- Coloring Locals: Racial Formation in Kate Chopin's Youth's Companion Stories
Bonnie James Shaker's Coloring Locals foregrounds the interrelatedness of adult and child audiences at the end of the nineteenth century and recognizes the profound influence of periodicals for youth on the literary careers of women writers. By 1885 the Youth's Companion was the most widely circulated periodical in America, and, as Shaker indicates, a culturally sanctioned site for emerging female writers. Shaker argues that Chopin made her name in children's periodicals, earning more than a third of her total literary income through such venues. By focusing on children's literature, Shaker offers a more fully historicized version of Chopin as an artist and uncovers ideological complexities that have been submerged in many appraisals of Chopin's feminist politics.
Shaker begins by examining the demands of the literary marketplace in the late nineteenth-century, spotlighting Chopin's response to publisher interest in regionalism and explaining Chopin's decision to publish in the Companion as a combination of opportunity and ambition. Importantly, Shaker appreciates the consequence of children's literature for women writers of the period and never stigmatizes it as a mode secondary to publication for adults, especially since the Companion offered national exposure and prestige to writers like Chopin. Early sections of the book also adeptly position Shaker's voice within the critical dialogue about Chopin, nicely referencing landmark criticism and uncovering Shaker's position as one who hopes to complicate the major "metanarratives" that have sustained Chopin criticism (5). Discussing the rise of publisher interest in regional Southern narratives, Shaker argues that Chopin's texts retain the designation of "ethnic" for Creoles and thus maintain their position within the local color movement. By offering close readings of early Companion publications, Shaker demonstrates Chopin's attempts to resolve reader ambiguity regarding the ethnicity of Creole and Cajun characters. Since readers frequently associated Louisiana with ethnic mixing—of Spanish, French, African, and Native American peoples—Chopin consciously positioned Creoles and Cajuns as wholly white, discriminated from each other by virtue of class. As Shaker notes, Chopin's early work "self-consciously produces the Creole and Cajun as distinct ethnic categories of white identity distinguished by their respective bourgeois and hireling/laboring-class socioeconomic stratification" (xiv). Shaker's [End Page 255] work is particularly compelling when it addresses stories like "A Rude Awakening" which conspicuously play with the characters' racial ambiguity and implicitly address readers' assumptions about racial mixing. Since outward designations of racial identity are unstable and unreliable, whiteness becomes "recognized as a cultural way of being in the world, an adherence to social codes of behavior that are consistent with dominant standards of class and gender" (48). Such readings neatly intertwine observations about the texts' conservative gender politics with the argument about southern femininity as a signpost for whiteness.
Shaker also addresses the way that Chopin's fiction interacts with expectations for white motherhood and conventions of American children's literature. The contextual information about motherhood, True Womanhood, and the Romantic child will be familiar to Legacy readers, though Shaker deftly employs it to amplify her close readings. For example, she explores the role of the Romantic child in cementing the whiteness of Cajuns, people who appear even more racially ambiguous than Creoles by virtue of their lower class status. Through depictions of reformed parenting and ennobling adoption, Chopin's texts figure the bonds of whiteness across class lines. Shaker concludes with an analysis of fiction written after The Awakening, noting that these texts were part of Chopin's attempt to reenter the literary mainstream. Shaker notes that these late texts move away from an interest in whitening Creoles and Cajuns. The author's great strength in these sections remains her ability to position Chopin within the larger publication context, as she notes prevailing trends as well as the specific character of signal periodicals. Toward the book's conclusion, however, Shaker employs psychoanalytic criticism within one close reading, a strategy that seems a...