Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Landed and Literary: Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the Production of Regional Literatures

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Landed and Literary: Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the Production of Regional Literatures

Article excerpt

In 1894 there appeared in Chicago a little book on literary topics, the manner of whose manufacture bore the marks of a dilettante taste in book-making.... The book should have been printed on birch bark and bound in butternut home-spun, and should have had for cover design a dynamite bomb, say, with sputtering fire-tipped fuse: for the essays which it contained were so many explosions of literary Jingoism and anarchy.(1)

To readers in 1895 familiar with Garland's work and its reception, reviewer C. M. Thompson's analogy between Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols (1894) and a dynamite bomb reminiscent of the Haymarket Riot would have seemed like standard critical fare. But if most reviewers of the early Garland found his work too radical and artistically compromised by its focus on social conflict, no one familiar with his writing would have questioned his commitment to the nation and its foundational ideals. For Garland, the exemplary regional writer was above all a devoted American, attempting to realize the principles of democracy and decentralization within broad national frameworks, both literary and political. In this respect, his work was much like that of other local writers dedicated to celebrating rural communities as sites of national promise, where the country would achieve its ultimate fulfillment as a union of diverse cultures. Yet while Garland's regionalism could be likened to a dynamite bomb, most regional writing was described by critics as "quaint" and "picturesque."

Such discrepancies in reception suggest that a common embrace of cultural pluralism among local writers and their readers--and a shared belief in the region as redeemer of the nation--did not always point to the same discourse of nationalism. Regional writing could be adapted to alternative nationalisms; an adequate assessment of the category therefore requires consideration not only of regionalism's coherence, but of its political and aesthetic inconsistencies. This essay juxtaposes several of Garland's early stories with Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs in order to explore the nature of an ideological conflict within literary regionalism and its effect on the formal conventions that writers employed and rejected.

To affirm more than one variety of regionalism is to grant the author more agency than she or he might have if such writing were limited to a single set of formal features or a single social logic. My argument assumes that writers like Jewett and Garland made important ethical choices in determining which forms of local solidarity to embrace and which to reject.(2) If they conformed to the generic limits placed on them by the major monthly magazines, they often did so knowingly, providing the sub-national communities that audiences desired while recognizing the possibility of rethinking and rewriting them.(3) Even more significantly, a writer such as Garland avoided the major markets for long stretches of time, publishing his work in alternative venues like The Arena, where the representation of rural communities was not limited to a literary tourism in the service of national incorporation and reunion. Garland's work reveals a literary marketplace that never succeeds completely in homogenizing either its readers or its writers.(4) His support for radical social reform leads him to challenge some of the crucial conventions of late-nineteenth-century realism; in particular, he often refuses to draw any clear distinction between the world that his characters occupy and the world of artistic consumption. It is the merging of these two worlds that Garland sees as a necessary precursor to the realization of his national vision.

In the teleology implied by Jewett's Country, on the other hand, class stratification poses no obstacle to the fulfillment of a national destiny. At the same time, Jewett shares with Garland a common approach toward the question of genealogical inheritance and the role that it is to play in the nation's ultimate redemption. …

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