Regionalism, Local Color, and Donna M. Campbell

March 30, 2007 at 5:01 am Leave a comment

Donna M. Campbell has some really interesting things to say about regionalism in Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 [Athens: Ohio UP, 1997].One enjoyable aspect of Campbell’s extremely informative book is its clear prose and lucid argument. I’m only a few chapters in, but I wanted to share some highlights so far:

“Realism was not all local color, of course, and yet a continual thread of feeling runs through the works of Norris and other naturalists: that ‘real life,’ the stuff of literature, was not the same as the realists teacup tragedies, and that the fit ones to write about real life were men (naturalists), not women (local color writers). It suggests that naturalism grew in part as a gender-based countertradition not only to realism but to female-dominated local color writing” (5).

“The displacement of local color fiction and those women who were its contributers ocurred as part of a broader shift from realism to naturalism, which in turn marked the passing of a nineteenth-century sensibility and the emergence of a twentieth-century one” (5).

“Emerging after the Civil War, a time when ‘[t]he country’s internal migration of younger men and women to new urban areas has left behind a ghost world of spinsters, widows, and bereft sea captains,’ local color fiction celebrates the preservation, through writing, of the lives of humble, ordinary people in an environment threatened by time, change, and external disruption. In part because of these factors, the fiction itself frequently denies or ignores the events immediately surrounding its creation, a strategy to ‘universalize’ the work that results from an unwillingness to dwell on the cause of the disruption and loss that the region had suffered. In celebrating not disruption but continuity, not timely events but timelessness, local color seeks to affirm what is usable about the past and the ordinary: its reluctance to deal with war stems not from a failure to understand war’s importance, but from an insistence on the primacy of the enduring world that exists both prior to and as a consequence of war’s disruption” (7-8).

“[Local color’s] empahsis on ‘color’ on accurately representing the speech, habits, and other ‘homely details’ of the humbler classes of American life, helped to inform both the technique and method of naturalism. In much the same way, the local colorists’ preoccupation with the interdependence of character and region fit readily into naturalism’s scheme of determinism by race, epoch, and milieu. As its components became assimilated into other, newer movements, local color vanished as a distinct genre. So complete was this dismantling process that, by the century’s end, Frank Norris, one of the chief protesters against a too-feminine literature, felt free to construct the ‘Old Grannis-Miss Baker’ plot as a parable of local color’s virtues and limitations within his naturalistic novel McTeague (1899).”

Nastier than Norris is Ambrose Bierce, from the 18 December 1892 San Francisco Examiner, whom Campbell cites in an endnote as having discussed the local colorists as: “the pignoramous crew of malinguists, cacophonologist and apostrophographers who think they can get close to nature by depicting the sterile lives and limited emotions of the gowks and sodhoppers that speak only to tangle their own tongues, and move only to fall over their own feet” (189).

In the 1890s there’s a shift in what the local colorists are writing. They begin to produce historical romances.

“Noting that ‘historical romances, in fact, were the major best-sellers on the earliest published lists from 1895-1902,’ Amy Kaplan demonstrates convincingly that the performance of such fantasies of empire effects the revitalization of masculinity through a nostalgic ‘escape to a distant frontier . . . that . . . allows the American man to return home by becoming more fully himself.’ Nostalgia for a redemptive atavism and a regeneration through conquest thus replaces local color’s nostalgia for a harmonious, nonviolent golden age” (56).

“For both [Hamlin] Garland and Norris, the parallel between American expansionism in world affairs and the creation of a national literature proved irresistible. With the twin avatars of Theodore Roosevelt and (for Norris) Rudyard Kipling before them, Garland and Norris set forth to colonize the weak and unruly islands of local color fiction, suggesting that local fiction be allowed to exist under the aegis of, as well as for the benefit of, a truly national literature. Strengthened by the diversity and sheer number of these ‘colonies’ of regional fiction, a national literature might achieve a stature that at the very least would bring the United States to literary parity with other nations. In furthering his literary ‘jingoism,’ Garland, like [Edward] Eggleston and Norris, seeks to legitimize as well as to colonize the hitherto self-enclosed islands of local color fiction by uniting them under an all-encompassing banner of nationalism. By this credo of literary manifest destiny and his expansionist thinking, Garland thereby inflates, and ultimately obliterates, the movement’s original impetus, its lack of pretension and focus on preservation of the individual. Dislocated by the passage of time, by shifting tastes, and now by ideology from the local color movement they represented for so long, [Sarah Orne] Jewett and [Mary E Wilkins] Freeman may well have felt that they needed to retreat further into the past to salvage what they could from their original commitment to fiction” (59).

“Thus Garland, [James Lane] Allen, [Gertrude] Atherton, Norris, and the rest make the point repeatedly: for too long a predominantly female audience, or a coterie of cowed, timid editors, had created authors, particularly local colorists, in their own small, pale, tactful image, either restraining or refusing to sanction altogether fiction about real life by red-blooded male authors. Indeed, critics of the Feminine Principle often use the same image to describe the problem. Words denoting the presence of absence of ‘blood’ occur frequently in this debate over the new literature: Allen’s ‘bloodless’ and Atherton’s ‘anaemic’ are only two examples. In an unlikely metaphor, the editors and magazinists, the local colorists, and the female audience are cast as literary vampires, draining the life out of the corpus of American literature with their insatiable lust for propriety. For example, in a 1907 letter, Jack London lashed out at the timidity of McClure’s editor John S. Phillips: ‘In short, he wanted me to take the guts and backbone out of my stories; wanted me to make an eunuch of myself; wanted me to write petty, smug, complacent bourgeois stories; wanted me to enter the ranks of clever mediocrity and there to pander [to] the soft, fat, cowardly bourgois instincts.’ For these writers, women are not ‘red-blooded’; the only suggestion that they might be, or the closest approach to such an idea, is this comment by Norris: “[G]ive us men, strong, brutal men, with red-hot blood in ’em, with unleashed passions rampant in ’em, blood and bones and viscera in ’em, and women, too, that move and have their being. This last vague phrase scarcely suggests parity with the ‘red-hot blood’ he allots to men” (63).

I’ll have more from Campbell soon.

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Entry filed under: Ambrose Bierce, American Literary Naturalism, blood, Donna M Campbell, Edward Eggleston, Frank Norris, Gertrude Atherton, Hamlin Garland, Jack London, James Lane Allen, John Sanborn Phillips, Literary Criticism, local-color, Mary E Wilkins Freeman, McTeague, realism, regionalism, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Orne Jewett, Theodore Roosevelt.

Local-Color Resisting Regionalism, Part 2

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