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date: 23 April 2018

Policing and Publishing in Modernist 20th-Century America

Summary and Keywords

For almost four decades, from 1936 to 1972, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, fueled by intense paranoia and fear, hounded and relentlessly pursued a variety of American writers and publishers in a staunch effort to control the dissemination of literature that he thought threatened the American way of life. In fact, beginning as early as the Red Scare of 1919, he managed to control literary modernism by bullying and harassing writers and artists at a time when the movement was spreading quickly in the hands of an especially young, vibrant collection of international writers, editors, and publishers. He, his special agents in charge, and their field agents worked to manipulate the relationship between state power and modern literature, thereby “federalizing,” to a point, political surveillance. There still seems to be a resurgence of brute state force that is omnipresent and going through all matters and aspects of our private lives. We are constantly under surveillance, tracked, and monitored when engaged in even the most mundane activities. The only way to counter our omnipresent state surveillance is to monitor the monitors themselves.

Keywords: surveillance, data tracking, mediatized living, privacy, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, Henry Holt & Co., literature and peace, policing for peace

As Americans learned from Edward Snowden in 2013, the United States government, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, as well as corporate data miners and Big Data, treat citizens as “problems,” as people to be monitored and eavesdropped on, regardless of criminal backgrounds or allegiances;1 and one’s phone calls, emails, private photos, travels, and everyday activities are tracked and monitored for the purpose of anticipating our future actions or for the purposes of influencing them—what Tim Dwyer in Convergent Media and Privacy (2015) terms “algorithmically mediatised living.”2 Or put another way: “Almost everything we do, from shopping in a supermarket to posting a photograph on Facebook is mapped, and the gathered data is used to predict, monetise, encourage, or inhibit future actions.”3 In this personal data economy, we live in a state of perpetual stalking. In fact, cellphones are the world’s most effective tracking devices even when they are turned off, and like our cellphone conversations, “SMS text messages sent to and from your cell phone can easily be intercepted over radio with minimal equipment and without any cooperation from the cell phone provider.”4 This is no surprise to anyone: this creepy sense of being tracked by invisible eyes, this sense of perpetual scrutiny, as if we were living under the looming glare of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s giant eyeglasses in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We live in an age of “dataveillance”—facial recognition databases and digital information tracking that cover everything from our purchases to our cellphone usage to our Internet surfing patterns. As the voiceover for the Oscar-award-winning documentary CitizenFour reminds us at the start of the film, “Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friends you keep, sites you visit … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. In the end, if you publish this source material,” Edward Snowden continues, “I will likely be immediately implicated.”5 There is no question that our digital traces will long outlive us;6 but what is their half-life, and do they even have one?

In his New Yorker essay “The Ghosts in Our Machines,” Matthew Malady struggles with his feelings after he comes across an image of his late mother snapped outside of her house in 2012 by a Google Maps Street View camera car. Malady explains that he goes to the Google Map Street View site when he is bored, needs to unwind, or needs “a respite from more taxing laptop-based endeavors.”7 One night, seeking out contemporary views of his favorite old haunts, he types in his old neighborhood: “I started at the top of the street and worked my way down toward her house. The Google Maps car had apparently passed by on the most glorious of spring days,” he wrote, continuing:

According to the Web site, the images had been taken in April of 2012, and I was glad to see that my old street was doing just fine … Then there she was, out front, walking on the path that leads from the driveway to the home’s front door. My mom … The confluence of emotions, when I registered what I was looking at, was unlike anything I had ever experienced.8

What he felt was “heartbreak and hurt,” and the experience prompted him to “pay more attention to the expanding, multifaceted role technology plays in the experience of grief,” especially in the form of unexpected and unwelcomed “tech taps” (such as the friendly reminder from his FTD flower company that Mother’s Day is coming up, Facebook reminders that his mother’s birthday is looming, and LinkedIn emails telling him that his mother’s job anniversary is nearing)—tech taps that can force us into remembering pretty terrible exacerbating grief.9

Yet Malady says nothing about technology’s invasiveness and intrusiveness as a persistent database and docudrop of even the ordinary moments of our private lives, or the pervasive presence of lead generator companies that target vulnerable consumers by collecting and distributing personal information about consumers online.10 In fact, Tim Dwyer wryly notes that the “way we now routinely rely on computerized search engine algorithms when we ask search engines our everyday questions, has significant, and generally unforeseen consequences for the evolution of privacy norms and expectations.”11

Suspending Democracy to Save Democracy

In “The Good Patriots,” a New York Review of Books essay, Alan Ryan wrote: “The NSA has an ability to uncover the secrets of every citizen that the Stasi only dreamed of in Communist East Germany. It is hard to believe that either the judiciary or elected politicians can be relied on to police our own domestic spies when the spies possess, if they care to use it, the same hold over their supposed masters as J. Edgar Hoover held over his.”12 The Patriot Act, reauthorized in June 2015 requires such recordkeeping, and businesses are obliged to turn over “any tangible things.” The government can ask for books, records, paperwork, and so forth, if it can claim that the material is for an investigation against international terrorism. It can collect and store phone records, texts, and photos of all Americans, the vast majority of whom have no connection to terrorism whatsoever, although they still remain a “problem.”

