Looking Westward: Geographical Distinctions in the Regional Short Fiction of Mary Foote and Mary Austin

Article excerpt

"There is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment" (97), writes Mary Austin in her essay "Regionalism in American Fiction" (1932). She urges her readers to know "not one vast, pale figure of America, but several Americas, in many subtle and significant characterizations" (98), a task made possible, she suggests, through an appreciation of regional fiction. It, according to her is "the only sort of fiction that will bear reading from generation to generation" (100). To Austin, regional fiction offers its readers a more complex view of American culture than that they can obtain by observing merely their own geographically specific region. Regional fiction allows readers the possibility of exploring the many Americas that exist. This task was even more essential in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period of the greatest flourishing of regional writing and "local color." In this period, travel from region to region in the United States was slow and laborious. Although trains greatly sped up the process, many people still remained in the same region for their entire lives. Given this background, it is evident why regional fiction dominated the literary marketplace and why a variety of writers, including Rose Terry Cooke, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sara Orne Jewett, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote regional literature.

Western literary regionalism thrived in this period. Easterners were eager to snap up novels and short stories that focused on the experiences of people living in the Far West, Midwest, and Southwest. Although perhaps the two best-known western regionalists are Bret Harte and Mark Twain, a host of other writers also were writing western regional fiction, including Gertrude Atherton, Mary Austin, Alice Cary, Mary Hallock Foote, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Caroline Kirkland. (1) These western women regionalists and others found that regional fiction allowed them a literary voice. Since it was considered to be a "minor" genre, regional fiction was perceived at the turn of the century as a suitable venue for women writers. But many women regionalists, rather than merely use their writing to support the status quo, used it as a forum for discussing subversive issues in an acceptable and tolerated literary form. One example of how western literary regionalism offered women a literary space in which to critique dominant norms was in regard to the East/West division. Traditionally, in the cultural mythology of the United States, the East is perceived as the "civilized" source of knowledge and culture while the West is the source of barbarism and brute force. (2) At the turn of the century, western women regionalists questioned this division and suggested that such a split was more fiction than fact. No writers criticized this division more sharply than Mary Hallock Foote and Mary Austin, who both had a strong interest in how the East constructed the West. Using Foote's stories "A Cloud on the Mountain" (1885) and "Pilgrims to Mecca" (1903) and Austin's "The Return of Mr. Wills" (1909), this essay suggests the ways that regional fiction created a textual space in which western women writers could explore and critique the division between East and West. In particular, these writers frequently used the split to criticize middle-class eastern society's expectations about the "proper" roles for women.

Regional fiction is an appropriate place to discuss regional differences, since the heart of this genre lies in its dealings with the differences that compose a region, such as the high desert country of the Southwest, the Appalachian region, or the hill country of rural New England. Regional fiction, which, at the turn of the century, was referred to in a derogatory fashion as "local color," is a genre that relics on differences in speech, customs, and geography to create a specific region. (3) Blended together, these differences result in a unique combination of romanticism and realism, as Robert D. …