- Criticizing Local Color:Innovative Conformity in Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction
It is the height of art to conceal art.Kate Chopin, Commonplace Book
I wonder if the editor, the writer, and the public are ever at one.Kate Chopin, “As You Like It”
One of the difficulties in using regionalism as a descriptive category to discuss late nineteenth-century literature is the series of shifting relationships it has with other terms describing literary production. Not only is there regionalism’s implied connection to realism, there is naturalism, romance, and even local color to consider, if one desires to distinguish between types of regional literary production. Added to this initial framework are the unspoken assumptions concerning intersecting definitions of generic form: the novel is implicitly connected to realism (and later naturalism), while the short story is traditionally associated with regionalism. Further complicating both sets of terms is the implied hierarchical relationship between the realist novel and the publishing industry on the one hand, and the regionalist short story and periodical culture on the other. Collectively, these terms create a series of unequal and asymmetrical relationships that, while informing our current discussions of literature, also exert unseen influence on those debates, primarily because they are more often silently perpetuated than consciously recognized.
This essay will not necessarily resolve these issues; I do not intend to do away with my critical predecessors, or offer a newer and, by proxy, better theoretical framework to explain the difficulty of negotiating literary [End Page 135] form and history. Rather, my interest is in the ways the silent relationships informing discussions of late nineteenth-century literature—silent because those in the present are no longer directly privy to the debates of the past—continue to impact contemporary critical analysis of these literary categories. My particular interest is in the development of an aesthetic definition for regional short stories by Atlantic-group periodical editors (as opposed to regional short fiction published in book collections, often by the exact same publishing houses), precisely as these literary definitions impacted authors’ ability to produce and publish work. Nancy Glazener observes in Reading for Realism that “classification is always an intensely ideological activity, and the classification of fiction in the late nineteenth century is no exception” (1); I would extend this ideological classifying to the positioning of authors by institutional forces like those embodying Atlantic-group periodical editors (hereafter, Atlantic-group), as well as to the strategic responses authors used to circumvent and question these organizations’ ideological imperatives.
The mainstream popular success of regionalism and short story writing in periodicals led to increased editorial control. Atlantic-group editors in search of local color had specific ideas about the stories they wanted; they collectively viewed the regional short story as an apolitical form focusing on America’s rural byways, one that offered a pleasant ending with a positive moral message. Although exceptions did appear, this definition increasingly governed editorial decisions. During the 1880s and ’90s, it also created potential differences in content between stories published in periodicals and those in short story collections; in focusing on location as well as the mimetic fidelity and authenticity of characters, the explicit political dimensions of Atlantic-group stories were elided in favor of documenting cultural and regional difference. Thus, while the growth of periodical culture created new opportunities for authors, these opportunities came with specific parameters regarding the formal possibilities available to authors. Although the novel had its own set of formal limitations, the political efficacy of the form more readily allowed authors to circumvent the stringent limitations of periodical short fiction. Editorial prescriptions represented a material reality that short story authors had to learn to negotiate. For authors simply interested in getting published, this consideration represented one hurdle. Authors interested in publishing work challenging established social hierarchies, however, had to learn to disguise any type of political [End Page 136] commentary with narrative innovations that would allow their work to circumvent editorial censure.
Kate Chopin’s emergence as an author was governed by both these concerns. Although she was by no means the only author to experience the influence of Atlantic-group editors—Charles Chesnutt, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Paul Laurence...