This inevitable encroachment on our private lives by the government, as well as by corporate data miners, is a recurrent topic of Hollywood movies, the news media, and the press, both popular and scholarly, note David Rosen and Aaron Santesso in their book The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood.13 “Several years ago,” they write,

we asked a surveillance expert at Scotland Yard what recent technological developments posed the most frightening challenge to governments hoping to track criminal activities. His response was instant and unequivocal: Skype. Because the service divided the user’s voice into discreet data bundles, which were then encrypted and sent helter-skelter via servers around the world before being reassembled on another user’s computer, it was practically impossible to monitor in any traditional way. Skype had become a favorite device of terrorists, drug cartels—and, as it happens, ourselves.

“Skype,” they note, “now owned by Microsoft, has been restructured to make it more accessible to law enforcement,”14 begging the question: Is this good news for the average citizen?

Institutional surveillance is commonplace among Americans in an age when everyone can be tracked via credit and debit card purchases, license plate cameras and E-Z-Pass registries; watched via satellite and over CCTV; and monitored by the NSA and its collaborative partners. In the post-9/11 world, where perfectly ordinary, everyday settings and events in the lives and activities of world citizens are cast with criminal suspicion, we are easily reminded of the authority wielded by agencies and institutions of power. As happens, measures and practices designed to protect citizens during national emergencies tend to inhibit the span of their freedom, reduce the richness of their opportunities, and limit the boundaries of their worlds as well as their imaginations. As Timothy Melley suggests, “It is the institutional sediment of what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘the state of exception’—the paradoxical suspension of democracy as a means of saving democracy.”15

J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Gaze

Such was the case for hundreds of thousands of people during J. Edgar Hoover’s reign as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For nearly fifty years, Hoover’s investigative practices had considerable effect on the lives and creative activities of American writers and artists working during his directorship. As often as his efforts curtailed their work and artistic license, their counterefforts to stave off or circumvent government interventions shaped and affected the burgeoning modern arts movement, consequently making it a self-conscious movement fed on but not starved by the twentieth-century federal gaze16—what Regin Schmidt terms the “federalization of political surveillance,” and what Immigration Commissioner Frederic C. Howe termed “the administrative state.”17

Hoover’s obsession with modernism’s leading figures caused him to expend considerable energy investigating the activities of some of the movement’s most prominent modernists. Not interested in fine distinctions among the aesthetic choices of these artists, the FBI focused on an array of criteria: one’s political views and activities, his or her engagement with the political culture of the day, and his or her standing as a leading figure poised to inspire significant changes in domestic and international thinking by means of their publications, lectures, readings, international travels, and celebrity status.

Still startling, the massive surveillance of private lives during Hoover’s reign clipped short the civil liberties of creative artists, as well as other American citizens and immigrants, in an effort to maintain the security of the nation. Those who trusted the government to monitor only the lives of the most dangerous among these people were disheartened to learn just how wide a net Hoover cast during the modernist period, and the many thousands of bureau files that chronicle particular aspects of modernist discourse still stagger the American imagination. Individuals who belonged to the Communist Party, participated in radical demonstrations, or criticized the United States government became targets of FBI investigations and surveillance, with pages swiftly added to their files. Hoover had no tolerance for time—he wanted paperwork immediately and problems solved quickly. He developed a speedy “snatch and deport” or “snatch and exile”18 method of gathering up and ridding the United States of foreign troublemakers and rabble-rousers as early as 1919, and he micromanaged his agents’ quick turnaround of these documents.

No wonder his impatience with losing time: J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “Speed” as a boy, after the swiftness with which he delivered groceries. Raised in a family of mapmakers, something William Beverley and others propose as having had a “suggestive influence upon the man and the administrator he would become,”19 Hoover spent his career mapping out the contours of degenerative ideologies, such as anti-Americanism and communism, and locating communities of anarchy and sedition, dismantling them, and pirating away their libraries and paperwork.

