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American Regionalism Literature

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American Regionalism Literature

“Jim had a hairball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it."1 The American Regionalism literature movement happened in response to the political and social changes of the nineteenth century. Although examples testify that different regions had customs and societal rules that separated them, American Regionalism authors shared a set of characteristics in their writing that defined the meaning of American Regionalism literature as a genre.

American Regionalism Literature Map of early 1900s United States shows rough regional borders StudySmarterThis map of The United States in the early 1900s also gives an idea of the rough borders of American Regionalism literature, Wikimedia

American Regionalism meaning in literature

American Regionalism refers to literature focusing on a specific region of the United States. As early as colonial times, people were aware distinct cultures existed between areas separated by geography. American Regionalist authors captured these details by writing their dialogue using dialect, having characters perform customs local to the area, and including geographical characteristics unique to the region.

Influences on American Regionalism

Some influences on American Regionalism literature include:

Southwestern Humor

Beginning in 1790, authors published sketches and short stories shaped partly by tall tales in Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi–the region known as the “old Southwest.”

A tall tale is a wildly exaggerated story about the adventures of a larger-than-life folk hero, told as if it were a factual account.

Its intended audience was educated white men, and it was written in dialect using coarse language, crude situations, and physical humor. Familiar characters of Southwestern humor were the braggart, the con man, the mighty hunter, and the trickster. These tales subvert the Man vs. Nature conflict with humor to assert control over the wilderness while describing it in larger-than-life and/or mythical terms.

Down East Humor

Named after the sailing wind that blows from Boston to Maine, it focuses on the Northeast region. Like Southwestern humor, characters speak in vernacular, and the stories include mannerisms and geographical imagery that reflects the area.

Andrew Jackson becoming president majorly affected the development of Down East humor. His lack of social status and distrust of European influence was a blueprint for the character who became known as the “comic Yankee.” The comic Yankee was from a rural area, used common sense, and valued tradition over progress. There was usually a political slant to Down East humor, and the comic Yankee was a “wise fool” whose lack of complexity unintentionally exposed the cracks in the system. In addition, the comic Yankee’s outsider status allowed them to make conventionally moral observations.

Realism

Around the mid-nineteenth century, authors began to portray the world in their writing, warts and all. Rather than write about high society, they began to examine working and lower-class life. Their stories presented complex, true-to-life characters who sometimes behaved in ways that went against societal norms.

Realism differed from previous schools of writing because realistic works didn’t idealize society. In fact, authors used realism to critique outdated values and beliefs. Realism uses plain language and everyday situations to portray reality objectively.

American Regionalism Movement

The American Regionalism movement sprouted just before the Civil War and increased in popularity until the early twentieth century. American Regionalism texts tend to be written about rural areas, though some exceptions exist.

The Civil War and urbanization were factors in creating the American Regionalism movement. One of the outcomes of the Civil War was that it helped create a national identity. When the national government won the Civil War, national interests inadvertently eclipsed regional personalities. In addition, the masses of people who left rural areas to live in the city eventually adapted to the city's culture. At the regional level, people reacted to these changes by examining what made their area unique.

As such, the American Regionalism movement was vital in reuniting the country after the Civil War by creating bonds between the regions. In other words, they found a shared national history by discussing their cultural differences. Similarly, comparing urban life to the rural life left behind allowed the middle-class audience to become a community that was able to see how far they'd progressed as a civilized society.

American Regionalism literature characteristics

Scholars drew regional lines around coastal New England, the South, the Midwest, and the West. American Regionalism literature applied a broad group of characteristics to each specific region.

Setting

The setting of an American Regionalism text is crucial because the author intends for the story to be about a specific region. Because of this, Regionalist authors usually rely on the area's defining characteristics rather than plot to tell their story. If there is a plot, it revolves around the region’s customs and beliefs. The region’s geographical features are woven through the text, and sometimes the author uses topographical details to create conflict or function as a character.

For example, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the Mississippi River directly affects Huck and Jim’s ability to escape.

