- Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature by Mark Storey
Rural Fictions, Urban Realities breaks new ground in the field, as author Mark Storey maps out an original literary landscape for Gilded Age America. Although scholarship on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature has exploded over the past several years, much of it has focused primarily on the city. Storey acknowledges the "relative absence of any notion of rural fiction in American literary history," and he successfully fills this crucial critical gap by locating moments of modernity in writings about remote environments. Although it may seem counterintuitive, [End Page 251] Storey convincingly claims that the "representation of rural life" in Gilded Age fiction can offer "a more geographically intricate understanding of nineteenth-century modernity" than can actual accounts of the city or urban literature itself. This book reminds readers of how literary fictions can not only influence but also transform our understanding of key historical events. In essence, Storey highlights the power of stories to shape and be shaped by the realities of Gilded Age America's changing geographies.
Rural Fictions, Urban Realities will most likely appeal to those interested in stories about space, place, nature, and the environment. Studies of late nineteenth-century American literature tend to focus on how modernity influences the changing cityscape, and vice versa. Storey alters this paradigm, however, by recognizing that urbanization is a more fluid process that takes place as much in the country as in the city. In order to illustrate this fluidity, the author breaks down all kinds of geographical binaries: urban and rural, global and local, national and regional. Storey proceeds to point out the inherent ambiguities within the fiction itself, which he argues reflects the doubts and "uncertainties" about changes occurring in late nineteenth-century America. Rather than engage in author-centered chapters, Storey organizes his text by key motifs such as synecdoche, metaphor, hyperbole, and point of view. This close attention to form and style, as well as to content and theme, allows Storey to engage in a careful literary analysis that connects rural fiction with the rural realities that it represents.
The book's early chapters explore images and symbols of transition in Gilded Age fiction; this imagery and symbolism capture the changes taking place as urban development influences countryside communities. Through a careful analysis of the train and the circus in his first two chapters, Storey shows how modernization and industrialization are as much about the country as the city. Drawing on the work of environmental historians like William Cronon and literary scholars such as Leo Marx, the author demonstrates the dynamic interplay between rural and urban forces within late nineteenth-century writing. Cronon has noted that industrial innovations like the railroad help to bridge the perceived gap between nature and society. Similarly, Storey illustrates how trains in Gilded Age literature introduce "lines of urban-capitalist" flow into more isolated environments. Rather than see railroads as detrimental or intrusive, the author highlights the economic impact and potential prosperity introduced by train travel; he demonstrates how the railroad's absence can at times prove most detrimental to the communities represented in these rural fictions. [End Page 252]
Railroad and circus imagery further introduce a tone of impermanence, which complicates the pastoral notion of timelessness that several scholars have associated with regionalist fiction in particular. Storey's opening chapters revisit familiar fictions but provide refreshing readings of Gilded Age writings—specifically, novels of William Dean Howells, the local color of Sarah Orne Jewett, the fictions of Hamlin Garland, and the naturalist stories of Stephen Crane, among others. Through carefully crafted close readings of these texts (along with the works of Alice Brown, Booth Tarkington, and Mark Twain), Storey illustrates how train travel and circus performance affect the perspectives of various characters. In the stories that Storey selects, the narrators often occupy the roles of protagonist as well. In Jewett's "Going to Shrewsbury," for instance, "first-person narration" captures the protagonist...