by Martha Ashe
Kate Chopin is widely regarded as one of the most important American feminist authors of the 19th century. During her brief literary career in the 1890’s when she was in her 40’s, she published numerous short stories and two novels. Many of these works, along with her most critically acclaimed, The Awakening (1899), are set in New Orleans where she spent nine years of her life as a wife and mother observing the Creole culture she had married into. Her life in this stimulating, cosmopolitan city dominated by the Creole elite and in her husband’s native Cloutierville in rural Louisiana, gave her the material and inspiration for her future writing. Furthermore, her early life within a matriarchy, being raised and educated by self-reliant women, shaped her ideology and came to define her work.
Kate Chopin was born on February 8, 1850, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Thomas O’Flahery, an Irish immigrant and wealthy businessman, and Eliza Faris, a French-Creole. When Kate was only five years old, her father was killed in a devastating train accident, an incident that would prove one of the most pivotal moments of her youth. Following her father’s death, her grandmother and great-grandmother moved in, both of whom, like her mother, were widowed young and never remarried. Kate was consequently raised in a matriarchy by three generations of unmarried women (Beer 13). Particularly influential was her great-grandmother, Victoire Charleville, who tutored Kate at home for two years where she “emphasized French and music and tales of rebellious St. Louis women” (Beer 15). Kate then attended the Sacred Heart Academy where she received the remainder of her formal education from its nuns and where she first began to experiment with writing. Thus, not only was Kate raised by women, her “intellectual mentors” were women as well (Beer 15). Most importantly, because she did not grow up living in a household with a married couple, “she had little opportunity to form traditional notions about marriage and submissive wives” (Beer 14).
It is no wonder then that at the age of twenty, Kate chose to marry Oscar Chopin, “a man who did not limit her in conventional ways” (Beer 16). Oscar was a French-Creole from the small and insular rural village of Cloutierville in Natchitoches Parish in northwestern Louisiana. The married couple had a loving and committed relationship. Oscar understood Kate, “respected her individuality” and “realized that [she] was unique and allowed her to follow her inclinations” (Seyersted 38). After getting married, they enjoyed a three-month long honeymoon in Europe before returning to America to live in New Orleans where Oscar worked as a cotton factor. Their first home was on Magazine Street in the Irish Channel located between the French Quarter and the Garden District (Toth xiii). They then moved to the Garden District, living first on the corner of Constantinople and Pitt and then at 1413 Louisiana Avenue, where the house is still standing (Toth xiii). Together, they raised a large family of six children whom they loved immensely. The five boys and one girl had all been born by the time Kate was only 28 years old.
Kate Chopin’s time in New Orleans can be summed up as “an immersion in motherhood but also a time for observing, listening and gathering stories” (Beer 17). While she was a mother, she was also a young woman enjoying her twenties in a thriving, culturally rich city, independent from her parents for the first time in her life. Servants at home lessened her duties and gave her a newfound freedom, which, coupled with her husband’s lack of restrictions, allowed her to explore the city on her own (Seyersted 39). With her innate curiosity and the “liberty to go where she wanted,” she “developed a walking habit,” rode the streetcars and observed people, and likely frequented the many theaters and music halls (Seyersted 40-42). As she explored, she witnessed and absorbed the unique racial and cultural mix of the cosmopolitan city, giving her limitless material to draw from when she later began her literary career.
The Chopins were a popular couple in New Orleans despite being outsiders of sorts. The city was dominated by the local Creoles who were prejudiced against newcomers, but the Chopins responded by simply laughing it off (Seyersted 39). They were friendly and strong conversationalists, and Kate was known as an excellent storyteller and a talented and comical mimic. She defied social convention and yet still managed to become “a favorite in the social life she was inevitably drawn into” (Seyersted 38). She smoked cigarettes, dressed unconventionally, was brazenly outspoken, and explored the city by herself. Biographer Per Seyersted points out that, “while she had a strong will of her own, she was also gentle and considerate” (38-39). She lived the life she pleased without being abrasive.
All of this isn’t to say that the Chopins did not remain outsiders. They were never fully accepted and integrated into the New Orleans social strata, no matter how much people liked them. When they vacationed on the “tropical paradise” of Grand Isle, Kate was “something of a foreigner;” “an American among Creoles” (Beer 18). Much like Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, she “was unfamiliar with the open, affectionate ways and risqué conversations of the Creoles, whose French was also different from hers” (Beer 18). She was also an outsider in New Orleans where her neighbors viewed her as a northerner. The Chopins received a certain degree of bitterness as a result, which could be why Oscar joined the White League, “a self-appointed militia opposing the new legal rights of black men” (Beer 18). As part of this group, he participated in the Battle of Liberty Place against the metropolitan police on Canal Street, which resulted in at least twenty-seven deaths with over a hundred wounded (Beer 18).
After nine years in New Orleans, Oscar Chopin’s cotton business failed and forced him to relocate his family to Cloutierville, his hometown in rural Louisiana where their daughter and final child was born later that year in 1879. With familial roots in the town, the Chopins were accepted into the society there, though people were naturally taken aback by Kate who had been a city girl all her life (Seyersted 45). She expanded her walking habit to horseback riding, wearing ostentatious, colorful jockey outfits as she rode down the town’s one street, much to the locals’ amusement (Beer 18). In the winter of 1882, only three years after their arrival, Oscar died of malaria, sending Kate into a depression. But over the next year or so, she took up the role of a business woman and settled Oscar’s estate, selling most of what he had left her and paying off his debts. During this time she also had a brief and scandalous romance with Albert Sampite, “a wealthy, handsome and very married local planter, whose hobby was consoling widows” (Beer 19). In 1884, with her mother imploring her to return home and with concerns over her children’s futures, Kate moved back to St. Louis, “which had one of the best public-school systems in the nation” (Beer 19). The following year her mother died of cancer (Beer 14).
At the age of thirty-four, Kate Chopin had lost all of her immediate relatives, leaving her “utterly alone with her deep sorrow” (Seyersted 48). To help relieve her from grief, her doctor and close friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, encouraged her to take up writing, having been impressed with the “literary quality” of letters she had sent him from Louisiana (Seyersted 49). By 1890, Chopin had become St. Louis’s first female professional writer, eventually publishing two novels, two collections of short stories and several other shorter works, including short stories, essays, and poems. Now regarded as the hallmark of her career, The Awakening received “mixed to hostile reviews” after it was published in 1899 (Beer 14). Due to the criticism she received and her deteriorating health, this was her final significant piece of writing. Five years later, Chopin died from a brain hemorrhage in 1904 at the age of 54, leaving a legacy that although dormant for decades would end up inspiring countless writers and feminists.
1. Kate Chopin, 1894, Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kate_Chopin.jpg
2. Writer Kate Chopin and her sons Frederick, George, Jean, and Oscar, in New Orleans, 1877, Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kate_Chopin_and_children_New_Orleans_1877.jpg
3. Kate Chopin House, State Highway 495, Cloutierville, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NY-5612, Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KateChopinHouse_HABS2_cropped.jpg
4. Portrait of Writer Kate Chopin, c. 1890’s, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kate_Chopin_portrait_T-P.jpg
Beer, Janet. “What We Do and Don’t Know about Chopin’s Life.” The Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2008. 13-26. Print.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980. Print.
Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1999. Print.