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Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination

Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination: Innocence by Association

Jonathan W. Gray
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination
    Book Description:

    The statement, "The Civil Rights Movement changed America," though true, has become something of a cliché.Civil rights in the White Literary Imaginationseeks to determine how, exactly, the Civil Rights Movement changed the literary possibilities of four iconic American writers: Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, and William Styron. Each of these writers published significant works prior to theBrown v. Board of Educationcase in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in December of the following year, making it possible to trace their evolution in reaction to these events. The work these writers crafted in response to the upheaval of the day, from Warren'sWho Speaks for the Negro?, to Mailer's "The White Negro" to Welty's "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" to Styron'sConfessions of Nat Turner, reveal much about their own feeling in the moment even as they contribute to the national conversation that centered on race and democracy.

    By examining these works closely, Gray posits the argument that these writers significantly shaped discourse on civil rights as the movement was occurring but did so in ways that--intentionally or not--often relied upon a notion of the relative innocence of the South with regard to racial affairs, and on a construct of African Americans as politically and/or culturally na*ve. As these writers grappled with race and the myth of southern nobility, their work developed in ways that were simultaneously sympathetic of, and condescending to, black intellectual thought occurring at the same time.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-053-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction PERFECT UNIONS Innocence and Exceptionalism in American Literary Discourse
    (pp. 3-13)

    This is a book about the intersection of literature, social reform, and American innocence, which is to say a book about the persistence of American exceptionalism as a metaphysical and metaphorical state of being. It began—and remains to a significant degree—as an examination of the literary output produced during the crucible of the civil rights movement by four liberal white writers: Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, and William Styron.¹ This study extends from a premise which, in its easy acceptance, has almost been reduced to a cliché—that the civil rights movement transformed America—by seeking...

  5. Chapter One “THE LOOK BACK HOME FROM A LONG DISTANCE” Robert Penn Warren and the Limits of Historical Responsibility
    (pp. 14-43)

    Unlike the other authors considered in this project, early in his career Robert Penn Warren offered a full-throated defense of southern innocence, which is to say segregation. His first book, the biographyJohn Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published in 1929 while he was at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, treats the abolitionist radical not as a symptom of the polarizing force of slavery, but as a violently unbalanced man driven by an otherworldly megalomania to reckless acts of violence justified by his opposition to slavery. This text is of a piece with the continuing revisionist project of the...

  6. Chapter Two THE APOCALYPTIC HIPSTER “The White Negro” and Norman Mailer’s Achievement of Style
    (pp. 44-71)

    Robert Penn Warren wrote out of a southern tradition, treasured the distinctiveness of the South, and sought, throughout his literary career, to reconcile the contradictions between southern deed and the American creed. Warren considered himself an academic as well as a writer, serving on the faculty of various colleges and universities throughout his career. Norman Mailer was, in many ways, the antithesis of Robert Penn Warren. Mailer rejected conventional schools of thought, sought to provoke as much as he did to enlighten, and avoided the staid responsibilities of the academy. Mailer’s fascination with race in the 1950s derived not from...

  7. Chapter Three “THE WHOLE HEART OF FICTION” Eudora Welty inside the Closed Society
    (pp. 72-104)

    Eudora Welty, an incredibly productive writer for most of her career, published very little between 1955 and 1970, a period that coincides almost perfectly with the emergence of the civil rights movement as the dominant political and social narrative in the United States. These fifteen years contrast with the fourteen-year period from the debut of her first story collection in 1941 until 1955, when Welty produced a major work every two years, three novels and four collections of short stories in all, as well as dozens of book reviews and other essays.¹ The only manuscript Welty produced between 1955 and...

  8. Chapter Four “NEGROES, AND BLOOD, AND HORROR” William Styron, Existential Freedom, and The Confessions of Nat Turner
    (pp. 105-132)

    For those who lived through it, 1968 must have seemed like an apocalyptic year, a year that perhaps portended the end of the American experiment. On Thursday, April 3, 1968, just four days after Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection, Martin Luther King was murdered. Towards the conclusion of that same April, as urban centers throughout the nation struggled to assess the damage from the riots that followed King’s assassination, Students for a Democratic Society began what would become the takeover of Columbia University. Then, on June 5, as the nation and the media were attempting to...

    (pp. 133-138)

    One way to understand the interplay between the shifting rhetorical referents of American exceptionalism and American innocence is to turn our gaze to an event which may be understood as a culmination of the civil rights movement, tangible proof that the African American community’s pursuit of full equality in America has reached a high-water mark: the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America.¹ But, in order to fully comprehend how Obama’s ceaseless invocations of American exceptionalism throughout his election campaign served to support—indeed to reinvigorate—the premise of American innocence, we must turn...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 139-154)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 155-160)
  12. Index
    (pp. 161-164)