Sunday, March 15, 2020

Cavanelle

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

St. Claude and Dumaine Streets, Faubourg Tremé (1895), painting of New Orleans street scene by Louisiana artist Paul E. Poincy (1833–1909). The view looks down St. Claude Street—formerly known as Rue des Bons Enfants, or Good Children Street, which is mentioned in Chopin’s story. Visible in the background is St. Augustine Church, the oldest Catholic church for African American parishioners. Dumaine Street runs across in the front, with cobblestones between streetcar tracks. Image from WikiCommons.
When Kate Chopin was at the peak of her career, she wrote short stories at the rate of nearly one a month; most were published, and she was able to place them in virtually any national literary magazine. Some of her stories, however, were too socially transgressive or subversive for mainstream publications, and many of those works ended up in Vogue, whose editors accepted from Chopin a total of nineteen stories between 1893 and 1900.

Yet every so often she would finish a story, none of the national magazines would take it, and she would send it to a local St. Louis periodical or to a small literary journal. A case in point is “Cavanelle.” She finished the story in the summer of 1894, then mailed it to The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, which rejected it, then to The Atlantic Monthly, then to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, then to The Chap-Book, and then to Scribner’s Magazine. She received the final rejection notice from Scribner’s in February 1895 and, instead of sending it to Vogue, she decided to forward the manuscript to a friend, Rosa Sonneschein.

Like Chopin, Sonneschein was a member of St. Louis’s small but vibrant literary circle. In 1891, though, she caused a scandal when she left her abusive husband, a rabbi who had been dismissed under a cloud from Congregation Shaare Emeth, which was and still is a prominent Reform synagogue in St. Louis. Known for wearing stylish dresses imported from France and smoking cigarillos, Rosa Sonneschein was already a flamboyant figure on the social scene when she founded The Pioneers, the first American literary club for Jewish women. After the couple divorced, she moved to Chicago, where she began publishing an elegantly produced new magazine, The American Jewess, which advertised itself as “the only magazine in the world devoted to the interests of Jewish women.” “Cavanelle” appeared in the inaugural issue in April 1895, and the inclusion of a new story by a rising star of the literary world brought attention both to the magazine (which reached a circulation of 30,000 before ending publication after four years) and to Chopin herself, with glowing notices and reviews appearing in both Jewish and secular publications in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and other cities.

“Kate Chopin was the only non-Jewish contributor to the first issue,” writes biographer Emily Toth, “and her story was not about Jews, nor even particularly about women.” In an editor’s note, Sonneschein boasted that “Cavenelle” was “a delightful sketch of Creole life,” much in the vein of Chopin’s collection Bayou Folk, which had been published to critical acclaim the previous year. Most critics since have regarded it as a simple and sympathetic portrait of a shopkeeper who devotes his life to two family members who need his care—a story about what one scholar called “the theme of self-sacrifice for the sake of love” that appears occasionally in Chopin’s work.

In an article published a few years back in Mississippi Quarterly, however, Michael Tritt took a second look at the story and persuasively insisted that “the narrator of Chopin’s tale, barely discussed heretofore by critics, is the most fully individualized character in the story.” The narrator, a wealthy gentlewoman, seems at first to be a “genial, pleasant person with a sense of humor,” but as the story progresses Chopin reveals “the class and other preoccupations, prejudices and pretensions that the society woman harbors.” The narrator not only regards the shopkeeper with condescending detachment but also dismisses the worthiness of his sister and his aunt—and even of their black servant, whose life the narrator imagines in a series of speculations based on nothing other than the racist stereotypes that populate her mind. The narrator’s descriptions of all of the story’s characters, in fact, are hardly supported by what she observes and are instead based on what she imagines about them. In this reading, “Cavanelle” becomes less a story about a saintly, altruistic shopkeeper and more a sardonic portrait of the pretentious do-gooder who commits charitable acts to (as Tritt puts it) “accrue some social benefit to herself.”

Notes: Among the French expressions that appear in the story are poult-de-soie, a finely corded silk fabric; des petits soins, little attentions; voyez vous, you know or you see; Où es tu donc?, Where are you?; sirop d’orgeat, syrup made from almonds, sugar, and orange flower water; bouillie, gruel; and friandises, sweets. A cavatina is a short and simple song.

Mademoiselle Montreville and Tollville are fictional characters created by Chopin for the story—the former is a prominent “society woman” whom Cavanelle flatteringly mistook the narrator for and the latter is a singer performing at the opera attended by both the narrator and the shopkeeper.

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I was always sure of hearing something pleasant from Cavanelle across the counter. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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