19th-century Regional Writing in the United States

Sarah Pratt McLean Greene


   Every scholar and historian secretly hopes to uncover a "gem" in the course of their studies. I myself am no exception. And I'd have to say that stumbling onto Sarah Pratt McLean Greene and finding my own copy of her novel, Cape Cod Folks, were two of the many "gems" I was lucky enough to uncover during my doctoral research. I'm working on bringing you her novel because it really must be shared. And speaking of gems, I'd also highly recommend that everyone even remotely interested in the subject of 19th-century American Literature read Edward Eggleston's charming novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster (I'll be getting that posted early in '98 as well).
   Who is this obscure writer? The authoress and fictionalized heroine of Cape Cod Folks, Sarah McLean (1856-1935), was born and raised just outside Hartford, in Simsbury, CT. She was the fourth of five children, and the second daughter. Her family seems to have been financially comfortable and socially well-to-do; “Sally” McLean’s younger brother would serve first as the governor of Connecticut, then later as a long-time U.S. senator. Educated at private district schools before spending two years at Mount Holyoke Seminary, McLean, like her heroine, taught at the Cedarsville school for a year. (The town was apparently situated near the current site of Sandwich, MA.) Once she returned home, she set to work crafting her raw materials into an entertaining and fanciful narrative.
   Roughly a year later (or so the surviving materials tell us), the manuscript was solicited by McLean’s brother-in-law in Boston who was so impressed with her vivacious letters that he asked if he could give her writings to a friend in the publishing business. J. G. Cupples, junior member of A. Williams & Co., quickly “recognized the merit of the story, and set about its immediate publication.” McLean, like the young Jewett, apparently did not mention a word of this to her family, so they were no doubt shocked when the proofs arrived in the weeks leading up to the July 1881 publication.
   When McLean published Cape Cod Folks she changed only the names of her urban characters; it did not occur to her, or anyone else involved in the publication of the manuscript, to extend the same courtesy to the Cedarsville residents. They had the unpleasant experience of finding themselves suddenly--without their consent or even fair warning--paraded “before the world undisguised.” After the scandals which followed, McLean changed the names of all the characters several times, leaving later readers with ample room for confusion. One of the things I argue in my dissertation is that regional writing must be seen as a contested field, and this writer's experiences prove this dramatically. The "folks" did not take this indignity sitting down: they sued her, and actually won a reasonable settlement. The "periphery" could and often did talk back to the "center"--the citizens living in small towns and rural hamlets were aware of and variously invested in literary portraits of them appearing in books and magazines produced in the big cities.
   McLean quickly followed Cape Cod Folks with Towhead: the Story of a Girl (another New England-based local color tale) in 1883 and then with Some Other Folks, a collection of stories reprinted from the magazines, in 1884. In 1887, she married and left New England to follow her husband throughout the west. Soon she was the mother of twin sons, but they died in infancy. Somehow in the face of this tragedy she managed to return to writing, this time attempting to explore (less successfully, so the critics tell us) the new world she found herself in: Lastchance Junction, Far, Far West (1889), and Leon Pontifex (1890). Her husband died in 1890 and McLean Greene returned to New England. Once again mourning did not seem to impede her productivity, for a scant year later she published the tale that would become her second most popular book. Vesty of the Basins (1892), another New England-based local saga which steadily attracted readers despite critics who grumbled that although the tale was entertaining, it was certainly not the realistic transcription of local life it claimed to be in the opening pages. In short, McLean continued to write and publish local color stories well into the new century, altogether producing 14 volumes by the time she retired in 1913.
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"Nineteenth-century Regional Writing in the United States" is the work of Dottie Webb. For suggestions, complaints, cattle-rustling schemes or gossiping over the fence in neighborly fashion, send your e-correspondence to drdotwebb@traverse.com

This document was last modified 1/7/98.

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