Shifting Spaces in the Critical Regionalist Fiction of New England

Marleen Schulte

With the advent of globalism in the twentieth century, the idea of a critical regionalism emerged among urban planners and architects. In localizing the global, in contextualizing a construction, critical regionalists drew on the advances and the universal progressive qualities of modern architecture while emphasizing the geographical context of the building, starkly contrasting the placeless-seeming products of postmodern architecture. At the turn of the twenty-first century, America’s literature equally fuses global or universal themes with local particularities and peculiarities, creating a critical regionalist fiction popularized through Annie Proulx’s depiction of Newfoundland or Louise Erdrich’s stories of North Dakota. Resistance and emancipation foreground critical regionalist architecture and literature equally. In this paper I will highlight less prominent examples of such writing by focusing on New England, a region whose contemporary contribution remains vastly overlooked in the academy despite its critical acclaim. Authors such as Richard Russo (Pulitzer 2002), Elizabeth Strout (Pulitzer 2009), Cathie Pelletier, Ernest Hebert, or Pulitzer finalist Russell Banks have shifted the region of New England through their critical regionalist writing and thereby generated a new identity for its literary culture.

When the region of New England was settled by its first colonists, America did not yet exist as a nation. Predating the adjective “American,” New England’s first writers are however neither ascribed as Atlantic writers, English, or New England writers, but rather as American. Tropes in reference to the region, such as the City Upon a Hill1 or the American Scholar,2 would equally refer to the region and nation. In seeming contradiction to this blanket nomenclature however, the literary world of New England frequently ended just North of Boston,3 limiting itself and its readership to Connecticut and Massachusetts. Contemporary authors bring forth a more inclusive literature as they root their stories in northern New Hampshire and Maine and present a thus far demographically and iconographically unprecedented New England. The locations in these stories are neither charming nor cheerful, telling of unemployment and harsh living conditions. Redrawing the map of America, this critical regionalist fiction detaches itself from nostalgic and romanticized notions of nineteenth-century regionalism found in the writings of Lucy Larcom or Sarah Orne Jewett.4 In contrast, in these stories outhouses adorn the river banks and frost heaves decorate the streets, rivers serve as a means for trash disposal, and misfortune lurks at every corner.

A Critical Regionalist Architecture

The term “critical regionalism,” as I use it in reference to fiction, originated in landscape studies and architecture in the middle of the twentieth century, coined by the Greek architect Alexander Tzonis as a way of rethinking regionalism. In reintroducing historical knowledge and cultural issues in design, the term “critical regionalism” was to simultaneously combine ideas of regionalism with the Kantian concept critical.5 Popularizing the term in 1983 through an essay entitled “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” architect Kenneth Frampton pleads for a high level of critical self-consciousness while valuing the uniqueness of a particular place. An architectural implementation of what Frampton terms a “place-conscious poetic” (27) can be seen in the Hamburg Philharmonic Hall (Elbphilharmonie Hamburg) by Herzog & de Meuron. The construction (scheduled to finish by 2012) plans to use the brick structure of a former cargo warehouse (Kaispeicher A) as foundation, adding a glass structure of waves, underlining its regional distinction and proximity to the water. “The fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism,” Frampton asserts, “is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place” (21). Other examples range from Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian Dance Hall from 1942 to Richard Neutra’s Californian Kaufmann Desert House or the Nordic Embassies in Berlin.6 While critical regionalist constructions declare an aesthetic fusion of universal civilization with a locally inflected culture—a predicament already posed by Paul Ricoeur, namely “how to become modern and to return to sources” (277) —they also pronounce a global resistance to the placeless tendencies of postmodern architecture.

