Dangerous minds: The writers hounded by the FBI


Allen Ginsberg on a protest for legalising marijuana in New York, 1965

From James Baldwin to Susan Sontag: the American authors labelled enemies of the state. 

American exceptionalism kicked off with a defining statement from John Winthrop, the first governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early decades of the 17th century. Surveying the wilderness in front of him – the eastern edge of a continent that was the ultimate terra incognita – Winthrop vaingloriously noted: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

How ironic that the most platitudinous of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, chose to cite Winthrop’s commentary in one of his most oft-quoted speeches. Did Reagan’s preferred scribe, Peggy Noonan, realise she was borrowing a statement from the head of a puritanical hierarchy; a group that thought nothing about clapping non-believers in the stocks, hanging heretics for preaching the benign tenets of Quakerism, burning witches, and running its highly theocratic colony in a manner not dissimilar from the Taliban several centuries later? The Grand Guignol grotesqueries of religious fanaticism are indeed timeless.

No wonder that those men of the enlightenment who wrote the American Constitution – Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin – were so insistent on the separation of church and state. Because they knew of the pious monomania (and the tendency toward mob zealotry) that were ingrained from the start within the national body politic. No wonder that the first truly landmark American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), examined the public shaming of a New England innocent, Hester Prynne, forced to wear the letter A around her neck after being falsely accused of adultery in Puritan-era Massachusetts. No wonder that, 100 years after Hawthorne published his daring riposte to that very American need for communal moral self-righteousness, the absolute evil of the McCarthyite witch hunt commenced. Spearheaded by the deeply dipsomaniac and demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, it insisted on its victims wearing the metaphoric equivalent of a red C (for Commie) around their neck.

More telling was the denunciation system he devised, which was ethically so pernicious. If the alleged leftist did not name names and reveal their one-time fellow travellers, he or she would be placed on a blacklist and rendered unemployable. And the victim knew that, besides committing an act of professional suicide, such moral heroism would count for nought among those executives in Hollywood or New York who controlled the cultural landscape.

Of course, McCarthy overstepped the moral mark and ended up in disgrace, dying from massive cirrhosis of the liver shortly after his scorched earth crusade against the Red Scare was exposed as a total sham. But though there was much communal hand-wringing in the wake of the blacklist, political concern about artists as subversives continued under more clandestine circumstances, especially given that the man wielding the most power within the American secret state, J Edgar Hoover – the infamous director of the FBI for more than 36 very long years – ran this national intelligence organisation as his private fiefdom. 

Hoover was, as the poet Theodore Roethke noted, “the head of our thought police – a martinet, a preposterous figure”. He was also a virulent anti-Communist who relished exposing the sexual inclinations of those under his investigation. He was especially preoccupied with gay men who expressed allegedly subversive views (ie writers). Then again, he himself was a man with just a few private contradictions: Mr Oedipus Complex who lived with his mother until her death (when he was well into middle age), who was rumoured to enjoy cross-dressing and had a male consort who might just have been his lover. And, of course, he was someone who deeply subscribed to the theory (popular among arch-patriotic Yahoos) that there was a direct link between communism and homosexuality… thus leading to the following variation on a joke I heard years back while working in the theatre in New York: “Is J Edgar Hoover gay? Oh no, no, not at all. But his boyfriend is gay.”

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