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A Look Back • St. Louis author Kate Chopin releases first novel to mixed reviews in 1899

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ST. LOUIS • “There is much beauty in the development of this graceful, fascinating subtle character, and Mrs. Chopin has described it with extraordinary art.”

So says a Post-Dispatch review on May 6, 1899, of local author Kate Chopin’s first novel, “The Awakening.” Press reaction would trend down from there.

It wasn’t a dirty book, just disturbing for its time. The main character, Edna Pontellier, is a young wife and mother in New Orleans who suddenly violates the rigid rules of her station with hardly a regret. She becomes obsessed with another man, is marginally attentive to her sons and has a tryst with a racetrack rake. She swims naked out into the Gulf and drowns, but not for shame’s sake.

The novel won some admirers. But critics scorned the novel for not properly condemning Mrs. Pontellier’s sinfulness.

The St. Louis Republic, then the establishment newspaper, called the book “a story of a woman most foolish.” The Globe-Democrat acknowledged Chopin’s talent by calling publication of her novel “an event of interest,” but dismissed it as a “morbid book.”

Reviews in other cities were colder.

Chopin was 49 when her novel was released. She had a solid reputation as a crisp, vivid writer of short stories set in Louisiana, where she had lived for 14 years. Her home at 3317 Morgan Street (now Delmar) was a refuge for aspiring writers and artists. An early bohemian, she took long solo walks and smoked cigarettes.

She was born to privilege in St. Louis in 1850 to Eliza and Thomas O’Flaherty. Her mother was of old French stock, her father a son of Galway who made good. He was among the notables who died when the Pacific Railroad’s first train to Jefferson City crashed through the Gasconade River bridge in 1855.

Kate O’Flaherty attended Sacred Heart Academy, then the city’s finest school for Catholic girls. Her sympathies were with the South during the Civil War. She was 20 when she married Oscar Chopin, a New Orleans cotton trader, at Holy Angels Church on LaSalle Street in 1870. They settled in New Orleans.

They had six children and were living on his family’s plantation in Louisiana when Oscar Chopin died in 1882. Back in St. Louis two years later, Chopin began writing for publication. Her “Bayou Folk,” a collection of stories, was well-received.

Chopin publicly shrugged off the harsh reception for her novel, making no mention of it in an essay in the Post-Dispatch that November. To questions about real-life inspiration for her characters, she said only that writing “is the spontaneous expression of the impressions gathered from goodness knows where.”

She never published again. She died at age 54 on Aug. 22, 1904, stricken after a long walk to the World’s Fair. The Post-Dispatch, in reporting her death on its front page, offered the consolation that “The Awakening” didn’t “overshadow” her better work.

The scandal created its own folklore, such as the false but often-cited claim that St. Louis libraries banned her novel. Her work eventually enjoyed a revival as an example of early feminist literature.

Chopin is buried in Calvary Cemetery.

Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or toneil@post-dispatch.com

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