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  • Government Intrusion and the Afro-Modernist ExperienceA review of William J. Maxwell, F.B.Eyes. How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature
  • Todd Hoffman (bio)
Maxwell, William J. F.B.Eyes. How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015.

William J. Maxwell’s exhaustively researched and compelling study uncovers and interprets the complicated history of the relation between African American literature and the J. Edgar Hoover-led Federal Bureau of Investigations. Maxwell examines 51 FBI files requested through the Freedom of Information Act on prominent African American writers. In reviewing the literally thousands of pages of records on those 51 figures who comprise what Maxwell broadly calls “Afro-modernism”—namely, the arts beginning with the Harlem Renaissance and ending with the Black Arts Movement—Maxwell wishes not only to point to the obsessive and intrusive monitoring of twentieth-century African American arts and their key producers, but the ironic intimacy that formed between these two dissimilar communities as a result of their “depth of contact” through literature (6). Maxwell states: “my overarching aim is to read the files responsively as well as judgmentally, and to reconstruct rather than prosecute the meddling of the FBI in Afro-modernist letters, a collision of dissimilar cultural forces wrongly assumed to occupy disconnected worlds” (15). The result is a multi-dimensional book covering a range of critical topics all governed by the central thesis that government invasion, surveillance, and manipulation of the Afro-modernist community and African Americans more generally was strangely a dialectical process of asymmetrical reinforcement through mutual hostility and suspicion. Maxwell concludes through a set of five theses that Hoover’s construction of the FBI directly corresponds with his methods of monitoring the literary output of Afro-modernism, at once indirectly shaping the evolution of various Afro-modernist aesthetics, offering American literary works (and African-American literature particularly) sustained critical attention and, through continual meddling and manipulation, directly participating in the construction of the internationalist character of Afro-modernism.

In order to elucidate the forces at work in the interaction between Afro-modernism and the FBI, Maxwell’s book takes on an unusual heteroglossic form, ranging over a variety of topics written with a kind of bifurcated authorial persona, as if Maxwell were trying to target both an academic audience and a lay audience. For instance, Maxwell may casually and somewhat loosely invoke Foucault or Agamben, defining key theoretical terms that are well known to academics when he’s in popular historical narrative mode. Here it feels as if his primary audience is not so much the academic as the interested lay person. At other times he engages in fairly rigorous theoretical exposition, invoking current academic debates and providing context that seems directed to fellow academics. The book covers a diverse range of topics too. Among them: a history of New Criticism that elucidates the interpretive tactics often prevalent in the CIA in contradistinction to the FBI’s more ideologically minded approach; an overview of current trans-nationalist theory used to discuss key distinctions between the nation and the state and their various repressive regimes; a popular biography of Hoover and several other key FBI figures; historical overviews in the mode of popular history of key evolutionary moments in the FBI, including its on-again, off-again relationship with the Executive branch and with spy agencies and its adaptation to major events or periods; and formalist readings of bureaucratic documents side-by-side with readings of poems and novels. Each of these often lengthy contextualizing frames can make one forget the central topic, namely, Afro-modernists and the FBI, because the subject of FBI surveillance of Afro-modernism drops out of the discussion for many pages at a time. However, these contexts are also fascinating in their own right and crucial to and enlarge the story at hand. In other words, while the thesis concerns the FBI/Afromodernist correlation, the story gives the FBI and Afro-modernists the status of fully developed “characters,” complete with psychological idiosyncrasies and insecurities. When Maxwell returns us to the main subject at hand, he is deftly able to move us back to the primary subject...

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