Inside FBI Classified Spy Files on 10 Authors

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation's once classified documents on some of America’s greatest writers seemed to blur the lines of free speech, creativity, and apparent subversive behavior. Here are tidbits from the files on 10 literary giants.

1. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Ernest Hemingway traveling with American soldier in 1944. 

It wasn’t money or terminal cancer

that drove the Nobel Prize winner to kill himself with a double-barreled shotgun, at least according to his friends. Many of them say that it was the FBI that made him paranoid. Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 1960 for growing mental and physical illness. He died that summer. “The Clinic had suggested that Mr. Hemingway register under the alias George Sevier,” a January 13, 1961 letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said. “Mr. Hemingway is now worried about his registering under an assumed name, and is concerned about an FBI investigation.”

2. JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck captured in 1930.

The award-winning Grapes of Wrath writer didn’t have time for Hoover’s spy games. He wrote to the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942, “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome.” Hoover quickly learned about Steinbeck’s request, and wrote back, “I wish to advise that Steinbeck is not being and has never been investigated by this Bureau.” Needless to say, FBI agents continued investigating, even tracking his finances through 1964.

3. W.E.B. DUBOIS

W.E.B. DuBois photographed in 1918.

The brilliant Souls of Black Folks author, scholar, and sociologist fell on the FBI’s radar in 1942, when a letter sent to the Bureau claimed DuBois vowed the Negroes’ helping hand when the Japanese got ready to take over the U.S. Then, about eight years later, the FBI received the following letter about the Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) professor. “I’m a strong believer in free speech, but the enclosed clippings from the New York Times reports a speech that seems to me to be subversive to a degree that makes my blood boil,” the unidentified citizen wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on October 6, 1950.

What exactly made that citizen’s blood so hot? “Of all nations today,” the then 80-year-old DuBois said in a speech in Harlem, New York, “the United States alone wants war, forces other nations to fight, and asks you and me to impoverish ourselves, give up health and schools, sacrifice our sons to a Jim-Crow army, and commit suicide for a world war that nobody wants but the rich Americans who profit by it?"

4. WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

An American novelist, essayist, and war correspondent, the 56-year-old Vollman discovered the hundreds of pages of his FBI file a few years ago. In them, he was listed as a Unabomber suspect: “S-2047 William T. Vollman. Predicated on a referral from a citizen. Investigation has determined that Vollman, a professional author, is widely travelled, however, existing travel records for him do not eliminate him as a viable suspect.”

5. JAMES BALDWIN

James Baldwin cheerfully posed at his home in Southern France in 1979.

For 16 years, federal agents dug into the Notes of a Native Son writer’s activities—everything from his sexual and political affairs to his literary writings. In a newspaper collected by the FBI, a reporter said Baldwin had been “crusading for the immediate extension of equal rights to all, warning of the possibility of more radical clashes.” 

6. LANGSTON HUGHES

A 1960 portrait captured Langston Hughes laughing.

Not only was the Harlem Renaissance poet flagged as a Communist, but the FBI also painted him as the anti-Christ. Hughes’ poem, “Goodbye Christ,” caught the Bureau’s attention in 1941. Although written in 1932, it was relatively obscure until it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on December 21, 1940, and read:

"Listen, Christ
You did alright in your day, I reckon-
But that day’s gone now,
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible-
But it’s dead now."

It didn’t take long before Hoover started receiving letters about Hughes’ alleged subversiveness.

7. TRUMAN CAPOTE

In 1966, Truman Capote relaxed in Milan.

The FBI went after the American novelist known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because of alleged ties to the Cuban Revolution. They scrutinized his association with The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a support group for the Cuban Revolution against U.S. government attacks (whiich would become famous for its association with Lee Harvey Oswald). But the author claims the government started tracking him because he spread rumors about Hoover’s supposed homosexual relationship. “It got Hoover upset, that much I know,” Capote said. “And it got me … about 200 pages in an FBI file.”

8. RAY BRADBURY

Ray Bradbury took the stage at the 12th Annual LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles in 2007.

The Fahrenheit 451 author supposedly had plans to travel to Cuba, which was illegal in 1968. So the FBI tracked him down. Their investigation didn’t last long, however, because agents soon learned Bradbury didn't actually have intentions of visiting the country. “Informants and sources, who are familiar with Cuban activities, were unable to furnish any information which would indicate travel to Cuba,” the report said.

9. DOROTHY PARKER

Dorothy Parker dined out in 1937.

American poet Parker received harsh treatment from the FBI. In the 1930s, according to The New York Times, an “'anonymous outside source’ advised that she had contributed to the ‘Communist movement.’” For the next 25 years, government surveillance kept tabs on her address changes and activities, including when she assisted in founding the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936. The FBI suspected the group of being a Communist front.

10. LORRAINE HANSBERRY 

Her critically-acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun caught Hoover’s eye, spurring a lengthy surveillance into her work. “This play contains no comments of any nature about Communism as such,” a ghostreader wrote in a review, “but deals essentially with negro [sic] aspirations, the problems inherent in their efforts to advance themselves, and varied attempts at arriving at solutions.”

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.