AN ARTICLE WEDNESDAY REPORTED INCORRECTLY THAT FBI FILES ON A NUMBER OF LIVING AMERICAN WRITERS HAD BEEN RELEASED TO THE NATION MAGAZINE CONTRIBUTOR NATALIE ROBINS. ACCORDING TO ROBINS, SHE HAS BEEN AUTHORIZED BY THE WRITERS TO VIEW THESE FILES BUT TO DATE ONLY THOSE OF NORMAN MAILER AND KAY BOYLE HAVE BEEN RELEASED. (Published 10/2/87)
For more than 50 years, the FBI and other federal agencies gathered massive intelligence files on some of America's most distinguished writers, apparently because their work or behavior was considered subversive, suspicious or unconventional, according to two forthcoming magazine articles.
The disclosures, based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, will be published this week -- apparently by coincidence -- in The New Yorker and The Nation magazines.
Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Pearl Buck, Archibald MacLeish, Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams and William Faulkner are among the scores of prominent writers whose work, personal associations and political sentiments piqued the interest of the FBI as early as the 1920s.
Although the government's interest in the activities of some of these writers, like Sandburg and Dos Passos, was known previously, the extent and tenacity of its efforts were not.
Excerpts from the files, as presented in both magazines, suggest that information about the writers was collected in a virtually indiscriminate manner, in most cases without apparent objective or official explanation. As is common with documents released under FOIA, many names, passages and even whole pages are blacked out, and requests for some individual documents are rejected outright.
Although the FBI opened dossiers -- some of them hundreds of pages long -- on many writers whose work expressed sympathy for the poor or solidarity with minorities, so-called "social realists" like Steinbeck and Dos Passos, the Bureau's curiosity about such figures as Hedda Hopper, Gertrude Stein and Truman Capote remains a mystery.
The author of The New Yorker article, journalist Herbert Mitgang, writes that "despite the millions of dollars spent on investigative man-hours and record-keeping, none of the writers -- more than fifty men and women -- whose dossiers I looked into were ever convicted of any crime attributed to them by the F.B.I. or other federal agencies."
Mitgang's account appears in the Oct. 5 issue of the magazine, on the newsstands today.
The Nation article includes a list of the 134 writers whose files were released to author Natalie Robins, who is preparing a book on the subject.
Several of the writers on her list are still alive, E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick, Howard Fast, Kay Boyle and William F. Buckley Jr. among them.
Reached for comment yesterday, Boyle said dryly that when she saw her file, she was surprised to discover "that I had a love affair with Ezra Pound -- when I was 10 years old."
According to Robins' article, to be released Friday in the Oct. 10 issue of The Nation, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay came to the Bureau's attention when she entered a "free trip to Russia" contest sponsored by a group trying to raise $40,000 to buy tractors for Soviet peasants. One anonymous FBI critic, reacting to a Millay poem in 1939, noted "the analogy of the mole boring under the garden in her exposition of the alien menace."
According to The New Yorker account, Pearl Buck, author of "The Good Earth" and other novels, aroused the interest of the FBI in the early 1940s when she wrote a pamphlet against racial discrimination in the U.S. armed forces.
"Her active support of all programs advocating racial equality has led her to associate with many known Communists ..." Buck's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union was listed in one Bureau file under "Communist Front Organizations." In 1958, when Buck and her husband adopted a half-black, half-Japanese child, the FBI clipped a news account about the adoption for inclusion in the Buck dossier.
The Bureau file on Hemingway describes the Nobel Prize-winning novelist's efforts to assist the American ambassador in Havana, Cuba, with information on German submarine traffic in the Caribbean.
According to The New Yorker's account, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched his agent-in-place in Havana to warn the ambassador that Hemingway was unreliable, in part because of his drinking habits, in part because of his support for the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.
Unlike most of the literary targets, Steinbeck was aware that government agents were on his tail.
In his file, according to The New Yorker article, is a letter he wrote to then-Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942.
In it, he asks, "Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It's getting tiresome."
Thomas Wolfe's writings were suspect, Mitgang speculates, "because they appeared on the reading lists of schools said to be under Communist control."
Hoover wanted to have Dreiser prosecuted for "sex between two unmarried consenting adults," according to his FBI file, but the attorney general felt "that the facts do not present a proper basis for investigation under the White Slave Traffic Act."
Mitgang, a reporter for The New York Times, said in an interview yesterday that he plans to amplify his findings in a book, "Dangerous Dossiers," to be published next spring.
Mitgang and Robins both expressed surprise that their magazine accounts, drawn from research and time-consuming FOIA requests during the past several years, were appearing within the same week.
But, as Mitgang noted, the material "was just sitting there."
Staff writer Elizabeth Kastor contributed to this article.