F.B. Eyes

Title:                      F.B. Eyes

Author:                 William J. Maxwell

Maxwell, William J. (2015). F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

LCCN:    2014933936

PS153.N5 M2688 2015


  • “Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and 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, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century. Taking his title from Richard Wright’s poem “The FB Eye Blues,” Maxwell 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, he 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. Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.”–Publisher information.


  • Part one/thesis one : The birth of the Bureau, coupled with the birth of J. Edgar Hoover, ensured the FBI’s attention to African American literature — Part two/thesis two : The FBI’s aggressive filing and long study of African American writers was tightly bound to the Agency’s successful evolution under Hoover — Part three/thesis three : The FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature — Part four/thesis four : The FBI helped to define the twentieth-century Black Atlantic, both blocking and forcing its flows — Part five/thesis five : Consciousness of FBI ghostreading fills a deep and characteristic vein of African American literature — Appendix : FOIA requests for FBI files on African American authors active from 1919 to 1972.


Date Posted:      March 21, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

During the Hoover era at the FBI, books that mentioned Bureau security operations and subversive subjects, especially those by authors that had received Bureau cooperation, were formally reviewed for the Director after publication by special agents. One purpose was to determine whether the book contained derogatory comments about the FBI and whether authors complied with any Bureau guidance they might have been provided. In F. B. Eyes, Washington University (St. Louis) literary historian William Maxwell discusses another purpose— paying special attention to African-American writers because they were likely to be political radicals, communists, or just because of their race. “The FBI,” he writes, “is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African-American literature.” (p. 127)

Maxwell bases this and other judgments in the book on FBI case files beginning in 1919 and ending in 1972. For readers unfamiliar with the Bureau review program, he provides extensive detail about its evolution, functions, the treatment of the authors—which included monitoring their writings, speeches, and travel—and their reactions as they became aware of the review program’s existence. And in the telling he introduces new vocabulary such as counterliterature, lit-cop, ghostreaders (those who do the reviewing), and communist thought-control relay stations, to describe its functions. (p. 76)

Many of the authors monitored will come as no surprise to today’s readers. These include James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry (Raisin in the Sun) and Langston Hughes. What is surprising is the extensive commentary on the British SIS (including, curiously, Ian Fleming), OSS, and the CIA relationship with Bureau counterintelligence. Regarding the latter, for example, Maxwell delves deeply into the thinking of

James Angleton, “the master spy whose inscrutability never hid his standing as the master theorist of CIA reading.” (p. 150) But the overall significance of this digression and its relationship to the Bureau’s review program is never made clear.

  1. B. Eyes provides numerous examples of how the Bureau subjected African-American authors to highly questionable, if not illegal, scrutiny and harassment —although some were indeed communists—based on recently released FBI files. The book is not easy reading (the reader is challenged to find even a few simple declarative sentences). If Maxwell intended to convey some deeper message, it is lost in a semantic muddle.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance—at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, p.  120).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at  www.cia.gov.

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