F.B. EYES: HOW J. EDGAR HOOVER’S GHOSTREADERS FRAMED AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE
By William J. Maxwell
Princeton University Press. 367 pages. £19.95. ISBN 978-0-691-13020-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There was nothing new about the FBI’s surveillance of writers when black authors started to come to their attention. William J. Maxwell notes that, as early as 1911, a file was opened on Ezra Pound. And a few years later John Reed, famous for Ten Days That Shook The World, a classic study of the Russian Revolution, and a contributor to The Masses, a radical magazine eventually suppressed by the United States government in 1917, was seen as suspicious enough to warrant being watched and his activities noted in the FBI’s files. You only need to read books like Herbert Mittgang’s Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America’s Greatest Authors (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989) and Natalie Robins’ Alien Ink: The FBI’S War on Freedom of Expression (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1993) to realise how much time and effort was spent by the security services in recording not only what writers wrote, but also what they said and did when not tapping away at their typewriters.
I suppose it’s true enough to say that, bearing in mind how many white writers were watched in one way or another, black poets and novelists could hardly claim to have been singled out for attention. Or could they? Maxwell makes something of a special case for suggesting that it wasn’t just a matter of black writers being “subversive,” and that race played a big part in determining whether or not a writer became subject to surveillance. And he narrates how J. Edgar Hoover displayed racist tendencies when young and that his “pursuit of racial distinction” possibly stemmed from the fact that there was a possibility of “racial impurity” in his background, and he needed to compensate for this by overtly indicating that he wasn’t sympathetic towards black ambitions. This might explain why, in Hoover’s eyes, black militancy seemed almost as dangerous as communism.
“Militancy,” of course, can be expressed in various ways, and some people might well think that a new-found confidence on the part of blacks, as expressed, for example, in novels, plays, and poems, could be seen as a form of militancy: “Before The Red Radical Movement raised its eerie head, Hoover lent his archive’s authorial services to Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications, a twenty-six page narrative written and released in 1919.” Maxwell says it was “the American state’s earliest acknowledgement of the Harlem Renaissance,” and it “prepared the Bureau to read such African American manifestos as matters of national gravity.” There are some fascinating details provided by Maxwell about the way in which, under Hoover’s guidance, the FBI’s hunt for suspicious literature led to the organisation amassing thousands of documents – “every little paper they could get hold of,” in the words of one radical rounded up in the infamous Palmer raids of 1919. When it came to black writers, “The Bureau’s spy-readers scanned every issue of the ground-breaking Harlem Renaissance journals.” The magazines concerned provided the basis for comments in Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications, and the FBI publication ironically might well have been “one of the better anthologies of early New Negro poetry,” and in advance of anthologies edited by black writers.
It would seem that FBI interest in black writers did slacken off with the onset of the Great Depression in the early-1930s. Which is not to suggest that individuals weren’t still kept track of. But it was largely politics that determined who was watched as the Communist Party came to the fore. Both blacks and whites were deemed worthy of systematic documenting of their writing and activities if they were involved with radical organisations or appeared to make statements that challenged the status quo. It’s moving ahead a little, but the black poet, A.B.Spellman, later turned up on FBI lists because he had signed various petitions. If this was happening later it’s reasonable to assume it also took place earlier. Maxwell comments that “Hoover and many lesser FBI ghostreaders pored over scores of Afro-modernist poems, plays, stories, novels, essays, and reviews – some even before publication with the aid of bookish informers at magazines and publishing firms.” There’s a close inspection by Maxwell of the records relating to Claude McKay, author of Home to Harlem, Banjo, and other accounts of black life. His file contains “memoranda carefully transcribing and typifying his sonnets and other Standard English poetry; field notes from Bureau spies assigned to tail him around Manhattan; accounts of his foreign political speeches compiled by U.S. legations in Europe,” and much more. McKay had attracted attention over the years, especially with one of his poems, “If We Must Die,” which the FBI described as “a much-quoted poem about the negro with his back against the wall and fighting to the death.” It does occur to me that the FBI files and their libraries of books and magazines, assuming they still exist, would probably be a godsend to researchers trying to track down obscure publications and account for someone’s movements. When Maxwell discusses Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones, as he was known in the 1950s and early-1960s) it’s noted that the FBI’s file “accurately checklists his complicated small-press publication history” in order to find out what the poet and playwright was saying. Anyone who has experience of researching little magazines and small-presses will know how difficult it is to sometimes obtain their publications, which makes me again think that the FBI might be an ideal source. Maxwell may have a point when he claims that “The FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature.”
