Review: ‘The Rebel in Autumn’ by Michael Shaara

This gem of a novel is an accurate immersion into campus life in the 1960s, especially the protests and the discussions of university censorship of student materials. Inspired by an event at Florida State University (FSU) in which the president banned a short story from the college literary magazine due to the use of a few “dirty words,” the story begins with a grim sense of reality.

Shaara (1928-1988), who taught creative writing at FSU at the time would have known about the incident as well as the machinations within a university faculty. The true event was resolved more amicably than the fictional event in “The Rebel in Autumn” which, for readers, presents an opportunity to see how in a time of national stress over the Vietnam War, segregation, and other issues a relatively mundane matter can spiral out of control to be the point of a looming threat of violence.

The characters–both students and faculty–are well developed and display multiple points of view about the prior restraint (pre-publication censorship) that had generally vanished from the American scene (except within student publications and college administrations).

Just how to “fix” the situation is more difficult than it sounds when you have a university president following the letter of the law that says he is the publisher of all student publications and can restrict what is released. As one faculty member said, the president had the power to ban the short story, but not the right.

Every character in the book is at risk one way or the other. Faculty members can be fired or demoted; students can be expelled. Anyone can be harmed if outside agitators or the National Guard (as we saw at Kent State in 1970) appear on campus. Shaara paints the evolving sense of danger perfectly down to the dramatic conclusion.

Kudos to Shaara’s son Jeff and daughter Lila for overseeing the posthumous publication of “The Rebel in Autumn” as well as other Shaara novels that had gone out of print. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Killer Angels” (1974) has remained in print. The family chose to publish “Rebel” as is rather than second-guessing the changes Shaara might have made during the editing and revision process that occurs once a manuscript is accepted. I agree with their decision with one exception, that being the lack of a blank line or a printed separator between scene changes; this would have reduced the confusion that occurs when scenes run together.

Disclaimer: I was a friend and a student in Shaara’s creative writing class at the time he was working on this novel. I didn’t know about the novel then, but students and Shaara had many discussions about censorship and other issues both in and out of class. My potential bias is enhanced because I was fired from a college after a long-running debate about its censorship of student publications of which I was the academic advisor.

–Malcolm