Sunday, February 4, 2024

A Point at Issue!

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

Les Grands Boulevard (Café Américain), c. 1884–95, oil on canvas by French artist Jean Béraud (1849–1935). Image: Sotheby’s.
     From Chopin’s story: “He took refuge at one of the small tables of a café, called for a ‘Mazarin,’ and, so seated for an unheeded time, let the panorama of Paris pass before his indifferent eyes.”
In May 1889, Kate Chopin finished the first short story she considered good enough to send out for publication. All we know about the tale, which was titled “A Poor Girl,” is the following entry in her manuscript book that records the trajectory of each one of her works:
Returned from Home Mag . Dec. 1 — objection to incident not desirable to be handled
remarks “well written , full of interest” if changed, would consider
Gave to John Dillon to read Dec. 11
Sent to New York Ledger May 1890.
Returned from New York Ledger June 5
We don’t know the nature of the “incident” the editors at Home (probably Arthur’s Home Magazine, a popular monthly journal for women) found objectionable, although the criticism that something in a story was “not desirable to be handled” was one Chopin would receive frequently during her career. After the first rejection, she showed the story to John Dillon, the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, before sending it out again for another dismissal. She often sought his advice and feedback during the next few years, and the newspaper generally championed Chopin and her writing in the years ahead.

During the remainder of 1889, Chopin wrote four other pieces and had much better luck placing them. In June she finished “Wiser Than a God.” A story about a concert pianist, it was accepted by the Philadelphia Musical Journal, the first publication she sent it to, and it appeared in the December number. In August she wrote “A Point at Issue!” and it seems she likely shared it with Dillon for comment because in late October the Post-Dispatch published it with the subtitle “A Story of Love and Reason in Which Love Triumphs”—her first story to appear in print. She received $15 for it—three times the amount the Musical Journal paid her. Two stories she completed toward the end of the year underwent a rockier reception; between them they accumulated nine rejections before finding homes. Throughout the year, she also worked steadily on her first novel, At Fault, which she published in 1890.

During the next decade, Chopin wrote nearly one hundred stories and two more novels, including her controversial masterpiece The Awakening. (She couldn’t find a publisher for her second novel, “Young Dr. Gosse,” and after numerous rejections, she destroyed the manuscript.) When she began her writing career, she was a 39-year-old widow busy raising a 9-year-old daughter and five sons ranging in age from 11 to 18. In 1907, three years after Chopin’s death, her daughter, Lelia, recalled how her mother managed to get any writing done:
She always wrote best in the morning, “when the house was quiet,” as she said. She always wrote rapidly with a lead pencil on block paper. When finished, she copied her manuscript in ink, seldom changing a word, never “working over” a story or changing it materially. She did not have a study or any place where she ever really shut herself off from the household. I know now that she often desired to do this when writing, but on the other hand, she never wished to shut us children out of her presence, and with the natural selfishness of children, we never tried to keep her undisturbed as she should have been.
Lelia might have romanticized her childhood recollections; the household’s circumstances certainly changed over the course of the following decade. As Chopin’s sons grew older and moved out, the space and time available for her writing improved. An article published in November 1899 in the Post-Dispatch, titled “A St. Louis Woman Who Has Won Fame in Literature,” shows her spacious study in a watercolor by Chopin’s son Oscar, an art student at the time and a future cartoonist. Chopin biographer Emily Toth describes the sketch as depicting “a well-appointed room, with well-stocked bookshelves on either side of the fireplace, an intricate musical clock on the mantel, framed pictures on the walls above a nude Venus and interesting bric-a-brac on the shelves. In the armchair, leaning back and looking almost ghostly, is Kate Chopin (who liked to write in her favorite chair, beside the grate fire).”

Both of Chopin’s first two published stories were about the struggle between marital obligations and, as she put it, “a woman’s intellectual existence.” The pianist in “Wiser Than a God” is confronted with a choice: accepting a marriage proposal or continuing her career. “A Point at Issue!” tackles the same dilemma from a different, satirical angle: Charles Faraday, a professor of mathematics, marries Eleanor Gail, who wishes to continue her education and maintain a modicum of independence: “Marriage was to be a form, that while fixing legally their relation to each other, was in no wise to touch the individuality of either.” Oblivious and uncaring of what their social circle thinks of the arrangement, the couple agrees that Eleanor should spend the academic year living alone in Paris so that she can learn how to speak French more fluently. The separation, built on the “trust in each other’s love,” does not go as smoothly as either of them hoped.

Note: A Mazarin is a cake with almond paste filling.

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Married—On Tuesday, May 11, Eleanor Gail to Charles Faraday.

Nothing bearing the shape of a wedding announcement could have been less obtrusive than the foregoing. . . . 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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