In this distinctive book, Philip Joseph considers how regional literature can remain relevant in a modern global community. Why, he asks, should we continue to read regionalist fiction in an age of expanding international communications and increasing nonlocal forms of affiliation? With this question as a guide, Joseph places the regionalist tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the center of a contemporary conversation about community.
Part of the challenge, Joseph shows, is to distinguish between versions of regionalism that speak nostalgically to modern readers and those that might enter actively into a more progressive collective dialogue. Examining the works of well-known writers including Hamlin Garland, Abraham Cahan, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, and William Faulkner, Joseph argues that these regionalist authors share a vision of local communities in open discourse with the external world—capable of shaping public thought and policy and also of benefiting from the knowledge and experiences of outsiders. Their fiction depicts a range of localities, from Jewish American neighborhoods and midwest farming communities to southern African American towns and southwestern mixed-race parishes. Their characters are often associated with the literary-artistic process, a method stressing open-ended critique that—unlike journalistic, philosophical, or legal processes—ensures open dialogue.
Joseph takes his argument beyond the boundaries of literary scholarship by engaging with art critics such as Lucy Lippard, distance-learning opponents such as David Noble, and civil society proponents such as Robert Putnam and Michael Sandel. Like civil society advocates today, regionalist writers used the idea of community as a discursive topos and explored how values including home and neighborhood were reconciled with such democratic ideals as individual self-determination and collective empowerment.
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