Saturday, November 23, 2019
November 23-24, 2019: Teaching Local Color
[On November 18, 1865, Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in The New York Saturday Press (under its original title, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”). So this week I’ve AmericanStudied “Frog” and four other local color short stories, leading up to this special weekend post on teaching such American texts.]
On three classes that illustrate three different pedagogical uses for local color stories.
1) The Survey: The text from this week’s series that I’ve taught most frequently is “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”—in my American Lit II survey class I complement our longer readings with interspersed, shorter supplemental works; since my initial (Spring 2006!) syllabus Harte’s story has served as the first such supplemental text in our opening (late 19th century) unit, complementing Huck Finn. In that role, Harte’s story serves as a stand-in for local color overall, helping us discuss that movement as a key part of American literature and society in that late 19th century time period. While we certainly also discuss more specific and distinct aspects of the story, it’s fair to say that the overall discussion is nonetheless framed by that literary historical question, by conversation about what Harte’s story can help us understand about the concept of “local color writing” as a genre and a movement.
2) America in the Gilded Age: I’ve had the chance to teach a class with this title (based loosely around my first book) four times, first as an English Studies Junior/Senior Seminar and then three times as our Honors Literature Seminar. The latter syllabus in particular features the Harte, Freeman, and Garland stories from this week’s series (along with other texts by Twain and Chesnutt), as well as a few other works that likewise could be classified as local color fiction. That quantity allows us to think (as the semester develops) about local color with more nuance and depth, really considering both similarities and differences across this group of contemporary authors and texts. But at the same time, the ubiquity of local color writing both in the Gilded Age and on the syllabus means that we can in each individual discussion move beyond that frame to think more specifically about the text in front of us—what local worlds it depicts to be sure, but also many other literary and historical elements and threads.
3) Special Author: I believe the only time I’ve taught “Jumping Frog” was in my Fall 2017 Special Author: Mark Twain course. My syllabus for that class moved both chronologically and generically, and for both reasons we started with a unit on Twain’s early journalistic and local color stories. Reading a story like “Jumping Frog” early in the semester made it possible to trace those journalistic and local color elements across much of the rest of Twain’s career and our syllabus, even those texts (like his more socially realistic and/or satirical later works) that might seem quite different from those early genres. But that setting also allowed for distinct readings of “Jumping Frog” than might otherwise have been the case—for example, one of our most central through-lines across the semester was humor, and so in that class we focused on how “Jumping Frog” and all of Twain’s local color stories (and perhaps the genre as a whole, or at least one key thread within it) work as humor far more than I imagine we would in a survey course.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Other local color stories, or teaching experiences, you’d highlight?