The Nonconformists

American and Czech Writers across the Iron Curtain

Author Brian Goodman

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.


Brian Goodman is an assistant professor in the Department of English ASU, where he is also a faculty affiliate of the Center for Jewish Studies and the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

Praise for this book

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.

Michelle Woods Author of "Kafka Translated"

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.

Wai Chee Dimock Author of "Weak Planet"