Picks and Pans Review: Dangerous Dossiers

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Herbert Mitgang

Somehow in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the agents of American national security lost their nerve. In a nation dedicated to open debate, they began to spy on people whose only offense was individuality. In the '20s the FBI started getting nervous around people like Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, A.J. Liebling, Pearl Buck, H.L Mencken...The list goes on and on. In this book, Mitgang, a World War II intelligence officer and now a cultural correspondent for the New York Times, shows the FBI in the worst possible light—a bright one. Persistently using the Freedom of Information Act, Mitgang obtained Bureau files on dozens of celebrated writers and artists. In a section on Nobel laureates, the FBI is shown as bumbling even in trying to spell "Sinclair Lewis." At one point it was "Sinclair Lewis." At another "Saint Clair Lewis." Finally, the author of Main Street and Babbitt was listed as "S. Lewis." And what was it that an informant found "incendiary" about him? A file entry said Lewis' book Kingsblood Royal "is intended to inflame Negroes against whites." Mitgang shows that the FBI depended heavily on informants anxious to unmask "subversives." Some sources had code names. Agent T-10 was Ronald Reagan, who, while active in the Screen Actors Guild in the late '40s, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was an FBI informant, identifying fellow actors he believed were "carrying on Communist party work." (The names of actors thus identified were not released to Mitgang.) Fortunately, artists are perverse about being intimidated by governments, and Mitgang finds solace from an unlikely source: "Great literature is always a great warning. If we see some danger, we must prophylactically write about it. Even if it's very painful." The author of that quote is Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who, Mitgang says, "has been in and out of favor in his own country." (Fine, $18.95)

From Our Partners