“Chopin in ‘The Century'”

The Century: A Popular Quarterly was one of the most widely-read magazines in America at the close of the nineteenth century, and its wide readership can be partially attributed to the large variation of its regularly appearing contents: serialized editions of longer fiction, short stories, poetry, illustrations and photography, historical articles, and essays on society and culture. The Century was formerly Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, and it was originally an evangelical Christian publication that was a fervent supporter of the socialist movement. After the death of Charles Scribner in 1881, however, the magazine underwent a change in name and content, and it grew to be the American periodical with the largest circulation. The magazine frequently engaged with political issues, such as a new critique of the socialist movement and discussions of labor union organization. The magazine frequently published editorials and essays on issues like the gold standard debate and scientific discoveries as well, and during the 1890s the magazine became more overtly nationalistic in nature under the new editorial leadership of Richard Watson Gilder, Charles Scribner’s predecessor.

Under Gilder’s leadership, The Century did indeed gain a wide reading audience, and to encourage a refined “high” American culture the magazine always included literary works, illustrations from some of the best-known illustrators, such as Charles Dana Gibson, some lesser-regarded illustrators, and photographs. Some regular features of The Century included literary works by well-regarded authors, such as Mark Twain and Henry James (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Bostonians were both serialized in The Century during this period) who were published alongside lesser-known female authors such as Julia Magruder, and at the time, Kate Chopin. The magazine also featured regular pieces on the Civil War, the life of Abraham Lincoln (one of the more popular reoccurring columns), and other matters of national interest. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature,

The Century has always given much space to illustrated articles on history. There was something a trifle “journalistic” in a series of articles on the Civil War by Northern and Southern generals, yet even in these the editorial control was such as to insure a reasonable standard of excellence. “The Life of Lincoln” by Nicolay and Hay, large parts of which appeared serially in The Century, was of higher grade. In literary criticism E. C. Stedman had, even in the days of Scribner’s Monthly, contributed articles on the American poets. Without neglecting fiction, poetry, and other general literature the magazine has devoted rather more attention than has Harper’s to matters of timely, though not of temporary, interest (Ward and Trent 1909).

Due to its eclectic nature that appealed to a wide reading audience, The Century was one of the more popular illustrated periodicals in American culture until it ceased publication in 1930. During the years when Kate Chopin was publishing in the magazine, the Editor of the periodical was Richard Watson Gilder. Gilder was a well-respected editor at the time, and Kate Chopin was aware of the prestige that a publication in The Century could bring to her burgeoning literary career.

According to Chopin’s biographer, Emily Toth, “No one, after all, becomes a professional writer without some help from experts. When Kate Chopin wanted to make an impact on the national book and magazine publishing world, she knew that she should choose her targets carefully” (Toth 130). Chopin began corresponding with Gilder about her work after she submitted “A No-Account Creole” to the magazine, which she was paid one hundred dollars for — a very handsome compensation for a female author at the time. When asked to make revisions, it appears that Chopin did so willingly. Toth further claims that

Nationally, the other most important editor [aside from William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic] was Richard Watson Gilder of the Century magazine….Gilder wanted realism softened by idealism, or travails that end in tenderness — and Kate Chopin, with a great deal of ambition and nerve for a St. Louis widow who scarcely published at all, set out to impress him (130-1).

Without the manuscripts to check for textual variants between the manuscripts and the published piece, one must rely on Emily Toth’s interpretation of the events surrounding the publication of “A No-Account Creole.” Toth further claims that “Men’s character conflicts, especially over notions of honor as in Chopin’s story [“A No-Account Creole”], were what grabbed Gilder” (Toth 132). However, Chopin herself claimed in a letter to Gilder that she had made minor revisions, but she refused to alter the sheer length or ending of her story for fear that something would be lost in the revision. Gilder not only printed the story as-is after that exchange, but also gave Chopin a lead on where she could publish her entire short story collection she was amassing as a single volume. It is difficult to say whether or not Chopin truly altered the content of her stories very much simply to appease the editor of The Century. One thing that I hope will be made clear in the pages that follow, however, is that none of these stories are so far outside of Chopin’s typical themes that there is any overwhelming reason to immediately suspect editorial intrusion on the behalf of Gilder.