After working in the Library of Congress, the young Hoover began his career with the Justice Department working in the Aliens Registration office, where he developed knowledge of, and cultivated information about, political radicalism that would prove useful to him in the future.20 “Hoover’s first months in the Justice Department put him in the middle of … hysteria over traitors, spies, and saboteurs,” Richard Gid Powers notes.21 Later that year, Hoover would be responsible for organizing the haphazard files of the Justice Department, and he would organize them obsessively, “out of a great personal and political need to control the flow of information in America,” Natalie Robins suggests.22 Though just a functionary in the Aliens Registration office, Hoover had a reputation as a Red baiter matured at the height of the Red Scare in 1919. During its first three and a half months in existence, “the General Intelligence Division of the bureau compiled personal histories of some sixty thousand individuals thought to be radicals; before long the special indexes grew to include more than two hundred thousand names,” Sanford Unger reports.23 Robins notes that by 1920, Hoover had broadened his “literary interests,” and added “the names of many writers” to his special custodial detention index. The young Hoover’s Radical Division boasted of sixty thousand files on assorted suspects, publications, and political parties after its founding in 1919—and two years later, it claimed an index of four hundred fifty thousand names and publication titles.24

Although Hoover worked hard to maintain the image of his bureau as a tightly run organization, and often gained publicity and popular notoriety from its dissemination of that image, evidence uncovered in the FBI files of several major modern writers demonstrate that the “fact”-finding missions of Hoover’s agents yielded files that were fraught with inconsistency, rampant with misinformation, and bulging with bureau ignorance. These files contain not only errors and lies but also reports that contradict one another, or were fabricated by bureau special agents in charge and used as evidence against a subject under review. Despite these truculent contradictions, despite the evidence that the files belie, none of the opposing reports is investigated further, no misrepresentations get clarified, and no piece of evidence cancels out another piece. In effect, bureau files morph over the years into hodgepodge and ragbag assortments of unqualified and often unreliable information.

Reading and studying these archival files astonishes: They appear not to have been carefully read through or prudently analyzed from one report to the next (except when one writer parrots “facts” from earlier reports); and the multiple narratives in each file are rarely organized into a coherent bureau “take” on an individual. In fact, that a subject had a file seemed reason enough to continue it. The files are often “unintentionally funny,”25 but because pieces of information could be pulled out of files and used as evidence against individuals under bureau suspicion, the inconsistencies and inaccuracies show the very real dangers associated with being under bureau investigation.

Paper, Paper Everywhere

Obsessed with paper, with words, Hoover had a fascination with print. His grandfather worked in the print shop of the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey Commission,26 and as a little boy, Hoover published his own newspaper, “The Weekly Review,” which he likely printed himself on a government-issued letterpress at his brother Dick’s job.27 Even at a young age, he was already eyeing his family and neighbors and chronicling the minutiae of their daily lives.

Hoover earned thirty dollars a month working at the Library of Congress for four years under superintendent Herbert Putnam, who eschewed the Dewey Decimal System and invented the Library of Congress system instead, to replace what he thought was an antiquated method of cataloguing in use there. Putnam’s new approach was an organizing, detailing, mechanical card system that relied on legibility, uniformity, and classification—all of which would become important to Hoover. In fact, he wrote in a 1951 letter referencing his Library of Congress job that it “trained me in the value of collating material. It gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.”28

Each of Hoover’s “Palmer Raids” was a paper raid, with agents carrying out bales of papers, letters, crumpled missives, and books in huge sacks.29 Maxwell notes that “the Bureau instructed agents prior to the busts” that all “literature, books, papers, and anything hanging on the walls should be gathered up,” and that Hoover’s “librarian-pirates”30 quickly built up an FBI archive that not only preserved the confiscated paperwork but also manufactured its own paperwork—paper begetting paper. “With typical haste,” Maxwell says, “Hoover’s depository grew beyond the nuclear stage in shelf weight … and overfilled its space in the Justice Department.”31 Agents would file reports on what they confiscated in these raids, which would lead to more paper, more files, more intelligence. Maxwell quotes Frank J. Donner, who, in The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America’s Political Intelligence System, pinpoints this obsession with intelligence as a by-product of World War I, which “‘bred awareness of the effectiveness of intelligence as a weapon against domestic enemies’ and also nurtured a bonus army of intelligent operatives, a large class of ‘soldiers, ex-officers, reservists, and patriotic amateur detectives’ schooled in espionage and ‘thirsting for peacetime assignments’ once the firing stopped.”32

So it is in this post-war context that institutionalized intelligence keeping developed in the United States. This might help us to understand its heady reappearance today—post-9/11, post-finding Saddam Hussein, post-finding the Boston bombers—since actionable intelligence clearly breeds results.

