April 22, 1999 is the one hundredth anniversary of The Awakening, a novel with an oddly scarlet reputation.
Now recognized as an American classic, Kate Chopin's story was welcomed by most women, but despised by most men. The two women who reviewed it publicly, Willa Cather and Frances Porcher, praised the author's writing talents, but felt they had to deplore her uniquely sensational plot. A century later, though, The Awakening's plot seems very familiar -- the tale of a wife and mother who begins to realize that her life is unfulfilling and meaningless. She turns to art and adultery, but neither one fully satisfies her hunger. Ultimately she figures out how to elude everyone's demands, and she does.
Kate Chopin anticipated so much: daytime dramas, women's pictures, The Feminine Mystique, open marriages, women's liberation, talk shows, Mars vs. Venus, self-help and consciousness raising. But in 1899, she was a lonely pioneer.
Overwhelmingly, reviewers called Chopin's heroine colossally selfish, stupid and mean. Some even left out The Awakening in articles about her career. Inevitably, with men as the powerful reviewers, publishers, editors, and gatekeepers, this view prevailed. Kate Chopin died in 1904, and The Awakening was soon out of print. It was reprinted only once, half a century later, through the efforts of an editor at Putnam Publishing whose name is lost to history.
And then, in 1969, a Norwegian scholar named Per Seyersted published Chopin's complete works and the first modern biography, as the women's liberation movement was sweeping the United States. Sixty- five years after her death, Kate Chopin became a star. Although some