Lemoine and Laxness in Lubeck

An interesting “side note” documentary to the recent theater release of J. Edgar opened recently at a film festival in Germany and an SIUE College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) lecturer helped push the envelope to get the information released.

Edward “Chay” Lemoine, a lecturer in the English language and literature department, wrote his master’s thesis on a somewhat obscure Icelandic writer, Halldor Laxness, who was effectively blacklisted in the 1940’s. Lemoine said he knew he was up against a difficult and interesting story when the U.S. State Department refused to release documents that he had requested on the basis that it would jeopardize national security.

Halldor Laxness. photo courtesy of Nordic Film Festival.

Lemoine stated that as he neared the completion of his thesis, the files he had requested came to him in the mail.

“Right before I left [on a trip to California], I checked my mail and there was an envelope. And it was these declassified files that proved that J. Edgar Hoover himself had authorized–the letters were blacked out and stuff,” said Lemoine. “What happened was [Hoover] started this investigation up, which in those days meant no publisher would touch him after that. So in effect, he had been blacklisted.”

The documentary, Anti-American wins Nobel Prize, opened at the Nordic Film Festival in Lubeck, Germany on November 6th. According to the description provided on the festival page, Laxness was awarded the Nobel prize for his novel The Atom Station, in which he “takes a vehement stand against the stationing of US missiles in his country.” The novel resulted in Laxness being blacklisted, according to the site and Lemoine.

Laxness began his writing career searching for fame and fortune in Hollywood.

“What happened was Halldor Laxness actually came to the United States in the 20’s. He thought he wanted to be a screen writer. So he went to Hollywood and he didn’t do well there. It was a time of a lot of left-leaning politics,” said Lemoine. “So he went back to Iceland and started writing.”

Lemoine stated that Laxness wrote a book called Independent People that was released in the U.S. in 1945. The book made it onto a book-of-the-month club list and became a huge seller, with more than 450,000 copies sold, according to Lemoine. It was the success of this novel that attracted the attention of the Director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover.

During the 1940’s, Iceland was in a period of transition and Laxness, along with a group of socialists, was against the U.S. placing the missiles. Lemoine stated that when the novel by Laxness became a best selling novel, Hoover decided to begin an investigation into where the money was going. Because of the ties between Laxness and the socialists, Hoover thought some of the proceeds from the book was funding communism. When Laxness was nominated and received the Nobel Prize in 1955, many newspapers wrote harsh articles condemning him.

“The newspapers of the States gave scathing assessment of him at that time. As a matter of fact, the headlines of some newspapers read ‘Anti-American wins Nobel Prize.’ And, that’s actually the title of the documentary,” said Lemoine.

Lemoine stated that he has been interested in Laxness since the 1980’s when he first read some of his novels. When he began pursuing his master’s from SIUE, he convinced the English language and literature department to allow him to write on Laxness, even though, according to Lemoine, it was not the typical route for English master’s students. Lemoine stated that Laxness was rediscovered in 1996 when an American academic convinced his publisher to republish some of the books by Laxness.

The wall that Lemoine encountered in getting the documents almost proved to be too much and he had considered quitting hard pursuit his research until he heard of the documentary.

“I thought it was over and then I got a phone call from this producer–who happens to be the son-in-law of Halldor Laxness–and he asked me if I would be in a documentary that they were making pretty much on this topic, how Halldor Laxness was pretty much blacklisted,” said Lemoine. “When the documentary came up, I thought what a fitting end to this. Basically I had written to the family and a couple of Icelandic scholars and said, you know, I’m really finished with this. There is really nothing I can do. The State department refuses to release [the documents]. I could continue to speculate what was in them but maybe I will move on to something else.”

Lemoine stated the Laxness family appreciated the work that he has done for them.

“The reason the Laxness family likes me is that no one really knew that Hoover himself was behind this. They knew that all this stuff was going on, but they didn’t know that. And I had the documents that prove that Hoover himself was behind it.”

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