city and you immediately realize there are people from all over the world who are living here,” Kalliney said. “I noticed the history of the city, but I became especially interested in the history of migration and settlement there after World War II.”
Coupling his study abroad experience with his father’s own story as an Egyptian migrant, Kalliney solidified his interest in researching British Literature and the history of British imperialism. Sami Kalliney was born in Egypt in the 1930s, when Egypt was part of the British Empire.
“Egypt became independent as my father passed from teenage years into adulthood,” Kalliney said. “I learned something about my own family’s history by studying postcolonial literature as it relates to Britain. It was a side of my father’s story that he rarely talked about. My father grew up in a British colony and had gone through decolonization when he was a young man before he left Egypt.”
After graduating in 1993 from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English, Kalliney went to the University of Michigan, earning his Ph.D. in 2001 with a specialization in 20th century British literature. Kalliney’s journey to UK in 2006 included a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Oberlin College, Ohio, and an entry-level professorship at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.
Coming to the University of Kentucky gave Kalliney the opportunity to teach at a large school with a graduate program in English in a department with robust and active research.
“Mentoring graduate students is an important part of what I wanted to do as a teacher and a scholar,” Kalliney said. “I’m also excited to work with a large and diverse body of undergraduates. UK has a really strong English department with a lot of history as well as the facilities to support research and teaching of graduate students.”
As to why he chose the study of literature for his life’s work, Kalliney said: “Reading allowed me to understand a little bit more about the way other people whom I would never encounter in real life experienced the world. It was a way for me to understand how other people think, how other people articulate their experiences through the written form in a way that still speaks to me very powerfully.”
Kalliney published his first book, “Cities of Affluence and Anger: A Literary Geography of Modern Englishness,” in 2007. Inspired by his study abroad experience in London, the book focuses on literature and urban space in Britain and how migrants from the British Empire represent London. His second book, “Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics,” expands and develops some of the ideas in his first book, but it has a more archival focus.
“I wanted to study what I call literary or cultural institutions that fostered collaboration between white, metropolitan writers and their counterparts from other parts of the British Empire, especially non-white writers,” Kalliney said.
To accomplish this, Kalliney looked at organizations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which had several literary radio programs that brought together Indian, Caribbean, African and metropolitan British writers. He focused on the collaborations between white and non-white British writers in the middle decades of the 20th century. His research took him to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
“Whenever I go to a new library, I always go to the librarian first and spend a few minutes describing my research. The librarians and archivists always know more about their own collections than researchers,” Kalliney said. “I was describing my project and was told I needed to speak to a colleague about something called the Transcription Centre, with which I had no familiarity.”
He did just that, learning that during the early 1960s the Transcription Centre in London was recording radio programs with African artists, writers and intellectuals with the idea to ship the recordings to radio stations in sub-Saharan Africa. “The interesting feature about this whole project was that it was funded covertly by the CIA,” Kalliney said.
The only problem was that he could not see how the story of the CIA involvement in literature could fit into the book he was writing, so he put the idea on hold.
Kalliney continued to nurse the thought of a project on the Cold War while he was finishing his second book and writing a third, “Modernism in a Global Context,” published in 2016, which provides a broad overview of 20th century literature. “I kept thinking back to the archives I had visited while I was working on my second book,” he said.
As Kalliney pursued the trail, which also led him to the Special Collections at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library, he found that the CIA, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was very active in the 1950s in Western Europe and other parts of the world. They were one of the major patrons of African writing during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“It turns out that the CIA, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, funded two of the most significant postcolonial magazines in English that came out for Africa—‘Black Orpheusʼ and ‘Transition,’” Kalliney said. “They also funded the most important conference on African writing in English, which took place in 1962 in Uganda.”
So, why would the CIA fund African writers and artists?
“The CIA had activities in the Middle East, they had activities in sub-Saharan Africa, they had activities in South America, in sub-continental Asia, India, Pakistan, and in Australia. They were all over the world funding writers they thought would be sympathetic to their objectives,” Kalliney said. “Their involvement with European intellectuals is well known, but the story of the CIA’s involvement in funding writers from decolonizing areas of the world is a relatively unknown part of the story.”
Kalliney’s Guggenheim Fellowship project, “Bandung Generation: Decolonization and the Aesthetic Cold War,” was born out of a chance encounter with a librarian in Texas. It has now taken a life of its own. The two major objectives of his research project are to study how cultural diplomacy from the United States and the Soviet Union influenced writing in the decolonizing areas of the world, and how U.S. and British surveillance of intellectuals also affected the evolution of the literature of decolonization.
“The Cold War was being fought out politically, diplomatically, economically, and through propaganda,” he said. “But it was also being fought culturally through the patronage of writers, intellectuals and artists.”
In general terms, Kalliney’s research will help explain the relationship between writing and literature and state bodies during the Cold War period.
“National governments were not neutral where literature was concerned. They believed that literature mattered. They wanted to influence literature either by promoting it or by censoring it,” he said. “This was a time when intellectuals could be defenders of nations and their interests or cause problems. Literature mattered so much so that governments took an active interest in monitoring and supporting writers.”
In addition, Kalliney’s project will help tell the story of how English became a global literary language—not just a global language, but a global language for trading ideas about culture. “If you are interested in why English is arguably the dominant literary language in the world with only a couple of rivals—French, Arabic, and Spanish perhaps—that story is a Cold War story,” he said.
Receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship gives Kalliney a one-year research leave to focus on the project. He hopes to have his fourth book published in 2020.
“The extremely competitive Guggenheim Fellowship is a tremendous recognition of Peter’s scholarship,” said Jeffory Clymer, chair of the UK Department of English. “He is the model of a scholar-teacher, whose research enriches his teaching of our undergraduate and graduate students. The Guggenheim Fellowship will support his new research on global English literature during the Cold War, and via his teaching will translate directly for our students into their understanding of literature’s role in world politics.”
Mentoring and teaching graduate students and working with undergraduates of all levels is still at the heart of what Kalliney loves to do—and he continues to incorporate his research into his teaching, even when he teaches 100-level classes designed for first-year students of any major.
“It is great that the English Department and the College of Arts & Sciences can influence the intellectual development of students from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of intellectual interests,” Kalliney said. “Undergraduate students from different colleges on campus come through Arts & Sciences to meet their basic course requirements.”
When teaching introductory courses on global literature, Kalliney provides historical background to supplement the reading. For V.S. Naipaul's Trinidadian novel “A House for Mr. Biswas” a few years ago, he led a discussion about slavery and indenture in the Caribbean. “At the end of the semester, a student told me her family is from Trinidad, of Indian descent, but no one in her family would tell her the story of how so many Indians ended up in the Caribbean,” he said.
“That was very powerful,” Kalliney said. “To hear how my teaching contributed to a student learning a little bit more about her own heritage reminds me that we shouldn’t take knowledge, even about our own families, for granted.” &