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  • Reading Regionalism in the MidwestEvidence from "What Middletown Read" Data
  • James J. Connolly (bio)

Regionalist fiction flourished in the United States between 1870 and 1910. Described as "local-color stories" by midwestern writer Hamlin Garland, a prominent practitioner of the genre, these stories featured vernacular dialect, rural settings, and folk customs. For Garland, the local-color novel had "such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native."1 These tales occupied a critical and commercial middle ground between the highbrow realism that emerged during the late nineteenth century and the popular romances and sentimental stories that dominated the era's fiction. In Mark Storey's words, regionalism was a "'compromise' between a dominant form of realism and the persistence of nonrealist genres."2 The standard formula blended closely observed details about a region or place with happy-ending love stories. If novels by regionalist writers such as Garland, Mary Freeman Wilkins, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Constance Fenimore Woolson rarely topped turn-of-the-century best-seller lists, they nonetheless drew strong interest from readers and produced brisk sales.3

Assuming American regionalism's readers to be members of an educated urban middle class based in eastern cities, literary scholars have attributed particular cultural and ideological functions to the genre. As Tom Lutz has put it, local-color stories "maintained an ongoing conversation about the part to whole, center to periphery, about the interdependence—conceptually, politically, materially—of the local to the global."4 Others contend that the genre helped knit together a nation recently fractured by the Civil War. It represented part of a larger attempt to integrate a diverse country, recognizing regional differences while establishing a cultural hierarchy in which sophisticated urban life sat at the apex while the small-town and [End Page 69] rural experiences of the Midwest and other regions occupied lower rungs. Nostalgic portraits of pre-industrial rural life produced by local-color writers helped mark such settings as subordinate, undeveloped places in an emerging industrial-capitalist order while cementing the authority of the metropolitan center.5

These accounts of the character and significance of regionalism assume that readers, generally imagined as educated residents of eastern cities, interpreted these texts in the manner described in modern scholarship. The data assembled in the What Middletown Read (WMR) database, which reproduces circulation records from the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library (MPL) from 1891 to 1902, permits us to consider the experiences of a different, non-metropolitan set of readers, library users in a small midwestern city.6 It provides us with some sense of who read regionalist fiction and offers us clues, if not definitive evidence, about how they interpreted what they read. Muncie's library data suggests that readers of regionalism were drawn to the romantic elements of the books they selected and were just as attracted to portraits of other places, whether across the U.S. or across the world, as they were to accounts of life in the Midwest. For the most part, MPL borrowers read local-color fiction as a part of a large encounter with print-borne popular culture, and such reading helped them imagine themselves as part of a metropolitan-oriented audience rather than as situated on the cultural periphery.

To what extent Muncie's residents represented the Midwest as a whole is debatable. Customarily depicted as a quintessentially provincial middle-American community, courtesy of the city's role as the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd's seminal Middletown studies, turn- of- the- century Muncie might better be understood as a swift ly developing urban place that was increasingly integrated into national and international economic and cultural networks. The city's population approached 21,000 in 1900, following rapid growth triggered by the discovery of natural gas in the region in 1886. It gained the trappings of city life over the course of the 1890s, including a bustling downtown commercial area, industrial sections with laborers' homes grouped around factories, upscale neighborhoods, streetcars, and even a vice district. By 1900 the city had 347 manufacturing firms, and factory work was the dominant form...