Kate Chopin Honored with Bronze Bust on “Writer’s Corner”
by Jaime Kelley, Walrus Contributor
“The delicious breath of rain was in the air.” Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour
While a light and delicious spring rain fell, a crowd of literary supporters, art lovers, cultural enthusiasts, family members, and community advocates attended the unveiling of Kate Chopin’s bronze bust on Sunday, March 11th. The afternoon was a celebration of Chopin’s life, her writings, her love of St. Louis, and her rich Irish and French Creole heritage.
Kate Chopin is the first woman to be honored by the Central West End Association (CWEA). The Association recognizes the neighborhood’s literary history with busts of internationally known writers who lived, at some point in their lives, in the Central West End (CWE). The Chopin likeness rests opposite those of Tennessee Williams and T.S. Elliot and can be found on what has become known as “Writer’s Corner” at the intersection of Euclid and McPherson.
The public dedication featured several speakers. Past and present Presidents of the CWEA, who were the organizers of the event, offered introductory remarks. Freelance writer and resident of the CWE, Pat Rice, shared historical and biographical information about Kate Chopin and her close ties and love of St. Louis. Sculptor, Jaye Gregory, who teaches sculpting at Fontbonne University and St. Louis Community College at Meramec, told us of the process involved in creating the sculpture as well as her impressions of Kate Chopin. Gregory noted that she was deeply honored to have been commissioned to create the Chopin bust.
Following the unveiling and the ceremonial photographs of the Chopin family with the revealed bust, and just in time to seek shelter from an onset of heavy rain, nearly half of the crowd filtered into Herbie’s for a formal reception.
The Executive Chef, Aaron Titelbaum, greeted us as we were presented with French wine by roaming servers, and a buffet of tempting European Continental fare tickled our palates. We settled in to more in-depth stories from Pat Rice of the historical and biographical content of Kate Chopin’s life. The famous author lived all but 14 years of her life in St. Louis, praised the city highly and often remarked how she found other places lacking. In fact, Rice told us that Chopin was to have said that New York City was “dull, dull, dull.” Chopin was a woman of passions – she enjoyed wine, food, books, cigarettes, and horseback riding astride (in split skirts!). Indeed, Chopin could be referred to as having been avant garde.
Kate Chopin, born Katherine O’Flaherty, met and married Oscar Chopin in St. Louis at the age of 20. As newlyweds, they traveled through Europe for a summer-long honeymoon, and then settled in New Orleans near Oscar’s family. Oscar died of malaria in 1882 leaving Kate a widow. At only 32, this widowed mother of six took over
the family store and cotton plantation in a city that was not her own. After giving it her best effort, she left New Orleans and brought her children home to St. Louis when she was 34.
Chopin struggled to make ends meet for a number of years and finally got her first taste of being published when, in 1888 – a music publisher printed her polka for piano. Her first short-story was published by the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1889. Within the next 10 years, she wrote over 100 short-stories and three novels. According to Rice, Chopin was industrious, clever, and used the resources available to her. For example, Kate was known to flip her washboard over onto the non-corrugated, or smooth, side to write stories, even while in the midst of doing her domestic chores.
At the conclusion of Pat Rice’s presentation, she invited family members to address the audience. Two of Chopin’s descendants expressed their utter delight at the honors of the day. They both shared how magnificent a day this was for their family, as well as for St. Louis.
Kathleen Nigro, President of the Kate Chopin Society and Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at UMSL, was the last presenter at the reception. In Nigro’s opinion, The Awakening is among one of the best novels written by an American author. Kathleen Nigro called Kate Chopin an “impressionistic writer” and offered that Chopin’s gift is found in her ability to transmute and transform life experience into fiction. Nigro reflected on the qualities that Kate Chopin infuses in her writings, those of honesty, openness, warmth, and sensuality. Most notably, The Awakening embodies the qualities of sensuality and passion – for which Chopin was deeply criticized. On the 13th of May, 1899, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat declared: “It is not a healthy book….Mrs. Pontellier does not love her husband. The poison of passion seems to have entered her system with her mother’s milk….” Nigro assured us that Kate Chopin gave a response to her critics; Chopin had “never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and making her own damnation at the same time…but by the time [she] figured it out, the play was half over.” Chopin was a woman of passion. Kathleen Nigro echoed this historical fact for us and further offered that this is the challenge of the female writer: to write of passion with passion, to write of sensuality in a sensual way, to write honestly, openly. When it is done well, society pushes back.
The professor concluded her presentation and closed the reception by wondering, “how many talented female artists and writers – how many other Kate Chopins – are there in St. Louis today?”
“To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts – absolute gifts – which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.” Kate Chopin, The Awakening