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Kate Chopin, 1851-1904
Bayou Folk
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company; Cambridge [Mass.]: The Riverside Press, 1894.

Summary

Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin was born February 8, but there is some discrepancy about whether she was born in 1850 or 1851. Living in St. Louis, Missouri, her family was financially stable and socially well established. Her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was an Irish immigrant, and her mother, Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, was a French Creole; both were devout Catholics. Although Thomas O'Flaherty died in 1855, Chopin's mother never remarried. Young Kate O'Flaherty attended the Sacred Heart Academy in St. Louis, where she graduated in 1868. On June 9, 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, a Louisiana native, and the couple settled in New Orleans. After the failure of Oscar Chopin's cotton factoring business in 1879, the family moved to Cloutierville, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, where Oscar ran a general store and managed several small plantation properties. Widowed in December 1882, Kate Chopin found herself the sole caretaker of six children and the inheritor of considerable debts. Able to settle her husband's affairs in under two years, Chopin returned to St. Louis in 1884, where she remained until her death on August 22, 1904.

Kate Chopin did not begin writing until the late 1880s, driven by financial necessity and a desire for intellectual activity. Her first novel, At Fault, was printed privately in 1890. Her two collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897), were published by Houghton Mifflin and Way & Williams, respectively. Chopin's early work was shaped by William Dean Howells's realism, though her later ironic pieces show the influence of Guy de Maupassant. Despite living in Louisiana for a brief fourteen years, Chopin infuses her texts with Creole, Cajun, and African American cultures. Her portrait of this uniquely Louisianan society, combined with her employment of dialect and regional mannerisms, contribute to her particular flourish as a local colorist.

Many of the twenty-three stories included in Bayou Folk (1894) are set in the Cane River country of Louisiana where Chopin herself lived for several years. In these stories her characters challenge the limits of their socioeconomic station and rebel against the social mores of their times. While this collection earned Chopin praise, her acclaim diminished within her lifetime as she more frequently turned to subject matter that critics considered scandalous. All but four of the stories collected in this volume had been published previously.

The best-known story in Bayou Folk, "Désirée's Baby," which was previously published in Vogue, employs de Maupassant's ironic style. Désirée, a lovely young woman who grew up with foster parents, marries a successful plantation owner, Armand Aubigny. But when their newborn child exhibits African American skin coloring, Aubigny claims Désirée's unknown parentage is to blame, but as Désirée wanders away from the plantation the reader learns that Armand's racial identity is also ambiguous. "At the 'Cadian Ball," another well-known story in this collection, features the dashing Alcée Laballiere, Chopin's fictional portrayal of her own lover, Albert Sampite.

See also the entry for Kate Chopin from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Pizer, Donald and Earl N. Harbert, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Realists and Naturalists, vol. 12, Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1978; Toth, Emily, Kate Chopin, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990; Walker, Nancy A., Introduction: Biographical and Historical Contexts, The Awakening, second edition, Ed. Nancy A. Walker, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000, 3-21; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick
Bryan Giemza

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