Kate Chopin's "One Story": Casting a Shadowy Glance on the Ethics of Regionalism
Staunton, John A., Studies in American Fiction
In Kate Chopin's first two critical essays, both written in 1894, the same year her first collection of short fiction, Bayou Folk, was published, the St. Louis-born walter--who was best known for her Louisiana fictions--demonstrates the ambivalence with which many nineteenth-century American authors approached terms like regionalism and local color. The essays are brief but incisive accounts of the strengths and weaknesses of regional writing and offer a quick glance at the literary conflicts at the end of the century. The first reports on the Western Association of Writers, a mostly Indiana group that Chopin chides for "clinging to past and conventional standards, [for] an almost Creolean sensitiveness to criticism and a singular ignorance of, or disregard for, the value of the highest art forms."(1) The group's provincialism, Chopin suggests, prevents it from realizing that "there is a very, very big world lying not wholly in northern Indiana." But to ensure that her criticism of local writing here is not itself read provincially, Chopin continues to describe the world good fiction must attempt to configure: "nor does it lie at the antipodes, either. It is human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it" (691). The second is a more measured piece, a mixed review of Crumbling Idols, Hamlin Garland's collection of essays championing the use of regional and local color elements in the service of a literary realism. By Chopin's estimation, when Garland advocates breaking free of "the hold of conventionalism," he ends up undervaluing "the importance of the past in art and exaggerates the significance of the present," especially as the present makes itself visible through the meticulous detailing of local life. Though she herself was a writer of regional fiction that was enthusiastically promoted for its artistic and faithful rendering of local life, Chopin here warns that "social problems, social environments, local color and the rest of it are not of themselves motives to insure the survival of a writer who employs them" (693).
Chopin's curious aversion to the efforts of her fellow regional writers in these essays seems to come from a suspicion of any ethical motive or naturalist principle and favor a strict formalism or aestheticism. The critiques also show Chopin to be reluctant to throw in with any aesthetic ideology that blindly attacks the powers that support it or the artistic forms that enable it. Thus she characterizes the Western Association's eschewing of high art as naive and childish, and she takes Garland to task for his impolitic criticism of the East as a tyrannous literary center. "There can no good come of abusing Boston and New York," Chopin cautions: "On the contrary, as `literary centers' they have rendered incalculable service ... by bringing to light whatever ... has been produced of force and originality in the West and South since the war" (694). Such a position is coincidentally (and perhaps ironically) in step with much of the early twentieth-century literary criticism of regional fiction that kept Chopin an admired but minor figure until the rediscovery of her second novel, The Awakening. At first glance, much of Chopin's own fiction seems to discount her critique of Garland's "veritism" and of regional writing in general, but a closer inspection, particularly of the short fiction, tells a different story. Chopin delivers her criticism with authority and conviction, with the authenticity of one who speaks from within a region and tradition, suggesting not that Chopin is simply inconsistent in her criticism and practice, but rather that Chopin's understanding of regional writing includes a sophisticated and indeed implicitly ethical knowledge of the dangers inherent in claiming to offer an authentic or enduring relation of another person or community.
Published six months before her review of Garland's manifesto, Chopin's Bayou Folk contains two stories that explicitly challenge the impulse of local color to provide an authentic vision of a region. …