I had the idea for The Auburn Conference at the beginning of November 2018, driving back to New Orleans from a visit to Virginia. It was the midpoint of the septic slog that was the Trump presidency, a few days before the midterm elections.
One had to wonder what the nation was doing with its vaunted freedom. Angry advocacy, people at each others’ throats, everyone pushing some agenda, public discussion turning instantly combustible and going up in the smoke of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. Who had anything to say that could remain standing in that arena of instant obsolescence? The animating issues and arguments seemed not to have changed in the previous hundred and fifty years – the ambiguous relations between identity and freedom, racial injustice, regional tensions, the challenges of immigration, women’s rights – all still still loud, powerful, and unresolved.
The writers working in the years leading up to the Civil War seemed to me to have had the clearest idea of the evolving possibilities, dangers, limitations and dream life of the republic. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe... The men and women who were born into the new America when it was truly new, and who lived amid the struggle to make it a lasting proposition. All with such different points of view, all with such passionate investment in the fate of the democratic experiment.
On that November drive in 2018 they began to arrange themselves in my mind into a kind of symposium on the future of the nation, joined as the drive went on by an advocate for women’s suffrage, a polemicist of Southern grievance, a successful romance novelist, and – attending on the sly – a red-haired woman, identified only as “E,” who writes poetry in her bedroom and rarely ventures out. A writers’ conference – the first ever – with public readings and panel discussions, gathered together by an idealistic young lecturer named Frederick Olmstead Matthews at a tiny college in Auburn, New York.
I don’t think of The Auburn Conference as a historical novel. As far as I’m concerned, with a few name and locale changes the whole thing could have happened last week. The following excerpt is the opening of Part Two, and it takes place on the first morning of the conference. The morning panel, a matchup of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, with their respective visions of boundless possibility and certain doom, begins to go awry quickly. As a counterweight to organizer Matthews’ idealism, I introduced a reporter, seething with ambition and cynicism, who narrates the section that begins just after Whitman finishes his presentation.
The Auburn Conference
In the deep recesses of upstate New York the winters are empty and absolute as the desert; the wind, the cold, the buried earth, black branches and chimneys etched sharp against an endless bone white. When spring arrives, and then the summer, the richness of the orchards, the vineyards, the lakes and trees and fauna, the high spirits in paddle boats and carriages, can make you forget the winter and its desolation, and one can believe oneself in paradise until autumn in its treacherous glory erodes that certainty and by November closes the lid on the world of appearances, driving one indoors, even underground, once again. It is a territory of extremes.
Auburn sits at the geographical center of a region referred to as the “Burned-over District,” which runs roughly parallel to the route of the Erie Canal, grazing the upper tips of the Finger Lakes, between Albany and Buffalo. In the early decades of the Nineteenth Century pioneers from New England made their way west through this territory, founding small farms and observing uneasy treaties with the native Iroquois and Mohawk. They brought their religion with them, along with its contentious denominations – Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Universalist – and missionaries followed them on horseback distributing pamphlets and Bibles. But, like the desert, the land engendered prophecy, and in the isolation of the scattered early settlements sects splintered and proliferated, animated by warring convictions regarding man’s responsibilities on earth, the prospect of endless punishment for sinners, and the possibility of salvation.
By mid-century the region was a spiritual aurora borealis, vibrating with theories, experiments, visions, and madness. Mormonism, Shakerism, Perfectionism, Adventism, strict sexual abstinence, epic polygamy, communal living experiments, and great social movements charged with the volatile energies of religious fervor – abolitionists, suffragists, fugitive slaves finding temporary refuge in cellars and barns on their way to Canada. Lone prophets on fire with idiosyncratic readings of Scripture roamed the streets and roads and fields, gathering adherents ready to follow anyone who delivered a bold certainty and a compelling narrative in stirring oratory. In communities and towns with names reaching back to antiquity – Ithaca, Homer, Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Cato, Romulus, Hector, Brutus, Ulysses – an idealized, mythic past shared the imagination with a millennial future. It was the present that posed an insoluble riddle.
A discreet knock on the door awakened Herman Melville. After a moment he said “Thank you” and sat up in bed. Outside, honeyed sunlight filtered through the oak trees and across a patch of lawn at the Auburn Collegiate Institute, and although it was mid-June the air was cool and pleasant. He found himself at once in an altogether different mood than the one which had unnerved him the night before. The sky above Harmony House was as fickle as the sea, he thought, and his mind as fickle as either.
He prepared himself for the day, dressed, and thumbed through the copy of his book-length poem Clarel, which he had brought with him, searching for a passage to read at the morning’s presentation. The seven years between the book’s publication and this visit to Auburn had done nothing to quicken the public’s interest in Clarel’s eighteen-thousand lines of verse, an epic meditation on civilization in the form of a series of conversations among a group of travelers during a journey to the Holy Land. The book had met with a resounding silence worthy of the Dead Sea itself. Aware that the morning’s event would pair him with Whitman and that poet’s booming optimism, Melville gravitated to the sections spotlighting Ungar, the wounded former soldier who foresees nothing but doom for democracy and mankind.
