Places in the World a Woman Could Walk
The regional tradition is strong and persistent in American short fiction, particularly in fiction written by women; the phrase “local colorist” is often used condescendingly to describe writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett or Kate Chopin who seem to be outside the main stream of their period’s culture. The tradition is, indeed, congenial for outsiders—and, perhaps, especially for women—because it encourages looking very closely at the particular and concrete, and thereby generates evidence that can be used to question widely accepted cultural assumptions. Thus, the form draws those women writers whose generalizations and observations, rooted in daily life (whatever the region), may resist abstraction—or, more likely, whose abstractions are at odds with the dominant intellectual tradition.
Both regionalism and the short story are currently experiencing a revival. In Janet Kauffman’s first collection of stories, as in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), the writer’s uncompromising examination of particular individuals supplies not only the pleasure of knowing a people and a region unfamiliar to most urban readers but also support for a message: that individuals are worth noticing, even in an age of mass culture and mass humanity, that individual life has value, and that—even in a literary climate which seems largely to deny it—meaning and values are worth writing about.
In these twelve short stories (some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and in little magazines), Janet Kauffman introduces the reader to rural and semirural Michigan and to people who seem rooted in a Yankee tradition of laconic talk and hardworking self-sufficiency, though the farms no longer provide an adequate income. Most of Kauffman’s characters are (at least for the present) still engaged in physical labor and have the consciousness of life and death that controls the agricultural year; they do not share the restless unrootedness of Mason’s Kentuckians with their transitional lives and their traditions overlaid by K-Marts and shopping malls.
Kauffman’s Michigan, like Jewett’s New England, is largely a female world. The men work for wages, often at seasonal occupations such as construction that take them away during planting and harvest. Agricultural labor has again become women’s work; women drive the combines and backhoes, make the hay, kill rats with a garden fork, and feel the pleasure of muscling up in the sun. The small towns also are emptying. Often the men have drifted off, discouraged, leaving reality to the women. “Going away is tempting, of course,” says one of the narrators, “easy as walking away in a blizzard, or losing your mind. You go out, and you don’t come back.”
The essence of regional writing is not merely that it gives readers from the outside world a guided tour to the peculiar lives and customs of people in an unknown territory. The regionalist is also, almost always, pointing out that even the most thoroughly ordinary lives and objects take on value and interest if they are examined accurately from a perspective that takes care to see. Kauffman might well be describing her own method in the story “Harmony,” when she describes the efforts of one of the characters to make a meaningful map of Jackson, the Michigan city which (according to the story) Life & Living has described as the state’s worst place to live:She wants each pin to mark a place you can sit and sit for a long time and not get tired looking. She gave me instructions about finding angles where the light is especially good, where buildings come together in interesting ways, where colors of plants and smells and everything combine to make some...
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