It’s noteworthy, too, that the FBI’s investigations didn’t just focus on fairly established or well-known black writers. I was intrigued to find that Bob Kaufman, a poet associated with the Beat community in San Francisco, and with collections of his poems published by City Lights Books and New Directions, had come to the notice of the FBI due to his activities as a radical “of the waterfront.” He had spent years at sea and had presumably been a member of the left-wing National Maritime Union. His file states that he was said to have been “expelled from the CP for degeneracy,” though it’s not indicated what that meant. Kaufman, who had his share of troubles with the San Francisco police during his Beat years in the city, was thus on record as a suspicious character long before he associated with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others. And there was Ray Durem, another black poet and veteran of the Spanish Civil War. I have a little book of his, Take No Prisoners, though it doesn’t include a poem called “Award (A Gold Watch to the FBI Man who has followed me for 25 years).” But it does have his caustic poem about the San Francisco beat scene which opens with the line, “I have seen the smallest minds of my generation,” and concludes, “Man, like,/when you tire of pot/try thought.” The so-called “rebellion” of the Beats must have seemed quite tame to someone like Durem with his background as a black communist and a fighter in Spain, not to mention his harassment by the FBI. As Nelson Algren once sarcastically remarked, no-one was ever likely to be asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a Beatnik?”
One of the most interesting sections in F.B. Eyes deals with the black writers who moved to Paris, partly to get away from the racism evident in the United States, partly to try to escape attention from the FBI. The group included James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright, along with others who may not now be remembered. These latter included Richard Gibson, Ollie Harrington, and William Gardner Smith. But whatever else Paris offered it did not necessarily seem to be a basis for friendship and some form of community support. The United States Embassy in the city was said to employ a number of agents who frequented the bars and cafes in order to pick up information about any subversive activity on the part of the expatriates. If something could be proved against an individual it could lead to a refusal to renew his passport. This led to doubts and suspicions about who the agents were, and people began to suspect each other. “Everybody thought everybody else was informing on someone or other for somebody,” Maxwell quotes an observer as saying of the atmosphere at the Tournon, a bar frequented by blacks in Paris. Richard Wright was suspected of informing on his fellow-blacks in order to ensure that his own passport would be renewed. According to Maxwell, there was some truth in the suggestion that he was co-operating with the State Department, though the information he gave related to Africans rather than African Americans. Wright, now in an anti-communist mood, claimed to be concerned about the spread of Marxism in Ghana. Other African Americans, such as Ollie Harrington and Richard Gibson, were also said to have provided information to the authorities. And there was the “Gibson Affair,” the details of which Maxwell describes as “mysteriously contradictory.” It seemed to revolve around a 1957 letter to Life magazine which condemned French rule in Algeria. Ollie Harrington’s signature was on the letter, but it had been forged by Richard Gibson. Attention was thus drawn to Harrington who was in Paris illegally. This isn’t the place to spell out all the facts relating to this matter, but Maxwell’s account is worth reading. James Campbell also looked at the “Affair” in his Paris Interzone ( Secker & Warburg, 1994). It’s perhaps of relevance to note that Chester Himes’s novel, A Case of Rape, had characters closely based on many of the black writers who frequented the Tournon.
FBI surveillance, and what can only be referred to as interference, certainly increased in the 1960s when black militancy (Black Power, the Civil Rights Movement) became more demonstrative. The Black Arts Repertory Theatre School (BARTS) earned itself a 141-page FBI file (Maxwell says that 40 of the pages are still suppressed) and seems to have been infiltrated by informers almost from the start. When it eventually collapsed after less than a year Amiri Baraka, the driving force behind the School, was convinced that the FBI’s exploitation of ideological differences among the staff had been one of the prime causes of its failure.
Maxwell discusses the role of the CIA in monitoring the activities of black writers and refers to the fact that the organisation often looked on FBI agents in a patronising, if not an outright contemptuous way: “Hoover’s dark-suited G-Men were snobbishly dismissed by OSS types as “Irish-Catholic Texans from second-rate law schools,” the OSS being the wartime precursor of the CIA. And there were disputes about the limits of each organisation’s areas of operations. Hoover always insisted that the FBI had the right to check on black writers even when they were located in a city like Paris. Overseas operations were usually deemed to be the responsibility of the CIA. But the CIA did keep files on black writers, as for example the African American novelist Julian Mayfield who functioned as a speech-writer for Kwame Nkrumah. Maxwell says that the CIA’s interest in Mayfield was “sensitive enough to be censored in full even today.”
