Regionalism and Local Color in Short Fiction Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Regionalism and Local Color in Short Fiction

Regional and local color stories concentrate on the landscape, dialect, customs, and folklore specific to a geographic region or locale; in fact, the setting can be so integral to the story that it sometimes becomes a character in itself. Characters in these stories adhere to traditional gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic roles. In terms of plot, often very little happens: local stories instead incorporate storytelling and revolve around the community and its rituals. Thematically, many regional and local color stories share an aversion to change and a weakness for sentimentality or nostalgia for the anachronistic beliefs and practices of a past golden age.

Influenced by the realism of Old Southwest humor sketches and tales, regionalism and local color fiction in the United States emerged around the time of the American Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, these literary movements had become the dominant form of short story writing in the country and contributed to the building of a national and literary identity. Critics agree that regionalism and local color fiction played a noteworthy role in healing the divisions of the Civil War and disseminated valuable information about the diversity and richness of American culture.

While literary critics recognize the dual influence of romanticism and realism in regionalism and local color fiction, many differ to varying degrees in their definitions and distinctions of the literary forms. Some critics consider local color fiction to be a subset of regionalism; others use the two terms interchangeably. To the extent that a distinction can be made, commentators contend that regionalism incorporates the broader concept of sectional differences, while local color fiction emphasizes the charm and idiosyncrasies of local characters and customs.

Many critics trace the origins of regionalism and local color fiction to the 1868 publication of the story “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” by Bret Harte. This story, set in a California mining town, was soon followed by his popular tale “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1870). Elements of Harte's work—especially its regional flavor, use of stereotypical characters, and portrayal of ethnic groups—influenced many of his contemporaries in the American West. Though scholars stress the story's origins in Southwestern folklore and its relationship to the work of other authors in the same genre, Mark Twain's sketch “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) utilizes a primary characteristic of local fiction—the use of a narrator, typically an educated observer from the world beyond who serves as mediator between the rural folk of the tale and the urban audience to whom the tale is directed. In contrast to Harte's and Twain's characterizations of miners and other adventurers, Gertrude Atherton realistically depicts the daily life and romantic aspirations of the early Californians—Spanish landowners—and the inhabitants of San Francisco in her short fiction. The stories of Mary Hallock Foote underscore women's reactions to the migration experience in the American West. Frederic Remington attempted to capture the ideals of the Old West and decried their rapid passing through his numerous short story collections. Similarly, the fictional works of Owen Wister sought to portray the life specific to the western plains states that was quickly vanishing before the encroaching values of eastern American civilization. Inspired by the southern Californian desert, Mary Hunter Austin's critically acclaimed collection of sketches, The Land of Little Rain (1903), provides a comprehensive description of the region as well as the impact of the environment on individuals and cultures.

In New England, regional fiction was most notably the province of female authors, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Rose Terry Cooke. Stowe's characteristic use of New England village scenery and Yankee dialect is evident in her short story collection Oldtown Fireside Stories (1871). Jewett's masterwork, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a short story cycle set in the deteriorating maritime communities of coastal Maine, is the most celebrated work of New England local color fiction. The device of spectator-narrator, an outsider from the city, provides the frame for the collection. Similar to Jewett's works, Wilkins Freeman's short story collections were written with a female readership in mind, depicting New England women whose vocational choices were largely limited to marriage or spinsterhood. Rose Terry Cooke's portraits of a certain demographic of New England—bitter spinsters longing for the respect of their communities and oppressed farm women suffering at the hands of their brutal husbands—set her apart from her contemporaries who were more interested in the lives of the upper social class. In Alice Brown's stories, middle-aged or elderly characters of the New Hampshire countryside frequently disagree with the restrictive policies of their communities. However, the resolution of these conflicts was usually positive: her characters assert themselves and yet remain valued members of their communities. The lone male writer to represent this region was Rowland Evans Robinson, whose collection Uncle 'Lisha's Shop (1887) took place in the imaginary town of Danis, Vermont.

