William Maxwell photo

William J. Maxwell

Professor of English and of African and African-American Studies
Director of English Undergraduate Studies
PhD, Duke University
MA, Duke University
BA, Columbia University
research interests:
  • African American Literature
  • Modern and Contemporary American Literature
  • Modernism
  • US and Diasporan Cultural and Political History
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contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
  • CB 1122
  • One Brookings Dr.
  • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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Professor Maxwell's scholarly research, rooted in both modernist and African-American studies, addresses the ties among African-American writing, political history, and transatlantic culture.

William J. Maxwell, a professor at Washington University since 2009, teaches courses in 20th- and 21st-century American and African American literatures. His articles and reviews have appeared in academic and popular journals including African American ReviewThe American Historical Review, American Literary HistoryAmerican LiteratureCallalooHarper’sThe Irish TimesThe Journal of American HistoryModernism/modernityPoliticoPublishers WeeklySalon, and the London Times Literary Supplement. His longer writing has received the American Book Award and book-of-the-year citations from Choice and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Maxwell is now at work on two books. With Gary Holcomb, he is preparing the first-ever publication of Claude McKay’s lost novel Romance in Marseille, to be released by Penguin Classics in February 2020.  He is also writing Suburban Ferguson, a memoir-history of white reactions to Black Lives Matter that examines the national tide of backlash culture as well as his experiences in St. Louis after the death of Michael Brown.      

Maxwell has published four books. The first, New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars, issued by Columbia University Press in 1999, entered the debate over the involvement of African American writers in 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 and still remains in print.

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 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 Book Prize, selected as an Outstanding Academic Title 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). Also exploring the links between the Bureau and black literature, Maxwell’s fourth book, James Baldwin: The FBI File, published by Arcade in 2017, examined the ongoing Baldwin revival while diving deeply into a single FBI file, the longest yet discovered on an individual African American writer.

Maxwell has served on the MLA divisional committees on black American and 20th-century American literatures, and was elected as Second Vice President (and thus later president) of the international Modernist Studies Association (MSA) in 2018. 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.

Complete Poems

Complete Poems

Containing more than three hundred poems, including nearly a hundred previously unpublished works, this unique collection showcases the intellectual range of Claude McKay (1889-1948), the Jamaican-born poet and novelist whose life and work were marked by restless travel and steadfast social protest. McKay's first poems were composed in rural Jamaican creole and launched his lifelong commitment to representing everyday black culture from the bottom up. Migrating to New York, he reinvigorated the English sonnet and helped spark the Harlem Renaissance with poems such as "If We Must Die." After coming under scrutiny for his communism, he traveled throughout Europe and North Africa for twelve years and returned to Harlem in 1934, having denounced Stalin's Soviet Union. By then, McKay's pristine "violent sonnets" were giving way to confessional lyrics informed by his newfound Catholicism.

McKay's verse eludes easy definition, yet this complete anthology, vividly introduced and carefully annotated by William J. Maxwell, acquaints readers with the full transnational evolution of a major voice in twentieth-century poetry.

James Baldwin: The FBI File

James Baldwin: The FBI File

Decades before Black Lives Matter returned James Baldwin to prominence, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered the Harlem-born author the most powerful broker between black art and black power. Baldwin’s 1,884-page FBI file, covering the period from 1958 to 1974, was the largest compiled on any African American artist of the Civil Rights era. This collection of once-secret documents, never before published in book form, captures the FBI’s anxious tracking of Baldwin’s writings, phone conversations, and sexual habits—and Baldwin’s defiant efforts to spy back at Hoover and his G-men.

James Baldwin: The FBI File reproduces over one hundred original FBI records, selected by the noted literary historian whose award-winning book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, brought renewed attention to bureau surveillance. William J. Maxwell also provides an introduction exploring Baldwin's enduring relevance in the time of Black Lives Matter along with running commentaries that orient the reader and offer historical context, making this book a revealing look at a crucial slice of the American past—and present.

F.B. Eyes

F.B. Eyes

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 William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Taking his title from Richard Wright’s poem "The FB Eye Blues," Maxwell details how the FBI threatened the international travels of African American writers and prepared to jail dozens of them in times of national emergency. All the same, he shows that the Bureau’s paranoid style could prompt insightful criticism from Hoover’s ghostreaders and creative replies from their literary targets. For authors such as Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Sonia Sanchez, the suspicion that government spy-critics tracked their every word inspired rewarding stylistic experiments as well as disabling self-censorship.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

New Negro, Old Left

New Negro, Old Left

Howard "Stretch" Johnson, a charismatic Harlemite who graduated from Cotton Club dancer to Communist Party youth leader, once claimed that in late 1930s New York "75% of black cultural figures had Party membership or maintained regular meaningful contact with the Party." He stretched the truth, but barely. In a broad-ranging, revisionary account of the extensive relationship between African-American literary culture and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, William J. Maxwell uncovers both black literature's debt to Communism and Communism's debt to black literature—reciprocal obligations first incurred during the Harlem Renaissance.

Juxtaposing well-known and newly rediscovered works by Claude McKay, Andy Razaf, Mike Gold, Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nelson Algren, Maxwell maintains that the "Old," Soviet-allied Left promoted a spectrum of exchanges between black and white authors, genres, theories, and cultural institutions. Channels opened between radical Harlem and Bolshevik Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature. Claude McKay's 1922-23 pilgrimage to the Soviet Union, for example, usually recalled as a lighthearted adventure in radical tourism, actually jumpstarted the Comintern's controversial nation-centered program for Afro America. Breaking from studies governed by Cold War investments and pivoting on the Great Depression, Maxwell argues that Communism's rare sustenance for African-American initiative—not a seduction of Depression-scarred innocents—brought scores of literary "New Negroes" to the Old Left.