In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Regionalism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies

American Literature Regionalism
Philip Joseph
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0197


In American literature, regionalism refers to works that describe a distinctive local geography and culture, and to movements that value smaller-scaled representations of place over representations of broad territorial range. Regionalism emerges from the perception of modern geographic plurality; writers and readers understand a larger unit of space (commonly the national territory) to be diversified at its periphery according to topographical features, economy, history, dialect, and manners. A region is always one among many within a common container, characterized by uneven development between center and periphery. Regionalism indicates that a writer has chosen to focus on one of the areas outside the centers of power, and to organize the work around that region. In American literature, regionalism has been associated with the sketch or short story, although the category can accommodate poetry and the novel. Regionalism’s detractors have treated it as a minor form portraying outdated folkways, more parochial than literature that features a larger spatial scale and cosmopolitan characters. Its defenders reject that evaluation, often arguing that regionalism provided access to female, nonwhite, and rural writers, who used the form in innovative and empowering ways. As a literary category, regionalism originates in the post-Civil war era, but many critics locate its origins in the antebellum period, when women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe offered sketches of rural New England, while Southwestern humorists promoted the storytelling style and wilderness settings of the nation’s frontier territories. In the late 19th century, the term gets used interchangeably with “local color” to designate stories set in relatively undeveloped areas, such as coastal New England, the South, the Midwest, and California. Regionalist writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Hamlin Garland, and Charles Chesnutt were perceived to be contributing to American realism, doing so by describing, piecemeal-style, the varied conditions of American life. In the 20th century, regionalist movements such as the “Revolt from the Village” school (Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters) and the “New Regionalism” (Mary Austin and John Crowe Ransom, for example) rejected both modern American standardization and the “local color” writers, accusing those earlier artists of capitulating to East Coast taste. Writers who have been studied as instrumental in the development of 20th-century southern regionalism include William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, while Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gloria Anzaldúa have been especially important in literary regionalism of the West.

Reference Works

Rowe 1989 distinguishes between regionalism and local color, while offering broad coverage of southern regionalist writing. Lambert 2011 provides a theoretically informed entry on the regional novel. At NYU Press’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies website, Zagarell 2014 offers an introduction to the general field of regionalism, with some references to both Criticism and contemporary culture, while Guterl 2014 and Comer 2014 introduce both the scholarship and the cultural meanings that circulate around “the South” and “the West,” respectively.

  • Comer, Krista. “The West.” In Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

    Surveys the development of western studies as a subfield in American studies, beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner and extending through to current scholarship that asserts a counternarrative of the West, informed by feminism, civil rights, and postmodern geography.

  • Guterl, Matthew Pratt. “South.” In Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

    Offers a strong sense of southern literary studies as an evolving field. Guterl emphasizes the imaginary, unstable, and contested nature of the South in American discourse, and how its variant nature has informed current scholarship.

  • Lambert, Caren S. “The Regional Novel.” In Encyclopedia of the Novel. Edited by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal, 667–671. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011.

    Offers a worthwhile discussion of the national imaginary necessary for regionalism’s emergence, and a helpful survey of the contemporary field of American regionalism studies.

  • Rowe, Anne E. “Regionalism and Local Color.” In Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, 867–868. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

    A concise discussion of southern literature within the larger context of regionalism and local color. Covers a wide variety of southern writers, from the late 19th century through the dominance of the Southern Agrarians and the works of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Available online.

  • Zagarell, Sandra. “Region.” In Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

    Highlights the imaginary nature of regions, and specifically the processes of modern organization that lead to their formation and reformation. Zagarell sheds light on the borderlands focus in contemporary culture, reflective of a shift toward a transnational approach to region.

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