Isolated Parts of a Larger Whole? Reichert-Powell’s ‘localism’ (2007)

The lynching of Murderous Mary

Like many of the authors contained within this website, Douglas Reichert-Powell frames his exploration of critical regionalism within his native region. In this case it is Johnson City, Tennessee which grounds the writing in a real and imagined place. The aim of Reichert-Powell’s work here is to move the study of region beyond its usual theoretical and geographical boundaries based upon a recognition that the concept of region suggests not only “an isolated part … [but also] a larger whole” (5): whilst the regional concept suggests some kind of disconnection, it also places these ‘isolated parts’ into a particular relationship with the ‘larger whole’. The author proposes critical regionalism as the methodology which can most usefully interrogate the nature of this relationship.

Utilising the local legend of ‘Murderous Mary’ – a circus elephant allegedly hanged close to Johnson City after killing her handler in 1916 – Reichert-Powell examines the different ways in which this story signifies to those from the region and to those beyond. To those resident within the region the story and its telling attains “popularity as a mark of community distinctiveness” (13), whereas to those outside of the region it feeds into “the construction of a yokel stereotype” (ibid). This example of regional narrative leads the author to a telling insight regarding the origins of regionalism and the purposes of a critical regionalism and the tensions which exist within and between them. The tale of the unfortunate elephant suggests, simultaneously, both the regional impulse to evoke a “rural nostalgia” (ibid), and the more critically regionalist perspective that to define a region by looking (‘backwards’) solely to its past results in the small town being “perceived as backwards” (ibid). This highlights a further conflict between ‘parochialism’ (regressive) and ‘cosmopolitanism’ (progressive) and, for Reichert-Powell, demonstrates the different ways in which region can be constructed. The construction of place in the authors recanting of the tale of Mary, as he recognises himself, does not “exempt regional spaces from broader cultural conflicts” (14) but, as suggested earlier, creates a network of interconnected relationships within and without the places they attempt to define.

Reichert-Powell, D. (2007) ‘There’s Something About Mary: The Practice of Critical Regionalism’. In, Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape. Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press. pp.3-32.


1 thought on “Isolated Parts of a Larger Whole? Reichert-Powell’s ‘localism’ (2007)

  1. Any interesting lens through which to look at this incident is George Brant’s play “Elephant’s Graveyard.” The play is inspired by the story of Mary (and by the photo above). Brant indeed creates the play to explore the connections between the isolated part (the townsfolk of Erwin, Tennessee) and the larger whole (the cosmopolitan world represented by the traveling circus folk). That the circus folk are sometimes parochial and insular and the town folk sometimes open-minded and not yokels suggests some of the complexity of the play’s retelling of this story. An key figure in the play is the Train Conductor, who stands on the border between the settled townsfolk and the traveling circus. It’s the presence of the train that brings the outside world and its disturbing (and exciting) difference to local communities, and the play ultimately seems to be about this uneasy encounter between insiders and outsiders brought together at this key moment of technolgical change. Even the introduction of the elephant itself into rural Tennessee would have to be seen as part of the larger process of globalization. For more on “Elephant’s Graveyard,” see the review below of a production in Texas and the link to an interview with the playwright.

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