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Kate Chopin (1850–1904)

Written by:

Kate Chopin, circa 1890s.

Kate Chopin began and ended her life in St. Louis, with an interlude as a young wife and mother in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. Her stories of Creole life in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, established her as a talented local-color writer in the southern tradition. Some of her lesser-known stories explored the complexities of the emerging urban culture of the late nineteenth century. The Awakening, her second novel, won her a place in history, both as a writer and as a critic of women’s roles in the family and the community. Her early life and her mature experience in St. Louis influenced her perception of the human condition. A community of writers and intellectuals in St. Louis supported and shaped her literary life. Louisiana provided the setting for much of her fiction, but St. Louis provided the environment in which she created an important body of work.

Biographer Emily Toth has convincingly argued that Catherine O’Flaherty was born on February 8, 1850, not 1851, as previous biographers believed. Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was a successful Irish-born businessman with a son from a previous marriage. Her mother, Eliza Faris O’Flaherty, was the daughter of a French family with a history dating back to the founding of St. Louis. A great-grandmother, Victoire Verdun Charleville, shared stories of Kate’s Creole ancestors, which influenced Chopin’s later Creole tales. The O’Flaherty family owned slaves and occupied a handsome Greek Revival–style home. A neighbor, Kitty Garesche, became a schoolmate and lifelong friend. Kitty and Kate attended Sacred Heart Academy, a convent school. Kate left school for two years after her father’s death in November 1855 in the railroad disaster on the Gasconade Bridge that killed thirty prominent St. Louis citizens. Kate’s half brother, George, and her beloved great-grandmother both passed away in 1863. While St. Louis seethed with divisions during the Civil War period, Kate O’ Flaherty returned to school and graduated from the Sacred Heart Academy in 1868. As a student she read widely and began writing diary entries, poems, and short stories.

After her marriage to Oscar Chopin in 1870, Kate Chopin left St. Louis and began raising a family in Louisiana. Apparently, the couple spent several years in New Orleans before settling in Cloutierville, in Natchitoches Parish, where Oscar Chopin’s family had long owned a plantation. There they lived in a spacious timber-frame home with front and rear verandas. The landscape and the people of central Louisiana deeply impressed Kate Chopin and inspired many of her later published stories. Her Creole ancestry helped her to understand and sympathize with her Louisiana neighbors. Scholars have speculated about the extent to which the author’s own married life resembled the sad marriage in The Awakening, but there is no definitive answer to this question. Unlike the book’s character Leonce Pontellier, Oscar Chopin suffered recurrent fevers, probably aggravated by the moist climate and lack of medical services in rural Louisiana. In December 1882 he died.

A widow and the mother of six children, Kate Chopin returned to St. Louis in 1884 and there began her writing career. In 1889 the Chicago magazine America introduced her to the public by printing her poem “If It Might Be.” A local editor accepted her first published story that same year for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Other local journals, including William Marion Reedy’s St. Louis Mirror and the St. Louis Criterion, carried her stories and essays. At her own expense she published her first novel, At Fault, in 1890. National magazines, including Vogue and Atlantic, carried her stories in the 1890s. Critics warmly praised the collection of Creole tales published as Bayou Folk in 1894. The stories in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, published in 1897, established Chopin as a local-color writer with a gift for characterization.

Chopin’s Creole stories found a ready audience, partly because they did not challenge accepted images of southern life. In the bayou landscape of these stories, husbands could be cruel and wives could lead complex emotional lives, but they remained within social bonds defined by custom. Racial and class divisions limited interaction. In her famous story “Desiree’s Baby,” Chopin confronted the difficult issue of race, but failed to transcend common fears and stereotypes. Armand Aubigny accuses his wife, Desiree, of being black and bearing him a black child. Desiree, distraught, runs away through fields where black workers picked cotton. Unable to live with his rejection, she disappears, presumably ending her own life. Armand then discovers that his forebears, not Desiree’s, were black. Chopin presented the story as tragic irony, but did not clearly reject the racial ideology that caused Desiree’s death.

