June 7, 2012

The genuine book critic was so rare a bird

After the publication of her book Bayou Folk, Kate Chopin was dismayed by critical response — not based on whether the reviews were positive or negative, but if they offered legitimate critique. In a diary entry dated June 7, 1894, she wrote:

In looking over more than a hundred press notices of "Bayou Folk" which have already been sent to me, I am surprised at the very small number which show anything like a worthy critical faculty. They might be counted upon the fingers of one hand. I had no idea the genuine book critic was so rare a bird. And yet I receive congratulations from my publishers upon the character of the press notices.

For one, Chopin was worried she would be labeled as a "dialect writer" or local color author, thereby dismissing the additional merits of her work. Either way, 1894 made the St. Louis-born Chopin a nationally-known writer. In addition to the collection of stories in Bayou Folk, she published several other in several periodicals throughout the country. The variety of reviews further spread her fame.

Bayou Folk included the story "Beyond the Bayou," about a black woman named "La Folle" who had, according to locals, lost her senses and confined herself into an imaginary circle around her cabin and farm. She befriended a local boy whom she calls Chéri, who offers to hunt squirrels for her supper. The boy, however, accidentally shoots himself instead and La Folle must take him to find help:

She had reached the abandoned field. As she crossed it with her precious burden, she looked constantly and restlessly from side to side. A terrible fear was upon her, — the fear of the world beyond the bayou, the morbid and insane dread she had been under since childhood. When she was at the bayou's edge she stood there, and shouted for help as if a life depended upon it... Then shutting her eyes, she ran suddenly down the shallow bank of the bayou, and never stopped till she had climbed the opposite shore.

*This information in this post, particularly the dated diary entry, was found in Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (1980) by Per Seyersted, University of Louisiana Press.

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