Ella rhoads higginson, mary e. wilkins freeman, and pacific northwest women's literary regionalism.
The Pacific Northwest remains, as Susan Kollin writes, "largely undertheo-rized in studies of American literary history" (414). (5) Among the valuable exceptions to this surprising neglect is, for example, John Cleman's examination of the "relative obscurity of the Oregon poet and novelist" H. L. Davis. Cleman contends that "lack of critical or popular interest" in Davis and his work is "a sign of the [Pacific Northwest] region's defining marginality" (431). For Cleman, "a major (or canonical) distinctly regionalist work of Pacific Northwest fiction--comparable to Country of the Pointed Firs, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, My Antonia, or The Sound and the Fury--has yet to appear" (448).
Kollin resists such emphasis on regionalist major works as unduly restrictive and exclusionist. She argues that "by allowing concerns about canonicity and literary value to dominate debates about regionalism ... literary critics end up narrowing the scope of their study, overlooking other issues that deserve scholarly attention" (413). Ko important discussion draws on writings by twentieth- and twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest writers Sherman Mexie, Timothy Egan, Ken Kesey, and Marilynne Robinson. My essay builds on work regarding Pacific Northwest literary regionalism by scholars such as Cleman and Kollin. However, mine is the first to focus inquiry on an earlier Pacific Northwest literary regionalist text--that is, writing from the turn into the twentieth century--and deliberately to foreground the writing of a significant, forgotten Pacific Northwest woman author.
Reviewers often referenced Wilkins's fiction when discussing Higginson's: a review of Mariella in the Buffalo Express, for instance, opined that "Nile character work in it is equal to Miss Wilkins's best." (6) A review of Higginson's poetry collection When the Birds Go North Again in the Los Angeles Herald similarly commented, "It has often been said of [Higginsonl that she has portrayed the life of the Pacific Slope with a skill and artistic feeling which gives her for the West the position that Miss Wilkins has achieved for the New England States" (22). However, reviewers were also quick to note that Higginson's fiction transcended such similarities. For example: "It would seem from these stories as if a new Mary E. Wilkins may have arisen to bring Puget Sound within the literary horizon. There is no trace of imitation. On the contrary, the sketches are notably new work, notwithstanding a marked general resemblance to the earlier stories of Miss Wilkins" (Rev. of The Flower). This quotation and others like it indicate reviewers' identification of both the originality of Higginson's fiction and its resonances with Wilkins's.
In particular, the lives and behaviors of Higginson's fictive regional white women differ instructively from Wilkins's. Mary R. Reichardt has identified Wilkins's focus as "women's struggles for self-assertion and self-identity in often repressive and impoverished circumstances" (Introduction ix). Among those circumstances are potent remnants of New England's Calvinist past, which contribute to the amplified senses of duty, guilt, and independence seen in Wilkins's women. Conversely, Higginson's Pacific Northwest white women are unencumbered by post-Calvinist pressures. They behave disruptively, often enacting barely repressed passions. Reflecting late-nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest demographics and conditions, Higginson's women occupy a sparsely populated region inhabited by more white men than women, most struggling for economic stability. Higginson explores literary meanings and uses of region by imbricating Pacific Northwest regional characteristics--isolation, wide territory, wild terrain, more readily granting voting rights to white women--into her white female characters. (7) That is, Higginson deploys region as an element possessing singular features that significantly shape the social and material conditions of her fictive white women. Higginson's use of region in "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater" results in a distinctive literary portrait that resists the prevailing literary regionalism of postbellum New England.
A comparison of "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater" to "The Revolt of 'Mother" (both published in Harper's Bazar, nine years apart) reveals how Higginson revises Wilkins's plots and themes to fit a Pacific Northwest perspective. Ellen Gruber Garvey details the powerful cultural "reverberations" of "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" noting that in the decades after its publication the story "was read in city and rural homes, high school and college classrooms, and was performed in public readings and amateur theatricals" (119). (8) As a result, by the time Higginson turned to "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater' "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" with its compelling narrative of gender, family, and farm life, would have been fully resonant in Higginson's literary orbit.
