How Franz Kafka Achieved Cult Status in Cold War America
Brian K. Goodman Traces the Origins of the Term “Kafkaesque”
Even though Franz Kafka had been dead since 1924, his writing would provide Cold War-era writers and intellectuals in the United States with a literary vocabulary for imagining life behind the Iron Curtain. After the Second World War, a wave of new Kafka translations, editions, and critical works swept across the English-speaking world. In retrospect, it is not hard to understand what fueled this vogue.
As Mark Greif writes in his study of midcentury literature and ideas, Kafka’s writing “seemed to show the condition of the individual under a continuous line of totalitarians—first Hitler in Western Europe, now Stalin in the East—with Kafka usefully, geographically, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on the border between them.” This uncomfortable intermediate position, and the anachronistic image of Kafka as a writer suspended between two “totalitarian” worlds, would help him become the most important missing figure in a history of cultural exchange between dissenting American and Czech writers during the Cold War era. But just as Kafka was no prophet, his eminent Cold War status was hardly inevitable: the year 1947 was the pivotal moment for this unforeseen development.
Just as a “Kafka craze” was beginning to take hold in the postwar United States, there were tentative signs that the neglected Prague author might also enjoy a Czech-language renaissance in his native city. But then, in February 1948, the Communist Party seized control of Czechoslovakia, and Kafka was declared both a dangerous relic of interwar Prague’s decadent bourgeoisie and a corrupted symbol of the postwar existentialism being imported from abroad. His writing disappeared from public view for almost a decade.
Although Kafka was slowly “rehabilitated” in the period after 1956, he was once again banned after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. For many American intellectuals, there was an attractive irony to the idea that Kafka, popularized in the United States as a writer of anti-totalitarian fables, was proscribed in his home country. By the last decade of the Cold War, the image of Kafka as a prototypical dissident writer had taken hold in both the American and Czech literary imagination.Just as Kafka was no prophet, his eminent Cold War status was hardly inevitable.
But in 1947, not everyone yet agreed about Kafka. “I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer,” the American critic Edmund Wilson wrote in a review that year, “and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can.” As he observed, since the Second World War, Kafka’s reputation had risen in the United States like a “meteorological phenomenon.” Wilson, however, remained unconvinced.
When he published his “Dissenting Opinion on Kafka” in the New Yorker in the summer of 1947, Wilson was still one of the most influential literary critics in the United States. Within a few years, he would also become an outspoken critic of US foreign policy during the early Cold War. Even if Wilson was increasingly out of step with his liberal intellectual peers in postwar America, his dissenting reading of Kafka can help us begin to understand how and why Kafka came to play such a central role in cultural exchange between dissenting American and Czech writers throughout the entire Cold War period.
Wilson could certainly understand why Kafka’s strange fantasies had gained such “validity” in Europe “under the rule of the Nazis and the Soviets.” Barely a decade after Kafka’s death in 1924, “men were to find themselves arrested and condemned on charges that had no relation to any accepted code of morals or law, or were driven from place to place to labor or to fight by first one then another inhuman unpetitionable government, which they hadn’t the force to defy or the intellect to grasp and disintegrate.”
Indeed, Wilson celebrated the news that a long-planned edition of Kafka’s collected works, “begun in Berlin under Hitler and only finished in Prague on the eve of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia,” had been “salvaged from the ruins of Central European culture and brought out in the United States.” What Wilson objected to was the postwar “cultists of Kafka,” an ideologically diverse group of writers and critics, from W.H. Auden to Austin Warren, contributing to new volumes like The Kafka Problem and A Kafka Miscellany. By 1947, even the conservative Time magazine was getting in on the Kafka action. Wilson worried that all this attention, with its incoherent range of interpretations, would “oversaturate and stupefy” American readers.
By the end of the 1940s, however, a critical consensus about Kafka was slowly beginning to emerge in the United States. The same year that Wilson published his “Dissenting Opinion,” Partisan Review published an essay by James Burnham called “Observations on Kafka.” In his own review of recent Kafka-related publications, Burnham sketches out a useful theory of how a “new and seemingly unique writer” like Kafka gets assimilated into the “functional structures of values and categories” of another literary culture:
This process of cultural absorption is, as in all such cases, correlated with the wavelike expansion of the new artist’s audience. At first there are a few friends, then scattered outsiders who welcome the first public appearance. Some among these friends and outsiders are not content with having been recognized. The news must be told, the swelling begins. The avant-garde is alerted, little magazines publish and comment, a clique forms. A professor here and there revises a lecture, and a semiprofessional publisher decides to take a chance. The stirring is felt internationally, imitations pay their substantial flattery, and the general public, if not able to face the original, becomes familiar with chic references and with devices borrowed for the mass market.
