March 17, 2011

Chopin: cannot fail to attract much attention

The advertisement promised "stories... quite unlike most other American tales, and [which] cannot fail to attract much attention." So claimed an advertisement in the March 17, 1894 issue of Publishers Weekly. The "semi-alien" characters in this upcoming book are "picturesque and altogether worthy of description and literary preservation" — all for a cover price of $1.25. The book in question was Bayou Folk, featuring stories about Creoles and Acadians in Louisiana.

The author, Kate Chopin, presented what must have seemed exotic: a representation of the scenes and dialects of these people (though, according to the ad, these dialects are not used "at such length to be tedious"). Chopin had previously lived in Louisiana, until the death of her husband Oscar Chopin left her with too much debt and she moved to St. Louis. Oscar, many years earlier, had found out his father was beating his mother, and helped her escape him.

Reviewers certainly noted the book's uniqueness, awed by appearances of alligators and strange insects. But, what critics failed to notice, was that these coorful stories were really about the universal condition of women. In the tale "In Sabine," for example, a traveler named Grégoire comes upon the home of Bud Aiken and recognizes his young wife as someone from his home town. 'Tite Reine ("little queen"), as she is called, seems embarrassed, but giving him imploring looks; Grégoire vows to spend the night and find out her secret. In the middle of the night, she wakes him, crying:

"Mista Grégoire," drawing close to him and whispering in his face, "Bud's killin' me." He clasped her arm, holding her near him, while an expression of profound pity escaped him... "I tell you, he beats me; my back an' arms — you ought to see — it's all blue. He would 'a' choke' me to death one day w'en he was drunk." ...[Grégoire] was wondering if it would really be a criminal act to go then and there and shoot the top of Bud Aiken's head off. He himself would hardly have considered it a crime, but he was not sure of how others might regard the act.

Unable to read or write, 'Tite Reine cannot contact family in her home town. Now, Bud plans to move her further away from home. "Oh, don't leave me here, Mista Grégoire! don't leave me behind you!" she implores. With the help of her only friend, a local black man she calls Uncle Mortimer, Grégoire helps her escape then steals Bud's horse, leaving Bud unable to follow after her.

*Much of the information from this post comes from Kate Chopin: A Literary Life (2001) by Nancy A. Walker. See also Kate Chopin (2007), which includes an essay by Emily Toth which was particularly helpful here.

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