- Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture
In Writing Out of Place, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse bring well-deserved and long-awaited attention to regionalist literature. Claiming that nineteenth-century regionalist writing, a genre used predominantly by women, has often been too quickly lumped into the more recognizable genres of realism and local color, the authors outline their desire to "extricate" the writers they discuss from these genres and, in the process, "highlight how questions of category and the ways particular writers and texts fit neatly into or challenge categories also become questions of ideology" (9). By examining methods of categorization, Fetterley and Pryse help solidify regionalist literature as an important element in American literary history and contribute valuable insight to discussions of the American literary canon.
Fetterley and Pryse conduct their analysis through eleven chapters, including the introductory chapter, "Redefinitions," where the authors carefully outline their argument and the main elements for their analysis: category, chronology and place, and gender. The authors also explain the book's importance to readers: "Above all," they write, "regionalist texts offer a place from which twenty-first-century readers can think about the consequences of creating regions for either cultural or economic exploitations" (30). Other chapters in the book include discussion of the location of regionalism in America's literary history, the origins of this writing style, empathetic narration, a discussion of thematics, the difficulty of defining conventions of the sketch form, changes in the field of Americanism, feminist epistemology in regionalism, the roles of race and class in regionalism, and queer theory.
Textual analysis is a key component of these chapters. Fetterley and Pryse carefully consider works by authors including Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Cary, Sui Sin Far, Zitkala-Sa, Grace King, and Mary Austin. Their works, Fetterley and Pryse assert, need more "close" reading. The argument the authors make, that regionalism is essentially a women's literary tradition and should therefore be viewed from a feminist as well as literary standpoint, is a sound one. The authors use primary texts to emphasize their points about the connections between a feminist analytic and location in regionalist literature, and how these connections are germane to contemporary discussions of feminism. At times, however, these painstakingly close readings can be almost distracting, leading the reader so far into individual texts, as well as other scholars' readings of them, that the overarching point of Writing [End Page 237] Out of Place is lost in the primary texts it highlights. Overall, though, the analyses are cogent and clearly illustrate the authors' assertions about the feminist nature of nineteenth-century regionalist works.
It is in the final chapter of the book, "'Close' Reading and Empathy," where Fetterley and Pryse make their boldest claim. In this chapter they incorporate theories from psychoanalysis and therapy to frame their assertion that regionalist writing can help readers become more empathetic. This need for more empathy, they argue, stems from the American literary tradition of manly tales of bravery and conquest, with heroes, typically men, who are rugged individualists with little or no sense of community. They point out that emotion in literature has long been considered a weakness and devalued as merely sentimental. Regionalist fiction, they believe, can act as a sort of "emotional tutorial" by giving readers models of empathy they can apply to other areas of their lives (348). In Fetterley and Pryse's estimation, regionalist fiction provides a model of "separating while staying connected" that can help readers develop their own sense of empathy (349). Although this argument may seem, well, out of place, Fetterley and Pryse present a compelling case for their view that relates well to their discussion of regionalism.
If there is a flaw in this book, it is that there are so many topics for discussion. The authors' zeal for their research, and especially for this project, is plain, but they are perhaps attempting to include too many different facets of...