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A metahistory of J. Edgar Hoover MacIntyre, Jeffrey

Abstract

J. Edgar Hoover is a nonpareil figure among modern American icons, seemingly both an agent and victim of history. As the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly fifty years (1924-1972), Hoover at once forged a public persona as the nation's foremost crime-fighter and assumed a backstage role as political rainmaker, holding court through eight presidencies. His posthumous celebrity, however, simultaneously dwarfs and compromises this legacy. Longstanding suspicions about Hoover's private life, widely disseminated and accepted in the mid-1990s as transvestism and homosexuality, have accrued the special resonance popular culture reserves for scandal-ridden caricature. How can one begin to account for this sea change in the American public imagination? The posthumous speculations about Hoover suggest a curious and profoundly ambivalent response to a period of American life for which cultural narratives are only now being written—and for which Hoover seems to - have earned a central place. I will look to four narratives which prominently feature J. Edgar Hoover and remark on his influence on the political and cultural climate of his times. Examining literary biography, novel, and film genres will demonstrate representative and popular forms of historical narrative; moreover, their strikingly similar use of emplotment and characterization begs further questions. The thematic of Hoover envisioned by literary, biographic, and cinematic artists can be convincingly sketched as a Left or libertarian Zeitgeist which warns against the frailty of justice, the corruptibility of the powerful, and the tyranny of the state. I intend to argue that each narrative treatment of Hoover establishes an essentially singular, composite text: a metanarrative explaining Hoover's role, particularly in post-war American history, as an archetypal tyrant-fascist and principal symbol for the vagaries of Cold War anxiety. I will address the popular recrudescence of Hoover in light of several related arguments: that cultural memory articulates contemporary national identity; that the vicissitudes of the Cold War in the United States can be described as a movement from a culture of consensus to one of dissent; that present developments in the American ideological disposition follow a similar pattern; and that ideological assent only follows the consensus-creating power of a national jeremiad. The present revisioning of Hoover appears to be such a jeremiad, and hints at the workings of a broader national consciousness intent on re-examining and re-drawing its recent history.

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