Narrator

American Regionalism literature includes a narrator whose function is to translate the region’s culture for the reader. The narrator can be from the area or an outsider. The reader must determine the narrator’s reliability when they are also a character in the story. The narrator’s tone is usually sympathetic or ironic, but the author uses the lesson that the narrator learns from their observations as a way to include a moral value.

An “unreliable narrator” is the narrator of a story that lacks credibility. Depending on the text, the narrator can appear unreliable immediately or as the story unfolds. A narrator can be purposely unreliable (deceptive), unreliable because they don’t have all the necessary information, or psychologically unaware they are unreliable. A function of the unreliable narrator is to make readers question their perspective. The narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) is an example of an unreliable narrator.

Jean Finch, or “Scout,” as she’s nicknamed in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is both a narrator and character. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between the time Scout is five and eight and is written from that perspective, but there are clues in the text that it is actually Scout as an adult who is relating the events that took place. Using this technique, Lee could craft a story about Southern race relations that appealed to readers' sense of justice and recollections of their childhood naivety.

Themes

Change is a common theme in American Regionalism literature. However, there is a spectrum of resistance to change among works within the American Regionalism genre. Some texts are openly nostalgic about their traditional roots, while others use regionalism to offer social critique.

Cultural Touchstones

American Regionalism texts immerse readers in a specific region by drifting away from the storyline to share details that make the setting come alive. The narrator or other characters will tell stories that don’t have much to do with the plot, but they explain the history, superstitions, and customs of the region. Dialogue is written in dialect to try to mimic the way people from that area speak.

American Regionalism Literature American Regionalism borrowed from storytelling to share stories of regional cultural differences StudysmarterAmerican Regionalism literature borrowed from the tradition of storytelling to create an opportunity to share stories of regional cultural differences, Wikimedia

American Regionalism authors

Numerous household-name authors have written American Regionalism literature, such as:

The American Regionalism genre was important because it told stories typically sidelined or hidden. The rural experience, women, and minorities often found their place in this genre.

American Regionalism literature examples

Some examples of the American Regionalism literature genre include:

The Awakening (1899)

Kate Chopin’s critique of New Orleans’s upper class is an example of American Regionalism literature that uses the genre to illuminate outdated customs. Chopin’s protagonist Edna Pontellier is an outsider, which allows her to challenge social and class norms and expose them to the reader. Chopin creates a community of characters interacting and speaking to each other, just as they would in nineteenth-century Creole high society.

The Conjure Woman (1899)

Charles W Chesnutt was an African American author at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time, the mainstream literary market was primarily white, so Chesnutt had to appeal to a white audience in order to build a literary reputation. His book of short stories infuses subtle irony into American Regionalism literary techniques to poke fun at nineteenth-century African American stereotypes. His main character, Uncle Julius, beguiles the white audience with plantation stories while subverting the nostalgic hue surrounding them. Uncle Julius operates as a familiar “old slave” storyteller who speaks in a simple dialect. However, he speaks plainly, and his stark language does not allow the reality of slavery to hide in euphemisms. Underneath the “good old days” motif lies an honest look at history and moral condemnation.

Plantation stories are an example of a genre similar to American Regionalism known as “local color.” Local color stories use the same literary techniques as American Regionalism but use the methods to glorify rather than paint a realistic picture. Plantation stories were stories written after the Civil War that idealized slavery and characterized enslaved people as happy to be part of a system that worked together peacefully with a singular goal in mind.

The Yearling (1938)

Perhaps less controversial, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s story is about a boy in rural Florida who befriends a baby deer. The Yearling won the Pulitzer in 1939 for Rawling’s realistic depiction of life in the backwoods. This coming-of-age story uses American Regional literary techniques to contrast rural and urban life in Florida.

American Regionalism Literature - Key takeaways

  • American Regionalism literature became popular as a genre starting just before the Civil War and extending into the twentieth century.
  • Some influences on American Regionalism literature were Southwest humor, Down East humor, and Realism.
  • Characteristics shared among American Regionalism texts include a setting that highlights physical landmarks of the region, a narrator that translates the culture for the reader, a theme that focuses on the changes coming to the region, and cultural touchstones such as customs and superstitions that define the region.
  • American Regionalism texts exist on a spectrum that measures their resistance to the changes in American society.
  • American Regionalism literature was important because it included voices and stories previously sidelined by the traditional literary market.

