G-Men as Literary Critics

By Gayle RogersJanuary 7, 2015

F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature by William J. Maxwell

DISCOVERING LINKS between famous literary figures and shadowy government entities — the CIA, FBI, MI6 — is a proven way to raise eyebrows and perk up ears. What could be more intriguing than imagining G-Men spying on and perhaps persecuting our beloved literary icons? The declassification of Cold War–era files and some sporadic successes with Freedom of Information Act requests have provided (however slowly) a steady stream of cloak-and-dagger fodder for scholars. The line between genuinely revelatory findings and tendentious or even sensationalistic claims, however, has become rather blurry: Andrew Rubin’s stretched assertions about the CIA’s role in making world literature seem less provocative and often quite unsurprising, while in a much-discussed article, Eric Bennett made a thin and circuitous case for how the CIA helped “flatten” American literature by way of its support for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The concern lingering in the background of this fascination is how we measure real-world effects on art. J. Edgar Hoover spied on tens of thousands of Americans, but not all of them saw their careers destroyed or even their literature censored. (He even had a file on the famous University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.) We have a tendency to imagine a powerful puppet master pulling the strings of global culture, but there’s not much evidence to support it — as is made clear by Greg Barnhisel, whose even-handed and rigorous new book Cold War Modernists is the definitive study of the CIA’s efforts at cultural diplomacy. After all, while canons have often reflected nationalist and statist ideologies, if governments really had their way, we’d all be praising the nuanced musical textures of John Philip Sousa’s patriotic marches. The Hollywood Ten and Paul Robeson were exceptional, not normal, cases, and in plenty of cases, the government’s agencies were tripping over their own feet.

Even notorious connections — such as the discovery that the journal Encounter was partially funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (a CIA front) — produced more of a whimper than a bang for scholars, given the lack of diplomatic fingerprints on the magazine’s content. So we must ask: if we were to discover that someone at South End Press, which has published some of Noam Chomsky’s most strident critiques of US foreign policy, once had a suspicious coffee with a G-Man, do we start investigating the ways in which the famous dissident’s work was necessarily compromised, or working in service of other, nefarious ends?

The question of how best to understand the relationship between art and government agency is the subject of several recent works. A standout is Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist, which recovers the careers of black writers such as Lloyd Brown and Alice Childress, who have been lost to literary history because of their persecution, and whose works force us to reconsider some central idées reçues about African-American writing. William J. Maxwell’s new book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, tells a complementary and immensely important story about the black authors that we thought we knew, from the “notorious negro revolutionary” Claude McKay to the Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez. With an approach that is both empirical — Maxwell has pored over thousands of pages of government files — and Foucauldian in its inquiry into historical concepts, F.B. Eyes reveals the canon of modern black literature to have been powerfully and dialogically shaped by Hoover’s ghostreaders.

The strong connections between black writers, the civil rights movement, and the international left in the 20th century are now well known — thanks to the work of scholars such as Barbara Foley, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Maxwell himself. But what if we have taken for granted (or worse, treated as autonomous) the very formations “black,” “left,” and “literature” that have been used to analyze these large swaths of cultural history? While the categories and concepts of race, political affiliation, and literature itself have always been shifting, pressed upon by forces from all sides, we have rarely considered the government a conceptual player in this field. Hoover and his men, that is, could not simply divert, undermine, or censor literature, because “literature” as such was not a solid thing. Instead, they were figures who intervened multifariously in a formation that is still in dynamic revision.

Maxwell proposes five theses that both elaborate the untold stories he assembles and speak to the contemporary state of criticism on “Afro-modernist” writing. They are:

  1. The Birth of the Bureau, Coupled with the Birth of J. Edgar Hoover, Ensured the FBI’s Attention to African American Literature

  2. The FBI’s Aggressive Filing and Long Study of African American Writers Was Tightly Bound to the Agency’s Successful Evolution under Hoover

  3. The FBI Is Perhaps the Most Dedicated and Influential Forgotten Critic of African American Literature

  4. The FBI Helped to Define the Twentieth-Century Black Atlantic, Both Blocking and Forcing Its Flows

  5. Consciousness of FBI Ghostreading Fills 
a Deep and Characteristic Vein of African American Literature

Each is well supported, and #3 and #5 turn out to be the most provocative for scholars of critical history. We first learn that it was Hoover himself, rumored at the time to have been of mixed race, who initially and fiercely yoked together anticommunism and “New Negrophobia” (a suspicion of the politics of the New Negro movement) at the Bureau. The report Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications was issued in 1919, just when Hoover took over the infamous Radical Division. The FBI never blinked in its surveillance of black radicals — and plenty of moderates, too — all the way through 1972, where Maxwell’s study ends. By Maxwell’s evidence and estimation, around half of the famous, anthologized figures of 20th-century black writing were surveilled, Maxwell writes, “with both severity and the sincerest form of flattery.”

