How risky encounters between American and Czech writers behind the Iron Curtain shaped the art and politics of the Cold War and helped define an era of dissent.
“In some indescribable way, we are each other’s continuation,” Arthur Miller wrote of the imprisoned Czech playwright Václav Havel. After a Soviet-led invasion ended the Prague Spring, many US-based writers experienced a similar shock of solidarity. Brian Goodman examines the surprising and consequential connections between American and Czech literary cultures during the Cold War—connections that influenced art and politics on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
American writers had long been attracted to Prague, a city they associated with the spectral figure of Franz Kafka. Goodman reconstructs the Czech journeys of Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, and John Updike, as well as their friendships with nonconformists like Havel, Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma, and Milan Kundera. Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, was home to a literary counterculture shaped by years of engagement with American sources, from Moby-Dick and the Beats to Dixieland jazz and rock ’n’ roll. Czechs eagerly followed cultural trends in the United States, creatively appropriating works by authors like Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway, sometimes at considerable risk to themselves.
The Nonconformists tells the story of a group of writers who crossed boundaries of language and politics, rearranging them in the process. The transnational circulation of literature played an important role in the formation of new subcultures and reading publics, reshaping political imaginations and transforming the city of Kafka into a global capital of dissent. From the postwar dream of a “Czechoslovak road to socialism” to the neoconservative embrace of Eastern bloc dissidence on the eve of the Velvet Revolution, history was changed by a collision of literary cultures.
A stimulating book…brilliantly shows that while American literature and music offered Czechs a dream of improvisatory freedom, Czech literature offered Americans an example of what, variously, they might do with it as if it mattered.
Goodman brilliantly reveals how US–Czech literary encounters produced, largely unintentionally, the figure of the ‘dissident writer,’ which eventually became the symbol of the human rights movement that brought down the Iron Curtain. He reminds us that the Cold War was a period of lively, if often tortured, cultural exchange that cannot be reduced to the terms of a Cold War binary.
Eye-opening and unforgettable. Goodman is a wonderful storyteller, and this is a story never told before. Featuring a vibrant continuum of literature, music, and theater linking Czechoslovakia and the United States, this East-West fusion sheds light on Franz Kafka, Václav Havel, and Josef Škvorecký no less than Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, and Arthur Miller.
Illuminating and full of insights. With lucid and often elegant prose, Goodman masterfully tackles the continuities between American and Czech literary cultures during the Cold War era. Among its many virtues, The Nonconformists moves us away from a US-centric literary history and toward one that attends carefully to the cross-cultural networks that extended across the Iron Curtain.
Beautifully written and imaginatively conceived, The Nonconformists brilliantly captures the ambiguities of moral witness in the era of Cold War literary dissent. Goodman takes us on a grand literary tour showing how the transnational encounters between such towering figures as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, Václav Havel, and Milan Kundera were foundational for the emergence of a new global human rights order in the late twentieth century.
Groundbreaking and highly original. Goodman’s meticulous archival research and his capacious familiarity with the latest research in Czech and American studies is impressive. Even more so is his ability to stitch together what might initially seem to be adjacent case studies into a deep fabric of transnational intellectual history.
- 368 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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