OF THE WRITERS WHO OFFERED TRIBUTES TO MARK TWAIN ON THE FAMOUS celebration of his seventieth birthday in 1905, one of the least likely to be recognized today is Virginia Frazer Boyle. Her poem, an unironic seven-stanza paean to Clemens (characterized as the "barefoot boy with the stone-bruised heel"), was read between humorous tributes by figures much better known to scholars of United States literature, S. Weir Mitchell and Joel Chandler Harris. To guests at the banquet Boyle would have been a familiar icon of the plantation fiction tradition. But her poem probably reminded them that she had an active career publishing non-dialect poetry in national periodicals as well. Boyle's works were resurrected briefly in the 1970s, but in a context--the reprint series The Black Heritage Library--that prompts as many questions as answers, given that she was a white writer and a Confederate memorialist. Why has Boyle--who was no flash in the pan, publishing from 1890 until the 1920s--disappeared, and what might the story of her career and writing tell us about current critical categories?
Plantation writing includes post-Civil War fiction and poetry about Southern slavery, set during the antebellum period and often using dialect. For the most part, it is negatively marked in the critical imagination as nostalgic, provincial, and, frequently, racist. Though considered a subset of the category of regionalism, except in the cases of a very small number of male writers (such as Charles Chesnutt or more recently Thomas Nelson Page) we seldom choose it as a stage for the kinds of important theoretical questions directed at regionalism, questions about the connections between literary form and cultural power. Plantation writing thus gets excluded from discussions of the aesthetic that the fin-de-siecle global political economy arguably produced and that we have come to call modernism.
As one critic summarizes it, modernism can be considered "a 'reaction formation,'" a representational field that serves as "the culture-shaping, programmatic, and situated consciousness of modernity." There are of course many critical positions on modernism, but most of them define its relationship to regionalism at best negatively: "situated," yet mobile, modernism is inter-or extra-national, cosmopolitan, forward-looking, progressive (Soja 29). Critical debates around regionalism--Amy Kaplan's focus on the national action of regionalism and Richard Brodhead's on the literary marketplace for it, for example--often limit themselves to assuming a "national" reader, a gesture that sometimes absorbs the regional into or opposes it against the national. The feminist critique of such uses of regionalism similarly nationalizes feminism by prioritizing fictional narratives whose empowering effects can be seen as progressive principally in a national or international frame. At best, plantation writing, and in particular such writing by women, functions uncomfortably within such expectations, while at worst it becomes simply a negative parameter for them. (1)
A response to this analytical knot has recently been initiated within Southern studies. Scholars have begun to read Southern writing in a transnational context, seeing the region as shaped by diasporic and extra-local affiliations with Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean no less than by the trauma of the Civil War. For Deborah Cohn and Jon Smith, editors of the influential collection of essays Look Away!, the plantation "ties the South both to the rest of the United States and to the rest of the New World" (6). (2) Americanists, they argue, must "start thinking of the Southern plantation as the New World paradigm rather than the exception within American exceptionalism" (15). The transnationalization of scholarly analysis of the south is salutary and politically significant. But at times the transnational framing has had the side effect, perhaps temporary, of restoring "major writers" to the center of analysis. A third of the essays in Look A way! are on William Faulkner; none analyze women's plantation fiction.
This essay turns to that uncomfortable genre to remap gender and publishing as they functioned in plantation fiction's rewriting of the US South. It follows the lead of studies of New World print culture that read distribution and publishing politics to reveal new complexities in the relationships among local, regional, national, and international audiences for Southern writing. (3) Regionalism must be studied as a phenomenon both of content and of circulation. Rather than focusing on Faulkner, then, I turn to a little-known author, Virginia Frazer Boyle. This writer, known to Mark Twain but not to us, was involved in multiple publication spheres and a large-scale political effort led by Southern women. The story of regionalism looks different when the gendered print marketplace Boyle engaged is taken into account. Confederate memorialists like Boyle were members of women's interstate activist groups, moving large amounts of cash, sparking legislation, and changing public education.
The way Boyle's narratives handle ideas about gender and race is also key to the analysis that follows, because the flux in such ideas enabled women like Boyle to position themselves both in the literary market and in public politics. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson write that "practices and narratives of Southern masculinity and femininity" have been "plural, unstable, and subject to bewildering shifts ever since the eighteenth century" (5-6). (4) During one of these shifts, some Southern women writers actively took control of "nostalgia" and a racialized understanding of gender in order to shape public policy. Boyle's work represents neither simple nostalgia nor an invented tradition, but a reinvention through nostalgia that recent scholarship on Southern memory has elaborated. (5) Over her career, Boyle's work posited "modern" Southern womanhood as oriented towards the future.
This radical repositioning of white women's power was effected by an approach to the literary world--a modernism--that drew on and extended racial hierarchies. My title, "plantation modernism," is meant to center this structural tension (one not limited to Southern writers) in the critical study of regionalist writing by women. (6) This essay is, then, an exercise in "recovery," but in the vein of feminist work that attempts to show how the power relations of the literary marketplace shape and are shaped by literary representations themselves. Boyle's story changes the current critical picture of how regionalism was published by complicating the idea that regionalism was ultimately a "national" narrative. By extension, our expectations of the kinds of meanings such narratives could make must change, as we reconsider the web of audiences that generated and read plantation fiction. To begin such a reconsideration, this essay turns first to the literary marketplace for regionalism and Boyle's career within it. It then turns to the way in which the images of nation, race, and gender in her writing connect to that career in publishing and politics.
In her influential essay "Nation, Region, and Empire," Amy Kaplan crystallizes an understanding of regional writing shared by many scholars:
Regionalism performs a kind of literary tourism in a period that saw the tourist abroad and at home as a growing middle-class phenomenon; tourism was no longer limited to the grand tours of the upper class. Regionalists share with tourists and anthropologists the perspective of the modern urban outsider who projects onto the native a pristine authentic space immune to historical changes shaping their own lives. If historical novels invent pasts, regionalists invent places as allegories of desire generated by urban centers. Yet the reader of regionalism often finds less the nostalgic escape desired than a contested terrain with a complex history that ties it inseparably to the urban center. (252)
For Kaplan, the "urban center" manufactures the national, as regionalists turn particular material places into allegories of urban desire. Both the identification of this national function of regionalism and the modeling of a criticism that helps uncover how "contested terrain" is inscribed in a form that seems to thrive by creating a seamless touristic mode are crucial insights that have enriched the critical conversation about regionalism. But three components of Kaplan's characterization are worth interrogating: its dependence upon an imaginary "reader of regionalism"; the flattening out of the function of "nostalgia" in it; and the response by feminist literary critics who see a dangerous evacuation of agency in making this kind of argument.
Who read regionalism, and for whom did regionalist writers imagine they were writing? Using techniques from the field of the history of the book, Richard Brodhead's Cultures of Letters identifies many of the material conditions of the production, circulation, and consumption of regionalist fictions. Brodhead concurs with Kaplan that urban audiences and editors drove regional writing. But constrained as his study is to only a few authors, it has foreshortened critical conversation, as critics have clustered around the historical ground Brodhead cultivated. (7) Kaplan insists flatly that "local color fiction.., could not be read by the people it depicted. Like the subjects of anthropological fieldwork (a scientific discipline that developed coevally with regionalism's rise), native inhabitants possessed primitive qualities that made them worthy of study and left them in need of interpretation …