Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The dark side of literary regionalism

David Edwin Bernard, Threshing Run # 7 (1984). Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas. Image found here. About a hundred years after the rise of regionalist literature, but it captures well regionalism's usually-rural setting and life therein, and the implicit tension between the old ways and the new.

I've just finished reading around in Brazil Imagined: 1500 to the Present by Darlene J. Sadlier, billed by its publisher (Univ. of Texas Press) as "the first comprehensive cultural history of Brazil to be written in English." It does indeed seem to be comprehensive (but then again, I don't know a heck of a lot about Brazil relative to the little I know about the rest of Spanish-speaking America, so, "grain of salt" and all that), and it's written in a very approachable manner. At the very least, it's an excellent place to start for those interested in learning a little more about how others have imagined and depicted Brazil and--the reason I'm posting this today--how Brazilians have imagined themselves to themselves.

Though politically Brazil's history in the 19th century does not parallel ours, I was intrigued to learn from Sadlier's chapter on the emergence of Brazilian literature that its literary history does. In both countries in the second half of that century, as cultural and economic power shifted to the cities, the regions of the interior became the subject of writers intent on exploring their topography and cultural and linguistic mores: the essence of literary regionalism (itself an offshoot of literary realism). In the U.S., among the more prominent regionalists and the places they wrote about are Sarah Orne Jewett (Maine), Kate Chopin (New Orleans, and Cajun and Creole country), Joel Chandler Harris (Georgia), Bret Harte (the West), and, later, Willa Cather (the Plains and New Mexico) and Charles W. Chesnutt (North Carolina; intriguingly, Chesnutt was an African-American writer whose first-person narrators often "passed" to their readership as white by not explicitly revealing their race). In the case of Brazilian literature, Sadlier notes the influence of Portuguese writers becoming more interested in the lives of people living in rural Portugal (of course, they would have been reading other European writers doing the same sort of thing, as were the U.S. writers I named above).

An obvious, and relatively benign, cultural function of regionalist writing is that at its best, its depiction of a distinctive place unfamiliar to many readers reveals the people of that place in its distinctiveness and, at the same time, to be in its essence as much a part of the wider nation as any other part. For a relatively new nation seeking to gain a sense of national identity, regionalism thus also performs important political work. Clearly some of this is at work in U.S. regionalist writing, coming as it does in the wake of the Civil War and the beginnings of the settlement of the West along with the rise of urbanization and immigration from both Europe and Asia. But in this writing there's some nostalgia-feeding as well: much regionalist writing appeared in magazines, whose readership was urban and, more often than not, had moved away from the very places that served as settings for the regionalists--and, as well, the stories themselves often recall "the way things used to be" in those now much-changed places (as just one example, Harris's Uncle Remus tales have their origins in antebellum times--though, as near as I can tell, Uncle Remus himself isn't nostalgic about slavery itself). So, then: two levels of nostalgia--the audience's for a place; that place's people for an earlier, now-lost time--are often at work in U.S. regional writing.

These aren't necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But, as per the title of this post, an endnote in Sadlier's book reminded me that they can be, and that led me to wonder a bit about our own contemporary moment.

As I mentioned earlier, though Brazilian and U.S. regionalist literature appeared at about the same time in the 19th century, our corresponding respective political and cultural moments were quite different. Though Brazil won its independence from Portugal in 1820, it was ruled by a monarchy until the 1890s; moreover, Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. For another, Brazil's landmass is the size of all of Europe's, the result being that, whereas certain regions of the U.S. (with, probably, the exception of Creole society) never appeared exotic but, rather, quaint, for Brazilians enormous expanses of their nation seemed like other nations entirely to the Europeanized coastal areas. The people of these regions--the sertanejos (the Brazilian equivalent of the gauchos) of Brazil's semi-arid deep-northeastern interior, and the by-then-all-but-extinct Indians of the coastal regions--were the romanticized heroes of these narratives, but they were also types that the vast majority of Brazilians reading these narratives would have had no direct experience with . . . and yet, their writers were establishing these types as archetypal Brazilians, as embodiments of the nation's emerging national consciousness.

It's within this context that Sadlier paraphrases literary historian José Maurício Gomes de Almeida's discussion of regionalism (which doesn't differ in its essentials from mine above) and then goes on to speculate:

It is interesting to consider late-nineteenth-century Brazilian regionalism in light of Benedict Anderson's discussions of the nation as an imagined community. Perhaps the concept of a regional literature, which focuses on a specific area and communtiy, was a way for writers to circumvent the vastness and variety that made knowing or representing Brazil as a whole implausible. (315, n. 39)

This is an intriguing idea. I'll just say that I don't know if this is right, but it's certainly not incongruous with anything about regionalism that I've said above. All of us know the risks inherent in insisting on a single place--or, for that matter, some experience in that single place--as being a synecdoche of even that place, let alone an entire nation. Still, perhaps, also at work in the audience for those magazine stories about Home was the comfort that, as confused, confusing and alienating as life in the city could be, there was always a place where life made sense. (Just to be clear: I'm speaking here of U.S. regionalism. My sense of Brazilian regionalist fiction's audience, as I mentioned before, was that they had little if any direct knowledge of the sertão (the "backlands" of the northeast) and the jungle; to them, these places might as well have been entirely different countries.)

The "dark side" reading of this idea, though, is that regionalism can become a means of insisting on a place's distinctiveness, its misunderstood-ness, even its superiority, relative to (and, thus, to the exclusion of) the rest of the nation. In other words, regionalism becomes provincialism. Just off the top of my head, when thinking about this idea as regards U.S. regionalism I think one could make the case that this happened with the "moonlight and magnolias" turn that novels set in the South took after the end of Reconstruction and into the 20th century, culminating in the Southern Agrarian movement as articulated in the essay collection I'll Take My Stand and, much more disturbingly, in the novels of Thomas J. Dixon (whose most famous novel, The Clansman, was made into the film Birth of a Nation). I think we also can hear echoes of provincialism in the recent politics of some via the "real America" trope that seems implicitly to exclude large urban, more cosmopolitan places in favor of an older, more culturally-homogeneous America. That trope, I hasten to add, is not explicitly a racist or a xenophobic one, but it seems inherently suspicious of the Other--it is a trope as old as America itself. It is resistant to difference to the point of being unwilling even to consider that acknowledgement and acceptance of difference under the umbrella of a set of ideas to which we collectively subscribe might also be American.

You might have suspicioned that I don't think that trope is a good thing. To our credit, our literature largely has avoided being too provincial. That which strays too far that way tends not to survive. Sarah Orne Jewett's most famous story, "A White Heron," has survived--and flourished--not because it is about Maine but because it is about a little girl learning the cost of what it means to become a person separate and distinct from other people, something not only Mainers have experiences with. As goes our literature, so goes our nation. We are at our best when we are not insisting on authenticity or reveling in nostalgia. We'll never find the truly authentic; the nostalgic is always prettier than it really was.


R. Sherman said...

I'm hugely busy and missed the last two entries, thanks to a trial.

A query from a half-formed thought: Does the comparative lack of shifting from regionalism to a more pathological provincialism result from the fact what being a"American" is predicated upon an idea, e.g. Preamble to Declaration of Independence, as opposed to a more "tribal" view of place, as being homeland of a specific group, such as has plagued Europe over its history?


John B. said...


Best of luck in court, and thanks for stopping by.

I think you're right--that it's our commonly-held set of values as a nation that has historically served as a pretty hefty counterweight to the more pernicious aspects of regionalism. At least, this is what I tell my students.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Enjoyed reading it.