Critical regionalist fiction mimics this architectural theory. “Critical regionalism,” Douglas Powell states, “requires thinking about texts geographically” (xi). In Powell’s Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (2007), he applies this architectural concept to cultural studies as he remaps Appalachia, drawing tangents between local circumstances and larger connections of meaning (20). While critical regionalism is, on the one hand, rooted in locale, it detaches itself from romantic, sentimental notions attached to place such as those frequently encountered in local color at the turn of the twentieth century. Local color writer Lucy Larcom showcases such parochial regionalism in her New England Girlhood (1889), which testifies of the rise of child labor due to industrialization. Instead of exposing such practices, however, she sentimentalizes child and manual labor in factories during the early phase of industrialization. Frequently these stories were intended for nationally circulating magazines—whose readership consisted largely of tourists7—and weren’t meant to disclose societal shortcomings. Critical regionalist fiction, while still rooted in place, maintains in contrast a high level of critical self-consciousness (Frampton 21). The critical regionalist literature of the Northeast tells the stories of those who stayed even when the mills, the primary source of employment, closed down or migrated to financially more lucrative places, leaving unemployment and fluctuation in its wake. It is a fiction that is at once regional, resistant, and emancipatory, incorporating current, global themes but attaching each one to a particular place. It therefore fuses global matters from school shootings to dementia and the impact of universal civilization with themes drawn from a unique region.

Echoing Critical Regionalism in Fiction

While critical regionalist fiction and architecture equally focus on synergizing the local and the global, intrinsically, both pursue a resistance to counteract the “bulldozing of an irregular topography into a flat site […], a technocratic gesture which aspires to the condition of absolute placelessness” (Frampton 26). While urban planners counteract the placelessness of postmodern structures, it is a resistance to processes of globalization in fiction. I will highlight these emancipatory practices by way of introducing the processes involved, such as a shift of the physical locale to Northern New England and its borderlands and a renegotiation of its tropes and images. At first I will look at physical spaces that can be geographically mapped and demonstrate the shift of the emphasis in fiction from the southern to the northern part of the region. I will then underline how, in an emancipatory effort, this fiction renegotiates or contradicts its mentally conceived spaces. Lastly I will study performance as an appropriation of space; spaces that are, according to Henri Lefebvre,8 actively lived and fundamentally social, spaces that give voice to the inhabitant or user, the individual who performs a space and thus brings it to life and how these very spaces not only resist but moreover perform an emancipatory action. My primary—though not exclusive—focus will be Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (2002), Cathie Pelletier’s Funeral Makers (1987), and Ernest Hebert’s Dogs of March (1980).

Re-mapping a Region

Russo’s fictional mill town Empire Falls, Cathie Pelletier’s Mattagash on the border to Canada, and Ernest Hebert’s Darby, New Hampshire’s own version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, all share the climate and landscape of northern New England. It is a land of hardwood forests, north of the “snow line” as Russell Banks indicates in his novel Affliction (1990), where the harsh environment forces people to adapt or move; those who do neither quickly die (61). It is a country of severe winters of minus 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, slushy springs, and mosquito summers. The region’s contemporary literature introduces its readers to places of New England that have often been overlooked, or disregarded and it extends beyond climate and geography to a forgotten cast of characters. Pelletier begins her story of Mattagash with a fictional history of the place and its inhabitants, introducing her cast as a “small band of illogical men and women,” who settled the area

thinking they were in Canada, and not the area which is now Maine [...] Oral history says they stopped where they did because one of the women needed to pee. In truth, it may have been inaccurate maps. But as a result, even at its inception, Mattagash was a mistake. And if some divine power had had the foresight to look one hundred and twenty-five years into the future to see the genetic entanglement, the implanted hatred, the narrowmindedness that one tiny settlement of Loyalist stock would unwittingly breed, a huge pencil would have descended from the sky and erased the mistake before it had time to take root. (Funeral Makers 1)

Blue-collar workers, unemployed, or even, in Pelletier’s terms, “illogical men” (1) are the protagonists of contemporary fiction and write New England into rural hinterlands depicting, consequently, a drastic shift in the literary geography familiar to the literary culture of New England. In The Funeral Makers, the location of New England or the fictional town of Mattagash is described as a mistake, the loyalist stock never having had the intention of transgressing the Canadian border into America. This depiction sharply contrasts the image of New England as a Zion and heaven for the righteous, and contrastingly depicts it as accidental, not destiny or fortitude, but coincidence and misfortune—and as such calls into question the idea of American exceptionalism.

