Critical Agents

Critical Agents

How J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid view of literature led him to target African-American writers.


In her 1972 poem “I Laughed When I Wrote It,” Nikki Giovanni describes receiving a visit from two readers of her work. They note that her cultural stock is rising and tell her that they have some suggestions for how to use her newfound visibility. In short: less radicalism, more patriotism.

It would be a patriotic gesture if you’d quit saying
you love rap brown and if you’d maybe give us some
on what some of your friends are doing

Giovanni’s visitors are FBI agents, and her response is curt: “fuck you.” Later, when two undercover CIA agents come around with similar suggestions, she treats them to a “loud, stinky fart.”

In F.B. Eyes, the literary historian William Maxwell situates this joyfully irreverent poem within a long tradition of black literature marked by awareness of FBI scrutiny. The bureau under Hoover, he writes, was “perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature.” Black writers had some sense of this; as a result, a “deep and characteristic vein” of black literature during Hoover’s tenure and beyond was produced in response to what the authors knew—or half-knew, or suspected—about FBI scrutiny of their life and work. Maxwell’s claim is overstated, I think, but this doesn’t make the patchwork story that emerges (albeit slowly, and needlessly encumbered by academic prose) any less fascinating.

Like so many sagas of Hoover’s FBI, this one has its roots in the preoccupations and manias of Hoover himself. The longtime bureau director had a paranoid vision of literature that was simultaneously reverential and disdainful. He took it as a given that the written word had the ability to sway the national consciousness. (Can the same be said of today’s NSA analysts?) But this respect stemmed, paradoxically, from scorn for both readers and writers, most all of whom he saw as easily swayed dupes. Modernist writers in particular, with their taste for novelty and sensation, were ideal “Communist thought-control relay stations.” For a writer to get an FBI file, he or she didn’t have to be plausibly suspected of anything criminal. All it took was writing something that Hoover thought smelled funny.

Black writers were doubly suspicious. Hoover had no doubt that blacks were dumber than whites, and so particularly susceptible to brainwashing by wily Communists promising them racial equality. Under his direction, FBI agents not only snooped on black writers’ lives, but also combed their works for proof of radical thinking. They read novels, poems, and journalism by black writers; attended plays by black playwrights; and sat in on black writing and art workshops. When A Raisin in the Sun opened in Philadelphia in 1959, an agent was sent to watch it. When the Black Arts anthology Black Fire was released in 1968, the bureau’s associate director wrote a review. When Harold Cruse lectured at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem in 1965, honing the arguments that would become The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, two agency moles sat in the audience taking notes. As if intuiting this fact, concerned citizens would often write to Hoover asking what they should think of, say, Langston Hughes or LeRoi Jones. Were they troublemakers?

Of the 51 writers whose bureau files Maxwell obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, 27 were on the bureau’s Custodial Detention index or one of its offspring. The lists included James Baldwin, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Amiri Baraka, to name just a few; all of these writers were marked for immediate imprisonment in the event of “national emergency.” Of course, the lists were secret, but many black writers knew the government wanted to nail them. Even writers who fled abroad weren’t safe, since the FBI had agents and informers working in foreign capitals. Maxwell devotes much of a chapter to illustrating how the FBI presence in France complicates the stock image of black expatriate Paris as a wonderfully enlightened cafe society unsullied by American racism.

By arguing that the bureau was an influential literary critic, Maxwell is probably just being provocative. What was influential wasn’t the “criticism,” which, in Maxwell’s telling, consisted mostly of ham-fisted, overly literal summaries that never circulated outside of bureau offices. Rather, any influence came from the scrutiny itself: from black authors’ sense that a massive, deep-pocketed government agency with international reach, run by a paranoid racist and accountable to no one, had them in its crosshairs. It may be that, as Maxwell claims, the bureau beat academia to the punch when it came to surveying black literature. It may also be that the bureau was more influential than any literary critic (a fairly low bar). But to say that this influence had any serious relationship to literary criticism is dubious.

* * *

In Alien Ink, one of the first books written about the FBI’s interactions with literary writers and the publishing industry, Natalie Robins suggested that the real measure of the bureau’s influence on writers was the presumed pile of books that went unwritten, unfinished, or unpublished. In her account (since echoed by others), FBI pressure, combined with widespread knowledge of how easy it was to fall into Hoover’s net, played a significant role in killing off “social fiction.” Writers instead produced cryptic, modernist works or “personal” narratives focused on topics like romance, sex, childhood, parenthood, and mortality.

Maxwell insists that this argument just doesn’t stick, at least when it comes to black writing. As evidence, he puts forth what he calls a “definite archive” of work that shows black writers refusing to roll over for the bureau and instead grappling with the enemy head-on, even using its techniques as inspiration. The contents of this archive are foreshadowed throughout the book, but Maxwell saves them for his final chapter. He has certainly done his due diligence: Thanks to that final chapter, F.B. Eyes is surely the most comprehensive accounting to date of black literature in which the bureau appears, either as a subject or as a plausible thematic presence. But the evidence is less convincing than Maxwell thinks. The “deep and characteristic vein,” once revealed, looks more like a rather tenuous thread. The individual strands are fascinating, but Maxwell risks overstating their value as evidence, thereby obscuring their literary worth.

