Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Neighborly Christmas: Gifts, Community, and Regionalism in the Christmas Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Neighborly Christmas: Gifts, Community, and Regionalism in the Christmas Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman

Article excerpt

In her 1994 article "'Not in the Least American': Nineteenth-Century Literary Regionalism," Judith Fetterley argues that women's regionalist writing has been marginalized because of its "un-American" nature, by which she means its resistance to both national narratives and generic forms. Fetterley's purpose is to critique the canon by exposing "how the term 'American' has been used to create a literary canon so hegemonic in the privileging of certain subjec-tivities" that the study of texts centering on non-white, non-male, rural, and lower-class subjectivities is tantamount to "treason" (879). Fetterley takes her essay's title from Sarah Orne Jewett's story "Danny" (1877), which focuses on a town described by the narrator as "not in the least American" due to its lack of excitement, bustle, industry, and multiculturalism (84). Jewett's statement appears to support the belief that regional literature depicts places, people, and plots outside of national identity, a notion that has a long history in critical reception of literary regionalism. (1)

Elsewhere, however, Jewett describes in more detail what she sees as the relationship between regional stories and the nation. In a 22 May 1893 letter to one of her editors, Frederick Mercer Hopkins, Jewett outlines her philosophy of neighborliness that extends beyond regional communities: "You know there is a saying of Plato's that the best thing one can do for the people of a State is to make them acquainted with each other, and it was some instinctive feeling of this sort which led me to wish that the town and country people were less suspicious of one another" (Jewett Letters 83). Jewett expanded on this philosophy in her preface to the second edition of her short story collection Deephaven later that year, not only noting the need for neighborly understanding both within and beyond regional villages, but also pinpointing the problem more specifically as the rise in regional tourism. She was "possessed by a dark fear that townspeople and country people would never understand one another," a fear driven by encounters between the moneyed urbanites who used Maine for vacations and the rural villagers who lived there year-round (1). While decrying the antipathy of the tourists to her home state, Jewett nonetheless optimistically hopes that someday the "aggressions and ignorances of city and country cousins" would turn instead to "compliments between the summer boarder and his rustic host" (1). (2)

Jewett outlines her hope for a neighborly reconciliation between country and city by way of introduction to a specifically regional text, one with a focus that is "not in the least American." That longing for reconciliation supports my contention that literary regionalism's un-American scenes and stories are not detached from or disinterested in more universal national narratives. Instead, literary regionalism as practiced by Jewett and her contemporaries actively resists the detrimental effects of homogenizing national narratives through the presentation of regional alternatives to national discourses.

In this examination of three Christmas stories by Jewett and three by Mary Wilkins Freeman, I argue that regionalist literature imagines an alternative to one specific national narrative: the "domestic Christmas" typically associated with the nineteenth century. In particular, Jewett and Freeman present an alternative to the domestic Christmas's disruption of the social function of gift exchange; in the domestic Christmas, gift exchange becomes a sociopolitical tool used to sustain class divisions and promote consumption that benefits the individual or the family as opposed to the collective. The narrative that Jewett and Freeman construct, which I call the "neighborly Christmas," redirects attention to the needs of community (both economic and social) and the moral obligation to recognize those who fall outside of the domestic family unit. Jewett's and Freeman's Christmas stories interrogate transformations in gift exchange at a key moment of economic expansion in American capitalism. …

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