At Fault, Chopin’s first novel, took a more critical look at American life in the nineteenth century. Fanny Hosmer, an unattractive female character, exemplifies the alienation and futility of some middle-­class women’s existence. Fanny is bored, shallow, and hopelessly alcoholic. Her husband, David, flees from her and her troubles to the world of Thérèse La Firme, a Creole widow in rural Louisiana. In contrast to the hard reality of St. Louis, the world of the bayou seems dreamlike, idyllic. Fanny, who represents the complexities of the modern city, simplifies matters for David and Thérèse by drowning in a flood. The bayou romance softens the novel. Nevertheless, the book offers a gritty portrait of an indolent middle-class woman, adrift in the city. Publishers showed no interest. Critics generally disliked or dismissed the self-published book.

Chopin spent her most creative years in the heart of a modern industrial city. In 1886, the year after her mother’s death, Chopin moved to a house on Morgan Street (now Delmar). Her neighbors included artists, musicians, tradesmen, and managers—people on the way up or down in a whirl of capitalistic enterprise. The David and Fanny Hosmers of the world passed by her doorstep. Robert E. Lee Gibson, a poet and the head clerk of the St. Louis Insane Asylum, became her ardent admirer. Logan Uriah Reavis, who wrote books promoting St. Louis as the future capital of the United States, wandered the streets in baggy clothes and dirty shirts. Chopin could ride the streetcar to every corner of her city or sit by her window and almost literally watch the city grow.

In stories with St. Louis settings, the author revealed a keen understanding of urban pretensions and reality. The central character in “A Pair of Silk Stockings” suddenly finds fifteen dollars and squanders it on all the temptations of St. Louis in the 1890s: shopping in a department store, dining in a restaurant, attending a matinee, and riding a cable car for miles. She enjoys her guilty pleasures, but her life seems purposeless. The title character in ‘‘The Blind Man” ambles through the city selling pencils. As he turns a corner, a speeding streetcar screeches to a halt. A prominent businessman who fails to see the car coming from the other direction dies under its wheels. The blind man wanders on, like the city itself, unaffected by the tragedy.

In “Miss McEnders,” an affluent woman does charity work among poor factory laborers, but responds coldly to her dressmaker, who reveals that she had an illegitimate child. McEnders suffers a crisis of conscience when she learns some hard truths about the questionable source of her father’s wealth. In these stories with urban settings, Chopin questions the materialism and moral blindness of modern society.

Chopin’s second novel, The Awakening, published in 1899, portrays the inner life of a woman who rejects her role as a businessman’s ornamental wife, but fails to define a place for herself in a cruelly judgmental community. Edna Pontellier’s closest friend is a woman who glories in motherhood, devoting all her energies to raising her children. Another woman friend lives the solitary life of a dedicated musician, rejecting companionship and pouring all her emotions into her art. Edna admires each of these women, but she cannot be like them. Leonce, her husband, regards her as a part of his household, one of his possessions, but not as a woman at the center of his life. Robert, the man she had loved, draws away from her out of fear and conventionality. A third man, who becomes her lover, offers her no fulfillment. A physician in the novel hints that he has dealt with other troubled, rebellious women like Edna. But Edna fails to connect with any of these possibly sympathetic souls. She possesses the courage to defy society’s rules, but she is unable to find a way to live in opposition to them. Feeling completely alone and finding no other path to liberation, Edna commits suicide. The novel challenged conventional values and shocked many critics.

Scathing reviews, condemning the novel as immoral, gave The Awakening the aura of a banned book. In fact, the book may never have been banned. Historians perpetuated the story, based on oral testimony, that the St. Louis Mercantile Library removed The Awakening from circulation. But Per Seyersted, an important Chopin biographer, questioned the story of the book’s banning. In twenty years of research, he found no documentation of the incident. Frequent retelling of the book-banning anecdote created an image of Chopin as a lonely iconoclast, rejected by her St. Louis neighbors—an image that distorted the truth.

