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Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America

Dave Tell


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Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America

Dave Tell

“Tell’s Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America provides a critical and fascinating account of the always already ‘confessional anxiety’ that animates American public life and political culture.”


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Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America is the winner of the 2013 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award from the Public Address Division of the National Communication Association honoring outstanding published scholarship in public address.

Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America revolutionizes how we think about confession and its ubiquitous place in American culture. It argues that the sheer act of labeling a text a confession has become one of the most powerful, and most overlooked, forms of intervening in American cultural politics. In the twentieth century alone, the genre of confession has profoundly shaped (and been shaped by) six of America’s most intractable cultural issues: sexuality, class, race, violence, religion, and democracy.
“Tell’s Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America provides a critical and fascinating account of the always already ‘confessional anxiety’ that animates American public life and political culture.”
Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America is a very smart work. It tackles the subject of public confession in a new way. Rather than identifying generic characteristics of apology and then determining that particular rhetorical acts do or do not satisfy these characteristics, Dave Tell treats the components of confession as fluid and as themselves subject to rhetorical evaluation. He examines six case studies in which a text is alleged to be a confession and makes a compelling argument that there are political stakes and consequences in the decision to label a text a confession as well as in the decision to contest that label. Tell's analysis challenges conventional wisdom over and over again. The reader will be amply rewarded with a depth of knowledge and insight about each of these significant historical moments, and he or she will have renewed appreciation for the working of rhetorical texts in history.”
“Dave Tell's book is a worthy addition to the scholarly literature on confessional culture. I especially appreciate his clear and forceful prose style and the freedom of the work from scholarly jargon and disciplinary narrowness.”
“Just as any good book should do, Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America pushed me to ask new questions with fresh vocabulary and methods. Tell’s writing is deeply compelling. His work combines the best of archival research, rhetorical criticism, and narrative.”
“Those already familiar with Tell’s previous work on the subject of confession will be pleased to find that the author has managed to break significant ground in his recent book by arguing that American public culture has been, and continues to be, fascinated with the practice of confession and what texts can be counted as such. . . . Tell’s book is a welcome addition that surely provides ample material for reflection and debate on issues related to confession and its imbrications with American public culture.”
“Dave Tell is an excellent writer and thinker, incorporating provocative archival research and good storytelling, and his Confessional Crises is a welcome addition to any ongoing discussion of genre, confession, and cultural politics.”

Dave Tell is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas.



Introduction: Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics

1 Confession and Sexuality: True Story Versus Anthony Comstock

2 Confession and Class: A New True Story

3 Confession and Race: Civil Rights, Segregation, and the Murder of Emmett Till

4 Confession and Violence: William Styron’s Nat Turner

5 Confession and Religion: Jimmy Swaggart’s Secular Confession

6 Confession and Democracy: Clinton, Starr, and the Witch-Hunt Tradition of American Confession

Conclusion: James Frey and Twenty-First-Century Confessional Culture





Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics

In contemporary America, the rise of reality TV, the proliferation of daytime talk shows, the endless parade of celebrity confessions, and the insatiable market for fake memoirs such as James Frey’s Million Little Pieces have pushed the genre of confession to the forefront of the public mind. Writing in the January 2010 issue of the New Yorker, the distinguished cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn suggested that the outrage over the recent “onslaught” of Frey-styled “phony” confessions indicates a “large and genuinely new anxiety” about what sorts of texts should count as confessions. Thus did Mendelsohn add his voice to what has become a widespread sentiment: we no longer live simply in a confessional culture. This much is well known and well documented. Rather, we live in a culture defined by confessional anxiety: an anxiety born of an uncertainty about which texts should count as confessions, and compounded by the conviction that such classifications matter a great deal.

Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America demonstrates that these anxieties are nothing new. In fact, anxieties over precisely which texts qualify as confessions have been a staple of twentieth-century American life. They have manifested themselves in what I call confessional crises. Confessional crises are the public debates incited when a text that contains no apparent confessional characteristics is labeled a confession for patently political purposes. For example, in 1956 NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins argued that Look magazine’s story on the racially charged murder of Emmett Till was a confession. Despite the fact that the story was written in the third person, that it contained no apology, no remorse, no admission of sinfulness, and, in short, none of the standard markers by which a text is typically identified as a confession, Wilkins recognized that if the Look story circulated as a confession, it would provide him leverage with which to pressure Mississippi Governor-Elect J. P. Coleman to reconvene a grand jury.

Wilkins thus acted on a central assumption of Confessional Crises: that the classification of a text as a confession is not an idle, academic task. To the contrary, at least to Wilkins’s mind (and mine), to call a text a confession or to deny the same is always a political act (i.e., an act that stresses or reinforces the established social order). In the case at hand, the possibility of justice for Emmett Till turned on the question of whether the Look story counted as a confession. And conversely, the Look story counted as a confession for Wilkins only because of his racial politics. In these respects, the January 1956 debate over the Look article was a paradigmatic confessional crisis: because cultural politics were inextricably interwoven with the contested classification of Look’s story, it instigated a widespread discussion of confession, its boundaries, and its proper place in public life.

Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America is about precisely this imbrication of confession and cultural politics. As we shall see, the two will simply not leave each other alone. I argue that six recurrent issues in American cultural politics—sexuality, class, race, violence, religion, and democracy—have been deeply informed by the genre of confession, and the genre of confession, in turn, is a product of its historical allegiances with these same issues. The strength of the bond joining confession to cultural politics is best judged by the sheer time, energy, and expense activists like Wilkins have spent ensuring that only the correct texts are called confessions. And here Wilkins is only a type. In the pages that follow, I tell the stories of countless partisan actors who—from all points on the political spectrum—have redefined the genre of confession in order to make it better serve their political needs. Their efforts have been pursued with such vigor and such passion that they have transformed both the nature of genre criticism and American culture writ large. Genre criticism, the once-staid activity of deciding how texts should be classified and what such classifications mean, has over the course of the twentieth century been invested with the pathos, energy, and hostility familiar to students of cultural politics. On a wider level, as I document in the conclusion, twenty-first-century American culture is now shot-through with confessional anxieties and hyper-attuned to the political stakes of labeling texts as confessions.

I pursue these arguments by examining the controversy over the Look article and five similar episodes in which partisan political investments sparked public debates over whether particular texts counted as confessions. The first two were incited by the 1919 publication of Bernarr Macfadden’s True Story Magazine. Although True Story is now widely recognized as the founding text in the confession industry, its origins in cultural politics have been all but forgotten. True Story, and the confessions that once filled its pages, were a direct result of Macfadden’s conviction that “confessions” were a powerful weapon—both in his lifelong feud with Anthony Comstock over sexual politics, and in the development of capitalism. These articulations of confession with sexuality and class sparked widespread public debates over True Story Magazine, the genre of confession, and its place in public life. Over the course of the century, at least four more events triggered similar crises. In October 1955, Emmett Till’s acquitted killers sold their story to Look for $4,000; in 1967 the white Anglo-Saxon southern Protestant William Styron claimed that he “entered the consciousness” of a black slave to write The Confessions of Nat Turner; in 1988 the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s church (the Assemblies of God) fought to control the meaning and dissemination of his confession; and in 1998 the Clinton administration and Kenneth Starr’s Office of the Independent Counsel publicly debated whether Clinton’s various speeches on Monica Lewinsky counted as legitimate confessions.

Despite all the differences among these episodes, they share decisive commonalities. In each instance, cultural politics demanded the reclassification of a text as a confession. Further, in each instance this reclassification sparked vigorous public debates over what we might call confessional hermeneutics, a shorthand term I use to designate the collaborative but always contested activity of deciding which texts do, and which texts do not, qualify as confessions. Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America is premised on the belief that these debates—or in my terms, these confessional crises—teach us four specific lessons about the politics of confession.

First, these debates underscore the intense political power of labeling a text as a confession. Simply by repeating Wilkins’s strategy of claiming politically convenient texts as confessions, scores of partisan advocates have brought new force to their arguments. Thus it is hardly surprising that confessional crises have been clustered around twentieth-century America’s most intractable issues—not only race, but also sexuality, class, violence, religion, and democracy. Indeed, the central argument of this book is that confessional hermeneutics—the act of determining precisely which texts count as confessions—has been one of the most powerful, and most overlooked, forms of intervening into American cultural politics. Confessional Crises thus offers what Steven Mailloux has called a “specifically rhetorical form of cultural studies”: a form premised on the assumption that historical acts of interpretation “extend and manipulate the social practices, political structures, and material circumstances in which they are embedded at particular historical moments.” In other words, Mailloux argues that the interpretation and classification of texts is not innocent; rather, it is itself a form of cultural intervention. Herein, I argue that the interpretation and circulation of six specific texts as confessions has concretely shaped the public understanding of six intractable issues: sexuality, class, race, violence, religion, and democracy.

Second, if confessional hermeneutics is a powerful mode of cultural intervention, the converse is also true: American cultural politics have massively influenced what texts count as confessions. In surprising but concrete ways, Confessional Crises demonstrates that political commitments have shaped and reshaped the boundaries of the confessional genre. While the work of Robert W. McChesney and others have made the intrication of the media and political culture commonplace, it remains far too easy to think (mistakenly) that the genre of confession exists apart from the political struggles of American culture. It remains far too easy to think that the confession is an autonomous genre, its boundaries marked off by a secluded professoriate. Quite the opposite. Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America stresses the political economy of confession; it stresses the fact that, historically speaking, the boundaries of confession have been subject to revision by activists interested primarily in cultural politics. The NAACP, Black Power, Mississippi’s Citizens’ Councils, two major New York publishing houses, a right-wing fundamentalist church, President Clinton’s administration, and the Office of the Independent Counsel—these are just a few of the twentieth-century organizations (all of which are treated herein) that have sought to advance their politics by retrofitting the confession, adjusting its boundaries so that it would better serve their politics.

