Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kate Chopin and the New South Idea

The end of the post Civil War Reconstruction period introduced many Southern politicians, thinkers and writers who began to analyze the continued problems of the American South considering the future to express a progressive ideology that came to be known as the New South idea. Simultaneously there were new developments in literature with the rise of this New South concept and the trend for local color writing that celebrated the diversity and exceptional character of the region with the use of regional dialect and atmospheric description. Fiction writing in the New South was predominately local color which gave a proud, nostalgic view of the past while acclaiming the promise of the present and at the end of the nineteenth century was extremely popular with the rise and the evolution of writers from the South who excelled in this form and gained popularity nation wide. The South offered numerous and various opportunities with its colorful range of customs and dialects.

In this background emerged Kate Chopin, one of the renowned local color writers of the New South who wrote about the diverse culture of Cajun and Creole Louisiana and introducing the American readers to a new fictional setting. A popular local colorist in her lifetime she was also known for her controversial and heavily criticized novel "The Awakening". While much of her work comes under the category of "regionalism" her stories and especially her novel were famous for their introduction of controversial subjects like women's sexuality and divorce, extramarital sex, and miscegenation. For these reasons this novel was heavily criticized and the public indignation over the candid approach of guiltless adultery made her abandon writing.

Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri and her mother descended from French Creole ancestors while her father was an Irish immigrant. She spoke both French and English and after her marriage settled in New Orleans thus spending her entire life in the South. She was very much influenced by her mother and grandfather and after her husband's death returned to live with her mother. She was also familiar with Creole and mulatto dialects and was fascinated by French Acadian and Creole sharecroppers working in her family plantation who served her with inspiration for her works.

She created realistic depictions of the different customs of the region and captured the harmony and diction of Louisiana speech in her dialogue. Along with her novels she published collections of short stories "Bayou Folk" and "A Night in Acadie" which were successful and while her stories are filled with regionalism and local color, contemporary critics agree that Chopin's masterpiece is her novel "The Awakening". Her theme of the strife between social constraints placed on women and their yearning for independence is recognized as a masterpiece of feminist and realist literature. Kate Chopin kept pace with scientific trends by reading Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer and was in fact an accomplished Regional Realist and local color writer during her time. At the end of the nineteenth century these writers captivated the imagination of readers and later critics accepted that the New South period also represented the birth of a new, analytic attitude in Southern fiction rarely seen before.

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