A bit on American “regionalist” short fiction

Regionalist writings, like regional or local-color writings, depict the people, dialects, customs, geography, and characteristics and cultural manifestations that are tied to a specific region. However, whereas local-color writings are often tinged with Romanticism, exoticism, or nostalgia, or sometimes even a sense of ridicule or condescension towards their subject (Campbell), regionalist writings convey a greater sense of empathy, because the regionalist writer writes not as a detached observer of the region and its culture, but as an inhabitant of that region, a sharer in that culture. Regionalist literature portrays spheres of experience that are so truly local that only “insiders” can fully know about them. Because such writings are not seen as “universal”, they are peripheralized by writings considered realist. Another reason why regionalist literature is relegated to the periphery is that it is largely written by those belonging to the marginalized sectors of society—women, colored people, immigrants, and small town inhabitants. The writings of the dominant sector of the white urban male are often categorized as realist, while those written by people removed from the seat of power are categorized as regionalist (Campbell). Thus, while regionalist writings depict “unique” local cultures and experiences, their depictions are also informed by experiences of marginalization and oppression.

These characteristics of regionalist writing are evident in the stories “The Stones of the Village” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” by Sui-Sin Far, and “Why I am a Pagan” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl” by Zitkala-Sa. The authors of all four stories were women who belonged to ethnic minorities and talked about the unique conflicts that people of their kind experienced in their particular milieu. Instead of exoticizing or romanticizing their subjects, highlighting their eccentricity, the writers treated them with more empathy and understanding because they themselves went through what their protagonists experienced. Even though they portrayed the distinctiveness of their characters and their locales, they did so in a matter-of-fact way. The stories also depict the geographical and cultural particularities of their region. “Why I am a Pagan,” notably, depicts the landscape of the Great Plains and the protagonist’s affinity with it; “The School Days of an Indian Girl” details some customs of American-Indians; and “The Stones of the Village” effectively recreates the Creole dialect that some of the characters used. More than depicting the material aspects of regional difference, though, the stories portray how the particularities of time, place, race, and culture interact to shape the personalities and particular experiences of its protagonists.

“The Stones of the Village” is an account of the life of Victor Grabért, its protagonist, a Creole in Louisiana. Throughout his life, Victor struggled with his Creole identity and the prejudice against it. The story explores the uniqueness of his position as a colored person who was able to pass for a white man and was able to get a small fortune and an advanced education and achieve high status in society. Despite looking white enough, the prejudice against blacks and mulattos was such that the protagonist had to live a life of deception, passing for a white, in order to gain access to upward social mobility. Although black people, like Pavageau and Wilson, were already granted civil rights, it is clear that prejudice against blacks was still very strong. Blacks and those whose blood were tainted, however little, by Negro blood were made to submit to segregation, lawfully or not, and were denied entry to or service in certain schools, restaurants, and other establishments. Though sometimes thought of kindly by some whites like Elise, it was still taken for granted that blacks were an inferior people and deserved to be in menial positions, like being nannies. Painfully aware of his precarious position, Victor adopted an extreme, hypocritical anti-black stance to cover up for his own insecurity. For all his achievements, however, he knew that he could never truly be part of the dominant class—he could not speak of his family, for instance, for he had no aristocratic family traditions or wholly white lineage to speak of. However, just as Victor could not be truly white, so he also could not be truly black. Given the hierarchy of color and the greater prejudice against darker-skinned black people (Hull), Victor as a “white nigger” could not identify with the darker blacks; he had not suffered as much as they did. His racial status was ambiguous; the Creole “admixture of French-Spanish-Indian-black-white blood, their often free status, their closed/distinct society/culture, etc., set them apart. Readers did not (do not?) tend to see these Creole characters as black/African-Americans, but as some kind of non-white exotics” (Hull). Thus, as illustrated by his rejection by both colored and white children, Victor was perpetually an outsider who could neither be white nor black—as he summed it up, “You poor wretch, what are you?”

This theme of being neither one nor the other, of being a hybrid, and being discriminated against for it, is also apparent in “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” by Sui-Sin Far and “The School Days of an Indian Girl” by Zitkala-Sa. Like Victor, Sui-Sin Far was a hybrid, half-English and half-Chinese, who could pass for a white person. Unlike Victor, though, she chose to embrace the Chinese part of her, though she did not know how to speak Chinese and was largely unacquainted with Chinese customs, since her mother was brought up by English missionaries. Despite the discrimination against her, she seemed to take pride in being Chinese; her research about the ancient Chinese civilization convinced her of her race’s superiority. Still, she recognized that she was neither only of the West nor the East, but somewhere in between. She said, “I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality”—something very American. In her story, we also see other social hierarchies: a Eurasian was considered superior to an African-American, a Japanese Eurasian, superior to a Chinese Eurasian, and a man superior to a woman—social hierarchies that, however unjustly, were justified by religion.

Aside from depicting their land and tribal customs, Zitkala-Sa also portrayed the theme of hybridity. Though she was not an ethnic hybrid, she was a cultural one, and her stories depict her being caught between European-American customs and traditional Indian culture. Though she grew up in an Indian tribe and was socialized into Indian culture, she eventually spent some time in a white man’s school, and even though she resented and fought against it at first, she was inculcated with white culture. When she came back to their tribe, she felt alienated from her tribesmen because of her white education. Against her mother’s wishes, she returned to school, earned a high school diploma, and went on to higher education. Despite her academic triumphs, she could not be fully assimilated into the dominant culture. As seen in the inter-college declamation competition that she participated in, she was discriminated against for being a Native Indian. Thus, she could not identify fully with her Indian tribesmen, and neither could she identify with her white classmates and colleagues.

Though the stories are tied to the particular characteristics of their region—e.g. if Grabért had lived in a more tolerant state somewhere in the North, he might have encountered much less prejudice—they are regionalist not only in a geographical sense, but, I think, more importantly so, in a psychological and racial sense. The particularity of the ethnic group, heritage, and society to which they belonged to influenced their experiences, which shaped their personalities and informed their writings.  Sui-Sin Far, for example, traveled to different lands populated by whites, like England, Canada, and America, and the reaction to her was generally the same: discrimination and prejudice. I suppose, more than their portrayals of local settings, what is regionalist about them is their depiction of their marginalized, minority positions, the distinctiveness of the hybrid space they occupied, and the specific experiences that such positions brought about, a depiction written not from the view of a stranger looking in, but from the view of an active participant, a member of that society. They wrote about things that they themselves experienced, things that were not generally part of mainstream consciousness.

Works Cited

Campbell, Donna M. “Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895.” Literary Movements. 22 May 2007. 14 December 2008. Web.

Hull, Akasha. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935).” cengage.com. 15 December 2008. Web.

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