William J. Maxwell
Washington University in St. Louis
Campus Box 1122
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
African American Literature; Modern and Contemporary American Literature; Modernism; U.S. and Black Diasporan Cultural and Political History
William J. Maxwell arrived at Washington University in 2009 and teaches courses in 20th- and 21st-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 books have been honored by the Before Columbus Foundation, the Modernist Studies Association, and Choice magazine.
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 histories of the subject, largely focused on the Great Depression, New Negro, Old Left traced the source of the “Black-Red thread” 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 unsettled 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 Containing more than 300 poems, including nearly a hundred previously unpublished works, the Complete Poems was the first comprehensive collection of the verse of this pioneer of the Harlem and West Indian cultural renaissances.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 exposed the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. F.B. Eyes was recognized by a 2016 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Modernist Studies Association (MSA) Book Prize, selected as an Outstanding Academic Title of 2015 by Choice, and named 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 is currently at work on two books about James Baldwin: an annotated edition of Baldwin’s extensive FBI file, forthcoming from Arcade in the summer of 2017; and a study of the ongoing Baldwin revival in the wake of Afro-pessimism and the “literary history of Black Lives Matter.”
Maxwell has served on the MLA divisional committees on black American and 20th-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)
- James Baldwin Now
- Modernisms in America
- Polishing and Publishing Scholarly Articles (graduate workshop)
- Popular Music and American Literature from Rag to Rap
- Tales of New York: Writing the Capital of the Twentieth Century
- Transatlantic Modernisms: Theories of the New in History and Practice (graduate seminar)