Although she challenged accepted mores, Chopin was never as lonely as her heroine Edna Pontellier. Throughout her life she had numerous friends and supporters in her native city. Her connections with her mother’s family, her girlhood associates, and her own children remained strong throughout her life. Dr. Frederick Kohlbenheyer, her personal physician and intellectual companion, read many of her manuscripts. Kohlbenheyer had connections to the St. Louis literary establishment through an association with publisher Joseph Pulitzer. John A. Dillon, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, supported women’s rights and encouraged Chopin’s literary efforts. William Marion Reedy, the eccentric editor of the St. Louis Mirror, befriended the author and publicly praised her talent. The Mirror’s reviewer vilified The Awakening, but a circle of close friends remained her champions to the end of her life. Sue V. Moore, a local editor, staunchly rebuffed the critics and came to the author’s defense. Local editors continued to accept her writings. Kate Chopin became a charter member of the Wednesday Club in 1890 and continued to associate with the intelligent and affluent women who made up its membership. She read “Ti Demon,” a Creole story, at a club meeting in November 1899, months after critics expressed shock at the content of The Awakening.

Sympathetic scholars have portrayed Kate Chopin in her final years as a tragic figure who failed to draw parallels between herself and Edna Pontellier, who chose death over life in a society that refused to let her grow. While Chopin produced no book-length work after The Awakening, she continued writing, publishing, and participating in the social life of her home city. The St. Louis Mirror, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the St. Louis Republic published several of her stories and articles between 1899 and 1904. National magazines such as Vogue and Youth’s Companion continued to print her work.

Chopin’s death coincided with a celebration of progress, the St. Louis World’s Fair. By all accounts, she had great enthusiasm for the fair, more properly known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. She bought a season ticket and traveled the short distance from her home to the fairgrounds nearly every day. The fair offered a spectacle of electric lights, fantastic inventions, and artificial waterways. Bands played ragtime, a new music that challenged traditional rhythms and echoed the rapid cadence of city life. On August 20, 1904, a particularly hot day, Chopin returned from the fair and later suffered a hemorrhage of the brain. Two days later, with her children at her bedside, she died.

In the year of her death, St. Louisan Alexander De Menil praised Bayou Folk, slighted her novels, and defined Chopin as a Creole writer. For several decades this assessment of her work prevailed. In 1923 Fred Lewis Pattee identified her as a master of the American short story. Daniel Rankin, who published a full-length biography of Chopin in 1932, unearthed important information about her early life. Scholarly interest remained limited until the 1960s, when Larzer Ziff defined Chopin as an American realist with the stature of Theodore Dreiser. The Norwegian scholar Per Seyersted collected and published The Complete Works of Kate Chopin in 1969. His important biography of the author appeared in the same year. By the 1970s students of women’s history, as well as American literary history, flocked to libraries to study Chopin’s fiction. Dissertations and articles proliferated as the focus of critical attention shifted from her short stories to her 1899 novel. In the 1980s and 1990s, The Awakening became a popular text in college literature, women’s studies, and American studies classes.

Chopin ultimately gained fame as a realist rather than a local-color writer, a novelist rather than a short-story writer, a modernist rather than a teller of sentimental tales. She often chose rural settings for her fiction, but she lived in the city most of her life. The troubles of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening were the troubles of an affluent urban woman who spent her vacations on Grand Isle but lived in New Orleans. Her empty life resulted partially from traditional definitions of women’s roles, but mostly from the fact that those definitions no longer had meaning in urban America at the end of the nineteenth century. Chopin observed this emerging society in St. Louis in the 1880s and 1890s, the most creative years of her life. St. Louis influenced her thinking and nurtured her talent, while local editors, publishers, mentors, and friends encouraged her efforts.