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Once Shaken by Scandal, Kate Chopin Now Beloved for Her Colorful Depictions of the South

Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin was born February 8, but there is some disagreement about whether she was born in 1850 or 1851. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to an Irish father and a French Creole mother. At nineteen, she married Oscar Chopin, and the couple moved to New Orleans. When Oscar's New Orleans business failed in 1879, the couple relocated to Cloutierville, Louisiana. Oscar died three years later, and Chopin moved with her six children back to St. Louis in 1884.

As a single mother, financial need in addition to creative impulse drove Chopin to take up her pen in the late 1880s. Despite her return to Missouri, Chopin still looked to Louisiana as her setting of choice, and her works use dialect and other regional markers to paint realistic portraits of Creole life. Her first novel, At Fault, appeared in 1890. Chopin then shifted her focus to short stories. Houghton Mifflin published her collection of stories, Bayou Folk, in 1894. The volume contains twenty-three tales, including one of Chopin's most well known, "Désirée's Baby," which depicts the family drama that ensues when an apparently mixed-race child is born to parents who presumed themselves to be white. Another collection of twenty-one stories, A Night in Acadie, appeared in 1897.

Chopin began working on her second novel, which she had tentatively titled "A Solitary Soul," in 1897. She published this novel as The Awakening in 1899. Like her stories, this novel focuses on the unique and culturally rich atmosphere of Louisiana, but contemporary reviewers objected to Chopin's sensual and sympathetic portrayal of her adulterous heroine, Edna Pontellier. Continually defying social expectations, Edna explores her physical, emotional, and artistic desires—to devastating ends. Neither Chopin herself, nor her reputation, would soon recover from the scandal raised by The Awakening. Chopin, disheartened, tried unsuccessfully to publish a third volume of stories, A Vocation and a Voice, and she wrote very little else before her death in 1904 of a brain hemorrhage. While during her lifetime The Awakening ruined her writing career, it was re-discovered by literary scholars in the 1970s, and Chopin's place in the American literary canon has been secured.

Chopin's works can be found in DocSouth's "Library of Southern Literature" collection, which includes the most important southern literary works from the colonial period to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Jennifer L. Larson