William J. Maxwell
Washington University in St. Louis
Campus Box 1122
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
African American Literature; Modern American Literature; Modernism; U.S. Cultural and Political History
William J. Maxwell arrived at Washington University in 2009 and teaches courses in twentieth-century American and African American literatures. His scholarly research, rooted in both modernist and African American studies, addresses the ties among African American writing, political history, and transatlantic culture. His articles and reviews have appeared in academic and popular journals including African American Review, The American Historical Review, American Literary History, American Literature, Callaloo, Harper’s, The Irish Times, The Journal of American History, Modernism/Modernity, Politico, and Publishers Weekly.
His first book, New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars, published by Columbia University Press in 1999, entered the debate over the heated dialogue between African American writers and the “Old,” pro-Soviet left. In contrast to prior studies of literary “Blacks and Reds,” New Negro, Old Left traced the source of the dialogue to the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance, a moment when the definition of the stridently modern New Negro and the direction of the young Soviet Union were still up for grabs and still imagined as related matters. New Negro, Old Left was named an Outstanding Academic Book of 1999 by Choice. Maxwell’s second book, an edition of Claude McKay’s Complete Poems, was published by the University of Illinois Press in various formats in 2004, 2008, and 2013. Containing more than 300 poems, including nearly a hundred previously unpublished works, the Complete Poems was the first comprehensive collection of the verse of this pioneer of the Harlem and West Indian cultural renaissances.
Maxwell’s third book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, was published by Princeton University Press in 2015. At first glance, few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as F.B. Eyes reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century. F.B. Eyes was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2015 by Choice and one of the twenty-five best nonfiction books of 2015 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The book’s companion website, “The F.B. Eyes Digital Archive," presents high-quality copies of 51 FBI files on African American authors and literary institutions obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Maxwell has served on the MLA divisional committees on black American and twentieth-century American literatures. A former book review editor of African American Review and member of the editorial board of American Literature, he is now a contributing editor at American Literary History.
- African-American Writers since the Harlem Renaissance
- American Literature, 1914-1945
- The American Radical Novel: Literature versus Inequality (writing-intensive class)
- How to Read a University (freshman seminar)
- Introduction to English Graduate Studies (graduate seminar)
- Modernisms in America
- The Sound of the Century: Popular Music and American Literature from Rag to Rap
- Transatlantic Modernisms: Theories of the New in History and Practice (graduate seminar)