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Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination

Innocence by Association

Jonathan W. Gray

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

So many people helped me bring this book to fruition that I barely know where to begin. Back in the days when I was a teenager, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson got the ball rolling with love and patience. Around the same time Charles Verharen taught me that the perfect is the enemy of the good. ...

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Introduction: Perfect Unions: Innocence and Exceptionalism in American Literary Discourse

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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 ...

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Chapter One: “The Look Back Home from a Long Distance”: Robert Penn Warren and the Limits of Historical Responsibility

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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 biography John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published in 1929 while he was at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, ...

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Chapter Two: The Apocalyptic Hipster: “The White Negro” and Norman Mailer’s Achievement of Style

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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. ...

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Chapter Three: “The Whole Heart of Fiction”: Eudora Welty inside the Closed Society

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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. ...

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Chapter Four: “Negroes, and Blood, and Horror”: William Styron, Existential Freedom, and The Confessions of Nat Turner

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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. ...

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Epilogue: Perfecting Innocence

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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: ...


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pp. 139-154

Works Cited

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pp. 155-160


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pp. 161-164

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030539
E-ISBN-10: 1617036498
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617036491

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 808108920
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights in literature.
  • Race relations in literature.
  • American literature -- White authors -- History and criticism.
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