- Upon Provincialism: Southern Literature and National Periodical Culture, 1870–1900 by Bill Hardwig
In the last twenty years, several scholarly books redirected the study of American literary regionalism. Richard Brodhead’s Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (1993) argued that the aim of regional writing was not so much to document the characteristics of any particular region or to “mourn lost cultures,” but to narrate a unified vision of modern nationhood. Stephanie Foote’s Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2001) asserted that regionalism offered a robust alternative to nationalism, helping the nation absorb and accept colorful local differences and markers of foreignness. Judith Fetterley’s and Majorie Pryse’s Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture (2003) claimed that the geographic determinism of the term regionalism had distracted readers from recognizing the form as “a location for critique and resistance,” often a uniquely feminist one. Another seminal work was Brad Evans’s Before Cultures: The Ethnographic Imagination in American Literature, 1865–1920 (2005), which emphasized the distinction between region and regionalism, the latter being a commodity that circulated, often in periodicals, and sought to glamorize ethnographic alterity and subcultures in new, “chic” ways.
Adding to this list of groundbreaking works on regionalism, and building on its connection with periodicals, is Bill Hardwig’s Upon Provincialism: Southern Literature and National Periodical Culture, 1870–1900. The first aim of Hardwig’s book is to dismantle simplistic categories and canonical divisions that all too often limit our understanding of the actual literary landscape of a particular era and region. Focusing on the writings of George Washington Cable, Charles Chesnutt, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lafcadio Hearn, Mary Noailles Murfee, and Thomas Nelson Page, Hardwig seeks to re-imagine regionalism as a highly porous genre whose meanings are linked closely with the editorial aims of the magazines in which they were originally published, as well as their intended audiences. These authors were often published in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Century, alongside William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Henry James, at a time when the canon had not yet sorted writers as major or minor. Also significant was the inclusion of writings on the South in northern magazines for mostly upper-class readers. As Hardwig posits, local color writing was similar to travel writing about the South, in that readers of both genres sought the thrill of the exotic and the “authentic.” Yet what constituted authenticity proved difficult to discern. For example, Mary Noailles Murfee published her stories under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock, depicting the rough and tumble world of Appalachian life. Murfee’s [End Page 100] stories were a sensation, but when the author came to the offices of the Atlantic Monthly, editors were stunned to find a “pleasant young lady” instead of a brawny, rough-necked male. When the author’s gender became known to the critical establishment, attention shifted from the verisimilitude of the tales to analyses of how a woman could write like a man. The confusion caused by Murfee’s charade came at a time of growing anxiety over changing definitions of race, gender, class, and culture. The unveiling of Charles Chesnutt’s race caused a similar commotion. Initially, his conjure stories had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and were assumed to have been penned by a white writer in a realist vein. But when his race was revealed in the Bookman, he became a black writer whose anger suggested that he was not a realist writer at all but a propagandist, performing the role of spokesperson for his race. Chesnutt’s and Murfee’s writings were disruptive indeed, especially for elites who did not like their expectations being thwarted.
By pairing Murfee and Chesnutt for analysis, Hardwig calls attention to the tendency in literary studies to overemphasize race and gender at the expense of other dynamic tensions latent in local color writing. In a similar vein, his work strives to resist traditional studies of...