Snoops in the Reading Room

Against the Current, No. 180, January/February 2016

John Woodford

F.B. Eyes:
How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature
By William J. Maxwell
Princeton University Press, NJ, 2015, 384 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

THE GREAT CONTRIBUTION of this book by William J. Maxwell, associate professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is its documentation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s practice of monitoring, disrupting, infiltrating, intimidating and occasionally indicting the leading writers who wielded their pens against racism in the 20th century.

In case such efforts to curb resistance (“subversion” in FBI lingo) were to prove ineffective in the eyes of the U.S. political establishment, the FBI obtained, like a billy club up its sleeve, the right to imprison in internment camps, without trial, those held guilty of criminal literary speech.

While Maxwell focuses on how such practices targeted creators of African American literature, any and all who united progressive ideology with activist politics that were connected, in some fashion, with Communism or radical nationalism became fair game.

Under a 1939 Custodial Detention policy — which was found unconstitutional in 1943 and thereafter relabeled and repackaged as various kinds of “Security Indexes” (such as “Reserve Index,” “Agitator Index” or “Communist,” “Key Activist,” even “Rabble-Rouser” index”) — 26,000 Americans wound up on the FBI’s “Administrative Index” by 1954.

After researchers exposed the indexes in 1976, four years after FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s death, the feds said they had junked such lists and the plans that generated them. Only the gullible will believe them.

Although U.S. intelligence and the State Department began monitoring Black activists during World War I, this book has its real start in the Red Summer of 1919. That was when Hoover’s rookie efforts pushed the bureau to begin amassing its almost limitless “subversive”-fighting power, swelling its budget and staff by assuring legislators and the public that the writers of the African American freedom movement were as dangerous to Americanism as the gangsters the FBI was chasing down.

Maxwell shows that this anti-literary effort began “with the first signs of the Harlem Renaissance.”

An Army of Snoops

F.B. Eyes tracks the federal snooping in detail: how from 1919 to the mid-1970s, the G-Men compiled dossiers on influential writers; sent informers to take notes on their speeches; threatened to withhold the passports of the most uppity writers (and sometimes did so); enlisted the support of friendly foreign intelligence agencies to monitor expatriate or traveling writers; and intimidated neighbors, friends, relatives and employers of the targeted writers.

By 1972 or so, the use of informers, provocateurs, co-optation and other such means of derailing radicals, especially via the 1967 COINTELPRO operations focused on “Black Nationalist/Hate Groups,” had achieved an internal pax americana that has only recently begun to unravel.

The FBI of course targeted nonblack writers too, but of 144 such authors monitored and written up by FBI snoops, Maxwell found only one, Theodore Dreiser, who was known to have been placed on the Custodial Detention list.

“In comparison,” Maxwell says, “a minimum” of 11 Black writers were slated for imprisonment by the 1940s: George Schuyler, Gwendolyn Bennett, Lloyd Brown, Frank Marshall Davis (President Obama’s one-time mentor), W.E.B. DuBois, Ray Durem, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson Patterson, Theodore Ward and Richard Wright.

Maxwell’s first-hand research and his marshalling of research by other scholars and activists makes this book a trove for writers, activists, scholars and lay people who want to gain insight into the kind of thought and action required to make an anti-democratic power elite shake in their jackboots.

But a reader must gather such insights by reading between the lines of this book and by mining its great bibliography and footnotes. Maxwell seems so dazzled by the FBI’s spycraft that he pays shallow attention to the literary craft that so vexed the federal police and their backers in the White House, Congress, Supreme Court, and most statehouses.

Maxwell tends to present the writers as victims. From my point of view, the writers flushed the government out of its cover, stripping it of its champion-of-democracy camouflage.

Artistry Shortchanged

Take, for example, Maxwell’s treatment of Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications, a 26-page analysis published by the FBI in 1919.

Maxwell magnifies this and other such snooper writing into what he dubs “ghostreading” and “lit.-cop federalism” — terms that denote the compulsive filing and codifying of anti-establishment writings, appraisals of such writings and the few poison pen letters and parodies written by the wanna-be writers on the FBI payroll.

Such responses by the G-Men dominate the book, overshadowing the writings of African Americans who exposed Jim Crow racism to the country and world. The FBI’s activity is simply not as surprising, interesting or impressive as Maxwell makes it out to be. No theoretical dandyism can hide the naked dullness of FBI writings and thought quoted throughout the book.

The “ghost” activities that Maxwell posits are part of what he dubs Total Literary Awareness (TLA, a takeoff on the comprehensive “Total Information Awareness” surveillance program dreamed up in the George W. Bush administration — ed.)

