- Recovering Kate Chopin’s “Her First Party”:Media, Mediation, Message
Early in 2012, two of the three authors of this essay recovered the lost Kate Chopin short story “Her First Party” in the March 30, 1905, issue of Youth’s Companion.1 We accidentally stumbled on the text, which had been overlooked by researchers for more than a century, in the American Periodicals Series, a digitized database containing the American Periodicals Series I, II, and III on microfilm. Both media—digitized database and microfilm—include the nearly complete Companion’s 102-year run. Yet it was strange that we had failed to turn up the story before, especially since one of us had written a monograph devoted to Chopin’s Companion fiction.2 As we wrote in the introduction to the 2013 reprint edition, “The most obvious answer to the question of why Chopin scholars have not located ‘Her First Party’ before now is that the story appeared posthumously, its publication date lying outside the logical, searchable framework of Chopin’s lifespan.”3 Prior to the Companion’s digitization in the American Periodical Series, researchers presumably delimited their search parameters in ways more amenable to manually leafing through large, tabloid-size magazine pages and scrolling through microfilm. But as the archivist contributor to this essay notes, digitization allows researchers to search across time with ease. Optical character recognition (OCR) text conversion has broadened the possibilities of scholarly research; digitization made it possible for us to find “Her First Party.”
Yet digitization per se does not magically lead to recovery—a point emphasized by digital humanists at the 2015 Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference.4 Archivists, too, including Mary A. Caldera and Charles Upchurch, have detailed how the construction of basic search aids—catalogue subject headings and indexing terms—can make material visible or invisible.5 Moreover, media by definition mediate; they re-present and thereby alter materiality. The individual properties of print, microfilm, and digital media dictate both the information we can extract and the conclusions we can draw from a given collection. Digitized periodicals, for instance, do not substitute for print copies, where folio size, paper weight, ink quality, and page length offer clues to a publication’s socioeconomic status. Similarly, in our research, we found differences in pagination between the Companion’s print and digitized editions. Even in [End Page 21] the digital age, the digitized surrogate cannot replace the print original; access to multiple archival media remains essential for comprehensive research.
Consequently, the subjective, ideological, human decisions made in the building and use of archives both expand and delimit possibilities for knowledge construction and recovery. For example, the American Periodical Series’ digital interface of Boolean operators, organized to conduct author searches inside publication titles, was the technology that allowed for the recovery of “Her First Party.” Even so, our skepticism of prevailing McLuhanite conflations of Chopin’s Companion fiction with “children’s stories” prompted us to revisit the Companion in the first place, more than a decade after it had been digitized—something we and apparently others had not bothered to do sooner. We suspected that ahistorical assessments of the Companion as a periodical exclusively for children, as well as “the academy’s traditional subordination of children’s to adults’ fiction,” may have caused scholars to undervalue the Companion as a venue for sustained study.6 We saw historical incongruity between fin de siècle and contemporary academic estimations of the Companion as a publisher, and we hoped to investigate these differences.
Finding “Her First Party” actually derailed our initial project. And while it was a happy coincidence, it was never our goal. We had no reason to even suspect that a published text by Chopin lay hidden in the Companion archives. Although our intention was to revisit Chopin’s Companion fiction, we had set out quite deliberately to study the periodical within the larger print culture in which it circulated rather than the specific pieces of writing it contained. We were interested in exploring how the Companion influenced not only Chopin’s fiction but also her career...