Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Value of Regional Identity: Labor, Representation, and Authorship in Hamlin Garland

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Value of Regional Identity: Labor, Representation, and Authorship in Hamlin Garland

Article excerpt

Hamlin Garland has always posed something of a problem for literary critics; even those who find his work historically important seem to hold it in contempt. Prolific, passionate, sometimes absurdly polemical, Garland's writing has always occupied an uneasy place in the canon of American literature. Best known now for his early collection of regional stories Main-Travelled Roads (1891) as well as for the reformist sympathies those stories seemed to embody, Garland's later literary output consisted almost entirely of popular romances, heart-warming narratives of his frontier childhood, and popular western potboilers. Garland's decline from the flinty realism of his early work into the domain of the popular has long puzzled critics, prompting some to interpret recursively Main-Travelled Roads and his collected essays, Crumbling Idols (1894), as holding the prophetic seeds of his later fall from serious literature.(1) Bill Brown has recently attempted to reinterpret Garland's seeming defection from radical populist causes (and the ongoing critical disparagement that accompanied it) by returning to Garland's early attitudes toward popular culture on the one hand, and the culture of the people on the other. Brown argues that Garland's construction and valuation of that most charged and fantastical category, "the people," stands at a crossroads between populism's fetishization of the people (embodied in Garland's early regional work) and popular culture's anesthetization of them (exemplified by his later work). Whether or not critics follow the invitation to place Garland at the center of current debates in cultural studies, it seems clear that part of Garland's significance is that his career announces some of the terms of debates about the status of local authorship and experience, and national identity and value, in the late nineteenth century.(2)

Just as Garland's literary output might be used to examine the buried assumptions about how popular and populist fictions both inform and thwart one another, it can also be used to uncover some of the components that inform ideas about the value regional identity and authorship take in local color fiction--the genre in which his earliest fiction self-consciously participated and that his early critical essays championed. Even Garland's champions note that his fiction has been described as rough, workmanlike, without subtlety or nuance. But even if we agree with such judgments of the formal infelicities of his writing, we might also wish to reevaluate the use of the category of the aesthetic: what does stylistic infelicity mean or do? If Garland's work is laborious or workmanlike, it is perhaps because the labor of representation in his texts is entangled in potentially irreconcilable political and aesthetic economies. Examining the conjuncture of politics and aesthetics in Garland's work may not rescue his critical reputation, but using him as a case study will allow us to track the hidden histories of the production of local identity, regional culture, and regional authorship that the "best" and most successful regional writing has helped to conceal.

While it is not my intention to rehearse all of the criticism of late nineteenth-century regional writing, some of the most salient features of the genre will help to contextualize Garland's work.(3) Regional fiction, which had its heyday in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, appeared primarily in elite periodicals, like the Atlantic Monthly, that catered to the upper middle classes. Broadly, regional stories formally privilege local customs, the symbolic meaning of "place" and geography, and include copious examples of local dialect. All of these formal features were in the service of adding verisimilitude to the depiction of the local culture under examination. Regional fiction tended to present its locales as outside of the exigencies of capitalism, a strategy that was reinforced by its careful presentation of the rural concerns of its local color characters. …

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