Daniel Carlson: response to William J. Maxwell’s “Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing”

By on February 6th, 2018 in Blog Posts, Week 1

 

Although written well before the election of Donald Trump, it’s difficult to read Maxwell’s Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing without comparing the current administration’s ham-fisted, neanderthal, fascistic attempts to stifle dissention to the methods used by Hoover’s FBI. While Hoover’s paranoia about the printed word – triggered by the publication of the Max Lowenthal’s highly critical 1950 book The Federal Bureau of Investigation – led to a formal relationship between the bureau and many leading publishers (which led directly to the squashing of many communist-sympathetic or anti-FBI projects), the bureau’s intrusion into the world of African-American writing comes across as much less focused. And where our current president paints his villains with the broadest possible brushes (describing Mexicans as criminals and rapists being only one example) and uses executive orders to punish them, it seems Hoover and the FBI didn’t know quite what they were looking for in African-American writing and, once they found it, what to do about it. While their stated intent was weeding out communism, Maxwell presents a picture of a man – Hoover – more concerned with race than politics, one generally suspicious of anything written by anyone who wasn’t white.

Not discounting for a moment the extremely difficult (and terrifying) position this put African-American writers in at the time, there is one aspect of what Maxwell discovered that is almost, in retrospect, charming: the field work often reflects the character of the reviewers hired to examine the material, who seem in many cases to not share Hoover’s suspicion of non-white writers and, at the same time, embrace the work they’ve been assigned to review. Perhaps the best example Maxwell shares here is the FBI special agent assigned to review Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in advance of its Broadway opening. The review quickly and succinctly states that “the play contains no comments of any nature about communism as such” and then spend four pages thoughtfully reviewing Hansberry’s brilliant drama.

One also can’t help but wonder about the unintended role Hoover’s paranoid, racist power-trip played in the shaping of the work by the authors he was targeting, as well as the way African-Americans viewed the agency. James Baldwin, whose 1884 page FBI was one of the most substantial of any of the African-American writers, was particularly vocal about Hoover, calling him “history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur” and blaming him “…in part for events in Alabama. Negroes have no cause to have faith in the FBI.” Baldwin was right.

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2 Comments

  1. HI Dan, Thanks for this. Maxwell focuses on Black writers who came under Hoover’s scrutiny. He was also obsessed with all Left-leaning writers (the Rosenbergs, of course), with gay writers, with academics. I hope we go back and look at some of the McCarthy hearings–they are as “ham fisted” as the accusations today: lives were lost, people were deported. And the press and publishers were as complicit then as now. AND . . . so was the opposition and the remarkable outpouring of art, as you suggest. That will be a current throughout the course: how art survives against such odds.

  2. Dan,

    You wrote:

    Although written well before the election of Donald Trump, it’s difficult to read Maxwell’s Total Literary Awareness: How the FBI Pre-read African American Writing without comparing the current administration’s ham-fisted, neanderthal, fascistic attempts to stifle dissention to the methods used by Hoover’s FBI.

    I would absolutely agree with this sentiment. The Trump Administration’s identifying of black activists as “Black Identity Extremists” is case and point. The Administration is intent on stifling organized protest and dissent and I imagine in years to come we will be shocked – or affirmed – as information on the FBI’s surveillance over black activist communities during the Trump Administration is illuminated.

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