- Crosscurrents: Registers of Nordicism, Community, and Culture in Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs
What critical methods can literary critics and historians develop to further the rigorous scrutiny of ways in which foundational, historically shifting categories of socio-cultural organization—especially gender, class, race, nation—suffuse works of literature? How can we do justice to the power of each category in itself and as they interarticulate? How can we pursue this undertaking in ways which recognize them as discourses informed by and informing ideology while allowing for their particular connotations and the particular relationships among them in the work of different writers? How, further, do we engage in such enterprises in ways which preserve respect for the literary but do not sanctify individual texts as self-contained works of art?
As an Americanist committed to understanding the literary as it takes shape within identifiable historical forces such as race and gender but is not transparently and absolutely determined by them, I have a strong sense of urgency about such questions. I propose here one method for addressing them which I will develop using Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a multifaceted text whose intricacies speak to the need for more mobile, dynamic ways of reading. 1 Having written about Country in essays which disagree about its representations of gender, I also have a personal stake in better coming to terms with its intricacies. My concern extends, moreover, to the large and disparate body of commentary on Country, which has been canonized and recanonized by successive waves of illuminating and persuasive scholarship. Many accounts of Country have been presented as “right”; by implication if not explicitly, they often cast other accounts as invalid, misguided or less complete. Such self-positioning, long a convention of critical discourse, reflects the commitment of established critical practices to render readings which are both coherent and whole. While these practices have served us well in many ways, they are ill-equipped either to engage with discontinuities and inconsistencies—which are arguably as constitutive of much literature as is coherence—or to open up ways of bringing apparently antagonistic readings to bear on one another. [End Page 355]
Two strains of recent commentary on Country illustrate this situation. 2 Seeing it from a feminist vantage point, feminist critics over the past two decades have acclaimed it as a masterpiece of woman-centered literature. As feminist criticism has become increasingly concerned with issues of race and nationalism, however, some have taken Country’s representation of “woman” to task for its self-conscious and exclusive whiteness and participation in the nativist nationalism of its day. Country has also occupied a central role in some literary historians’ recent reassessment of postbellum regionalist literature’s implication in modernization. Richard Brodhead’s important Cultures of Letters, for example, posits Country as an enthusiastic contributor to regionalism’s work in consolidating postbellum literary capitalism, complementing the burgeoning tourist industry, and serving as a significant resource for the cultural self-identification of expanding urban elites.
The position (often only tacit) of each of these critical strains and of many of the commentators allied with them is that their readings of Country preclude others. My own work will serve as one example of feminist criticism. In an essay published in 1988 I assumed gender as the text’s determinative element; in a later one I essentially repudiated the reliance of the first on gender as the self-contained source of Country’s language, structure, and values and identified whiteness and nationalism as factors which preconstitute its concepts of gender. For Cultures of Letters, by contrast, economic and cultural circumstances—class, the organization and appeal of postbellum capitalism—are formative in Country: race is at best a secondary concern and gender only incidental. Cultures of Letters opens up new and important ways of seeing Country. And while my own second essay is far more persuasive to me than the first, I now find myself unable to characterize it as “right” or to designate the first as unambiguously “wrong.” Much of the other commentary on Country likewise seems illuminating to me, but also partial, despite its authors’ tendency...