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Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature

Foreword


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historic, social, economic, and most importantly, literary events which unfolded within the United States of America, spanning from the 20th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast to previous phenomena, the 20th century entailed an extreme disruption of morality, ethics, and priorities that affected the rest of the world. This series attempts to assess how the North American literary scene engaged with the socio-political panorama that engorged the patriotic American sentiment of that time, which both World Wars and the Cold War largely contributed to fueling over the period. Furthermore, it will also attempt to analyze how literature became a means and medium to protest against social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism. This analysis will involve the study and examination of literary movements and literary criticism that clearly influenced the evolution of American literature, resulting in a deep, outstanding, and long-lasting impact on the American sense of identity, only to see it shift further as the 21st century opened.


The North American Modern Literature 101 series consists of eight articles, arranged in the following order:


Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature




National literature covers a great geographical extension. Not every section of a country writes the same way or about the same topics. The history of the place and its community immensely varies according to the social and political experience. For instance, in the United Kingdom, literature in the North, let’s say Scotland, might not concern the same as in the South, in London because of the social and political context each underwent. Similarly, American literature in the North, the Deep South, and the West are terribly distinct in many aspects. That is what we refer to when discussing Regional Literature, locating literature historically but mainly geographically. In the opinion of Stephanie Foote, a scholar of American literature at West Virginia University, “regional writing is deeply concerned with what is remembered and what forgotten, and how; with how local, particular people and places are incorporated or discarded. […R]egional writing is an object lesson in how national literary traditions are constructed through powerful, ideologically driven mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion” (Foote, 2003, p. 25). Therefore, regionalism zooms in to culturally include and highlight the contribution of regional literature to the total of national literature. Consequently, this contributes to the construction of national identity, influenced by ideological struggles in located geography.


In the case of the USA, there is a clear division between the North and the South, demarcated by the Civil War in the nineteenth century. Interestingly enough, this division propelled the establishment of Southern Literature, and subsequently Regionalism, counterposed to the rest of USA Literature. Regionalism was most prominent between the end of the Civil War and the 1930s, even though cases of regionalist writing are still traced throughout the USA. As Foote continues, “regional writing was produced at one of the most volatile moments in American history, and it was a form of writing particularly well suited to the task of processing and meditating the social and political conflicts that occurred with surprising rapidity at the turn of the century” (Foote, 2003, p. 28). Then, it could be argued that the aftermath of the war, and the ensuing union of the South and North led to a coping literature to assimilate the unification and the following industrial modernisation.


Figure 1. States that compose the American South.

Nonetheless, the post-Civil War era meant a time of territorial expansion towards the West, which also influenced the crafting of Western literature, not as prevalent as the Southern. Yet, this boosted the fortification of the USA as a country that covered almost half a continent due to its ability to mystify its origins and reject its pre-Columbian history. This is known as the American Frontier or the Myth of the Frontier. Therefore, the persona presented by the USA is reflected in its literature much more prominently than one may expect. However, the encapsulation of the types of literature under the banner of American Literature has supposed the loss of germane narratives which were disregarded as non-representative of the whole literature. For this very reason, this article seeks to demonstrate the relevance of regional literature, through a set of authors and texts, in the composition not only of American literature but also of the American national identity. For the sake of concision, this article will focus primarily on Southern Literature, which has produced some of the most renowned authors of twentieth-century American Literature.


The Southern Renaissance.

On April 14th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the American Civil War ended. His assassination was the product of Lincoln uniting the Union (North) and the Confederacy (South) and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the remaining slaves in the South. The Reconstruction and unification between North and South erased a geographical division but allowed for the emergence of an ideological one. It is commonly attributed to the South being culturally more conservative, traditional, rural, and poorer than the North or the West. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reflect the social reality of the South some decades after the end of the war, portraying how the South behaves towards blacks and poor people. However, other USA literatures tended to disregard Southern literature because of their lagging in certain cultural aspects and resorting to the same narrative antebellum plots. Lori Robison, professor of English at the University of North Dakota, explains that the South “has been represented as a place apart from mainstream American culture. […] this image of the South has forged a sense of national unity by giving the nation something to react against; all of that excess can allow the ‘North’ […] to understand itself as kinder and gentler” (Robison, 2003, p. 58). Literarily, despite realism starting to take root in American Literature, Southern literature had been disregarded because of the constant antebellum sentiment and the use of poor white southern characters in its plots. This is academically known as ‘The Lost Cause of the Confederacy’. Moreover, Charles W. Chesnutt exposed the racial and social reality of the Post-Civil War South in his texts, which “underscore class divides among white people and emphasize cross-racial connections among poor people in order to chip away at the classist and racist representations of southern identity” (Hubbs, 2022, p. 21).

Figure 2. Charles W. Chesnutt was one of the earliest twentieth-century Southerner writers.

