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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
Midway through his adventures, Huck Finn comes to the "strange and unregular" conclusion that telling the truth might be the best way both to narrate his experiences and to accomplish his own ends. In a speech that is characteristically simultaneously humorous and profound, Mark Twain has Huck meditate on the nature of truth: I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place, is taking considerable many resks, though I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better, and actuly safer, than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. Huck's radical decision to "up and tell the truth" despite the "resks" epitomizes the stylistic and thematic transformations shaping American literature during the second half of the nineteenth century. A new commitment to the accurate representation of American life as it was experienced by ordinary Americans infused literature with a new "realist" aesthetic. Realism was characterized by its uncompromising literal representations of daily life, and by its resistance to the emotional extravagance and fanciful settings that had characterized Romantic and sentimental fiction. This passion for finding and presenting the truth led many American practitioners of realism to explore characters, places, and events that had never before seemed appropriate subject matter for literature. American audiences, for their part, evinced a new willingness to read about unrefined and even ugly subjects in the interest of gaining authentic accounts of the world around them.

Many writers expressed their realist aesthetic by emphasizing the particularities of geographic settings, evoking the distinctive customs, speech, and culture of specific regions of the United States in their work. This attention to the peculiarities of place flourished after the Civil War, as Americans began to conceive of themselves as part of a single, unified nation and as curiosity grew about regions of the country that had once seemed too far off and strange to matter. Regional realism may also have developed as an act of nostalgia and conservation in response to the rapid postwar industrialization and homogenization that was threatening older, traditional ways of life. By chronicling the specific details of regional culture, regional realism preserved a record of ways of life and habits of speech that were suddenly in danger of disappearing as a result of the newspapers, railroads, and mass-produced consumer goods that were standardizing American culture. Many regionalist writers became accomplished at transcribing the authentic rhythms and idioms of local dialect in their efforts to make their characters' dialogue mimic the way people really talked. Literalized, phonetic spellings forced readers to pronounce words as speakers of a regional dialect would pronounce them.

A commitment to capturing accurately the realities and peculiarities of regional culture distinguishes all of the authors featured in Unit 8, "Regional Realism: Depicting the Local in American Literature, 1865-1900." As they recorded and commented on the distinctive speech and customs that distinguished specific geographical areas, these writers also struggled with the role of class and gender in local life and in the construction of American identity. This unit explores the regional representations of a wide variety of late-nineteenth-century texts, including works composed by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charles W. Chesnutt, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), Alexander Posey, and Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin). The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers represented the distinguishing characteristics of American life in the South, in the West, in New England, and on the Great Plains. The video for Unit 8 focuses on three influential practitioners of regional realism in the South: Mark Twain, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Kate Chopin. Twain used realism and regional dialect in his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to challenge readers to come to new conclusions about the role of race and class in America. His complex portrait of race relations in the 1840s continues to inspire controversy. Charles W. Chesnutt adopted the regional realist style to explore the contradictions of life on the "color line" between black and white society and to challenge racial stereotypes. Kate Chopin depicted the exotic culture of Creole and Cajun Louisiana, offering a controversial exploration of the constraints placed on women's individuality and sexuality in the process. All of these writers were committed to providing realistic representations of their local cultures and to constructing complicated, believable characters who faced complex moral dilemmas about the nature of their American identities.

In its coverage of these writers and texts, the video introduces students to the basic tenets of the aesthetic of regional realism and foregrounds the movement's relationship to the social and political challenges facing post-Civil War America. How do these texts both reflect and construct cultural values? How do regionalist writings portray the distinct cultures and experiences of different ethnic groups? How do they explore issues of gender? How do regional realist texts record the linguistic specificity of regional speech? Why were representations of dialect so popular in late-nineteenth-century America? In what ways did regional texts participate in the construction of a broader, more general "American" character? Unit 8 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials expand the video's introduction to regional realism by exploring writers who represented different regions and different concerns about class and ethnicity, such as Bret Harte (who focused on the culture of the Old West in California), Joel Chandler Harris (a white writer who recorded the dialect and folktales of African American slave culture), and Zitkala-Sa (a Sioux woman who found herself caught between European American customs and traditional Indian culture).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) the development of "parlor culture" and ideals of domestic gentility; (2) Native American oral and visual autobiographical expressions; (3) the role of journalistic ideals in the development of the realist aesthetic; (4) the centrality of the "trickster" figure to expressions of ethnic identity; (5) the importance of developments in the study of anatomy and photography in visual expressions of realism.

The archive and the curriculum materials suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have American ideas about realistic representation and the possibility of recording "truth" changed over time? How have realist ideals shaped contemporary aesthetics? How did the use of dialect impact later authors' dialogue and poetry? How have American ideas about the relationship between specific regions and the country as a whole changed over time?

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