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  • Clannishness: Jewett, Zitkala-Ša, and the Secularization of Kinship
  • Nancy Bentley (bio)

“Clannishness is an instinct of the heart” (Jewett, Pointed Firs 469). This reflection is made by the narrator of Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Sarah Orne Jewett’s novel of a coastal Maine town in the 1890s. The sentence qualifies as a definition of “clannishness,” but what that term actually signifies in the novel more broadly is far from self-evident. Whereas some critics have seen Jewett’s “clannishness” as a quaint marker of literary regionalism, for others the same portrait of kinship reflects the transregional ideology of a white nationalism on the rise, a view that casts the clannish kinship of Maine as a kinder, gentler counterpart to the fraternal Klan kinship of the US South and US imperial adventuring abroad.1 Kinship in Pointed Firs, however, can be most fruitfully regarded as neither strictly regional nor solely racial but as biopolitical, as finally inseparable from the quantitative measures and meanings of population discourse. Jewett’s “clannishness” has a complex relation to the stigmatized kinship of those who, regardless of race or region, fail to adopt the family form favored by liberal governmentality.

In Pointed Firs, precarity shadows family. When Jewett’s protagonist Almira Todd remarks on the Bowden family’s reduction in numbers, or her narrator muses that life in coastal Maine may have “spent itself without hope of renewal,” readers glimpse how kinship in her world is subject to forces of attrition (“The Queen’s Twin” 501). Concern with a depletion of population surfaces only [End Page 161] fleetingly in Jewett’s writing (“I wonder if we shall disappear in our turn!” one Jewett character says in reflecting on the Indigenous inhabitants who “lived on our lands before us” [Tory Lover 294]). That oblique sense of attenuation contrasts with the searing directness with which Dakota writer Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) indicts the slow death she was witnessing on the reservations of Native nations at the same moment that Jewett was writing about rural Maine.2 Even in their very different relations to population decline, however, a hard-to-define understanding of kinship––call it clannishness––is at stake for both writers. A fateful history of racialization separates New England settlers from Yankton Dakota, but that history takes on a different aspect when we examine the complex imbrication of race and region distilled in the concept of a clannish population. Clannishness joins that history to the field of the literary and, more pointedly for the purposes of this essay, points us to the secularization of kinship that was the foundation for the biopolitics of family in the heyday of regionalist writing.3

The map of regionalism emerging from literary magazines mirrors the map of “folk depletion” created by scientific experts and reformers in what became known as the Country Life movement (Barron 39). The two contemporaneous movements generally focused on the same locales: rural New England, the Midwest, and the hamlets of the South, places that only became comparable in a meaningful system––a regionalism, a generalized “Country Life”––through the coordination of city-based experts. Those respective experts, and the kinds of writing they produced, were markedly different. While editors like Bliss Perry (who published works by both Jewett and Zitkala-Ša) and William Dean Howells assembled a literary movement composed of fiction and life writing, sociologists published surveys and census studies documenting how these same rural locales had been bypassed by the “‘civilizing process’” elsewhere producing unprecedented wealth and a new kind of urban sociality (qtd. in Barron 47). Reformers expressed alarm about these regions more baldly than most literary writers. These “stagnant” counties, they contended, were marked not only by diminished numbers and aging populations, but also by inefficient economies and a decline in healthy religiosity, an “Impending Paganism,” as the president of Bowdoin College put it (qtd. in Barron 38). Literary regionalists painted with a lighter touch, but their composite portrait depicted what Ann Douglas calls “an imaginary territory . . . dominated by the laws of scarcity” (Wood 16).4

The Country Life movement was not formally associated with Indian reform programs of the same era, but both were Progressive projects...


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pp. 161-186
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