Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening Interviews

Photo: David Chopin David Chopin,
Kate's Grandson

On Chopin and the St. Louis literary scene:
Well, it was really a kind of byway, an inn or hotel for just about every artistic person who came through town and was in town. She used to have these Thursday afternoon soirées and all the poets and the writers and the editors and people who happened to be in town were there. She sat there like the Grand Dame she was and entertained them. Dad used to speak about those times, and he himself was pretty fast with words and he kind of captured the whole spirit of what his mother had been doing. And I'd like to have been there to have enjoyed that myself because it was really a literary island I guess in the literary scene of St. Louis, and it really stood out.

On Chopin's impetuousness:
The story goes that during the time of the Civil War the sympathies were for the South and she went out one time and tore down an American flag that was on the porch. I don't know if she was going to replace it with a Confederate flag or not, but she got into a lot of hot water because of that. Well, she was that kind of a person, you know, she had a strong feeling and she acted on it, and a lot of people would have been afraid to do it. But she was . . . I guess you might call her either impetuous or concerned or dedicated and so forth, so she went ahead and did it, and it almost landed her in jail.

On Chopin's burial in a Catholic cemetery:
People knew that Kate had left the church, and . . . somebody remembered that they saw her coming down the steps of St. Francis Xavier Church, which is in mid-town St. Louis, and figured that maybe the reason she was in church was to go to confession, and get back into the bosom of the church again. So it's my understanding that on the basis of that little incident that they opened up the gates and allowed her to be buried where she is today in Calvary Cemetery.


Photo: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,
Emory University

On Chopin and Modernism:
She was very important as one of the earliest examples of modernism in the United States or, if you wish, the cutting edge of modernism in American literature. . . .She was very much interested in Guy de Maupassant. She was a pre-eminent stylist and she was as much interested I think in how you told the story as the story itself. In that sense -- perspective, point of view, craft, use of imagery, multiple perspectives -- this legacy of appearance in reality which can be seen to come somewhat out of the New Orleans experience that things are not always what they seem and they seem different to different players. All of these then formed her style, the way in which she wrote and I think one reason that some of her stories were very short was because she was self-consciously experimenting with stylistic concerns every bit as much as thematic ones.

On Chopin and feminism:
Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] your God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints. There's no indication that for example she regretted her marriage, or regretted being a mother. Any of us can chafe at specific responsibilities and want more time for our work or for ourselves. But there's no evidence that she wanted to throw all of that away, nor is there evidence that she wanted to restructure the world. I think she was much more interested in the excitement, the civilization that came in her circle of intellectual friends. That was freedom, the freedom to explore ideas. I don't think she was someone who believed you had to act out every thing that you thought. And I suspect that she may even have believed you have greater freedom of thought if you did not believe that every thought leads to an action. Very European, very solidly of her class.

I think she was an exceptionally talented and interesting woman and if I resist labeling her feminist or suffragist, or claiming her for a specific view of what women require or what women's independence requires, women's freedom requires. I resist it because I think she's much larger and more important than that. I don't think we do her any honor or further our own understanding by tying her to a particular political cause. I think she really was a dedicated and talented writer, who worked very hard to capture ineffable, delicate ideas and feelings in a prose that would do them justice.

On Chopin's Black characters:
I think in general she came as close to seeing Blacks the way she would have seen any other human being whom she didn't know intimately as pretty much any writer of the post-bellum period in the United States. It's interesting because Grace King and George Washington Cable have some of the same talent and sensibility and they both come from New Orleans. But it seems to me there are a couple of things that are very important to understand about Chopin's treatment of Blacks. The first is that she did not normally write from a subjective perspective. She didn't normally try to put herself intimately in the head of a character, to write in first person so that her narratives are not confessional. What we know about people's feelings always come from indirection and occasional report by the narrator, by small signs of their interactions with other people. I can pick one example, it's not a Black character, but, but seems to me just incredibly telling toward the beginning of The Awakening.

Edna is coming back from the beach and she encounters her husband and they look at one another and she looks, and he looks at her hands which are ringless and brown, and she puts her hands out and he drops the rings into them. And not a word has been exchanged between those two people. And yet you know on the basis of that brief scene, so brief many critics don't even notice it, that we're looking at a marriage of several years in which there is considerable neutral understanding between the two partners. Worldless, wordless understanding. That is a very typical Chopin technique and she uses it with Black characters as well as with white.

When people think, as I think they sometimes do, that she's a bit stereotypical or not sufficiently empathetic with her Black characters, they're normally responding to her use of dialect and to the distinctions that appear between Black and white characters based on the ways in which they speak. Again, I think it's easy to miss that Chopin was above all interested in capturing how people spoke, any people. In other words, her white characters, even her upper class white characters, each has a distinct pattern of speech. There's nothing as dramatic as the dialect. And one could say. . . that she didn't always get it perfectly. But she had coolly listened and what she was trying to capture was how these characters sounded. And it seems to me that's very much part of both her talent and a certain kind of reticence or humility as an author, that in portraying characters you start from the outside, from what you can know. And you don't pretend to know more than you can at the outset. The deeper recesses of character and motivations emerge from action, conversation, or the unfolding of the plot.

On Chopin's view of the soul:
She very much wanted to understand the vagaries [and complexities] of the human soul. She had been raised a Catholic; she did understand original sin. She also knew -- whatever her own faith in her later years -- she had been brought up with the knowledge that God loves every one of us. . . . It's a sensibility that would take even more extreme form in Flannery O'Connor, the Georgia writer of the mid-20th Century, who looked at the grotesque. With Chopin the dark crannies of the human soul were part of what it is to be human. It was part of her war against platitudes, it was part of her sense that there's no true beauty without complexity, conflict, the friction of stone against pavement, or one of those street cars, iron against the brick railroad. Its that sense of tragedy and complexity. That is, if you look only at the surfaces or if you look only at the Hallmark card view of the world, you're not going to begin to understand what people are about. And I think it's a measure of both her talent and her character, her strength as a woman, that she didn't find the depths of the human soul, even human depravity, threatening. Part of knowing who you are for her I think is to be able to look at different kinds of experience, different kinds of people, appreciate them, empathize with them, without seeing it as an immediate call to judgement.

On Chopin's support of slavery:
It's important not to underestimate the influence of her Catholicism which was quite comfortable with the idea, in fact promoted the idea that every human person could be excellent, valuable in the eyes of God, without occupying the same social situation or standing, without playing the same social role. This is a perspective that would say that men and women can be equally valuable without being equal, in the sense of being identical and doing these same things. So I think she was very comfortable with difference in social station, that she did not spend her life feeling that it was an acute injustice that there were social classes, for example. So that's part of the general sensibility. More directly to the point . . . her [pro-slavery views and] support for the Confederacy, is not ever necessarily exactly the same thing as racism. It is entirely possible to favor slavery as a form of social organization and yet to believe that all human creatures, persons, are equally valuable. At the extreme of . . . the pro-slavery theorists argue that slavery itself was intrinsically good and that if there weren't Blacks to enslave then whites would have to be enslaved. That the virtue of it . . . lay in the nature of the social system which made capital responsible for labor which established a personal relation between the well-to-do and working people, so that no one can protest the argument. At this point, I'm not defending it. But what I'm trying to underscore is that there is no contradiction necessarily between her having been sympathetic to to the Confederacy and her being arguably much more sympathetic to Black characters, much more taking them as human beings, than many more "egalitarian" northern writers would be.

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