Southern Writers and Local Color:
A Regional Twist on a National Trend

 
 

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A Night in Acadie
(Way and Williams, 1897)

Southern literature always has had a distinctive flavor, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that the region’s writers gained widespread national popularity. Fiction and poetry focusing on the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features particular to the region fit nicely into the local color genre, which became the dominant mode of American literature between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century.

The national spirit that emerged after the Civil War reunited the country paradoxically encouraged the acceptance of divergent regional identities. As the United States grew geographically, and transportation and communication innovations began to connect the regions, Americans wanted to know more about their far-flung compatriots. Furthermore, increasing urbanization and industrialization spurred an increasing fascination with the remaining rural areas. These factors, combined with the emergence of several large-circulation magazines, led to the development of the local color genre. Short stories and poems celebrating the individual regions appeared first in the national magazines and then often were collected in books. Soon local color writers began producing full-length novels.

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A Kentucky Cardinal, and Aftermath
(Macmillan, 1900)

Although the 1868 publication of Bret Harte’s California mining stories generally marks the beginning of the local color movement, a disproportionate number of local color stories contributed to national magazines were by southerners. Literary scholars point out that peculiarities of speech, quaint local customs, distinctive modes of thought, and stories about human nature became the primary subject matter of this fictional movement. The South had an abundance of all these qualities in the popular American mind, so southern authors flourished.

Because these writers were conscious craftsmen producing a marketable commodity, the finished product often says more about popular misconceptions of the South than it says about the reality. The mystique of the "Lost Cause” and the nostalgia of southern aristocracy for antebellum plantation life accentuated the tendency for southern local color writers to write idealized versions of the way things were before the war.

     
 

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Marse Chan: A Tale of Old Virginia
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892)

Representative of this writing is the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page, whose tales of Virginia plantation life pictured beautiful southern maidens, noble and brave slave-owners, and happy, contented slaves. Born on a slave-holding Virginia plantation eleven years before the Civil War ended, Page believed that elite whites were superior to others and found the changing social order after the war to be painful. His stories contrasted the mythical Old South with the difficulties of Reconstruction. In his most popular story, “Marse Chan,” an ex-slave tells the tale of a young man who died for the southern cause, placing duty and honor above all personal gain. The story demonstrates the heroism of former Confederates as well as the loyalty of slaves to their masters, even after Emancipation.

Page was among the popular local color writers who used a white frame narrator, speaking in a detached, non-vernacular voice, to control the portrayals of quainter and less accomplished types in the inside story. The double structures are designed to highlight the gap between simple and “peculiar” folk and the educated, superior framing voice.

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Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation
(Grosset and Dunlap, 1905)

The inside narrator–such as the ex-slave in “Marse Chan”–usually speaks in dialect, a device used frequently by Georgian Joel Chandler Harris. Although the exterior settings and scenes for Harris’s popular Uncle Remus stories resembled Page’s romantic plantation world, the stories themselves are based on the folk tales of African slaves. The narrator of these stories is an African American slave who tells a little white boy stories about Brer Rabbit and his friends. Literary scholars have labelled Brer Rabbit as a symbol for African American survival in a paternalistic white world.

In some ways Harris improved on the legacy of "happy darky" stereotypes that Page created. However, the Uncle Remus books and their Disney film adaptation Song of the South (1946) were banned during the Civil Rights era because they were considered racist. Furthermore, in his books The Story of Aaron and Aaron in the Wildwoods, Harris portrays African Americans as inferior to both whites and the title character, an Arab plantation owner.

     
 

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The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line
(Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899)

African American authors provided an antidote to the paternalistic white plantation fiction by writing from the point of view of their marginalization. These stories also used outside and inside narrators, but the superiority of the white male frame narrator is undermined by his blindness to the complexity of the inside story.