Third, the confessional crises of twentieth-century America suggest that virtually any text can circulate as a confession. Because political exigencies have consistently proved more pressing than checklists of textual characteristics, partisan advocates of all stripes have consistently done what Wilkins did: blatantly ignored textual characteristics and labeled any text a confession, so long as doing so promised political advantage. Indeed, the most conspicuous characteristic of the confessional crises I examine is that they were incited by texts that did not look like confessions at all: a magazine, an expose written in the third person, a novel, a legal interrogation, and an investigative report—in sum, texts that were turned into confessions despite their substantive and formal characteristics rather than because of them. Taking the long view, and looking at the sheer diversity of texts that have been turned into confessions solely on the promise of political gain, it becomes apparent that there are, theoretically speaking, no limits to the confessional genre. Questions of composition, authorship, sincerity, formal features, and substantive content have proven almost irrelevant—so long as it is politically advantageous, it seems that any text can be claimed as a confession and circulated as such. For this reason, understanding the politics of confession in twentieth-century America requires an incredibly broad definition of the genre. In order to better understand these politics, I have counted as a confession any text that has been called a confession.

Fourth, America’s confessional crises suggest that the power of confession resides in its claim to authenticity. Returning once more to Wilkins, he needed the Look article to be a confession because he recognized that the label itself was a powerful mode of authenticating the text. The label “confession,” in other words, gave the Look account a claim to truthfulness it would not otherwise have; so categorized, the racial atrocities Look described could not be dismissed as mere partisan maneuvering. Taking the long view once more, Wilkins is hardly alone. Historically speaking, partisan advocates have claimed dozens of texts as confessions in order to bring the political cachet of authenticity to both important causes and trivial pursuits.

Confessional Anxiety

In 1966, Supreme Court Justice Byron White dissented from Miranda v. Arizona, claiming that it was based on “a deep-seated distrust of all confessions.” In the intervening years, it seems that this distrust has multiplied tenfold. Indeed, evidence of the confessional anxiety mentioned at the outset abounds. In the last twelve years alone, prestigious academic presses (e.g., Chicago, Princeton, Oxford) have joined forces with established commercial houses (e.g., HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Penguin) to turn the confession and its related genres into one of the most talked about rhetorical practices of our time. From Peter Brooks’s Troubling Confessions (Chicago 2000), to Aaron Lazare’s On Apology (Oxford 2005), to Susan Wise Bauer’s Art of the Public Grovel (Princeton 2008), to Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History (Riverhead 2009), to Andrew Potter’s Authenticity Hoax (HarperCollins 2010), to Suzanne Diamond’s Compelling Confessions (Fairleigh Dickinson 2011), studies of confession, its history, its relatives, and its relevance have been appearing with increasing speed. If Peter Brooks’s comment that “our social and cultural attitudes toward confession suffer from uncertainties and ambivalences” remains applicable, this is certainly not for lack of effort.

Words like “nervousness,” “confusion,” “uncertainty,” “irritation,” “unreliability,” “ambivalence,” and “anxiety” punctuate the literature on confession at regular intervals, constant reminders of the psychological perils that attend a confessional culture. The very title of Peter Brooks’s Troubling Confessions is telling. Brooks gives eloquent voice to the confessional anxieties that plague contemporary America. He argues that confession is a “difficult and slippery notion” and implores his readers to exercise caution and restraint before demanding a confession: “Our sense of what confession is and does hovers in a zone of uncertainty.” For this reason, Brooks wonders whether we would not be better served if every confessional text came pre-labeled with its own warning: “This is a confession, handle with care.” Voicing a related anxiety, Book World’s Jonathon Yardley worries about the sheer number of “confessions.” The market is so saturated with them, he notes, that “it is just about impossible to separate what little wheat there may be from the vast ocean of chaff.”

Further, an array of popular books situate the “uncertainties and ambivalences” over confession within a larger set of anxieties over the notion of authenticity. David Boyle’s Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin, and the Lust for Real Life (HarperCollins 2004), Andrew Potter’s Authenticity Hoax, and David Shields’s Reality Hunger (Knopf 2010) each document the growing cultural sensitivity to anything marketed as authentic—confessions, memoirs, autobiographies, reality TV. As David Shields put it, the “very nearly pornographic obsession with [James Frey] and similar cases reveal the nervousness on the topic.” On Mendelsohn’s account, our culture’s confessional obsession reveals not nervousness, but irritation. The uncertainties surrounding confession, he argues, have given rise to a “critical and public irritation” with confessional writing—an irritation that has recently “reached a new peak.”

Yardley, Shields, Mendelsohn, Potter, Brooks, and Yagoda—these are not writers who otherwise share much in common. Their shared impulse to emphasize the anxieties of confessional culture is telling. Taken together, their common testimony is powerful evidence that despite our cultural fascination with confession, and despite the outpouring of books on the subject, we are not yet comfortable with the cultural power of this now-ubiquitous rhetorical form. Given this palpable discomfort, perhaps it is time to approach the study of confession with questions and methods designed to account for these anxieties.

Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America does just this. It is, to my knowledge, the first reception history of confession. Reception history has a deep and varied intellectual history. Nowhere, however, have the trajectories of rhetorical criticism and reception history been better articulated than in the work of Steven Mailloux. For this reason, I lean heavily on his 1998 volume Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural Politics. In this text (along with the earlier Rhetorical Power), Mailloux argues that the primary task of a reception history is the placement of historical acts of interpretation within larger questions of cultural politics. Following Mailloux, I examine historical interpretations of texts as confessions and attend to the political climate that influenced (and was influenced by) these classifications. As such, my primary concern is neither establishing the formal characteristics of the genre nor adjudicating what counts as a confession. Rather, my primary concern is with the historical relationships binding schemas of classification to investments in cultural politics.

As a reception study, Confessional Crises is the only study of the genre that does not begin with a predetermined, substantive definition of confession. From the smart, conservative work of Susan Wise Bauer, to the smart, nontraditional work of Michel Foucault, every significant study of confession in the last fifty years begins with a predetermined definition. For Bauer, a confession is an admission of sin; for Foucault, it is a discourse of identity. For both thinkers, however—and in this they are representative of the wider field—the boundaries of their studies are determined in advance by their definition of confession. Their efforts have certainly been productive. Bauer can measure the reach of secularization, and Foucault can explain confession’s complicity in identity politics. But by virtue of their methodology, neither of them can do what Confessional Crises does: explain the power of the genre by focusing a wide range of texts—serials, novels, exposes, interrogations—that, for political reasons, became confessions despite their textual characteristics. Thus Confessional Crises is uniquely attuned to the public power of confession in ways that the works of Bauer and Foucault could never be. Rather than drawing a definition of confession from religious traditions (Bauer) or from the confluence of legal and psychiatric traditions (Foucault) and then measuring public discourse against it, I assume that public discourse is trustworthy: I count as a confession any text that has been called a confession. From this perspective, True Story, Styron’s novel, and the Starr Report are just as much confessions as Jimmy Swaggart’s bleary-eyed apology or Clinton’s defiant admission of an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Although these texts share little at the level of formal characteristics, they share a decisive commonality at the level of popular reception: each was reclassified as a confession for political purposes.

From certain perspectives, my willingness to treat as a confession any text that is called a confession will smack of critical naiveté—of taking public discourse at face value instead of submitting it to careful scrutiny. In his recent study of apology, for example, Aaron Lazare began by charting the popular “misuse of the word ‘apologize.’” From Lazare’s perspective, the public is “confused” and their use of the word “apologize” cannot be trusted. As a means of correcting popular confusion, Lazare provided a definition of a “true apology” and then demonstrated the shortcomings of popular usage. From my perspective, however, understanding the public anxiety that now surrounds the genre of confession requires respecting the public use of the term. In this respect, Confessional Crises is indebted to Raymond Williams. No one has more eloquently made the case for granting credence to the actual words used by men and women to describe their experience. In his landmark 1958 Culture and Society, Williams explained that he was seeking to understand culture, industry, class, democracy, and art by paying attention to what was labeled “culture,” “industry,” “class,” “democracy,” and “art.” His account of his personal commitment to the words used by people to capture their experience is unsurpassed:

I feel myself committed to the study of actual language: that is to say, to the words and sequences of words which particular men and women have used in trying to give meaning to their experience. It is true that I shall be particularly interested in the general developments of meaning in language, and these, always, are more than personal. But, as a method of enquiry, I have not chosen to list certain topics, and to assemble summaries of particular statements on them. I have, rather, with only occasional exceptions, concentrated on particular thinkers and their actual statements, and tried to understand and value them.

There could hardly be a better description of my own methodology. I have granted credence to the statements of particular individuals—even when they applied the word “confession” to the unlikeliest of texts—and tried to understand these statements in their political contexts. Following Mailloux, I have called this methodology a reception study: rather than focusing on formal characteristics or the authors’ designs, I am focusing on how texts were talked about by people who encountered them.

Significantly, because it is a reception study Confessional Crises is uniquely situated to speak to the palpable confessional anxieties of our time. Confessional Crises tells the stories of how the genre of confession has, over the course of the twentieth century, been constantly retrofitted and refashioned, constantly pressed into the service of various political agendas. And after a century of activists claiming any text as a confession merely to serve the political need of the hour, is it any wonder that contemporary America is shot through with anxieties about which sorts of texts count as confessions? In other words, Confessional Crises demonstrates that the anxieties the New Yorker called “genuinely new” are more likely the product of a long history. At the least, we can say with certainty that such anxieties have been cultivated by a century of opportunistic partisan actors willing to turn virtually any convenient text into a confession.

