FBEyes Digital Archive


FBEyes book coverFew 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 thousands of pages of recently released FBI files, William J. Maxwell’s book F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature 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 F.B. Eyes reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

The F.B. Eyes Digital Archive makes available for the first time a collection of 51 FBI files on prominent African American authors and literary institutions, many of them unearthed through William J. Maxwell's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Now part of the public domain as unrestricted U.S. government documents, these once-secret files are arranged on this site as they were at FBI national headquarters, under the names of individual authors and institutions.

The collected files of the authors alone comprise 14,289 pages, or the rough equivalent of forty-seven substantial PhD theses. If this seems a strange comparison, it should be noted that the average length of the 46 author files reaches above 300 pages. FBI ghostreaders genuinely rivaled the productivity, if not always the insight, of their academic peers. The Bureau’s copious files addressing twentieth-century African American writing are documents of troubling state surveillance and sometimes-illegal counterintelligence. But they are also recognizably literary-critical documents, analytical encounters that cannot always resist the pleasures of the enemy text.

More detailed information on the contents of the files and on the means used to collect them can be found in the introduction to F.B. Eyes: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10321.pdf.

William J. Maxwell is a professor of English and African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches modern American and African American literature. He is the author of New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars and the editor of Claude McKay's Complete Poems. He can be reached at wmaxwell@wustl.edu.

F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature is published and distributed by Princeton University Press: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10321.html.


The F.B. Eyes Digital Archive was built at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) in conjunction with William J. Maxwell's F.B. Eyes book project. Jaydee Lee scanned thousands of pages of FBI documents and contributed to the design of the exhibit. Paulo Loonin wrote and developed the Omeka digital archive. Technical and design assistance was provided by Shannon Davis at the WUSTL department of Digital Library Services. Summer fellowships from the Humanities Digital Workshop of the WUSTL School of Arts & Sciences supported the work of Jaydee and Paulo.