- Coloring Locals: Racial Formation in Kate Chopin’s Youth’s Companion Stories
Applauding Kate Chopin's feminism, a few critics note, with regret, that Chopin's juvenile fiction seems to capitulate to orthodox concepts of gender, particularly after the chilly critical reception accorded [End Page 78] The Awakening. However, Bonnie James Shaker consider Chopin's children's stories of 1889–1902 not as an abdication of social reform, but rather as projects deriving from—and offering evidence of—a different, albeit still political, agenda. Shaker asserts that while Chopin hoped to generate needed income and expand her profile as a writer, she also sought the status and privileges of whiteness for Creoles and Cajuns. Shaker's well-structured and persuasive argument takes a dialectic approach: she addresses the family and "gentry values" in the juvenile periodicals that published Chopin's work, and she illuminates Chopin's use of those values to encode the race, class, and gender of Louisianans.
Shaker offers a keen analysis of the era's juvenile periodicals as the medium for what she calls Chopin's "race for race" (xii). Moreover, she amply—and perhaps uniquely—demonstrates Chopin's publishing savvy. She reads Chopin's own submission records alongside the editorial policies and practices of Wide Awake, Harper's Young People, and the Youth's Companion, the last of which paid Chopin $750, almost a third of her lifetime literary income. Shaker compares the Youth's Companion guidelines and readers to those of other Chopin outlets like Vogue. She notes circulation data and prices paid by various editors, reminds us of the vital place of the short story in the period, and explores readership demographics. Most important to Shaker's argument is her exegesis of children's periodicals, which served an overly didactic function. According to Shaker, Chopin used this forum to teach readers lessons about racial identities and hierarchies, lessons that did not trouble the basis for racial privilege, even as they colored Creoles and Cajuns white and mandated noblesse oblige toward those at the "bottom" (xiii).
In her discussion of what she calls Chopin's project, Shaker breaks little new explicitly theoretical ground as she borrows from scholarship of the past decade that rejects readings of class, race, and gender as discrete categories of analysis. Shaker cites Judith Butler's theory of performativity, and she engages theories of masking and subversion in her discussion of the high-stakes interplay among social and political terms of identification, especially in the turbulent 1890s. Shaker provides an excellent model, rather than a formula, as she moves beyond stagnant either-or discussions of Chopin's work as feminist (or not) and racist (or not).
Shake concedes that to render "purely white" her beloved Creoles and 'Cadians, Chopin's children's fiction "reserve[s] racial otherness for African Americans and Native Americans" (xii). Shaker's reading shows, for instance, that Aunt Minty of "A Rude Awakening" and Marshall of "Mamouche" provide the "dark" contrast, against which the ambiguously "raced" "(elite) Cajuns and (non-elite) Creoles" are [End Page 79] defined (76). While Shaker failes to interrogate the extent to which nonwhite characters consciously surrender, without resentment, the race-based privileges Chopin denies them, most of her discussion of race is sensitive, nuanced, and contextualized. Shaker offers an important study of the ways in which Chopin and children's periodicals participated in the construction of whiteness.
Mitzi Schrag recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Her dissertation title is “Rei(g)ning Mediums: Spiritualism and Social Controls in 19th-Century American Literature.” She teaches at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington.