Regionalism Re-imagined: Avant-garde Voices of Non-urban Spaces
This project challenges the perceived dichotomies between regionalist literature and high literature, between political literature and avant-garde literature, by tracing the emergence of a Critical Regionalist aesthetic in the mid-twentieth-century Americas. In the most experimental works of James Agee (United States), João Guimarães Rosa (Brazil), José María Arguedas (Peru), and Juan José Saer (Argentina), I identify a common commitment to transmitting the experiential dimensions of regional life – the daily rhythms of working life, the precarious existence of marginalized rural communities – through avant-garde poetics. All four of the diverse works examined are characterized by the dissolution of visual landscapes in favor of an immersive, sensorial experience of material place, and the related renunciation of an objective and omniscient point of view in favor of intimate proximity to and participation in the local world depicted. At the same time, these texts remind their readers, through the defamiliarization of language and recourse to metafictional techniques, of the mediated nature of the “authentic” experiences conjured. Though many of these formal features are common to urban high modernist and postmodernist fiction as well, I argue that they are freighted with a particular political function in the regionalist texts I examine: these works critique not only the hegemony of Western modernity but also the self-sameness of local identity, the quaint and timeless pastoral ideal, the construct of a coherent national culture grounded in an autochthonous past, and the facility with which images of local color circulate in an age of visual culture.
In my first chapter, I argue that the literary journalism of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), illustrates the political and ethical stakes of breaking with the model of documentary realism that predominated in North American regionalism of the 1930s, and which is widely acknowledged to have informed the leftist, social realist vein of Latin American regionalism in the same time period. In fact, I read Famous Men as a manifesto of sorts for a conscience-driven quest to represent rural poverty in more humanizing and less sensationalistic terms. Agee replaces invasive and objectifying expository prose with dense, difficult, and highly self-reflexive language, which I read as training the reader to respect the opacity of the surfaces that buffer the rural subjects depicted from our gaze. These surfaces include those of the written pages and photographic images through which we encounter this world. My second chapter continues to explore the relationship between word and image in Juan José Saer’s El limonero real (1974). I contend that Saer disrupts the image of Argentina’s rural interior as an ahistorical landscape by drawing attention to the inescapable temporality of perception, in contrast with the illusion of stillness furnished by the photographic image. I read the iterative structure and temporally animate gaze of Saer’s most experimental novel as restoring the within-timeness of rural life, thereby challenging nationalistic progress narratives invested in displacing regional spaces into archaic time.
Chapter Three turns to João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande sertão: veredas (1956), which has often been read as marking the moment when Brazilian literature overcomes regionalism – treated as a minor genre and a symptom of cultural underdevelopment – in order to become universal and modern. Yet, I read Rosa’s masterpiece as in fact insisting on the continued relevance of regionalist literature. I argue that the spiraling, recursive narrative structure of the novel thwarts any teleological reading that seeks an end (either of the sertão or of the story related) and, instead, asks the reader to inhabit this landscape from within. Grande sertão: veredas insists that neither the region nor its figuration in the Brazilian imaginary can be dismissed as quaint, archaic, and fully of the past. My fourth and final chapter comes full circle to draw unlikely parallels between Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the last novel of José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971). Like Agee’s text, Los zorros, continually interrupts its representational project in order to foreground the ethical and aesthetic challenges that haunt it and which, the author fears, condemn it to failure. I read Los zorros as dramatizing the struggle to reimagine regional landscapes at a historical moment when rural-urban migration and increasingly complex economic structures collapse the geographic and cultural distance between city and country.
Ultimately, I argue, these works all insist on the contemporaneity and coevalness of the region, underscoring the fraught social, political, and economic relationships that bind the region to the urban centers that seek to figure it as archaic. In doing so, they also expose the ideological mechanisms through which the modern American nation has tried to absorb and domesticate unruly and untimely regional subcultures by mourning their passing and nostalgically celebrating them as folklore. The Critical Regionalist aesthetic I articulate thus removes the nostalgic patina that often obscures urgent social issues in which regional spaces are enmeshed: class, race, rural-urban migration, and the uneven rates of development that condemn many rural communities to stagnation and poverty. Moreover, each of these texts I examine confront us – as the readers who consume images of barbarity, underdevelopment and rural poverty – with our complicity in the systems of exploitation and marginalization that ravage the regional spaces depicted. Stressing the interconnectedness of natural and social worlds, of the landscape and the viewer, of literary representation and material reality, this project thus engages with the political and ethical questions that have become central to Critical Regionalism, Ecocriticsm, Landscape Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.