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Nicholas M. Kelly, Nikki White, and Loren Glass publish Post45 article, "Squatter Regionalism: Postwar Fiction, Geography, and the Program Era"

Apr 19, 2021
Map of "Hamlin Garland, Avg. % of State Mentions"

The last chapter of Tom Lutz's landmark study Cosmopolitan Vistas: American Regionalism and Literary Value (2004) is ambitiously titled "The New New Regionalism and the Future of Literature." In it, Lutz reminds us that while conventional literary history confines classic regionalism to the turn of the twentieth century, a "large number of recent writers are also closely associated with the locales that are featured in their fiction and where they (usually) have a home." Lutz lists some of these writers, and then designates Chris Offutt's first short story collection, Kentucky Straight (1992), as an example of "classic literary regionalism."1 What Lutz neglects to mention is that Kentucky Straight began as an MFA thesis at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. While Offutt ended up writing about (and ultimately returning to) his home state, many of his colleagues at Iowa would choose to live in and write about their adopted state and region. Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley, W.P. Kinsella, and John Irving are just a few examples of writers not from Iowa who nevertheless set much of their fiction in this hitherto neglected state.

What constitutes or enables a "close association" with a place for an American writer? For traditional regionalism, it almost invariably meant that the author was born and grew up in the region featured in their fiction. And while Lutz concedes that recent regionalist writers may have more attenuated relations with the locales they write about, he nowhere mentions that many of the figures he lists—including Flannery O'Connor, Wallace Stegner, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, and Mary Swander—forged their regional sensibilities in association with their careers as students and teachers of creative writing. Is it possible that the Program Era has altered the traditional relation between writer and region, creating a new genre that could be called "squatter regionalism"? How might we use computational methods to prove the existence of such a genre?