Yet, as the nineteenth century came to an end, modernism started to develop in the USA. Furthermore, the farther the narratives were from post-Civil War times, the topics and themes evolved as well. In the 1920s and 30s, a new period in American Southern Literature began, later titled The Southern Renaissance. As a difficult term to define, this movement encompassed a large number of writers who focused their work geographically on the South by retaining its culturalism. Differently from its predecessors, these Southern writers were considered “traditionalists not because they all celebrated the South’s traditions (in fact, many were critical of them), but because they understood the region as possessing distinctive features. […] however, those distinctive features became more and more associated with the purported virtues of Southern life” (Matthews, 2013, p. 117). Mainly, they focused on three main points: the historical burden of slavery; the South’s conservative culture in terms of gender and class; and lastly, its racial history. In general, they sought to address previous criticism of the Southern culture and literature.


This major period was shared among certain schools of literature. Based at Vanderbilt University, the most prominent were The Fugitives or The Fugitive Poets, formed by Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom. They mostly focused on poetry to imagine experiences from the rural South. Author and English professor Farrell O’Gorman states that their work sought to “define itself against advocates of a ‘Southern’ literature and confined their private discussions to aesthetic questions, concerning themselves not with regional identity but with the nature and proper practice of poetry” (O’Gorman, 2003, p. 286). From this belief, Ransom would theorize a new school of criticism, New Criticism, presented previously in this series. Both objected to the intrusion of external context factors into the analysis of poetry. In the Southern case, they rejected considering the impact of the Southern context in the writing they studied.


Figure 3. The Fugitive Poets. (left to right) Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson.

Meanwhile, another school of thought branched out from the Fugitives known as the Southern Agrarians. Oppositely to the mother school, this one sought to counteract the ridicule that southern cultural aspects suffered. Also, they intended to confront the Northern industrialisation and modernisation that was extending towards the South. By writing the manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), they “touted the South’s superiority over modern Northern industrialism, market capitalism, materialism, lack of cultivation, and irreligiousness” (Matthews, 2013, p. 117). Nonetheless, these schools cannot be compared to the resonance Southern writer William Faulkner had not only in the whole of USA literature but also in the validation of Southern literature as a missing piece of the American literary mosaic.


William Faulkner, the Southerner.

As the only Mississippi-born Nobel laureate, William Faulkner is best known for writing The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), among others. The latter allowed Faulkner to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. There, he has Quentin Compson, a character already presented in Faulkner’s 1929 novel, narrate Thomas Sutpen’s story to allegorize Southern history. On Absalom, Absalom!, J. A. Bryant Jr., professor emeritus of English at the University of Kentucky, comments that “Faulkner had presented more of the essential truth about the self-proclaimed aristocracy of the deep South than anyone before him” (Bryant, 2015, p. 85), since it “involves [Sutpen’s] realization that he and his poor white family of plantation field hands have no greater standing in the master’s eyes than his […] slaves” (Matthews, 2013, p. 123). Throughout his literary career, Faulkner has traced and retraced the countless intersections of race and wealth by objectively analyzing the South’s history regarding slavery and poverty.


Figure 4. Southerner writer William Faulkner.

However, it is worthwhile mentioning that Faulkner was interested in the issues of race. Texts such as Intruder in the Dust (1948) centres on the racial prejudices many black men suffer in rural Mississippi. And yet, the majority of his characters resulted to be white poor people, mostly men. There is the possibility that it assisted in engaging with the modernist movement at the time by, not only repeatedly resorting to the narrative technique of stream-of-consciousness, but mainly concerning himself with the American national identity. For example, As I Lay Dying (1930) “lays bare how the figure of the poor white serves as a foil to Anglo-American modernity. Recognizing this, in turn, makes clear that Faulkner answered modernism’s call to ‘make it new’ by using new representational techniques to set forth new ideas about poor white people” (Hubbs, 2022, p. 46). Regardless of this, Faulkner accounts for the pre-Civil War South in terms of its economy through plantation and slavery in order to thread it to the subsequent decadence of a post-war South. Therefore, embodying the principal elements of the Southern Renaissance, and thus, validating Southern literature.


A Not So White or Male Southern Literature.

And yet, one wonders where the Southern female writers are. Or the black authors. Although the South might be conceived as slightly more traditional than the rest of the country, great female writers have emerged in Southern literature. Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee addresses issues of class, race, and gender in the Deep South in To Kill A Mockingbird (1961). However, Lee’s work, alongside other female authors such as Eudora Welty or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), follows the same lines as their male companions. That is, they “represent racism as personal prejudices blighting poor white people rather than as policies and practices architected, in no small part, by middle- and upper-class white people” (Hubbs, 2022, p. 69). By contrast, Flannery O’Connor, writing in the Southern Gothic or grotesque, approached her black characters quite differently. Writer Alice Walker remarked that O’Connor “destroyed the last vestiges of sentimentality in white Southern writing; she caused white women to look ridiculous on pedestals, and she approached her black characters – as a mature artist – with unusual humility and restraint” (Walker, cited in McHaney, 2013, p. 137). Furthermore, in her work such as The Violent Bear It Away (1960), O’Connor criticizes the Roman Catholic culture that permeates the South.