To summarize, in "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" Sarah Penn is stunned to learn that her husband, Adoniram, has begun building a second barn on a lot long reserved for a new house. After decades of silent acquiescence to her husband, Sarah protests, "plead [ingl her little cause like a Webster." "When we was married, forty year ago, you promised me faithful that we should have a new house built in that lot over in the field before the year was out" (70). Faced with obstinate resistance, Sarah engages in the revolt of the story's title. She "move[d] all their little household goods into the new barn while her husband was away." When he returns, the sight leaves him "dazed," "pale and frightened." "'What on airth does this mean, mother,' he gasped." She firmly replies, "The house want fit for us to live in any longer, an' I made up my mind I want goin' to stay there. I've done my duty by you forty year, an' I'm goin' to do it now; but I'm goin' to live here." At the story's end, her husband weeps, declaring, "'Why, mother,' he said, hoarsely, 'I hadn't no idee you was so set on't as all this comes to" (74, 77, 78).
The plot of "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater" turns on the same dynamic as "The Revolt of 'Mother.'" Like Sarah Penn, Orilla Slater has grown used to the "calm, seemingly premeditated obstinacy" of her husband, Uriah (294). She is nonetheless stunned to learn that he plans to have a well dug next to the gate rather than in the yard as she has asked. She first appeals to him, "'I do the house-work and the washing and I want the well where it will be handiest for me! She put her hand pleadingly on his arm. 'Come out in the yard with me, Uriah, an' I'll show you right where I want it. You can't help seeing it's just the place for it!" When he rejects her entreaties and is unmoved by a special meal she prepares, she issues a final plea: "I beg you, I beseech you, to give up to me in this. I've been giving up to you ever since we were married. You give up to me this time." She then says twice, "If you don't--" but he pushes her aside and leaves (296, 298).
Both Sarah Penn and Orilla Slater have husbands who are insensitive to their pragmatic concerns about the development of their property, both confront their husbands about construction they consider to be deal-breakers, and both their husbands dismiss their concerns, expecting no real consequences. Both Sarah and Orilla take drastic steps in response to their husbands' indifference, but Wilkins's New England character finds a rapprochement with her husband, while Higginson's Orilla, apparently conditioned by the expansive Pacific Northwest, sees a much more radical solution.
When Uriah returns home, he finds a letter from Orilla: "DEAR URIAH," I've gone home. I can't ever live with you again. It'll break my heart. I'll love you just the same till the last day of my life. But I can't ever live with you again" (298). Uriah is first "amused" ("Talk's cheap,' grinned Uriah. 'I'll give her three days"), then "angry; then furious; finally his anger gave place to terror" (298). It takes "a full month before he could make up his mind to go after Orilla and bring her home." Her response stuns him: "It had never occurred to him that she would refuse. She just wants to make me knuckle down,' he had thought, judging her by his own small soul. She wants to scare me into it." When Orilla again refuses, "terror clutched his heart. He pleaded earnestly and desperately" and then "hesitated, wondering even in that critical moment, if any further concession was necessary; something in her face made him feel that it was, and he went on--'I'll put a pump in, too!' But Orilla replies, never go back. You needn't say any more. I love you. I've suffered, and I'll keep on suffering. But I can stand this kind of suffering better'n I could a lifetime of being nagged at and hissed at and contraried every time you happened to feel stubborn. Six months of it's a plenty for me" (298-99). Then, in the lines that end the story, she "took up the tongs with a firm hand and stirred the fire. The sparks went up the chimney in a scarlet stream" (299).
In both texts, a wife's desires amplify a husband's intractability. However, "The Revolt of 'Mother" provides resolution. Confronted by Sarah's unanticipated defiant acts, Adoniram breaks down and yields regarding the barn. Sarah accepts his yielding, and marital peace is restored. But it is only restored in the moment--nothing suggests that Sarah should not expect the "lifetime of being nagged at and hissed at and contraried" that Orilla rejects (299). That surprising rejection is at the core of Higginson's revision of Wilkins's text.
