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Two fascinating new books search the dregs of the past

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James Baldwin: The FBI File

Author: Edited by William J. Maxwell
Publisher: Arcade Publishing

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Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761-1767

Author: Thorkild Hansen
Publisher: New York Review Books

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At 1,814 pages, the FBI file on the novelist and essayist James Baldwin may be the longest and most obsessive ever put together by a federal agency about an American writer; for comparison, the file on Henry Miller, the author of more than half a dozen books banned on grounds of obscenity, is just 10 pages, counting the cover sheet that just lists his name, while the one on Ray Bradbury repeatedly misidentifies him as “Roy.” That is to say, the Bureau’s Baldwin fetish had nothing to do with an interest in significant mid-20th century American literature. Or to put it cheekily, as Washington University In St. Louis professor William J. Maxwell does in his introduction to James Baldwin: The FBI File, the dossier “contains no evidence that J. Edgar Hoover ever remarked on Baldwin’s generous sentence lengths.” No, it had everything to with the fact that Baldwin was black, gay, and unapologetic about having a political conscience.

Edited by Maxwell, a specialist in the subject of FBI surveillance of black writers, and, apparently, endearing but groan-worthy professor-dad humor (his last book was titled F.B. Eyes), James Baldwin: The FBI File condenses the dossier to about a hundred choice documents. This still makes it the size of small-town phone book, with the pages of the file reproduced in all of their stamped, Xeroxed, hand-corrected, FOIA’d glory—what Maxwell alliteratively dubs the “Bureau biography of Baldwin.” But is this fascinating book really a record of Baldwin? Or of the FBI under Hoover? Not that it can’t be both, but it’s definitely one thing more than the other. Like Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, The FBI File comes to us in the middle of a resurgence of interest in all things Baldwin, and Maxwell spends his introduction quoting tweets and stumping for the author as an intellectual progenitor of Black Lives Matter. But he also makes it clear that the focus of his scholarship is black art as seen by the most powerful organs of reactionary paranoia and privileged neurosis.

Among all the newspaper clippings, informant debriefings, and typewritten reports included in The FBI File is an anonymous postcard sent to the FBI in the wake of the 1964 Harlem riots, when people took to the streets to demand the arrest of a white off-duty police lieutenant who shot and killed a black teenager. This postcard claims that the rioting was instigated by “foreign, immigrant Trotzkyites [sic] married to US citizens,” adding that “a number of Negroid Jews resembling Castro are involved” and that “also, Jas. Baldwin is responsible.” There, too, is a 1970 letter from a concerned citizen who found a years-old magazine with an article that mentioned Baldwin (and then only in passing) on a table at their teenage daughter’s church group. One might presume that this is just a matter of the Bureau having to log every tinfoil-hatted nut who came its way out of protocol.

Baldwin backstage at the ANTA Playhouse in New York, April 1964. (Photo: Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images)

But no, the postcard is appended with a report that recommends that its sender be found and interviewed. And while the church group letter was given only a pro forma response, the files indicate that it was personally read by Hoover and thoroughly investigated. “Never let it be said that Hoover’s FBI was indifferent to the critical inquiries of undistinguished Americans,” jokes Maxwell. This all happened at a time when Immigration And Naturalization Service agents were required to report to the Bureau any time they saw Baldwin in an airport. His name was on the Security Index, a top-secret list of individuals who would be apprehended and interned in the event of a national emergency. This list, it should be noted, ran to 15,000 names.

There is a classic story, only about the length of this paragraph, by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called “On Exactitude In Science.” In it, Borges describes a forgotten empire whose pursuit of the art of cartography led to the creation of larger and more detailed maps, until a single map was drawn that covered its holdings on a 1:1 scale. Philosophers love this story, of course, for the questions it poses. A literal reading might conclude that the life-size map was useless, but any good post-structuralist will tell you that it was the map and not the territory that it covered that was the real empire (though perhaps they wouldn’t use the word “real” so loosely), because any imperium worth its salt is really just a bunch of representations—documents, records, maps—that are enforced as reality and left behind as history. And Borges, mischief-making meta-fictionalist that he was, presents his story as a fragment from an imaginary 17th-century book.

If we ignore the political timeliness of James Baldwin: The FBI File and imagine it as a Borges-ian palimpsest—a fictional academic’s commentary on the files kept on an imaginary author by an imaginary secret police—then the map question rears itself again, as it does in New York Review Books’ new reprint of Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761-1767, the Danish writer Thorkild Hansen’s 1962 nonfiction book about a disastrous six-man mission dispatched by Frederick V to what is now Yemen. Though Hansen, who is best known for his trilogy of books about Denmark’s role in the African slave trade, wasn’t a trained historian, he relied extensively on original research and primary sources to write what have been termed “documentary novels,” filling in gaps in the historical record with passages of historical fiction. Perhaps this isn’t all that different from the work of a conventional historian.

Detail of a map of Yemen created after the Danish expedition. (Image: Wikimedia)

His portrayal of the personalities involved in the expedition is droll in a way that seems classically Scandinavian, drawing the reader into the narrative through winks and wry asides. (“The two Danes on the Danish expedition cut a miserable figure, which is no doubt why nothing has been written about them in Denmark.”) But the forgotten story that he relates is that of another useless map—of a journey that winds through North Africa, the Middle East, and plenty of extrapolation to leave only one survivor, who returns to a different political climate and an indifferent public. If the final chapter of Arabia Felix is easily the most poignant point of the book, it may be because it’s very easy for someone writing about history to imagine the anxieties and disappointments of a traveler who sees his knowledge of distant lands being ignored and rejected. And if the Danish expedition to Yemen hadn’t failed, Hansen would have no story.

One can’t resist drawing a parallel between exploration and surveillance as the pursuits of different eras, dominion exerted through the information-gathering—the precise cartography of the landscape giving way to obsessive records of comings and goings. And yet in some ways they are not at all alike, because the map, for all of its usefulness as a metaphor, is not some kind of inherently oppressive instrument. And if it’s inaccurate, it fails—a fact that gives Arabia Felix’s underlying conflict, between the success of the expedition as a scientific enterprise and the personal failure (or, in most cases, death) of all involved. But the sort of paranoid information-hoarding chronicled in James Baldwin: The FBI File never fails, even if the information itself is inaccurate. The point is control.