Sunday, August 28, 2022

Wiser Than a God

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

At the Piano, 1887, oil on canvas by American artist Theodore Robinson (1852–1896). Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 1884, two years after her husband’s death from malaria, Kate Chopin moved back to her native St. Louis. She was thirty-four years old and a mother of six children ranging in age from 4 to 13. After a short-lived attempt to live in the home of her mother and her mother’s sister, also widows, she and the children moved into a house across the street. Chopin had lived in Louisiana with her husband for fourteen years, first in New Orleans, and then two hundred miles to the northwest in the rural town of Cloutierville, where she became somewhat notorious for her horseback riding, card playing, Cuban cigarettes, extravagant dresses purchased in the city, and—after her husband died—a romance with a married man.

Chopin had been living in St. Louis for barely more than a year when her mother died of cancer at the age of 54. “I think the tragic death of her father early in her life, of her much-loved brothers, the loss of her young husband and her mother, left a stamp of sadness on her which was never lost,” Kate’s youngest child (and only daughter), Lelia, wrote two decades later. Chopin moved her family four miles across town after her mother’s death, in part, according to biographer Emily Toth, to get away from the supervision of her aunt, “who would surely notice that Kate had stopped going to mass.”

In her new neighborhood, Chopin reconnected with friends from her childhood years, as well as an expanded circle of freethinkers, artists, and journalists, including Joseph Pulitzer, whose newspaper would publish some of her stories. “She was not interested in the woman's suffrage movement,” her youngest son, Felix, recalled in 1949. “But she belonged to a liberal, almost pink-red group of intellectuals, people who believed in intellectual freedom and often expressed their independence by wearing eccentric clothing.”

The physician Frederick Kolbenheyer, who had befriended Chopin a decade earlier, was one member of her new social circle. The previous decade, he had been the attending obstetrician for two of Kate’s children, each born in St. Louis when she had returned to spend time with her mother. A scion of an aristocratic family in Austria, Kolbenheyer had rebelled against his father and had come to the United States because of his outspoken opposition to the Hapsburg monarchy—or, more precisely, because he had been strongly advised to leave his native country. He served as physician to many of the leading families of St. Louis, but his primary practice was among the poorer inhabitants in the city’s South Side. Chopin and Kolbenheyer corresponded frequently during her years in Louisiana, and the letters she wrote impressed the doctor so much that, after she moved back to St. Louis, he urged her to become a writer.

Chopin began by attempting a novella-length story, “Euphrasie,” which she would eventually condense from 30,000 to 10,000 words and retitle “A No-Account Creole.” That initial effort would not be finished for several years; instead her first publication, which appeared in 1888, was the sheet music for an original composition, “Lilia, Polka for Piano.” In January 1889, she placed a poem, “If It Might Be,” in America, a progressive Chicago-based journal. And, finally, in June of that year, she finished the first of nearly eighty stories accepted for publication during the next thirteen years.

A romantic comedy that defies the formula, “Wiser Than a God” is, in part, Kate Chopin’s evocation of her grief over her mother’s death—and probably her response to the gentleman callers who might have assumed she was eager to get married again. In addition, it was almost certainly inspired by the career of German opera singer Antoinette Fehringer, whom Kate had met when she was nineteen years old. In 1866 Fehringer arrived in New Orleans from the Victoria Theater in Berlin and guest-starred in several productions during the first two seasons of the just-built National Theatre. She also proved to be a talented concert pianist and claimed to have been taught by the composer Franz Liszt. In July 1868, she retired from her professional stage career and married Adolph Bader, one of the city’s wealthier residents—a match (according to the Daily Democrat) “made romantic by a duel with a supposed rival.” The following spring Kate, with her mother, a younger cousin, and three other women, went on a pleasure trip to New Orleans, where she met the Baders. She later wrote in her diary:
One evening I passed in New Orleans which I shall never forget—it was so delightful and novel. Mamie and I were invited to dine and spend the evening with a Mrs. Bader, a German lady. . . . I quaffed all sorts of ales and ices—talked French and German—listened enchanted to Mrs. Bader’s exquisite singing and for two or three hours was as gay and happy as I ever had been in my life. Mrs. Bader had been but a year married, she was the famous Miss Ferringer—Singer and Schauspielerin [actress], who in order to support indigent parents went upon the stage, thereby not only retaining respect, but gaining it from every quarter. Her talents and womanly attractions won her a kind and loving husband—Mr. Bader—one of the first merchants of New Orleans, a man worth $600,000.
“Wiser Than a God” was published in the Philadelphia Musical Journal in December 1889, twenty years after her meeting with Antoinette Fehringer. Like many of Chopin’s stories, it deals with the tensions between family and independence and between marriage and career. “Kate Chopin was not an activist,” concludes Emily Toth, “but her earliest stories were about women who created their own destinies.”

Notes: In 1737, Italian opera singer Carlo Farinelli (misspelled by Chopin as Faranelli) retired from his public career and became the official singer of the court of King Philip V of Spain, a post he held for 25 years. To relieve Philip’s depression, Farinelli would sing the same four songs every night. Chopin includes two snippets of dialogue in German: “Ist es nicht wonderschen?” (Isn’t it wonderful?) and “Ach Gott! Fräulein Von Stoltz ist schon im Leipsic gegangen!” (Oh God! Fraulein Von Stoltz has already gone to Leipzig!)

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