Kate Chopin's Scribbling Women and the American Literary Marketplace

By Thomas, Heather Kirk | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Kate Chopin's Scribbling Women and the American Literary Marketplace


Thomas, Heather Kirk, Studies in American Fiction


"I want the book to succeed," Kate Chopin wrote in an 1894 diary entry about her f t short story collection, Bayou Folk. Five years later -- despite disappointing reviews of her novel, The Awakening -- she nonetheless queried her publisher, Herbert Stone, "What are the prospects for the book?"(1) Chopin's private and public writings confirm that she considered herself a professional writer. But her sense of herself as a woman writer, her comprehension of women's literary tradition, and her relationship with her literary foremothers -- that "d_____d mob of scribbling women" Hawthorne lamented in the 1850s -- are other, perhaps more interesting, questions.(2)

In Private Woman Public Stage, Mary Kelley documents the publishing travails of mid-nineteenth-century scribbling women, the "literary domestics" whose professional identities were upstaged by "their primary self-identification as private domestic women."(3) And in Doing Literary Business, Susan Coultrap-McQuin finds that Chopin's literary foremothers, despite formidable success and devout career commitment, "still had to contend with limiting stereotypes of women."[4] Thus it seems surprising that Chopin, who inherited these stereotypes when she began writing in the 1890s, would also propagate them. In three career-spanning works -- "Miss Witherwell's Mistake," The Awakening, and "Elizabeth Stock's One Story" -- chopin satirizes women writers in ways that strongly imply she wished to dissociate herself from the traditional female litterateur."(5) These caricatures provide insight not only into Chopin's own career but also into the status of the female professional writer in late nineteenth-century America.

Chopin specifically ridiculed women writers in only three works, but as Barbara Ewell notes, even her first novel At Fault (1890) managed to "manipulate effectively the techniques of romance [read women's popular fiction] to mock its conventions."(6) Elizabeth Ammons has proposed that Chopin belonged to a group of writers in the 1890s who desired to be "artists" as well as professionals. Breaking with the past, these women assailed "the territory of high art traditionally posted in Western culture as the exclusive property of privileged white men."[7]

In light of this premise, Chopin seems less atypical in her censure of scribbling women. Willa Cather, for example, claimed she expected little of women writers until they could produce "a stout sea tale, a manly battle yam, anything without wine, women and love."(8) Ironically, Cather treated The Awakening to a similarly uncharitable review. Objecting to its "trite" retelling of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Cather (in a revealing trope) compares Chopin's narrative decisions to a man acquiring a mate: "An author's choice of themes is frequently as inexplicable as his choice of a wife. It is governed by some innate temperamental bias that cannot be diagrammed. This is particularly so in women who write."[9]

Cather's criticism, however, might be considered poetic justice, since Chopin had herself dunned her sister scribblers. Her first parody of the literary woman, "Miss Witherwell's Mistake," was completed in November 1889 at the beginning of her literary apprenticeship. Chopin's third published story, it appeared in February 1891 in the St. Louis magazine Fashion and Fancy.[10] Echoing the spirit of Hawthorne's oftquoted remark, "Miss Witherwell's Mistake" derides scribbling women's "trash" and mocks their female readers. The story recounts the career of Miss Frances Witherwell, an unmarried journalist of a seasoned age who contributes fiction and women's articles to a small-town newspaper, the "Boredomville Battery." Notwithstanding Chopin's gesture in christening her character "Wither-well," she also derides the female journalist's hackneyed production: flagrantly Southern "tale[s] of passion" and self-important essays like "The Wintering of Canaries," "Security Against the Moth" (CW, p. …

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