Regional Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Regional Novel

Caren S. Lambert

The regional novel is based on the idea that there is a connection between a region and the literature it produces, whether one understands region to mean a distinct physical environment (from the Latin regionem, “boundary or district”) or a part of some larger political entity (from regere, “to direct or to rule”). The traditional understanding of regional identity is grounded in eighteenth-century political philosophy concerning national identity, which assumes that material circumstances (climate, quality of soil, topography, natural resources) shape individual inhabitants in similar ways, producing patterns of social, economic, and political behavior. These shared patterns of behavior, in turn, form both the nation's institutions and its cultural expressions. Its theoretical basis goes back at least as far as Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois (1748, The Spirit of the Laws), a comparative study of legal and political institutions in which he asserts that the “empire of the climate is the first, the most powerful of empires” (ed. D. W. Carrithers, 1997, 294). It continues in the work of German Romantic thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder (1744—1803), who maintained that folk thought was the organic root of national spirit, or William von Humboldt (1767—1835), who asserted that language is the expression of the genius of a people.

The theories of Montesquieu, Herder, and von Humboldt do not allow for nations large enough to contain significant variations in environment, folk, or language. In other words, they do not allow for regions. In Montesquieu's opinion, what we think of as regional boundaries were also the natural boundaries for nations and their cultures. Nations that contained too much variation would find “the government of the laws” becoming “incompatible with the maintenance of the state” (278). When you have a nation as large and topographically varied as the U.S., as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805—59) puts it in Democracy in America (1835), the “sovereignty of the Union” is no longer natural, but instead “a work of art” (1966, trans. G. Lawrence, 167). The nation becomes, as Benedict Anderson describes it, an “imagined community,” while regions remain tangible and immediate (1983, Imagined Communities). Regions within the imagined nation, however, are still thought of as organic, coherent, rooted in the land, and characterized by homogenous geographies and populations.

Authors who speak from this traditional regional perspective often present the region as in danger of being destroyed by national and global influences and in need of being preserved in literature. As Thomas Hardy explains in his “General Preface” to the Wessex Edition of his Works in 1912, his goal was to “preserve...a fairly true record of a vanishing life.” The American poet and critic Allen Tate (1899—1979) famously described the regional literature of the Southern Renaissance (1929—53) as “a backward glance” which the South gave as it stepped into the modern world, integrating with national culture and relinquishing its regional character (1945, “The New Provincialism,” Virginia Quarterly Review). Characters in such regional works experience what Ian Duncan calls the “collapse of a traditional distinction between horizons of knowledge,” between the immediate and tangible region and the distant and intangible world, as region is assimilated into nation (2007, Scott's Shadow, 228). Publishers and readers who understand regional writing in this way tend to judge works by their supposed authenticity, by whether they are “true” to some preexisting sense of a place. For instance, the African American author Charles Chesnutt first gained popularity for his Southern dialect writing in The Conjure Woman (1899), which reworked the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. In later novels such as House behind the Cedars (1900), when Chesnutt turned to criticism of race relations in the region, he largely lost his reading audience.

The difficulty with this traditional, environmentalist conception of regions and their literature is that although regions may be rooted, regional cultures and their cultural products are mobile. Another way of conceptualizing region that takes into account not just physical circumstances but also cultural flows can best be understood using a combination of nineteenth-century literary criticism, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropology, and late twentieth-century cultural geography. The idea that literature reflects cultural flows has its origins in Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863, History of English Literature) by the French critic Hippolyte Taine (1828—93). As Brad Evans points out, Taine presents literature as “a material artifact of the history of a people's origins and migration, of cross-cultural contact, conflict and acculturation, of the permanency and change of their character” (2005, Before Cultures, 89). Later in the century, anthropologists including Franz Boas (1858—1942), Melville Herskovits (1895—1963), and Fernando Ortiz (1881—1969) also began to move away from Matthew Arnold's (1822—88) idea of a singular Culture comprised of the best that has been thought and said, and toward cultural relativism and a conception of plural cultures. Together, Taine and the anthropologists offer a useful formulation for understanding literature both in the colonized Americas and the imperial nations of Europe, which did not contain a singular folk and to which cultural artifacts often traveled independently of the folk with which they originated. From the 1970s on, cultural geographers such as Henri LeFebvre (1901—91) have drawn upon cultural theory, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy to move beyond the organic assumptions of traditional regionalism and to discuss the way in which cultures produce the spaces they inhabit for specific ideological ends.

This second regional perspective presents regional identity as something continuously being created rather than naturalizing that identity. Regions emerge from a continuing negotiation between nature and cultures in the minds and actions of their inhabitants. Regional culture and cultural products are syncretic rather than pure, mobile rather than rooted. Literary works that belong to this cultural regional tradition tend to have faith in the positive, transformative power of new influences and the continuing flexibility of regions. They often attempt to negotiate some form of improved community for the future. George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes (1888) is an example of this second type of regional novel. It captures the moment at which the once Spanish, now French, colony of Louisiana passes into American hands and the mixing of languages, cultures, and races that occurs at what would seem to be a triumphant moment of standardization and nationalization.

