MARK STOREY, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Gilded Age American Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 208 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1



Mark Storey’s study, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities, aims to read markers of modernity as “absent presences” (2) in a number of novels set in rural environments of the Gilded Age. His argument is based on the assumption that traces of the relationship between literature and modernity can also be detected, and in the next step analyzed, in texts that seem to evade themes related to modernity in general, and to a dominant US-American “urban industrial capitalism” in particular. Building on Bill Brown’s thesis that literature contains historical traces that are not recorded in official historiography,[1] Storey formulates a pronounced claim: “I will argue that rural fiction is a unique record of modernity’s impact on socio-cultural life and literature” (2). With this claim, he intends to re-conceptualize the line of literary criticism that was first established by Leo Marx with his The Machine in the Garden (1964). The rejection of Marx’s clear antithesis between the “pastoral” and the “technological” is transferred to the rejection of the dichotomy “countryside” vs. “urban.” (Here, Storey also relies on Raymond Williams’s partial deconstruction of “the country and the city” in the latter’s eponymous book-length essay.) A further revisionist intention of Rural Fictions, Urban Realities addresses the tendency of literary history to differentiate between “rural” and “urban” cultures, not just in terms of geographical separation, but also in terms of chronology, with “rural” preceding “urban.” Instead, Storey aims at an “intimately historicized reconstruction of the period’s historical imagination […] by piecing together the way in which an urban fabric became part of the material of rural representation” (20). As a method, “piecing together” has some problems—problems that Storey is aware of, but hopes to overcome by “defamiliarizing the lense that rural fiction provides on the period” (21).

The metaphors Storey uses for the description of his method testify to his rhetorical skill, but they do not make entirely clear at the outset of his investigation how exactly they will bear upon the more or less purely thematic analyses that follow in the main part of the book. In these chapters, he looks at, in turn, the railway, the country doctor, lynching, and finally, literary utopias. All in all, Rural Fictions, Urban Realities is based on the analysis of about forty novels and short-stories published between 1868 and 1902. Many of these works are only mentioned in passing, to cite some relevant detail that is being discussed in the respective chapter. A handful of writers and their works are more extensively referred to; among them William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Edward Eggleston, Sarah Orne Jewett, Joseph Kirkland, and Owen Wister. In histories of American Literature, these authors are associated with aspects of realism and regionalism, but for Storey they are also remarkable for the way elements of “modernity” emerge in these works. Interestingly (and sometimes confusingly) “modernity” and “urbanity” are, in practice, synonyms for Storey, and stand in opposition to “the country” or “the rural”—in spite of his previous assertions that such conceptualizations “reiterate a potentially limiting binary logic” (7).

The first thematic focus, taking up where Leo Marx left off, deals with the railway. Three related aspects are presented and discussed in some detail: the introduction of standard (“railway”) time in America, the new perception of the landscape from a fast-moving vehicle on rails, and the way the train and the railway create an “obvious physical link to the expanding urban world—being simultaneously a cause and a symptom of that very expansion” (53). Storey lists many interesting examples and passages from a number of novels and short stories where train rides, timetables, and new careers are described, but it remains questionable whether his results are really so new; after all, the “strangeness” and “novelty” of the railway as a harbinger of something qualitatively different in American life, also in rural life, had not been lost on the original authors of the literary works, let alone on many other writers of literary criticism that Storey himself refers to.

The next chapter deals with the role of the traveling circus after the Civil War. By the 1890s, the circus had become a technological and organizational marvel; an entertainment “factory” and at the same time a perfect representative of American “show business.” Storey builds on theories of the spectacle (Guy Debord), the carnivalesque (Bakhtin), and on the considerable literature on performative culture of the Gilded Age when he discusses circus-references in works by Jewett, Twain, and Garland. The circus, with its fragmented narratives and episodic structure, is seen as representing the “generic complexities of the Gilded Age.” At the same time, because it is a temporary intruder into the organization of a given community, Storey also categorizes the circus as a material reminder of the alternative realities of the bustling city, as opposed to the comparatively monotonous and repetitive life of the countryside, as, for example, in a reading of Garland’s Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895). In order to sidestep the obvious dichotomy offered by such readings, Storey emphasizes the “paradoxical” nature of the circus: while it relies on order and technological perfection for a successful execution of its program, this very same program is characterized by a “spectacular (if only) illusory counter to that rationalism in the act of its performance” (82).

Railroads and traveling circuses are obvious links to city-life, and thus explicit mediators of urban principles, but in what sense is a “country-doctor” connected to the topic of urbanity? Storey takes his clue from Michel Foucault’s conception of medicine as a discipline of not purely scientific nature, but as the conglomeration of a modern science together with so-called “subjugated knowledges.” Modern, scientific medicine is thus taken to originate in the metropole, while traditional forms of healing are connected with the countryside. However, Storey identifies the treatments and “panaceas” sold by peddling merchants also as some kind of “urban” medicine, although these are clearly fraudulent products and have nothing to do with the accomplishments of a new, scientific, and in many ways extremely successful (though not almighty) medical profession. In the concluding analysis, Storey again tries to reconcile his individual readings with his wish to “destabilize” the dichotomy between city and countryside. He claims to have succeeded in doing so by having shown how literary and scientific conventions in these works have also been “destabilized.” But it remains questionable whether a short story such as “The Romance of Sunrise Rock” by Mary Noailles Murfree really has a “self-consciously unsettled sense of literary genre” (100). It takes more than a scene with “ghostly hallucinations” of a character to turn a local-color story into a Gothic romance.

Storey’s general ability to “destabilize” the realistic representations of the narratives he has chosen to examine also shows itself in the last two chapters of the book, with a topical focus on lynching and on utopian novels. When he talks about lynching, he does not primarily address racially motivated killings, but cites examples from Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, and other regionalists. With a tale by Chesnutt, the racial aspects of lynch-law are also being skirted, but this is not the emphasis of the argument. The dichotomy he has identified is the one that opposes lynch-law as an archaic, frontier custom, to the working out of a systematical, legal system, as part of the modernization in and through civilizing urban environments. This chapter offers the most convincing analysis of an expression of modernity and the conflict between individual and “down-to-earth” solutions and the progressive systemization of the modern legal system. His main example, in Owen Wister’s The Virginian, is a convincing reading of the clash of these two systems and their literary representations.

In the final chapter of the book, Storey’s ideas concerning the centrality of the rural-urban antithesis in American history and culture come to their fruition. Examining utopias by Ignatius Donelly, William Bishop, Joaquin Miller, Henry Miller, William Dean Howells, and Edward Bellamy, he makes best use of the general historicity of utopian fiction, i.e. the indirect reference to the time when the novels were written. The examples Storey chose, are all “trying to imagine a landscape that is neither urban nor rural and somehow both” (161). According to his own admission, this is what he was trying to bring to the fore in his analyses; to regard “rural fiction as a way to read the presence of the urban in Gilded Age life” (170). Storey’s intention was to “destabilize” the boundaries between the two, and also to show how such a systematic deconstruction (without using the term) will also lead to a more “intricate picture of modernization.” Although some of his findings are not surprising, being already more or less explicitly discussed in the works he examines, his treatment of the modernization of the legal system, and also of the way utopias deal with the rise of a new American urban culture, certainly have the capacity to inspire further studies.


Margit Peterfy (Heidelberg)

[1] Bill Brown, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economics of Play (London: Harvard UP, 1996), 4.