Americans have arrived at a point at which intelligence, surveillance, and domestic spying not only eclipse our now seemingly laughable, old-school romantic and sentimentalized notions of “privacy” (as if privacy were an anachronism), but also demand that as people are recast as “problems,” we submit to this new culture and surrender to its cannibalistic and capitalistic hunger for intelligence and power and control. This essay opened with a reference to W. E. B. DuBois’s 1903 remarks to make a point about privacy; but it is important to point out that he, too, was surveilled, tracked, and data-breached by Hoover’s FBI. In fact, DuBois’s FBI file is one of the largest I have seen—970 pages, only 765 of which the FBI released for review.

Hoover, His G-Men, and Henry Holt & Co.

When Henry Holt died in 1926, the New York Times declared, “New York has lost one of its most distinguished citizens and the American publishing trade has lost its dean.”33 Founder of the important publishing house Henry Holt & Co. in 1866, Holt developed a reputation in the industry that would lead Donald Sheehan to note in This Was Publishing that when men like Holt and Charles Scribner “commented on conditions in the industry, they spoke for the regular book trade from coast to coast.”34 Foreseeing calamitous changes coming up in the industry, Holt vigorously campaigned against Big Business’s takeover of the book trade; but he probably never anticipated Big Brother’s superintendent interventions.

Following is a brief outline of Hoover’s custodial relationship with the Holt firm at midcentury (a situation that must have had Holt rolling in his grave). This is an important case study that evinces just how much weight Hoover and his agents leaned on writers, editors, and publishers at the height of his bureaucratic powers, and just how his abuse of that power allowed the institution of the FBI to veer away from its early charge of policing and investigating bank fraud and antitrust violations to its overbearing presence as a “moral police” that was allowed to pry into people’s private lives via their telephones, personal mail, office files, and so forth.35

The Holt FBI material reveals that Henry Holt & Co. had been running manuscripts by Hoover for decades, seeking his explicit approval on authors and his advanced sanction on works and topics under consideration by the press. Once he approved a book for production, Hoover insisted on getting advance copies of page proofs or galleys, and orchestrated the details of Holt’s advertising and marketing campaigns. The Henry Holt FBI File numbers 234 pages, and although it was opened by FBI agents in May 1949—after the octogenarian book publisher who founded the company had been dead for more than twenty years, and after his sons Roland, Henry, Jr., and Elliot had already quit the book business and gone on to other work—the file stands out as one of the most astonishing bureau files released under Freedom of Information Act provisions in the late 20th century.

More a scrutinizing record of the “loyalty” of the Holt firm than a bureau dossier on the publisher, evidence in the file reveals that over the course of at least thirty-six years—roughly from 1936 until J. Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972—the director held considerable sway over the firm, and approved the contracting or publication of most books dealing with the FBI, communism, or anti-communism. By the 1950s, remarkably, he was manipulating the firm, gouging its marketing and production divisions, and extorting thousands of dollars from the company by ordering hundreds (and hundreds) of copies at a time of his books Masters of Deceit (1958) and A Study of Communism (1962) at an author’s discount of 46 percent, a rate offered to authors of textbooks marketed through the firm’s School Division.36 He insisted in letters to the firm that the company respond favorably to organizations requesting permission to reproduce full or partial chapters of his work, with no apparent concern over what those cost-free arrangements would do to the company’s proprietary rights or revenues.

In matters regarding his own books, Hoover continually questioned the validity of the firm’s billing, kept his accounts in arrears, bullied the firm into translating his work into “such little-known languages as Assamese, Bengali, Burmese, Gujarati, Kannaba [sic], Laotian, Marathi, Punjabi, Pushtu, and many others,”37 and strong-armed reluctant Holt executives into discussing and negotiating uncomfortable “special price arrangements” with such reprint publishers as Pocket Books, Inc., on his behalf. Even the simplest mention from a bureau higher-up of one of Hoover’s requests would send Holt & Co. into a production frenzy, as Clyde Tolson’s boldly coercive “Dear Ed” letter to Holt president Edgar T. Rigg in October, 1959, suggests:

When [name blacked out] visited Mr. Hoover this morning, he expressed an intense interest in seeing that a paperback edition of ‘Masters of Deceit’ printed in the Spanish language is published in Latin American countries, and he plans to get in touch with you soon regarding this matter. We naturally are grateful for his interest, and I trust you will give serious consideration to his desires.38

Before the year was through, within a matter of months in fact, Holt & Co. had remarkably published, and likely at great cost, Maestros del engaño: Revelaciones del director de la FBI, a Spanish edition of the bureau director’s book.