References

  1. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884

Frequently Asked Questions about American Regionalism Literature

Regionalism in American literature refers to literature focusing on a specific region of the United States. American Regionalist authors captured these details by writing their dialogue using dialect, having characters perform customs local to the area, and including geographical characteristics unique to the region. 

Characteristics that are shared among different American Regionalism texts include: 

  • A setting that highlights physical landmarks of the region
  • A narrator that translates the culture for the reader
  • A theme that focuses on the changes coming to the region
  • Cultural touchstones such as customs and superstitions that define the region

The American Regionalism literary movement became popular as a genre starting just before the Civil War and extending into the twentieth century. 

American Regionalism literature was important because it included voices and stories that were previously sidelined by the traditional literary market.

Some examples of American Regionalism literature are:

  • Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899)
  • Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899)
  • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling (1938)


Final American Regionalism Literature Quiz

Question

Characteristics of Southern Fiction include all of the following EXCEPT:

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a contempt for the surroundings

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Sub-genres of Southern Fiction include all of the following EXCEPT:

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Slave Narrative

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What is Southern Fiction? 

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Southern Fiction is typically defined as novels and stories set in the Southern United States or written by authors from that area. They are often about the culture, society, beliefs, or the actual geographic location. 

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Why is Southern Fiction unique? 

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Southern literature is unique because it carries with the influences of both white Southerners and African-Americans. 

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Examples of Southern Fiction writers include all of the following EXCEPT:

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What is the name of Faulkner's fictitious county?  

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Yoknapatawpha County is the name of the fictional county Faulkner created. 

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After what real-life location did Faulkner base his fictional county on? 

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Lafayette County in Mississippi was the inspiration for Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

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Why is Southern Fiction important? 

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Southern Fiction is important because it represents a unique region in America with defining characteristics and social, political, and societal influences that are exclusive to the area. 

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What piece of literature is Ralph Ellison best known for? 

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He is best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952). 

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What does Phoenix Jackson represent in Welty's "A Worn Path"? 

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Representative of a community that rises from the ashes, Phoenix Jackson is steadfast when faced with racism, discrimination, and physical exhaustion.

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What is American Regionalism literature?

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American regionalism refers to literature focusing on a specific region of the United States. 

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Influences on American Regionalism literature include:

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All of the Above

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How did American Regionalism help reunite the country after the Civil War?

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American Regionalism literature helped reunite the country after the Civil War by creating bonds between the regions.  

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What function does the narrator in American Regionalism literature serve?

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The narrator in American Regionalism literature translates the culture of the region for the reader.

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Why is The Awakening an example of American Regionalism literature?

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The Awakening is an example of American Regionalism literature because it creates a community of characters that interact and speak in the style of upper-class New Orleans that questions its norms.

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What does Charles W. Chesnutt accomplish with his character Uncle Julius?

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Charles W. Chesnutt is able to subvert nineteenth-century African American stereotypes with his character Uncle Julius.

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True or False: American Regionalism literature is important because it allows a white middle-class audience to read about things they normally wouldn't.

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False: American Regionalism literature is important because it allowed women and minorities to tell their stories.

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What do American Regionalism authors accomplish by drifting away from the plot to talk about regional customs?

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By drifting away from the plot to talk about regional customs, American Regionalism authors are able to better create a realistic picture of the region for the reader.

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Why do American Regionalism authors write in dialect?

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American Regionalism authors write in dialect to mimic the way the people of the region speak.

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True or Flase: Some American Regionalism texts embrace the societal changes that were happening more than others.

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True: American Regionalism texts exist on a spectrum as far as their resistance to the changes that were happening in nineteenth-century America.

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What is local color?

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Local color refers to clothes, mannerisms, customs, and language that define a particular place or time.

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What is the main difference between regionalism literature and local color novels?

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Regionalism literature is written in a more realistic style than local color novels.

