America, Christopher Hitchens once observed, is essentially an idea. The country was written into existence, and we’ve been fighting over the principles enshrined in its founding documents ever since. Our history resembles a ceaselessly unfurling text, the meaning of which will always be thrillingly and terrifyingly open to reinterpretation. The role of American artists is to hold a mirror up to the social contract and show us what appears in the glass.
These themes—and others—are explored in Tom Piazza’s latest novel, The Auburn Conference, a book that imagines the finest meeting of American minds never to have actually happened. Piazza’s interest in American history is already evident in his post-Katrina chronicle City of Refuge, and in his historical novel A Free State, set on the threshold of the American Civil War. In The Auburn Conference, he devises a fictional 1883 literary conference in upstate New York devoted to discussions about the purpose of writing, what it means to be an American, and much else, in which nothing goes according to plan.
We meet some of America’s most important authors, including Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, while an unnamed poetess (who is playing hooky from Amherst) flits around the periphery. A couple of fictional writers also make an appearance: Lucy Comstock, a highly successful writer of popular romances, and Forrest Taylor, a former Confederate general still maundering over how things have been going since Appomattox.
All this might sound a little ponderous or, worse, pretentious. It’s not. You don’t need to be an expert on any of the characters or their writing to enjoy what Piazza makes of them. Clocking in at a brisk 200 pages, the narration has a light, humorous touch, and it sometimes feels more like a campus comedy of errors than a heavy trudge up literary Elysium.
The gathering has been organized by Frederick Olmstead Matthews, a harried but idealistic professor who does his awkward best to keep his opinionated guests and rowdy audience in line, and to please his gruff, status-seeking bosses who want to flatter the town’s bigwigs. Add an opportunistic newspaper reporter there to sniff out controversy, militant suffragettes, and demented local cult members (a thing in upstate New York at the time), and the result is a crackling literary comedy.
Fictionalizing history can be tricky, and depicting some of the country’s greatest writers can be trickier still, but Piazza comfortably clears this high bar. The eminences that populate his story feel like real people—you can hear the gravel in their voices and notice their all-too-human neuroses and peccadilloes as they daydream, fret about hotel soap, drink too much, and get bits of food stuck in their beards.
We meet a world-weary and bemused Twain, famous and beloved yet refreshingly sardonic. Only the sharp wit and unpretentious charm of this skilled orator conveys the authority needed to keep the fractious event from boiling over. Twain’s traveling companion and real-life Hartford Connecticut neighbor is the feisty and dignified Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose petticoat hides an iron will. Abraham Lincoln is said to have told Stowe that her bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the Civil War.
I seem to have a little more reverence for Walt Whitman than Piazza, but Whitman’s slobby qualities recede when he takes his turn to speak, and it turns out that he might have a few unexpected rhetorical tricks up his sleeve. Contrast his hoary, hippie vibe with the tormented Herman Melville, whose neuroses would probably help him to be more at home in the 21st century than many of the other conference attendees. Melville enjoyed some early fame with his tales of exotic seafaring, but by 1883, he was suffering a deflating loss of readers, even as he wrote masterpieces like Moby Dick and The Confidence Man.
The old mariner doesn’t really even know what he’s doing there, and as he steps off the train, he anxiously strokes a piece of whale bone. His teeming brain has even more to obsess about late at night: “[T]he densest thicket of contending visions, the colors which, when projected together, fused into a single bright, white light, the dissolution of finite consciousness, ambiguities which became microscopically granular.” A restorative stroll to the local tavern produces one of the book’s funniest moments.
It’s fun to eavesdrop on these illustrious talents as they chatter and squabble, making us witnesses to conversations that we can only wish had really happened. Melville and Whitman have an interesting back and forth. Whitman tended to write ecstatic lists filled with excitement about the possibilities of the new world, some of which have diminished a bit (is anyone today about to get worked up over the idea of Ohio?). Melville could certainly be expansive too, but he was more often concerned with how specific objects are made and how people make them. It’s not surprising that they clash:
“I will admit that I don’t write interminable stories about shipwrecks,” Whitman said. “I don’t write poems about the end of the human race, narrated by little puppets: this one’s idea, that one’s idea. … I stand on my own feet! I sing myself!” “You sing nothing else!” Melville responded.
Melville’s got a point, of course, but it’s by no means the whole picture. And that is how debates like these tend to play out in real life, when a satsifying put-down may win applause but provides little in the way of resolution.
The late 1800s’ backdrop is significant. The bloody specter of the Civil War lingers over the proceedings, and the question of who sets the terms of social and racial equality remains unsettled, then and now. Twain understood America as both a southern country boy by birth and a genteel adopted Yankee, and in a perceptive moment, he tries to moderate a fraught debate between a seething Taylor and a stoical Douglass. Today, there are plenty of histrionic rumblings about looming civil war, and our social-media generals might want to refresh themselves about how costly the last one turned out to be.
One of the most surprising moments in the story comes from the appearance of another fictional character, Henry Sims, who previously appeared in Piazza’s novel A Free State. Sims is an escaped slave whose skill with a banjo while busking in the streets of Philadelphia has made him a target. His solo performance, given at the invitation of his friend Mark Twain, initially seems a bit redundant. But as he sings a poignant song of his own invention about the world being turned upside-down and then recites some carefully chosen lines from Othello, even Douglass, displeased by what he sees as minstrelsy, sheds a discreet tear.
The performance brings the high-minded symposium about American life back down to earth. When Douglass, Twain, and Harriet Tubman sit by the fire over some brandy one night for a storytelling contest, the scene reads like a variation on Sims’s routine. Sometimes, the most powerful observations about America are made indirectly, in a coded way, through jokes and songs and anecdotes. Some of our most enduring art has come from searing observations wrapped in deceptively homespun, plainspoken charm, as people like Twain and Whitman certainly knew. The frayed republic’s darker truths might be too much to bear otherwise.
By the end of the book, almost everyone has had a chance to say their piece, and nobody gets the final word. There are plenty of pithy statements—“an American is one for whom there is no such thing as ‘enough’” or “an American is one who insists upon defining himself—who does not accept a definition imposed by others”—but nothing is fully resolved or ratified. Amid the jockeying egos and philosophies, everyone’s opinions inevitably bump up against someone else’s and none is allowed to prevail.
Piazza doesn’t want to offer a comprehensive thesis or statement, and this is probably prudent. The characters present various possibilities, arguments, and imaginative leaps, and though plenty of ground is covered, it’s left up to us to decide what to make of it all. It would, after all, be naïve to assume that a subject as vast and unruly as America could be neatly tidied into a clear conclusion. Even though The Auburn Conference is a work of the imagination, the hurly-burly within is endlessly ongoing, painfully necessary, and urgently real.