The focus of literary production in eighteenth-century New England had clearly been moored in Connecticut; by the mid-nineteenth century it had shifted to Massachusetts and can almost be pinned to a particular town, namely Concord, whose residents have included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Luisa May Alcott. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century though, that the northern three states of the region have been credited: Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Only a century earlier, those states would have been dismissed as a land of half-civilized hillbillies—and this might in fact be their primary attraction now. Shifting the region northward which was once moored in the economically as well as climatically lush southern three states, these authors present a hitherto marginalized landscape, climate, and cast of characters. Russo broaches this issue in his latest novel, That Old Cape Magic (2009), when contrasting rough northern New England life to that of its southern three states:

Coastal Maine, by contrast, seemed not just real but battered by reality. Where Cape Cod somehow managed to give the impression that July lasted all year, Maine reminded you, even in lush late spring, of its long, harsh winters, of snow drifts that rotted baseboards and splintered latticework, of relentless winds that howled in the eaves and scoured the paint, leaving gutters rusted white with salt. Even the people looked scoured. (165)

Russo’s contrast of Maine and Massachusetts parallels a comparison of summer and winter. He describes coastal Maine not simply as a reality in contrast to a perhaps romanticized picture of summer but rather as “battered by reality” (165), a bashed, beaten, and broken reality, linking life’s sweeter side only to Cape Cod. While the fictional region in recent years has clearly moved northward, its relationship to its sunnier and more successful southern three states has remained ambiguous. In Russo’s fictional town of Empire Falls, the mill migrated and with it many inhabitants. One of the few who stayed behind is the character of Miles Roby, who flips burgers at the local grill; all year he saves enough money to visit his dream for two whole weeks: the Vineyard. A little island, another world, Martha’s Vineyard is, for Miles, a place where people are “rich, slender and beautiful” (Russo, Empire Falls 21), where one falls in love; “it was easier to believe in God [...] on Martha’s Vineyard than it was in Empire Falls” (48). Far from painting a black and white image when contrasting the rural north with the economically strong south, the relationship between mid-Maine and Massachusetts is portrayed as interdependent. When Empire Falls’ hopes spark of reanimating the long shut-down factory it is never without Massachusetts money: “The hordes of visitors who poured into Maine every summer were commonly referred to as Massholes, and yet when Empire Falls fantasized about deliverance, it invariably had Massachusetts plates” (27). The region’s shift northward accords thus a dialogue between New England’s south and north. While the outlands of northern New England are depicted as harsh living—and Massachusetts contrasted as economically and climatically superior—northern New England’s relationship to its southern counterpart remains ambivalent, be it in the form of the savior or culprit, friend or foe.

Beyond the Map: Renegotiating Images

Beyond broadening the region cartographically, these authors are equally shifting mental spaces that construct the traditional conceptions of New England. In the emerging literature, imagined spaces are now contradicted or renegotiated in their established meaning. In Richard Russo’s fictional town of Empire Falls, it is the textile mill which no longer resembles the naval of the nation’s industrial revolution and success of the region:

Just beyond the factory and mill, ran the river that long ago had powered them, and Miles often wondered if these old buildings were razed, would the town that had grown up around them be forced to imagine a future? Perhaps not. (19)

The mill, once symbol for industrial power, now emanates the decline of the region. While America’s industrialization started in New England with the first mills and factories of the nation, Russo’s depiction of the decline of the town is immanently connected to the impact of migratory labor resulting from the closing of the mill. An image of no less importance to the region is the white steeple church. The church in Russo’s Empire Falls is run by Father Tom, a demented priest and notorious gossip, who enjoys listening in on telephone conversations as much as over-hearing confessions. Though once a fervent Catholic, his mental state has since evacuated his professional conscience. This is much in contrast with John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,”which he wrote and delivered to a Puritan audience en route to America. It described the ideas and plans to keep the Puritan society strong in faith as well as the struggles that they would have to overcome in the New World:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken [...] we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. (10)

The depiction of their mission as one of faith contrasts with the character of Father Tom, whose mind in his senile state is deserted of conscience and judgment of a higher being. To stand as a “city upon a hill” is lost on Father Tom when for example he one day decides to empty the parish safe, conspires to steel a car, and runs off to Florida. While Russo explicitly addresses those images of the region’s Puritan past, he inverts their conceived notions, contrasting New England’s beginnings of faith with a senile priest serving comic relief. The character of Father Tom has become non compos mentis and as such—and as the head of the town church—a danger to society:

What hadn’t been resolved was what to do with Father Tom. While there were homes for elderly, retired priests, especially for those in ill health, his dementia, which vacillated between the obscene and the downright blasphemous, made the diocese cautious about placing him among elderly but otherwise normal clergymen, most of whom had served too long and too well to have their faith tested further in their final years by a senile old man whose favorite word was “peckerhead.” (Empire Falls 52)

