The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

— Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works:

  • Analysis of attitudes characters have towards their community
  • There is generally a narrator, offering a kind of ‘translation’ for the reader (presumed to be from a different region)
  • Dialogue might be written to emulate local dialect, spelled wrongly/informal grammar
  • Regionalist works tend to spend a lot of time painting the setting; plot comes second and is often slower moving than your genre thriller or whatever.
  • Many feed into the fantasy of a hermetic community, sealed off from all that is bad about modernity.
  • Some of these works are purely nostalgic; others attempt to start a national dialogue about a topic.
  • A typical topic might be: how to reconcile the values of the home/neighbourhood with freedom and self-determination?

American Regionalism can be broken down into three separate movements.

  1. The first reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. The second in the 1920s and 1930s (Jeffersonian romanticism — depression incited a need for  ‘rootedness’)
  3. Back-to-the-land stories of the 1960s
Realism

Realism overlaps regionalism in many ways. Realism is the literary depiction of life how it is lived. Henry James is an example of a realist writer.

  • Rejection of social mores and traditions
  • No wish to hide the unpleasant/socially unacceptable
  • The flip side of realism is romanticism, in which characters and events are dramatized, idealized, and exaggerated

NEO-REGIONALISM

In a modern global community there is no longer the wish to read quaint regionalist stories and revel in their quaint customs. Audiences are better travelled and, if not, at least more worldly. Neo-regionalism emerged in the late 20th century as a response to that.  The world wide web undoubtedly had something to do with it. From the 1950s critics would describe a work as ‘romantic localism’ or ‘sentimental’ or ‘nostalgic’, and didn’t mean it in a good way. Writers started to shy away from regionalism. It is thought to be missing important perspectives, politically naive. While characters of regionalist stories were often depicted with realistic harshness, they weren’t necessarily afforded dignity and their culture wasn’t fully understood. This was called ‘the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting’ by John Ed Peace. Others considered it scapegoating aka. psychosocial projection.

Is any sin greater, in the parishes of literary fiction, than sentimentality? Novelists pride themselves on using artifice to get at the truth, but sentimentality is all falseness, emotion over-boiled by grandiosity of expression and served up rank and limp. “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel,” James Baldwin wrote in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” blasting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart.” To engineer synthetic emotions for cheap effect is bad enough; even worse, Baldwin says, is the sentimentalist who believes her own schlock, confusing the imitation of emotion for emotion itself.

The New Yorker, 2015

Regionalism remained popular with audiences long after it started to annoy critics. That’s how we ended up with Faulkner, Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck and similar in the mid century. Newer examples include Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner (West), Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor (South).

So now we have a more sophisticated version of regionalism.

Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Russo, Russell Banks and Howard Frank Mosher, Cormac McCarthy, Pam Houston, David Guterson, Kent Haruf, Kathleen Norris, Louise Erdrich, Walter Mosley and Mary Swander are described as neo-regionalist. Neo-regionalist storyworlds stretch from the Maine hinterlands (e.g. Carolyn Chute) to the Texas borders (e.g. Cormac McCarthy). This list could go on for ages. See for example my analysis of The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx.

Authors of neo-regionalist stories write of:

  • hardscrabble farms
  • second-growth forests
  • struggling towns
  • There’s still plenty of description of setting — weather, sky, terrain, buildings etc.
  • The best books of this type balance a sense of ‘the purposeful earth’ with a sense of purposeless drudgery
  • The most literary neo-regionalist books tend to juxtapose a romantic attachment to locality with rootless alienation and something like rooted cosmopolitanism. Perspective is widened.

Neo-regionalism transcends the stigma of the older regional writing. These authors remind us that these hardscrabble landscapes are no less “national literature” than fiction set and written elsewhere.

ROMANTIC (ORIGINAL) REGIONALISM IN MODERN WORKS

This continues to be written though it is not considered Literary with a capital L. An example is Jim the Boy by Tony Early (2000).

  • These stories use many of the local colour techniques of the 19th century in the telling of the story
  • Will probably be set in that early 19th century era as well, but not necessarily.
  • We’ll be shown the impact of the larger world into the local scene e.g. a railroad being built in the town/introduction of electricity. These technologies won’t necessarily be presented as a good thing.
  • The readers are assumed to themselves be outsiders, bringing their own perspectives with them to the text. This assumes that the people being written about aren’t literary enough to even be reading.
  • Characters will  probably be living with poverty.
  • Relations among the specific populations represented are less important than the meaning they have as markers in other debates, about poverty, about violence, child abuse etc. None of the characters themselves will be articulate enough to say anything important about these things. Also, there’s a suggestion that these horrible things happen to poor, regional people, turning family violence into a regional issue rather than a human one, say.