J. Edgar Hoover and his associate and deputy directors, Clyde Tolson and “Deke” DeLoach (the latter his publicity chief and later head of Crime Records), used other maneuvers to keep Rigg’s attention squarely focused on Hoover’s books, and sometimes invented reasons for the publication of new editions of his work, running these ideas by Rigg and the firm’s trade department. One particular memo in the Holt file outlines the idea of a contest for American high school seniors who would submit essays inspired by Masters of Deceit. The winners, the memo suggests, could receive new special editions of the book. Other memos in the file allude to even more special editions. One memo shows that Hoover approved a special edition of Masters of Deceit for use by Young Americans for Freedom Inc., and that their edition differed significantly from “the very special edition” prepared for Constructive Action, Inc. One wonders how Holt & Co. could support these requests, and how the firm kept up with the unremitting “suggestions” about foreign language translations, paperback editions, reprints, special editions, and so forth. How did it manage these requests fiscally, and how did the firm accommodate Hoover in the face of its usually tight production schedules? Certainly the publishing house had hundreds of other books to get out and countless other authors to court and faun over.

The extensive Henry Holt FBI file also reveals that Holt & Co. employees kept in personal contact with Hoover and communicated with the director on a first-name basis. Rigg, for example, wrote Hoover on October 21, 1959, to importune, “Please keep up the good work. Please keep showing us the way.”39 Another employee insider wrote at the end of one letter to Hoover, “I am beginning to feel like a member of the FBI myself,” presumably on account of all the information the writer had supplied him.40 Another assured Hoover in a letter, “As to the policy of our publishing house, we have only one, and that is that we will not publish books that we consider detrimental to the best interests of this country … Year by year so many of this nation’s ideals and aims are being chopped away by anti-Americans or non-thinking Americans that it is frightening.”41 Employees also sent Hoover tips about people “who should be closely watched.”42 One message to Hoover typed on letterhead from the trade department, for example, ended with the writer’s conviction, “I have no hesitancy in bringing [this] to your attention.”43

To reinforce and reiterate the bureau’s “lean” on Holt & Co., Hoover sent the company president newspaper clippings and articles about publishing houses, organizations, or associations that he felt had turned in a wrong direction. “Dear Ed: I thought you might be interested in the attached copy of an article which appeared in today’s Washington Post and Times-Herald entitled ‘Legion Unit Now Backs Red Studies’. With kind regards, Sincerely, Edgar.”44 The clipping describes a reversal of the long-standing American Legion policy against teaching anything about communism in public schools. Rigg responded to Hoover two weeks later, thanking him not only for his letter with the American Legion clipping but also for a previous letter and clipping as well. Rigg added some brief information about a book project and wrote, “I have also heard from [entire line blacked out] who wants to see [the] proofs when available. You can be sure this will all be followed carefully. My best, Ed.”45

The publishing company’s relationship with the bureau and with J. Edgar Hoover in particular likely troubles 21st-century readers. We do not want to think of a publisher so driven and compelled by Hoover that he would follow his instructions carefully. But Rigg did, and we cannot help but wonder what other publishing firms Hoover and his men may have been leaning on at this time, to what extent, and to what end. We know that Hoover avidly began to “develop” informants in the publishing industry after the 1950 publication of Max Lowenthal’s The Federal Bureau of Investigation, an “unauthorized” book published by ex–Holt & Co. editor William M. Sloane. Hoover had not seen Lowenthal’s book coming, and not only was he caught off guard by what he considered a surprise attack, but also he was furious at his agents’ oversight. William C. Sullivan, who rose to become one of the bureau’s assistant directors in the 1960s, wrote that after the Lowenthal debacle, “‘we developed informants in the publishing houses’. These were not necessarily lower-level employees. They included at least two publishers, Henry Holt [sic; already dead] and Bennett Cerf.”46

By constantly checking up on American publishers, by red-flagging their titles, by bullying and harassing them about who could and could not write about the FBI, Hoover and his men cultivated an industry atmosphere grounded in anxiety and rank with panic and dread. This culture allowed them to pull the strings of some of the most important and influential publishers, editors, and writers of the 20th century. Richard Hack’s 2004 biography of J. Edgar Hoover, entitled Puppetmaster, certainly acknowledges the sort of string pulling that was symptomatic of Hoover’s reign.

