The new regionalism

There is nothing new about a regional tradition in American literature. It is as old as the Native American legends, as evocative as the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte, as resonant as the novels of William Faulkner and the plays of Tennessee Williams. For a time, though, during the post-World War II era, tradition seemed to disappear into the shadows -- unless one considers, perhaps correctly, that urban fiction is a form of regionalism. Nonetheless, for the past decade or so, regionalism has been making a triumphant return in American literature, enabling readers to get a sense of place as well as a sense of time and humanity. And it is as prevalent in popular fiction, such as detective stories, as it is in classic literature -- novels, short stories, and drama.

There are several possible reasons for this occurrence. For one thing, all of the arts in America have been decentralized over the past generation. Theater, music, and dance are as likely to thrive in cities in the U.S. South, Southwest, and Northwest as in major cities such as New York and Chicago. Movie companies shoot films across the United States, on myriad locations. So it is with literature. Smaller publishing houses that concentrate on fiction thrive outside of New York City's "publishers row." Writers workshops and conferences are more in vogue than ever, as are literature courses on college campuses across the country. It is no wonder that budding talents can surface anywhere. All one needs is a pencil, paper, and a vision.

The most refreshing aspects of the new regionalism are its expanse and its diversity. It canvasses America, from East to West. A transcontinental literary tour begins in the Northeast, in Albany, New York, the focus of interest of its native son, one-time journalist William Kennedy. Kennedy, whose Albany novels -- among them Ironweed (1983) and Very Old Bones (1992) -- capture elegaically and often raucously the lives of the denizens of the streets and saloons of the New York State capital city.

Prolific novelist, story writer, poet, and essayist Joyce Carol Oates also hails from the northeastern United States. In her haunting works, obsessed characters' attempts to achieve fulfillment within their grotesque environments lead them into destruction. Some of her finest works are stories in collections such as The Wheel of Love (1970) and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974). Stephen King, the best-selling master of horror fiction, generally sets his suspenseful page-turners in Maine -- within the same region.

Down the coast, in the environs of Baltimore, Maryland, Anne Tyler presents, in spare, quiet language, extraordinary lives and striking characters. Novels such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), and Saint Maybe (1991) have helped boost her reputation in literary circles and among mass audiences.

A short distance from Baltimore is America's capital, Washington, which has its own literary tradition, if a shrouded one, in a city whose chief preoccupation is politics. Among the more lucid portrayers of life in and on the fringe of government and power is novelist Ward Just, a former international correspondent who assumed a second career writing about the world he knows best -- the world of journalists, politicians, diplomats, and soldiers. Just's Nicholson at Large (1975), a study of a Washington newsman during and after the John F. Kennedy presidency of the early 1960s; In the City of Fear (1982), a glimpse of Washington during the Vietnam era; and Jack Gance (1989), a sobering look at a Chicago politician and his rise to the U.S. Senate, are some of his more impressive works. Susan Richards Shreve's Children of Power (1979) assesses the private lives of a group of sons and daughters of government officials, while popular novelist Tom Clancy, a Maryland resident, has used the Washington politico-military landscape as the launching pad for his series of epic suspense tales.

Moving southward, Reynolds Price and Jill McCorkle come into view. Price, Tyler's mentor, was once described during the 1970s by a critic as being in the obsolescent post of "southern-writer- in-residence." He first came to attention with his novel A Long and Happy Life (1962), dealing with the people and the land of eastern North Carolina, and specifically with a young woman named Rosacoke Mustian. He continued writing tales of this heroine over the ensuing years, then shifted his locus to other themes before focusing again on a woman in his acclaimed work, Kate Vaiden (1986), his only novel written in the first person. Price's latest novel, Blue Calhoun (1992),examines the impact of a passionate but doomed love affair over the decades of family life.

McCorkle, born in 1958 and thus representing a new generation, has dev oted her novels and short stories -- set in the small towns of North Carolina -- to exploring the mystiques of teenagers (The Cheer Leader, 1984), the links between generations (Tending to Virginia, 1987), and the particular sensibilities of contemporary suthern women (Crash Diet, 1992).

In the same region is Pat Conroy, whose bracing autobiographical novels about his South Carolina upbringing and his abusive, tyrannical father (The Great Santini, 1976; The Prince of Tides, 1986) are infused with a sense of the natural beauty of the South Carolina low country. Shelby Foote, a Mississippi native who has lived in Memphis, Tennessee, for years, is an old-time chronicler of the South whose histories and fictions led to his role on camera in a successful public television series on the U.S. Civil War.

