- The Center of the World: Regional Writing and the Puzzles of Place-Time by June Howard
In The Center of the World: Regional Writing and the Puzzles of Place-Time, Howard offers a fresh look at the complexity of regional writing and its connection to the world beyond local region. Her focus, as she explains in her preface, is "how such writing shapes the ways we inhabit and imagine, not only neighborhoods and provinces, but also the world."
Howard takes time in her opening chapters to define regionalism as a concept, not simply a form of realism. At the heart of this concept is the idea that a "relational element is always implicit" even when focusing on a particular place, thus "every region is defined by its location in a larger system." In this sense, Howard moves beyond the question of locality to the nature of regional connectedness and global implications. Howard next establishes the centrality in regional writing of the schoolteacher, whose role connects a single place and time, through the books she teaches, to the world beyond the boundaries of the one-room schoolhouse. Her second chapter thus places the teacher into the context of regional and global storytelling. "Like regional writing itself," Howard argues, "the figure of the schoolteacher negotiates between provincial and metropolitan, between local and translocal knowledges."
One of Howard's stated goals is to write an accessible book, and this becomes more evident when she moves to storytelling in the chapters that follow. Here she offers incisive readings that capture the essence of regionalism, most particularly in her look at local and global themes in the works of Sarah Orne Jewett and Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton. She is especially strong in her analysis of Jewett's early story, "Late Supper," for example, a story that sets up "an ethical imperative of generosity" and "a vision of a benevolent social order based on nurturance and reciprocity" in the face of rising modernity with the railroad at its center. Howard goes to the heart of Jewett's power as a writer, and yet she also explores the disturbing class politics of the story, offering insightful context. Howard's narration provides a refreshing taste for Jewett's power as a writer. Howard's reading of the life and work of Edith Eaton, who published under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, is equally [End Page 92] compelling. Her interest here is in the construction of Asian-American literary history, a category into which Eaton has been placed, although Howard explains "she never set foot in Asia, did not grow up in (any) Chinatown or with an overseas Chinese community around her." With Sui Sin Far's recent entry into the regionalist literary canon, Howard's interest is in "what happens when we put this author in relation to this category" and in unsettling the usual assumptions imposed on her work.
In her chapter "Regionalisms Now," Howard moves beyond her area of expertise, the late nineteenth century, to cover a wider range of writers well into the twenty-first century, including Ernest Gaines, Wendell Berry, Ursula Leguin, Jhumpa Lahiri, V. S. Naipaul, John Berger and Gabriel García Márquez. This chapter also touches on cinema and traditions of film-making. In covering such a range, clearly Howard does not offer as much detail, but it is to her credit that she explores the connection of earlier regionalist works with contemporary texts. Building on her concept of regionalism in her early chapters, Howard explores the contemporary fascination with place and time.
Howard's book contributes significantly to our understanding of the role of regionalism. As she puts it in her final chapter, "story-telling about particular places has been a way of attending to the nearby, the distant, and the horizon, and to the entanglement of place and time." [End Page 93]