- New England Regionalism's Material Moments
In Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), time seemingly progresses so slowly that a single minute fails to pass into the next. As the narrator describes, "An hour was very long in that coast town where nothing stole away the shortest minute." Yet, while this line suggests that time is static, we may interpret these words differently: the narrator's denial that a minute is "stolen" suggests that it is not merely removed, but put to good use. Significantly, the next sentence begins, "I had lost myself completely in work . . ." 1 Jewett grounds her narrator's temporal experience in the pleasurable process of work, displacing an image of a static regional past and instead considering the textures of day-to-day experience in Dunnet Landing, Maine.
This essay explores several works of New England regional literature, including Jewett's Country, that treat time neither as relentlessly forward-moving nor entirely stagnant, but rather as an always-fluctuating present whose expansive, cyclical, and repetitive movements manifest in the material pleasures of seemingly mundane domestic chores. I argue that, taken together, these texts supplied significant contributions to labor reform debates during the Industrial Revolution, beginning with the American Arts and Crafts [End Page 397] movement in the latter half of the nineteenth century and culminating in the emergence of the field of occupational therapy over the twentieth century's first two decades.2
Commencing with Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun" (1891), I examine how the aging and unmarried protagonist, Louisa Ellis, lays claim to a humble domestic routine that she savors. Her time takes on material qualities that allow her to meditate with care and joy on each passing moment. Supplementing this discussion, I investigate comparable representations of what I call "material time"—temporalities that adopt tangible qualities, as well as figurations of physical objects conveying the passage of time—in Freeman's "An Honest Soul" (1887) and in the short story "Heartsease" (1895), by the lesser-known New England regionalist Alice Brown. Finally, I consider Jewett's evocations of routine in Dunnet Landing, where the present materializes as a messy amalgamation of pasts and futures. These readings, I argue, echo American Arts and Crafts reformists; anticipating occupational therapy proponents, Freeman, Jewett, and Brown invoke the problems arising from industrial efficiency and then reframe, revise, and transform these problems into their own antidotes.
These writers imply that preindustrial patterns of artisanal craft and factory workers' methodical movements inhere within the same representations of daily practice. Like an optical illusion in which two images coincide, New England regionalists portray domestic work to imagine that seemingly incompatible temporalities exist within a single physical space. They accomplish this synthesis by depicting time as concrete: in their fictions, moments inhere within knitting stitches, quilt seams, and bottles of essences stored for future use. By materializing time, writers envision a seemingly irreconcilable artisanal past and industrial future that their protagonists harness within objects.
Bill Brown's foundational contribution to the multidisciplinary field of new materialism informs how I [End Page 398] theorize time. He argues that, in contrast to nineteenth-century anthropologists who composed histories to chronicle human experience across vast spatial and temporal expanses, Jewett's ethnographic sketches of New England life's material components are spatially and temporally specific to 1890s Maine.3 Additionally, Brown maintains that Jewett's regionalism forms an important contribution to the shift within the field of anthropology from diachronic to synchronic time—or, from describing object groups combining to represent a long temporal period, to describing objects representing a singular historical moment. His analysis dovetails with my own study of contemporaneous regional writers who explored the therapeutic effects of dwelling in a tangible present. Supplementing Brown's study, I suggest that authors who describe rural New Englanders working across a synchronic present contribute to a turn-of-the-century philosophy of time that emphasizes momentary interactions between people and things.
Building from this premise, I join regionalism and timekeeping scholars who theorize the diverse temporalities appearing in nineteenth-century American literature. Scholars have long recognized New England as a representative locus of tension...