Confessional Crises has no pretensions of being a panacea; it certainly will not quell America’s confessional anxieties, and it may exacerbate them. But by showing where they came from and why they arose, by unveiling the powerful political impetus to play fast and loose with the genre of confession, by demonstrating the political incentives pushing activists to call any self-serving text a confession—and thereby undermine any sense of certainty about what precisely counts as a confession—Confessional Crises may help us better understand our current confessional culture and its attendant psychological anxieties. It certainly suggests that the answer to our confessional anxieties does not lie in a Lazare-styled pursuit of a “true” or correct definition of confession. Nor does it lie with Peter Brooks’s desire for clearly labeled confessional texts. So long as confessional hermeneutics remains an ideological resource, and so long as partisan advocates have a vested interest in claiming a wide variety of texts as confessions, no system of labels can be definitive and no “true” definition of confession stands a chance.

Politics and Confession

If, as Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America suggests, the history of confession is the history of a wide variety of texts being claimed as confessions on the promise of political gain, we need to ask new questions of the genre. It is not enough to ask after the boundaries of confession, to ask which texts are and which texts are not confessions. Nor is it sufficient to ask which textual features should characterize every confession. Although these questions have long occupied scholars, they are premised on the historically untenable assumption that the confession is a stable, ahistorical category characterized by recurring textual features. Working from the Mailloux-inspired assumption that every act of classification is “historically contingent, politically situated, institutionally embedded, and materially conditioned,” Confessional Crises suggests that the important question to ask of every confessional text is a variation of the question that the early pragmatists famously directed to truth: “Truth for whom?” Following the lead of Schiappa and David Zarefsky, we should not ask if a text is a confession, but we should ask whom a text serves as a confession. Confessional Crises, in other words, is a political rather than a categorical inquiry. I have no interest in generating an authoritative list of texts that have been categorized as confessions. I have a keen interest, however, in exploring why particular activists have insisted on particular lists, why particular political positions seem to require particular but improbable texts to count as confessions.

In a broad sense, there is nothing revolutionary here. Confessional inquiry has been driven by political questions for a long time. The question of power is why Foucault took up the genre in the 1970s, and it is why Brooks and Bauer have done so in the last fifteen years. All three of these influential scholars predicated their work on the premise that the study of confession would provide insight into the redistribution, abuse, or recovery of political power. To date, however, all inquiries into the politics of confession have assumed that such politics are a function of the genre’s recurrent textual features. The works of Bauer and Foucault are again instructive and representative. Their work demonstrates just how thoroughly confessional inquiry has internalized the mistaken assumption that if we are to understand the politics of confession, we must first isolate the textual features that constitute a true confession. In virtually every study, in other words, a confession does what it does because it is what it is.

Consider again the work of Susan Wise Bauer. She argues that in twentieth-century America, “the public confession came to serve a very particular purpose. It became a ceremonial laying down of power, made so that followers could pick that power up and hand it back.” After defining confession in these terms, the remainder of The Art of the Public Grovel evaluates how particular leaders used or misused the public confession in order to regain power: Ted Kennedy failed at Chappaquiddick, Jimmy Swaggart succeeded, and President Bill Clinton gradually perfected the art. What distinguishes Kennedy from Swaggart, the early Clinton from the late? Rhetorical artistry. Kennedy, Bauer tells us, did not recover his power because he “misread his audience” and therefore rationalized his actions rather than “admitting to moral blame.” Swaggart, by contrast, responded to his scandal with a “model confession.” He never “engaged in any blameshifting,” he never excused his behavior, he offered nine “clear statements of fault” and “eight pleas for forgiveness.” Consequently, “when Swaggart laid his power down, his congregation picked it up and handed it back.” In sum, for Bauer the power of the confession hinges on the artistry of the confessant—the ability, as it were, to say the right things at the right time.

Within confessional studies, the primary alternative to the instrumental tradition in which Bauer works is found in the work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the confessant makes her- or himself vulnerable to an insidious form of social control—a form of control he famously labeled disciplinary power. Just as much as Bauer, however, Foucault assumed that the power of the confession hinges on its substantive content. On two separate occasions, Foucault provided a survey of the history of the confession. The critical movement in each of these surveys was the gradual disengagement of confession from a judicial code of prohibitions. For a long time, Foucault explained, the substantive content of confession was determined by the illegal acts of the penitent: adultery, fornication, debauchery, and so forth. Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the substantive content of the confession was increasingly calibrated to the thoughts rather than the actions of the penitent.

This is the decisive turning point in Foucault’s account of confession. It is precisely when the substantive content of confession shifted from the disclosure of actions to the disclosure of thoughts that confession became a technology of social control. If the content of confession had never shifted from actions to thoughts, then the genre would have remained a relatively benign practice. If every confession was modeled on The Life of Benvenuto Cellini or Clinton’s My Life—texts in which there is little more than a recounting of past events—Foucault’s explanation of confession would be wholly irrelevant. I say this not to minimize the force of Foucault’s account, but to emphasize that its force is dependent on a particular, substantive definition of confession.

