- Julie Hecht and the Obsessive Pleasures of Regional Fiction
Sometimes I wonder whether Julie Hecht—the most reclusive and elusive American fiction writer living today—actually exists. I know no other scholars of US literature who have heard of her or her work. For the past de cade, I’ve been trying to learn anything—anything at all—about her. What little I do know is this: she spends her winters in East Hampton and her summers and falls on Nantucket. That is all she tells us in the same tiny biographical sketch she includes on the jackets of her four books, always accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of herself, her face almost completely obscured by large sunglasses. The photograph is one of only three extant images of Hecht. In the second photograph, released in McSweeney’s 39, along with her short story “They All Stand Up and Sing” (2011), her face remains unknowable, obscured by the same pair of sunglasses. In the third photograph—which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s alongside her newest story, “May I Touch Your Hair?”—she is a small child, coyly half-smiling for the camera, as if, even at this young age, she was already playing tricks on us. Julie Hecht has done only three interviews over the course of a strange, remarkable career that started with the publication of her first short story in Harper’s in 1977. She has made no public appearances. “One likes to maintain one’s privacy,” she told an interviewer in 2008. “You don’t want too much in print about your own life.”1
Nothing happens in Julie Hecht’s stories, all of which are narrated by the same unnamed woman who rarely ever leaves the tranquil confines of her small worlds in the health-food stores and restaurants of East Hampton and the bogs, ponds, and tree-lined streets of Nantucket. The pleasures these stories offer are the same kinds of rewards that we get when we read nineteenth-century regionalist sketches: they capture the detached sensibility of the world-weary homebody while they value introspection and stasis rather than conventional narrative development. Julie Hecht is a twenty-first-century New England regionalist. Every summer, her narrator rents the same house on Nantucket, replaying the summer that the similarly unnamed narrator of Sarah Orne [End Page 207] Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) spends in Dunnet Landing, Maine. Like Jewett’s narrator, who comes to Maine looking for a quiet place to write for the summer, the self-effacing woman at the center of Hecht’s stories is an artist—a photographer—who finds inspiration in her New England surroundings.
Following in the tradition of Washington Irving’s Sketchbook and Hawthorne’s early sketches, late nineteenth-century regionalists like Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman crafted brief plotless sketches more interested in evoking the feeling or sensibility of a character than in telling a story.2 Hecht’s stories are precisely this: village sketches that value stillness—pieces of narrative that meditate and brood rather than follow a conventional plot. They capture stasis, not development, and mood, not action. The form of the sketch is delightfully narrow: its narrators fixate on small—often obscure—interests and obsess over them. This obsession allows these narrators to attain a deep, specialized knowledge about the areas of inquiry that they enter. Consider, for example, the unending rigor with which Randy, of Annie Trumbull Slosson’s short story “Aunt Randy” (1887), pursues her study of entomology. She comes to prefer the company of insects to people. Consider, too, the way in which Celia Thaxter’s love of gardening takes over her life in An Island Garden (1894). She writes of her tireless attempts to ward off the slugs and pests that threaten her flowers and the near-crippling insomnia that induces in her. Thaxter’s admiration for the natural world is not mere enthusiasm—it is a fiery obsession. She was so infatuated with the sandpiper that for a period of her life she wore only the bird’s colors: white, black, and gray.3 Gardening, entomology, china-collecting...