Thursday, January 15, 2015

William J. Maxwell's "F.B. Eyes"

William J. Maxwell is associate professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches modern American and African American literature. He is the author of New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars and the editor of Claude McKay's Complete Poems.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, and reported the following:
If the “Page 99 Test” bets that the arbitrary can reveal the typical, then it pays off in the case of F.B. Eyes. Here, page 99 reveals one of the book’s consistent themes: the angry and disproportionate reaction of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to any printed criticism, a failing that also shows the Bureau’s admirable respect for the power of literature. In the Cold War year of 1950, the lawyer and investigative journalist Max Lowenthal published a thick anti-FBI expose simply titled The Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Hoover Bureau’s appetite for “rumors, suspicion, and gossip,” Lowenthal concluded, gave the lie to its reputation as “the infallible watchdog of American security and liberty.” As page 99 of my book notes, “Lowenthal, a former Supreme Court clerk, onetime congressional aide, and friend of President Truman, derived little comfort from the quiet approval of his indictment at the White House: word alone of his book’s appearance attracted a prodigious Bureau counterattack. Wilting under fire, sales of The Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to break seventy-five hundred, disappointing distinguished independent publisher William Sloane.” Despite this quantifiable success, Hoover remained furious that his agents had failed to pick up scent of Lowenthal’s book prior to an advanced notice in Publishers Weekly. “‘Mr. Hoover, if I had known this book was going to be published,’ swore Louis Nichols, head of the FBI Crime Records Division, ‘I’d have thrown my body between the presses and stopped it.’”

Nichols and other Bureau critic-spies failed to block the publication of most of their literary targets: as F.B. Eyes demonstrates, evidence of book-killing, stop-the-presses censorship is sparse in the long history of Bureau literary criticism. What is far more plentiful is proof of the FBI’s special interference in African American literature—my book’s central subject. Drawing on over 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, many of which can be found at the book’s companion website, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate scrutiny of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and of Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet FBI surveillance grew to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Taking its title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues,” F.B. Eyes details how the FBI threatened the international travels of African American writers and prepared to jail dozens of them in times of national emergency. All the same, it shows that the Bureau’s paranoid style could prompt insightful criticism from Hoover's ghostreaders and creative replies from their literary targets. For authors such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Sonia Sanchez, the suspicion that government spy-critics tracked their every word inspired rewarding stylistic experiments as well as disabling self-censorship. In the end, then, F.B. Eyes illuminates both the serious harms of state surveillance—emphasized on page 99—and some of the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it.
Visit the F.B. Eyes companion website.

--Marshal Zeringue