Not solely through Father Tom’s influence, Empire Falls, once sufficiently endowed with Catholics to support two churches, had been losing religious enthusiasm along with its population. To support the remaining faithful, young Father Mark is sent by the diocese. While his advent represents deliverance for the local congregation, his delegation to Empire Falls was intended as reprimand:

Apparently, what happened to young, overeducated, rumored-to-be-gay priests who’d landed cushy campus gigs and doled out liberal advice was that they got packed off to Empire Falls, Maine, probably in hopes that God would freeze their errant peckers off. (53).

In Empire Falls, Russo recurrently addresses New England’s Zionist past; whether in the form of a senile priest or one “rumored-to-be-gay” (53), the depiction of religion in Empire Falls is a matter of humor and irony. While this depiction resists a proliferation of the region’s past, it revisits long established images of the region. At last, the once white and now peeling steeple church of Empire Falls epitomizes the deterioration of the whole town. Throughout Russo’s Empire Falls the character of Miles Roby repeatedly attempts to paint St Cat’s, but fails ultimately—due to his fear of heights—at its steeple. New England’s steeple church and textile mill are representations of spaces, redolent with imaginary and symbolic elements that play part in social and political practice.

Emancipating a Region

Lived spaces differ from imagined spaces in that they must additionally be guided by some form of potentially “emancipatory praxis, the translation of knowledge into action in a conscious—and consciously spatial—effort to improve the world in some significant way” (Soja 22). The river in Cathie Pelletier’s fictional town of Mattagash, for example, represents such a lived space: “a directional device, a compass, even after the canoe was replaced by the automobile and it became a dusty back road no longer trodden” (Once Upon a Time 156). As the people of Mattagash appropriate the space of the river, they bring it to life:

“Guess I’ll go downriver today,” Albert Pinkham would tell Sarah, “and find me a used snowplow.” It meant direction, and no matter how crooked it twisted, in the end it always pointed right to the spot you meant. The river had social connotations, too. “He married a girl from downriver somewhere,” Sarah would say, and Albert knew that it meant […] “He married a stranger.” (156)

The space is therefore defined by the appropriation through its users, first in connoting direction, then social relations. Users define and re-define a space which evolves over time and can change its meaning. The representational space of the Mattagash River, once a device for communication and transportation for the residents of Mattagash, transforms into a tourist attraction, a site of recreation. In The Funeral Makers (1987) Pelletier depicts this development:

Summer will bring the tourists who drift down the Mattagash River […] never seeing Mattagash from the front but seeing only the shabby backside of the town, the occasional outhouse […] And they’ll laugh their sharp city laughter. The one or two who don’t laugh have drowned in the fast white rapids a mile below the falls. That’s where, as everyone in Mattagash knows, the river laughs at tourists. (232)

The space of Mattagash River, as presented by Pelletier, is thus a social space “directly lived” (Lefebvre 39), a space of inhabitants, of users who define and re-define its meaning over time. In New England’s contemporary fiction, lived space commonly serves to negotiate the propriety of a particular site as well as the region of New England: Contesting views of outsiders and insiders, natives and tourists struggle over ownership as well as function of these lived spaces. In The Funeral Makers, the river’s resistance to outsiders of Maine—though native to the region of New England—mimics the resistance of critical regionalist architecture to “a culture of globalized gratuitous entertainment [and toward] an effective culture of critique” (Rowe 345). In parallel to Pelletier, Ernest Hebert writes a “lived” space into the ridge of a forest. In his Dogs of March (1980), Hebert’s depiction of the ridge is bountiful and abundant:

The topography of the ridge was wild and varied. There were old fields giving way to young trees, much favored by deer for their tender buds. There were dense forests of evergreens, where the sunlight scarcely touched the ground. (227)

The forest is described as a lush, green land of young buds to feed on. It is therefore the animals of the forests, specifically the deer, that perform this space and through their performance define it as a plentiful Eden. Yet this Eden is doomed. Not unlike the change in the appropriation of the river in Mattagash as orientation and transportation to the usage of recreation, the appropriation of the forest in Dogs of March changes through its users. Hebert forebodes this change in space through a television clip of the geological history of Mesopotamia. The television blurts:

