By John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
During the 1950s, two social and political impulses swept across the United States. One impulse that characterized the decade was detailed in two best-selling books of the times, the 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the non-fiction The Organization Man, written by William H. Whyte and published in 1956. These books looked at the “American way of life” and how men got ahead on the job and in society. Both are bleak looks at the mores of the corporate world.
These books were underscored by Ayn Rand’s philosophy as articulated in such novels as Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Every man, philosophized Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.
Then in 1958 came a second impulse first expressed in the novel The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene J. Burdick. This book went through fifty-five printings in two years and was a direct motivation, as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her vivid and important history of the Peace Corps, All You Need Is Love, in establishing the Peace Corps.
The book’s protagonist is, Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping developing societies at a “grassroots level” by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He is called the “ugly” American only because of his grotesque physical appearance. Atkins — played by Marlon Brando in the movie of the same name — lives and works with the local people in Southeast Asia and, by the end of the novel, is beloved and admired by them.
Attracted to the ideas expressed in the novel, Senator John F. Kennedy, by January 1959, had sent The Ugly American to every member of the U.S. Senate, and the ideas expressed in it, i.e., our inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech presidential candidate Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election.
In this final campaign speech Kennedy called for the establishment of a Peace Corps: “I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [foreign aid] be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country . . ..”
Many of the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, rejected “the American way of life” as described by Sloan Wilson, William H. Whyte and Ayn Rand and saw in Kennedy’s challenge a chance to do something for their country.
Since the Peace Corps was established on March 1, 1961, over 280,000 volunteers have served in more than one hundred and thirty countries. More than 1,000 of these volunteers have published books, and more than 650 of those books have focused on their Peace Corps experience.
The first book to draw on the Peace Corps experience was Arnold Zeitlin‘s To the Peace Corps, With Love (1965) that detailed a year of his life in Ghana with the first Peace Corps Volunteers to serve overseas. Zeitlin, an AP reporter, would have a long career as a journalist in the United States and overseas.
Zeitlin’s book would be followed by An African Season, written by Leonard Levitt. The book covers Levitt’s first year of living and teaching in a rural upper-primary school in Tanzania in 1964-65 and was published by Simon & Schuster in 1967.
Paul Theroux, a Volunteer in Malawi from 1963 to 1965, has used his Peace Corps experience in such novels as Girls At Play (1969), My Secret History (1989), My Other Life (1996), and The Lower River (2012), as well as in many short stories and travel pieces.
Three illuminating non-fiction accounts of what is means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer come from three different decades, and three different continents.
In 1969, Moritz Thomsen published Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle of his life as a Peace Corps farmer in Ecuador; Michael Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn is a passionately account of his time as a fish extension worker in Zaire in the nineteen seventies; and in 2001, Peter Hessler published River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, of his two-years teaching English at the Fuling Teachers College.
The first commercial “Peace Corps novel” by a PCV is Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. In 1991 Richard Wiley published Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, a novel set in Korea, Wiley’s country of assignment. Leaving Losapas by Roland Merullo, also published in 1991, is about the life of a Volunteer in Micronesia where Merullo served. Marnie Mueller’s first novel, Green Fires: Assault on Eden, A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rain-Forest, published in 1994, is about a PCV who returns to Ecuador with her new husband.
Using their experience as the raw material for their creative writing, these Peace Corps Volunteers have found that living so intensely in another country and culture has had a profound influence on how they wrote and what they wrote.
Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. “As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality around, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, that’s what I learned”
The experience is also intensely educational. Novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, “it was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.”
Bob Shacochis, author of collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, that won the 1985 National Book Award, characterizes this modern generation of expatriate writers as, “torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the ‘exotic’ as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.”
Today, the Peace Corps is 60 years old. It has successfully fulfilled Kennedy’s wish for Americans to made a difference in the world. What America has also gained through the writings of these volunteers is new understandings of worlds and cultures that most Americans will never see. And by telling their stories, Peace Corps writers have also told the story of how we are perceived in the developing world, a world that has become increasingly more important to all of us here at home.