Doesn’t the keyword “region” self-evidently denote a discrete place? Certainly, the first definition in the American Heritage Dictionary—a region is “a large, usually continuous segment of a surface or space”—indicates as much. This usage of the term presumes that regions are self-contained places—generally, that they are effects of natural geography. As such, it fosters a paradox within the term “region” and its variants by making invisible the myriad ways in which human processes, particularly those associated with modernization, nation formation, and globalization, create “places” that appear to preexist or be peripheral to these very processes.
The usage of the keyword “region” to reference a homogenous local place prevailed for almost a century and a half, and it continues to have traction. The assumption that regions of the United States are geographically, culturally, and demographically fixed was institutionalized by the 1880s, when areas that had been regarded as “sections” of a federated nation, including New England, the South, and more recently incorporated places like the Southwest, were integrated into the model of a unified, industrial-capitalist, democratic nation that contained several discrete regions. This assumption was initially sustained by the postbellum cultural movement known as regionalism or local color, which included New England writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Southern writers like George Washington Cable. It has continued to be promoted by literature (the Maine novels of Carolyn Chute), by visual art (midwestern modernism), and by film and television (cold war Westerns like Bad Day at Black Rock and The Lone Ranger). Also instrumental have been the local historical societies sponsored by villages, towns, and cities; the celebration of regional cuisines and lifestyles (Southern Living); and heritage tourism, which is energetically sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Until the later twentieth century, most historians and literary scholars also took for granted that “region” signified a uniform place; many also assumed that regional cultures were either homogeneous or neatly stratified. But as feminist, queer, gender, African American, postcolonial, and global studies entered into conversations with American studies and cultural studies, scholars have stressed the paradoxical character of these words’ traditional connotations by casting light on the larger formations within which the national and the local have always been enmeshed. In different ways, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse (2003), Kate McCullough (1999), Stephanie Foote (2001, 2003), Carrie Tirado Bramen (2001), and J. Samaine Lockwood (2015) have established that postbellum regionalism’s preoccupation with the nature of the proper US identity was historically particular. This concern was inextricable from late nineteenth-century national and global shifts in understandings of gender, sexuality, and the family; patterns of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration; the legal end of African American bondage; and imperialism and globalization, all phenomena that were both local and translocal.
Allied scholarship has concentrated on the supralocal postbellum forces that solidified the purely local connotations of “region” in the heyday of the regionalist movement. Stressing the cultural capital that urban elites and their imitators accrued by consuming literature about “remote” regions, Richard Brodhead (1993) elucidates the roles of the publishing and tourist industries in the formulation of regions and regionalism. Taking a more cultural-political approach, Amy Kaplan (2002) explains that regionalist writing anchored nationalism and expansion by representing rural regions as pristine repositories of a virtuous national essence that warranted protection. Audrey Goodman’s Translating Southwestern Landscapes (2002) demonstrates that industrial capitalism—railroads, in particular—fashioned “the Southwest” as a US region, while posters and photographs, literature and ethnographic writing underwrote its appeal to tourists and other consumers as a nonmodern place with nonmodern inhabitants.
Other scholars train their sights on the interplay of the large-scale and the local that has created and re-created the image of specific regions as uniquely local. Picturing Old New England, edited by William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein (1999), is one example. It shows how visual and material culture, from paintings of Puritans to commercial reproductions of “colonial” furniture to more modern portraits of the countryside, seascapes, and villages, have continuously updated the image of New England as a seemingly transhistorical region—the region on which the nation itself was founded. Increasingly, scholars are also scrutinizing the interplay of national or global factors with local circumstances that forms specific regions at specific times. June Howard (2018) astutely characterizes regions as both substantive and relational—comprising local and larger elements in an ever-changing balance—and models that understanding in her study of local color writing, including fiction by Jewett, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton), Charles W. Chesnutt, and Alexander Posey.
It could be said that scholarship is catching up with imaginative work, for writers and other artists have long portrayed regions as creations of the changing dynamics between the substantive and the relational, not as entirely local entities or as stable ones. Southwestern fiction and film make apparent that the “American Southwest” has never ceased to be formed both by the transnational flow of peoples, cultures, and goods and by the laws and practices of the United States. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) meditates fiercely on the complicated movements of and alliances among various racial and ethnic populations across the US Southwest and Central and South America. Films such as John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996), Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000b), and Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto (2015) portray migrating populations, legal and illegal economies, and other conditions that make the border that separates the southwestern United States from countries to the south at once an intensely policed national divide and a porous boundary that continues to reshape regions across nations. Since 1990, the individual and collaborative performances of artist-activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña have mixed installation art, radio, poetry, journalism, performance, and video as they explode presumptions about the discreteness of the United States and of the Southwest as a region within it. Jesmyn Ward’s novels Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) honor the resilience, traditions, skills, and family bonds of rural African Americans in the Mississippi Gulf Coast while featuring the malignant consequences of their isolation from major economic and information networks and of their vulnerability to the long reach of drug addiction and the prison-labor system. While much creative and scholarly work formulates “region” as a site where local and large-scale continuity and change intermingle, paradox continues to underwrite many concepts of region. The long-running conflict over Confederate monuments exemplifies the currency of both notions. The monuments’ opponents see them as expressions of present-day white supremacy masking as regional traditionalism. Many defenders, on the other hand, insist that the statues are worthy emblems of a venerable regional heritage, thereby obscuring their origins as Jim Crow–era assertions that white supremacy was a long and unbroken Southern tradition. On these and many other grounds, “region” is a compelling keyword for American studies and cultural studies, and a timely one.