Posted by: zhiv | January 28, 2010

Reading Notes: Kate Chopin#4: The Reception of The Awakening on A Good Day with Books

Wednesday, January 6

This one might take the form of something like my standard journal entries. I’ve got my early morning writing routine going well now at the beginning of the year, and it’s focused on blogging and books at the moment. Left off yesterday after finding two Kate Chopin stories in an anthology, and found that they were both short and fantastic: Desiree’s Child and The Story of an Hour. I can talk about them more after I read some more stories–my studies tell me that The Storm, written shortly after The Awakening, part of the great story of Chopin scholarship, is something of a wonder, truly steamy and decades ahead of its time. Reading the stories, the direct influence of Maupassant is obvious and striking, not to take anything away from Chopin. This intrigues me because it’s so similar to Chekhov and his debt to Maupassant. I had a sense that I wasn’t looking at The Awakening from the exactly perfect angle, and this is a welcome adjustment. I can get into the issue of how I got to this modernist-feminist place another time, as it’s amusing to me these days, but on with the sequence. I’ll just mention in departing that I haven’t seen any Chekhov-Chopin mentions yet, but I did see somewhere that Chopin was a follower of Sarah Orne Jewett’s work. I believe that when Chopin set out to write and make money, Jewett was already established as a “local color” writer of Maine and the New England coast, and Chopin was aware that her background in New Orleans and Missouri would provide a good setting.

The short story anthology, which is excellent, has all sorts of ancillary material in the back, and this includes a short note by Chopin, “How I Stumbled Upon Maupassant,” which was just what I wanted to know. I’ll say more about the anthology, since it’s sitting in my lap. The mid-C page (xiv) of the table of contents starts with Willa Cather, Paul’s Case (haven’t read it), and the “related commentary” is Cather’s “The Stories of Katherine Mansfield” (haven’t read Mansfield–damn, that’s a bad one, with VWoolf and all). Next comes John Cheever and The Swimmer; the “rc” is “Why I Write Short Stories.” Then Chekhov, with Angel (The Darling), A Blunder (haven’t read it), and The Lady with the Little Dog. Kind of impressive to have Lady included–it comes out at 11 anthology pages, so it’s shorter than I remember, but I guess that’s part of the point of its greatness. Flipping through, I see that Heart of Darkness is here (61 pp.). Continuing: Chekhov gets a “related casebook,” a step up from commentary; it’s 18 pp. The anthology contains casebooks on Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor and Edgar Allen Poe. Next comes Charles Chestnutt and “The Wife of His Youth” (haven’t read it; want to), and then we get to Chopin.

Part of the reason I break this down is that yesterday, after reading the Chopin stories and note, I read the first two pieces in the Carver casebook, “On Writing” and “Creative Writing 101.” Make it three, as I read the next piece, the poem “The Ashtray,” as well. I could talk about Carver, who I don’t know as well as I might, but these essays were simple, straightforward and phenomenal, and gave me a new window into Carver, helping me see in a good, new way what the fuss is all about. Maybe it’s just my rather ebullient New Year’s mood. You never know when you’ll get around to stuff, when things will click, and I wish I had read these Carver essays years ago. There’s no reason for regrets, and it’s better to see it all as part of the fun.

And so, feeling pretty frisky, and it being an off-day for working out, with a good chunk of time before the customary leisurely hour when I generally make my appearance at the studio, I went to what I like to call the local major research library instead. It was interesting to be on campus in the morning near the beginning of the term;: I usually make fleeting appearances at odd hours. The parking, which has recently had a technology upgrade, was crowded. I’m reminded now, speaking of the beginning of the term, that I’d like to make my semi-standard trip to the campus bookstore, looking at the course readings, which is an excellent way to find odd, interesting books, and to generally see what’s going on. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to hold on to my academic and literary side, which I was able to support and restore and explore over the break, for as long as possible before getting back into work. At some point it may become a desperate situation, but for now, having just been in the Vermont snow, which is three feet deeper since we left 5 days ago, I’m enjoying the sunshine and warm temperatures and perfect weather on a short walk through campus. January is an amazing month in the Southland.

I return a few, relatively unsatisfying Dickens and Jewett books from before the break (it turns out I did have an actual reason to go to the library). The Chopin shelf, now that I get a look at it, is interesting and fairly substantial. I make my selections carefully, and I won’t break them all down right now. I don’t see the book I was chasing, a new study of the receptios of Chopin’s work, but I find what’s probably better, the short version, in the recent Cambridge Companion to Kate Chopin (2008). I must say that I like me these Cambridge Companions; it seems to be a good New Century series. I see that its final essay is “The Awakening: the first 100 years,” by Bernard Koloski, and I’m guessing that Koloski wrote the book I had been looking for.

I go over to get reacquainted with the Chekhov shelf. It’s intimidating, with lots of Russian books, and it’s fairly substantial, as it should be. But there’s nothing that I have to have, and I return to the Dickens wall. I go straight to “The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives 1836-2005,” by Laurence W. Mazzeno (2008). Right now I can’t remember the original reason why I was chasing this book, but I found something great in it later, in the afternoon. I had checked it out before and didn’t really look into it, but it was a book I missed having in the first half of the break, when I read Standiford’s book and Christmas Carol.

