front of Kate Chopin's house on McPherson Ave.

Kate Chopin

4232 McPherson Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri

By Michaella A. Thornton

 

The Central West End neighborhood where Kate Chopin spent her final year boasts some of the loveliest homes in St. Louis, Missouri. Dormers and cornices and stained glass, lush gardens bedecked in hydrangeas and peonies, birdsong and wrought-iron fences.

4232 McPherson Avenue isn’t far from the domed, devout beauty of the Cathedral Basilica or the local coffee roaster who prides himself on not using computers to roast the beans.

I haunt Kate Chopin’s last earthly home on the weekends I don’t have my child, death all around us. I want to know how to continue writing through a pandemic. Here’s what I would love to ask Chopin as I sit on the front steps of this historic home: How did you do it?

How did you write two novels and numerous short stories and poems and support six children as a single, widowed mother? How did you remember your worth as a writer and human being when polite society shunned you after The Awakening was published in 1899?

Before your death at age 54, you suffered many fools. How did you put up with T.S. Eliot’s bore of a mother for two years in the Wednesday Club? You were right to roast the hell out of “club women” in your writing.

We didn’t deserve you, Kate.

But I’ve loved you since I taught “The Story of an Hour” to my community college students. Intuitively, readers understand the feeling of being trapped, the lure of freedom. We recognize “the joy that kills,” which is why I’m taking notes at this underwhelming two-story brick house.

Did you need smelling salts or brandy, as your friend Lewis B. Ely joked you might, when the local newspaper printed a bad review of The Awakening? How about when Willa Cather wondered out loud in a Pittsburgh newspaper how you could waste “so exquisite and sensitive … a style on so trite and sordid a theme”?

I mean, how dare she? Trite?

You studied Guy de Maupassant. You revolutionized flash fiction. Plot twists? Hello, “The Storm” and “Désirée’s Baby.” Realistic fiction? You debunked the saccharine stench of motherhood as martyrdom, and you wrote women’s sexuality as ripe, rich, and complicated as any man’s.

Only after your death would the literary world realize your brilliance. What a fucking shame and also so typical. Even now, there’s no plaque marking this house.

Did the critics make you doubt what you had to say? That kills me. Some say you wrote less because of the criticism. The Awakening was out of print two years after your death. It took more than 60 years for scholars and readers to rediscover your prose.

Many days, for me at least, it feels impossible to write in the margins of one’s life, especially as a single mother. To care for my child, myself, and my home, let alone my art, is hard. There are Zoom meetings and work in 10-minute bursts and snacks and walks and groceries to buy and a face mask to secure to my 3-year-old daughter’s nose and mouth.

And I am one of the lucky ones.

But also like Edna Pontellier, many days I’m drowning.

I cannot imagine doing what you did, Kate. You began a writing career at age 40. You navigated the straightjacket of women’s social conventions at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. You were the first to write unflinchingly about sexuality, divorce, and a woman’s desire to govern herself. As literary scholar Per Seyersted wrote in your biography in 1969: “She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction.”

As a former farmgirl who once dreamt of secret gardens and women who refused to remain silent, I sit on these cracked, crooked steps, and breathe. If homes hold onto a small piece of their former inhabitants, I feel respite here. I can finally catch my breath.

Kella’s prose can be read in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Complete Sentence, Creative Nonfiction, Midwestern Gothic, New South, The Southeast Review, and a few other places. When she’s not chasing her toddler daughter, she savors digging in the dirt, kayaking, and second acts. You can find her on Twitter at @kellathornton.

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