A welcome home for Kate Chopin
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 7, 2012 - Sunday afternoon Kate Chopin will have a homecoming, of sorts.
Descendants of the 19th century St. Louis novelist and short story writer will unveil a bust of her at 2 p.m. at the northwest corner of McPherson and Euclid avenues in the city’s Central West End.
At the public event, speakers will celebrate her life, her rich St. Louis Creole heritage and her writings.
Among those attending will be a several Chopin descendants, her husband Oscar Chopin’s Benoist relatives, and relatives of Kitty Garesche and Elise Miltenberger, two childhood friends and schoolmates that she wrote about.
One donor’s gift last year allowed the Central West End Association to commission the sculpture from St. Louis sculptor Jaye Gregory. She created the clay model of the writer and oversaw a foundry’s casting and production of the sculpture in bronze.
The Chopin sculpture is the third installation in the CWE Association’s Writer’s Corner, which honors the neighborhood’s literary history. It features busts of internationally known writers who lived a part of their lives within a few blocks of the corner. Kate was living at 4232 McPherson, at the time of her death in 1904, after a hot excursion to the World’s Fair.
Busts of Tennessee Williams and T.S. Eliot have been installed on the two southern corners of the crossroads in recent years. A fourth bust, of “beat generation” writer William S. Burroughs is planned for its northeast corner.
Born in 1850
Kate Chopin was born in 1850 in St. Louis at 8th Street between Chouteau and Gratiot streets in a French-American neighborhood. French was still commonly spoken by her parents’ generation. Church sermons were often in French at her parish: St. Vincent de Paul Church. Her much beloved great-grandmother, Victoire Verdun Charleville, spoke French almost exclusively.
At the age of 5, Kate’s parents Eliza Faris and Thomas O’Flaherty enrolled her in the old Academy of the Sacred Heart, “the City House” whose expansive campus was on South Broadway at Convent Street. She learned to read in English and French and eventually Latin and German. For the rest of her life, she enjoyed the style and reality of French literature, especially stories where the conflict of woman’s duty and desire were pitted against each other.
Later that year, her father an Irish immigrant and railroad investor died in one of the state’s first bridge disasters. He and other investors and dignitaries rode a train onto a new train bridge over the Gasconade River when it failed.
Her mother became the third generation of her family to be widowed young and raise a family independently.
As a teen, Kate observed St. Louis endure martial law during the Civil War and its effects on family friends. Some Southern sympathizers moved away. A medical school in her neighborhood became a prison. Her stepbrother was killed in the war, while fighting for the Confederacy.
Just before her graduation from City House in 1868, she made her lifelong commitment to be a member of the Congregation of the Children of Mary. It’s the oldest women’s organization in the region, now 176 years old. Members of the lay religious and service organization had a window beyond the comfortable life, as members were to make weekly visits to area hospitals and orphanages bringing fruit, books and conversation. The group’s annual religious retreats often dealt with women’s conflict between duty and their own wishes and dreams.
Married Oscar Chopin
She made her society debut and at parties met a young man from New Orleans working in St. Louis, Oscar Chopin. He was a nephew of St. Louis banker Louis Benoist, and they courted at parties at Oakland, Benoist’s country home in Affton, now the Affton Historical Society.
In June the year she was 20, she married Chopin at Holy Angels Catholic Church just south of downtown. After a summer-long honeymoon in Europe, the couple settled in New Orleans where his parents lived. He worked as a cotton trader and they lived in the “American section” on Magazine Street. She continued to return to St. Louis for the summers and gave birth to two of their six children in the autumns here.
After the birth of their fifth son, her husband’s cotton business faltered and the couple moved to Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish in northwestern Louisiana. He ran a general store and his family’s cotton plantation. Their only daughter was born there. Oscar Chopin died of malaria in 1882, leaving Kate with six children to raise, business debts, New Orleans back taxes to pay and the store to run. She gave running his store and plantation a try for about a year and a half. But after 14 years in the South, at the age of 34, she moved back to St. Louis.
First short story, 1889
When she was 40, to support her children, she began to earn meager income writing. First, she did reviews and translations of current French literature, which John Dillon bought for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "A Point at Issue," her first short story to be published, appeared in the Post in 1889. Later, she sold short stories to the Post, Vogue, the St. Louis-based magazine Reedy’s Mirror and children’s magazines. Two collections of her short stories were published. Most of her work was written within a decade.
Many of the “Creole” stories apparently set in Louisiana have strong links to St. Louis’ French-American gumbo culture -- though the very private Chopin wisely planted most of them in Louisiana. One of her short stories is set in St. Philippe, the 17th century French village just east of the walls of Fort de Chartres in Illinois. That frontier town’s ruins have been dug by archaeologists in recent years.
Today she is best known for her second novel, the 1899 "The Awakening," which offers a frank look at a suicidal woman’s emotional life. St. Louis women talked about such things among themselves, and the French literature she reviewed described female characters with emotional depth. But not until a generation later, when Edith Wharton wrote “Ethan Frome" did other American female novelists present women with such candor.
“The Awakening” got a fine review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch but nationally critics disliked the story of a genteel woman’s emotional and imaginative crisis that led to suicide. Billy Reedy, her family, her City House friends and nuns stood by her, understanding that she was simply writing truths about some families’ lives in the wider global literary tradition.
The following year her book’s publisher Herbert S. Stone and Co. backed off publishing a third collection of her short stories after the bad press. That year Youth's Companion published "Polly" her last story.
In the early 20th century, several of her short stories, especially "Désirée's Baby," were published in high school literature anthologies. Some St. Louis schools circulated copies of other short stories. University-level academic communities generally ignored her work until the 1970s when fledgling women’s studies departments took up “The Awakening.”
The Norwegian women’s literature advocate Per Seyersted who trumpeted her work in the mid-20th century wrote that Kate Chopin "broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life.”
Scores of late 20th century graduate students chose her work for a thesis. Many longed to find a way for the 19th century St. Louis mother of six to mirror their feminists’ philosophy.
Patricia Rice will be one of the speakers at the dedication.