November 22, 2013

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI files on Sartre and Camus


In Prospect Magazine this week, Andy Martin writes about the files that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kept on both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus after 1945. Sartre was involved in a few activities that made the FBI suspicious: he was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (Lee Harvey Oswald was also a member), he protested US involvement in Vietnam, and he was a member of the Who Killed Kennedy Committee in France that questioned the lone gunman theory.

Martin argues that in the process of gathering information on these two philosophers, the FBI developed a kind of “neo-existentialist” and “anti-narrativist” philosophy themselves:

Hoover’s FBI was deeply suspicious of philosophers, especially foreign ones, virtually philosophobic; but this does not stop the organisation from developing its own brand of philosophical thinking in response to Sartre and Camus—the FBI files on being and nothingness.

The FBI tracked Sarte and Camus thourough “surveillance, evesdropping, wiretapping and theft,” and concluded, at least in Jean Paul Sartre’s case—after reading his work translated into English (an agent complained “this “material [is] all in French”)—that he was something of a mystery.

[A]fter a quarter century of puzzling over his work, noting his links with Che, Russell, the Black Panthers, and the anti-Vietnam War movement [the FBI]  had to conclude, in their 1970 synopsis of his oeuvre, that, on the one hand, he can be “described as pro-communist” (and “encouraged youth to believe in nothing spiritual”) while at the same time is “also described by some sources as anti-communist.”

Meanwhile, an FBI agent named James M. Underhill was pursuing “Albert Canus” —J. Edgar Hoover apparently spelled his name wrong when giving the order to conduct an investigation. Just after his novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) was published in English, Camus was stopped briefly by immigration on his way to New York as a result of Hoover’s stop order. While Camus was a member of the French Communist party, the FBI was more concerned that he was a member of the resistance in France. For his part, Camus found America to be “depressing,” and never returned after that one visit in March 1946.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.