“What… is an American?” The idealistic protagonist of The Auburn Conference asks. “The question is in fact a riddle. That it insists upon being asked may be, in itself, a clue to a response.”
Tom Piazza’s latest novel is a vivid portrayal of a fictional literary conference in Auburn, New York, where the naïve young professor, Frederick Olmstead Matthews, gathers together the most famous (and several infamous) writers of the day to ponder, question and debate how literature and politics are often intertwined. Matthews admits that “Like the nation, I did not know who I was,” and his most pressing question is this – what is the future of American democracy? “I assumed that our national argument had been settled, our future a glorious book yet to be written.”
Piazza renders a world still reeling from the national and cultural cataclysm of the Civil War, the aftereffects of which are still felt to the present day. In Piazza’s novel, set in 1883, “The fate of the nation, of democracy itself, seemed to hang in the balance.” That last statement feels particularly timely.
In issuing the invitations for the conference, the young Matthews is pressured to “present all sides” of the national arguments of his day, which includes the nauseatingly retrograde Lucy Comstock and the confederate memoirist Forrest Taylor, “the apotheosis of the aggrieved Southern white man,” as described by Frederick Douglass. Comstock’s last name is a wink to the Comstock Acts which are still terrifying, enticing strictures by those who are anti-free speech. She is reminiscent of the anti-feminists and “tradwives” of our own time, both syrupy and poisonous, obsessed with ensuring “the continuance of the race.” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s disgusted and vocal reactions to Comstock’s statements are among the most enjoyable moments of the book.
The other troubling fictional speaker is Forrest, courtly on the surface but still a lit match hovering over a gasoline can. Still seething, he hasn’t learned a thing from defeat and regards the elegantly rendered Frederick Douglass as nothing more than a subhuman who is only after white women. The depiction of Forrest in The Auburn Conference will doubtless lead the reader to ponder the always pressing question of how much attention should be given to hideous ideologies; in Piazza’s book the white supremacist “Lost Cause” has a similarly dangerous contemporary in both QAnon and the “great replacement theory.” In our democracy, how much space in the public square should be given to the clearly delusional and hateful?
“Words were wings; they lifted you. At the same time, they sent their roots deep into the loam of the human mind and tethered you.” This is uttered by Walt Whitman, who, along with Herman Melville and Mark Twain, are the most fully fleshed out and entrancing characters in the novel. A slim book, there is little physical description given to Auburn and the conference itself but there is much richness and enjoyment to be found in the conversations that Piazza imagines for us between these great authors as they drink and debate.
The least genuine characterization is that of Emily Dickinson. She has hightailed it from Amherst to beguile literary lions and accost them with her verses. Her flight and interest in such a conference may not sit well with some devotees of her work. Piazza’s fictional depiction of perhaps the most impenetrable and one of the least political of our poets in this, a very political novel, is an unusual choice.
During the conference, the enigmatic Melville muses over the future of American democracy: “Yet even the New World must come to a terminus. Something there is in the American makeup that is enraged by limitation.” Even George Washington feared the Constitution would not hold for more than twenty years – a sobering thought. Heartsore (as are many of us), Matthews also wonders: “What had he hoped for from these men and women, each of whom was some uneasy marriage between the public assertion and the private doubt.” There is a great deal of thinking going on in The Auburn Conference, yet Piazza still makes all this thinking exciting to read, and he deftly paints the areas of gray in the life of the writer, particularly the nonconformist one.
Thankfully, although dispiritedly in tune with the current and seemingly interminable “winter of our discontent,” particularly in the wake of the Capitol Insurrection, The Auburn Conference delivers notes of hopefulness for our democracy, which is, to again quote our first president, “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”
The Auburn Conference
By Tom Piazza
University of Iowa Press
Published May 1, 2023