J. Edgar Hoover's War on Writers

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Byrne and Richard Monastersky, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug. 3, 2004):

It is rare that literary research begins at a rock-music show, but Claire A. Culleton's work on the FBI and its interest in prominent literary figures began at a concert by David Baerwald, a Los Angeles musician whose 1986 album, Boomtown (made with David Ricketts under the name David and David), is a cult classic in rock circles.

Ms. Culleton, a professor of English at Kent State University, attended a Cleveland performance by Mr. Baerwald and signed up for his mailing list. A year later, she says, the singer sent Ms. Culleton information that included a "tirade" about "political corruption and subterfuge" and the FBI's role in it. Mr. Baerwald urged his fans to file Freedom of Information Act requests on themselves with the FBI.

"Conveniently," writes Ms. Culleton, "two FOIA forms were included in the packet."

On a whim, the scholar used one of the forms to request information on James Joyce. Three years later she received 20 pages of heavily redacted material. Her interest piqued, she requested more files on authors, publishers, and politicians connected with Ireland or literary modernism, or both.

"I thought about writing a small article," says Ms. Culleton. But her hunt in the records of the bureau turned into Joyce and the G-Men: J. Edgar Hoover's Manipulation of Modernism (Palgrave Macmillan). The book is a sprawling look at how the longtime head of the FBI and his agents monitored literary and political movements and, at times, harassed left-leaning and politically active artists, including Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Langston Hughes. In essence, Ms. Culleton says, Hoover and the FBI were trying to "eliminate opportunities to publish or speak," and thus control and shape the political message in those writers' works.

"When we think of modernism, we think of the modernism of style," she observes. The efforts by the FBI to monitor and harass politically inclined members of the movement, Ms. Culleton argues, shaped literary modernism profoundly. "These authors couldn't get their political message out." ...

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