An American Palette. After the Civil War the United States was still a nation of disparate cultures—each region marked by distinctive customs, values, and economic conditions; each region struggling to find its niche in a newly reconstituted union. Nowhere was the nation’s inherent diversity more evident than in its literature. The advent of literary realism in the late nineteenth century brought into focus the kaleidoscopic cast of American life. A group of realists known collectively as “local colorists” recorded the intonations and variations in American regional cultures. Perhaps the defining genre of the era, local-color fiction captured the dialects, the daily routines, the physical landscapes, and the emotional makeup of a multicultural nation.
Undermined by Sentiment? Local-color writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), and Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) were among the most popular writers of their time. Yet the label “local colorist” has always suggested a writer of second-class stature. The pejorative note stems in part from the gender bias of literary critics. Although Harris and other male authors—including E. W. Howe (1853-1937), Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), and George Washington Cable (1844-1925)—contributed to the local-color phenomenon, a large number of local colorists were women. Many of their compositions were homely short stories, informed by folk wisdom and suffused with mundane domestic detail. Critics deemed the genre insufficiently bold and overly sentimental. Just as sentimental literature of the mid nineteenth century (another predominantly “female” genre) had been dismissed as pabulum for the masses, local-color literature was categorized as something less than “serious” art.
Of New England Nuns and Huckleberry Harvests. New England produced one of the more bountiful crops of local colorists. Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), and Rose Terry Cooke (1827-1892) were among the most prominent of this group. Jewett, whose byline appeared regularly in The Atlantic Monthly, is best known for The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a collection of sketches depicting women’s lives unfolding in harmony with nature in a Maine coastal village. In the short stories collected as A Humble Romance (1887) and A New England Nun (1891) Freeman identified frugality and narrow-mindedness as the Puritan legacy in New England. Cooke, a Connecticut native, wrote sometimes humorous, often heart breaking stories of rural life that were collected in Somebody’s Neighbors (1881), Root-Bound and Other Sketches (1885), The Sphinx’s Children and Other People’s (1886), and Huckleberries Gathered from New England Hills (1891). Another New Englander by birth, Helen Hunt Jackson was a prolific author of travel literature, light verse, and local-color fiction. Jackson, who spent much of her adulthood in the West, is best known as the author of Ramona (1884), a California novel that was one of the earliest popular works to address the plight of Native Americans.
Other Regional Voices. Each region of the country produced its share of local colorists—some of whom celebrated the familiar, some of whom probed the darker recesses of everyday existence. Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), who grew up in Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota, took as his subject the economic hard-ship—and cultural bleakness—of midwestern farm life. Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a collection of haunting short stories, and Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895), a novel set on a Dakota farm, are Garland’s best-known works. E. W. Howe, a Kansas newspaper editor, described a similarly inhospitable midwestern landscape in The Story of a Country Town (1883). Joel Chandler Harris, a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution, charmed millions with his “Uncle Remus” tales, the first of which was published in that newspaper in 1879. Drawing on African American narrative tradition, Harris, who was white, spun humorous tales that, beneath their folksy veneer, made a compelling case for tolerance across race and class lines. Two other celebrated Southern local colorists were Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922), who wrote about Tennessee mountain life under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock, and Kate Chopin (1850-1904), who examined the influence of Creole and Cajun roots on New Orleans culture.
A Posthumous Renaissance. In recent years critics and readers have rediscovered local-color fiction. Now celebrated for their powers of observation and their narrative acuity, local colorists are enjoying a posthumous renaissance. Feminist scholars in particular have seized on this body of work as evidence that women’s writing—and “popular” literature in general—has been undervalued by the literary establishment. Local-color fiction also functions as a repository of cultural data. As television, advertisements, and superhighways (both the information and the automotive variety) chisel away at regional differences, readers can thank yesterday’s local colorists for helping preserve slices of regional life for posterity.
Lawrence Buell, New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986);
Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Woman’s Tradition (New York: Ungar, 1983);
Emily Toht, ed., Regionalism and the Female Imagination (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985).