Thus, just as much as Bauer’s instrumental approach, Foucault’s critical approach is marked by a dependence on the substantive features of the confession. In both traditions, the political power of confession is calibrated to the textual characteristics of confessional prose. For Bauer, the capacity of a confession to recover power hinges on the avoidance of “blameshifting” and the outright admission of guilt; for Foucault, the application of power hinges on a shift from confessing actions to confessing thoughts. Neither approach to confession, however, accounts for the unmistakable power of texts that have circulated as confessions despite their textual characteristics. For example, Bauer’s schema could not account for the power of the Starr Report; Foucault’s logic could not account for the power of Bill Clinton’s August 17 confession; and neither schema could explain the power of True Story Magazine, Look’s article on Emmett Till, or The Confessions of Nat Turner—all texts that wide segments of the population called confessions. Because confessional studies writ large has followed Bauer and Foucault, tuning confessional power to textual forms, the field is still unable to explain the power of confessions that do not look like the models they posit. More pressing still, working from the influential models of Bauer and Foucault, the field is unable to explain the complicity of the genre with cultural politics. How is it that the genre of confession has intervened into such issues as sexuality, class, race, violence, religion, and democracy? In my view, these interventions have little to do with the rhetorical artistry of an individual speaker or the subtle coercions of disciplinary power. They result, rather, from the classification and circulation of texts as confessions.

What is needed, and what Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America provides, is an account of confession’s power predicated not on any particular set of textual characteristics, but rather on the simple act of claiming a text as a confession or refusing to do so: a reception history. As Steven Mailloux has argued, reception studies are a rhetorical version of cultural studies. They are rhetorical because they attend to the specific ways that texts have been interpreted and classified; they are cultural because they work from the assumption that interpretation and classification are beholden to cultural norms. Under the heading of “rhetorical hermeneutics,” Mailloux describes a reception study as follows: “Rhetorical hermeneutics is a form of cultural rhetoric study that takes as its topic specific historical acts of interpretation within their cultural contexts. It promotes a rhetorical history that embeds the act of interpretation in its most relevant critical debates (and there may be several) and locates these ongoing arguments within the rhetorical traditions of relevant institutional discourses.”

In Confessional Crises, I embed six historical acts of interpretation in their most relevant cultural debates: sexuality, class, race, violence, religion, and democracy. Throughout, I am at pains never to separate the always-shifting genre of confession from these wider cultural debates, through which particular understandings of confession were made relevant in particular moments. In this sense, Confessional Crises offers the first political economy of confession. Stressing the relationship between the boundaries of the genre and the cultural politics of an age, I argue that the reclassification, declassification, and circulation of texts as confessions has been a potent means of influencing American cultural politics.

Confession and Authenticity

In addition to providing a history of texts that have been reclassified and circulated as confessions, Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America provides insight into why activists have so consistently turned to confessional hermeneutics as a technique of cultural intervention. One answer stands out from the lot: the sheer power of authenticity. It has driven both the reclassification of texts as confessions and the refusal to acknowledge the confessional status of a given text. Although Peter Brooks has claimed that the confession bears a “special stamp of authenticity,” the reality is more complex. Confessional Crises suggests that the simple act of labeling a text as a confession can either endow a text with an aura of authenticity or divest a text of authenticity. On the one hand, from the onset of the “modern confession industry” in 1919 forward, politically motivated citizens have been turning the unlikeliest of texts into confessions simply to cash in on the political cachet of the authentic. There is perhaps no better, more concise evidence of the political power of the link between authenticity and confession than this: when Twentieth Century-Fox sought to turn William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner into a feature-length film, the Black Anti-Defamation Association insisted only that the film “must not bear the title of William Styron’s book lest it lend validity to his falsification of history.” Fox complied.

On the other hand, while the political cachet of confession’s “special stamp of authenticity” may be lucrative, it is also fragile. To the extent a confession is compelled or coerced, it is disqualified as an authentic expression. The very fact of the Miranda rights—not to mention their prominence in American popular culture—is evidence of just how tenuous is the link between confession and authenticity. Legally speaking, if a confession is not obtained in the proper manner, if the proper rituals are not observed, a confession will not be treated as authentic. Indeed, a coerced confession is definitively inauthentic, the product of an abusive power relation rather than an authentic expression of the self. On this score, labeling a text a confession de-authorizes both the text in question and the abusive power that produced it. The best evidence for the cultural power of the coerced confession is, again, the confessional crises of twentieth-century America. These demonstrate that, with as much intensity as partisan actors turned texts into confessions to cash in on the power of the authentic, they also turned texts into confessions to cash in on the power of the conspicuously inauthentic. Thus it was that the New York Times called on, of all people, the playwright Arthur Miller to explain the Starr Report—the choice itself suggesting that Starr’s seven volumes constituted a forced confession and, as such, were inauthentic and could not be trusted.

Confession, then, is a volatile genre, and confessional hermeneutics is a dangerous activity. Labeling a text a confession may either endow it with an unmatched aura of authenticity or divest the text of authenticity and suggest that the power that compelled it is abusive. In either case, however, the power of the genre is calibrated not to textual features or recurrent formal characteristics, but rather to the sheer act of classifying a text as a confession. In each of the following chapters, we will see how confessional hermeneutics lends the power of authenticity, or sometimes the stigma of inauthenticity, to the embattled actors of American cultural politics.

