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.


where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure
April 3, 2010, 4:51 pm
Filed under: regionalism | Tags: , ,

“A Stop at Willoughby” is not The Twilight Zone‘s most well-known episode (that’d likely be “Time Enough at Last”) or even its best (I’d argue for “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or “The Midnight Sun”). It is, though, a perfect encapsulation of the mid-century tension between the pressures and thrums of modernity and the idealized nostalgic regional space, and it plays out the negotiation between the two beautifully.

A summary, if you’d rather read than watch (and I recommend you watch over reading – I can’t do Rod Serling justice!): Gart Williams is an overstressed New York advertising executive who has grown exasperated with his career and is unable to cope. He has a boss who keeps telling him to “push, push, push!” and a wife who doesn’t respect him and sees him as valuable only for the size of his bank account. While on his train commute from work, he falls asleep and dreams that his train has stopped at a picturesque small town called Willoughby in 1888; he wakes up before he’s able to get off the train in his dream. On telling his wife about his dream and his desire to be in a town like Willoughby rather than New York, she laughs at him and calls him Huckleberry Finn. On the subsequent train ride, he falls asleep again and this time, attempts to get off the train at the Willoughby stop, but is unable to do so in time. During the third dream, he exits the train and is welcomed like an old friend, by name, to the town by its inhabitants. The shot of the old station clock fades back into 1960, where (spoiler alert!) a train engineer is standing over Williams’s body. Williams, we learned, jumped off the train and killed himself. The hearse that carries him away has printed on it Willoughby and Son Funeral Home.

Willoughby is perfectly representative of the idealized regional. This is the space that so many critics of literary regionalism were criticizing for its insularity, its refusal to engage with history, its provincialism, its purported homeopathic nature (will cure you of the ills of modernity).* And for the first 20 minutes of the 22 minute episode, Serling seems as though he’s reinforcing this problematic embracing of nostalgia. Willoughby is “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure,” rather than base it around feeding the hungry monster of capitalism.

HOWEVER. There’s that great twist of an ending, which suggests that Willoughby is not only fantasy, but it’s always already impossible – to achieve it means death – there IS no functional, sustainable regional space that looks like these fantasies. There is no homeopathic cure for modernity; that the modern experience – the shocks, the jostles, the push push push, the need to feed the capitalist machine – are inextricable from contemporary life, and the only escape from them is death.

In structuring the episode this way, Serling dismantles the binary of rural fantasy vs. urban horror, and suggests the utter futility of nostalgia to cultural survival and forward movement – though he criticizes the modern experience of shock/jostle, he also implicitly criticizes the space of Willoughby by caricaturizing it to such great lengths, and by ending with the realization that one cannot be a functioning, breathing human being and occupy Willoughby. That the space of Willoughby is white and primarily male (we never hear a woman’s voice in Willoughby) suggests also that this is a white male bourgeois fantasy – this would never be the dream of a woman of color.

*Actually, most regional spaces in regional literature aren’t anti-modern or insular, but practicing a kind of complex “provincial cosmopolitanism” (Tom Lutz’s fantastic term; read his Cosmopolitan Vistas for more).

“Say what you’re gonna say or prepare for eternal fucking silence.”
March 24, 2010, 8:56 am
Filed under: regionalism | Tags: , ,

Someday I’m going to write a paper on Deadwood, and I’m going to have a great time doing it. Deadwood is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and possibly the most literary of anything that’s ever aired on cable (with the possible exception of The Wire, which I’ve criminally neglected, and plan to watch as soon as I get to that fabled land of Having More Time).

Since it was canceled in 2006, Deadwood‘s earned a slightly increased focus in scholarship. The most interesting analysis so far is Daniel Worden’s “Neoliberalism and the Western: HBO’s Deadwood as Allegory,” which examines the camp as neoliberal space that “interpellates all members of society as equals under the rule of the marketplace, and one that subordinates all interests to economic self-interest” (233). Worden makes the point that Deadwood‘s engagement with neoliberalism counteracts the western’s traditionally systemic nostalgia; he’s absolutely right (or at least his theory is sustainable and defensible through evidence, which is as close as we get to ‘right’ in lit crit).

But I’m more interested in Deadwood‘s speech: the rhythms and cadences of dialogue, with profanity woven through like coarse thread. From David Milch, creator and sometimes writer:

. . . I wish more people had noticed the overall language, the rhythms of period speech that we tried so hard to re-create, and the richness of the imagery. Profanity, I’ve come to believe, was the lingua franca of the time and place, which is to say that anyone, no matter what his or her background, could connect with almost anyone else on the frontier through the use of profanity. But there’s so much more to the dialogue than just the profanity. The language of the characters in the show is never generic, and everyone’s is different. They come from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, and they all express themselves a little differently.

That’s one of the things people like about the show, that after they’ve watched for a while, they can instantly identify each character by the quirkiness of his or her speech. These are people, you know, who all grew up long before the age of electronic media, when regional speech patterns began to lose their distinctiveness. Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.

I work on regionalism and one of its tropes, dialect, and so this kind of stuff is right up my alley. I’d argue that profanity in Deadwood is less about emphasis and more about creating a linguistic echo of the muck and the mire and the rules of the market; it allows speech to reflect transaction. The word cocksucker, to look briefly at just one particular profanity, appears a notable number of times throughout the series, twelve alone in the first episode. Certainly cocksucker is no empty pejorative, but reflective of the kind of economic exchange so prevalent in the camp – Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver’s popular whorehouses.   Mr. Wu, who controls the Chinese side of the camp and who knows very little English, communicates early on to Swearengen through three words: “Swedgin” (Swearengen), “white,” and “cocksucka,” operating in the language of the camp’s stratified hierarchies. In Deadwood (at least, in the first season), Swearengen controls the market; those who are white constitute or execute the camp’s growing operations. Cocksuckers, for Wu, are those who work against market interests; simultaneously, however, the labor of the literal cocksuckers, the camp prostitutes, benefits the growth of order and neoliberal regulation.

And none of this is even getting to the regional part of Milch’s quote! But, to sum up: brilliant show; totally literary; I’m itching to do an extended close reading. Someday.