William J. Maxwell

William J. Maxwell

Professor of English and of African and African-American 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

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
    CB 1122
    One Brookings Dr.
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Professor Maxwell's scholarly research, rooted in both modernist and African American studies, explores the ties among Black writing, transatlantic culture, and U.S. political history.

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 Review, The American Historical Review, American Literary History, American Literature, Callaloo, Harper's, The Irish Times, The Journal of American History, Modernism/modernity, Politico, Publishers Weekly, Salon, and the London Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Maxwell is currently at work on James Baldwinism Now: Civil Rights Memory in the Era of Black Lives Matter.  Contracted by Princeton University Press and scheduled for publication in 2024, the centennial of Baldwin’s birth, this book examines the writer’s dramatic resurrection in and beyond literature. It uncovers the links between his twenty-first-century afterlife and the hundred-year legacy of Black cultural renaissances launched in Harlem, Baldwin’s birthplace. At its core, however, it examines the Baldwin embraced by Black Lives Matter, the contemporary movement for which he serves as a conscience, touchstone, and pinup, an approachable ideal of both the artist-in-arms and the proudly intersectional Civil Rights struggle that might have been.

Maxwell has published five books. The most recent, co-edited with Gary Edward Holcomb, was the first-ever edition of Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, a lost novel of Black migration, physical disability, and the meaning of reparations released by Penguin Classics in 2020. One of New York Magazine’s top ten books of the year, Romance was also named a New York Times and Sydney Morning Herald book of the week and a New York Times Book Review editors’ pick. 

Maxwell’s first book, 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 studies 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 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 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 one 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, named a Publishers Weekly and San Francisco Chronicle book of the week, and chosen as 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/Simon & Schuster in 2017, dove 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 is the 2021 President of the international Modernist Studies Association (MSA). 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 James Baldwin Review and American Literary History

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: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature

F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature

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.