Why Was James Baldwin’s FBI File 1,884 Pages Long?

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

William J. Maxwell’s provocative F.B. Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature probes the FBI’s “institutionalized fascination” with black authors like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. Here, Maxwell delves into the FBI’s dossier on James Baldwin–at 1,884 pages, it was the largest one on file–and the unlikely FBI literary criticism that emerged from studying Baldwin’s books.

J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director synonymous with his crime-fighting organization for nearly fifty years, once returned a Bureau memo on James Baldwin with a leering, handwritten challenge. “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?,” Hoover scrawled in his distinctive blue ink. Despite the career-threatening context, M. A. Jones, an officer of the FBI Crime Records Section, answered Hoover’s marginal question by carefully distinguishing between fictional and personal testimonies. “It is not a matter of official record that [Baldwin] is a pervert,” Jones specified, even though “the theme of homosexuality has figured prominently in two of his three published novels. Baldwin has stated that it is also ‘implicit’ in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the past, he has not disputed the description of ‘autobiographical’ being attached to the first book.” “While it is not possible to state that he is pervert,” Jones bravely concluded, Baldwin “has expressed a sympathetic viewpoint about homosexuality on several occasions, and a very definite hostility toward the revulsion of the American public regarding it.”

Hoover did not glide gently into agreement with Jones’s subtle distinctions among sexual acts, sympathies, and representations. He and less enlightened FBI informants continued to protest higher education’s embrace of a Baldwin novel they mistakenly called Another World, remarkable for its depiction of “a Negro male making love to a white female.” (The 1962 novel Baldwin actually titled Another Country was—with some justice—recast by these informants as a bohemian soap opera.) The Bureau director thus continued to explore ways to ban Baldwin’s book under the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter statute—this despite the report of the Justice Department’s General Crimes Section that “Another Country by James Baldwin has been reviewed…and it has been concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior.” With rival units in the federal government discovering the novel’s redeeming social importance, it was left to Hoover and likeminded Bureau sticklers to contemplate Another Country’s resemblance to the landmarks of modernist obscenity. “In many aspects it is similar to the Tropics books by [Henry] MILLER,” wrote Washington, D.C.’s Special Agent in Charge, or SAC. For this reason, perhaps, the SAC conspicuously instructed that his borrowed copy “need not be returned” to his office.

Blurb-worthy praise is not the norm in the 1,884-page Baldwin dossier and the rest of the fifty-one FBI files on African American writers I have collected since 2006, submitting more than a hundred Freedom of Information Act requests along the way. The General Crimes Section looks to be a better source of pull quotes applauding “literary merit” and “value to students of psychology and social behavior.” Yet the surprising thoughtfulness of Jones’s reply to Hoover’s question, its outstripping of the need to label, discipline, and punish, illustrates the grudging respect Bureau readers felt for the writers they spied on. Hoover himself possessed an inflated fear and regard for the authors who doubled as “thought-control relay stations,” as he liked to imagine them. Authors/relay stations of prominence, W. E. B. Du Bois included, were sometimes spared in-person interviews by Bureau agents because of their “access to the subversive press,” a megaphone whose range the FBI valued and exaggerated. Despite Hoover’s notorious hostility to Dr. Martin Luther King and the rest of the black freedom movement, the encounters of his FBI with African American writing could not, in fact, always resist the pleasures of the enemy text.

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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly
William J. Maxwell

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