Reichardt sees "Sarah's rebellion as limited in scope, for she has no intention of abandoning her customary submissive roles as wife and mother" (Mary Wilkins 43). Orilla's rebellion, however, is unlimited in scope, for she intends to abandon her customary submissive role as wife. Orilla's agency is allowed by three crucial differences from Sarah: the newness of her marriage, her youth, and her child-free status. First, because Orilla's marriage is recent, while Sarah's is established, Orilla is newly oppressed and still adjusting to that oppression, while Sarah is long oppressed and accustomed to it. Further, Orilla's youth renders it more likely that her mother may be living and so if she leaves her marriage she will have a place to go. Sarah likely has nowhere to go further than the new barn. Finally, because Orilla has no children, she, unlike Sarah (aptly called "Mother" by her husband), decides only for herself, while Sarah must also consider her children.
Higginson's crucial revision of Wilkins in this text identifies key regional differences between Wilkins's New England (established like Sarah and her marriage) and the Pacific Northwest (newly settled and with greater possibility, like Orilla). Higginson then dramatizes what those differences allow, particularly for fictive white women. Wilkins presented readers with an older, long-married, postbellum New England white woman with children who successfully rebelled within the narrow confines of her marriage. In reply, Higginson presents readers with a younger, recently married, Pacific Northwest white woman without children who also successfully rebels but then rejects her marriage entirely. Higginson's employment of regional culture and geography results in the Pacific Northwest woman Orilla Slater; like her region she is young, less settled, and more self-determined.
Additionally, the rural sites of each text differ instructively. Wilkins's setting in "The Revolt of 'Mother"' is embedded in an interactive community; neighbors, hired men, and a local minister come to the farm. The setting of "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater" features a more removed, less involved com-munity--an unseen man who digs the well, Orilla's mother who never visits, and two watchful village women. Higginson's setting reflects the Pacific Northwest's sparse population and largely uninterrupted isolation. Here, no minister arrives to reason with Orilla after she leaves Uriah.
In "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater," Higginson engaged in a critical conversation about literary regionalism, seeking to explore what region means and how it is deployed. Adapting "The Revolt of 'Mother,'" Higginson skillfully read Wilkins's postbellum New England against the Pacific Northwest in order to characterize the latter and its white women. She portrayed the region as vast, unsettled, and independent, a place that functioned culturally by producing white women shaped by regional characteristics--less settled and more independent themselves. She depicted the region operating politically by developing white women whose enfranchisement was shaped by the open, democratic possibilities of the territory. She demonstrated the region performing nationally as a distinct location that claimed recognition and membership among better-known US regions.
Through such means Higginson composed a text that established a Pacific Northwest with region-specific qualities that informed the social and material conditions of white women. The greater significance of Higginson's depictions of the Pacific Northwest as singular in its characteristics resides in the ways her story disputes readings "constructed by the nation-state to serve its own interests" (Fetterley and Pryse 31)--readings of the region as remote, non-eastern, and by implication less important. Instead, Higginson provided a critical regionalisrp. that "offer[ed] alternative understandings" of US culture, one that invited readers into her regional discourse (Fetterley and Pryse 31). In "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater," Higginson's Pacific Northwesternizing of Wilkins's classic "The Revolt of 'Mother' repositioned the Pacific Northwest from the far cultural margins, placing it instead on the literary map as a distinctive region of the larger nation. My recovery here of the correlation between these two texts marks an early stage of a much more extensive discussion. Further critical investigation will be needed to advance the important conversation regarding both the substantial, forgotten body of Higginson's works as well as larger considerations of Pacific Northwest literary regionalism.
I am grateful to Jennifer Tuttle, Desiree Henderson, and Legacy's editorial board for their support and valuable suggestions regarding this essay.
Ella Higginson has created her own field in American fiction; she has taken a new country and given us new types. What Mary Wilkins is to the East, she is to the West; and there is not another short story writer in this country today who can compare with. either of them. (1235)
Rev. of A Forest Orchid. Peterson Magazine, Dec. 1897
Baym, Nina. Women Writers of the American West,1833-1927. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Cleman, John. "The Belated Frontier: H. L. Davis and the Problem of Pacific Northwest Regionalism."
Western American Literature 37.4 (2003): 431-51.
&Wain, Richard W. Re-Imagining the. Modern American West: A Century ofFiction, History, and Art. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1996.
Fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse. Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women,. and American Literary Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2003.
