Peace Corps Writers
Writers from the Peace Corps (page 3)
Writers from the Peace Corps
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Bibliography of
Peace Corps Writers

The Ugly Peace Corps Volunteer
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 in creating the Peace Corps, as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her history of the Peace Corps, All You Need Is Love.
     In a “Factual Epilogue” to the novel, Lederer and Burdick lay out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be the Peace Corps. Writing about how America should “help” developing countries, the authors declare:

    We do not need the horde of 1,500,000 Americans — mostly amateurs — who are now working for the United States overseas. 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 hero in The Ugly American is 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.
     John F. Kennedy and others in his presidential campaign, including such Peace Corps founders as Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, and Bill Moyers had read the book and responded to what Lederer and Burdick wrote about the ineptitude of American foreign policy.
     By January 1959, Kennedy had sent this book to every member of the 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 Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. It was in this final presidential campaign speech that 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 . . . .”
     One inspiration for the idea of a Peace Corps that Kennedy mentioned were the 10,000 students who had gathered at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan. These students heard his extemporaneous remarks about volunteering for overseas service and immediately began a grass-roots petition across Midwest campuses that generated thousands of signatures of support from college students. America, Kennedy said in San Francisco, was “full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way.”
     Like the writers and artists of the 1920s who fled America, the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, were seeking to give voice to their own discontent here at home. It was a discontent that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into when he ran for the presidency in the last year of the decade.

A New Frontier
Kennedy’s call to serve and his campaign theme of a “new frontier” appealed to the romantic impulse of many Volunteers. While social historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that our frontier was closed by the 1890s, America still responded to a hero, a lone hero against a corrupt world. This lone hero was dramatized during the 1950s in two classic western movies, “Shane” and “High Noon.” And like Alan Ladd in “Shane,” Peace Corps Volunteers still ride off into the sunset, saddlebags packed with idealism and a yearning for adventure, and the writers among them seek new experiences to write home about.

An edge and an itch
In my years of watching people join the Peace Corps, I have found that the most obvious PCV candidates are those who have an edge about them. They want more — whatever the more is — and are not satisfied with what America has to offer them here at home.
     And the writers (and would-be writers) among these Volunteers go abroad because they want something to write about. The Peace Corps experience gives them that “something.”
     We were all overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited us when we stepped off the plane. No one could have prepared a typical American for the ways of life in developing countries. But after the initial culture shock there was a richness of experience that the more talented writers could turn into vivid prose. It was raw material waiting to be shaped into books.
     Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened to him. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material.

    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.

     
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