But TLA is not an ultramodern, techno-security spycraft. It’s merely a new bottle for the millennium-old vinegary practice of state surveillance.

Whether run by pharaohs, kings, czars, shahs, presidents, prime ministers, chairmen of central committees — or whatever label for Il Supremo may be in vogue — states have scoured fiction, poetry, plays, movies, speeches, political platforms, trade union demands, barroom and café conversations, and library borrowings for ideological clues that the powers that be wish to monitor as they keep an eye on opponents who might rock their boats.

The main weakness of this book is that Maxwell not only treats TLA, ghostreading and so on as if they were real things, rather than products of his considerable verbal facility and hypertheorizing; perhaps for the sake of ironic humor, he credits them not just with diligent snooping but with literary creativity as well.

Throughout the text, he places before the reader adroit maneuvers of the federal police and spies as if they were on a par with or even engendered the work of African American writers. Readers might conclude that TLA is so awesome that it cannot be effectively resisted.

Here are some headings for chapters in which Maxwell argues for the powers of TLA: “The FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature” (yes, I see the “perhaps,” and I could list a dozen more examples of cutesy rhetorical hedging). Or how about, “The FBI helped to define the 20th-century Black Atlantic, both blocking and forcing its flows.”

Since African-American writers wrote poems and novels with FBI/CIA characters, one section of the book argues that “Consciousness of FBI ghostreading fills a deep and characteristic vein of African American literature.”

Are we to believe that the FBI was an inspiration for Black writers simply because authors such as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Chester Himes and Gloria Naylor devised characters and plots involving FBI and CIA agents? That without the knowledge that they were being spied upon, the writers wells of inspiration would be shallow or empty? By such logic, we would have to give slavocrats credit for co-authorship with the writers who attacked slavery through Abolitionist narratives.

In another section Maxwell indicts New Criticism, the close reading of poetry developed by scholars and poets in the 1940s, as aiding and abetting the CIA and FBI in their passion for finding Communist sentiment in literary texts.

In reality, hireling government snoops from ancient India and Greece, through the Elizabethan and French Revolutionary periods and down to today in China, Pakistan, Iran, the Koreas and so on, can parse texts for literary imagery that may be accused of concealing attacks on those who hold state power. And they can do so with no training in New Criticism.

Writers Against Racism and Capitalism

Lost to the reader who struggles through the book’s theoretical maze are the principles, dedication, sacrifices and indomitable spirit of most of the G-Men’s targets. Yet if you step back and look at those targets, it’s plain to see that they were foes of capitalism, racism and class oppression, and champions of unity among progressives, and of trade union power.

As Maxwell shows in the case of the recently-deceased John A. Williams, some writers shaped the literary products of their imagination so as to inform and inspire their readers to organize and struggle for their democratic rights.

African-American writers wrote against racism, to be sure, but when you look at the book’s roster of FBI targets, you see that the FBI most wanted to squelch those writers who linked racism with capitalism and imperialism. Except in the case of several novels and poems, Maxwell doesn’t delve much into the implications of such attention.

To appreciate the remarkable and inspiring politics that most 20th century African-American writers, and many leading writers of other ethnic backgrounds, championed and fought for during the period Maxwell discusses, readers should see Brian Dolinar’s The Black Cultural Front or some of the many fine books cited by Maxwell, e.g. Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s.

In truth the FBI never had “controlling creative authority” over African-American literary artists from 1919 well into the 1980s. To accept such a notion is to bow down before state power, which is what governmental foes of democracy wish us to do.

Monitoring writers, underlining their “suspect” passages, drying up their job prospects, even leaning on their publishers to induce them to remove Communist or to add anti-Communist elements to their texts, is not creative. It’s just G-Men doing what they do.

J. Edgar Hoover would have enjoyed seeing a term like Total Literary Awareness applied to his methods. But the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, one of the FBI’s predictable targets of extensive snooping, had a far better term for such practices: “tricknowledgy.” That’s a far more accurate and progressive label for FBI/CIA operations because it acknowledges the oppressors’ skill and effort while also mocking it, undermining it and cutting it down to size.

This is not to say that Hoover’s likely megalomaniacal and preening pleasure at the theoretical superstructure Maxwell tacks together is reason to dismiss Maxwell’s superb file-sleuthing, or his delineation of how FBI practices have subverted democracy. Readers should simply be wary of the theoretical flights accompanying the solid and often eye-opening research to be found in F.B. Eyes.

January-February 2016, ATC 180