Or Hamlin Garland, or Willa Cather, or Louis Bromfield? For what can be more peaceful, after all, than a book of poems or novel from the rural Midwest? To open its pages is to release the scent of sun-drenched alfalfa mingled with the sound of lowing heifers from a far-off pasture-- it is to invoke a world where life proceeds by an older, more established set of verities, set apart from the frenetic vicissitudes of contemporary culture. Or so the story goes.
The idea of the Midwest as a literary region, like the idea of regionalism itself, is in fact fraught with contention. To some critics, calling a work of literature regionalist is to dismiss it as minor, as though a work steeped in local realities cannot also possess universal significance. To other critics, conversely, regionalism is an honorable designation with a long pedigree, but to which no contemporary writer can lay legitimate claim, since regions in the traditional sense no longer exist.
Is regionalist literature predominantly rural, or is it urban and suburban as well? Are Theodore Dreiser, Saul Bellow, or Gwendolyn Brooks Midwestern regionalists as much as Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters or Wright Morris? Is regionalism simply a matter of geographical location, or does it require some deep and intimate connection to the land?
Given that the character of America's regions have grown ever more homogeneous since the Second World War (due to the interstate highway system, television, chain stores, the internet, etc), has American literature since the war increasingly lost its regional distinctions? In other words, did literary regionalism attain its high tide in the 1930s (as was the case in painting)-- never to rise again-- or does it in some sense remain as vital today it has ever been?
To what extent was the regionalist movement in American literature, as has often been argued, a reaction against the rise of industrialism? Was it the unquiet ghost of Jeffersonian America refusing to remain moldering in its grave? And if regionalism was indeed a revolt against industrialism, what is its relationship to the later environmentalist movement? To what extent can John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold or Edward Abbey be viewed as literary regionalists? At what point does autobiography or personal reminiscence enter the realm of literature? And what of Henry Thoreau? No one disputes the status of Walden as a work of literature. And, if that is so, might not Thoreau be considered a true progenitor of literary regionalism in America?
Or, to return to the Midwest, is not an even older, truer antecedent of regionalist literature to be found (as John Hallwas first suggested in 1981), in the Autobiography of Black Hawk? --with its stubborn refusal, in the face of overwhelming military and cultural forces, to relinquish ties to that particular corner of earth on the Rock River where his ancestors were buried. His Autobiography-- as the archetypal expression of physical place as spiritual home, and the inevitable tragic loss of that place-- might well be viewed as prototype of nearly all American regionalist literature. And its occurrence near the physical center of the continent, during the formative years of the American Republic (as noted by numerous writers)-- affords the Autobiography even greater symbolic weight.
These are just a few of the issues to be addressed in discussions of regionalist literature at the present time. To start the ball rolling, I will post an essay of mine, "The Persistence of Regionalism," which serves as the introduction to Jared Carter's most recent book of poems, The Land Itself.