Regional Accents: Populism, Feminism, and New England Women's Regionalism
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NANCY GLAZENER Regional Accents: Populism, Feminism, and New England Women's Regionalism1 RGUABLY, what many women regionalist writers did best was to Lrepresent the dramas of labor that structured domestic life: the tasks ofmanaging scarce resources and finding alternative ones, negotiating with uncomprehending or hostile patriarchal bosses, and conducting diplomatic and trade relations with other households. These dramas brought together the patriarchal politics of the household and the capitalist economics of the nation, inflected by the particular economic circumstances of the region under consideration and the general well-being of the rural population as a whole. In focusing either on the individual plights and satisfactions ofwomen characters in these works or on the potential of regionalist works to reduce rural populations to the nostalgic projections of urban audiences, the two most important traditions of scholarship about regionalism have overlooked this intriguing conjunction between the political economy ofhouseholds and the political economy of the nation. To explore this conjunction, I would like to analyze how some well-known wotks of New England women's regionalism functioned in relation to the ethic ofproducerism that grounded Populism. Populism's impact on U.S. politics and U.S. public thought in the 1890s can setve as an index of the centrality of rural spaces and rural populations in the national imagination, and therefore of the likelihood that regionalist fiction served important and complex political purposes.2 It is possible to argue that the mere dissemination of Populist ideas— Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 34Nancy Gla^ener in varying renditions, and with varying evaluations, ofcourse—through newspapers, magazines, and word ofmouth grounded a special Populist reading ofregionalist fiction, mediated simply by the fact that Populism claimed a rural base and that regionalist fiction was overwhelmingly about rural settings (farming communities and market towns) as well. However, the Boston-based Arena magazine offers not only a textually specifiable version of Populism but also an account, pieced together from various sites in the magazine, of how Populist convictions could function in an ensemble of reading practices. Whereas Richard Brodhead and Amy Kaplan persuasively demonstrate how the elite readerships of the Atlantic and similar magazines could have assimilated regionalist fiction to travel literature and ethnography, thereby distancing themselves from rural life and dismissing its claims to modernity and political consequence, I will argue that the readership of the Arena was well-equipped to find Populist discourses about labor and wealth operating in some ofthe very same works ofregionalism. The difference between the two readings is a difference in "reading formations," according to Tony Bennett's apt formulation. Brodhead's and Kaplan's readers not only encountered works by Sarah Orne Jewett and other prominent regionalists in the Atlantic: they learned from the Aûantic and its kindred magazines how to read these works.3 For instance, the Harper's reviewer who praised Mary Noailles Murfree for her representation of Tennessee mountain people, "a primitive folk who retain the dialect and the simple and uncouth ways oftheir forefathers," helped construct an apparatus for reading Murfree specifically as a historian ofa less civilized subculture (rev. of In the Tennessee Mountains 640). Given the cultural capital of magazines such as Harper's and the fact that many of the best-known works ofregionalism were published in them, their book reviews and other reading apparatuses were especially influential. In turning to the Arena for an alternative reading formation, I am not challenging or overlooking the dominance ofsuch elite magazines.4 However, it is important to find discursive traces and institutional supports for resistant and alternative readings as well, not only in order to imagine the range ofpossible readerships at a particular time but also in order to get a sense of the limits of dominant reading formations and the dialogic engagements through which they negotiated their hegemony . There was not, ofcourse, a single rural or Populist reading of regionalism , any more than the urban-based reading that Brodhead and Regional Accents35 Kaplan outline could have obtained monolithically. But if one considers that an analysis of reading formations seeks only to specify some of the overdeterminations of any text in...