Critical Essay A Definition of Western Regional Literature


The definition which follows is designed specifically to let the reader make judgments about the extent to which The Ox-Bow Incident is a work of western regional literature. The elements presented here will be useful in judging whether other works are southern, or Midwestern, or eastern; however, they might need to be reordered, and their relative emphasis reassessed.

For Mark Twain, "real," "natural," and "authentic" were controlling words insofar as his literary creations were concerned. In evaluating someone's painting, he said that the mountains were real and natural, the trees were real and natural, the foreground foothills seemed genuine and natural, but the atmosphere was clearly an import. A definition of western regional literature must likewise depend to a great extent on the authenticity of elements of the work of literature. It must not be absolutely controlling, but it must not be ignored.

Of primary concern to anyone seeking to discover whether a work of literature is a western regional work is its treatment of the land. This is particularly important in a new region like the American West. Until the geography of the place has been controlled (land or mountains or water), other concerns remain secondary. As an example, consider the little town in O Pioneers! as it tries not to be blown away, that will continue as a primary worry.

This fidelity to the facts of geography need not be slavish, but it must not be careless. A recent show on television depicted an outlaw "hiding out" in mountains just west of Fargo, North Dakota. The mountains west of Fargo are the Rockies, two states and a thousand miles away and thus cannot apply.

In a very clear-cut example from one of Edith Wharton's novels, Ethan Frome and Mattie cannot live within fifty or sixty miles of Fargo because there is no hill for them to use for their disastrous sleigh ride. And, too, they cannot live there for other, more profound, reasons — more profound, perhaps, because their region, New England, is much older.

Conversely, a certain latitude of fidelity to geography would seems to be allowable. Walter Van Tilburg Clark has said, "I did the same thing in Track of the Cat with another valley north of here, the Sierra Valley, which was more or less the scene but I had to move some mountains for that . . . Yes, I juggled the scenery in both of them [The Ox-Bow Incident, as well], but in each case I reclaimed a bit of land that should have been Nevada's." The "moving of some mountains" by itself would not seem to eliminate a book from the regional canon (unless they are moved to a mountainless region).

For the western regional work, the land must not only be treated authentically; it must also be important to the action of the book. Frederick Jackson Turner, in The Significance of Sections in American History, asserts a geographical determinism. He says, "I have prepared . . . maps of the United States for the year 1850. For example, the map of counties showing the distribution of white illiteracy so closely resembles the map of the physiographic regions that the one might almost be taken for the other. Much the same is true for the map of farm values by counties." This idea, then, is of great importance to any consideration of literature as regional. Additional, Clark has said, "It seems to me that this is something that must be settled with a western writer, especially if you are dealing with something in the western past. It is still so in the mountain states in the West. In California it is not. There were few people in the other states, then, and landscape and weather did play an important — sometimes a determining — part. My feeling is that landscape is character, not background. It is not a stage. It's an active agent. It must be." Clark suggests that as a region grows older in terms of settlement, landscape may become less crucial in the literature of the region, but this has not happened yet in very many parts of the West, or even in very many parts of the country.

Clark's mention of weather should not be passed over without some comment. The importance of weather in informing a work of regional literature would seem not to diminish as time passes. If enough time passes and enough progress is made so that people are never concerned with the weather or the weather is completely controlled, then climate would cease to be an effective factor in defining a regional work set in the present time.

John Milton, editor of the South Dakota Review, in a speech to a gathering of psychologists and psychiatrists from North Dakota and South Dakota, stated that the constant blowing of the wind from the northwest in those two states is a powerful factor influencing psychological health in those states. At the meeting, Milton said that his listeners seemed astonished, yet now he has received many letters corroborating what to him seemed obvious.

As a region is settled and begins to age, other factors must be included in a definition of regional literature. Mary Austin, in an article in the English Journal, in 1932, said: "Art, considered as the expression of any people as a whole, is the response they make in various mediums to the impact that the totality of their experience makes upon them, and there is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment. It orders and determines all the direct, practical ways of his getting up and lying down, of staying in and going out, of housing and clothing and food-getting; it arranges by its progressions of seed times and harvest, its rain and wind and burning suns, the rhythms of his work and amusements. It is the thing always before his eye, always at his ear, always underfoot. Slowly or sharply, it forces upon him behavior patterns such as earliest become the habit of his blood, the unconscious factor of adjustment in all his mechanisms. Of all the responses of his psyche, none pass so soon and surely as these into that field of consciousness from which all invention and creation of every sort proceed." Miss Austin's quotation suggests some of the further investigations which must be made. Having mentioned the artist's eye, she next mentions his ear.

