UPON PROVINCIALISM: SOUTHERN LITERATURE AND NATIONAL PERIODICAL CULTURE, 1870-1900 by Bill Hardwig, Reviewed by Nina Baym
 

UPON PROVINCIALISM: SOUTHERN LITERATURE AND NATIONAL PERIODICAL CULTURE, 1870-1900
By Bill Hardwig
(Virginia, April 2013)
Reviewed by Nina Baym on 2013-05-10.

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Bill Hardwig advances a double argument in this book: first, that after the Civil War, regional literatures were defined for the reading public through periodical publications rather than novels or newspapers, and second, that when viewed through this lens, southern literature turns out to be something quite different from what literary histories say. Here is no Lost Cause, no corseted beauties cowering in derelict mansions, no thundering Ku Klux Klan. Here is rather an assortment of diverse regionalities. The South has no literary center, its people are diverse, and its authors are fundamentally disconnected from one another yet interacting in various ways to create a complex and multifaceted literature.

Because the northeast--Boston and New York City--dominated post-bellum periodical publishing, Hardwig restricts his analysis (except for one stray allusion to the Philadelphia-based Lippincotts) to the major magazines emanating from those two urban centers: the Atlantic, Harper's, Scribner's and the Century. In these magazines, it would seem, the conventions of regionalism--folksy characters, marginal ways of life, archaic behavior, dialect conversations--overrode any overt need to comment on the Old South, for the South, Hardwig argues, emerges as an assortment of marginalities rather than a set and centered identity. Thus defined, the two regions sundered by the Civil War could reunite around a complex but still recognizable national identity. "Local color," Harwig writes, "focuses on the margins of the South--ethnic minorities, culturally distinct communities, geographically isolated peoples," thus producing a fiction which, rather than contraposing the defeated South to the victorious north, "narrates the emerging relationships among different races, ethnicities, classes, and regions" (10). Thereby imbued with the conventions of local color, the exotic South came to look very much like the exotic North (not to mention the exotic West, which plays no part in this study) as it too was funneled through these very same conventions.

The chief--but not only--exhibits in Hardwig's demonstration are Appalachia (represented chiefly by Mary Noailles Murfree's 1885 collection, In the Tennessee Mountains, culled from her publications in The Atlantic) and New Orleans, especially as depicted by Charles Chesnutt. By masking respectively both gender and race (Murfree posed as Charles Egbert Craddock, and Chestntt was African-American), these two came to be accepted as authentically southern, male, and white by readers who actually knew nothing about them. Even her northern editors did not initially know that Murfree was female. It is certainly an irony that neither of these "authentic" voices were truly what they seemed, and Hardwig makes much of this irony. He also finds race and gender largely absent from the public personas of George Washington Cable, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lafcadio Hearn, Thomas Nelson Page, and Grace King. All these writers, Hardwig observes, "conceived of their work in conversation with other local-color writers" (Hardwig declines to distinguish between local color and regionalism) "rather than exclusively or even primarily with writers of their own race or gender," and this original set of interactions is what the book seeks to "reclaim" (14). Yet rather than contesting "new southernist explorations of a globalized South," Hardwig presents his approach as "another way to conceptualize the myriad intersections that occur within the local-color writing of the era" (14). Nevertheless, Hardwig takes for granted that this concept of late nineteenth-century southern writing accords more with what the writers originally had in mind than with what the critics make of them today. As a result, Hardwig's book becomes a study of southern prose and local color, and to this end he probes travel pieces that were published side by side with periodical fiction. Without being polemical, he argues that the complex need to exoticize the region and make it familiar can be seen much more clearly in periodical work than in the "longer, denser novels that are often presented as more important and more illustrative of the era" (3-4). It might be argued that once the door is opened to examples outside the local-color circle, the entire array of periodical publication might be scanned for southern allusions, but this is a path Hardwig does not follow.

In Chapter 2, he explains how the reputations of Murfree and Chesnutt shifted as their "true" identities (female and African American) became known. Linking local color to travel writing, Chapter 3 shows how both genres focus on out-of-the-way or exotic places that are viewed by sophisticated and experienced spectators, and that at first make the South seem more separate from the rest of the nation. Also, since local color is often identified with vernacular characters thought to be more credulous than the sophisticated reader, southern local color includes ghost stories, which make the South look more like other parts of the nation even as it is exoticized through supposed difference. Chapter 4 considers what periodical writers did with New Orleans, and the epilog treats two anonymous stories, Eliza Ross and "The Adventures of Jonathan Bradly," that were published together in Atlanta (but not in magazines, which shows that Hardwig will go where the argument takes him).

More a provocation than a finished argument, this book poses far more questions than it satisfactorily answers, working from the stories themselves (and adding occasional novels as well) rather than from materials such as editorial commentary, reader responses, circulation numbers, and other literary paraphernalia. By means of close readings alone, then, it tries to make an argument that cannot be made persuasively without the aid of extra-literary materials. This is not to say that the argument is wrong, but that its demonstration required artifacts that are not supplied.

Aside from this perhaps surprising vacancy at the center of the book, Hardwig has covered all the criticism of his chosen authors as well as the general situation of local color and regional critique as it exists at this time. He suggestively indicates how these writers created a sort of regional consensus by responding to each other's work. To have substantiated the argument with necessary extra-literary evidence about circulation, reception, and the like would call for a book more than double the size of the present volume-- a book that would tax the critical skills of a well-established scholar. Even in its less than finished state, however, this book reminds us that since literary regions are created by authors, they may unpersuasively diverge from the "real" places they purport to represent.

Nina Baym is emeritus Swanlund Chair, Center for Advanced Study Professor of English, and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois.


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