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Local Color Era
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.

If frankness and realism were dominant characteristics of frontier humor, the movement that superseded it was devoted to delicacy and romanticism. The development of a number of large-circulation, well-paying magazines in New York after the Civil War and an intense interest in things regional encouraged the local color movement, which Bret Harte's California stories instigated. Peculiarities of speech, quaint local customs, distinctive modes of thought, and stories about human nature became the primary subject matter of this fictional movement, and because the South had an abundance of all these qualities in the popular American mind, southern authors flourished. Unlike the frontier humorists, these were conscious craftsmen producing a marketable commodity; thus the finished product says more about popular misconceptions of the South in many cases than it says about the reality, and nothing that might upset the sensibilities of a young maiden, to use William Dean Howells's criterion, was allowed to see print. Although once thought to be early realists, many of the local color writers described a quaint and curious world that may never have existed.

In any case, they came from all parts of the South to vie for space in the popular magazines and described in their fiction the worlds they inhabited—George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Grace King, and Ruth McEnery Stuart from Louisiana; Thomas Nelson Page and John Esten Cooke (in his postwar fiction) from Virginia; Richard Malcolm Johnston, Harry Stillwell Edwards, and Will N. Harben from Georgia; James Lane Allen from Kentucky; Sherwood Bonner from Mississippi; and Mary Noailles Murfree from Tennessee. The aesthetic sensibilities of such writers as Cable, Chopin, and Murfree allowed them to achieve a level of psychological sophistication in their characters and a stylistic skill unusual for their times.

Joel Chandler Harris's popularity was also fed by the same interests that fostered the local color writers, but his was a special achievement. Although the exterior settings and scenes for his stories of Uncle Remus were directly out of a romantic world of a Thomas Nelson Page, the stories themselves are remarkable renderings of Afro-American folktales, in which Brer Rabbit serves as an exemplum for black survival in an Anglo-American world. Harris greatly improved, then, on the legacy of happy darky stereotypes that Page and the Mississippi dialect poet Irwin Russell had left. One black writer who spoke for his own race in local color fiction was Charles Waddell Chesnutt, raised in North Carolina, but he had to begin his literary career by disguising his racial identity because of the prejudice that only whites could understand and explain blacks.

The American reading audience seemed to glory in the tales of southern times "befo' de wah," but some southern writers and leaders began a movement to reject that heritage for a concept of a New South that would be industrialized, modernized, and adapted to the larger pattern of American economic and social development. George Washington Cable and Joel Chandler Harris were supporters of this movement, but the intellectual leaders were journalists Walter Hines Page and Henry W. Grady, and Booker T. Washington in the black community.

Their sentiments were shared by the best postwar poet in the South, Sidney Lanier of Georgia, whose poetry aimed for a musical and tonal beauty that stressed sound over content and whose literary criticism attempted to establish a basis for versification in the principles of music. Less-accomplished poets publishing at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were John Bannister Tabb of Virginia; former slave Albery Allson Whitman, Madison Cawein, Cale Young Rice, and Olive Tilford Dargan, all of Kentucky; Lizette Woodworth Reese of Maryland; William Alexander Percy of Mississippi; and John Gould Fletcher of Arkansas, at first a member of the Imagist school of poets in London and later a member of the Fugitive poets, but overshadowed by more talented writers of both groups.

At the turn of the century, southern literature was dominated by several writers residing in Richmond, Va. Mary Johnston produced a series of popular historical romances set in Virginia, while her friend Ellen Glasgow, much more the insightful and talented artist, wrote a series of distinctive and well-crafted novels designed to constitute a social history of the state. Her critical realism was counterbalanced by the medieval romanticism and fantasy of James Branch Cabell, whose epic biography of Manuel set in Poictesme turns out to be, after all, an ironic, disguised commentary on the manners and mores of his real world. The following generation of writers in Richmond proved to be eminent journalists and historians —Douglas Southall Freeman, who finally left newspaper work after 34 years to complete his distinguished biography of Robert E. Lee; Clifford Dowdey, who had equal success in magazine editing, publishing historical novels, and writing Civil War histories; and Virginius Dabney, who paralleled a career in journalism with that of a liberal commentator on history, politics, and social change in the South.