Wednesday, September 18, 2013

USist or Americanist? I’m a Regionalist

Are you a USist or an Americanist? This was the question that the U.S. Literatures and Cultures Consortium posed to the participants of the roundtable at our inaugural event of this semester. The subsequent conversation was a thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a scholar of U.S. literature and culture who wants to undo the hegemonic structures that underlie the nation. But what about scholars who aren’t even interested in the nation to begin with?

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)
And yet twenty-first-century readers of New England regionalism resist the diminutiveness of the genre by finding in it precisely the opposite: largeness—broad ideas that matter in contexts much bigger than the region itself. For these critics, like Hsuan Hsu (Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature) and Philip Joseph (American Literary Regionalism in a Global Age), regionalist writing is always actually a story about something outside of the region it purports to depict: it is not actually about the small town it represents but about something larger than itself. Regionalism is not allowed to be just a story about a small place but must be a story about the whole nation, a story about transatlantic relations, even a story of global scope. Cosmopolitan is the “hot word” in regionalist criticism today. In Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literature Value, Tom Lutz draws on Stephen Greenblatt’s claim that “we should not be thinking about looking inward, but about the ways literature and the teaching of language are intellectually and culturally and socially part of the larger world.” But what if inward doesn’t also have to mean insular? How can looking inwardly become its own critical payoff?

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.