JAMES BALDWIN by William J. Maxwell


The FBI File
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An exposé of the governmental surveillance of James Baldwin (1924-1987), annotated by an accomplished literary scholar.

Maxwell (English and African-American Studies/Washington Univ.; F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, 2015, etc.) appreciates Baldwin’s radicalism, noting that he “often looks like today's most vital and most cherished new African American author.” The author argues that young black activists are particularly moved by him: “The impression that Baldwin has returned to preeminence, unbowed and unwrinkled, reflects his special ubiquity in the imagination of Black Lives Matter.” Yet, Maxwell sees an absurdist cautionary tale in how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI obsessively shadowed Baldwin, with equal astuteness and incompetence, due to his political outspokenness and sexual frankness. Baldwin’s FBI file, updated through 1974, was the largest compiled on any African-American author. Since it was declassified following a 1998 court challenge (though still redacted), the file is a bizarre testament to governmental overreach. Maxwell presents the actual documentation in chronological order, using brief discussions to provide valuable context. Baldwin first attracted interest following the success of The Fire Next Time, his 1963 account of the early civil rights movement; he was first photographed by the FBI during protests in Selma that fall. Baldwin’s articulate discussion of the movement ironically made him a target, and he landed on Hoover’s “Security Index” of potential threats. As Maxwell notes, “the Bureau turned the tools and fruits of his literary success into investigative weapons against him.” Baldwin was well-aware of the scrutiny and baited the FBI with a long-promised but never-delivered book about their antagonism toward the black community. By 1968, the FBI was attempting to track Baldwin (now a reclusive expatriate) while focusing more on the black radicalism symbolized by the Malcom X murder and the Black Panthers. Maxwell adeptly curates the strange hoard of documentation, but the primary sources will be most appreciated by completists.

An unsettling demonstration of how a paranoid, reactionary government can treat significant artists.

Pub Date: June 6th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-62872-737-1
Page count: 440pp
Publisher: Arcade
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2017


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