Over the years, I’ve written several pieces having to do with the idea of “regionalism,” a term which, when applied to the Midwest often becomes pejorative. The synonyms frequently associated with the term are insular, provincial, homogeneous, complacent, quaint, and locally colorful. The regional is almost always seen as rural, too, and defined by the past more than the present. “Regional” sections in bookstores tend to suggest “second class,” as does the term “regional author” (as opposed to a “national” one). Not surprisingly, the term is most often applied to the parts of the “flyover” between the coasts. New Yorkers don’t think of themselves as regional, though of course they are—attitudes, dialects, and customs have marked them indelibly. As the poet William Stafford once said, “In America a national artist is a local artist living in New York or Boston.”
Many of us like to think we have something called a national culture in this country, which today might be more accurately called a media or electronic culture. But America has always been a country of regions, especially when it comes to literature and the arts. When one thinks of our most notable authors, for instance, it’s hard to imagine Twain without Hannibal, Dickinson without Amherst, Faulkner without Yoknapatawpha, or Robert Bly without the “chaos, space, and ecstasy” of Minnesota farmland. It’s equally hard to imagine Grant Wood separated from Iowa, Georgia O’Keeffe from Taos, or Andrew Wyeth from Chadds Ford. In that sense, regionalism has always meant a kind of decentralization, emphasizing the fact that even if the so-called capitals of culture are New York and Los Angeles, excellent artists and writers may spring up just about anywhere, fostered by the region itself and such things as the proliferation of local galleries and MFA programs.
In his prophetic 1938 book The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States, Donald Davidson railed against what he saw as the increasing standardization of American culture and the totally erroneous perspective that puts “regional art” at odds with “national art.” Davidson was also a member of the Southern Agrarians—12 writers who joined together to write a pro-Southern regional manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. He saw the regionalist movements of the 1920s and 30s as a self-conscious phase, a necessary reaction to the increasingly “interchangeable parts” of the modern age, and an equally necessary discovery of one’s own identity as an artist, as opposed to accepting a “condescending urban idea of regional culture.” Davidson also believed there was a kind of regionalism in the arts that was merely “documentary, antiquarian, or picturesque.” What he stressed was fellow Southern Agrarian Allen Tate’s definition of a “proper” regionalism: “the immediate, organic sense of life in which a fine artist works.” To Davidson, the important kind of regionalism was unselfconscious in nature, providing healthy growth and perspective for artists and writers. “National literature is the compound of regional impulses,” he said, “not antithetical to them, but embracing them and living in them, as the roots, branch, and flower of its being.”
This concept of the regional always includes the idea of rootedness, and linking the particular and the general. Extended to all the arts, Cleanth Brooks’ sentiments have been echoed by many: “I have always believed that the best poetry was local at one pole and universal at the other.” For me, personally, Tate’s definition of a “proper” regionalism involves the idea of a “sense of place,” a term that avoids the unwieldy and negative connotations of regional and regionalism. Becoming aware of place is to discover not only a richness of material but also a powerful source of energy and purpose that can lead anywhere, especially beyond movements or “isms.”
My own experience as a writer, editor, and teacher has certainly involved a process of discovery very much related to a sense of place. Imaginative writing is grounded in the image, in the specific, and the first fruitful steps young writers usually take in discovering their craft is in the direction of the specifics which surround them—away from epithets and generalities, away from the clichés and sentimentality. As Louise Erdrich points out, “By the close study of a place, its people and character, its crops, products, paranoias, dialects, and failures, we come closer to our reality. . . . Location, whether it is to abandon it or draw it sharply, is where we start.” But the process also involves realizing that that the healthy sense of the regional is not one that seeks to elevate one region over another. No doubt, I’ve been guilty of writing with that kind of chip on my shoulder, especially as I’ve seen the ways the concept of the regional gets so often misused, especially in terms of the Midwest. But works of literature and art need to be evaluated according to their intrinsic merits, regardless of the subject matter or the places, which inspire and help to shape them. Too often, writers and artists associated with a particular region are simply ignored—not just by the coasts but by their neighbors. Too often, I’ve had to agree with what the novelist Frederick Manfred once said about the Upper Midwest: “Good creative minds are here. But we don’t appreciate or support them. We hardly know how to enjoy them.” Indeed, if writers or artists are looking toward establishing a healthy sense of place, how many of their contemporaries are looking past what’s been labeled “regional,” looking to the coasts, and overlooking what is right in front of them? It’s this phenomenon that led Wallace Stegner to write, “This is why talents leave their regions; this is why so few regionalists live in the regions they write about.”
This is in no way meant simply to condone most of what’s done in the region, either. In a very real way regionalism can often degenerate into boosterism, provincialism—what Wendell Berry calls a perspective “narrowed by condescension or pride.” If writers and artists become lost in their own landscapes, denying the complexity of the human communities that inhabit them, then the negative critiques of regionalism are indeed justified. The region fosters all kinds of art, and, as anywhere else, everything depends on how effectively individuals are aware of and use their materials, taking into account both the positive and negative, the contradictions and complexities.
Now, in what many have called an era of increasing placelessness, more than ever we need to foster a healthy respect for the plurality and diversity which is at the heart of a “proper” sense of the regional—beyond the negative myths and stereotypes on one hand, and the narrow-minded self-consciousness on the other. Only then can those of who live and write in regions such as the Midwest begin to see the chips beginning to disappear from our shoulders.
Note: Material from this essay was taken in part from two previously published pieces by Mark Vinz: “Writing with a Chip on Your Shoulder,” Dakota Arts Quarterly, No. 1 (1976) and a symposium article for “The Writers Sense of Place,” South Dakota Review, Autumn 1975.
Author’s Bio.: Mark Vinz recently retired after 40 years of teaching at Minnesota State University Moorhead where he also served as first coordinator of the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is the author of six chapbook collections of poems as well as several full length collections, most recently, Long Distance. Mark is editor for Dacotah Territory Press, which has published a number of short collections by writers in the region, and the co-editor of several anthologies. Mark is serving as one of the Lake Region Review section editors.