- Together by Accident: American Local Color Literature and the Middle Class
Stephanie C. Palmer's Together by Accident: American Local Color Literature and the Middle Class begins as literary criticism ought to begin, with a text-based observation; specifically, in her case, the insight that the literary motif of "the travel accident," while common enough in literature from any number of locations and historical periods, recurs in nineteenth-century American local color writing with particularly provocative implications. Palmer begins with the iconic passage in Thomas Bailey Aldrich's An Old Town by the Sea (1893) when a train accident in a small town is employed to signify the death of "local character," which makes "the deaths of all localities seem inevitable" (1, 2). In response to technological advancement, population growth, and urbanization, local colorists fixed their gaze on the provinces.
Hence the contemporary critique of local color writing's limitations and with it an explanation of the genre's decline. In the words of Donna M. Campbell, from her Resisting Regionalism (1997), "local color fiction celebrates the lives of humble, ordinary people in an environment threatened by time, change, and external disruption" (7). Where naturalism dwelled on humanity's inherent animalism, local color writing celebrated "continuity, community, reverence for the past, and above all endurance rather than defiance in the face of adversity" (8). A middle-class figure often retreats to a simpler locale, giving rise to the question of whether the relationship between subject and object, between writer and subject matter is fundamentally hierarchical and an act of ideological disavowal.
Palmer argues for a new reading of local color texts that appreciates layers of complexity beyond the central message of Aldrich's An Old Town by the Sea. She states, "in terms of Aldrich's metaphor, in local color fiction, the train does not always kill local character; sometimes local character wrecks the train" (3). For Palmer, the travel accident motif becomes a hot spot for textual resistance. With "interrupted or disastrous travel or travel that brings about unexpected or uncomfortable interactions with strangers," according to Palmer, "modernization and urbanization are challenged within the text" (3). At the heart of Palmer's work, in other words, is the argument that local color literature of the period, while clearly implicated by the class politics that led to its creation, can also address the problematic [End Page 200] power relationships inherent to the genre. Palmer argues, "a middle-class writer who works for the national literary market does not destroy the place but rather indexes the way that the place acts upon the middle-class writer" (10).
Palmer's chapters focus on Caroline Kirkland, Eliza Farnham, and Rose Terry Cooke; Bret Harte and Sarah Orne Jewett; Rebecca Harding Davis and Thomas Detter; William Dean Howells; and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Her work is historically grounded, attentive to the text as a site of meaning, and an engaging read. Readers of Western American Literature will no doubt be particularly interested in her discussion of Kirkland and Harte, but her central argument about the way a narrative motif can express the complexities of region is also provocative and well worth consideration.