- Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture
With the publication of their anthology American Women Regionalists 1850-1910 in 1992, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse redefined regionalism as distinct from, and superior to, the late nineteenth-century tradition of local color, a theoretical position solidified in a host of critical essays over the past eleven years. In its elegantly argued theoretical framework and insightful, detailed close readings, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture stakes out an even more daring position: a radical restructuring of nineteenth-century American local color, realism, and regionalism, one that moves gender from the margins to the center of the debate over what constitutes literary value.
Put rather too simply, Fetterley and Pryse's contention is that except for a certain sharing of subject matter, regionalism is fundamentally distinct from local color. It presents a critique of "aggressive masculinity" and "imperialist aggression" instead of the simple nostalgia for a vanished past offered by local color (30, 239); it tells "unconventional, noncanonical, and counterhegemonic stories of female (and male) development across the life cycle" (30); it abjures conventional plots and consciously embraces the sketch as its signature form; it is "inherently dialogic" and recognizes place, like gender, as being a "discursive location" rather than as an essential entity (37); and above all, it substitutes "looking with" and the cultural healing and empathic narration that that entails for the coercive and judgmental "looking at" of the local colorists (36). Like feminist discourse, which it resembles in being spoken through women's voices and subject positions, regionalism makes readers care about those considered "minor, deviant, queer, or crazy by the dominant culture" (144). Indeed, with the exception of Charles W. Chesnutt, the writers who meet the criteria for regionalist writing are all women, among them Sarah Orne Jewett, Zitkala-¨Sa, Mary Austin, Sui Sin Far, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alice Cary, and Mary N. Murfree.
In establishing the boundaries of regionalist writing, Fetterley and Pryse present a number of arguments provocative and illuminating in their own right, beginning with the history of the movement. They contend that regionalism has an entirely different genealogy from local color, one beginning with Alice Cary and Harriet Beecher Stowe rather than the cruel humor of the Old Southwest, and, further, that literary history has reconfigured the origins of regionalism and local color to feature male authors and to contain it as a minor genre so that it could not challenge the primacy of male-identified realism. For Fetterley and Pryse, regionalism resides in queer consciousness, which they suggest may be variously defined as anything from a "shifting [End Page 96] signifier" used to construct "the normal" to lesbian desire (320). Further, they find the theoretical underpinnings of regionalism to be located in the stylistic features of the literature itself. For example, Fetterley and Pryse weave the phrase "free to say" from Rose Terry Cooke's "Miss Beulah's Bonnet" into their discussion of the neglected issue of theme in American fiction; in the story, the exasperated title character declares that she is "free to say" she never did like boys, a sentiment that the authors use to characterize other, similarly liberatory statements and motifs in the works. The framing description in stories by Freeman and interrupted narration in stories by Jewett likewise teach readers the sophisticated conventions of reading regionalism. In short, regionalism is less a literature of place than a literature of mind, an "eccentric" or literally "out of the center" space from which emerges a subversive counternarrative to the history of American realism.
Despite their excellent analysis, Fetterley and Pryse's definition of regionalism as an empathetic, woman-centered genre will continue to be controversial. For example, the characterization of women's regional fiction as a nurturing, empathetic genre has already experienced challenges ranging from Richard Brodhead's characterization of Jewett as catering to tourist culture to Elizabeth Ammons's assessment of the "protofascist implications" of the Bowden reunion in The Country...