I’m preparing to start my dissertation on New England women regionalist writers of the late-nineteenth-century—writers who think in terms that are much smaller than the nation. For the women in these stories, it appears, the small towns and islands they inhabit are not small enough. They carve out even smaller places within these already small places and refuse to go anywhere else. To be exact, the entirety of Celia Thaxter’s memoir, An Island Garden (1894), concerns 750 square feet of space—an entire world within her already isolated home on the remote Appledore Island off the coast of New Hampshire. Consider, too, Hetty Fitfield, of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s short story, “A Church Mouse” (1891), who, with no money and no place to live, delightedly locks herself in the town church after everyone in town refuses to help her. For Hetty, the “small, lofty room” in the church is everything a home should be: cozy, warm, and, most importantly, free of other people. These narratives want us to think diminutively—smaller than the U.S., smaller than New England, smaller than the village, as small as we can get.
|From The China Hunter's Club (1878)|
The sensibility of New England writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Celia Thaxter, Rose Terry Cooke, and Annie Trumbull Slosson is not a cosmopolitan one or an ethnographic one. It is, finally, an obsessive sensibility—a narrow-mindedness that encourages the women in these stories to cultivate singular interests in people, places, and ideas that become meaningful and rich intellectual projects. The curiosity sparked by obsession in these women drives them to devote their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. Remaining inside the tiny spaces that they create for themselves, these characters and narrators are serious readers, thinkers, naturalists, collectors, and archivists who achieve a kind of scholarly mastery over the outside world without ever entering it. The same inwardness that critics want to resist is also what gives these women the power to attain a deep, specialized knowledge about the areas of inquiry that they enter. Consider the unending rigor with which Randy, of Annie Trumbull Slosson’s short story, “Aunt Randy” (1887), pursues her study of entomology. She does, after all, prefer the company of insects to people. There is, too, the monomaniacal passion with which the women search for and collect china in Slosson’s The China Hunter’s Club (1878). We might also consider how Thaxter presents gardening in An Island Garden not as a mere domestic hobby or amateur pastime but as a way of becoming a serious student of the natural world. In this way, to look inwardly is not to think inwardly.
What the criticism on regionalism and cosmopolitanism seems to tell us is this: go big or go home. Me? I’d rather do what these women narrators and characters do: stay home. Am I a USist or an Americanist? I’d like to think much smaller than the nation. I’m a regionalist, a local colorist—a homebody.