- F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature by William J. Maxwell
In his fascinating and impeccably researched study, William J. Maxwell details the long arc of the FBI’s obsession with African American culture. Drawing on 14,000 pages of recently released files, Maxwell made systematic Freedom of Information Act requests for declassified files on fifty-one individual writers to analyze the methods and effects of the FBI’s secretive, but not invisible, ghostreading. The book begins with the convergence of the Harlem renaissance and Hoover’s Bureau career (1919) and extends through the Black Nationalist period and Hoover’s death (1972), concluding with a discussion of the post-Hoover aftereffects. As Maxwell ironically observes, the G-Men were among the closest readers of African American literature over this long period, becoming so well versed that the Bureau produced a threatening counterliterature of its own. Not only did the FBI influence the reception of black literature, but it also inspired a creative response among black writers who wrote back to the ghostreaders. Maxwell takes his title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues” (1949). The book is structured by five theses, with each thesis constituting a chapter.
Thesis/Chapter 1 is, “The Birth of the Bureau, Coupled with the Birth of J. Edgar Hoover, Ensured the FBI’s Attention to African American Literature.” What Maxwell calls “lit.-cop federalism” under Hoover’s direction built the FBI into “a very ambitious library, publisher, critic, and author-function” (43). The young Hoover had held a curatorial position in the Library of Congress, giving him the experience to realize the Bureau’s ambitions to create a criminological equivalent to the LOC. In 1919, the Bureau published Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications, which, Maxwell notes, “is one of the better anthologies of early New Negro poetry” because of its extensive citations (55). [End Page 108]
Chapter 2 explores the next thesis: “The FBI’s Aggressive Filing and Long Study of African American Writers Was Tightly Bound to the Agency’s Successful Evolution under Hoover.” The Bureau’s campaign against the threat of Afro-Modernity intensified when Hoover ascended to the directorship in 1924. As Maxwell points out, Hoover “shared the modernist avant-garde’s extravagant estimation of the artist’s ability to order minds in a fallen world” (73). This belief in the power of art, coupled with Hoover’s belief that African Americans as a race were particularly susceptible to the seductions of radical expression, helps to explain the depth and duration of an obsession with black modernist writers—an obsession marked by intense fear, awe, and admiration. Hoover, in turn, inspired admiration among political leaders and Hollywood celebrities; Franklin Roosevelt and Ginger Rogers enjoyed being photographed with him. In fact, because of Roosevelt’s support the FBI’s authority steadily increased.
Hoover’s antiradicalism began in the 1920s in a campaign against the New Negro of the Harlem renaissance, morphed in the 1940s to a focus on black internationalism and a fixation on communism, and then settled on the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism. The most extensive file of the Black Nationalism era was James Baldwin’s, which included 1,884 pages. All the while, the biggest threat to black aesthetics and creativity emerged from what Maxwell refers to as “COINTELPRO minstrelsy” (123).
The book’s third thesis/chapter, “The FBI Is Perhaps the Most Dedicated and Influential Forgotten Critic of African American Literature,” examines a fascinating face off between the FBI and the CIA. Maxwell ingeniously describes their different methods in terms of dueling forms of academic literary criticism, with the FBI’s biographical historicism, which typified academic criticism of the first three decades of the twentieth century, and the CIA’s “Yale-rooted” New Critical formalism (131). Although the Bureau incorporated New Critical methods, Maxwell argues that it never entirely broke away from “the siren call of Marxian ideology critique” of the 1930s—in an...