- The Secret Properties of Southern Regionalism:Gender and Agrarianism in Glasgow's Barren Ground
The subject of regionalism has once again become a central preoccupation of cultural criticism. What is noteworthy about this resurgence of the critical interest in regionalism is its feminist turn. In the late 1980s, feminist theorists began to recover the importance of a regionalist framework to U.S. women's writing. Collections of literary and historical essays, such as Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing (1997), The Female Tradition in Southern Literature (1993), and Writing the Range: Race, Class and Culture in the Women's West (1991) began to appear in earnest in the 1990s. In this essay, I build on this work, but I am also interested in a specific analysis of how southern regionalism, specifically Agrarianism, formulates the relation between private and public as gendered, and how Ellen Glasgow reveals in Barren Ground (1925) that the marginalization of female labor and reproduction is constitutive of this southern regional paradigm.
The study of the South as a cultural region has had a long institutional history in the United States, but feminist literary critics working in the field of southern culture have challenged the traditional methods of reading the Southern Renaissance of the interwar years. At the same time, cultural critics have rediscovered the interdisciplinary and cross-regional contexts of that renaissance. Yet it becomes exasperatingly [End Page 40] clear that these two critical gestures—the one an opening up of the literary to a broader cultural context, and, the second, a reconsideration of, as Anne Goodwyn Jones terms it, "the work of gender" in a regionalist framework—do not often overlap. The work of women writers, and the importance of gender, to any formulation of the cultural claims of regionalism is often suppressed, excluded, or marginalized when critics approach the subject using the interdisciplinary methodologies of modernist, U.S., or cultural studies. Robert Dorman's recent contribution to American studies is a good example. In Revolt of the Provinces, Dorman considers the writing of southern regional sociologists, writers, historians, and documentarians as part of the general regionalist movement of the 20s and 30s. Dorman's study is replete with details on the ideological and aesthetic commitments of regionalism. But, while Dorman discusses the western writing of Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Mari Sandoz, as well as the activities of Mabel Dodge Luhan and early female historians, he does not discuss how early twentieth-century feminism may have influenced regionalist aesthetics or ideologies nor the role that gender politics may have played in some of the underlying assumptions of the movement and its outcome.
Another example of the marginalization of southern women writers and the work of gender in studies of interwar southern regionalism can be found in Richard King's A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South 1930–1955. Traditionally, the work of the Fugitives and Agrarians, along with Faulkner's writing, has dominated discussions of the Southern Renaissance. However, King makes the significant point that the renaissance was a movement that stretched across disciplines, and thus, he includes in his study historians, sociologists, and journalists, as well as well-known literary figures. King's framework for understanding is what he calls the "southern family romance," a rebellion against the generation of fathers preceding the authors (thus the interest in the grandfather in many southern novels); from this rebellion emerges a southern historical consciousness "fraught with ambivalence and ambiguity" about the relation between past and present (7). In defending his selection of texts, King states,
Black writers are not taken up because for them the Southern family was hardly problematic....Their great theme was the attempt (literally) to escape the white South which had historically oppressed their people. The case with women writers is more difficult, but my reading of them indicates that whatever the merits of [End Page 41] their work...they were not concerned primarily with the larger cultural, racial, and political themes that I take as my focus. For whatever reasons...they did not place the region at the center of their imaginative visions.(9)
King's argument merely reproduces the elisions made...