Sunday, February 7, 2021

A Shameful Affair

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

The New Novel, 1877, watercolor on paper by American artist Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Wikimedia Commons.
Kate Chopin’s husband died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1882, leaving her with $12,000 worth of debts and six children ranging in age from three to eleven (the five oldest were boys). After paying off the creditors in full and struggling to make ends meet for two years, she left New Orleans and returned to St. Louis to live with her mother, who had moved across the street from Chopin’s childhood home. After her mother unexpectedly died the following year, Chopin and her children survived more or less comfortably off the rental income from the properties she inherited.

By the end of the decade, to supplement her income, Chopin had begun writing short stories for regional publications and in 1890 she self-published her first novel, At Fault, to largely favorable notices from local reviewers. The following year, unable to find a publisher for her second novel, she destroyed the manuscript and turned her full attention to stories, writing more than forty of them in the next three years. All but two of the sixteen she published during 1891 were eventually published—although many faced numerous rejections before finally finding a home. She had begun pushing the limits of what was considered acceptable for women to write about in fiction. The first story she finished in 1891, “Mrs. Mobry’s Reason,” portrayed a woman with congenital syphilis and received more rejection notices than anything she ever wrote—fourteen in all—before the New Orleans Times-Democrat published it in April 1893. What made the story suddenly marketable was the transatlantic notoriety of the just-published novel Her Heavenly Twins, by British suffragist Sarah Grand, which depicted the devastating disease that philandering husbands inflicted on their wives and children. Chopin made minor changes to her story that would instantly evoke Grand’s book in the minds of Times-Democrat readers.

During this period, Chopin also began writing more of the “local color” stories set in Louisiana that would make her famous, but many of the early stories (including “Mrs. Mosby’s Reason”) took place in or near St. Louis. In the summer of 1891, she took her family 25 miles south to Sulphur Springs, where she probably wrote “A Shameful Affair.” Biographer Emily Toth suggests that Chopin may have named the story’s farmhand after her youngest son, Fred, as a “teasing wink.” By all accounts, Fred Chopin was a popular, rowdy, and mischievous youth whose adulthood, after a period of aimless job-hopping, proved relatively unremarkable. The highlight of his adult life seems to have been the year he spent training as a soldier during the Spanish-American War, although the fighting ended soon after his battery arrived in Puerto Rico, before any of them had fired a shot. In 1914 his divorce and a secret second marriage would make local news as a scandal du jour, and he ended up in California as a failed concert pianist whose day job was working for an Oakland candy manufacturer.

Chopin, of course, had no way of anticipating the direction of her fifteen-year-old son’s future when she wrote “A Shameful Affair.” Still, it seems likely that the story could have been as much a warning as a wink—although if Fred were anything like his fictional counterpart, he may have never read it. As a mother, Chopin had six case studies of adolescent “awakenings” in her household. As an author, she “was interested in the passion and drives of man (her ‘brutes’) as well as of woman (her ‘beauties’),” as Joyce C. Dyer notes in an essay on Chopin’s stories, which feature “complex creatures who have no choice but to discover their passion, in spite of risks, confusion, and guilt.” One of several precursors to her famous novel The Awakening, “A Shameful Affair” portrays the fumbling sexual advances of Fred and Mildred, two young adults invigorated by a rural environment that would serve a similar literary purpose in the next century for such writers as D. H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson (see especially “The New Englander”). In a later essay focusing on this story, Dyer acknowledges that “the landscape of ‘A Shameful Affair’ is neither as exotic nor as symbolically complex as the landscape in The Awakening,” yet without the descriptions of the farm the story would be “not as subtle and artistically satisfying.”

While certainly not as scandalous as a story on venereal disease, the post-adolescent passions of “A Shameful Affair” must have still been too much for fiction editors. Chopin’s account book indicates she wrote it in June 1891 and received rejections during the next year from St. Louis’s new literary journal The Chaperone, the short-lived Belford’s Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Scribner’s, The Argonaut, Ladies Home Journal, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Vogue (which only a few years later would be more than happy to publish stories by Chopin that no other publisher would touch), and Godey's Magazine. The story ended up at the Times-Democrat, the same newspaper that would later accept “Mrs. Mosby’s Reason.” Chopin was paid five dollars.

Despite a pivotal scene that may have made the nation’s starchy editors squirm, Toth claims that “A Shameful Affair” otherwise displays “William Dean Howells's genteel approach to romantic comedy,” a stance Chopin would soon abandon as she read more of the new novels and stories arriving from Europe. The story ends on a humorous note that, while ambiguous, will seem satisfying to many readers, leaving open the interpretation of what happens next. Yet literary scholar Allen F. Stein, in a recent reconsideration of the story, questions what kind of future the couple could really have, given how Mildred’s class consciousness, her love of reading, and her strong regard for social propriety would inevitably clash with Fred’s lack of interest in intellectual endeavors, his contempt for books (particularly those by the authors she admires), and his impulsive and brutish behavior as a self-described hound. “Thus,” concludes Stein, “the future for Mildred and Fred may be more problematic than the seemingly upbeat conclusion to ‘A Shameful Affair’ might lead one to believe.”

Note: Mildred receives a letter that locates the Kraummer Farm “on the Iron Mountain,” a reference to the Iron Mountain Railway, initially constructed to transport ore to St. Louis from the mines eighty miles to the south near Iron Mountain and eventually extended to Texarkana, Arkansas. Sulphur Springs, located a few miles south of where the Meramac River flows into the Mississippi, had a station stop on the Iron Mountain line, which the Chopins took when they visited the area for vacation.

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Mildred Orme, seated in the snuggest corner of the big front porch of the Kraummer farmhouse, was as content as a girl need hope to be. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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