Yet even while wielding such formidable control, Hoover was marionetted by his own paranoia, which grew by leaps and bounds as his tenure in the bureau matured. An episode detailed in the Holt file substantiates the extent of his obsession. A February 20, 1958, letter from Rigg to Clyde Tolson delicately reminds Tolson that Hoover said he would be glad to autograph copies of Masters of Deceit for some Holt employees. Rigg wrote,

Needless to say, everyone would like to have one, but I have listed below those who worked very closely on the book and who would certainly be proud to have such a personalized copy. [A list of nine employees follows; names blacked out]. I certainly appreciate Mr. Hoover’s offer and hope that this is not too much of a bother for him.

Paperwork in the Holt file indicates that signed copies were mailed to the firm five days later, but not before the bureau ran background checks on those nine lucky Holt employees and opened bureau files on every last one of them. They, too, would fall under bureau scrutiny, and the simple notation that they held autographed copies of Hoover’s book would follow them for decades. One such Holt employee, for example, wrote to the bureau some years later to ask whether he and his family could have a tour of bureau headquarters, since they planned to visit the nation’s capital. The request is duly noted in the Holt file, as are descriptions of the man’s wife, his nine-year-old son, and that autographed 1958 edition of Masters of Deceit.47 Such was Hoover’s desire to maintain records on everything, even on matters that seem, now, incidental.

Another revelation in the file is that Hoover and his agents were clearly warehousing Masters of Deceit and stockpiling discounted copies of the book, which they would then sell at full price to bureau employees, to new agents in training, and to “good friends of the Bureau.” The bureau ordered five hundred or one thousand copies at a time from Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and placed coterminous orders even before invoices reflecting previous shipments had arrived. The following special note to Hoover’s secretary, Helen W. Gandy, was typed across the bottom of the office copy of a November 18, 1960, letter to the publishing company requesting another thousand copies of the book, and certainly indicates the outlandish extent of the bureau’s reserve:

NOTE: Regardless of the fact that we have at this time 1,200 copies of “Masters of Deceit” on hand, it is felt we should place this additional order immediately. SAC [Frank] Price in a letter received today requested that 175 copies be sent to him for the city and county schools of San Diego, as well as 69 books for employees in his office. It was felt better to have them shipped from New York than to use our supply at Headquarters.

By 1962, the bureau had the ordering and reordering of books down to a science, and micromanaged every aspect of the Holt, Rinehart and Winston shipments. Clyde Tolson wrote to Holt in 1962, “At this time I would like to order a thousand additional copies of ‘Masters of Deceit’ with the usual six-months’ extended billing. Please bill these to us in lots of 500 books to each invoice.”

It is worth pointing out that all of these bloated sales orders and warehoused copies of the book drove Hoover’s royalties up significantly. Tolson added to the same 1962 memo an underlined postscript that read, “I would appreciate your advising me from which city the books will be sent, the method of transportation and the name of the transportation company.” One cannot help but picture a roomful of agents scrupulously mapping out the route of Hoover’s books as the cartons make their way to bureau headquarters, applying the same methodical scrupulousness to this task that they would use to track the movements of Public Enemy #1.

This overdetermined degree of scrupulous mapping and tracking continues today, especially at the NSA and other departments in the National Security Complex where not only are American people considered “problems” but so, too, are our allies and international world leaders who are spied on, tracked, data-breached, and hacked into. “Problems” apparently abound, and to handle these problems, oppressive state history repeats itself and is replicated over and over again in the name of “citizen protection” and “actionable intelligence” that can prevent acts of terrorism.

The modern writers and artists whom J. Edgar Hoover so doggedly pursued believed that literature could promote peace, and they crafted their work so that it could enter squarely into political discussions and inspire, if not bring about, change. Hoover saw the dangers there, but he did not believe that literature could promote peace; he believed that only policing could promote peace. Hoover was policing for peace at the very time that modern writers and other artists were trying to formulate new kinds of responses to industrialization, to changes in technology, to world wars, and to depersonalization, alienation, mechanization, and popular culture, as well as to the new theories of psychoanalysis and mass human behavior, such as those developed by Sigmund Freud. Modern literature was a movement known, among other things, for its experimentation with forms, styles, and voices; for its efforts to articulate crises of authority, anxiety, and frustration with mass culture; for its exploration of sexuality, eroticism, and the libidinal currents that give shape to the subjects and styles of the movement; for and its frank examination of sexual energies and its openness in treating as literary subjects what Hoover would certainly have called “errant” or “deviant” sexualities. It is also characterized by the courageous willingness of writers and artists to confront and challenge the structures of capitalism and to enter into political debate about its failures and its degeneracy.

Hoover was convinced that this kind of literature, modern literature, could destabilize what he often referred to in his pamphlets, radio talks, or Reader’s Digest pieces as “the American Way of Life,” and he was certain that it threatened American democracy and fueled “anxiety about an imperiled heritage.”48 He could not allow literature to continue to sway the public, to “speak” to them; so he manipulated modern writers, harassed them, and terrified them to the extent that they often moved out of America: writers such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. He hounded musicians, too, for the same reasons, because they were bent on promoting peace: Paul Robeson and John Lennon.