Confessional Crises

There have been at least six confessional crises in twentieth-century America. In the pages that follow, I dedicate a chapter to each of them. Here I briefly introduce each one, and indicate the specific political questions that turned debates over whether particular texts count as confessions into large-scale political brouhahas.

Confession and Sexuality: True Story Magazine Versus Anthony Comstock

The first confessional crisis I examine was incited by the publication of Bernarr Macfadden’s True Story Magazine. When the magazine first hit the newsstands in May 1919, it was the culmination of Macfadden’s lifelong crusade against his sworn enemy, Anthony Comstock, the “Great Mogul of American Morals.” Macfadden detested no one as much as he did Comstock, and True Story was designed as Macfadden’s ultimate rebuttal of Comstock’s pernicious influence over American sexuality. To Macfadden’s mind, the confessions he published monthly in True Story, if they could only be properly understood, harbored the capacity to revolutionize conceptions of American sexuality. For this reason, Macfadden expended countless columns refining the genre of confession, educating the public on its proper deployment, and ensuring that the form itself could be placed in the service of his own, restrictive sexual politics.

Confession and Class: A New True Story

In chapter 2 I interrogate Bernarr Macfadden’s 1930s claim that True Story constituted an ideal connection between producers and consumers. Because it was written by its readers, Macfadden explained, True Story not only carried advertisements to the masses, it also carried the masses—their subconscious desires, anxieties, and consumer impulses—back to business executives. Although this argument was an essential component in the gradual recognition of True Story as a distinctively confessional magazine, it must not be taken at face value. To make this claim, Macfadden redescribed the working class, telling business executives that workers were now defined by their expendable income, political docility, and overall contentedness. Macfadden, in other words, turned the working class into picture-perfect American consumers. The results were immediate: in addition to True Story becoming widely recognized as a confession magazine, the advertising dollars now flowed in. Yet—and this is my point—the very same strategy that turned True Story into a confession magazine and a commercial success also blinded a wide swath of Americans to the actual conditions of the working class. Because they were rendered invisible by Macfadden’s rhetorical strategy, the actually existing working class paid the price of True Story becoming a confession magazine.

Confession and Race: Look’s “Shocking Story” of Emmett Till

On October 28, 1955, the journalist William Bradford Huie signed a series of contracts with the murderers of Emmett Till. The contracts gave Huie the right to publish the killers’ story of Till’s murder in Look magazine, to quote the murderers at length, and to accuse them publicly of abduction and murder. However, the contracts did not give Huie the right to publish the killers’ story as a confession. Because of this last point, Huie’s “Shocking Story of Approved Murder in Mississippi” does not read as a confession. And yet nearly every reader of Huie’s “Shocking Story” has followed the judgment of the renowned African American journalist James L. Hicks. Writing for The Afro-American, Hicks claimed that “in the magazine article [the killers] simply confess that they killed Emmett Till.” How is it that “Shocking Story” is nearly universally remembered as a confession? More pressing still, why did both the NAACP and Mississippi’s Citizens’ Councils—two organizations that were deeply antagonistic, even offensive, to each other—both argue that Huie’s “Shocking Story” was a confession?

These are the questions that animate chapter 3. Their answer lies in the combustible mixture of confession and the politics of the Second Reconstruction. For civil rights activists, if the “Shocking Story” was a confession, it provided them the leverage they needed to advocate for President Eisenhower’s proposed Civil Rights Commission. For segregationists and southern apologists, the “Shocking Story” performed a different, but equally vital, service: it provided a sanitized version of Till’s murder and a much-needed response to Brown v. Board. Thus with all parties standing to gain from Huie’s rendering of the murder, how could it not become a confession? The South saw in the “Shocking Story” a chance to consign to oblivion the extent of the violence visited upon Emmett Till; the north saw documentable evidence of southern hypocrisy. For these reasons both sides had a stake in turning the article into a confession to better authorize the story and better advance their politics. The result was that, despite its manifold inaccuracies and partisan origins, Huie’s version of Till’s story became the authoritative account for nearly fifty years.

Confession and Violence: William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner

Twelve years after the death of Emmett Till, the question of confession was once again at the center of American racial politics. On October 9, 1967, William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a historical novel based on Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection. Styron’s white critics argued that his novel was a confession, his black critics argued it was not, but both sides returned to the generic question repeatedly, approached it from a variety of angles, and marshaled a wide range of resources to support their generic claims. The question I pursue in chapter 4 is why? Why were both sides preoccupied with the genre of the novel, and what does this preoccupation teach us about the genre of confession and the question of violence? In order to answer these questions I suggest the following: In the context of the 1960s, to take a position on the genre of the novel was, simultaneously, to take a position on two hotly contested, racially coded debates: first, a historiographical debate over the relative violence of American slaves; second, a postcolonial debate over the capacities of rhetoric to bridge the experiences of black and white Americans. Chapter 4 thus demonstrates how the genre of Styron’s novel came to function as a heuristic within these larger debates over the role of violence in America’s past and present.