Walt Whitman, awakened in his room at the opposite end of Harmony House by an identical knock, called out “I am.” For some seconds he was unsure of where he was. Slowly he came to himself. He realized that he had issued an inappropriate response. The Latin ego sum... but appropriate enough, he thought. If all his work might be summed up in two words, surely those were the two. He added the words, “Thank you,” although the student who administered the knock had proceeded to his next assigned door. In no hurry to rise, Whitman lay under the sheet, gazing out the window at the rich morning light and the still-damp lawn. He had an erection. Lazily, happily, he attended to it.
Carriages began arriving at Midlake Hall that Friday morning well in advance of the ten a.m. start time. In the Midlake lobby a dozen or so browsers examined stacks of books that had been arranged on two long tables by a local bookseller, Mister Widge, from Ganseltown. Inside the auditorium itself attendees made their way through the long rows of narrow, leather-upholstered wooden seats arrayed in shallow arcs radiating back and under a balcony supporting seven more rows, at the rear of which the morning sun spilled through a large, circular window.
On the stage at five minutes before the hour, behind a long table draped with an ochre-colored cloth, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Frederick Matthews sat awaiting the beginning of the Auburn Writers’ Conference. Whitman wore a huge, high-crowned felt hat, broad-brimmed, the size of a Mexican sombrero; he smiled through his flowing white beard and nodded at audience members as they filed in. Melville sat next to him at the far end, still paging through Clarel. In the seat nearest the lectern, Matthews read through the notes for his opening remarks, which he had been awake revising since before dawn.
At the striking of the hour, with the hall two-thirds full, the signal was given, the doors to the lobby were shut, and, drawing a long, deep breath, Frederick Matthews rose and stepped to the lectern to begin the program. After the requisite formalities of welcome and expressions of gratitude to the administration, no members of which, he noted to himself, were yet in attendance, he began the speech on which he had labored for weeks.
“Forty years ago,” Matthews began, “Ralph Waldo Emerson called America ‘the country of the Future... a country of beginnings... and expectations.’ Yet in that same year, he also wrote the following: ‘Our culture is very cheap and intelligible. Unroof any house, and you shall find it. The well-being consists in having a sufficiency of coffee and toast, with a daily newspaper; a well-glazed parlor, with marbles, mirrors, and centre-table; and the excitement of a few parties and a few rides in a year.’ America, he said, ‘has not fulfilled what seemed the reasonable expectation of mankind.’
“These words are more true today than when Emerson wrote them. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives fighting, surely, for something more than this. America is built not of bricks and iron but of ideals, vision, and hope. And a foundational stated belief in the possibilities of mankind.
“Freedom is the very oxygen of those possibilities. This has been the axiom through a century, and more, of struggle. These states paid in blood for independence from England – not once but twice – and we have paid in blood again, less than twenty years ago, not only to emancipate the enslaved Negro but to earn the nation the opportunity to rededicate itself – on a more durable footing – to its stated ideals. One would think it obvious that the shaping of that freedom, and the sharpening of the sense of responsibility that must go along with it, would require not only the good will but the constant attention, and earnest hard work, of all our citizens.
“Yet after all the suffering, and all the work, where do we find ourselves? America too often takes that freedom for granted, regarding it only as an entitlement to enrich oneself to the greatest possible degree – and, failing that, to be left alone with one’s complacency and Emerson’s ‘coffee and toast, newspaper, and well-glazed parlor.’ Our nation is in trouble. The voices of imagination and moral force have been drowned out by the babble of the marketplace. The truth itself is mocked as if it were delusion, and our Constitution treated as an inconvenience, rather than as the sacred contract that it is. Words are twisted to mean their opposites and our ideals traded for cheap advantage.
“This weekend’s conference is an unprecedented event, a conversation about America’s future, the role of literature in that future, and the nature of freedom itself. It is my hope – our hope – that this conversation may shine light on a way forward for our country. I would like to dedicate these proceedings to the memory of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Joining me on the dais this morning are two of our greatest writers; I have asked them to begin their remarks by reading a passage of their own selection from their respective works, and I have asked Mister Walt Whitman to begin.” Applause, and he returned to his seat at the dais.
The poet stood slowly, removing his hat and setting it down at his place on the dais, where it loomed between Matthews and Melville like a fourth participant in the panel. At the lectern, Whitman took his time opening a copy of Leaves of Grass, which he had borrowed from one of the lobby tables, and paging through it to find his desired passage. Then, the page located, he bellowed, “I AM OF OLD AND YOUNG...”