What’s Old Is New Again: A Return to Mass Surveillance

In the early years of the 21st century in the United States, we find ourselves at an interesting yet scary crossroad. It seems that we have been brought around to Hoover’s way of thinking: that policing keeps us safe, and that the government once again needs to start collecting and collating material on its citizens. We can work to protect our privacy today by using encryption and by doing things like opting out or using anonymizing software, but new technologies are being invented every day that will outpace us. Julia Angwin, in her 2014 Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance cites David Brin’s notion of sousveillance and argues that “the only thing that will blunt the rise of the surveillance state is the rise of what [Brin] calls ‘sousveillance,’ in which citizens monitor the government from below as aggressively as the government monitors them from above.”49

All the new terms that have been invented recently and added to our vocabulary to describe our brave new world have become commonplace, terms like “total surveillance,” “the unwanted gaze,” “the transparent society,” “the politics of visibility” “dataveillance” and “microtechniques of surveillance.” We live in a world of relentless surveillance, “in a world where we can be watched in our own homes, where we can no longer keep secrets, and where we can be impersonated, financially manipulated, or even placed in a police lineup.”50 Angwin reports on the tragic flaw of “privacy” in the digital age: “Privacy is often defined as freedom from unauthorized intrusion. But many of the things that feel like privacy violations are ‘authorized’” somewhere by someone or some institutional entity or algorithmic enterprise.51 In fact, databases can now “talk” to one another and in doing so, they create the capacity for decentralized dataveillance, indiscriminately sweeping up one’s personal data.52

Angwin argues that the greatest long-term danger is that we start to internalize the surveillance and censor our words and thoughts, or rethink what we are about to do or where we are about to go, until we lose and surrender our freedom altogether. Her book details a series of experiments that she has conducted to try to protect her privacy, such as quitting using Google and carrying a “burner” cellphone, and she shows how difficult, near-impossible, it is for the average citizen to resist the dragnet’s reach. In fact, she points out that data tracking is so ubiquitous in this information economy that people’s data—their age, gender, location—are now worth only a fraction of a cent, and that the sum total of information about most people—the big stuff: their credit scores, their shopping habits, their social security numbers, information on their laptops, phones, and so forth—now sells for less than a dollar. In fact, she discovered that the sum total of information about her was worth a tragic twenty-eight cents.53

As Angwin notes, “We are living in Dragnet Nation—a world of indiscriminate tracking where institutions are stockpiling data about individuals at an unprecedented pace.”54 That “indiscriminate stockpiling” just got a lot more frightening and disturbing: A new Barbie doll was introduced to the toy market just in time for the 2015 gift-giving season. It is the Hello Barbie, which uses artificial intelligence to make conversations with six- to eight-year-olds, Mattel’s target market. The Hello Barbie can remember a child’s answers in conversations with her by accessing digitally stored memories that have been uploaded to the Cloud, and “use them for conversation starters days or weeks later.”55 One of the eight thousand or so scripted lines commends heavy readers in the family, saying, “You’re a lover of the literary!”

Would J. Edgar Hoover, if he were listening in (and someone is), think that this enthusiastic reader was likely a dangerous citizen? Amanda Zink suggests that the only positive aspect of the Hello Barbie is that the doll will “[acclimate] children early on to a technology that is certain to pervade our future.”56

Further Reading

Angwin, Julia. Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.Find this resource:

Culleton, Claire A., and Karen Leick, eds. Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920–1950. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.Find this resource:

Donner, Frank. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Greenberg, Ivan. Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.Find this resource:

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

Medsger, Betty L. The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. New York: Vintage, 2014.Find this resource:

Melley, Timothy. The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Robins, Natalie. Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Rosen, David, and Aaron Santesso. The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Regin. Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919–1943. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Theoharis, Athan G., ed. From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1993.Find this resource:

Vaughan, Brian, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente. The Private Eye. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2015.Find this resource:

Weiner, Tim. Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) An allusion to the opening of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where he states that the “problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” and says that although no one asks him this out loud because it is a delicate matter, what white America wants to know is, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

(2.) Tim Dwyer, Convergent Media and Privacy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 3.

(3.) Olivia Laing, “The Future of Loneliness,” The Guardian (April 1, 2015).

(4.) Ivan Greenberg, Surveillance in America. Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 135.

(5.) CitizenFour, Laura Poitras, director (HBO Films, 2015).

