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

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Charles W. Chesnutt, Kate Chopin

Who's Interviewed:
Jocelyn Chadwick, associate professor of education (Harvard University); Emory Elliott, professor of English (University of California, Riverside); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history (Princeton University)

Points Covered:
• Introduction to the emergence of new, realistic sounding voices in American literature after the Civil War. Writers who represented regions, classes, and races that had not traditionally been given a voice in American literature demanded representation in the popular imagination and the right to satirize and criticize America in new ways. The American South was an important site for the formation of the literary movement, often called "regional realism."

• Samuel Clemens--better known as Mark Twain--transformed American literature with his skilled representation of regional dialect and his willingness to confront Americans with the difficult issues of racial and class inequality. Favoring the real over the fantastic or the romantic, Twain could make readers uncomfortable with his unsparing representations of the often unpleasant reality of the human condition. At the same time, his satiric portraits of American life often charm readers with their humor and comedy. His masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continues to create controversy for its vivid evocation of racial tensions.

• Charles W. Chesnutt, a writer of mixed African American and white descent, created psychologically complex characters and representations of vernacular speech to challenge American stereotypes about race. His stories are often preoccupied with the problems faced by people of mixed blood who lived on what he called "the color line" between black and white society.

• Kate Chopin set her stories and novels within the distinctive culture of Louisiana Creole and Cajun society. Exploring the frustration of women bound by restrictive social conventions, her work is feminist in its implications. Chopin's frank depictions of both female sexual passion and discontent within marriage made her work extremely controversial in her own time.

• These southern practitioners of regional realism rejected idealistic romanticism in order to bear accurate witness to the reality of the world around them. In the process, they created complex characters faced with challenging moral dilemmas. Their work opened up new voices and new insights that democratized American literature and transformed national conceptions of what it means to be American.

• Preview the video: American culture was changing rapidly in the post-Civil War era: new technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad bound the continent together, postwar racial tensions brought the issue of the "color line" to the forefront of American consciousness, and a new commitment to realistic representation transformed literary style. Writers responded to these cultural developments by producing texts that paid close attention to the specifics of people and place in particular regions of the country, evoking the distinctive culture of areas of America that had not been previously represented. The South was an important site for the development of this movement, often called "regional realism." Mark 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 evocation of racial tension 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.

• What to think about while watching: How do these authors challenge Americans to grapple with difficult issues regarding social class, region, and race? How do these writers react against romantic conventions to create a new aesthetic in American literature? Why is the realistic representation of dialect so important in late nineteenth-century American literature? How do these depictions of regional life expand traditional ideas about American identity? How did the regional realist movement impact subsequent American fiction?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 8 expands on the issues outlined in the video to further explore the scope and impact of regional realism on American literature and culture in areas outside of the South. The curriculum materials offer background on Native American, African American, and European American writers who represent the language, customs, and cultures of New England, California, and the midwestern plains. The unit offers contextual background to expand on the video's introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped these realistic depictions of life in regional America.

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