- Limning New Regions of Thought:Emerson’s Abstract Regionalism
“It may seem to the reader of Emerson’s early letters that at the time [1830s] there was nothing in New England but questions.”(Henry James)1
Prologue: Region, Between Theory and History
Thinking regionally is most often understood as a synonym for thinking locally, and evokes a limited scope and scale; to think regionally is to think the particular, not the general. In keeping with this view, the region can only fit into a universal conception of the nation-state if politically subjugated or imaginatively relegated to the past. Only its transformation into a museum piece guarantees its paradoxical entry into the present of the nation. Grounded in a specific geography and a local history, the region has indeed been commodi-fied as the nation’s picturesque other, a gendered entity that stands in consistent counterpoint to the universal as pleasantly quaint or dangerously peculiar.2 This conception, articulated with force at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States by Theodore Roosevelt, among others,3 may be said to have given the region a place, minor as it was, while perpetuating the nation/region, center/periphery binarism common to most nation-states. By rooting region in geography and naturalizing its features, however, this paradigm essentialized it, concealing the ideological underpinnings of its marginalization.
Predictably, voices were raised in protest at this marginalization and demonization of the region. Within the literary [End Page 285] realm, there were the regionalists themselves, whose writings, while sometimes capitalizing on the local color appeal, attempted to turn the locus they had been allowed to occupy into a space of agency and the site of critique.4 More recently, critics have followed suit. Feminist criticism, in particular, has focused on regionalist writers as a contesting voice describing an alternate definition of region. In Writing Out of Place, their sum on American literary regionalism, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse go as far as to untie the link between region and geography. Region is deterritorialized, disembodied as a place the better to be born again as a concept. Regionalism thus becomes a political agenda.5 But, writing the region out of place, Fetterley and Pryse also write it out of history and in turn obscure the historical development of the tension between region as a territory and region as a deterritorialized site of critique. To reconsider such history, one needs to go back to a place Fetterley and Pryse conspicuously and consciously shun: nineteenth-century New England.
In Writing Out of Place, Fetterley and Pryse debunk New England as the “origin” of regionalism as they understand it.6 Because it had not yet been pushed to the margins, pre-Civil War New England, they suggest, could not be the place of critique, the marginal anti-hegemonic space of regionalism. What they do not seem to consider, however, is the key role New England played in the history of regionalism as “the site of contestation over the meaning of region,”7 as the place where region as concept and region as locality were being articulated, however uneasily. We do not intend to take New England once again as the major representative of a literary genre that flourished towards the close of the century even as the region’s political impress upon the nation began to decline. If we go back to New England still, it is because as early as in the 1830s and 1840s, well before the word “regionalism” was coined, New England was the preeminent if unacknowledged locus of this tension between region as an abstraction and region as the epitome of the particular, two definitions in keeping with New Englandborn Noah Webster’s definitions and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s variations on the meaning of the term. [End Page 286]
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What is at stake in this fluctuating semiosis is not, we argue, a mere symptom of the newness...