First published in 1894, Bayou Folk is Kate Chopin’s first collection of short stories bundled together in one volume. After reading this collection for one of my classes, I decided to do a bit more research about its initial critical reception. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a review published in the April 1894 edition of the Atlantic Monthly that succinctly and accurately captures several of my thoughts about this collection.
Almost celebratory in tone, this review highlights the great impact Chopin’s writing had on the reader despite her apparent newness as an emerging author in the literary scene. However, the reviewer also takes care to point out that this is not Chopin’s first outbreak into the limelight, as many of her stories had been previously published in periodicals. Where I think this reviewer hits the proverbial nail on the head is when he comments on the moving force behind the entire collection, remarking:
“It sometimes happens, however, that a distinctive power is not fully recognized until scattered illustrations of it are brought into a collective whole” (558).
Each story on its own is like a snapshot, providing the reader with a glimpse into Chopin’s world but unable to show us the larger picture. Bound together in Bayou Folk, these stories weave themselves on a loom of class, race, gender, and identity. These common themes sharpen with the clarity offered by repetition as they are reflected and refracted in an immense cast of diverse characters. One character that stands out to me is the former slave after whom the story “Old Aunt Peggy” is named. In just over a single page to text, Chopin manages to transform Aunt Peggy from a woman into a representation of the peculiar institution itself, a one hundred and twenty-five year old system of labor whose legacy lingers on long after the war has been fought. Characters like Aunt Peggy breathe life and power into Chopin’s stories, giving them the force to resonate with readers long after the pages have been turned.
Another great point that the reviewer makes is the skillful way she wields the usage of various forms of dialect throughout these stories. Because location and culture are integral components of her writing, it only makes sense that she would endeavor to capture the sounds of local speech as well. This incorporation works to Chopin’s advantage, as the reviewer remarks:
“Her reproduction of their speech is not too elaborate, and the reader who at once shuts up a book in which he discovers broken or otherwise damaged English would do well to open this again” (559).
Although the variations in language may seem a bit confusing at first, the reader quickly becomes acquainted with the dialects used. Not only do they contribute to creating depth in characters, but they also help build the setting and make it come to life.
The end of the glowing review reads:
It is something that she comes from the South. It is a good deal more that she is not confined to locality. Art makes her free of literature” (559).
This passage stumped me at first. What could the reviewer mean by that final sentence? Does he mean that literature in general is usually restricted by locality, but in these stories she somehow liberates herself from those boundaries? I can’t be absolutely certain, but I’m choosing to interpret this statement as a celebration of Chopin’s writing ability. Her writing brings a warm feeling of culture and energy and life to literature, one that readers of all backgrounds can surely connect with in some way.
I highly recommend the short stories of Kate Chopin’s Bayou Folk, whether you read them separately or bound together in this fantastic collection. Chopin is a writer that is often forgotten in the midst of the male-dominated Western Canon, but these stories prove that her position in the literary world is undoubtedly well-deserved.
Have you read any of Kate Chopin’s stories or other works? Do you have any favorites? Any other short story collections that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!