Of great concern to the writer seeking to create an "authentic" work of regional literature is the language of the region at the time the work is set. As an obvious example, a writer will carefully avoid anachronisms in language: A mountain man, for instance, will not show approbation by saying, "right on." Characters will not use localisms from another region (unless the transfer is explicable and clear). Concerns of this sort have been demonstrated by many notable writers; Mark Twain has commented on the various dialects used in Huck Finn and John Steinbeck took pains to reproduce the speech of the Joads and the other migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. More subtle and more; crucial (as Mary Austin supposes) is the necessity that the regional work invoke the language of the place in other ways besides dialogue. Ethan Frome, must not violate New England diction and syntax as they existed in the late 1800s. Proving that Mrs. Wharton does not violate them is, of course, a difficult job, but is not impossible. Other works of literature, other kinds of endeavors in language; the language of people who still live there — these and other kinds of evidence may be adduced to establish the authenticity of language.

The history of the region with which the writer is dealing is important in at least two ways. First, he needs to know what the place has been in the past, insofar as such information can be ascertained. Has the land changed from what it was? Have the flora and fauna undergone significant alterations? Who has lived there before, and why do they not live there now? Second, he needs to know the history of the people who live there now. As the region ages, the two kinds of history treated separately begin to mesh until (assuming continuity — no floods, no atomic wars) they become one history.

Two closely related matters of interest to the writer (or critic) of regional literature are religion and myth. For the native of a region, these are as accessible and familiar as air. He may invoke them consciously, use them concretely in the book, or he may not. Even if he does not, there is often an unconscious force informing the work in such a way that other regional "initiates" will respond positively.

An element of some importance for this definition is the matter of a book's structure. Defined by one critic as "the arrangement of the large scale elements of the work," structure in a regional work is likely to depend on qualities indigenous to the region. Huck Finn takes its structure, for most of its length, from the river on which Huck travels. The New England weather is a principal determinant of the arrangement of scene and action in Ethan Frome. If a work's structure is extrinsically determined, as it seems to be in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, it is to some extent less closely allied with its region. Naturally, this does not mean that it is less valuable.

All of the topics treated thus far are relatively real, and classifiable, and available for study by the ethnographer and literary critic. Other cultural determinants no doubt exist as well and would interest the ethnographer. To the extent that they could be proven to be causative to the development of culture in a region, they would be useful to this definition.

There is one more important factor necessary to a definitive classification of regional literature which seems to stand a bit apart from the earlier elements of the definition. This factor might be called "trauma." If some cataclysmic event, or extended process profoundly affects the psychology of all, or most, of the members of a region, a regional work of literature will take cognizance of it, will use it — in fact, will not be able to avoid using it. Some of the traumas which have that kind of scope are: slavery, for the South; Puritanism, for New England; and rapacious exploitation in the West.

To recapitulate: A determination as to whether a book is a work of western regional literature may be made by examining its use of some identifiable criteria, recognizing that the criteria do not bear equal emphasis, that their relative importance will vary should the definition be applied to another region, and that the possible answers to the question, "Is it a work of regional literature?" are not "yes" or "no," but are most likely to be "not very," "somewhat," and "very much." Further, the criteria must retain considerable flexibility in order to judge books which concern a given region, written at widely variant times. When a region has been entirely paved, the book will not likely concern itself much with soil types or trees or flowers. If the people in a novel live underwater, blue sky may appear in their memories, but not beyond their windows. The "regionality" of the book depends upon (that is, may only be measured by) an audience which understands the "regionality" of the region.

Finally western literature is perhaps most clearly defined by its use of two concepts: the frontier and new beginnings. The central fact of the western experience is the steady advancement of a frontier line. This line separating civilization from wilderness, was a place from which a man could always begin anew, a place where he could shed the entanglements of the past and begin an existence which was free from those snares, but he was still able to use the learning gained while suffering them.

This definition administers the final coup de grâce to the formula western novel as a kind of western literature. In them, good triumphs, bad fails; the end has come. Art and Gil, on the other hand, have lived through another trauma (another snare) and now they are equipped to face a new day in a new range. Presumably, because they will still be in the West and will still be novitiates, they may very well choose badly again.

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