Critical Essays Local Color


Local Color reflects the characteristic appearance, mannerisms, speech, and dress of a place or a period. It is a term applied particularly to literature and the arts. Main Street is rich in local color, for Sinclair Lewis saw nature as well as human nature with a photographic eye. Because of the novelist's flair for minute detail, the reader feels that he has actually seen Gopher Prairie in all its unattractiveness and known its narrow-minded and complacent citizens. A choice passage occurs in the author's brief introduction to Main Street:

Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.

References to trivia of an era long past are frequent and contribute much to the local color background. Examples are the turkey trot, sealskin card cases, high black shoes, sailor hats, and marble soda fountains. Other items now long extinct but important to Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century are mentioned; hitching posts, Paige and Overland cars, wall telephones, player pianos, and train transportation as the only means for long-distance travel. Feminine styles included lisle stockings, bobbed hair (just coming into popularity), ox-blood oxfords, ankle-length skirts, and a net frock with pale pink lining. Cigarette smoking and beer drinking by women were frowned on by conservatives of both sexes. So was the woman suffrage movement. Bill Hart was a favorite actor in the silent movies, and Chautauqua programs brought talent to the provinces. The automobile, the telephone, and rural free delivery had but recently begun to increase opportunities for transportation and communication.

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