Rev. of The Flower That Grew in the Sand, by Ella Higginson. Bookman Apr. 1897:167, Rev, Of A Forest Orchid and Other Stories, by Ella Higginson. Peterson Magazine Dec. 1897:1235.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. "The Revolt of 'Mother:" A New England Nun and Other Stories. Ed. Sandra A. Zagarell. New York: Penguin, 2000. 64-78.
Garvey, Ellen Gruber. "Less Work for 'Mother': Rural Readers, Farm Papers, and the Makeover of 'The Revol.t of "Mother." Legacy 26.1 (2009): 119-35.
Higginson, Ella. "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater."
Harper's Bazar 6 May 1899: 378-79.
Kollin, Susan. "North and Northwest: Theorizing the Regional Literatures of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest."
A Companion to the Regional Literatures .of America. Ed. Charles Crow. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 412-31.
Lee, L. L., and Merrill Lewis. Preface. Women, Women Writers, and the West. Ed. Lee and Lewis. Troy: Whitston, 1980. v-ix.
Rev. of Marietta, of Out-West, by Ella Higginson. Buffalo Express 22 Nov. 1902: N. pag. Reichardt, Mary R. Introduction. The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Ed. Reichardt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1992. ix-xxiv.
--. Mary Wilkins Freeman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne., 1997. Rev. of When the Birds Go North Again, by Ella Higginson. Los Angeles Herald 6 Nov. 1898: 22.
Witschi, Nicolas.S., ed. A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American
West. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
(1.) Now largely forgotten, Higginson's writing was once internationally celebrated. Major works are From the Land of the Snow Pearls (stories, 1897; originally published as The Flower That Grew in the Sand [18961); A Forest Orchid (stories, 1897); When the Birds Go North Again (poems, 1898); Marie/la, of Out-West (novel, 1902); The Voice of April-Land (poems, 1906); Alaska (travel, 19o8); and The Vanishing Race (poems, 1911).
(2.) The term "literary regionalism" and its identification as a field are from Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse's indispensable scholarship.
(3.) For this essay's purposes, the Pacific Northwest is defined as the states of Oregon and Washington.
(4.) I wish to make plain that I offer no indisputable evidence for Higginson's rewriting "The Revolt of 'Mother." For instance, no copy of Wilkins's stories with Higginson's nameplate inside and indicative marginal notations in her hand has (yet) been recovered. However, as I demonstrate, "The Stubbornness of Uriah Slater" provides provocative material for such a reading.
(5.) Scholarship on late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century male Pacific Northwest writers such as Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and Gary Snyder suggests an as yet largely undertheorized contemporary male Pacific Northwest literary regionalism. Much more work has been performed by literary scholars on the broadly defined region of the American West. For an important foundational study of the literary West, see Lee and Lewis, particularly their preface. Among recent studies, see Baym, Etulain, Kollin, and Witschi. However, Etulain's attentive coverage, which includes Pacific Northwest regionalist writers, overlooks Higginson entirely; Witschi's rich collection of essays on late-nineteenth-century US western fiction by major scholars in the field also leaves Higginson unreferenced. I do not intend to diminish valuable recovery work by Elizabeth Ammons, Josephine Donovan, Fetterley, Pryse, Valerie Rohy, Sandra A. Zagarell, and others. Rather, I suggest that the absence of attention to Higginson and the Pacific Northwest indicates the recent nature of recovery of women literary regionalists in general. Before Fetterley and Pryse's groundbreaking American Women Regionalists, writers such as Mary Austin, Mary Noailles Murfree, and other women regionalists from across the nation were virtually unknown.
(6.) Reviews cited here identify Mary E. Wilkins Freeman as Wilkins; I follow that practice when possible to avoid confusion.
(7.) While full female suffrage was achieved in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment, the West achieved it years before the East did. The state of Washington approved female suffrage in 191o; Oregon did so in 1912. As early as 1854, Washington had proposed granting women voting rights, a measure defeated by a single vote.
(8.) Garvey's compelling case for Nina Sutherland Purdy's later (1916) revision of "The Revolt of 'Mother" argues that Purdy's non-regionalist rendering focuses on "farm women's control of finances and improving the lives of rural families" (125).
LAURA LAFFRADO Western Washington University
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|Title Annotation:||LEGACY REPRINT|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2014|
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