L ike frontier humor, local color writing has old roots but produced its best works long after the Civil War. Obviously, many pre-war writers, from Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, paint striking portraits of specific American regions. What sets the colorists apart is their self-conscious and exclusive interest in rendering a given location, and their scrupulously factual, realistic technique.
Bret Harte (1836-1902) is remembered as the author of adventurous stories such as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," set along the western mining frontier. As the first great success in the local colorist school, Harte for a brief time was perhaps the best-known writer in America -- such was the appeal of his romantic version of the gunslinging West. Outwardly realistic, he was one of the first to introduce low-life characters -- cunning gamblers, gaudy prostitutes, and uncouth robbers -- into serious literary works. He got away with this (as had Charles Dickens in England, who greatly admired Harte's work) by showing in the end that these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold.
Several women writers are remembered for their fine depictions of New England: Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and especially Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). Jewett's originality, exact observation of her Maine characters and setting, and sensitive style are best seen in her fine story "The White Heron" in Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Harriet Beecher Stowe's local color works, especially The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), depicting humble Maine fishing communities, greatly influenced Jewett. Nineteenth-century women writers formed their own networks of moral support and influence, as their letters show. Women made up the major audience for fiction, and many women wrote popular novels, poems, and humorous pieces.
All regions of the country celebrated themselves in writing influenced by local color. Some of it included social protest, especially toward the end of the century, when social inequality and economic hardship were particularly pressing issues. Racial injustice and inequality between the sexes appear in the works of southern writers such as George Washington Cable (1844-1925) and Kate Chopin (1851-1904), whose powerful novels set in Cajun/French Louisiana transcend the local color label. Cable's The Grandissimes (1880) treats racial injustice with great artistry; like Kate Chopin's daring novel The Awakening (1899), about a woman's doomed attempt to find her own identity through passion, it was ahead of its time. In The Awakening, a young married woman with attractive children and an indulgent and successful husband gives up family, money, respectability, and eventually her life in search of self-realization. Poetic evocations of ocean, birds (caged and freed), and music endow this short novel with unusual intensity and complexity.
Often paired with The Awakening is the fine story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Both works were forgotten for a time, but rediscovered by feminist literary critics late in the 20th century. In Gilman's story, a condescending doctor drives his wife mad by confining her in a room to "cure" her of nervous exhaustion. The imprisoned wife projects her entrapment onto the wallpaper, in the design of which she sees imprisoned women creeping behind bars.