Confession and Religion: Jimmy Swaggart’s Apology

Twenty-one years after Styron’s novel was released, Jimmy Swaggart incited another confessional crisis when, on February 21, 1988, he publicly confessed to the more than eight thousand people crowded into his Baton Rouge Family Worship Center. Although thousands may have witnessed Swaggart confess, precious few knew precisely why he chose February 21 to do so. Reverend Marvin Gorman, the across-town pastor whom Swaggart had publicly disgraced two years earlier, was getting his revenge by blackmailing Swaggart into making a confession. It might have played out in a church, but this was old-fashioned power politics. Armed with pictures of an escorted Swaggart entering and leaving a pay-by-the-hour motel, Gorman demanded Swaggart’s confession.

Yet Swaggart had financial incentive not to confess. By 1988 he was raising more money than any other televangelist. Moreover, his ministry was expensive and could not, as the Houston Chronicle put it, “afford his absence.” Swaggart was thus in a fix. On the one hand, he faced the photo-armed Marvin Gorman, who was demanding a public confession. On the other hand, the disclosures involved in a traditional, Christian confession threatened the economic stability of his ministry and, by extension, the spiritual vitality of numberless souls. How Swaggart negotiated this situation is the question of chapter 5. I argue that his response has much to teach us about the secularization of confession and, more generally, the place of religious discourse in public life.

Confession and Democracy: Bill Clinton Versus Kenneth Starr

By September 1998, Bill Clinton had confessed to an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky so many times that the news media began listing the confessions catalogue style. The listing of confessions, however, is never an innocent exercise. For, as I demonstrate in this chapter, the political debate over the guilt or innocence of Bill Clinton was indexed to a rhetorical debate over the definition of confession. For this reason, the seemingly innocent activity of listing certain texts as confessions was weighted with a new importance: to choose which texts counted as confessions was, in effect, to weigh in on Clinton’s guilt. Chapter 6 asks which political positions required which texts to count as confessions. I argue that the Clinton administration radically expanded the list of texts that counted as confessions. It then aligned particular types of confession with the needs of a democratic polity and condemned other types of confession as a product of the invasive politics of Kenneth Starr. The result was not only the exoneration of Bill Clinton, but also a compelling redescription of public confession undertaken in the name of democracy itself.

Conclusion: Confessional Crises and Citizen Critics

Taken together, these six case studies bear witness to the power of the genre of confession. In each instance, the simple act of labeling an otherwise non-confessional text as a confession was an important (and always contested) tactic in American cultural politics. The sheer diversity of texts that have been turned into confessions is a trenchant reminder that the cultural power of public confession cannot be explained with recourse to textual characteristics or formal properties. The only way to study the politics of confession in twentieth-century America is to study what people call a confession, no matter how unlikely a candidate it seems. For no established formal definition of confession—not Augustine’s, not Rousseau’s, not Freud’s, not Foucault’s—could possibly encompass Styron’s novel or Starr’s report. Each of these texts became confessions because confessional hermeneutics was driven not by academic questions regarding recurrent formal characteristics, but by patently political motives. This suggests that although the temptation to posit a substantive definition of confession is strong, it is a temptation that must be resisted. By determining in advance what counts as a confession, we will be closing ourselves off to the mainspring of confession’s cultural power, a power that includes the ability to turn virtually any text into a confession.

In the pages that follow, I tell the stories of how and why politically motivated journalists, celebrities, writers, politicians, and ordinary citizens turned themselves into ad hoc literary critics, or what Rosa A. Eberly has called “citizen critics.” These “citizen critics” recognized clearly that confessional hermeneutics was an activity fraught with political ramifications. For this reason, these citizen critics have repeatedly refused the proprietary claims of the academy over the practice of genre criticism. At least when it comes to the genre of confession, there has simply been too much at stake to leave such demarcations to academics. As few academics have, these activists understood that confession is a product of its political economy and, accordingly, that the re- or declassification of a text as a confession is a particularly powerful mode of intervening in that economy.

As a means of reflecting on this last point, the conclusion to Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century America examines the twenty-first-century confessional crisis incited by James Frey’s Million Little Pieces—a brouhaha about which the New York Times’ Frank Rich was fantastically wrong. Wrote Rich, “No one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey’s autobiography is true or not, or whether it sits on a fiction or nonfiction shelf at Barnes & Noble.” The fact of the matter, of course, is that nearly everyone cared. The controversy over Frey’s so-called memoir was no different from the confessional crises that on six occasions punctuated twentieth-century American life. In every instance, the genre of confession demonstrated an incredible capacity for transforming political activists into literary critics and making virtually everyone care about the shelf on which a text is placed. I close with the story of Frey and the competing ways his book was classified as a concrete reminder that confessional politics are present politics. The rhetorical strategy of advancing partisan aims by controlling which texts count as confessions is alive and well. If, however, we are to understand Frey and the contemporary confessional crisis for which he has so often been made to stand, it is imperative that we look first to our twentieth-century history of confessional crises.