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Stephen King and literary regionalism
August 21, 2010, 4:45 pm
Filed under: regionalism

That no scholar has yet, to my knowledge, read Stephen King’s short story “The Reach” (1981) as an extension of and response to Sarah Orne Jewett’s work seems like an immense oversight. Both writers are known for their focus on Maine in their literature; both have created small hamlets in the state to serve as the local locus for their characters’ exchanges; both consider what relationship local place has to discursive social space. In what may be a coincidence (or possibly homage?) King has written a short story, included in the collection Skeleton Crew, with “The Reach,” with the title “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”; the eponymous protagonist evokes Country of the Pointed Firs’s Mrs. Almira Todd. That the two writers have not been read together in scholarship is, ultimately, unsurprising, when we consider that many regionalist scholars do not believe that regionalism exists post-World War II (some, like Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, and Stephanie Foote, argue that it ends just past the turn of the twentieth century, although Robert L. Dorman’s extensive history of the interwar regionalist movement is a powerful counter). Too, Stephen King’s reputation as a popular horror writer, whose books sell at airports (gasp!), might prevent scholars from reading him seriously. However, King’s representation of regional place/space and its ties to an afterlife are absolutely in the tradition of a regionalism that calls into question the boundaries of a borderland, whether between the rural hamlet and the urban center, between this century and the last, or between this life and the next.

A quick summary of the story: Stella Flanders, an elderly woman, has lived on tiny Goat Island, Maine, her entire life: married, raised children. Stella has never crossed over the stretch of water called the Reach between Goat Island and the mainland, because she “never saw any reason to go” (586). In her ninety-fifth year, the ghost of Stella’s husband, Bill, begins coming to her, asking her to cross the Reach and join him. She begins to see her long-dead friend Annabelle in the coals of her stove. During a whiteout storm, the Reach freezes over, and Stella begins to cross it on foot. She sees Bill, Annabelle, and all her other loved ones who have been dead for many years. Bill gives Stella his hand, and asks Stella if she’ll come. Stella, crying with happiness, responds “Yes I will, yes I did, yes I do” (604) – responding to the insistent question  “do you love?” that has been in her mind throughout the story. Stella is found dead on the mainland, frozen to death, wearing her dead husband’s hat. Stella’s son Alden, who recognizes the hat, is left to wonder “Do the dead sing? Do they love?” and decides that they do.

As in many regionalist works, the central character of “The Reach” operates outside the borders of traditional heteronormative plots. Fetterley and Pryse note that regionalism is notable for its foregrounding of “characters who are old women with beard hairs rather than heroines falling in love” (316), and while “The Reach” is centered around a woman returning to her lost love, King’s choice of an elderly heroine suggests his interest in looking at the local not from the (chronological) center, but from the periphery. As in other texts of late 20th century regionalism, in“The Reach” the stranger/native dialectic that Foote acknowledges in earlier regionalisms is destabilized. Whereas in Jewett the stranger/tourist enters the native/region, nearly always maintaining some sort of defined distance, the ‘stranger’ in King is not nearly so easy to identify. We might see it, in part, as represented by the ubiquitous presence of the “mainland” in the text. Stella’s refusal to engage with it suggests its foreignness to her, and to her small island: “Everything I ever wanted or needed was here . . . if I ever wanted, just once, to stand on Congress Street in Portland . . .  I wanted this more. I am not strange. I am not peculiar, or even very eccentric for a woman of my years . . . I believe it is better to plow deep than wide” (592-3). And although the “mainland” functions here in familiar, Jewettian form, as the urban other, King expands on Jewett by suggesting the mainland as indicative of the other side, an afterlife where we are reunited with our loved ones. Crossing the Reach, for Stella, is not simply a geographic movement away from the local, and toward the center, but a crossing into death, into a familial reunion that constitutes a redemptive liminal site. This is a different play on the stranger/native dynamic, where the stranger is ultimately more familiar to us than we ever knew: a re-shifting, disorienting that suggests the stranger/native dynamic is infinitely more complicated than 19th century regionalism may believe.

There’s a clear ethos of community and feeling in King, a thematic that Fetterley and Pryse argue in is one of the major defining components of literary regionalism. Regionalist texts value “tender feelings, challenging a patriarchal masculinism that contains women’s development and narrowly channels men’s identities and range of acceptable emotional response” (Writing Out of Place 343). Regionalism, in other words, values empathy, emotion, and connection; empathy is a “reparative process” (344) that we might read as suturing concepts of point/periphery to create a site of oscillation, engagement, and understanding. I locate this valuing in King through Stella’s constant, repeated consideration of one question: “Do you love? This question had begun to plague her, and she did not even know what it meant” (583). Crossing the Reach, Stella hears the voices of her dead husband and friends, asking her to take their hands and cross over: “She burst into tears suddenly – all the tears she had never wept – and put her hand in Bull’s hand. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes I will, yes I did, yes I do’” (604). Stella, of course, is answering the question – unspoken directly by any of the dead – affirming a life and ethos dedicated to what Raymond Williams has called “structures of feeling”: the shaping of subjective experience through values and emotions.The region is a highly subjective space, allowing for the privileging of intangible feeling often treated with discomfort elsewhere (see the distaste within much scholarship for sentimentalism). That King suggests the importance and value of love, connection and community through his privileging of reunion places him firmly in the regionalist tradition.

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