During the 1950s, two 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 corporate world.
These books were underscored by Ayn Rand’s philosophy as expressed in such novels as Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Her philosophy of Objectivism proposed reason as man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. Every man, according to Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. Objectivism rejected any form of altruism.
Then in 1958 came 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 creating the Peace Corps.
In a “Factual Epilogue” to their novel, Lederer and Burdick laid out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be realized in the Peace Corps. Writing about how America should “help” developing countries, the authors declared:
What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and—in some cases—their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment, and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.
The book’s hero is such a man, Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping 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. He 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 themselves as well as the country. This desire for adventure, this opportunity not to be the organization man, was an impulse that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into with his campaign theme of a “New Frontier” and the creation of a Peace Corps.
While often overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited them when they stepped off the plane in developing countries, Peace Corps Volunteers, nevertheless, found a richness of experience, and the talented writers among them soon turned these intense experiences into vivid prose.
Paul Theroux, one of the earliest and most successful Peace Corps writers, was a volunteer in Malawi from 1963 to 1965. In an essay published in Sunrise with Seamonsters, he recounts the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material thanks to the Peace Corps.
“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”
In his fiction and non-fiction, Theroux would use his Peace Corps experience in such novels as Girls At Play (1969), and in My Secret History (1984) and My Other Life (1996), as well as in many short stories and travel pieces.
While Theroux was one of the first Volunteers to use his Peace Corps experience as raw material for his creative writing, he was not the only writer to do so.
Since the Peace Corps was established on March 1, 1961, over 166,000 volunteers have served in more than one hundred and twenty countries. More than 500 of these volunteers have published books, many of which have focused on their experience.
The three most 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. Part of his book was excerpted in The New Yorker.
The first commercial “Peace Corps novel” by a PCV is Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. A third of that 1988 novel is set in Cameroon, where Smith served in the mid-sixties. In 1991 Richard Wiley published Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, a novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer 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.
The late novelist, Maria Thomas, used Peace Corps Volunteers as characters in several of her stories in the collection, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and Other Stories, published in 1987; Kathleen Coskran did the same in The High Price of Everything, also published in 1987.
Using their experience as the raw material for their creative writing, these Peace Corps 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.”
For all these writers, their Peace Corps years were a time to learn the rules of another culture, as well as a time to learn about themselves in relation to the world, as well as in relation to the United States.
Novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience “bring the outsider’s perspective, which we’ve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, it’s something we can’t not do.”
Bob Shacochis, author of collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, that won the 1985 American 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 half a century old. It has successfully fulfilled Kennedy’s wish to provide developing countries the talents of men and women, who by their volunteer service, have 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 they 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.