Author Chopin Honored for Book Now a Century Old: Novel Scandalized Northern Louisiana

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CLOUTIERVILLE, La. - About 40 people traveled to this tiny north-central Louisiana village Sunday to dedicate the Kate Chopin House museum, a landmark in American women's literature.

One hundred years ago this year, Chopin, already known for her short stories set in Louisiana's Cane River plantation country, published her novel "The Awakening," the story of a young married woman's emotional discovery of her unfolding sexuality.

By today's standards, "The Awakening," which is still in print in paperback and popular in high school and college English classes, is quite tame. There are no passionate, bodice-ripping love scenes. But in 1899, male and female critics alike overwhelmingly denounced the book and its author for subtly suggesting that a woman may be sexually attracted to a man other than her husband.

"It isn't a steamy novel today but it was in 1899," said Marian Nesom, a retired English professor at Northwestern University of Louisiana in nearby Natchitoches. She spearheaded the effort to preserve and restore the house where Chopin lived from 1879-1884. "We had to develop as a culture before we could accept that sort of thing."

Today, the book is regarded as the first feminist novel, one which played a role in the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s. Until then, it was still something of a literary outcast. So was the sophisticated author when she lived with her husband and six children in this tiny town, just off modern Interstate 49 between Alexandria and Natchitoches. The antebellum house where they lived has been open to the public since 1965 as the Bayou Folk Museum, named for one of her short story collections. Now that it is on the National Historic Register, it has been rededicated as the Kate Chopin House. Among the women put off by Chopin's flouting of local conventions was the grandmother of Amanda Chennault, the museum's resident curator.

"I remember my grandmother talking about `that naughty lady,' " Miss Chennault said. "I was in high school when I learned that that very naughty lady wrote a very naughty book. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it! I read it from cover to cover. It really shocked me that this was the Kate Chopin I had heard about."

Miss Chennault, a first cousin once removed of legendary Flying Tigers commander Claire Chennault, a major general who also grew up near here, explained that she later had to read "The Awakening" again "to learn about the time in which she lived." That time was the Victorian era.

Kate Chopin was born Kate Flaherty in St. Louis in 1851, daughter of an Irish immigrant who had become a railroad tycoon. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, a wealthy New Orleans Creole, and settled there with him. When Oscar Chopin went bankrupt in 1879, they moved to Cloutierville (pronounced CLOO-chee-ville) to manage his family's cotton plantation business, but Kate Chopin brought her New Orleans lifestyle with her and soon became a local iconoclast. …