Milan Kundera, John Crowe Ransom, New Criticism, and Spies

The young Milan Kundera reportedly “betrayed” a western spy, the sort New Criticism “founder” John Crowe Ransom recruited. As widely reported:

[updated, below]

“…the acclaimed Czech-born writer Milan Kundera has been accused of denouncing a Western spy to the Communist secret police when he was a student.

“The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being was identified by a Czech state institute yesterday as having betrayed the young man in 1950 at the height of the Communist show trials.” …

“Born in Brno in 1929, [Kundera] studied literature and film, and taught at the Prague film academy as a reform-minded but still outwardly loyal member of the Communist Party. His first novel, The Joke (1967), satirised the Czech Stalinism of the 1950s, and heralded a final expulsion from the Party, which came in 1970. Kundera left for Paris in 1975.”

Commenting on Frances Stonor Saunders book The Cultural Cold War, Robert deNeufville notes:

“The first American spies of the Cold War were…drawn from the brightest minds of their generation, the so-called ‘cultural elite.’ In fact, a surprising number of the first spies were also accomplished poets and scholars. These included a number recruited after the war by John Crowe Ransom, the founder of the prestigious Kenyon Review” [which received CIA funding, along with a number of other literary magazines].


“Ransom more or less founded the school of literary criticism known as the New Criticism, which gained its name from his 1941 volume of essays The New Criticism. This school…dominated American literary thought throughout the middle 20th century…”

and much beyond, as New Criticism has been wielded in the US and abroad to combat the various resurgences of liberatory criticism and fiction.

Update: A good post on the coverage of this at Read Red. From Kundera’s point of view at the time, he would have been “turning in” the spy. From his point of view today, he apparently believes he would have been “betraying” him.

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