Writers Under Surveillance
The FBI Files
400 pp., 8 x 11 in,
- Published: September 18, 2018
- Publisher: The MIT Press
FBI files on writers with dangerous ideas, including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin.
Writers are dangerous. They have ideas. The proclivity of writers for ideas drove the FBI to investigate many of them—to watch them, follow them, start files on them. Writers under Surveillance gathers some of these files, giving readers a surveillance-state perspective on writers including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Obtained with Freedom of Information Act requests by MuckRock, a nonprofit dedicated to freeing American history from the locked filing cabinets of government agencies, the files on these authors are surprisingly wide ranging; the investigations were as broad and varied as the authors' own works. James Baldwin, for example, was so openly antagonistic to the state's security apparatus that investigators followed his every move. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, was likely unaware that the Bureau had any interest in his work. (Bradbury was a target because an informant warned that science fiction was a Soviet plot to weaken American resolve.) Ernest Hemingway, true to form, drunkenly called the FBI Nazis and sissies. The files have been edited for length and clarity, but beyond that everything in the book is pulled directly from investigatory files. Some investigations lasted for years, others just a few days. Some are thrilling narratives. Others never really go anywhere. Some are funny, others quite harrowing. Despite the federal government's periodic admission of past wrongdoing, investigations like these will probably continue to happen. Like all that seems best forgotten, the Bureau's investigation of writers should be remembered. We owe it to ourselves.
Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Tom Clancy, W. E. B. Du Bois, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Susan Sontag, Terry Southern, Hunter S. Thompson, Gore Vidal
The only surprise missing from this important book is that the FBI failed to investigate Santa Claus for wearing red. Read this book and be overwhelmed by the FBI's invasion of our lives.
Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations
Writers Under Surveillance is a reminder that ideas are the foundation of power and that it is often those who influence the ideas of others that the government attempts to watch, harass, or silence. It is an indispensable collection showing us, page by page, that freedom is fragile.
DeRay Mckesson, host, Pod Save the People; and cofounder, Campaign Zero
The leaks, lies, and ill-gotten confessions documented in Writers Under Surveillance double as a lively and revealing alternative history of twentieth-century U.S. literature. The collection proves that the national security state chased and anthologized the cutting edge of American writing all the way from Ernest Hemingway to Susan Sontag, modernism to postmodernism, libertarianism to communism, and back again.
William J. Maxwell, Professor of English, Washington University in St. Louis, author of F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, and editor of James Baldwin: The FBI File.
…in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, we get a look at some of the facts and hearsay that was gathered on 16 prominent authors. It's a fascinating and at times hilarious book. You could argue that it's an important one, too.
Writers under Surveillance is a quaint collection, charmingly reproducing the documents in facsimile, typewritten, stamped and annotated.
London Review of Books