Regions of Identity: The Construction of America in Women's Fiction, 1885-1914

By Kate McCullough | Go to book overview
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5 Kate Chopin and (Stretching) the Limits of Local Color Fiction

Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material . . . let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are . . . let it show the different interests in their true proportions . . . let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know--the language of unaffected people everywhere.

-- William Dean Howells, Criticism and Fiction ( 1891)


Local Color, Southern Femininity, and the Politics of Canonization

In May of 1899, a month after Kate Chopin ( 1851- 1904) published The Awakening and at the time when its negative reviews had begun to appear, Chopin responded to her critics:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to, the play was half over and it was then too late. (quoted in Toth344) 1

Such a disclaimer is as disingenuous as it is ironic, but even if Chopin knew full well that Edna Pontellier was going to make "a mess" of her life in exploring her self and her erotic desires, one might argue that she could not have anticipated the critical abuse that this most famous of her works was to receive, since she had, in fact, previously published material which, although every bit as outrageous, had not been attacked by the press. On the other hand, given that Chopin was, as Emily Toth has shown, a savvy businesswoman who knew the currents of the publishing industry, she might have expected the negative critical response to The Awakening, since it was in this novel that Chopin finally abandoned the

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