Chopin was in favor of revising her literary image in favor of gaining acclaim. Toth claimed that Chopin was “more of an entrepreneur than a philosopher. She was figuring out how to write what would sell. And then, with French practicality and women’s wisdom, she found a unique way to create and promote her own career” (126). While Chopin may have strategically tried to place specific stories she had written in magazines that were likely to publish them, she was more concerned with crafting her public image as a writer itself than with altering the content of her stories to appease editors — a fact that Toth herself acknowledges. She claims that Chopin

seriously and deliberately presented herself as a different creature from the dedicated writer she was. When asked about her writing, she was often evasive, and vague if not untruthful. While she did not write directly and exclusively to a predictable market…Chopin did want commercial success. And so she cut her image to suit a certain fashion — and made herself seem more nonchalant and breezy, and far less ambitious, than she actually was (Toth 164).

The three Chopin biographies that exist all disagree about whether or not Chopin actually edited or made changes specifically to suit the whims of the editors of these magazines at all. But one thing about Chopin the literary figure does seem clear: while cultivating the public persona of a writer who had a very romantic notion of the writing process — a hastily-written, manic frenzy of writing that would last in bursts of a few hours, which she then publicly claimed to never edit — Chopin continued to edit her supposedly hastily written stories heavily before she sent them out for potential publication (Further editing and bibliographic work is sorely needed when it comes to Chopin’s manuscripts and correspondence with the editors of The Century, Vogue, Harper’s Youth Companion, and The Atlantic. It is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, for Chopin scholars to continue working with these stories in a scholarly way without projects such as these.) While this information cannot presently be confirmed for her publications in The Century, her editorial practices have been explored in a preliminary way concerning the stories published in her single-volume publications. Despite this fact, Toth still claims that

the Century magazine never did become very hospitable to Chopin’s writing. After “A No-Account Creole” she had a stream of rejections from them, and the only other stories the Century ever accepted are all tales of strong-willed Louisiana characters who give up their wild ways. All three — a thieving young girl (Azélie), a people-hating, middle-aged woman (Regret), and a lazy loafer (Ozème’s Holiday) — become nice, unselfish people who are really not very interesting (136).

These are strong statements about these stories on the part of Toth, and unfortunately, they are not completely accurate statements either. Azélie is indeed a thief (of alcohol and tobacco, no less), but Azélie is by no means the protagonist of the story; Mr. ‘Polyte, the owner of the store that she steals from is the protagonist of this story. As a matter of fact, Azélie never changes her ways, or even repents for a moment in this story. In “Regret,” Mamzelle Aurélie is indeed an isolated, middle-aged woman, but people-hating is definitely a strong descriptor for a woman who agrees without hesitation to watch her neighbor’s children when she is in need due to a family emergency. And while “Ozème’s Holiday”  may indeed be about a privileged young white man who doesn’t have many responsibilities in life, the story itself concerns the care exerted by this lazy loafer in the care of a sick young black man, not a woman, as Toth suggested. There is much more to these stories than Toth has suggested in her Chopin biography, and the biography contains a fundamental mischaracterization of these pieces in its dismissal. Toth’s brief dismissal itself, however, may be the result of an ideologically constrained reclamation of Chopin’s fiction in the late twentieth century, however.

The reclamation project surrounding Kate Chopin’s fiction during the 1960s and 1970s is one that is fraught with a long and complicated history that Chopin scholars are more than familiar with. The most recent revival of Chopin’s work centered on a second-wave feminist reclamation of The Awakening, primarily, and has since extended outward to include Chopin’s short fiction. What has been learned in the wake of this project is that the critical reception of Chopin’s work during her own time was not as oppositional as the second-wave reclamation scholars may have suggested. The lore surrounding the reception of The Awakening produced many assumptions and critical blind spots that could have been uncovered sooner to produce a more accurate picture of Chopin’s impact on American literature, and her short fiction is a prime candidate for uncovering this impact.

Bernie Koloski claims that we should “distinguish between the history of The Awakening and that of Kate Chopin’s short stories. The 100 or so stories Chopin wrote throughout the 1890s were, by almost any writer’s standards, more than merely accepted in her own time” (Koloski 161). Chopin was, after all, a female writer who made an uncommonly lucrative living off of the publication of her stories following the death of her husband. While many of these stories are frequently anthologized, taught, and studied as a matter of course in educational settings today, the three other stories from The Century, some of her earliest I might add, are hardly ever anthologized at all, let alone studied from a critical or scholarly point of view.

I hope to show that these three stories published in The Century after “A No-Account Creole” have much to offer scholars in the way of current trends in literary studies.

Melissa Pompili

Case Western Reserve University