The evils of regionalism

The evils of regionalism all have to do with thinking that special virtues come with your region, and that’s something you have to get over. You’re not going to be a better writer or a better person because you are a Kentuckian. The other evil is offering your region and people as curiosities. We’ve had a good bit of that in Kentucky, people offering Kentuckians as stereotypes, as what other people think they are, so that those other people can say, “Oh, look at the quaint, backward, ignorant Kentuckians.”

Wendell Berry, 1993.

Wendell Berry once described his professor Wallace Stegner as a regional writer who had escaped the evils of regionalism.  The quote above is the answer he gave to an interviewer who asked him to identify those evils.

There was a time in my life when I was passionate about literature, and particularly Southern literature.  Interestingly, in those days I didn’t know the work of Wendell Berry.  I knew of him as a novelist whose work was “regional.”  Because I didn’t feel any attachment to his region, I felt no reason to read his work.

I entered his work through a poem, which led me to his essays.  Only much later, after I’d eagerly read his essays and much of his poetry, and heard him speak on a couple of ocassions, did I bother with his fiction.  I eventually found it to be wonderful and compelling (at its best) and I regretted having dismissed it for so long.

Of course it is interesting that I did not consider “Southern” literature to be regional in that sense.  For a while that was nearly all I read, and I believed that I had read every “Southern” novel of any importance.  I was especially a fan of the Southern Renaissance of the first part of the 20th Century and most especially of William Faulkner.   I had read and reread everything Faulkner wrote, even though I am culturally much nearer to Berry’s Port William, Kentucky than to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi (or Wolfe’s Asheville, for that matter).

I’ve been thinking about a bit about my old literary hero Mr. Faulkner this week, after this blog post brought him to mind.  What was it about his work that so captured me in those days, I’ve been wondering.

Certainly Faulkner did not glamorize or romanticize his Mississippi.  His “Southern Gothic” style was, if anything, a push-back against the highly romanticized Southern fiction of the late 19th Century (which I confess to also enjoying).

But for whatever reason, there was a time in my life when it seemed I couldn’t get enough of Faulkner.  Absalom, Absalom! was my favorite.   I considered it to be the greatest novel ever written by someone not named Tolstoy.  I may even have been right about that.  Here is my condensed version of the novel:

Shreve:  “ Tell about the South.  What’s it like there.  What do they do there.  Why do they live there.  Why do they live at all.”

(Quentin/Miss Rosa/Quentin’s father and Shreve himself, tell it.)

Shreve:  “Jesus the South is fine isn’t it.  Its better than the theatre isn’t it.  Its better than Ben Hur, isn’t it.”

(Quentin broods and ponders—consumed by the notdead past.  “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished,” he thinks.)

Quentin:  “You can’t understand it.  You would have to be born there.”

I somehow felt a connection to Quentin Compson as he struggled to make sense of his family, his home and its past.  Looking back, I think that Quentin’s inability to refrain from telling the story, while knowing that an outsider like Shreve wouldn’t understand it, resonated with me.  But why?

Returning to Mr. Berry’s comment on the “evils of regionalism,” he didn’t name names so I’m not sure what guilty parties he had in mind.  He’s often named Faulkner as one of his influences and favorite writers, so it’s safe to conclude that he didn’t have him in mind.  But perhaps Faulkner was sometimes guilty of offering up the people of his region as “curiosities.”  There is some truth in Ellen Glasgow’s remark, made in direct reference to Sanctuary but arguably applicable to Faulkner’s entire body of work:  “If anything is too vile and degenerate to exist anywhere else it is assigned to the ‘honest’ school of Southern fiction, and swallowed whole, bait and all, by Northern readers, who have never been below Washington, but have a strong appetite.”

But when I began reading Faulkner I had never been above Washington and I knew the rural South–good, bad and ugly–from having being soaked in it all my life.  If I saw honesty in his work, it wasn’t because I didn’t understand the South.   Maybe there is more honesty in Faulkner than Glasgow was comfortable admitting.  While Mr. Faulkner (like Erskine Caldwell and others who would follow) did sometimes pass off “fantastic nightmares” (to again quote Miss Glasgow) as “reality,” I don’t think it would be fair to say that is characteristic of his work.

Just as it would be artistically and intellectually dishonest to present stereotypes as reality, so would it also be to pretend that there is nothing in the regional culture that could have caused those stereotypes to emerge.  It could be reasonably argued (and probably has been by some) that Wendell Berry’s fiction isn’t honest enough.  I wouldn’t agree with that assessment, and the characters in Port William are certainly not stereotypes.  But there might not be enough meanness or fantastic nightmares to make the population seem “real” to some readers.

So some will see good grounds to find Faulkner and Berry guilty of those “evils of regionalism” he mentioned, at least at times.

Merely being a Kentuckian or a Mississippian will not make a bad writer (or a bad person) good, of course.  But being a Kentuckian does seem essential to being a good “Kentucky writer.”  And I reckon we just have to try to figure out the rest on our own.