The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 123-137
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Kate Chopin and Anna Julia Cooper:
Critiquing Kentucky and the South
Roberta S. Maguire
Kate Chopin has been difficult for scholars to fix as a southern writer, beyond an earlier view of her as an exceptional local colorist whose work—especially her second novel The Awakening—looked forward to the modernist literature produced by many southern writers in the twentieth century. Having stopped writing as the twentieth century was dawning, she could not qualify as a Southern Renascence writer, at least according to the paradigm directing southern literary studies that held sway into the 1980s. And she seemed not wholly to identify herself in her life or through her work as a southerner, as Anne Goodwyn Jones notes in her 1981 study, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South. Yet, as Jones also observes, "the symbols [Chopin] chose to invest her subject with imaginative power come from her Southern experience" (149). Since Jones' book was published, a number of scholars have also identified Chopin as being both a part of and apart from the South—with the apartness indicating not the kind of ambivalence about region born of an engagement with southern concerns so often associated with (white male) Renascence writers, but rather indicating just plain disengagement with the South and its concerns. Noteworthy among the critics who have seen Chopin in this light is Helen Taylor, who in 1989 argued that Chopin used southern themes and characters to enter a predominantly European discourse about "sexuality, bourgeois marriage, [End Page 123] and woman's role" (157). Yet, according to Taylor, Chopin took "a thoroughly orthodox [white] southern line on race" (155), rendering The Awakening, her fictional masterpiece, "a feminist regionalist work that . . . lapses into unexamined racism" (201).
Taylor's observation signaled the general direction that a good deal of Chopin scholarship, particularly on The Awakening, would take in the 1990s. Instead of concentrating on what Taylor termed Chopin's own "unexamined racism" evident in the novel, critics have probed what Elizabeth Ammons named as The Awakening's "great unexamined story," a story of "sororal oppression across race and class" (75) that becomes apparent once one recognizes that "the background of The Awakening is filled with nameless, faceless black women" (74). Ammons' comments appear in her 1991 book, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century, as part of an argument for rethinking American literary history as including a significant tradition of late- nineteenth century women writers. The tradition she identifies includes white women and women of color whom critics have tended to treat singly. For the most part, the published work on Chopin's The Awakening since 1991 has followed Ammons' lead in largely dropping region from the discussion.
In this essay, I would like to bring it back. In keeping with Ammons' focus on women's writing across the color line, I am looking at Chopin and The Awakening, published in 1899, alongside Anna Julia Cooper and her collection of essays, A Voice from the South, published in 1892. Cooper and Chopin were contemporaries, born eight years apart, with their best work—Cooper's book of essays, Chopin's second novel—appearing seven years apart. What I think placing these two works and their authors side by side reveals is a shared southernness, even as it is a southernness shaped by radically different southern experiences. In the years before the Civil War, while Chopin was a young girl growing up in the border state of Missouri, her family and their neighbors were slaveholders; Chopin, in fact, as a young girl apparently was attended by a slave woman named "Louise." Cooper, by contrast, was born into slavery three years before the start of the Civil War in Raleigh, North Carolina, the result of a forced union between a slave woman and her master. Cooper wrote briefly about it in this way: "My mother was a slave and the finest woman I have ever known. . . . Presumably my father was her...