By Emily Toth
Morrow. 528 pp. $27.95
FOR MOST of her brief career as a professional writer, and for more than six decades following her death in 1904, Kate Chopin was unknown to all but a handful of readers. Then, two decades ago, the tide suddenly changed in her favor. A two-volume Complete Works of Kate Chopin was issued in 1969 by Louisiana State University Press, permitting for the first time ready access to her life's work, much of which until then had been unpublished; more or less simultaneously, the young and energetic feminist movement discovered her magnum (albeit in length minimum) opus, The Awakening, and almost overnight elevated her to the status of cult heroine.
Two men played essential roles in the rediscovery of this neglected writer. The first was Per Seyersted, a Scandinavian scholar who not merely edited the complete works but also published a biography of Chopin, a dry, slender but useful volume. The second was Edmund Wilson, who contributed a brief foreword to the collected works and in so doing fixed the immense weight of his imprimatur upon them. In less than a full paragraph, he explained who Chopin was and why she deserved to be read:
"Kate Chopin was the child of an Irish immigrant father and a St. Louis French mother. She married a French Creole and went to live in Louisiana among the French-speaking Acadians of Cane River. In the United States of that period, she seems to have been unique. What impresses in this collection is the seriousness of her literary ambition. She admired and translated Maupassant, and she combines in her excellent style French limpidity with Irish grace. She was attempting to put on record the real inner emotions of women in relation to their men and their children, and it was this that made the hair stand on end of those genteel readers of the nineties and caused her to be blackballed when proposed for membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club. It was this that caused her to be reprobated by the so sniffishly moral reviewers of that era."
There you have it: All you need to know about Kate Chopin in order to place The Awakening, as well as the handful of Chopin's short stories that can still withstand scrutiny, into biographical as well as literary context. In a mere seven sentences, each written with Wilsonian sinew, we are given not merely the essential facts but also an interpretation of her style and subject that is precise, perceptive and accurate.
Consider by contrast the Kate Chopin that Emily Toth has now given us. Its text runs to more than 400 pages of small type, including extensive quotations set in the indented style so daunting and discouraging to readers. This is followed by more than 100 additional pages of academic apparatus, including three appendixes, notes, a bibliography and an index. Not a line of Toth's prose is either limpid or graceful; it slogs along in what is now the approved scholarly manner, its colorless sentences trudging in interminable procession. Chopin herself was a woman of wit and spirit, but there is none of either to be found in Toth's prosaic pages.
The very first of Toth's sentences reads as follows: "I have been working on Kate Chopin's literary career longer than she did." Whether this is a mere statement of fact or a boast is difficult to determine, but two conclusions are certain: It was written with no evident awareness of its inherent absurdity, and it is the key to everything that is wrong with this book. In writing these words Toth unwittingly describes herself as an academic mole, gnawing away at the literary corpus of the author upon whom her own career has been built; the Kate Chopin she has written is, above all else, a mole's book.
To the precis of Chopin's career that Wilson provided two decades ago, Toth has almost nothing of real consequence to contribute; the other important facts already had been put on the record by Seyersted, so the best Toth can come up with is the interminable explication of the trivial. Thus she reprints oceans of Chopin's juvenilia; she devotes a 21-page chapter to Chopin's European honeymoon, which she manages to reduce to the level of travelogue, and a 17-page chapter to the reviews of The Awakening, which reverberate with redundancy; she quotes at every available opportunity from that novel, and where opportunities do not exist, she manufactures them; she serves up immense extracts from newspaper articles, by and/or about Chopin, all of them of the most ordinary quality.
Like all dutiful biographers working under the new dispensation, Toth never met a fact, or a factoid, she didn't like. In her acknowledgements she offers thanks for "the first editing of a monstrous manuscript," but it is impossible to imagine that it could have been longer than the finished product. If the original was indeed of greater bulk than what now lies before us, it must have been the proverbial kitchen sink, crammed to overflowing with all the trivia that the mole's diggings unearthed.
To be sure, of the sincerity of Toth's affection for Chopin and the diligence of her researches there can be no doubt. There's nothing dishonest or meretricious about her Kate Chopin; it's merely pedestrian and pointless. Rather than bringing its subject to life, it smothers her under a heavy blanket of extraneous detail; not a single one of the minute corrections that Toth makes in the historical record of Chopin's life improves our understanding of her, much less her work, yet Toth labors over each of them as though it contained worlds of meaning and consequence.
She's wrong; it's all merely what the weather prophets call ground clutter. So skip it. Instead go directly to The Awakening, which is a work of genuine originality and daring. If much of its current eclat comes from extraliterary considerations, that isn't Chopin's fault; in truth she'd probably enjoy being promoted as a precursor of the new feminism, for the innermost soul of womankind was her true subject. Read nearly a century after its original publication, The Awakening still has the power to startle and move its readers; it is by any standard an important American novel, and it will be read long after this earnest, fatuous biography has found its way to oblivion.