The regional novel resembles the provincial novel, but there are important distinctions between the two which keep the categories firmly separated. As Franco Moretti points out, the term “provincial” derives from the provinciae of Rome in which people were subjects but not citizens. The “provinces are ’negative' entities, defined by what is not there,” while regions are filled with highly specific cultural content (2005, Graphs, Maps, Trees, 53). Hence provincial settings are interchangeable while regional settings are not. The greater the number of metropolitan centers a country has, the less likely it is to have a strong provincial literature. Regional novels flourish in the U.S., where provincial literature is basically absent. Both provincial and regional novels are found in the U.K., where the provinces tend to be closer to London, like the Midlands in George Eliot's Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871—72). Places that are farther afield, like the Wales of Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley (1939), are able to differentiate themselves into regions. In the Russian tradition, Anne Lounsberry argues that provincial literature such as Nikolay Gogol's Mertvye dushi (1842, Dead Souls) dominates because highly centralized autocracy quells regionalism.

Historical Development

Regional novels tend to emerge at moments of crisis within a given national tradition. They offer a means of negotiating between local, national, and international identities at moments of national expansion or disintegration. As Doris Sommer puts it, regionalism provides a distinct voice to culturally or linguistically identified groups inside unwieldy or porous nations (1999, The Places of History). American critics such as Judith Fetterley and Richard Brodhead have suggested that regional writing provides an outlet for the voices of women and ethnic or racial minorities who are otherwise excluded from the national literary dialogue. The balance of power in the national culture and the position of the nation within the larger international order determines who chooses to speak from a regional perspective at any given moment.

Regional novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most often belong to the genres of historical fiction or realism. In this period, regional novels typically include ethnographic description of manners, traditions, and folklore; written imitations of dialect; an attention to landscape and natural forms; some account of the workings or structure of the local economy; and details of local history. They often have a frame structure with a narrator speaking standardized language and characters using various phonetically rendered regional and/or racial dialects. At times the narrator is a native speaking from within and concerned with the preservation of regional traditions and community in response to social conflict, fragmentation, or alienation. In other instances, the narrator is a native who feels intellectually detached from the region. In a third variation, a detached narrator comes to the region as a cultural tourist and presents it as something exotic and entertaining, ventriloquizing the local inhabitants rather than authentically representing them. In the latter two categories, the narrator typically depicts the region in order to criticize and perhaps even reform it.

The regional novel in English has its origins in Irish and Scottish regional fiction produced as Great Britain confronted the problem of how to subsume various national identities into that of a single modern imperial state. Maria Edgeworth's depiction of Irish character, speech, and folklore in Castle Rackrent (1800) established many of the conventions of regionalism discussed above. Walter Scott noted his debt to Edgeworth, in the 1829 preface to Waverley, in which he wrote about the Scottish border regions. After a mid-century move toward the provincial novel, British literature returned to regionalism in the 1870s. Writers from this period at times used regionalism as a refuge from contemporary conditions, as in the escapist historical romance of R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone (1869) or the nostalgic tone of the Scottish Kailyard writer J. M. Barrie. Other authors adopted the regional novel in order to challenge contemporary conditions, as in Thomas Hardy's ironic reworking of Scott's historical regionalism, in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).

With the rise of Scott, British regional novels became part of global literary culture, influencing not only European traditions but New World literatures as well. Regionalism as a genre was rooted in the Old World and yet flexible enough to be transplanted to the New World, providing romantic nationalists in the Americas with a model for producing colonial literatures with national potential. Representing New World difference became a cultural declaration of independence. David Jordan argues that the Latin American novela de la tierra is a richer regional tradition than that found in North America and one with no pejorative connotations, unlike “local color” in the U.S.

Scott's novels were widely read in the nineteenth-century U.S., where the lack of international copyright laws meant that they were less expensive than domestically produced literature, making regionalism a form readily available to American authors. They helped pave the way for the earliest regional writings of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, George Washington Harris, and Bret Harte, which were short stories in dialect drawing on native traditions of southwestern humor and the tall tale as well as later full-fledged Southern regional novels such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Feminist critics trace a different trajectory for the regional novel in the U.S. beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), which the nineteenth-century regional writer Sarah Orne Jewett identified as a formative influence on her own writing. Regional writing in the U.S. reached its height in the period following reconstruction, from 1877 through 1900, mostly thanks to the publication of short regional writings in periodicals including the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Century, and Scribner's. Critics such as Richard Brodhead and Amy Kaplan emphasize the way in which depicting the “foreign” regional helped to familiarize it and contributed to the reconstruction of the nation after the Civil War.

Twentieth-century regionalists use more experimental forms but retain their careful attention to distinctive local patterns of speech and their familiarity with local traditions and knowledge. The decision of the American modernist Willa Cather to dedicate her first novel, O Pioneers! (1913), to Sarah Orne Jewett shows one of the most prominent American modernists specifically thinking of herself as part of a regional tradition. Consider the combination of pioneering modernist form and detailed portrayal of local life in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) or William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930). In South America, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rise of avant-garde regionalists such as José Eustasio Rivera in Colombia, Romulo Gallegos in Venezuela, and Ricardo Güiraldes in Argentina. The magical realism pioneered later in the twentieth century by Gabriel García Márquez also has a strong regional bent. Examples of postmodern regionalism include works by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, such as La región más transparente (1956, Where the Air Is Clear) and Las buenas conciencias (1959, The Good Conscience), and the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy, such as Blood Meridian (1985).

SEE ALSO: Anthropology, Dialect, Historical Novel, Intertextuality, Magical Realism, Modernism, National Literature, Naturalism.


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