Foreword | October 30, 2017
Foreword: Local Color
This issue is replete with the color and vibrancy of place, setting and spoken language. What came to be called the Local Color Movement was especially vigorous for over a half century after the Civil War, when this nation and its literature were rising to unparalleled worldwide importance. Before copyright laws came into being in the late 1890s, magazines in Britain were beginning to steal as much from American magazines as we had long been stealing from the British. Several things happened at once to make editors and readers grow interested in settings and spoken language, including the broad popularity of authors like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, whose fiction partook intensely of cultural environments, whether of the working poor or criminal class in London or life on the Mississippi or the American West. During the 1880s and ’90s, that interest went so far as to include a fascination with “hearing” the way people spoke in different environments. Our literature in general—not just the Local Color Movement—showed what seemed like a natural desire to mend a country that had been torn apart by the Civil War. During the hottest period of Local Color, many of the stories in major American magazines were printed in almost unreadably dialectal spelling, suggesting a genuine fascination with the lyrical sound of place.
The movement also arose from the sheer enjoyment of language and phrasing and cultural richness in a nation that now had rail lines, a well-established mail service, newspapers, and magazines. The United States was finally unified enough to relish its own variety. Some recent critics, such as Brad Evans and Amy Kaplan, believe that local color writing was anything but a mournful yearning for a “pure” or lost preindustrial past. They believe that it showed an appreciation of our messy complexity as well as an urge toward reunification of the country.
Two of my favorite local color writers are Ellen Glasgow and Kate Chopin. Glasgow was a realist and a feminist of the early twentieth century. Her novel Barren Ground, 1925, describes the hard life of Dorinda Oakley, daughter of a failing farmer in Virginia, who becomes pregnant but then leaves a doomed relationship and goes to New York, where she studies scientific agriculture. She comes back to her property in Virginia, turning it into a modern and successful dairy farm, only to suffer through a chain of struggles, including an ill mother and bad second marriage. It’s a starkly realistic novel about an independent, strong, productive woman who works to turn her place of origin into a success story but for whom life remains an unforgiving challenge. Kate Chopin was another writer whose fiction was associated with both the South and the Local Colorists. Originally from St. Louis, Chopin moved to New Orleans, where she began specializing in dialectal stories about Southern life. Also like Glasgow, Chopin had a strong urge toward realism, particularly regarding sexuality and the oppressive politesse of “ladylike” behavior and motherhood. The Awakening(1899), set in the Creole culture of New Orleans and Grande Isle, was so far ahead of its time regarding a woman’s independence and sexuality that it was widely condemned, forcing Chopin to turn back entirely to writing short stories. Local color in fact reaches through the last century all the way to the present, through writers such as William Faulkner, Charles Portis, Eudora Welty, and Richard Ford. Faulkner in fact grew tired of the appetite of magazines in the 1930s for local color, expressing in letters to friends that he was sick of being curious and quaint and “Southern,” but after he had achieved fame and recognition in the 1940s, he went back to these subjects in some of his best late books, including The Hamlet.
This issue’s darkly comic story by Kim Coleman Foote, “How to Kill Gra’ Coleman and Live to Tellabout It (Vauxhall, NJ, c. 1949),” depicts a harsh African-American matriarch who is tasked with raising her grandchildren. Angry at the abuse they receive from her, her grandchildren decide to poison her. But this woman hasn’t achieved her place as head of the family by accident; she proves to be tougher and harder to eliminate than they expect. “Book of the Generations” by Kelli Jo Ford is set in Oklahoma in the early ‘70s. It follows Justine, a pregnant Cherokee teenager, and her mother, whose membership in a strict Holiness church has dominated their lives. Ford evokes both the milieu of poor Native American families and the harsh yet strangely nurturing fundamentalism of the congregation. “A Place in the World” by Alethea Black is the story about of a twenty-something young woman trying to find her way, rather desperately, after her famous mathematician father’s death. The story is anchored in NYC, featuring familiar details of twenty-first-century New York.
“The Longest Night of the Year” by Stephanie Carpenter is a comic story about a desperate man, post divorce, who tries to hook up with someone new. Cameron tries online dating to meet a woman for casual sex. He meets the eccentric Theresa, who expresses interest in his northern lake house, set amid tall pines. When she locks herself in his guest room a few days before Christmas and refuses to come out, Cameron slowly realizes that Theresa wasn’t interested in him at all but in access to a certain place on a certain night of the year. Max Harris’s “When Cuckoos Run the Day Care Centers” is a fantastic story about a preadolescent British village boy and girl who wander into an archetypal wood and are transported by a giant worm into a subterranean dystopia. After escaping, they go separate ways, but the experience shapes the rest of their lives, and eventually they are forced to reckon with this mythic place.
Bettina Drew’s memoir “Department of Development,” set in New Rochelle, New York, reminisces about her charming alcoholic work colleague, David, a music aficionado. The local color in this essay consists largely in conveying the laid-back atmosphere of a city bureaucracy that still seems to be stuck in the ‘70s, and the web of affectionate friends and connections that surround Drew’s talented but hopelessly alcoholic friend and mentor. “Heavy Metal” by Robin Romm takes the reader to a metal refinery in Portland, Oregon, during an earlier time in Romm’s life, when things seemed to be falling apart for her both personally and professionally. The essay evokes the beauty of the Pacific Northwest yet the despair of a young adult whose hopes for stability seem less and less obtainable.
Josh Myers’s lyrical, gritty poem “Oklahoma” shows the splintering of a family against a backdrop of guns, tornados, and religion. All of his poems are deeply connected to place, whether offering a litany for or against red states or in finding momentary kindness at a county fair. They are brutal, sharp portraits of our many American ways. Eleanor Swanson’s poems areimagistic, understated and spare. In one a man remembers the “star-shaped hole” that he made when he fell through the ice as a boy; in another, a woman stares at a black-and-white photograph, unable to know the true stories of those pictured. Jeanne Lutz takes farm life as the main subject of her poems. Particularly concerned with ecology and the survival of small organic farms, Lutz moves with ease among their animal and human subjects, taking snapshots that surprise us with humor and pathos.
Kristine Somerville’s Curio Cabinet feature highlights Sylvia Beach and her renowned Left Bank bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. The cozy two rooms at No. 12 rue de l’Odéon was filled with antiques, Persian rugs, and Blake sketches and smelling of print, paper, and wood. It played host to writers who would become the leading lights of the Modernist movement: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Valéry, Andre Gidé, and Gertrude Stein. Beach was a one-woman, one-book publishing company, bringing Joyce’s Ulysses into print when more prominent publishing houses turned their backs out of fear of prosecution for obscenity. Somerville’s piece portrays Beach as a survivor, enduring Joyce’s boundless demands and the two world wars that threatened her life and business.
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