In the Midwest, Hamlin Garland was the most prolific regional writer of the nineteenth century. His stories, especially the initial collection Main-Travelled Roads (1891), proved influential because of his use of descriptive detail, the inclusion of social and political commentary regarding oppressed Midwestern farmers, and the omission of the sentimental characters and plot devices that were common in the literature of the late nineteenth century. Working under the pseudonym Octave Thanet, Alice French published stories in the local color tradition detailing life in Iowa towns and on an Arkansas plantation. Constance Fenimore Woolson is commonly described as a local colorist, due to her vivid evocations of such settings as the Great Lakes and her strong character development. Mary Hartwell Catherwood is best remembered for her stories that were set in the Great Lakes region and explored French American culture. In Old Chester Tales, (1899), Margaret Deland's rural characters and their complex moral issues provide a microcosm of nineteenth-century America—a nation precariously poised on the edge of a new age.

The South has undoubtedly produced the largest body of regional and local color fiction. Richard Malcolm Johnston is the preeminent transition figure from early Old Southwest humor to genteel Southern local color writing. Through his best-known collection, Georgia Sketches (1864; later published as Dukesborough Tales), Johnston set a precedent for twentieth-century writers from the American South. Joel Chandler Harris is credited as one of the earliest writers to record and utilize African American dialect and folklore in his tales of the fictional character Uncle Remus. However, many scholars point to latent racism in Harris's portrait of slavery as a pleasant institution and beneficial to African Americans—attitudes that were widespread in the antebellum South. Similarly, Thomas Nelson Page penned nostalgic, detailed stories in the plantation tradition, capturing the imagination of a war-torn nation disillusioned by the struggles of Reconstruction. The most important feature of his writing, however, is his reliance on the chivalric code of Southern heroism. Grace King's Balcony Stories (1893) and Maurice Thompson's Stories of the Cherokee Hills (1898) also present sentimental views of antebellum race relations and an antipathy towards societal change.

Eschewing the style and themes of traditional antebellum literature, George Washington Cable is lauded for his accurate portrayal of post-Civil War society and honest treatment of the complex racial issues of the Creole people, descendants of the French and Spanish colonists of Louisiana. Ruth McEnery Stuart consistently received critical praise during her lifetime for realistically portraying three downtrodden segments of Southern society: Italian Americans in New Orleans, Arkansas farmers and small-town residents, and African Americans. In Kate Chopin's short story collections, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), she transcends simple regionalism and portrays Creole and Acadian women who sought spiritual and sexual freedom amid the restrictive mores of nineteenth-century Southern society.

Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson are the three most prominent African American local fiction writers of this era. Chesnutt's writings about slavery and mulattos living on the “color line” convey implicit denunciations of the institution. At times overtly didactic, these stories are Chesnutt's attempts to humanize African American literary characters. However, the adverse reaction to his fiction virtually ended his literary career. Many of Dunbar's short stories, often following the plantation tradition of Thomas Nelson Page, were written at a time when appeasing white audiences was crucial to the literary success of black authors. Accordingly, many reviewers have labeled Dunbar an accommodationist, yet recent criticism has focused more on his compromises. Similar to the writings of George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin, Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson's short fiction focuses on the New Orleans Creole culture and helped to establish her as a Southern local colorist.

Mary N. Murfree's reputation as a local color writer rests primarily on In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), her acclaimed collection of stories that describes the rustic men and women who inhabited the remote hill country of Tennessee. Her elaborate, often poetic, descriptions of the mountains and other natural phenomena in effect render nature one of the major characters in the stories. James Lane Allen was a Kentucky-born writer and critic whose novellas, A Kentucky Cardinal (1895) and Aftermath (1896), were set in the rural landscape that surrounds Lexington. John Fox Jr. spent much of his life in or near the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and his portraits of the mountaineers of the Cumberland region are his greatest contribution to the regional and local color genres.