- Regional Criticism in the Era of Globalization
Privileging the discourse of regionalism in the age of globalism may seem counterintuitive. When issues of festering postcolonial tension, transnational corporate commercialism, international sweatshop labor, Latino immigration, and terrorism dominate both the popular media and intellectual inquiry, continuing to focus critical energy on issues of apparently local interest seems at best trivial and at worst irrelevant. But many scholars have discovered that the issues of globalism are rooted in place or, rather, in the relationship between culture and place. Tom Lutz’s Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value; Robert Jackson’s Seeking the Region in American Literature and Culture: Modernity, Dissidence, Innovation; and Leigh Anne Duck’s The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism each analyze this relationship by [End Page 844] making a collective argument for the primacy of the local, even in the age of the global.
Concepts derived from human geography are becoming increasingly common in literary criticism—see, for example, Karen Halttunen’s 2005 presidential address to the American Studies Association—because they resonate more strongly now than ever. Geographers such as Edward Soja, David Harvey, and Doreen Massey contend that the region as a spatial division is the fundamental unit of lived experience. Globalism, specifically the rise of high-speed commercial transportation and international communications systems, erodes the boundaries between regions resulting in opportunities for cultural and economic exchange and, occasionally, leading to tension and conflict. In the United States, regionalism has a historical valence involving lingering sectional antagonism, the residue of racism, and inequality of economic development.
Southerners continue to be, and have long been, self-conscious of their regional identity, so it is not surprising to see a recent spate of books examining the South within the context of globalism. In the introduction to the collection Look Away! The U.S. South in New World, for example, Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn argue that southerners have an uncanny hybridity, locating them in an interstitial space between the culture of the United States and the culture of other new world colonial spaces, including the Caribbean and Latin America. Martyn Bone, meanwhile, argues in The Postsouthern Sense of Place that processes of globalism, particularly economic expansion, threaten to eradicate the uniqueness of southern culture, thus erasing a regional boundary. And in the collection South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture, Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith examine the region as a site of exchange, offering an image of the South as a dynamic space continually being reinvented and reimagined. But, while scholars of southern literature and culture have been aware of regional articulations of being for some time, many other literary scholars have tended to consider texts in broader national, rather than regional, categories. So most scholars identify literature in English as either British or American, but the emergence of postcolonial literature, diasporic literature, and other incarnations of globalism have eroded the foundations of this type of critical nationalism.
In Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value, Lutz reassesses criticism’s tendency to marginalize regional texts. Focusing on texts produced between 1850 and 1930 (the period of America’s transition from a nation of rural, agricultural communities to urban, industrialized cities), he invokes the seemingly contradictory term “provincial cosmopolitanism” to describe “an ethos of representational inclusiveness, of the widest possible affiliation, [End Page 845] and concurrently one of aesthetic discrimination and therefore exclusiveness” (3). His argument centers on the doubled meaning of regionalism as both a social and an aesthetic descriptor, which even in the era of multiculturalism suggests works of marginal literary significance. While regional texts often received attention from the New Critics, he notes that texts advancing traditionalism, pastoralism, or any alternative vision of American life have been largely edited out of the literary canon...