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American Literary Regionalism has been the subject of scholarship for the past several decades and has been a central site for scholarly debate on a variety of methodologies including Feminism and New Historicism. This sub-field of American literary studies has been traditionally located in the late-nineteenth century.
Local color or regional literature is fiction and poetry that focuses on the characters, dialect, customs, topography, and other features particular to a specific region. Influenced by Southwestern and Down East humor, between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century this mode of writing became dominant in American literature. According to the Oxford Companion to American Literature, "In local-color literature one finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute detail a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description" (439). In his Cultures of Letters (1993) Richard Brodhead provides a short gloss on the genre: “It requires a setting outside the world of modern development, a zone of backwardness where locally variant folkways still prevail. Its characters are ethnologically colorful, personifications of the different humanity produced in such non-modern cultural settings. Above all, this fiction features an extensive written simulation of regional vernacular, a conspicuous effort to catch the nuances of local speech” (115-116). Josephine Donovan connects regionalist, or local color, literature to specific realistic representations. She specifies the genre as "depict[ing] authentic regional detail, including authentic dialect, authentic local characters, in real or realistic geographical settings.”
Its weaknesses may include nostalgia or sentimentality. Its customary form is the sketch or short story, although Hamlin Garland argued for the novel of local color. Regional literature incorporates the broader concept of sectional differences, although Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have argued convincingly that the distinguishing characteristic that separates "local color" writers from "regional" writers is instead the exploitation of and condescension toward their subjects that the local color writers demonstrate.
One definition of the difference between realism and local color is Eric Sundquist's: "Economic or political power can itself be seen to be definitive of a realist aesthetic, in that those in power (say, white urban males) have been more often judged 'realists,' while those removed from the seats of power (say, Midwesterners, blacks, immigrants, or women) have been categorized as regionalists." See also the definition from the Encyclopedia of Southern Literature.
Many critics, including Amy Kaplan ("Nation, Region, and Empire" in the Columbia Literary History of the United States) and Richard Brodhead (Cultures of Letters), have argued that this literary movement contributed to the reunification of the country after the Civil War and to the building of national identity toward the end of the nineteenth century. According to Brodhead, "regionalism's representation of vernacular cultures as enclaves of tradition insulated from larger cultural contact is palpably a fiction . . . its public function was not just to mourn lost cultures but to purvey a certain story of contemporary cultures and of the relations among them" (121). In chronicling the nation's stories about its regions and mythical origins, local color fiction through its presence—and, later, its absence—contributed to the narrative of unified nationhood that late nineteenth-century America sought to construct.
Numerous critics of American Literary Regionalism have turned to Sarah Orne Jewett in order to make arguments for the operation of regionalist literature. F. O. Matthiessen's 1929 biography of Jewett is perhaps most responsible both for her introduction into the canon and her status as a "minor" author. In the 1970s Feminists critics, most importantly Josephine Donovan and Sarah Sherman, argued for the recovery of Jewett as a previously repressed feminine voice. This reading was questioned by historicist readers in the 1980s and 1990s who sought to return Jewett from the elevated position created for her by feminist readers to her cultural location and publishing milieu. Richard Brodhead's Cultures of Letters (1993) is one example of this historicist project to "correct" the feminist dislocation of Jewett. In 2005 Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse responded to Brodhead with a theoretically informed reading of regionalism, and in particular the style practiced by Sarah Orne Jewett, as a "counterhegemonic" literary form.
The New England Literature Program in the English Department at the University of Michigan involves intensive study of 19th and 20th Century New England Literature, with a strong focus on creative writing in the form of academic journaling, as well as a deep engagement with the landscape of New England. NELP students and staff take hiking trips into the White Mountains and other parts of the New England wilderness each week, integrating the texts with the landscape in which they were written.
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