But to what effect? Here is where Maxwell, who speaks personally at times and addresses contemporary politics, offers his most valuable work. He is eager not to cast himself as the “scholar-detective” to be lauded for his “tenacious sleuthing” — a role, he points out, that replicates the ideals of the G-Men. Indeed, he admits that “proof of book-killing, stop-the-presses FBI censorship of Afro-modernist literature is thin on the ground.” Rather, the presence of Hoover’s ghostreaders surfaces as an effect in the ways that black writers engaged them as they simultaneously engaged the law, race relations, love and sexuality, global politics, and every other topic. This occurred because Hoover’s FBI, for Maxwell, was an institution of literary criticism. The Bureau’s in-house critics, a few of the most prominent English department ABDs, provided capsule summaries of texts and performances, political readings of themes that would range in quality from freshman-level to professorial, and invested overwhelmingly in the person behind the text — in “biohistoricism.” Radicalism and Sedition, for example, “prominently annotated early Harlem Renaissance poetry as a siren song of treason.” Maxwell reprints elsewhere a sample from the file on Frank Marshall Davis, which shows an amateurish game of compare and contrast on the part of Hoover’s ghostreader: in a two-column page, excerpts from Davis’s “Frankly Speaking” are read against the “CP Line.”

FBI ghostreaders also circulated their own texts of racialized ventriloquism. One of the most infamous forms, dubbed “COINTELPRO Minstrelsy” by Maxwell, came during the clandestine assault on “Black Hate” groups in the late 1960s. Here, the FBI created an internal “national writer’s workshop” in an effort to fulfill its longstanding “desire to spawn a literature of its own.” Maxwell quotes from a fake letter (penned by an FBI agent) from prison to a Black Panther headquarters:

Around the first part of Feb[ruary] I was locked up at the local pigpen with this dude who told me he was a Panther […] told me [his visitors] were his lawyers but they smelled like pig to me. … You don’t know me and I’m not a Panther but I want to help with the cause when I can.

In a bald attempt at Marxist-manifesto language, the letter is signed, “A lumpen brother.” Through such files, we gain not only a full picture of the “similarities between ghostreaders and academic literary critics, two classes of interpreters fond of decryption, identity theft, and (often enough) hermeneutics of suspicion” in their efforts to decipher coded political themes, but also a stronger sense of the continuities between white racialized performance in the 20th century and FBI techniques.

This is only half of the story, though. Afro-modernists, in turn, responded to the Bureau’s readings by inventing new aesthetics, forms, and vocabularies. Richard Wright’s poem that lends its name to Maxwell’s title, “The FB Eye Blues” (1949), captures this phenomenon most vividly. Afro-modernists “collaborated” with the FBI, Maxwell demonstrates, to ensure that government surveillance and literary-critical intervention remained an open secret. By the time of the Black Arts movement, writers’ engagements with the FBI became so pronounced that the “Hoover Poem” emerged as a subgenre of its own. The result of Maxwell’s genealogy of the “impulse to dramatize the problem of FBI ghostreading” in Afro-modernist writing is a refreshing conception of politicized black literature beyond the political spats between Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison (who included G-Men in his draft of Invisible Man). Maxwell neither listens exclusively to black voices to articulate literary blackness nor relies on discredited theories of race to draw boundaries; he sees a varied set of energies pushing and pulling the Afro-modernism into unpredictable shapes in which black literature looks refreshingly strange.

To see African-American literature from this period as produced fundamentally in collaboration with the FBI seems at once heretical and promising. (We learn that Walter White, the longtime leader of the NAACP, actually maintained friendly private correspondence with Hoover.) Maxwell’s conceptualization goes beyond themes and texts, beyond volition too. His chapter on the black Atlantic illustrates how the networks and nodes of black internationalism — the well-known maps of pan-Africanism, transnational race consciousness, or immigrations patterns — were in part created by the FBI, who served as the traffic cop for these routes. Cooperating with global surveillance agencies and with the Wilson-era Travel Control Act of 1918, the Bureau used tactics like house arrest and confiscated passports to limit the very international mobility that many black writers idealized in their formulations of Black Paris. (Hoover’s men also entertained an ultimately failed “strategy to re Americanize” Du Bois.) In this light, Afro-modernist translations appear to be not only the transnational literary pursuits prized by contemporary scholars, but also necessary means of expression from within constrained, monitored spaces.

F.B. Eyes is written for both an academic and lay audience; for that reason, an academic reader wishes for fewer repetitions and easy turns of phrase and more rigorous argument on the connections Maxwell wishes to make between the censorship of Elizabethan sonnets and McKay’s preference for that seemingly anti-modernist form. But this subtracts nothing from the quality of this study. Furthermore, Maxwell has made public all of his sources on a companion website that will prove a vital resource for future scholars and students. In a moment when scholars cast themselves as plucky heroes who battle tirelessly against the repressive, unresponsive state, this book is a welcome model for seeing state interference in culture as a two-way street.


Gayle Rogers is associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

LARB Contributor

Gayle Rogers is professor and associate chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (Columbia, 2016), Modernism and the New Spain (Oxford, 2012), and co-author, with Sean Latham, of Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). He is currently working on a history of the concept of speculation from the medieval era to the present. 


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