Before leaving the CIA it might be of interest to mention that it played a greater role in cultural matters than the FBI. Several CIA operatives established reputations as novelists – Maxwell refers to William J. Buckley, E. Howard Hunt, Peter Matthiessen, and others – and James Jesus Angleton, who became Chief of the Agency’s Counter-Intelligence Staff, was a Yale graduate who, in his younger days, had edited Furioso, a little magazine that published Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Lawrence Durrell, and Wallace Stevens. It wasn’t just another small publication destined to disappear into oblivion after a few issues, and Maxwell makes the point that it earned a place in literary histories and was reprinted in later years. Bearing in mind facts like these it’s easy to understand why the CIA could be dismissive of the cultural competence of Hoover and his G-Men. After all, the CIA financially aided publications like Encounter and Partisan Review, promoted exhibitions by the Abstract Expressionists as examples of the dynamism of American art, and backed foreign tours by jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong in what were envisaged as goodwill gestures. Maxwell mentions these exhibitions and tours, though without delving into how the artists and musicians were chosen. Some of the Abstract Expressionists had previous links to the Left, and Dizzy Gillespie may have flirted with the Communist Party in the late-1930s, though it doesn’t appear to have been held against them. And abstract art and jazz were hard to identify as dangerous. Perhaps writers were seen as more-subversive, using words that could be critical of the USA? Maxwell suggests that the FBI tried to stop black writers from travelling abroad when they could in order to limit their opportunities to comment on racial and political policies in the United States. And the organisation was prepared to use personal as well as political reasons for denying an application for a passport. Willard Motley, author of novels like Knock on Any Door and We Fished All Night, had moved to Mexico, but was still subject to surveillance and reports from informers, one of who stated that he’d heard Motley celebrating the Communist Party and shouting “Down with the United States.” When Motley wanted to re-enter the USA his application was rejected, not because of his membership of the Party but “as a result of the extremely derogatory information developed against the subject’s moral character that reflects that Motley was a homosexual.”
It was not just that the FBI tracked black writers, checked their publications, attempted to stop them travelling, and generally tried to make things difficult for them. Many of the writers were also entered on the FBI “Custodial Detention” list. This had details of all those who, in Hoover’s opinion, were “affiliated with organisations engaged in activities on behalf of a foreign nation, participation in dangerous subversive movements, advocacy of the Government by force and violence, et cetera.” The “et cetera” was, as Maxwell points out, meant to give the FBI authority to round-up and detain anyone they thought suspicious in a period of emergency. The list of those liable for detention was extensive and black writers featured in it prominently. Maxwell says that there were 26,000 names on the list and that it survived in secret until 1976. Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Ray Durem, W.E.B. Du Bois, Lloyd Brown (a Communist Party member linked to the magazines New Masses and Masses and Mainstream, and author of the prison novel, Iron City) and Langston Hughes, would all have been interned.
It’s obvious that FBI actions did have an effect on individual writers, but was there a more general impact, one that might be said to have compromised the production of novels, poems, etc? Maxwell says that the “specifically literary effects of FBI surveillance might be measured in slippery but provocative metrics of silencing: the number of novels abandoned or banned from bookstores or libraries; the number of early radical poems unreprinted or apologised for; the number of whole literary careers shortened or never started.” He agrees that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify such matters. And he adds: “But what about the consequences of more subtle methods of FBI suppression, the damage done when the aura or potential of state censorship promotes self-censorship?”
There is a lot of interesting information in F.B. Eyes, though I occasionally had the feeling that it was in danger of being lost when Maxwell inclines towards theorising and gets close to slipping into academic jargon. But he discusses various novels intelligently and draws attention to neglected black writers. The book also has useful notes and a good bibliography.
A couple of minor points to close with. The title of his book derives from a satirical poem by Richard Wright who wrote: “Woke up this morning/FB eye under my bed/Said I woke up this morning/FB eye under my bed/Told me all I dreamed last night, every word I said.” And on pages 63/64 there’s a reference to the International Workers of the World (IWW) which made me clutch my Little Red Songbook in surprise. The IWW were, and still are, the Industrial Workers of the World.