William J. Maxwell's provocative F.B. Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature probes the FBI’s “institutionalized fascination” with black authors like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. Here, Maxwell delves into the FBI's dossier on James Baldwin--at 1,884 pages, it was the largest one on file--and the unlikely FBI literary criticism that emerged from studying Baldwin's books.
J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director synonymous with his crime-fighting organization for nearly fifty years, once returned a Bureau memo on James Baldwin with a leering, handwritten challenge. “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?,” Hoover scrawled in his distinctive blue ink. Despite the career-threatening context, M. A. Jones, an officer of the FBI Crime Records Section, answered Hoover’s marginal question by carefully distinguishing between fictional and personal testimonies. “It is not a matter of official record that [Baldwin] is a pervert,” Jones specified, even though “the theme of homosexuality has figured prominently in two of his three published novels. Baldwin has stated that it is also ‘implicit’ in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the past, he has not disputed the description of ‘autobiographical’ being attached to the first book.” “While it is not possible to state that he is pervert,” Jones bravely concluded, Baldwin “has expressed a sympathetic viewpoint about homosexuality on several occasions, and a very definite hostility toward the revulsion of the American public regarding it.”
Hoover did not glide gently into agreement with Jones's subtle distinctions among sexual acts, sympathies, and representations. He and less enlightened FBI informants continued to protest higher education’s embrace of a Baldwin novel they mistakenly called Another World, remarkable for its depiction of “a Negro male making love to a white female.” (The 1962 novel Baldwin actually titled Another Country was—with some justice—recast by these informants as a bohemian soap opera.) The Bureau director thus continued to explore ways to ban Baldwin’s book under the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter statute—this despite the report of the Justice Department’s General Crimes Section that “Another Country by James Baldwin has been reviewed…and it has been concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior.” With rival units in the federal government discovering the novel’s redeeming social importance, it was left to Hoover and likeminded Bureau sticklers to contemplate Another Country’s resemblance to the landmarks of modernist obscenity. “In many aspects it is similar to the Tropics books by [Henry] MILLER,” wrote Washington, D.C.’s Special Agent in Charge, or SAC. For this reason, perhaps, the SAC conspicuously instructed that his borrowed copy “need not be returned” to his office.
Blurb-worthy praise is not the norm in the 1,884-page Baldwin dossier and the rest of the fifty-one FBI files on African American writers I have collected since 2006, submitting more than a hundred Freedom of Information Act requests along the way. The General Crimes Section looks to be a better source of pull quotes applauding “literary merit” and “value to students of psychology and social behavior.” Yet the surprising thoughtfulness of Jones’s reply to Hoover’s question, its outstripping of the need to label, discipline, and punish, illustrates the grudging respect Bureau readers felt for the writers they spied on. Hoover himself possessed an inflated fear and regard for the authors who doubled as “thought-control relay stations,” as he liked to imagine them. Authors/relay stations of prominence, W. E. B. Du Bois included, were sometimes spared in-person interviews by Bureau agents because of their “access to the subversive press,” a megaphone whose range the FBI valued and exaggerated. Despite Hoover’s notorious hostility to Dr. Martin Luther King and the rest of the black freedom movement, the encounters of his FBI with African American writing could not, in fact, always resist the pleasures of the enemy text.
Recently liberated FBI author files disclose that Bureau Special Agents succumbed to the spell of black literature in several genres. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1,020-page Bureau opus, for example, reveals that an anonymous Philadelphia G-Man sent to appraise A Raisin in the Sun even before it reached Broadway discovered a drama worthy of first-rate character analysis. The receptive insight of this agent’s detailed review—it would receive a non-inflated “A” in many college English classes—flowed from inspiration beyond the call of police duty. With its swelling existential vocabulary, his sketch of Beneatha Younger, an articulately dissatisfied Hansberry character searching for “a means of self-expression and self-identification,” doubles as a confession of his own frustrated literary need. Identifying with Hansberry’s unfulfilled heroine and acting as a kind of G-Man Gustave Flaubert, this reviewer might as well have admitted that Mademoiselle Younger, c’est moi.
The similarly thick FBI file of Amiri Baraka, a founder of the militant Black Arts movement and the most influential black author of the 1960s, contains a frankly titled “Book Review” of Black Fire, the agenda-setting anthology he co-edited with Larry Neal in 1968. G. C. Moore, an FBI Associate Director and designated critic of the collection, accepted the principle of racially distinct modes of art appreciation, the first rule of Black Arts criticism. Black Fire “obviously was…not written for the minds of white critics,” he admitted. But racial distance could not prevent this stimulated white reviewer from issuing both praise and damnation. Moore excitedly describes a “flaming indictment of American prejudice” paired with a “love of all things black—black people, black traditions, black voices, black art, and black futures.” The anthology’s “ample servings of filth” and “‘far out’…method of presentation,” he judges, are balanced by a handful of “works [which] tend to have an energy that succeeds in impressing one with the violence and passion of the author’s emotions.” Moore ends with his finger on the scale, emphasizing Black Fire’s ultimate failure: “the expression never achieves the precision and control which are the hallmarks of successful art.” Even this attack, however, rests on aesthetic grounds, not criminological ones. In the end, Black Fire’s contributors are cleared of tight-knit plans for urban violence and convicted of emotionally sloppy romanticism.
More literary evaluations and surrenders on the part of FBI agents could be listed, but the point has been made: the Bureau’s extensive files on African American authors are, among other things, weird but unmistakable works of literary criticism. The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports and the less interesting paperwork of a massive police bureaucracy. It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers. By the same token, the FBI agents who supplied these files with literary notes and queries qualify as genuine critic-spies. In my book, the “G” in the FBI’s iconic G-Man rightfully stands not just for “government,” but also for “ghostreading,” a secretive literary business that, like ghostwriting, can be measured after the fact if not always caught in the act.