Spy Novelists: Doris Lessing and James Baldwin Under Surveillance


Surveillance files of literary authors recently made available or recently scoured have revealed postwar British and American states comically (and scarily) out of touch with the discourses and lifestyles they sought to monitor. In both cases, the intelligence reports read like lackluster literary objects.

Doris Lessing

Recently released intelligence reports from MI5, seen last week by Vice and the Guardian, show that Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing was the subject of domestic surveillance for 20 years, from the early 1940s to the 1960s. The files indicate that the British security service tapped Lessing’s phone, tracked her movements at home and abroad, and tampered with and opened her personal mail.

Lessing seems to have been brought to MI5’s attention during the first years of her literary career, when she married Left Book Club stalwart Gottfried Lessing. At the time, Lessing lived with her husband in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she was raised. Later, her surveillance would be attributed in part to her upbringing there, as well as her anti-colonial politics and devotion to the Communist party, although surveillance of Lessing continued long after she publicly denounced the party and forfeited her affiliation.

“Her communist sympathies have been fanned almost to the point of fanaticism owing to her upbringing in Rhodesia,” an MI5/MI6 “character sketch” of Lessing wrote. Also: “Colonial exploitation is her pet theme and she has now nearly become as irresponsible in her statements as… saying that everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.”

The MI5 files also describe life in Lessing’s London flat, which, it explains, was visited by “persons of various nationality… including Americans, Indians, Chinese and Negroes.” It concludes with the observation: “It is possible that the flat is being used for immoral purposes.”

For a much more interesting memoir about Lessing’s life, see Jenny Diski’s recently un-paywalled pieces at the London Review of Books, where she admittedly, intelligently — in a way that somehow makes more sense after learning of the vast scope of MI5’s surveillance — plays “hide and seek with the truth.”

James Baldwin

“What is perhaps most interesting about the Baldwin dossier,” writes Hannah K. Gold for The Intercept, “is that it reads like a long, poorly written novel itself — it is, in every sense, fiction produced by the state.”

That the FBI subjected James Baldwin to surveillance during the same years that MI5 tracked Lessing was already known, but Gold’s piece looks at a new biography — All Those Strangers by Douglas Field — that “decodes” intelligence reports on Baldwin with “great literary and historical finesse.”

The takeaway is that his identity alone — black, queer, and professedly leftist — was enough to make him a target for the agency, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee any sort of accurate knowledge of his work:

Yet looking at his FBI file, even the most basic facts of his life are riddled with inaccuracies. There is, for instance, a description of Baldwin as “white, early 20s, 6′, neat.” In another file, Baldwin is listed as the author of “Go Tell It to the Mountains” and “Another World.” His first and third novels are in fact titled Go Tell It On The Mountain and Another Country.

Of course, the literary-critical element of surveillance was a concerted part of the Hooverite program, one that William J. Maxwell, writing for The American Reader, has called Total Literary Awareness:

[Total Literary Awareness] sought precocious knowledge of all published threats to the state…Back in the U.S.A., the impulse was to know enough of domestic publishing to screen suspicious books before they reached the shelves. Despite its predictable failure to regulate the whole of U.S. literature, TLA equipped Bureau spy-criticism with newfound reach and muscle.

As a result, Maxwell points out, literary publishers including Henry Holt reinforced Hoover’s “custodial relationship” with the publishing apparatus, even sending him “page proofs to advance copies” of forthcoming books.

Along these same lines, Patrick Iber at The Awl ranks literary magazines funded by the CIA.