Almost as one, the audience emitted a gasp, hearing not the modulated cadences one might have expected from a poet but the full-throated bray of a roustabout...
“...of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buck-eye...”
The lines rolled out as if booming through ocean swells, proclaiming limitless vistas, and the listeners seemed to brace themselves against the backs of their seats with every new proclamation...
“...Of every hue and cast am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, Quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist anything better than my own diversity.”
With those words, Whitman shut the copy of Leaves of Grass with a loud clap; after a brief moment the audience applauded vigorously and shouted its approval. Whitman waited until it subsided, then he began his remarks.
“We’re supposed to be talking this morning about literature and America,” he said. “I never made the distinction. America is a large country, a country of the body as well as the mind. It’s a country of distance, so it’s a country of movement. The question is what holds it together. Our host mentioned Emerson. I knew him. He had a big effect on me when I was young, like he did on a lot of people. I didn’t think he was much of a poet. What he said boiled down to two things: ‘Nature is the greatest classroom,’ and ‘God is to be found in each individual, within.’ There’s a lot of foam on top, but that’s the beer. Bottom up, not top down. There you have the foundation of it.
“I’m getting old, but I still live in the material world. Fields and rivers, mountains, plains, birds... Those are our true Constitution. We are done with Europe; America is the land of the new man, and the new woman. But where is the American literature equal to our bridges and our railroads? Or our steam boats and factories? Where is a poem equal to a well-made table? Or a novel worthy of the trees cut down to produce its paper? We want a literature of cobblers at their benches, women giving birth, leather workers, riverboat men, cotton farmers, cities, buses and trains... Instead we get imitations of European parlor farces, preening sentences, stale perfume, social envy, gossip, petty ambition, timid men with digestive problems...”
A few titters swept the hall. These encouraged him to continue in this vein, railing against “desiccated romances and writers unequal to, and afraid of, the proportions of the nation.” He ended his remarks by saying, “Of all writers, I have come closest to singing America’s possibility. But one writer is not a literature – Not even me!”
There was laughter at the cheekiness of the assertion, and the ensuing applause was loud enough that no one but Frederick Matthews heard Herman Melville exclaim the words, “Good God...”
Whitman returned to the dais, where he replaced his hat upon his head and enjoyed the applause, smiling and waving. It took a while for the hall to quiet. Matthews then introduced Melville, who made his way to the lectern carrying the book he had brought with him and staring at the floor.
On Friday morning I found myself slouched in the third row of Midlake Auditorium, still smarting from the rude rejection I had received at the door of the previous night’s “welcome party,” and listening to Walt Whitman and Herman Melville drone on about this and that. I was suffering as well from the considerable after-effects of my subsequent visit to the Echo Tavern.
Early the previous afternoon, a cable had arrived from the New York World.
SEND REPORT WRITER CONFAB STOP IF INTERESTING WILL RUN STOP REGARDS TO TWAIN FROM TILLEY STOP
I had all but danced a jig as I read it for a third, then a fourth, time. They were inviting me to submit a notice about the weekend’s events. And to deliver greetings to Mark Twain from “Tilley” – no doubt a lady admirer. “If interesting will run.” Of course! No reporter ever earned a name filing stories headlined CALM SEA OFF NANTUCKET. I resolved to make the most of this.
I readied myself to attend the party that had been arranged for the just-arrived participants, the Institute faculty, and the Satraps and Pashas of the city’s business community. With the World’s imprimatur, I expected to be welcomed warmly despite the fact that admission was by invitation only and I had not been invited.
Around 6:30 p.m. I entered the grounds of the Auburn Collegiate Institute and made my way to Founders’ Hall, where I attempted to join the parade of dignitaries as they filed in. But a formidable presence at the entryway, a veritable Amazon in a rough grey gown that appeared to be sewn from burlap, informed me that the party was only for the participants, faculty, etc.
“I am a member of the press,” I said, “writing a story for the New York World.”
“I wasn’t informed,” she said, turning to greet Amos Smith, the president of the Cayuga Savings Bank, and his wife, as they entered.
“An oversight, I’m sure,” I said. “I will find Professor Matthews and he will correct the situation. Excuse me,” I said, and took a step toward the ballroom door, but was blocked by a prodigious arm belonging to the aforementioned Amazon.
“Don’t try that again,” she said. “This is a private function. You speak English?”
“Ah,” I said. “I understand completely. That, by the way, is a lovely dress you are wearing.”
“Get out of here,” she said, and I do believe she would have enforced the directive personally. I lingered outside for a bit, but I could not bring myself to be the character lurking in the shadows, collaring the quality as they made their entrances. The party was not important to my article, I told myself; the main event would commence in the morning. I was more than a little irritated, nonetheless, at being barred, and I repaired to the Echo, as mentioned.
