Regionalism and Local Color in Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Regionalism and Local Color in Short Fiction


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.

Representative Works

James Lane Allen
Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances (short stories) 1891
A Kentucky Cardinal: A Story (novella) 1895
Aftermath: Part Second of “A Kentucky Cardinal” (novella) 1896

Gertrude Atherton
Before the Gringo Came (short stories) 1894; also published as The Splendid Idle Forties, Stories of Old California, 1902

Mary Hunter Austin
The Land of Little Rain (sketches) 1903

Alice Brown
Meadow-grass: Tales of New England Life (short stories) 1895
Tiverton Tales (short stories) 1899

George Washington Cable
Old Creole Days (short stories)...

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Elias Lieberman (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: Lieberman, Elias. “The Point of Contact Between the Short Story and Locality,” and “Locality as a Factor.” In The American Short Story: A Study of the Influence of Locality in its Development, pp. 14-23, 158-68. Ridgewood, NJ: The Editor Company, 1912.

[In the following essay, Lieberman underscores the importance of setting to the overall effect of a short story, asserting that location is “the most typically American” element.]

Now that we have considered the forces that determine localities and types of men and women we are prepared to go a step further. What is the point of contact between the locality and the short story as an art form? Is the...

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Edward J. O'Brien (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Edward J. “The Early Regionalists.” In The Advance of the American Short Story, pp. 151-75. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1923.

[In the following essay, O'Brien provides an overview of major authors and major works of regional fiction in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.]

We have seen in our study of Bret Harte how largely his great popular success was due to the fact that he introduced to Eastern readers a new pioneer life full of color and romantically strange. It is not surprising that his success, together with the newly awakened national consciousness of our people after the Civil War, prompted many writers to seek the...

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Arthur Voss (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Voss, Arthur. “Local Color and Western Humor,” and “The Regional Story in New England, the South, and the Middle West.” In The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, pp. 70-113. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Voss provides an overview of regional and local color stories set in the West, East, South, and Midwest.]

Although Washington Irving gave “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and some of his other tales with American settings a pronounced regional flavor, there were only a few other writers before the Civil War who, in anything more than incidental fashion, followed him in his primary concern with depicting...

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Marjorie Pryse (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Pryse, Marjorie. “Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet.” In Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, pp. 17-37. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Pryse traces the origins of regional literature in the United States to the stories of Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.]

Any attempt to construct a narrative of the origins of regionalism must begin by acknowledging the problematic status of such an attempt in a critical climate where both “origins” and “regionalism”...

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Janet Gebhart Auten (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Auten, Janet Gebhart. “Parental Guidance: Disciplinary Intimacy and the Rise of Women's Regionalism.” In “The Only Efficient Instrument”: American Women Writers and the Periodical, 1837-1916, edited by Aleta Feinsod Cane and Susan Alves, pp. 66-77. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Auten examines ideological tensions between the female authors of regional and local color stories in the nineteenth century and the editors of magazines in which these stories were published.]

Women writers made a place for themselves in antebellum periodicals by conforming: they both complied with the judgments of editors and publishers and...

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Criticism: Regionalism/Local Color Fiction Of The West

Fred Erisman (essay date 1974-75)

SOURCE: Erisman, Fred. “Frederick Remington: The Artist as Local Colorist.” in South Dakota Review, 12, no. 4. (winter 1974-75): 76-88.

[In the following essay, Erisman considers Remington's written works, seeing them primarily as examples of local color fiction that occasionally supersede this designation.]

Frederic Remington (1861-1909). American painter and sculptor, needs no introduction: Frederic Remington. American author is virtually unknown. No one having the sketchiest acquaintance with the American West can fail to recognize either a Remington bronze or a Remington oil. “The Bronco Buster,” for example, or “Coming Through the Rye,” with its four...

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J. David Stevens (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: Stevens, J. David. “‘She war a woman’: Family Roles, Gender, and Sexuality in Bret Harte's Western Fiction.” American Literature 69, no. 3 (September 1997): 571-93.

[In the following essay, Stevens maintains that Bret Harte's short stories of the American West challenge traditional values regarding gender, sexuality, and patriarchal family structure.]

By almost all accounts, Bret Harte must be considered a progenitor of the popular Western in America. Although he eschewed the displays of violence central to other frontier texts, his renditions of town and mining camp life constructed the principal backdrop against which the struggle of the Western hero...

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Sherrie A. Inness (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Inness, Sherrie A. “Looking Westward: Geographical Distinctions in the Regional Short Fiction of Mary Foote and Mary Austin.” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 4 (fall 1998): 319-30.

[In the following essay, Inness views short stories of western regionalists Mary Foote and Mary Austin as literary vehicles used to criticize the notion of eastern United States cultural superiority, particularly its expectations about the “proper” roles of women.]

“There is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment” (97), writes Mary Austin in her essay “Regionalism in American Fiction” (1932). She urges her...

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Criticism: Regionalism/Local Color Fiction Of The Northeast

Atlantic Monthly (essay date June 1891)

SOURCE: “New England in the Short Story.” Atlantic Monthly 67 (June 1891): 845-50.

[In the following essay, an anonymous reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly discusses short story collections by three regional authors from New England: Annie Trumbull Slosson, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett.]

