The Auburn Conference
by Tom Piazza
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Pub Date 01 May 2023 | Archive Date 01 May 2023
University of Iowa Press, University Of Iowa Press
It is 1883, and America is at a crossroads. At a tiny college in Upstate New York, an idealistic young professor has managed to convince Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Confederate memoirist Forrest Taylor, and romance novelist Lucy Comstock to participate in the first (and last) Auburn Writers’ Conference for a public discussion about the future of the nation. By turns brilliantly comic and startlingly prescient, The Auburn Conference vibrates with questions as alive and urgent today as they were in 1883—the chronic American conundrums of race, class, and gender, and the fate of the democratic ideal.
“The mother of all writers’ conferences. Piazza doesn't force anything, and he doesn't miss a trick.”—Roy Blount Jr.
“The Auburn Conference is a brilliant imagining of an 1883 writers’ conference with Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and other luminaries as characters. This august round table in Upstate New York grapples with the fate of American democracy and what constitutes literature. The dialogue imagined by Piazza—especially his treatment of Harriet Beecher Stowe—is dazzling. Piazza conjures a distant era that eerily translates to our own broken and troubled times. This is an epic novel by one of America’s greatest writers.”—Douglas Brinkley
“Who wouldn’t want to go to this conference?”—Greil Marcus
“An unexpected combination of wit, passion, and intellect that lands with tremendous relevance.”—Mary Gaitskill
“Tom Piazza has gathered the nation’s most renowned writers in response to a provocative question: ‘What is an American?’ These four words posed by a character in the aftermath of the Civil War, resound today with such perfect timing. The characters in this timely novel tease truths from each other. Through this tantalizing dialogue, the past interrogates the present and future, and we cannot play innocent or uninformed. To read The Auburn Conference is to be there, listening, raising one’s hand, nodding one’s head, or even rising to one’s feet in protest or applause.”—Yusef Komunyakaa
“What do Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain discuss over brandy and cigars? What gets Emily Dickinson out of the house? The Auburn Conference is an ebullient work of loving homage, pitch-perfect ventriloquism, and drawing-room farce that unfolds into an examination of grand American questions: What, finally, is America? And does it deserve to be saved?”—Nathaniel Rich
“The Auburn Conference is a display of intellectual pyrotechnics, a fictional nineteenth-century writers’ conference in which modern and historical observations abound on literature, celebrity, and ego, culminating in a grand debate over slavery, women’s suffrage, and the American ideal. Both witty and intellectually acute, this is a powerful novel.”—Roxana Robinson
"An 1883 writers' conference raises questions still roiling 21st-century America. . . . [an] intriguing mix of humor and underlying seriousness. . . . Readable and entertaining.”—Kirkus
Average rating from 4 members
this was such a good concept for a historical novel, it was what I was looking for from the description. I loved the use of real people for this conference and thought the story worked so well. Tom Piazza has a great writing style and I enjoyed what he created.
"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."
This is awesome. What an interesting concept - putting all of these great thinkers and doers into a room for a conference - written in such a smart, funny, creative way. Loved every page. It reminded me of that great question often asked to get to know someone better : “what five people living or dead would you want to have over for dinner?” - the “conversation” flows and goes places that are unexpected and exciting as a reader. Bravo. Great book. Thanks to University of Iowa Press for this advanced copy.
What an inventive premise, and lots of fun to read. But The Auburn Conference also urges the reader to consider its connection to the issues and conflicting views of today’s America.
In 1883, an idealistic young professor at a small and obscure college engages Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Confederate general and memoirist, and a womens’ romance novelist to discuss the role(s) of American literature, but also the direction America is heading, and their answer to “What is an American .”
The author’s realistic characterizations of the famous authors and other participants as well makes for an entertaining tale, with some room for reflection on the parallels in our current and future nation.