"Our Business Is Going in the Hole": Russell Banks and the Self-Destruction of New England Fiction
Arthur, Jason, College Literature
Through the local or regional, through our individual voices, we work to create art that will speak to others who know nothing of us. In our very obliqueness to one another, an unexpected intimacy is born. The individual voice is the communal voice. The regional voice is the universal voice.
-Joyce Carol Oates, "My Faith as a Writer"
To us, our knowledge is worth nothing, is merely private information, the names and histories of our family relations, our secret fears and fantasies, our personalities observed obliquely from the inside. We exchange our knowledge for mere survival.
-Russell Banks, Continental Drift
Ever since Sarah Orne Jewett's armed ornithologist came whistling down Sylvia's pasture path, looking to 'preserve' the white heron by killing it, New England fiction has been plagued by violent men. In fact, not long after the region became identified as a refuge from the "masculine principle" of literary realism, male writers started poaching its natural resources.1 Robert Frost mined poetry from the mouths of the workingmen "North of Boston." Thornton Wilder distilled all of New England into the essential "Our Town" of rural America. Stephen King, following H. P. Lovecraft, tapped veins of horror in the remote regions of Maine.2 Recent writers of literary fiction-namely Russell Banks, Ernest Hebert, and Richard Russo-continue to explore the cobwebbed remains of the nation's first pastoral countryside. In the century-long process of shifting from the pristine natural diversity figured by Jewett and her generation of writers to the rusted tedium of the current generation, the destructive element in literary representations of New England has gone from being external to internal. No longer is the region imagined as being invaded by outsiders. Now, it incubates its own destructive forces. Where King and Lovecraftexplore the "group neuroticism" that results from New England's cultural isolation, Russo and Banks localize this neuroticism in specific voices and bodies (Joshi and Cannon 1999, 2); and in this, they can be seen to share the high premium Joyce Carol Oates places on local voices. In this essay I will explore Banks's narrative internalization of what might be thought of as the Conradean "destructive element" of New England, arguing that Banks's representations of the psychic contours of white masculinity reveal a contradiction between the history of New England fiction and the recent return, by white men, to the principles of literary regionalism. By "destructive element," I am referring to the enigmatic, often-decontextualized, passage in Chapter 20 of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in which the German trader Stein advises Marlow to "immerse" himself in the "destructive element," suggesting that the only way to understand the self in the context of the turmoil of modern life is to submit totally to the turmoil (Conrad 1900, 209). Selfdestructive men, as Banks represents them, are an endangered species in New England fiction. They are diabolical, late twentieth-century versions of the white heron of Jewett's short story, and their endangered status is an asset in an identity-politics-influenced literary marketplace, whose primary objective is to ensure the survival of difference.
While I hope not to oversimplify either the marketplace or authorial interest in New England, I do hope to suggest some significant implications of the recent resurgence of literary regionalism, specifically the translation of regional affiliation into a racial marker. In a slightly different context, Nancy Huston identifies a similar trend, seeing a split between the "pulverized writer's identity" whose perspective is the more general 'ether' of contemporary life, and "polarized," locally-affiliated identities. Huston places Banks, along with such diverse writers as Toni Morrison and Ireland's John McGahern, in the polarized camp, claiming of such writers: "their attach ment to a specific group or land is not conflictual in any urgent, present way; simply, within their local universe, they have discovered all the wealth and complexity and contradictions of the human soul, and can therefore go on exploring this universe forever, without inflicting boredom on either themselves or their readers" (Huston 1999, 14). …