Local Color Novel

“[Novel readers are] an enormous class, who have neither leisure, nor inclination, of graver and more solid studies."1 Local Color novels appealed to the masses because Southern authors offered readers a salve for the wounds left behind by the Civil War. Though they share some characteristics, Regionalism tried to draw the reader’s attention to social problems, while Local Color literature regaled them with regional fiction that substantiated the urban audience’s stereotypical beliefs. However, recent critics have found redeeming qualities within Local Color storytelling. These findings have highlighted the importance of Local Color novels’ contributions to national identity.

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Table of contents

    Local Color Novel, Plantation fiction downplayed the horrors of slavery, StudySmarterPlantation fiction downplayed the horrors of slavery, Wikimedia

    Meaning of Local Color Novels

    Local color refers to clothes, mannerisms, customs, and language that define a particular place or time. Local Color novels are a variation of American Regionalism literature. These authors wrote fiction using regional details such as dialect, customs, and superstitions after the Civil War in response to the massive political and cultural changes happening in the United States. Their attempt to portray what they believed to be a life-like portrait of the people and places they wrote about is Local Color realism.

    Characteristics of Local Color Novels

    Although Local Color literature focused on different regions of the United States, they are recognizable by these characteristics:

    Sentimentalism

    Local Color fiction tended to soften the rough edges of history and society. They gloss over issues dealing with race, class, and gender. Local Color literature rarely presents an objective account of the complex or problematic nature of past events and cultural norms.

    Setting

    The setting of these novels was often rural to call attention to the necessity of a relationship between man and nature. This was in response to uncertainty about the increased urbanization of previously rustic areas.

    Cultural Traditions

    There is a sense of looking through a box of old photographs while reading Local Color fiction. The region is described in terms of its rituals, values, and superstitions, which are frozen in time. People speak in dialect, which may be exaggerated. There is not much growth or self-awareness along the story arc.

    Literary Influences on Local Color Novels

    The writing style in Local Color literature was influenced by:

    Down East Humor

    Down East humor centered around a caricature known as the “comic Yankee” based loosely on President Andrew Jackson and the Northeast coastal region of the United States. What the comic Yankee lacked in book smarts he made up for in common sense. When confronted by the complexities of the political machine, his misunderstandings inadvertently revealed flaws in the system. The comic Yankee was a rural figure whose outsider status allowed him to critique urban life. Down East Humor and the comic Yankee helped shape Local Color because their popularity determined how traveling journalists would write about other regions.

    Southwest Humor

    The tall tales of the Southwest region introduced comically epic adventures of flamboyant folk heroes. Southwest humor evolved into slapstick comedy and colorful language, most often about braggarts, con men, and tricksters. Controlling the wilderness of the Southwest by making fun of it undermined the conflict of Man vs. Nature in a way that appealed to its urban, educated, white male audience.

    Romanticism

    Romanticism was a literary movement that was popular from around the end of the eighteenth century until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Romanticism rebelled against the Industrial Revolution and scientific advancements that defined the world in practical terms. Readers were comforted by the emphasis on emotion over rational thought. In addition, vivid sensory details immersed readers in exotic locations and glorified historical events, making Romanticism extremely accessible. Finally, Romanticism celebrated beauty, nature, and the individual as a counterpoint to industrialization.

    Local Color vs Regionalism

    Local Color novels share some similarities with Regionalism literature because both revolve their stories around a region of the United States and use cultural, historical, and geographical landmarks to advance the plot. However, Regionalism fiction is written in a more realistic style than Local Color novels.

    Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, writers began to reject Romanticism because they felt it didn’t capture the realities they were experiencing. As a result, Realism was born. Realism wanted to document life truthfully by writing about ordinary people living common experiences.

    Realism vs. Romanticism

    Examining the novel’s writing style quickly distinguishes whether it is a work of Local Color or Regionalism fiction.

    Romanticism looked at history through rose-colored glasses, and Local Color literature does the same. For example, plantation novels went viral in the South after the Civil War in response to slave narratives. White Southern authors wrote fiction that took place before the Civil War that openly longed for what they felt were better times. In these novels, the plantation was an idyllic place where enslavers protected those they enslaved because they could not live independently. In contrast, Regionalism texts used plain language and an objective eye to call out the demoralizing conditions of slavery.

    A slave narrative is an autobiographical account by a formally enslaved person that details their slavery experience and escape to freedom.

    Similarly, Romanticism’s tendency to dramatize and exaggerate to emphasize emotional response creates characters in Local Color novels who stereotype the people they’re meant to represent. As a result, the African American who was, in reality, forced to be dependent on a white character in antebellum Regionalism literature is portrayed as “child-like” in a Local Color novel.

    Tone

    Aside from Southern Local Color, many other authors were not from the regions they wrote about. Instead, much of Local Color fiction was written for Eastern urban audiences in newspapers and magazines. As a result, some critics have categorized Local Color literature as a form of domestic travel fiction because they argue it was written to confirm Eastern urban stereotypes.