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How does Romanticism's influence on local color literature cause it to stereotype the characters it's trying to represent?

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Romanticism's tendency to dramatize and exaggerate to emphasize emotional response creates characters in local color novels who stereotype the people they’re meant to represent.  

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True or False: the "black Mammy" character was vital to postwar rapport in local color novels.

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True: The "black Mammy" character in local color novels was vital to postwar rapport because Southern white characters looked for her approval during their identity transformation. Writing the black Mammy with the freedom to express herself was a step toward personal agency.

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Why do critics feel there was gender bias in characterizing women as local color authors?

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Critics feel there was gender bias involved in characterizing women as local color authors because local color was considered to be a frivolous genre.

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All of these are characteristics of local color writing EXCEPT:

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An urban setting

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True or False: Local color writers were from the regions they wrote about.

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False: Although some local color writers were from the regions they wrote about, much of local color writing was created for Eastern newspaper and magazine audiences.

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True or False: Local color novels contributed to the United States' national identity.

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True: The cultural discourse found in local color novels helped form the United States' national identity after the Civil War.

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Why did writers choose to write local color novels?

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Writers chose to write local color novels in response to the massive political and cultural changes happening in the United States.

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What were local color authors responding to by emphasizing the relationship humans had with nature?

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Local color writers were responding to the increased urbanization of rustic areas by emphasizing the relationship between humans and nature.

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What is the focus of African American literature?

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A focus of African American literature is for its authors to discuss issues such as identity, history, and the African American experience.

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How were Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley able to shed light on the subject of slavery?

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Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley were able to shed light on the subject of slavery by discussing it in relation to the Bible.

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True or False: Slave narratives were used in the abolitionist movement. 

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True: Slave narratives were used in the abolitionist movement to help spread awareness.

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What did African American literature written during the Harlem Renaissance accomplish?

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African American literature during the Harlem Rennaisance gave African Americans control over their representation in American society.

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How did African American newspapers contribute to African American literature?

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The development of African American newspapers created a space for fiction and nonfiction writers.

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Themes in African American literature include:

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All of the above

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True or False: The reason African American literature is important hasn't changed much over time.

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False: The reasons African American literature is important has evolved alongside African American and American culture.

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What did the first examples of African American literature accomplish in American society?

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The first examples of African American literature challenged the belief that Africans were less than human and affirmed that slavery was morally wrong.

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What important task does contemporary African American literature perform?

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Contemporary African American literature performs the important task of questioning the popular historical narrative and replacing it with a more honest version of events. 

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What influence did the Harlem Renaissance have on the Civil Rights movement?

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African American literature during the Harlem Renaissance inspired African Americans to believe in themselves, allowing them to fight for the rights they deserve.

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True or False: Crime fiction is usually about murder.

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True: Crime fiction is usually about murder, but other crimes, such as white-collar crimes or kidnapping, are sometimes featured.

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True or False: The crimes in crime fiction have stayed the same over time.

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False: The crimes in crime fiction have evolved alongside society's ideas of what is illegal.

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How did the Industrial Revolution contribute to the development of crime fiction?

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The Industrial Revolution contributed to the development of crime fiction because crime increased as people moved from rural to urban areas. Crime fiction became an outlet for people's fears.

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Who is believed to have written the first American detective story?

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Edgar Allan Poe is believed to have written the first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841.

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Why do crime fiction authors include red herrings?

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Crime fiction authors include red herrings to trick readers and introduce a plot twist.

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When was the Golden Age of crime fiction?

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The Golden Age of crime fiction was in the 1920s and 1930s.

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What were some characteristics of 1940s hardboiled crime fiction?

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All of the above

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What did crime fiction transition to in the 1950s and 1960s?

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Crime fiction in the 1950s and 1960s transitioned from plot-driven fiction to emphasizing the characters’ psychological motivations. 

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Name the 6 characteristics of crime fiction

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The characteristics of crime fiction are clues, crime, criminal, an investigator, danger, and a moral lesson.

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Which genres were an influence on crime fiction?

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Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism were influences on crime fiction.

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