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Regional Literature

Updated on March 13, 2013

Does Regional Literature Still Exist?

Writers tend to write about the world as they understand it, and this being the case, it would be a mistake, in regard to literature, to ignore the impact of the technological advances that have shaped the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Before television, radio and printed materials were the primary means of information sharing. Radio was limited by geographical and atmospheric conditions, meaning that the broadcasts were limited by region. Print materials, such as newspapers, magazines, and books came with a date and place of publication, making it easy to understand these materials as being a regional source and perhaps allowing readers to understand it as either of their region or as representing the ideology of another region. With television and film, people were suddenly able to see footage from another place, either as it happened or shortly thereafter in live action. This held in it the potential for greater national unity, and in that an amalgamation of different cultural perspectives. It also brought with it the national advertising campaigns and branding, which meant that people throughout the nation were now eating many of the same foods, wearing the same clothes, and generally using the same products. By the turn of the Twenty-First Century the internet had become easily accessible to a great number of people world-wide. Now, not only was there the possibility of the average person having a national paradigm, but rather, a world-wide paradigm. The average person could now gather information faster, able to view any part of the world with the click of a button. People were no longer limited to regional or national culture, but that of a greater human culture. And so, it raises a great question: has the term regional literature become an anachronism, useful only insofar as a discussion of historical writings? If it is true that the modern writers are, like all writers, simply writing the world as they understand it, then it would be impossible to ignore the growing humanistic consciousness, and yet, people are limited still by the fact that identity is primarily based on personal experience not on potential experience. So, to answer that question, no, regional literature is not an anachronism, but still valid in a discussion of literature. This is apparent not only in the language used but in the cultural understandings that can be derived from the writer’s work.
Take, for instance, Elizabeth Spencer’s novella “Light in the Piazza” from her collection The Southern Woman. This work is very unlike the common conception of southern writing, it does, however, exemplify cultural difference, creating the distinction that is my argument. This work is set in Italy instead of the South-East United States, unlike most stories which would be considered Southern writing. But rather than detracting from the Southerness of the story, it emphasizes it by putting true Southern characters into a sharp contrast with the Italian characters to demonstrate the differences in culture so that when similarities emerge they can create a tension between traditional values shared between Christian communities and the progressive idealism that would come to define the Southern woman.
Spencer demonstrates the clash of cultures in the lines “She [Mrs. Johnson] prided herself on her tolerance and interest among foreigners, but she was tired, and Italians are so inquisitive. Given ten words of English they will invent a hundred questions from them” (pg. 260). This sentiment is obviously intended to be that of Mrs. Johnson’s, and it demonstrates Mrs. Johnsons awareness of the Italian’s otherness. The character of Mrs. Johnson is, to some degree, the stereotypical over-protective Southern mother. It is, in fact, her Puritanical view of her daughter’s situation that leads her to taking the trip to Italy in the first place. Still, the differences that emerge between the Johnsons and Fabrizio’s family do little to cement anything but that the Johnson’s are American, and though there are hints of a religious undertone, it cannot be said to be particularly Southern.
It isn’t until after the differences in culture are established and the similarities begin to emerge that we find what is particularly Southern about the Johnson’s. Fabrizio’s mother is impressed with Clara’s innocence, which reinforces the protective mother stereotype that prevails in the South between mothers and daughters. This similarity demonstrates the value of tradition for Mrs. Johnson, only then creating a tension in Mrs. Johnson’s decision to arrange her daughter’s wedding without the father’s consent. It is this strength and progressive idealism that Spencer wanted associated with the modern Southern woman, which couldn’t be established without first creating a mode of tradition in which Mrs. Johnson could rebel.

By the twenty first century the perception of women in the South had begun to change and this change is represented in the work of Holly Goddard Jones. Though it may be true that the United States has reached a point of greater congruity of cultural values, the South still maintains a certain feel that can be found in her work. Take for example a passage from her short story “Theory of Reality”; “He was an engineer at Spector Plastics, Ellen’s mother had told her, and everybody knew that Spector was the best factory in town. He had a nice voice, too: proper, like a TV anchorman’s, and not punctuated with the ain’ts and fixin’tos that her teachers had deemed ungrammatical and just plain ignorant-sounding. The way her mother talked, for starters. Ellen asked him why one day, and he laughed ‘Greta and I aren’t from here originally,’ he said.” In this one passage one can find much of what makes Southern writing different from other regional writings. Ultimately this passage is about the difference between the South and other regions, as it is stated in the last line. It incorporates the difference of regional language, incorporates the small town voice, and yet maintains a certain naivety that seems to express a certain agrarian-paced society.
The primary reason that regional writing is still valid is that people want it to be. People tend to believe that the culture of their region is different from other regions. Even as the issues that seem important to a collective U.S. demand a certain allegiance to a greater nation, or as universal problems compel us to a world-wide paradigm, we still identify as citizens of our regions. A Southerner, for instance, will still express a difference in the South and, for instance, California, and because that difference, imagined or real, exists in the minds of the people, it will be expressed in the literature of our times.

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