- American Heteroglossia:Open-Cell Regionalism and the New Orleans Short Fiction of Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Regions are best viewed as initial contexts for themes that generate variable geographies, rather than as fixed geographies marked by pre-given themes. These themes are equally "real," equally coherent, but are results of our interests and not their causes.—Arjun Appadurai, "Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination" (7)
American literary regionalism perhaps seems an unlikely starting place for examining the sorts of cosmopolitan discourses that have come to be associated with a post-national aesthetic. Unlike the modern landscape of globalization, which is characterized by its profoundly uncertain spatial dimensions and the general mobility of its economic networks, the notion of region in the United States is mostly aligned with very different paradigms. In contemporary thinking about region in both cultural studies and geography, region often retains a kind of dormancy, a sense of spatial decidedness and finiteness.1 In contrast to the wider, politically-charged spaces of nation or the depersonalized economic sphere [End Page 120] of globalization, it holds a place in the popular imagination as something connected to the land and its folk. It is linked to tradition and local forms of belonging.
In popular literary culture, the movement historically most responsible for characterizing the American vernacular tradition as a repository of social nostalgia within an otherwise rapidly-transforming national scene was widely known as regionalism or local color. Regionalism flourished as the dominant genre in United States print culture shortly from after the Civil War until the first decade of the twentieth century. As a magazine movement, it was a powerful post-bellum cultural force. It targeted a middle-class, urban readership in eastern seaboard publishing cities like New York and Boston, and had the capacity to generate a fairly durable vision of what constituted American local life. Regionalist literature depicted region as something both spatially and temporally set apart from the more urbanized, mainstream social pressures of a young and rapidly transforming nation. As critics such as Amy Kaplan and Richard Brodhead have observed, regionalism reaffirmed the possibility of a purer, more sustaining national landscape in an era otherwise marked by the rapid growth of mass-circular advertising, transportation technology, immigration, and urban population.
Regionalism also authenticated the existence of a national diversity from "within." This diversity, on one level, appeared to be mostly organic insofar as it predated post-bellum federal centralization, and also, importantly, the contemporary tides of mass immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Russia. It was the sort of preexisting diversity that could be found in the quaint-seeming and lesser-populated locales of the rural South, the far Northeast, and the sparsely populated Midwest. The peoples regionalist authors portrayed were coastal Maine villagers, Tennessee mountain folk, and pioneering prairie farmstead communities. They were emblems of a pre-industrial Americana, and their languages were the very dialects that circulated in post-bellum America's quiet spaces.
Region in turn-of-the century American literature thus came to stand for something not so much out of time as in its own time, a carved-out chronology that was largely self-contained. Regionalist writing, Richard Brodhead has suggested, took the form of a "cultural elegy" for a past that was quickly being supplanted by modern movements (120). Consequently, region in America is frequently associated with earlier modes of living. It is less commonly regarded as a contending force within new social developments than as a stage on which outside decisions can unfold, sometimes [End Page 121] inciting resistance and sometimes little other than compliance. More generically, region constitutes an aesthetic retreat from the more rapidly developing global infrastructures that lend design to contemporary life.
In what will be my effort to rethink the tropes of stasis and the social insularity attached to region, the literature of the first generation of African-American fiction writers presents a compelling case. For one thing, throughout most of the nineteenth century—from slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, to Jim Crow—many African-Americans who may have possessed clearly-defined community and local identities remained mostly unincorporated into the official nation-state. The vogue of regional...