    Travel literature documents the environment, customs, and people of an area by someone unfamiliar with the place.

    Because the tone of these Local Color stories and articles tends to be ironic and dismissive of indigenous populations, they miss the opportunity to question the policies of Manifest Destiny, instead justifying the United States’ push westward. In contrast, much of regionalism fiction critiques the status quo from an outsider’s perspective.

    American editor John Louis O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" in 1845 after the United States annexed Texas and the Oregon territory. It was a strongly held belief in the nineteenth century that the nation's destiny to flourish by conquering and settling into the rest of the continent.

    Local Color Authors

    It has been noted that some gender bias comes into play regarding which authors were characterized as Local Color writers. At the time, Local Color was considered a frivolous genre, and its authors were overwhelmingly female. A few examples of Local Color authors include:

    • Helen Hunt Jackson
    • Alice Brown
    • Ruth McEnery Stewart
    • Grace King

    However, the most famous Local Color author was arguably Joel Chandler Harris. His collections of short stories centered around an old freedman named Uncle Remus. Harris used Uncle Remus as a storyteller who recounted the African American folktales he collected, and his tales about Br’er Rabbit are still a household name.

    Local Color Novel, Harris's portrayal of African American characters is problematic, StudySmarterHarris's attempt to document African American folk tales is admirable, but his portrayals of African American characters are problematic, Wikimedia

    Examples of Local Color Novels

    Some examples of Local Color Novels include:

    Ramona (1884)

    Written by Local Color author Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona was one of the first novels to acknowledge Native Americans' struggles. Jackson’s attempt to appeal to readers’ sympathy for the plight of Native Americans had mixed results. Most readers were drawn to her romantic descriptions of colonial California.

    However, Ramona was so famous that it is credited with impacting the development of Southern California’s culture and image. Ramona has never been out of print, and an adaption for the stage, The Ramona Pageant, is still performed yearly in Hemet, California.

    The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870)

    This collection of short stories by Bret Harte offers a glimpse into the adventures of the California Gold Rush. Harte became internationally known for the regional details he combined with melodramatic plots to create the myths of the West that came to define the region.

    Pembroke (1894)

    Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Local Color novel combines politics and thwarted romance. The small New England town of Pembroke becomes a dramatic battleground of pride, Puritan self-righteousness, and emotional repression.

    Importance of the Local Color Novel

    For all of their flaws, critics have found that Local Color plantation novels performed a critical function in post-Civil War America. While their nostalgia for antebellum culture is off-putting at first glance, contemporary theory argues that while these authors were looking to the past, their fiction also created a path for modern American society.

    The use of local color was very important to this type of storytelling because it allowed readers to process their feelings of loss surrounding the Civil War. Connecting northern and southern characters through stories facilitated reconciliation by encouraging the two regions to move toward post-slavery race and class relationships. And surprisingly, critics have discovered a layer of nonconformity and uncertainty underneath many Plantation Novels’ harmonious surface.

    The “black Mammy” character in Plantation Fiction was particularly vital to postwar rapport. The transformation of the southern white character’s identity often moved forward because the formerly enslaved character, now working as a servant, gave it her blessing. As these narratives linked the white characters economically, they also created a framework for how formerly enslaved people initially fit into the new system. Although she was still loyal to her former masters, the black Mammy now had the freedom to express herself, which was a step toward personal agency.

    Local Color Novel - Key takeaways

    • Local color refers to clothes, mannerisms, customs, and language that define a particular place or time.
    • Local Color novels are an offshoot of regionalism literature that sentimentalizes history.
    • Local Color fiction was influenced by Southwest humor, Down East humor, and Romanticism.
    • Critics have argued that gender bias in the literary market led to mostly women being categorized as Local Color authors.
    • Local Color literature is important because it allowed readers to process their feelings of loss surrounding the Civil War, and facilitated reconciliation between the North and South.

    References

    1. Baym, N. 1984: Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. In: Campbell, D. “Charlotte: A Tale of Truth: Brief Background Notes from Lecture on Rowson. 2015
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Local Color Novel

    What are examples of local color in literature? 

    Examples of local color in literature include:

    • Ramona (1884) written by Helen Hunt Jackson
    • The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870) written by Bret Harte
    • Pembroke (1894) written by Mary Wilkins Freeman


    What are the characteristics of local color novels? 

    Characteristics of local color novels include:

    • A plot that glosses over issues dealing with race, class, and gender
    • A rural setting that highlights the relationship between humans and nature
    • Cultural traditions that are frozen in time

    What is local color realism in literature? 

    An author's attempt to portray what they believed to be a life-like portrait of the behavior and appearance of the people and places they wrote about is local color in literature.  

    Who is the most famous of the local color writers? 

    Joel Chandler Harris is arguably the most famous local color author for his collections of African American folklore narrated by a freedman character named Uncle Remus.

    How important is the use of local color in storytelling? 

    The use of local color was very important to post-Civil War storytelling because it allowed readers to process their feelings of loss surrounding the American Civil War and facilitated reconciliation between the North and the South.

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