The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 47-69
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The Emergence of Mark Twain's Missouri:
Regional Theory and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The contribution of regional criticism to studies of American literature and culture has been held back in our time by the assumption that the region enforces a very limiting provincialism upon its communities and, thus, its literary products. Such an assumption has emerged, perhaps understandably, in a cultural context in which the question of what constitutes a more universally American identity dominates thought nearly to the point of obsession. And yet there is a persistent sense that the individual region in the United States remains, somehow, a crucial unit of culture. Considering this issue in the most general spatial and cultural senses, the critic W. H. New points out that the very question whether "authors can ever not be in space yields either absurd answers or openly political ones—political statements that constitute new definitions of the relation between spaces in a society" (14). Regarding literature in particular, New writes:
Defining the significance that particular spaces have for us, we parenthetically define or at least hint at our preconceptions about the significance of statements that will emerge from those given spaces, locales, regions. The notion of region, that is, contains within it a hidden notion of total structure, and it is often the artifice and the emotional reality of this implied total structure that literature encodes. (14-15) [End Page 47]
This statement formulates the capacity of notions of region, the knowledge of specific geographic landscapes and their cultures, and the explicit and implicit significance in their eventual representative voices, to inform literary texts. What I will call a regional reading of any literary text, then, if it is to apprehend the region's "hidden notion" informing literature, will require an understanding of the region's intricacies, of the singularities of its moment and topology, and also, of course, of its emergence from and within a national context. The potential value of this method would seem to reside both in a literary exposition that reveals new meaning in the text and also, somewhat incidentally but not unimportantly, in a qualification of the strains of national criticism that have attempted to frame any previous understanding of the literature.
In an American context, the national model of empire follows its own peculiar, profoundly complex set of relations within its national borders. And in this setting it seems that the region, either in seeking to reproduce the national model on a smaller scale or in fashioning itself in some other way, cannot avoid, at some point, a confrontation with that complexity, and the realization that America's tangled national history and culture constitute a great measure of its inheritance, for better or for worse. It may be instructive in this connection to note that even the region's attempt to claim some kind of authentic identity apart from the nation personifies exactly that paradoxically individualistic quality of the American national character.
Perhaps attention to a specific literary product, and to its grounding in a particular American regional context, will make this kind of complexity clearer. And since a highly suspicious reactionary motive has often motivated the tendency to retreat from nation to region, it is probably safest to consider a literary text that has been universally acknowledged as an archetypally American model, as an undisputed and permanent member of the national literary canon, and as a work that transcends the presumably narrow provincial limits of the region and engages the presumably larger national themes and concerns. Perhaps no American book could be more exemplary under these criteria, or provide a better case study for this kind of regional reading, than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain's novel, of course, is widely considered to be a definitively American literary text. And yet, if the arguments of New and others are to be taken seriously, if the region does indeed offer a particular and "appropriate" critical framework for studies of literature, a regional...