What Burnham doesn’t mention is that Partisan Review was precisely the “little magazine” that had done the most to establish Kafka’s reputation in the United States, and Burnham was now a part of their clique.
The ascension of Burnham—a Trotskyite turned Cold War hawk, best remembered for his theories of “managerial totalitarianism”—to the editorial board of Partisan Review in the late forties was a signal of the magazine’s final drift away from the Marxist radicalism of the thirties toward their new and influential brand of literary anticommunism. The dominant political interpretations of Kafka’s writing followed a trajectory similar to that of Partisan Review in the United States, migrating away from the literary radicalism of the interwar period toward the liberal-modernist consensus of the early Cold War era.
Wilson’s dissenting reading of Kafka did not quite fit Burnham’s model. Like the magazine’s editors, Wilson had been a member of the anti-Stalinist Left, but by the end of the 1930s, he had become a “dissident from all organized forms of dissidence.” His reading of Kafka was similarly idiosyncratic. Sweeping aside the earlier religious interpretations of Kafka’s writing, Wilson argues that a typical Kafka story should be read “much less like an edifying allegory of the relations between God and man than like a Marxist-Flaubertian satire on the parasites of the bourgeoisie.”The Cold War-era reading of Kafka as an anti-totalitarian writer had origins in a fracturing interwar Left.
By promoting the idea of Kafka as a potential bridge between “Marxist” revolutionary politics and “Flaubertian” formal innovation, Wilson was actually carrying a now-forgotten radical reading of Kafka from the thirties forward into the Cold War era. His Marxist-Flaubertian formula was a clear rejection of the new boundaries between literary modernism and left-wing politics, policed most aggressively by the editors of Partisan Review. Writing at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Wilson pointedly argued that Kafka should be read as an heir to both Edgar Allan Poe and Nikolai Gogol, the great antirealists of nineteenth-century American and Russian literature.
What distinguished Kafka from both these writers, however, was that Kafka belonged to no country; since his death, according to Wilson, he had been “denationalized, discouraged, disaffected, disabled.” This image of Kafka as a “denationalized” writer, symbolically available to nonconformist writers and intellectuals on both sides of the emerging Cold War divide, would help transform Kafka’s writing into a mediating force in literary exchange across the Iron Curtain.
In his “Dissenting Opinion,” Wilson correctly predicted, “Kafka’s novels have exploited a vein of the comedy and pathos of futile effort which is likely to make ‘Kafka-esque’ a permanent word.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Wilson with being the first person to use the word “Kafka-esque” in print—although not in his essay on Kafka. A few months before he published his “Dissenting Opinion,” Wilson had reviewed the memoir of George Grosz, the famous German Dadaist who had fled Berlin in 1933, just weeks before the burning of the Reichstag.
In Wilson’s review, he describes how Grosz had “felt the pressure of impending tyranny, and, warned, he says, by a Kafka-esque nightmare of blind alleys, covert persecution, and a plague of stinking fish, decided to move to America.” But Wilson did not invent the term himself. “Kafka-esque,” in its initial hyphenated form, first appeared a full nine years earlier in the American communist magazine New Masses. It was actually coined by the socialist poet Cecil Day-Lewis, a member of the Auden circle, in his report on a rising generation of radical English writers who were looking for new literary models to help them move beyond the formal limitations of proletarian fiction and the contradictions of their own bourgeois backgrounds. In the thirties, many left-wing writers across the English-speaking world were similarly turning to Kafka.
But even if the Kafkaesque was an invention of the interwar literary Left, the term took on new anti-totalitarian political associations after the onset of the Cold War. The second usage of “Kafkaesque” in the OED, listed after Wilson’s description of Grosz’s nightmare, comes from the Hungarian British writer Arthur Koestler, a former Communist Party member who became a leading anti-Stalinist in the late forties.
In his memoir Invisible Writing, published in 1954, Koestler explains his gradual political conversion, describing how the Moscow show trials had only gradually revealed their “weird, Kafka-esque pattern to the incredulous world.” This strange history of the word “Kafkaesque,” from New Masses and George Grosz’s nightmare to Wilson’s dissent and Invisible Writing, is a reminder that the Cold War-era reading of Kafka as an anti-totalitarian writer had origins in a fracturing interwar Left and its collision with a generation of émigré writers, artists, and intellectuals escaping war-torn Central Europe.
Excerpted from The Nonconformists: American and Czech Writers Across the Iron Curtain by Brian K. Goodman. Copyright © 2023. Available from Harvard University Press.