America's heartland reveals a wealth of writing talent. Among them are Jane Smiley, who teaches writing at the University of Iowa. Smiley won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Thousand Acres (1991), which transplanted Shakespeare's King Lear to a midwestern U.S. farm and chronicled the bitter family feud unleashed when an aging farmer decides to turn over his land to his three daughters.

Texas chronicler Larry McMurtry covers his native state in varying time periods and sensibilities, from the vanished 19th- century West (Lonesome Dove, 1985; Anything For Billy, 1988) to the vanishing small towns of the postwar era (The Last Picture Show, 1966).

Cormac McCarthy, whose explorations of the American Southwest desert limn his novels Blood Meridian (1985), All The Pretty Horses (1992), and The Crossing (1994), is a reclusive, immensely imaginative writer who is just beginning to get his due on the U.S. literary scene. Generally considered the rightful heir to the southern Gothic tradition, McCarthy is as intrigued by the wildness of the terrain as he is by human wildness and unpredictability.

Set in the striking landscape of her native New Mexico, Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko's critically esteemed novel Ceremony (1977) has gained a large general audience. Like N. Scott Momaday's poetic The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), it is a "chant novel" structured on Native American healing rituals. Silko's novel The Almanac of the Dead (1991) offers a panorama of the Southwest, from ancient tribal migrations to present-day drug runners and corrupt real estate developers reaping profits by misusing the land. Best-selling detective writer Tony Hillerman, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, covers the same southwestern U.S. territory, featuring two modest, hardworking Navajo policemen as his protagonists.

To the north, in Montana, poet James Welch details the struggles of Native Americans to wrest meaning from harsh reservation life beset by poverty and alcoholism in his slender, nearly flawless novels Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990). Another Montanan is Thomas McGuane, whose unfailingly masculine-focused novels -- including Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) and Keep the Change (1989) -- evince a dream of roots amidst rootlessness. Louise Erdrich, who is part Chippewa Indian, has set a powerful series of novels in neighboring North Dakota. In works such as Love Medicine (1984), she captures the tangled lives of dysfunctional reservation families with a poignant blend of stoicism and humor.

Two writers have exemplified the Far West for some time. One of these is the late Wallace Stegner, who was born in the Midwest in 1909 and died in an automobile accident in 1993. Stegner spent the bulk of his life in various locales in the West and had a regional outlook even before it became the vogue. His first major work, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), chronicles a family caught up in the American dream in its western guise as the frontier disappeared. It ranges across America, from Minnesota to Washington State, and concerns, as Stegner put it, "that place of impossible loveliness that pulled the whole nation westward." His 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, is also imbued with the spirit of place in its portrait of a woman illustrator and writer of the Old West. Indeed, Stegner's strength as a writer was in characterization, as well as in evoking the ruggedness of western life.

Joan Didion -- who is as much journalist as novelist and whose mind's eye has traveled far afield in recent years -- put contemporary California on the map in her 1968 volume of nonfiction pieces, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and in her incisive, shocking novel about the aimlessness of the Hollywood scene, Play It As It Lays (1970).

The Pacific Northwest -- one of the more fertile artistic regions across the cultural landscape at the outset of the 1990s -- produced, among others, Raymond Carver, a marvelous writer of short fiction. Carver died tragically in 1988 at the age of 50, not long after coming into his own on the literary scene. In mirroring the working-class mindset of the inhabitants of his region in collections such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1974) and Where I'm Calling From (1986), he placed them against the backdrop of their scenic surroundings, still largely unspoiled.

The success of the regional theater movement -- nonprofit institutional companies that have become havens of contemporary culture in city after city across America -- since the early 1960s most notably has nurtured young dramatists who have become some of the more luminous imagists on the theatrical scene. One wonders what American theater and literature would be like today without the coruscating, fragmented society and tempestuous relationships of Sam Shepard (Buried Child, 1979; A Lie of the Mind, 1985); the amoral characters and shell-shocking staccato dialogue of Chicago's David Mamet (American Buffalo, 1976; Glengarry Glen Ross, 1982); the intrusion of traditional values into midwestern lives and concerns reflected by Lanford Wilson (5th of July, 1978; Talley's Folly, 1979); and the Southern eccentricities of Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, 1979).

American literature has traversed an extended, winding path from pre-colonial days to contemporary times. Society, history, technology all have had telling impact on it. Ultimately, though, there is a constant -- humanity, with all its radiance and its malevolence, its tradition and its promise.