Mesopotamia was not always the desert it is now […] Once it was a lush and green land, a land in which to stop wandering and till the soil between two rivers. And yet beyond the fertile crescent were dry, craggy peaks. (227)

While the television clip tells of a desertification of the once lush and green land, it foreshadows a parallel transformation in the abundance of Hebert’s forest. The wildlife here is thrown out of balance with the invasion of pet dogs. A purebred collie, a mongrel terrier, a poodle, and other “dogs of March” that have escaped their owners take over the woodland and turn it into an “execution chamber for deer” (229):

The dogs ran the deer in shifts, Howard thought. They ran the deer to the same place, almost as if they had conspired to do so. The dogs were experts in chasing. The deer knew nothing but fear. The dogs had taken something they had learned from the mind of men and married it to the mind of dog—the dogs were a society, the deer a herd—and the result was chaos on the ridge. (234-35)

The outsiders in the form of pet dogs had turned a functioning environment into savage land. This gruesome hunt is brought to an end when the protagonist, Howard Elman, exacts revenge on the “dogs of March,” with his rifle: the purebred collie, the black mongrel, the toy poodle. At the peak of his rage he strangles his neighbor’s Afghan, Kinky, with his bare hands. Elman, who feels part of the forest—as his self-given name underlines—purifies the savage land of its invaders. The list of dogs Hebert presents – an Afghan, a poodle, a collie – is an enumeration of non-natives. While Pelletier’s outsiders in The Funeral Makers are tourists, Hebert’s dogs are equally unwelcome foreigners in the region of northern New England.

Whether the forested ridge or the Mattagash River, these spaces are guided by an emancipatory praxis that “translat[es] knowledge into action” (Soja 22). While the space of the Mattagash River changes through its users from a means of transportation and orientation to a place of recreation, the ridge in Elman’s forest is altered from a natural habitat to savage hunting grounds. And while the river drowns the tourists in its rapids, Howard Elman kills off the canine invasion. Through their appropriation, these spaces are defined and re-defined. The river as well as the forest thereby change their meaning through their users and inhabitants and negotiate the propriety of a particular space.


Like its architectural origin, critical regionalist fiction fuses the local with the global by situating current issues in a particular place. While valuing the uniqueness of a place it maintains a high level of self-criticism, ushering in a new form of regionalist writing. This writing is largely concerned with places off the map that have thus far been neglected or disregarded, highlighting such unpopular places as North Dakota, Newfoundland, or Maine. The critical regionalist writing of the Northeast has relocated the region of New England from the socio-economically successful states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to the rural north, in particular the states of New Hampshire and Maine. In exploring New England’s backland, the protagonists of Cathie Pelletier, Richard Russo, and Ernest Hebert are blue-collar workers and the unemployed. These stories tell of run down mill towns, once the backbone of New England, challenging the region’s past, present, and questioning its future self-critically. In doing so, they also renegotiate the region as a mentally conceived space. Representations of space, whether the emblematic steeple church or the mill, are contradicted in their established meanings. But beyond a physical and an imagined shift, it is the “lived” spaces that re-map a locality. The region is brought to life by its inhabitants who, through emancipatory practices, appropriate and thereby define a space, reclaiming lost geographies of New England.

1 See John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” from 1630.

2 See Emerson speech on “The American Scholar” delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge on 31 August 1837.

3 Referring to Robert Frost’s poetry collection “North of Boston” (1917).

4 For a more comprehensive reading on the development on New England’s literary history compare Kent Ryden’s essay on “New England Literature and Regional Identity” and Lawrence Buell’s New England Literary Culture.

5 Used here to mean exposing and evaluation of the implicit presuppositions of an argument.

6 Cf. Lefaivre’s and Tzonis’s work on Critical Regionalism.

7 Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs written with a tourist as first-person narrator is such an example, originally distributed in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1896.

8 See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space 1991.

Works Cited

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Frost, Robert. North of Boston. New York: Henry Holt, 1915.

Hebert, Ernest. The Dogs of March. 1979. New York: Penguin, 1980. Print.

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---. The Funeral Makers. 1986. New York: Collier, 1987. Print.

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---. That Old Cape Magic. New York: Knopf, 2009. Print.

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Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. New York: Random, 2008. Print.

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