Figure 5. Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Conner.

Alice Walker was not the only black female author that emerged from the American South. Before her, Zora Neale Hurston had written as well of the racial struggles many African American women suffered. Both writers sought to “[escape] confinement of the regional categorization that had been liberating for the white women writers” (133). In Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), similar to Absalom Absalom!, Hurston traces the family history of Janie Crawford. Her history, however, is rooted in slavery, rape, and miscegenation. Both stories “battle lines between white and black [which] might be an attempt to separate paradise from the outside, but Faulkner’s and Hurston’s works both depict oral storytelling as a powerful force that disrupts the written text and questions a paradise created through exclusion” (Ford, 2014, p. 46). Although the struggles the main characters endure are clearly opposite, these similitudes could testify to the emergence of the Southern Renaissance, and thus, a common shared narrative in the South which allowed for the configuration of overall Southern literature. Other black Southern authors worth mentioning are Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man (1952), and Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940) and The Outsider (1953).


Curiously, many of these artists appeared around post-WWII and thus, outside of the Lost Cause. Foote reflects on the relevance of regional literature to provide an outlet for them. She argues that “in an era in which educational and professional opportunities for women and minorities were limited, regional writing became a venue in which they could advance their own expertise in what it was like to be themselves” (Foote, 2003, p. 36). Furthermore, regionalism allowed the diversification of topics and further representation of minorities or a certain discriminated population of American culture. As O’Gorman explains, “the generation of writers that rose to prominence in the latter decades of the twentieth century has indeed borne witness to a share of ‘complexity and diversity’ such as had not been generally recognized in the region previously” (O’Gorman, 2003, p. 301). And hence, expanding the American national identity that had been founded before WWII. Therefore, regional literature, specifically Southern Literature, allowed America to literarily redefine itself.


Figure 6. Writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Conclusion

To sum up, twentieth-century USA literature is characterized by many factors, one of them is the categorization according to geographical location. Two were mentioned at the beginning of this article: the American Frontier, which essentially deals with the American expansion towards the West after the Civil War; and Southern Literature, which is the focus of this article. This type of regional literature appeared because of the divisions between the liberation of slaves, which the Southerner states opposed and thus, provoked the American Civil War. Once the South was defeated and both sides were united, Southern literature dove into romanticizing the Southerner antebellum sentiment and fighting against the stereotyped perception the rest of the country had of the South. As the literature drifted from the post-war era, Southern authors started to objectively analyse the impact their history had on their culture. This period was called the Southern Renaissance, which expanded from the 1920s to the late 1930s. Two schools of thought emerged from this period. The Fugitives rejected the interference their Southern history might have on its literature, which led to the emergence of New Criticism; and the Southern Agrarians, whose literary goal was to refuse the intrusion of Northern industrialisation and modernisation in Southern soil.


Moreover, from the South appeared one of the most celebrated authors of American literature: William Faulkner. His work dealt with the economic and racial disputes in the Deep South. Like his predecessors, he particularly focused on poor white families. He was able to do so because of the distance with the antebellum sentiment, and what is more, the development of modernist literature which allowed for the reinvention of literary narration. Lastly, a series of female and black authors were presented from the South, which provided a different perspective on Southern life. Their appearance in post-WWII allowed the diversification and representation of all sectors of society. Consequently, Southern literature can be established as one of the main pillars that support the miscellany of identities that configures the relevance of American literature in world literature.

Bibliography

Bryant, J. A. (2015). Twentieth-Century Southern Literature (1st ed.). The University Press of Kentucky.


Foote, S. (2003). The Cultural Work of American Regionalism. In C. Crow (Ed.), A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America (25-41). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


Ford, S.G. (2014). Tracing Southern Storytelling in Black and White. University of Alabama Press.

Hubbs, J. (2022). Class, Whiteness, and Southern Literature (Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781009250627


Matthews, J. T. (2013). The Southern Renaissance and The Faulknerian South. In S. Monteith (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 116-131). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9781139568241.009


McHaney, P. (2013). Southern Women Writers and Their Influence. In S. Monteith (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 132-145). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9781139568241.010


O’Gorman, F. (2003). The Fugitive-Agrarians and the Twentieth-Century Southern Canon. In C. Crow (Ed.), A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America (286-305). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


Robison, L. (2003). Region and Race: National Identity and the Southern Past. In C. Crow (Ed.), A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America (57-73). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Natàlia Vila

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