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Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895

Regionalism and Local Color Bibliography
Definitions Local color or regional literature is fiction and poetry that focuses on the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features particular to a specific region. Influenced by Southwestern and Down East humor, between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century this mode of writing became dominant in American literature. According to the Oxford Companion to American Literature, "In local-color literature one finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute detail a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description" (439). Its weaknesses may include nostalgia or sentimentality. Its customary form is the sketch or short story, although Hamlin Garland argued for the novel of local color.

Regional literature incorporates the broader concept of sectional differences, although in Writing Out of Place, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have argued convincingly that the distinguishing characteristic that separates "local color" writers from "regional" writers is instead the exploitation of and condescension toward their subjects that the local color writers demonstrate.

One definition of the difference between realism and local color is Eric Sundquist's: "Economic or political power can itself be seen to be definitive of a realist aesthetic, in that those in power (say, white urban males) have been more often judged 'realists,' while those removed from the seats of power (say, Midwesterners, blacks, immigrants, or women) have been categorized as regionalists."  See also the definition from the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature.

Many critics, including Amy Kaplan ("Nation, Region, and Empire" in the Columbia Literary History of the United States) and Richard Brodhead (Cultures of Letters), have argued that this literary movement contributed to the reunification of the country after the Civil War and to the building of national identity toward the end of the nineteenth century. According to Brodhead, "regionalism's representation of vernacular cultures as enclaves of tradition insulated from larger cultural contact is palpably a fiction . . . its public function was not just to mourn lost cultures but to purvey a certain story of contemporary cultures and of the relations among them" (121). In chronicling the nation's stories about its regions and mythical origins, local color fiction through its presence--and, later, its absence--contributed to the narrative of unified nationhood that late nineteenth-century America sought to construct.

More recently, Bill Brown and Brad Evans have called attention to the nature of the aesthetic experience through material culture that regionalism offers. Brown's study of The Country of the Pointed Firs in A Sense of Things (2003) "draw[s] attention to object culture and . . . address[es] the problematic of the significant thing--the set of questions raised by the effort to turn matter into meaning. Jewett's novel . . . is an account comprised, no less, of scenes where people are 'paired' with things in ways that prompt several questions. What Ideas are embedded in things? How does the narrator gain access to them? What sort of staging is involved in this object-based epistemology? How does Jewett's fiction dramatize the work involved in determining the value of material objects not in culture but for culture, for an apprehension of culture?" (84).

Writing about Howells's The Coast of Bohemia in Before Cultures (2005), Evans disputes the "nostalgia" hypothesis for regionalism and contends that "what one sees in local-color fiction of the 1890s is not at all the assertion of integrated stasis and purity that one might imagine for it--a last gasp, as it were, for a preindustrial past--but the assertion by artists, publishing houses, and perhaps even readers, of a rather hip participation in the dislocating, tangled complexity of the chic. Indeed, by the late 1890s, the status of local color had shifted increasingly toward the aesthetic, just as the objects collected by anthropologists became poised to fuel modernist primitivism" (139).

A variation of this genre is the "plantation tradition" fiction of Thomas Nelson Page and others.

Characteristics Setting: The emphasis is frequently on nature and the limitations it imposes; settings are frequently remote and inaccessible. The setting is integral to the story and may sometimes become a character in itself.

Characters: Local color stories tend to be concerned with the character of the district or region rather than with the individual: characters may become character types, sometimes quaint or stereotypical. The characters are marked by their adherence to the old ways, by dialect, and by particular personality traits central to the region. In women's local color fiction, the heroines are often unmarried women or young girls.

Narrator: The narrator is typically an educated observer from the world beyond who learns something from the characters while preserving a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes ironic distance from them. The narrator serves as mediator between the rural folk of the tale and the urban audience to whom the tale is directed.

Plots. It has been said that "nothing happens" in local color stories by women authors, and often very little does happen. Stories may include lots of storytelling and revolve around the community and its rituals.

Themes: Many local color stories share an antipathy to change and a certain degree of nostalgia for an always-past golden age. A celebration of community and acceptance in the face of adversity characterizes women's local color fiction. Thematic tension or conflict between urban ways and old-fashioned rural values is often symbolized by the intrusion of an outsider or interloper who seeks something from the community.

In Together by Accident (2009), Stephanie C. Palmer identifies the "motif of the travel accident" as characteristic of local color: it "requires a distressing or surprising event that occurs to a character in transit. It must shift the grounds of sociability in the text, so that the traveling character is obliged to rely on locals to a greater and more humiliating degree. A travel accident challenges a traveler's identity, independence, or power. A travel accident also changes the relationship between the traveling character (who becomes a thwarted traveler) and the implied reader. If an accident occurs, the reader is encouraged to question the character's virtue. In this way, the motif or device also becomes a historical allegory of the different social groups and their competing claims over American space" (11).

New England South
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Celia Thaxter in her Garden, by Childe Hassam
Celia Thaxter in her Garden by Childe Hassam
Picture courtesy of Carole Gerten-Jackson
Mary N. Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock)
  • In the Tennessee Mountains (1885) 

  • Kate Chopin
    Grace King
    George Washington Cable 
    Alice Dunbar-Nelson 
    Ruth McEnery Stuart (1856-1917)
  • In Simpkinsville (1897)(new URL)

  • Constance Fenimore Woolson
    Charles W. Chesnutt
    Thomas Nelson Page
    Joel Chandler Harris
    James Lane Allen.
    Midwest  Great Plains West
    Edward Eggleston
    E.W. Howe
    Hamlin Garland
    John Hay
    James Whitcomb Riley
    Zona Gale
    Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa). Bret Harte
    Mark Twain
    Mary Austin
    Techniques Use of dialect to establish credibility and authenticity of regional characters.

    Use of detailed description, especially of small, seemingly insignificant details central to an understanding of the region.

    Frequent use of a frame story in which the narrator hears some tale of the region.

    Charles W. ChesnuttProminent African-American writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt and Frances E. W. Harper demythologize and satirize portions of the "plantation tradition" in their works. See especially Chesnutt's "The Goophered Grapevine," the first story published by an African American in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine (1887), and the stories in hisThe Conjure Woman (1899).

    © 1997-2012. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997) and from "Realism and Regionalism" in A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America, ed. Charles Crow (2003).
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    Campbell, Donna M. "Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Date of publication or most recent update (listed above as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Web. Date you accessed the page.


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