American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 36-69
[Access article in PDF]
Literature and Regional Production
Hsuan L. Hsu
For readers, tourists, and politicians alike, the region often serves as a focus of nostalgia and a privileged site of geographical feeling. Both the architects of gated suburban communities and progressive cultural critics represent the local as the scale of familiarity, loyalty, and authentic experience, in contrast with the merely imagined community of the nation and the passionless economic space of globalization; in this view, the only hope for larger scales would be an expansion of local allegiances outward until the entire world is fused together into a "global village." Thus, one leftist geographer claims that global political movements must extrapolate from local experiences because "for most people the terrain of sensuous experience and of affective social relations (which forms the material grounding for consciousness formation and political action) is locally circumscribed" (Harvey, Spaces 85). But David M. Smith reminds us in an essay entitled "How Far Should We Care?" that such an outward expansion of locally rooted feelings would have to stop somewhere. Although he sets out to lay the groundwork for a "universal ethic of care," Smith's essay ends up affirming a "distance-decay" model of interpersonal sympathy in which feelings are attenuated by distance (15). But these approaches to place-based identification, which envision community as spreading outward from sentimentalized "closeness" to an abstract obscuring distance, assume that local communities of some sort exist in isolation from large-scale geographical entities such as nations, empires, and transnational economic currents.
In order to present an alternative to models of geographical affect that posit an extension of care outward from a local hearth to a global cosmos, this essay takes as its point of departure the process of regional production, which has been theorized and described by cultural geographers like Doreen Massey, Harvey, and Neil Smith. The relation between literature and regional production involves not only the production of literature about regions but also the ways in which literary works produce, reimagine, and actively restructure [End Page 36] regional identities in the minds and hearts of their readers; moreover, this latter process of regional transformation always occurs in relation to larger-scale phenomena such as migrant flows, transportational networks, and international commerce. This broad concern with the production and continual reconfiguration of regions has led me to examine not only the relatively well-defined literary genre of regionalist writing but also regional themes and rhetorics embedded in broader texts and contexts. Thus, my primary texts include both a definitive regionalist text—Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)—and examples drawn from other genres— Frank Norris's Octopus (1901) and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901)—that are explicitly concerned with the geographical and economic relations between region and nation and, more urgently, between region and world. By incorporating regionalist aesthetics into larger contexts, these texts demonstrate that affect originates not only in isolated, local communities but also in the broader spaces of transnational capitalism. Furthermore, the emotional responses evoked by global scenarios of commerce and migration often, and paradoxically, contribute to the formation of regional identifications on the part of narrators, characters, and presumed readers.
1. Dunnet Landing in the Time before Steamships
Local color writing, which enjoyed an immense popularity in literary magazines such as The Atlantic and Harpers,1 often features what Raymond Williams calls a "fly-in-amber quality"—an interest in preserving local cultures that were thought to be vanishing in the face of postbellum capitalist consolidation (61). The narrow-minded regional novel, Williams writes, "has initially so isolated its region, and thus projected it as internally whole—'organic'—that it is unable to recognize the complex internal processes, including internal divisions and conflicts, which factually connect with...wider pressures" (61). This view of regions seems to epitomize a common prejudice against spatial analysis among many historicist thinkers, who treat space as "the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile" (Foucault 70). But when viewed as dynamic and flexible units of production rather than as permanently delineated...