Oddly, two of Maxwell’s central examples could plausibly serve as evidence for Robins’s argument. The first novel he considers in detail is Invisible Man—or rather a preliminary draft in which the unnamed black protagonist daydreams about being employed by the FBI, using American racial prejudice as the perfect cover for all sorts of patriotic derring-do. Maxwell’s argument is that knowledge of this passage helps us detect the FBI as an “absent presence” in a novel in which it is never explicitly mentioned. That may be so—but the fact that the draft was never published seems tailor-made for Alien Ink, which points explicitly to discarded drafts as possible casualties of the bureau’s influence.

Maxwell also makes extensive use of Richard Wright’s Island of Hallucination, which receives more pages of attention than any other individual work. The novel is set in the black Paris expatriate scene, and many of its characters are identifiable analogues or composites of real people. Its dominant mood is poisonous suspicion, and the blame clearly lies with Western intelligence agencies and their informants. (Wright was prone to wondering aloud which of his fellow authors were ratting to the feds, and the novel contains its share of score-settling.) “Information is needed about everything, everybody, everywhere,” says a character named Mechanical. “You can get fifty dollars just for going into any of the little offices scattered all over Paris and writing all you know on a given subject.” Later, Mechanical gets in over his head and decides to commit suicide by leaping from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It works, but not because Mechanical hits the ground as intended; instead, he gets tangled in police netting on the way down and chokes to death.

All of Maxwell’s themes are there—but Island of Hallucination was never published. Wright’s publisher, Doubleday, didn’t like the book enough to offer him a contract. Rather than try to make revisions or shop the project elsewhere, he abandoned it. The manuscript became available to researchers only in 1996, after being acquired by Yale. Maxwell thinks this makes the book “appropriately semisecret.” But being published (being made public) is part of how writing becomes literature—how it joins other works and interacts with them. Again, rather than rebutting Robins’s argument, Maxwell comes close to reinforcing it.

The more novels that F.B. Eyes considers, the clearer it becomes why Maxwell makes so much out of these two dubious examples. The game seems rigged: All a book has to do to merit inclusion is breathe some bureau-infected air, or contain a passing reference to its bothersome practices, or even just use the tropes of detective fiction. There are some compelling nuggets—for example, George Schuyler’s pulp novels about the secretive “Black Internationale” (or “B.I.”… get it?)—but overall, the case is underwhelming. There is an exciting sense, while up close and reading the evidence through Maxwell’s eyes, of a secret history being excavated. But writers attempting to track the pernicious reach of paranoid security agencies have an ironic tendency to mirror those agencies’ errors. Desperate for usable narratives, they find small connections or correspondences, then exaggerate their importance. More accurately, the importance is assumed from the start, because the existence of the underlying network of influence—whether world communism (for Hoover) or the FBI (for Maxwell)—is taken as given.

* * *

Maxwell’s case seems much stronger when he talks about poetry—especially poetry written during or since the 1960s, when the sharpening of the civil-rights struggle was paralleled by an intensification of FBI efforts targeting black Americans, writers and otherwise. “The secret to converting their change to your change,” says a character in John Williams’s 1967 novel The Man Who Cried I Am, was “letting them know that you knew.” The best of these poems are charged from within by the electric thrill of letting them know—of saying, per Nikki Giovanni, “fuck you” to the agents on your doorstep. In one of my favorite examples, “F.B.I. Memo” (1971), the Detroit poet and publisher Dudley Randall caustically analyzes the transparent performances of black informers working for the bureau: “The perfect spy / for the F.B.I. / must have: / beard / Afro / tiki / dashiki / Swahili / and cry / ‘Kill the honkies!’”

The poems are also better than the novels at grappling with the vexing fact that works animated by anti-FBI sentiment inevitably draw at least some of their power from the glamorous aura that tends to surround all things “spy” in American culture. There’s a fine line between bravely defying the FBI and using its power to prop up your own writing’s worth. In “Award” (1964), Ray Durem speaks directly to his FBI tail of 25 years, offering him a gold watch for his service. But he also draws the agent’s attention to how foolish his undertaking has been: They’ve been on vacation to Mexico together, gone fishing in the Sierras, and been to see jazz at the Philharmonic. “You’ve watched me all your life, / I’ve clothed your wife, / put your two sons through college, / what good has it done?” There’s real insolence here, but it’s intermingled with a weariness that undercuts any pretense to glamour.

A similar note is struck by Richard Wright’s “The FB Eye Blues,” the poem that gives Maxwell his title. The “old FB eye” has a bell tied to Wright’s bed, and an agent hiding underneath: The bureau knows about his sex life and his dreams—or at least Wright feels that it might. There’s a sense that he doesn’t know what to believe anymore:

Everywhere I look, Lord
I see FB eyes
Said every place I look, Lord
I find FB eyes
I’m getting sick and tired of gover’ment spies.

Sick and tired, unsure of what exactly is going on—but determined to write anyway, or unable to imagine another mode of response. These poems (perhaps mixed with some choice excerpts from the novels) would make a small but fantastic anthology. In the place of critical commentary, the pieces could be interspersed—thanks to Maxwell’s diligence—with notes from the dedicated readers at FB Eye HQ.

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