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  • Regional Modernism: A Reintroduction
  • Scott Herring (bio)

“Europe,” crowed Iowa-based painter Grant Wood in a lesserknown modernist manifesto, “has lost much of its magic. Gertrude Stein comes to us from Paris and is only a seven days’ wonder. Ezra Pound’s new volume seems all compound of echoes from a lost world. The expatriates do not fit in with the newer America, so greatly changed from the old” (19). Wood—he of American Gothic fame—titled his snippy comments Revolt against the City, and in this 1935 essay argued for a quiet revolution that would stymie metropolitan-based modernisms: “But if it is not vocal—at least in the sense of issuing pronunciamentos, challenges, and new credos—the revolt is certainly very active. In literature, though by no means new, the exploitation of the ‘provinces’ has increased remarkably; the South, the Middle West, the Southwest have at the moment hosts of interpreters whose Pulitzer-prize works and best sellers direct attention to their chosen regions” (8). “Because of this new emphasis upon native materials,” Wood went on to explain, “the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New York, or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city” (22–23).

I do not want to dismiss Wood’s anti-urbanism, his insufferable claims against cosmopolitanism, his social and most likely racial conservatism, and his emphatically American exceptionalism. But I do want to highlight that in the midst of these questionable politics lays an inchoate theory for a “regional modernism” decades before the phrase achieved wide currency in academic circles. The term “regional [End Page 1] modernism” first originated in architecture studies, where it came— and where it continues—to characterize building design that opposed the standardizations of an International Style promoted by the likes of architects such as Le Corbusier. “Collectively,” notes Vincent B. Canizaro, regional modernism “is a theory that supports resistance to various forms of hegemonic, universal, or otherwise standardizing structures that would diminish local differentiation” (20).

As such, the anti-international term “regional modernism” harkens backs to Wood as well as to the early twentieth-century theories of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford, who each offered treatises on the social need for “organic” architecture and regional design. Writes Mumford in his 1924 Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization: “Before we can build well on any scale we shall, it seems to me, have to develop an art of regional planning, an art which will relate city and countryside in a new pattern from that which was the blind creation of the industrial and the territorial pioneer” (206). By doing so, Mumford predicted with confidence, “out of the interaction of the folk and their place, through the work, the simple life of the community develops” (197).

That Mumford, Wright, and Wood together insist on interdisciplinary links between American modernism and regionalism (what Wood terms “the artistic potentialities of what some of our Eastern friends call ‘the provinces’“) may seem odd to the ears of twentyfirst- century literary critics (38). Studies in architecture see little difficulty in aligning regionalism with modernisms past and present, but the two have seemed rather incongruous in literary studies—and for several good reasons. Across the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe, modernism’s reliance on the metropolitan appears unshakeable. Its major movements crystallized in global metropoles such as London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Publishing houses and small presses in these same cities vetted many of its major productions. Its affective repertoire often hinges on two acute responses to the supposed anonymity of the urban environment, shock and the blasé. And the gregariousness of a large city seems to nurture ideals of cosmopolitanism and worldliness that continue well into the present.1

It is hard to disagree with these intimacies between modernism and the metropolis, yet it is also not too difficult to see that the urbanized orientations of modernist studies can take a graceful swan dive into metronormativity.2 In its tried-and-true formulae, a hallmark of a modernist text—new...