Book review: Regionalism and the Humanities, eds. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz

Grant Wood, “American Gothic” (1930)

[Regionalism] has been a revolt against cultural nationalism– that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences, psychologically and otherwise, between the different regions of America. But this does not mean that Regionalism, in turn, advocates a concentration on local peculiarities; such an approach results in anecdotalism and local color. -Grant Wood (177)

Regionalism and the Humanities is (yet another) anthology of essays, which was compiled from papers selected after a 2003 national conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers. The conference– and subsequently this book– confronted a big issue: in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenized and standardized by globalization, regionalism is simultaneously experiencing a resurgence of interest and risking decline due to (literally) larger postmodern issues and the ever-shrinking nature of diversity due to phenomena such as the internet. It is acknowledged that this simultaneous decline and revival seems paradoxical, and it is stressed that one needs to think about its different political, social, economic, and aesthetic purposes. Different terms are thrown about and defined in the introduction– place, landscape, regionalism/regionalist, local/localism, regional identity– which help illuminate the various aspects of regionalism and reveal it to be more complex than often regarded. Regionalism was once viewed as a reaction against modern forces, but it is now seen as a more aggressive endeavor to make a claim for the importance of place and space (as opposed to other postmodern issues: gender, race, ethnicity, class, demography, and other cultural and physical distinctions). Place and space are more humanist and individualist, seeking to help us understand ourselves and the human experience. This is not to say that postmodernism cannot acknowledge regionalism at all– although it should be noted that there is no formal redefinition– and if we look at regions as fluid and ever-changing, regionalism can fit into the postmodern discussion.

The essays in this anthology were all over the map (haha, pun), ranging from an analysis of the role of landscape in American fiction to the “false” real history of gunfights to Grecian architecture. In all there are 16 essays (as opposed to the 150 papers presented at the conference), and as usual, I focused on a few more relevant ones to my work. The first one I read was Barbara Handy-Marchello’s “Gendered Boosterism: The ‘Doctor’s Wife’ Writes from the New Northwest.” The “doctor’s wife” was Linda Warfel Slaughter, the wife of an army officer, who lived in Bismarck and wrote a series of booster letters in 1873 to Missouri newspapers to demonstrate the agricultural and social potential of the “New Northwest.” In 1873 the North Pacific Railroad was finally reaching the area, which was little more than a tiny settlement, connecting it to the “civilized” east. Boosterism promoted agricultural development in rural regions, which in turn fostered economic growth, and helped break the stereotype that the Plains were the Great American Desert. Slaughter was not particularly knowledgeable about agriculture, though in one of her letters she talked about the fertility of the alluvial soil, and instead focused on establishing “society” and additionally promoted the importance of church and family. A rare college graduate, her prose was distinctly poetic and descriptive, unlike most booster letters, which were dry and scientific. She provided a gendered perspective in boosterism, basically demonstrating that a well-bred woman could survive there, therefore others could as well; another way of putting it is that she looked at social order as “feminine” to counter the masculine-dominated notion of the frontier. She not only envisioned a balance of gender roles against a scenic backdrop, but also used her letters to express strong political views (she greatly resented the Grant administration’s Peace Policy with the Native Americans, whom she initially perceived as murderous barbarians before developing a cordial relationship with them). Much like Isabella Bird, she revealed herself as determined and tough, though her expression of fear (namely of the Native Americans) helped further construct gender roles and heighten the masculinity of her husband and other soldiers.

Another essay I focused on was “The Midwest as a Colony: Transnational Regionalism” by Edward Watts, which sought to redefine Midwestern regional culture as “colonial” (though not colonial in the traditional sense of the word, but rather the broader context of 19th century global European diaspora). By thinking of the Midwest in this way, it brings US history into global, transnational conversations about place, history and culture. According to Watts, we no longer have to “view terms like colony, region, nation, and empire as existing on different sides of the planet or in other places: the United States had colonies and the British Empire had regions” (180). Post-colonialism has been proven to be a more effective way to reformulate the relationship of American regions to the American nation. It prevents the stereotypical image of the “agrarian heartland” and draws attention to asymmetrical and nonreciprocal relationship of region to nation. However, thinking of regions in terms of colonies (or rather colonial nationalism) risks thinking of regionalism as sectionalism, which is the development of oppositional local nationalisms. Sectionalism was– and still is– seen as oppositional and reactionary, therefore inadequate for expressing and developing place-specific policy or culture that reflects local distinctions. Regionalism or cultural nationalism, on the other hand, seek a middle ground to express local needs and to achieve local goals within the construct of the nation or empire. Watts then discusses postmodernism and its lack of acknowledgement of regionalism in its larger discussions of globalism, gender, race, and class– place is just as important as these latter three factors and collectively represent a process. The local cannot be studied as simply “local,” for that renders it as trivial, but rather it needs to be studied as a manifestation of larger, longer stories about empires and races, which in turn attracts a larger audience to the discussion.

Finally, I read “Willa Cather’s Case: Region and Reputation” by Guy Reynolds, which analyzed the work and reputation of a Pulitzer-prize winning author, Cather, who is best remembered as a “Nebraskan novelist.” This is ironic because she was born in Virginia and spent a number of her younger years there before moving to Nebraska. Additionally, only two of her works– which happen to be her best known ones– were about Nebraska: the vast majority of her work took place throughout the world, which has been largely overlooked because of her epithet. Being identified with a region is a romanticization of the “authenticity” of a culture or as “giving voice to the deep structures of a region” (79). Regionalism in this case provides distinction and a sense of of local, yet simultaneously risks being seen as inconsequentially provincial. According to Reynolds,

What is particularly interesting about this debate is that dualisms (e.g. past and present, Victorian and modern, provincial and cosmopolitan) tend to be folded into, inscribed into, a particular region. For literary intellectuals… the Midwest promises both a kind of futurity, a breaking of the molds, and a retreat into provincialism or… ‘standardization'” (83).

As in Watts essay, he discusses the usefulness of connectedness between regions and regionalisms to create a larger trans-American network, which helps celebrate and identify local, regional movements. Designating Cather as a “Nebraskan novelist” is reductive in light of her extensive oeuvre, but it serves to create a sense of authenticity or individualism through the pervading belief in “pioneers” and “frontiers” (which in themselves risk being cliche, reductionist and essentialist).

All of these essays were particularly useful to my research. Watts’s essay, while incredibly informative, was excessively jargony and exhausting to get through. Handy-Marchello’s was not as revelatory to me in light of my reading of Morin’s essay on Isabella Bird the other day, but it was nice to read additional reinforcing materials on the gendered West. And lastly, Reynolds brought up a lot of points that could be relevant outside of the contexts of Nebraska and literature, and I look forward to applying it to my research. Perhaps the most useful thing I read, though, was Grant Wood’s quote above. It really sums up a lot of the issues I am trying to grapple with.

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