Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination: Innocence by Association
Jonathan W. Gray
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
The statement, “The Civil Rights Movement changed America,” though true, has become something of a cliché. Civil rights in the White Literary Imagination seeks 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 the Brown v. Board of Education case 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’s Who Speaks for the Negro?, to Mailer’s “The White Negro” to Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” to Styron’s Confessions 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.
prevent this, a hot war broke out in South Korea, and Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury and imprisoned. Right-wing fearmongers, led by Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy, created a narrative of creeping Communist infiltration that exploited the looming threat of both the Soviet Union and China. With the benefit of hindsight, Mailer attempts to dismiss the historical circumstances surrounding the publication of his second novel, but even he recognized that any single novel that
confrontation, a grappling that could be sexual, intellectual, or physical in nature. This is his theory of the psychotic, of men (and presumably Mailer is one of these men) so committed to testing the possibilities of themselves and their society that they risk the destruction of both to achieve its, and their, highest expression.36 This is also, tellingly, the sort of statement that one might have expected to hear from radical abolitionists one hundred years prior. Like those earlier exemplars,
of law above his own desires and Spartan customs, in sharp contrast to the coerced and conscripted Persian forces who served Xerxes out of fear of death.30 Welty also changed Medgar Evers’s name to Roland Summers, and this alteration serves to further challenge southern exceptionalism. Roland was a mythic warrior, martyred in service to King Charlemagne during Charlemagne’s quest to rid Spain of the Moors who controlled that nation, and his death, like that of Leonidas, occurs because of
would have it, American exceptionalism “is a stance, a posture—a template—for positioning and presenting oneself, simultaneously for one’s own gaze and for the gazes of ‘foreign’ others,” any attempt at ascertaining each author’s use of American exceptionalism will also explore how they sought to reposition themselves to their various publics.24 INNOCENCE BY ASSOCIATION My project opens with “‘The Look Back Home from a Long Distance’: Robert Penn Warren and the Limits of Historical
understanding of a kind of righteousness at the heart of suffering … swerved him away from the idea of self-destruction” (27). This statement suggests that enslaved Blacks have taken a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, that religion helps them to cope with the absurdity of their situation.36 Yet if this is Turner’s initial understanding of “Negro forbearance,” upon further reflection he concludes that “black shit-eating people were surely like flies … lacking even that will to destroy by their own