Civil Liberties

J. Edgar Hoover's Army of Literary Critics

Or: I Was a Book Reviewer for the FBI!


William J. Maxwell, author of the new book F.B. Eyes, has an article in Publishers Weekly about the J. Edgar Hoover–era FBI's attempts to keep tabs on African-American fiction. (Hoover, always fretful about the civil rights movement, worried that black writers might serve as "thought-control relay stations"—the director's Philip K. Dick–worthy term for dupes who retransmit communist propaganda.) "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," Maxwell writes. "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."

For example:

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….

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.

Read the rest here.