Realism and Regionalism
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To see realism and regionalism as the powerful forces they were for their nineteenth-century audiences, then, we need to set aside Mencken's prejudices and look at them from the dual perspective of literary documents of the time and recent work on the deeper significance of regionalism and realism. To begin with, realism and regionalism were nor necessarily or exclusively literary palliatives to soothe a nation's fractured psyche after the Civil War, although they did serve chis purpose. In the 1970s and 19HOs, as women's regional writing began co be studied, one branch of interpretation that gained credence through the works of Marjorie Pryse, Judith Fetterley, Josephine Donovan, Elizabeth Ammons, Sarah Way Sherman, and others was the analysis of the genre's sophisticated narrative strategies and the vision of women's community that exists in local color fiction. especially as that community suggests a timeless or healing realm. Others, such as June Howard, Richard Brodhead, Amy Kaplan, and Sandra Zagarell, have shown that realistic and regional fiction functioned in part as narrative spaces in which ideological conflicts about immigration, industrialization, urbanization, race, and above all national identity could be negotiated, if nor resolved. Brodhead and Kaplan emphasize the relations between cultural tourist and regional spectacle, and Zagarell and Kaplan examine local color's racially conservative, nativist vis1on of community. Regional literature defines itself as necessarily disrinct from rhe whole, a literature of margins, as many critics have noted. It exists in tension with mainstream works even when, as in the late nineteenth century, American regional fiction became highly visible through the sheer number of stories published. As the tangible site of an imagined national past, regional fiction provided a temporary respite from the incursions of modernity represented by an increasingly industrialized and urban national landscape. By representing itself as a site of exclusion from and, implicitly, opposition to the dominant national culture, the region as it is constructed in local color fiction paradoxically resisted integration into mainstream American life even as it represented itself as uniquely and purely American, a bastion of unadulterated American lineage and perfectly preserved rituals. As June Howard points out, however, "the claim to cultural authority based on deep roots in the past is itself a distinctively modern one" (1996: 368), based on an awareness of the inherent factitiousness of a regionally constructed past. It is within these paradoxes and this space between ''region" and "America" that the "cultural work" of regionalism, co use Jane Tompkins's term, is accomplished. from rhe emergence of a regional sensibility and the rise of realism after the Civil War, through the "realism war" of the 1880s and the return to romance in the 1890s, the "genteel" movements of realism and regionalism served as the staging ground for a heated debate about what American literature could or should be.