There are two periods in the life of a country when the short story is peculiarly adapted to display the characteristics of the people: the first is when the country is virgin soil for the novelist; the second is when the soil, in agricultural phrase, is worn out. At the present time, the South, and more particularly the Southwest, illustrates the former of...

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Susan Allen Toth (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Toth, Susan Allen. “‘The Rarest and Most Peculiar Grape’: Versions of the New England Woman in Nineteenth-Century Local Color Literature.” In Regionalism and the Female Imagination: A Collection of Essays, edited by Emily Toth, pp. 15-28. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Toth considers New England regional fiction by female authors in terms of the changing status of women in late-nineteenth century America.]

Watching the lucidly neurotic heroine of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying agonize toward an independence she needs but fears and listening uncomfortably to Jong's frank criticism of men and marriage, many contemporary...

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Donna M. Campbell (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Campbell, Donna M. “‘In Search of Local Color’: Context, Controversy, and The Country of the Pointed Firs.” In Jewett and Her Contemporaries: Reshaping the Canon, edited by Karen L. Kilcap and Thomas S. Edwards, pp. 63-75. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

[In the following essay, Campbell elucidates critical responses to local color fiction in the late nineteenth century, focusing on the critical response to Sarah Orne Jewett's short story cycle The Country of the Pointed Firs when it was first published in the 1890s.]

When The Country of the Pointed Firs appeared in 1896, it received “Jewett's usual favorable...

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Criticism: Regionalism/Local Color Fiction Of The Midwest

John L. Sutton (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Sutton, John L. “The Regional Form as a Commodified Site in Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads.Midamerica 23 (1996): 56-63.

[In the following essay, Sutton views Hamlin Garland's short stories of rural Midwestern farm life as social commentary on the tensions between regional and national identity.]

In “God's Ravens” (published in the June 1894 issue of Harper's), Hamlin Garland's protagonist, Robert Bloom, feels he can escape the pressures of life in Chicago by moving back to the coulees of his native Wisconsin. This escape is not as complete as he thinks. Bloom is unable to assume the simple life he longs for and he relapses into a...

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Stephanie Foote (essay date autumn 1999)

SOURCE: Foote, Stephanie. “The Value of Regional Identity: Labor, Representation, and Authorship in Hamlin Garland.” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 2 (autumn 1999): 159-82.

[In the following essay, Foote evaluates the significance of Hamlin Garland as a regional writer, contending that Garland goes against the grain of “conventional” regional literature in that he refuses to “aestheticize” the Midwest in his fiction.]

Hamlin Garland has always posed something of a problem for literary critics; even those who find his work historically important seem to hold it in contempt. Prolific, passionate, sometimes absurdly polemical, Garland's writing has always...

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Criticism: Regionalism/Local Color Fiction Of The South

Robert Bone (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Bone, Robert. Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975, 328 p.

[In the following excerpt, Bone examines regional literature written by African American authors in the American South particularly the fiction of Joel Chandler Harris and Charles W. Chesnutt.]


When Chesnutt and Dunbar turned to story-writing in the 1880's and 1890's, they were not working in a cultural vacuum. The magazines in which they hoped to publish were most receptive to a type of fiction which stressed regional diversity. This emphasis on...

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Edward J. Piacentino (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Piacentino, Edward J. “The Enigma of Black Identity in Grace King's ‘Joe’” The Southern Literary Journal 19, no. 1 (fall 1986): 56-67.

[In the following essay, Piacentino asserts that King, while depicting the complexities surrounding the identity crisis of an African American slave in the short story“Joe,” in the end clumsily conceals this legacy of slavery in order to appease the dominant Southern community.]

Balcony Stories. Grace King's second volume of short fiction, a book that has been acclaimed her “most artistically accomplished work” (Kirby 47)1, was published by the Century Company in 1893.2 The thirteen...

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David Steiling (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Steiling, David. “Multi-Cultural Aesthetic in Kate Chopin's ‘A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.’” The Mississippi Quarterly 47, no. 2 (spring 1994): 197-101.

[In the following essay, Steiling discusses Chopin's use of irony to address regional and ethnic stereotypes in “A Gentleman of Bayou Teche.”]

“A Gentleman of Bayou Teche” by Kate Chopin is seldom read and has attracted virtually no critical attention, but the subject and design of this sketch amply demonstrate that its author understood how subcultures can be particularly sensitive to the way they are perceived and recorded by outsiders. This sketch shows that Chopin had thoughtfully considered...

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Kristina Brooks (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Brooks, Kristina. “Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Local Colors of Ethnicity, Class, and Place.’” MELUS 23, no. 2 (summer 1998): 3-26.

[In the following essay, Brooks examines the secret knowledge of ethnic identity and cultural boundaries that is communicated through coded relationships in Alice Dunbar-Nelson's local color fiction of New Orleans and its surrounding territories.]

Pass Christian, the Bayou St. John, the Bayou Teche, Mandeville, and New Orleans's Third District are just a few of the particular locales in which Alice Dunbar-Nelson anchors her fictional characters' ethnic identities. Through direct addresses to the reader and notations of specific...

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Further Reading


Daniel, Janice. “Redefining Place: Femes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman. Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 69-76.

Examines how Wilkins Freeman's covert language of enclosure is a metaphor for the redefinition of women in her fiction and times.

Dyer, Joyce, ed. Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998, 302 p.

Collection of critical essays on fiction by Appalachian women writers.

Foote, Stephanie. Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature....

(The entire section is 437 words.)