Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Library of Southern Literature Header
Bored with Travelling  The Conjure Woman  Mr. Hastings and the Minister  And then he danced  Virginia 
Regionalism and Local Color
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Although the terms regionalism and local color are sometimes used interchangeably, regionalism generally has broader connotations. Whereas local color is often applied to a specific literary mode that flourished in the late 19th century, regionalism implies a recognition from the colonial period to the present of differences among specific areas of the country. Additionally, regionalism refers to an intellectual movement encompassing regional consciousness beginning in the 1930s.

Even though there is evidence of regional awareness in early southern writing—William Byrd's History of the Dividing Line, for example, points out southern characteristics—not until well into the 19th century did regional considerations begin to overshadow national ones. In the South the regional concern became more and more evident in essays and fiction exploring and often defending the southern way of life. John Pendleton Kennedy's fictional sketches in Swallow Barn, for example, examined southern plantation life at length.

The South played a major role in the local color movement that followed the Civil War. Although the beginning of the movement is usually dated from the first publication in the Overland Monthly in 1868 of Bret Harte's stories of California mining camps, a disproportionate number of contributors of local color stories to national magazines were southerners. The genesis of the local color movement was not surprising. The outcome of the Civil War signified the victory of nationalism over regional interests. With the increasing move toward urbanization and industrialization following the war and the concurrent diminishing of regional differences, it is not surprising that there was a developing nostalgia for remaining regional differences. Local color writing, which was regionally, and often rurally, based and usually took the form of short stories intended for mass consumption, met a need for stories about simpler times and faraway places.

Although local color writing encompassed a number of regions, including New England and the Midwest, southern local color had about it a special quality—the mystique of the Lost Cause. In many stories written about life in the antebellum South there was an idealization of the way things were before the war; the South was often pictured in these stories not as it actually had been but as it "might have been." Representative of this writing is the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page, whose tales of Virginia plantation life in such stories as "Marse Chan" pictured beautiful southern maidens, noble and brave slave-owners, and happy, contented slaves. Although not all southern local color writing depicted the South in such romanticized terms, the exotic and quaint characteristics of this region were dominant motifs.

Southern writers after the Civil War wrote about a variety of places and people, providing a sense of the diversity of the South. Sidney Lanier's poems ("The Marshes of Glynn," 1878, "Sunrise," 1887) offered images from the marshes of south Georgia; Richard Malcolm Johnston's Georgia Sketches (1864) and Dukesboro Tales (1871) presented stories of the "cracker"; Mississippian Irwin Russell's sketches and Collected Poems (1888) popularized the use of black dialect in literature; and Sherwood Bonner's Dialect Tales (1884) and her accounts of Tennessee mountain life dealt with the everyday life of plain folk.

Other writers achieved more national fame and literary success in portraying aspects of southern life. George Washington Cable immortalized the Creoles of south Louisiana in the pages of Scribner's Monthly and then in such books as Old Creole Days (1879) and The Grandissimes (1884); Mary Noailles Murfree spent her summers in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee and then wrote about the mountaineers, using pen names such as Charles Egbert Craddock and E. Emmett Dembry, in the Atlantic Monthly and in a book of stories, In the Tennessee Mountains (1884); James Lane Allen created initial literary images of Kentucky life and people with stories in Harper's Magazine (April 1885) and in such books as Flute and Violin, and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances (1891) and Kentucky Cardinal (1894); and Joel Chandler Harris used folklore in his Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880), which created enduring portraits—some say stereotypes—of black southerners. Other local colorists included Kate Chopin, Ruth McEnery Stuart, Charles E. A. Gayarre, and Grace E. King (Louisiana); Margaret Junkin Preston and Mary Johnston (Virginia); John Fox, Jr. (Appalachia); and Lafcadio Hearn (New Orleans).

As a genre southern local color writing flourished through the 1890s, after which this genteel mode of writing lost popularity. At the turn of the century regional writing in the South was still evident, as in the Virginia-based novels of Ellen Glasgow, whose work attempted a more realistic depiction of the strength and weaknesses of the South. By the 1930s there was a resurgence of interest in regionalism, this time as an intellectual movement. Writers sought to treat each of the regions of the country as discrete geographical, cultural, and economic entities. Again the South played a major role in the regional movement. In fact, a cornerstone of the movement was the manifesto I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners, published in 1930. The authors of this work, among them John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, argued that the South, having held on to its agrarian culture longer than the rest of the country, could serve as a model for a society in which man rather than the machine was dominant. Citing the dehumanization brought about by industrialization and the assembly line, the authors posited that, although the South would not remain entirely agriculturally based, the southern way of life was more conducive to a full relationship between man and his surroundings.

Although the regional, agrarian philosophy set forth in I'll Take My Stand was to a great degree sociological in its thrust, as was much writing about regionalism at this time, there was in the South a corresponding literary movement, known as the Southern Literary Renaissance, which, although not always parallel to the regional movement in its philosophic principles, also emphasized the importance of regional setting and tradition to individuals' lives. Notable writers of this period who explored the importance of their southern heritage and environment included William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Thomas Wolfe. Although it may be argued, and rightly so, that their works are universal in their implications, each writer's work is firmly rooted in the southern region.

In the decades since the 1930s literature and the other arts that grew out of southern culture have flourished. Such writers as Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and, more recently, Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, have continued to place characters and action in the South. Although their work is regional, it is universal as well. Each writer, through the exploration of specific characters and places, seeks answers to the questions of life and death that concern all men and women. One can conclude of the work of these contemporary southern writers that all art must find its roots in a specific place or region. The best art is not of a region but transcends region.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the South seems to have retained many regional distinctions. Although the region has not lived up to its position as the agrarian model so bravely postulated in I'll Take My Stand, it has not succumbed entirely to the homogeneous tendencies resulting from mass media and the shift in population toward the Sunbelt. The South continues to assert in its art its distinctive regional qualities.

Anne E. Rowe
Florida State University

George Core, ed., Regionalism and Beyond: Essays of Randal Stewart (1968); Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (1938); Merrill Jensen, ed., Regionalism in America (1951); Claude M. Simpson, ed., The Local Colorists: American Short Stories, 1857-1900 (1960); Robert E. Spiller et al., eds., Literary History of the United States (1963).