Kate Chopin

1850-1904

Kate Chopin was born Katherine O'Flaherty on February 8, 1850 of an Irish and French descent in St. Louis, Missouri. Kate was blessed by having many female mentors throughout her childhood; either the strong and independent widows in her family or the intellectual nuns of her school, who taught Kate to live a "life of the mind as well as the life of the home." Kate was a young age of five and a half when her parents sent her to the Academy of the Sacred Heart . Her father, Thomas O'Flaherty, was an Irish immigrant who was very successful in many business ventures. In 1855 on November 1, being one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad, her father was aboard the train on its inaugural journey over the Gasconade Bridge, which collapsed, killing many of its passengers. After only two months into her term at Sacred Heart, Kate came home and was to be educated by her great-grandmother. Eliza Faris O'Flaherty, Kate's mother, was a member of the prominent French-Creole community and a member of an exclusive social circle. Eliza was only 27 years old when she heard of her 50-year-old husbands' death. She may have been depressed, yet liberated by the news, or so Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour" suggests: "a wife, hearing of her husband's death in a train accident, delights in thoughts of freedom." Her mother was barely 16 years old when she married Thomas O'Flaherty; six months after his previous wife had died leaving him with a son, George. Eliza brought a social status to the marriage, having been the eldest of an "impoverished, but well established family" of seven children. Thomas, a "self-made man," brought money. Eliza never remarried after her husband's death. Kate's grandmother and great-grandmother had also been widowed at a young age and never remarried. "There were young aunts and uncles, cousins, and four slaves in the household, but the strongest individuals were the widows." Kate's great great grandmother and her husband had been the first legal separation ever granted in St. Louis. She learned to read and write, gave birth to another child whose father was unnamed, became a keelboat entrepreneur, and ultimately an eighteenth century tycoon. Kate, having lost two very important male figures at an early age, developed strong ties to her great-grandmother. Kate's grandmother, Madame Charleville, gave birth to fifteen children with her merchant husband, Joseph Charleville. She taught Kate not only about music, history, and speaking French, she also stressed the need to live life "clearly and fearlessly."

Two years after her fathers' death, Kate returned to the Academy of the Sacred Heart . Kate met a girl named Kitty Garesche. The two girls both loved to write and read together, but in May of 1861 the Civil War broke out in St. Louis, and Kitty's family was banished for their Confederate "sympathies." Not only did Kate lose her best friend, but also her half brother, George, died of typhoid fever and her grandmother passed away at the age of 83. Kate lost all of her brothers and sisters, so that by the time Kate was 24 years old, she was an only child. When she graduated from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, she was known as a brilliant storyteller, an honors student, a youthful cynic, and an accomplished pianist. After the war, Kate almost had a depressed manner and one of the nuns of the Academy recognized the creativity in this lonely child. The nun assigned her to write a Commonplace Book, which is the first document of Kate's writings. This Commonplace Book became a diary of her intellectual and social life.

At the age of 19, Kate met Louisiana native Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker, and married him on June 9, 1870. The last writings in her Commonplace Book are the diary of her 3-month European honeymoon. As was typical for a woman in her era, she doesn't mention sexual matters, yet she records the consummation of her marriage on June 12 in Philadelphia. The couple established their new home in New Orleans and awaits the birth of their first child, presumably conceived while honeymooning in France. When Oscar's brokerage business failed in 1879, he decided to move north to his family's plantations in Natchitoches Parish, and it was then that Kate became acquainted with the Creole community that became such an important focus of her writing. In 1882 Oscar contracted swamp fever and died from complications of the disease in January of 1883, leaving Kate to return to St. Louis with their six young children. A year later, Kate's mother also died and Kate, emotionally burnt out from the losses in her life, got comfort from a family physician, Frederick Kolbenheyer. He suggested that she start writing as a way of expressing her anger and disappointment with life. She needed to turn her writing into a way to support herself and her six children. She never actually was able to live off of her earnings from writing, but she supported her family with income from real estate she owned in Louisiana and St. Louis.

Kate wrote for many years and her popularity was extreme until critical disapproval of her novel, "The Awakening," poor health, and concerns about her family slowed her down. For a little over a decade, Chopin had been a nationally acclaimed writer. In the early 1890's, Chopin was hosting a literary salon, and her "Thursday's" were the place to be for anyone with a creative niche. Kate was also a member of women's groups. She joined the St. Louis Children of Sodality, and was also a charter member of the prestigious Wednesday Club, which she left when it became more structured, but it remained loyal to her. In 1899, when The Awakening had been condemned by most male reviewers, the Wednesday Club invited Kate to do a reading and over 300 women came to applaud and praise her. Contrary to rumors, the awakening was never banned, nor was Chopin ever denied membership in any literary societies. Copies of The Awakening were only taken off of St. Louis library shelves when they had worn.

On August 20, 1904, Kate spends a long day at the St. Louis World's Fair and suffers from a cerebral hemorrhage. On the 22nd, she dies and she is buried on the 24th of August 1904.

 

Key Works (with links)

 

The Awakening brought to you by the University of Virginia

This link to The Story of an Hour by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University

A Pair of Silk Stockings

Ozeme's Holiday brought to you by the University of Virginia

Regret also brought to you by the University of Virginia

Athénaïse brought to you by PBS

Lilacs brought to you by PBS

A Reflection brought to you by PBS

A Respectable Woman by PBS

Beyond the Bayou online at PBS

Desiree's Baby brought to you by PBS

The Kiss brought to you by PBS

Bayou Folk: Electronic Edition brought to you by the University of North Carolina