This was true of the popular Conjure Woman stories of North Carolinian Charles W. Chesnutt, in which the black former slave narrator Uncle Julius critiques the white racist and class assumptions of the outside frame narrator, John. Although his stories are set before the Civil War, Chesnutt looks at the slavery era not to idealize the past but to offer analogies between the brutal governance of slaveholders and the racist political assumptions and policies of the Reconstruction era. Another collection of stories, The Wife of His Youth, also represents Chesnutt’s effort to correct the distortions of Reconstruction fiction and offset the plantation school of Page and Harris.

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The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life
(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880)

George Washington Cable attacked racial prejudice through mulatto characters negotiating the complex color lines of his native New Orleans. Although he was white, Cable hated slavery and was angered by the power it gave the white man over the lives of African Americans. His novel The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life provides a sympathetic treatment of mixed bloods in old Louisiana. Unlike the advocates of racialism and the plantation tradition, Cable faced the facts of race and caste in the southern setting which he described.

Local color also became a powerful tool through which southern women could develop a distinctive, even heroic vision of their lives. Through local color fiction southern women writers could critique their placement in a paternalistic hierarchy made possible by the exploitation of both racial and gender difference. Women came to dominate the genre of local color in the South, where they often focused on black-white family relations or upper-lower class divisions in ways that challenged the elitist and paternalistic message of works by their white male counterparts. The most successful female writers of the genre–Grace King, Kate Chopin, and Ruth McEnery Stuart–were from Louisiana.

     
 

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In the Tennessee Mountains
(Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1894)

Mary Noailles Murfree challenged the gender division of the South in a different way. Murfree was a delicate woman from a prominent family–the middle Tennessee town of Murfreesboro is named for her great grandfather. However, she took on the male penname "Charles Egbert Craddock" and described the rustic mountaineers of her region so ably that for many years, her Boston book editor believed she was a rugged man.

While contributing to the literary picture of a diverse nation, the body of southern local color fiction also provides a sense of the diversity within the region. What Page did for the Virginia tidewater, Cable for Creole Louisiana, and Murfree for the Tennessee mountains, James Lane Allen and John Fox, Jr., did for Kentucky and Sidney Lanier for Georgia. Although each writer had his or her own agenda, they all had in common a pride for their people and their home.

Browse the PBO database for books by southern local colorists

More on the Southern Writers on the PBO site

Genesis & Apocalypse of the "Old South" Myth: Two Virginia Writers at the Turn of the Century; Part I: Thomas Nelson Page's Literature of the Lost Cause

Genesis & Apocalypse of the "Old South" Myth: Two Virginia Writers at the Turn of the Century; Part II: Ellen Glasgow's Feminist Approach to the Old South

Old South Literature Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

The Old South in Children's Books, K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Southern Writers and the Old South Myth, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Book List, handout: Excel document or PDF file

Guidelines for Book Report, handout: Word document or PDF file

Suggested Readings

Ammons, Elizabeth, and Valery Rohy, eds. American Local Color Writing, 1880-1920. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Baskervill, William Malone. Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies. Nashville: M. E. Church, 1897.

Ewell, Barbara C., and Pamela Glenn Menke, eds. Southern Local Color: Stories of Region, Race, and Gender. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Holman, David Marion. A Certain Slant of Light: Regionalism and the Form of Southern and Midwestern Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature, 1607-1900. Durham: Duke University Press, 1954.

Rhode, Robert D. Setting in the American Short Story of Local Culture, 1865-1900. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

Ridgeley, J. V. Nineteenth-Century Southern Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

Simpson, Claude M. The Local Colorists: American Short Stories, 1857-1900. New York: Harper, 1960.

Related Online Resources

Local Color Era, Library of Southern Literature, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/localcolor.html

Local Color, Southern Spaces: An Internet Journal and Scholarly Forum, Emory University Digital Library, http://www.southernspaces.org/contents/2004/mackethan/2.htm

Regionalism and Local Color, Library of Southern Literature, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/regionalism.html

Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895, Literary Movements, Washington State University, http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/lcolor.html

                       
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