I stopped by the Jewett shelf and even detoured over to Olive Schreiner and South Africa, just to glance. Just trying to get a bead on these proto-feminists. I checked in at Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf of course, and looked at the excellent bibliographical study of his work, “Leslie Stephen: A Life in Letters,” by Gillian Fenwick. There I found just what I was hoping to: a clean, printed list of all his DNB entries, with a substantial introductory essay on Stephen and the DNB. I put the book back, since I own it, but I lent it years ago to my professor pal, and my guess is that it’s sitting in her office just a few hundred yards away. It seems silly to check out a book that I own, even if I don’t have it, and I have a five book limit, which is probably a good thing, especially when I’m in this kind of mood.

I get to work in good time. It’s an easy decision to prolong letting the Hollywood game come to be, rather than chasing after it, and I settle into the sofa, put my feet up, and open up the new Chopin books. I’ll note that as I was driving in I looked at one of them, the oddity, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: Screenplay as Interpretation,” by Marilyn Hoder-Salmon (1992). I read this paragraph:

With The Awakening as centerpiece I have undertaken to bring together elements of adaptation studies, feminist literary and film criticism, women’s social history of the late nineteenth century in Louisiana, screenplay writing, and more. …What I’ve done is take my parallel interests in interdisciplinary and comparative studies and blend them to construct a different way to analyze literature. Screenplay writing is the methodology.

Interesting enough for a guy like me, don’t you think? But I didn’t read that book when I sat down, although perhaps I could have pretended I was working by looking at it: “just reading a script.” Instead I read Koloski’s excellent short version of the reception and critical fortunes of The Awakening. It’s an amazing story, and exactly my favorite kind of thing, an absolutely fascinating slice of literary history, a good portion of it taking place during my own academic lifetime. From there I moved on to the first essay in the Cambridge Companion, by Chopin biographer Emily Toth: “What we do and don’t know about Kate Chopin’s life.” This filled out the story even more, of course, and the two short essays make a brilliant team. The best part of the story is that there are real scholar heroes in the Chopin/Awakening saga. Perhaps its “discovery” was inevitable, given the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, but the odd chances that brought it back to light and the thorough scholarship by Per Seyested and then Emily Toth, combined with the rise of Woman’s Studies and Feminist Criticism, is all just a great story. Koloski says of Seyersted:

Then, in 1969, Per Seyersted published the volumes that were to give Kate Chopin an international reputation. Seyersted’s work is about changing context. His critical biography and his introduction to The Complete Works of Kate Chopin position The Awakening in relation to Chopin’s other work, examine it alongside two millennia of western writers and wrest Kate Chopin free from her six-decade-long niche as an American local-colour writer or realist by anchoring her firmly in the canon of women’s literature. Almost certainly, The Awakening would not have acquired the reputation it enjoys today without the insights and influence of Per Seyersted. His work has been expanded upon and corrected, but the fundamental directions he established for appreciating the novel have not been challenged. The way he saw the book in 1969 is, in many respects, the way most readers see it today.

And Koloski says of Toth:

The most inflential Chopin scholar active today is Emily Toth–in part because of her decades-long, tireless efforts to promote Chopin studies and in part because of her two Chopin biographies. Toth worked from the ground up. In 1975, she launched the Kate Chopin newsletter…


Outside of Louisiana, she was mostly forgotten for half a century, until Per Seyersted, a Norwegian graudate student studying in the USA, rediscovered her and promoted her work. Other dissertation writers and scholars, among them Bernard Koloski, Helen Taylor, and Emily Toth, resurrected her reputation, and she is now solidly in the American literary canon.

I had to get some bills into the mailbox, and I was hungry for more bookhunting later in the day, in the afternoon. Now I wanted to see what my local scholarly bookstore had on Kate Chopin and my other current interests. I had no immediate Chopin success, and for awhille it didn’t look like I was going to break through the non-buying force fields, even though they were at a low setting. But then I started spotting interesting books, stuff I felt obligated to take home. It started with an odd copy of Chekhov short stories, only $2 (Wordsworth Classics), containing a bunch of stories I don’t have in my haphazard collection, and it felt like this was a way to commit to reviving and organizing my Chekhov reading. And then, without really knowing it, I discover that I’m collecting Nina Baym books, having become keen on her work when studying Hawthorne, and I find a perfect copy of her 1978 book “Women’s Fiction: a Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870” ($10). This appears to be her second book, written right after “The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career,” and my guess it that it was a significant contribution to the worlds of Women’s Studies and Feminist Criticism, which is coming even more into focus than before because of the Chopin stuff.

And then, shockingly–the Women’s Studies nook is something of a new interest and treasure trove–I find a copy of Judith Roman’s “Annie Adams Fields–The Spirit of Charles Street” (1990, $15), which I’ve read and actually written about, and Professor Roman has even commented on this blog. Got to have that book. Now I’m vulnerable. I pick up another Cambridge Companion, on Tragedy–seems interesting, and I’m curious about the Greeks and maybe Racine and then there’s Chekhov and “American Tragedy.” I pick up “Essays on the Essay.” And just to show that it’s a crazy book day, I finish it off at the bargain shelf, where I pick up a collection of six old school, well-appointed marine biology books ($10). My son is taking marine bio, and he’ll never look at these, but they’re nice books and I know they’ll make for some nice family amusement, at my expense. Crazy book dad, that’s me.


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