Back before the FBI was accused of throwing elections, it kept immense files on all sorts of American citizens. Many of these suspicious characters worked as public intellectuals, a class of people regarded in some circles as, by definition, subversive.
John Rodden cuts this tall tale down to its authentic pint size, refusing to indulge the public relations myth promoted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In Of G-Men and Eggheads, Rodden portrays federal agents’ hilarious obsession with monitoring that ever-present threat to national security, the American literary intellectual. Drawing on government dossiers and archives, Rodden focuses on the onetime members of a radical political sect of ex-Trotskyists (barely numbering a thousand at its height), the so-called New York intellectuals. He describes the nonsensical decades-long pursuit of this group of intellectuals, especially Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe. The Keystone Cops style of numerous FBI agents is documented carefully in Rodden’s meticulous case studies of how Hoover’s men recruited informants to snoop on the “Commies,” opened their personal mail, tracked their movements, and reported on their wives and friends.
In a rich and stimulating epilogue, Rodden shows how his Cold War research possesses thought-provoking implications for us today, in our post-9/11 era of debates about data collection, privacy invasion, personal dignity, and the use and abuse of government and corporate power.