Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Visit to Avoyelles

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

Bayou des Cotes, Parish of Avoyelles, Louisiana, 1891, watercolor on paper mounted on board by Louisiana artist George David Coulon (1822–1904). The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Thirteen years ago, soon after the launch of the Story of the Week site, we presented to readers “Désirée’s Baby,” a story that was Kate Chopin’s most—or, some might argue, only—well-known work after her death and until her “rediscovery” in the 1970s. The story continues to be widely taught in schools and colleges and remains one of our most popular offerings—always in the top 25 of the more than 600 selections to date.

In a way, though, that’s only half the story. When Chopin’s famous tale appeared in 1893, in the fifth issue of the new magazine Vogue, it was the first episode of a two-part selection retitled by the editors as “Character Studies: The Father of Désirée’s Baby—The Lover of Mentine.”

Chopin separated the two works when she included them in her 1894 collection, Bayou Folk, and she restored the original title, “A Visit to Avoyelles,” to the story about Mentine. Both tales are set in Louisiana and portray women with disagreeable husbands—but there the similarity ends. While “Désirée’s Baby” is (to quote Cynthia Griffin Woolf) “an economical, tight psychological drama” with a surprise ending, “A Visit to Avoyelles” resembles the “local-color” sketches that had brought Chopin to the attention of the reading public over the previous three years. “If the two stories are read immediately one after the other,” remarks the Spanish literary scholar Teresa Gibert, “the contrast between them is striking, since Chopin’s quaint depiction of Cajun manners in ‘A Visit to Avoyelles’ is not paralleled by a symmetrically optimistic representation of Creole mores in ‘Désirée’s Baby.’” Even so, in just 1,300 words, “A Visit to Avoyelles” transcends many local-color tales in its portrayals of both the protagonist—a man who impetuously travels more than 80 miles across the state of Louisiana on a rescue mission—and the object of his romantic fantasy: a woman who doesn’t think she needs rescuing.

During the rest of the 1890s, seventeen additional stories by Chopin appeared in Vogue—including several that no other publication would touch. Founded by Arthur Turnure, a wealthy heir who had been an art director at Harper & Brothers, and backed with funds from the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Marion Fish, the weekly gazette at first was read as much for its high-society news as for its fashion coverage. For the first eight years, Vogue’s editor-in-chief was the journalist Josephine Redding, an unconventional socialite known for her trove of oversize hats, her refusal to wear corsets, and a dedication to animal welfare causes. Redding’s notable contributions to Vogue include the magazine’s title and the introduction of dress patterns, with coupons that could be mailed in with fifty cents to receive the full-size versions.

At the end of 1894, to celebrate the success of Vogue’s first two years, Redding assembled a full-page collection of portraits entitled “Those Who Have Worked with Us,” placed an illustration of Chopin top and center, and wrote in the accompanying article, “Mrs. Chopin is daring in her choice of themes, but exquisitely refined in the treatment of them, and her literary style is a model of terse and finished diction.” Chopin’s recent biographer Emily Toth remarks, “While few well-known American writers appeared in Vogue (and no other local colorists), Kate Chopin found in its pages her own showcase, and she used it to experiment with a more radical realism and a less traditional—and less happy—view of the world.”

Comment! – How is this!
Non, j’te garantis! – No, I guarantee you.
’tit [petit] sauvage, va! – Little savage, go on!
Other French phrases are simple exclamations or will be apparent from context.

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Every one who came up from Avoyelles had the same story to tell of Mentine. . . . 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.