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Entries in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1)


Sarah Orne Jewett and her Region

Sarah Orne JewettFrom Reconstruction through the post-bellum period of American history--and perhaps into the first quarter of the twentieth century--American fiction became dominated by what was once called "local color" and is now called (more appropriately) "literary regionalism."

Beginning in the South and moving across the country, literary regionalism sought to display small pockets of "real America"--or to put it more precisely, the remaining small pockets of real America. These truer-than-true regions were ostensibly passing away. So literary regionalism finds its impetus in nosalgia--or more specifically, in the fear of the rabble of increased southern and eastern European immigration, the migration of freed African-Americans to the cities, and the relentless waves of industrialization.

According to Richard Brodhead in his 1993 book CULTURES OF LETTERS, literary regionalism "requires a setting outside the world of modern development, a zone of backwardness where locally variant folkways still prevail. Its characters are . . . personifications of the different humanity produced in such non-modern cultural settings." He goes on to claim that the representation of regional dialects (think about Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus or Bret Harte's California miners) is the great hallmark of the genre. (Think, too, about Mrs. Todd's lingo in THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS). Local speech patterns offered a direct entree not only into some sort of "real" America but also into its "quiet" virtues away from the decay of the East and West coast. Brodhead and other literary critics ultimately argue that literary reglonalism offered a way to unite the country in the years after the Civil War--as if to say, See, real America is alive and well across this war-torn and industrialized land.

Those critics may have gotten the cart before the horse. Instead, literary regionalism may arise out of the separatist impulse that informed the country up to and through the Civil War. Indeed, separatism enlivened most of the political and economic debates in post-Civil War America. There was little appetite for "one" America outside of certain Northern reconstuctionist politicians who sought to impose laws on the South that they could never pass in their own states. Rather, there was a distinct ploy, especially among Southerners, to prove they were not down and out. As it were: we are not united into a real American by pockets of authenticity. Instead, our authenticity is better than yours. We've still got the real America right here, buddy.

Without a doubt, literary regionalism became the coin of the publishing realm. We can see much of Twain's work (even Huck) as an expression of this movement. (While we're at it, it's possible to see Faulkner as an outgrowth of this movement, too.)

Or take George Washington Harris, in many ways the literary father of Twain, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. This Southern humorist created the wildly popular character of Sut Lovingood, a hillbilly who combined equal parts insanity and brilliance, chaos and truth-telling, political muckraking and sexual antics. Sut is fond of drinking and chasing girls, roaming around the countryside to tweak preachers and librarians as uptight Puritans. His narrates his own stories; his speech is almost untranslatable. Here's a sample from the story "Trapping A Sheriff" found in the 1867 collection SUT LOVINGOOD: YARNS SPUN BY A NAT'RAL BORN DURN'D FOOL, WARPED AND WOVE FOR PUBLIC WEAR:

A illustration of Sut Lovingood turning over a hive of wasps while plowing."Es we sot down, the las' glimmers ove the sun crep thru the histed winder, an' flutter'd on the white tabilcloth an' play'd a silver shine on her smoof black har, es she sot at the head ove the tabil, a-pourin out the coffee, wif her sleeves push'd tight back on her white roun' arm, her full throbbin neck wer bar to the swell ove her shoulders, an' the steam ove the coffee made a movie vail afore her face, es she slowly brush'd hit away wif hur lef han', a-smilin an' a-flashin hur talkin eyes lovinly at her hansum husbun. I thot ef I wer a picter-maker, I cud jis' take that ar supper an' that ar 'oman down on clean white paper, an' make more men hongry, an' hot tu marry, a-lookin at hit in one week, nor ever ole Whitfield convarted in his hole life; back-sliders, hippercrits, an' all, I don't keer a durn."

Immoral, sometimes blatantly un-Christian and other times out-Christianing the Christians, sexually overcharged and yet a proponent of traditional marriage, Sut is not "a uniting force." Instead, he pokes a finger into the eye of East coast gentility and the country's more staid traditions. He is the embodiment of the know-nothings.

Sarah Orne Jewett comes out of this tradition. She's always cast as a literary regionalist, But she's not a Southerner by any means--and she's very late to the game, at the tail end of the movement. So she's another matter entirely. (Whose eye is she poking?) She's not Mark Twain or George Washington Harris; her characters are not Huck or Sut. Yet there's a connection, that same American literary regionalism at work in THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS as in these other works. We'll want to talk more about what exactly Jewett is trying to say in this genre that is as political as it is literary.