Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
“Sally Parson’s Duty,” a short story by Rose Terry Cooke, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly’s debut issue of November 1857, almost ten years before the young William Dean Howells would begin his official association with the magazine. Cooke’s story opens, “The sun that shines on Eastern Massachusetts …” The first bit of dialogue a reader encounters is spoken by ’Zekiel Parsons, who addresses an old friend: “I expect, Long, you sailors hev a drefful hard, onsartain time navigatin’, don’t ye?” (24). In specifying from the start the region in which her story will occur (not simply Massachusetts, but Eastern Massachusetts) and in using non-standard phonetic spelling and symbols such as apostrophes (even in ’Zekiel’s name) to convey not only what her rural characters say but what they sound like, Cooke immediately marks the story as belonging to an emerging genre in the United States, known at the time as local color and subsequently also called regionalism (we will return to the question of nomenclature below). Put simply, a local-color or regionalist story is one in which place – that is, the story’s geographic setting – not only serves as background but also plays a prominent role in the story’s foreground. A reader is always aware of the setting: it becomes an inextricable part of the story’s texture, influencing such elements as plot, theme, atmosphere, characterization and characters’ speech. Local-color settings, moreover, are usually depicted as someplace outside the mainstream, at a distance from national centers of financial, political, or cultural power.
Though local-color fiction was being written and published at least twenty-five years before a self-conscious movement for literary realism existed in the United States, it enjoyed its greatest public and critical success in the 1870s and 1880s during the period when literary realism became prominent. In those post-Civil War decades, younger writers such as Mary Murfree (who used the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock), Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Hamlin Garland moved away from the local-color genre’s antebellum association with humorous stereotypes and aligned their own regionally focused writing with realist principles as they were being practiced by figures such as Howells. Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, told her readers in 1877 that to enjoy her portrayal of “a quiet old-fashioned country town” on the Maine coast, they must care to look closely at “every-day life,” and take “an instinctive, delicious interest in what to other eyes is unflavored dullness” (Novels and Stories (Deephaven) 37).