Now it was Friday morning. Outside, the air was fresh and the sky clear; I cannot pretend that I found myself interested in the words from the stage, and in fact the headache which I had brought with me seemed to swell with each new pronouncement. Half-way through Whitman’s reading of some horrible “poem” I rose from my seat as unobtrusively as I could and stepped out into the lobby, which turned out to be nearly as well populated as the auditorium.
A small mob had coagulated in the bookselling area, where a gentleman resembling an undernourished heron ran back and forth behind the book tables, attending to customers. I heard a woman’s voice saying, “Edward Goodheart? Oh, I think you may see him again.” Pushing my way in to get a glimpse, I saw that the voice belonged to a woman who could only have been Lucy Comstock, seated behind a small mountain of books, holding forth for a crowd of customers as the heron accepted the money thrust at him by those eager to gain a signed book as a relic of their audience with greatness.
I joined the mob as she was greeted by a babble of fresh questions about various personages in her books, all of which she answered while deploying an arsenal of coquettish winks, meaningful glances, and tinkling laughter and at the same time looking down at whatever book was offered for the next signature, asking the petitioner’s name, inscribing the book even as she answered another question from someone in the crowd with, in each instance, some turn or fillip of wit or flirtation. All in all she was very impressive and, one felt, not someone whose displeasure one would wish to risk.
After a while, as the swarm around Miss Comstock showed no signs of dispersing, I peeled myself away. I noticed a solitary young woman at the far end of the tables, reading one of the displayed volumes, peacefully enough, as if Lucy Comstock and her disciples were several continents away. I thought it might be worthwhile to have the voices of a few paying attendees in the article, and I assumed that she was one. And she was, I will admit, rather attractive, with dark red hair pulled back severely from her brow, certainly not a reason to avoid a conversation, I thought... As I approached I saw that she was perusing Leaves of Grass. I had my notebook out and I introduced myself, told her that I was a reporter writing an article about the conference.
Her eyes remained on the page she was reading.
“Have you read Whitman before?” I asked
“I am reading him now,” she replied, her eyes still on the page.
“Do you like the poems?”
“There is quite a lot of wind blowing these leaves around,” she said. Then she closed the book and took an unceremonious leave. What an odd one, I thought; nervous as a hummingbird.
I spent a few more minutes hovering around before I saw Mark Twain enter the reception area, accompanied by Forrest Taylor. I recognized Taylor because I had seen him announce himself to the Amazon outside the welcome party the night before. His boots alone might have earned him a citation for valor. He and Twain were apparently sharing a joke. I started toward them as Taylor took his leave and walked off down a hallway.
I introduced myself to Twain as a fellow newsman, and he shook my hand while drawing on a cigar and taking a quick, sharp inventory of my face. I asked him if he had been acquainted with General Taylor before the conference, and he said he hadn’t, and that they had only just met.
“He’s a son of a bitch,” Twain said, “but he tells a good story.”
“Are you speaking after lunch?”
“That’s the idea,” he said, looking around distractedly. “Have you seen the Master of the Revels anywhere? I have a couple boxes of books that require disposition.”
“Do you mean Matthews? The organizer?”
“Matthews, yes,” he said.
“He’s inside the auditorium conducting the conversation between Melville and Whitman.”
“Really?” he said, looking at me now. “I should have liked to see that.”
“It was something of a soporific, I’m afraid,” I said.
Now his features tightened slightly, although he continued to display a smile that was no longer that of the collegial fellow journalist I’d expected. “Writing books isn’t easy,” he said. “Those two are great writers. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, of course,” I said. “I meant that they had been assigned a ponderous topic – Emerson, the future of America, the nature of freedom...”
He was regarding me now with a purely professional smile, and eyes that had clearly come to a decision as to the degree to which I was to be taken seriously. He clapped me on the shoulder with one hand, said, “See you later,” and walked off in the direction of the book sales, where a number of acolytes had already noted his presence and were standing ready to greet him.
I did not have time to brood on what seemed to have been a conversational faux pas with Twain, as I heard angry shouting from within the auditorium. I cursed myself for missing a moment when something might actually have happened, and I started for the doors to the auditorium just as they flew open and a small flood of attendees emerged.
Harriet Beecher Stowe makes her appearance later, but not on a bike. Updated portrait by Jamal Bakar.
Tom Piazza’s twelve books include the novels The Auburn Conference and City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain. He was a principal writer for the innovative New Orleans-based HBO drama series TREME, and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.
Brian Does America: Then and Now
The Child Is The Father of the Man ::: The Beach Boys
Moby Dick ::: Led Zeppelin
Leaves of Grass ::: Gordon Lightfoot
Nature’s Way ::: Spirit
Nature’s Law ::: Brian Blade
The Day I Read A Book ::: Jimmy Durante
American Tune ::: Paul Simon