Local color

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Local color

Local color: The depiction of the distinctive characteristics (dialect, dress, mannerisms, culture, etc.) of a particular region, usually in prose writing. Though many writers use local color to lend charm or authenticity to a story, others, particularly realists, have used it to develop character, such as by depicting the breeding grounds of vice and temptation. Fiction in which local color, rather than plot or character, is the focus is called local color writing.

Local color writing typically involves a rural and often remote setting that may feature more prominently in the story than its characters, who may be stock or flat types rather than fully developed individuals. Much local color writing, especially of the less serious kind, takes the form of sketches and short stories, often for magazines with a mass, urban audience, and features idealized, nostalgic, or sentimental depictions of rural life. Common narrative devices include the use of a frame story and a sophisticated narrator from the outside world.

Local color writing is sometimes equated with or classified as a type of regionalism, writing that focuses on the detailed representation of a particular area. Critics who distinguish between the two often treat regionalism as having a broader scope, namely, in incorporating the idea of sectional differences among regions rather than simply focusing on the distinctive characteristics of a particular region.

The use of local color was particularly popular in the United States in the period following the Civil War through the turn of the twentieth century. Bret Harte, whose stories depicted frontier California, and Sarah Orne Jewett, who set her works in rural and coastal Maine, played leading roles in the rise of local color writing. Indeed, many women figured prominently in the local color movement, including Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Harriet Beecher Stowe (New England); Mary N. Murfree (Tennessee); Ruth McEnery Stuart (Arkansas); Alice Dunbar Nelson (Creole New Orleans); and Kate Chopin, who was identified mainly as a local colorist for her representations of Creole life in New Orleans until the (re)discovery of her novel The Awakening (1899). Other notable local color writers of the time were George Washington Cable, who portrayed Creole life in Louisiana; Hamlin Garland, who focused on Midwestern farm life; and Joel Chandler Harris, who based his “Uncle Remus” stories on African American folklore and also wrote other stories about rural Georgia.

EXAMPLES: Harte’s short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868); Stowe’s Oldtown Fireside Stories (1871); Jewett’s short-story collections Deephaven (1877) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); Cable’s novel The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880); Harris’s Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (1880), a collection of animal folk tales featuring Brer Rabbit. Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia: Or, Marse Chan and Other Stories (1887) is associated with the “plantation tradition” that romanticized slavery; Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” (1887) satirized such plantation tales. Twentieth-century poet Robert Frost has also been linked to the local color tradition by the epithet “a poet of New England.”