(6.) Laing, “The Future of Loneliness.”

(7.) Matthew J. X. Malady, “The Ghosts in Our Machines," The New Yorker (October 22, 2015).

(10.) Adrienne Lafrance, “People’s Deepest, Darkest Google Searches Are Being Used Against Them,” The Atlantic (November 2015).

(11.) Dwyer, Convergent Media and Privacy, p. 64.

(12.) Alan Ryan, “The Good Patriots."

(13.) David Rosenand Aaron Santesso, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 1.

(14.) Ibid., p. 9.

(15.) Timothy Melley, The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 5.

(16.) Hoover was not alone in his mistrust of writers. Several books have been written about other state agencies keeping writers and artists under watchful eyes. James Smith’s British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930–1960 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013) is one such example.

(17.) Regin Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919–1943 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 50.

(18.) William Maxwell, F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 48.

(19.) William Beverly, On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 30.

(20.) Diarmuid Jeffreys, Inside the Modern FBI: The Bureau (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 55.

(21.) Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 47.

(22.) Natalie Robins, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 33.

(23.) Sanford Unger, FBI (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1975), 43.

(24.) Maxwell, F. B. Eyes, p. 7.

(25.) Jeffrey Meyers, “Wanted by the FBI!” New York Review of Books (March 31, 1983), p. 17.

(26.) Maxwell, F. B. Eyes, p. 44.

(27.) Powers, Secrecy and Power, p. 20.

(29.) Quoted in Greenberg, Surveillance in America, p. 174. Howard Zinn, in his 1993 article “The Federal Bureau of Intimidation,” referred to the FBI as nothing but a bunch of “garbologists” who ransack through people’s garbage pails. See CovertAction Quarterly 47 (Winter 1993–1994).

(30.) Maxwell, F. B. Eyes, p. 50.

(31.) Ibid., p. 51.

(32.) Ibid., p. 47.

(33.) Quoted in Ellen D. Gilbert, The House of Holt, 1866–1946: A Documentary Volume, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 284 (Florence: Gale Group, 2003), 117.

(34.) Donald Sheehan, This Was Publishing: A Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1952), 14.

(35.) Schmidt, Red Scare, p. 85. For those interested in the provenance of this article, I became interested in FBI files when I wrote and asked the FBI if it had kept any files on the Irish modernist writer James Joyce, because I am first and foremost a James Joyce scholar and was looking for a new project. After three years of back and forth correspondence with the bureau, including an exchange with someone there who wanted to know whether or not I could prove that Joyce was dead, his file arrived and it was entirely blacked out. I suspected that I might be onto something. Subsequently, I began requesting through the Freedom of Information Act the FBI files of other modern writers and those of Joyce’s friends, associates, publishers, lawyers, and so forth. In 2004 I published Joyce and the G-Men: J. Edgar Hoover’s Manipulation of Modernism. What surprised me the most during my research was how deeply Hoover had his hand in the pockets of American publishing houses, manipulating editors and beleaguering their staff, most notoriously, it seemed to me, at the publishing house of Henry Holt & Company.

(36.) Correspondence in the Holt Archive at Princeton University’s Firestone Library indicates that authors publishing textbooks through the firm’s School Division received author’s discounts of up to 50 percent, and A Study of Communism was a high school textbook. For trade books, though, an author’s discount was rarely as high as Hoover’s 46 percent. Former bureau assistant director William C. Sullivan says that he was “one of six Bureau employees who ‘put together’ Masters of Deceit, the book [that] made the Director very rich, though most people thought he had given away his royalties to charity … Hoover was annoyed when he found himself in a higher tax bracket because of those royalties” (Robins, Alien Ink, p. 278).

(37.) Holt FBI file, Letter to Tolson, November 28, 1966.

(38.) Ibid., October 4, 1959.

(40.) Ibid., November 6, 1961. Name is blacked out in the file.

(41.) Ibid., November 22, 1950. Name is blacked out in the FBI file. The writer is likely William E. Buckley.

(42.) Ibid., February 1, 1962.

(43.) Ibid. Name is blacked out in the FBI file.

(44.) Ibid., November 22, 1957.

(45.) Holt FBI file, December 10, 1957.

(46.) Quoted in Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 387.

(47.) Holt FBI file, May 10, 1966.

(48.) Quoted in Schmidt, Red Scare, p. 11.

(49.) Julia Angwin, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015), 214.

(50.) Ibid., p. 6.

(51.) Ibid., p. 3.

(53.) Ibid., p. 216.

(54.) Ibid., p. 3.

(55.) James Vlahos, “Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child,” New York Times Magazine (September 16, 2015).