Losing Appalachia : genre and local color's out-of-place objects, 1870-1920
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“Losing Appalachia” offers an alternative literary history of local color writing by touting a historically, culturally, and rhetorically situated Appalachia, one of the most perplexing of American regions. Most local color criticism takes the New England village as its starting point. Critics interested in material culture then interpret the sentimental folk objects found in the village as indicative of the genre’s middle-class investments and pastoral qualities. The project considers what it would look like to entertain the idea of a literature that is not written by—or concerned with elaborating on—the urban middle class. It proposes one way to make this intervention, which requires an attention to canon (texts) and things (material culture). In reading local color through Appalachia—a region long associated with aberrant cultural and material practices—“Losing Appalachia” argues for the importance of a ubiquitous though understudied form of material culture in local color texts: the cast off, repurposed, and inferior mass-produced product. Such material culture is out-of-place in local color texts, especially when it appears in ways that undercut dominant middle-class norms and expectations. Applying the theories of Michel de Certeau, the project focuses on how women writers like Rebecca Harding Davis, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Hunter Austin, Grace MacGowan Cooke, and Mary Wilkins Freeman used material culture to maneuver within the gendered constraints of generic form, cultural imperialism, and capitalist systems. They are, what I term, meta-localists who, through intentional formal practices, think about how literature aestheticizes the local. These writers are interested in what local color can tell us about the local as steadfastly local rather than as an extension of urban middle-class subjectivity. The following chapters examine show how diverse objects and ideologies are always pushing up against one another, destabilizing binaries that have been key to critical narratives about local color: modern and primitive, urban and rural, and center and margin. “Losing Appalachia” stresses the rhizomatic qualities of the genre and its uses, thus taking issue with historicist and feminist critics who argue that local color only performs one kind of cultural work.