Critical Overview

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‘‘Désirée's Baby,’’ which for decades was the only piece of writing for which Chopin was known, was first published in the inaugural issue of Vogue in 1893. The following year, it was reprinted in Bayou Folk, Chopin's first collection of short stories. Chopin's publisher marketed it as ‘‘several tales drawn from life among the Acadians and Creoles of Louisiana.’’ The collection included character sketches, stories about domestic dramas, stories about defiant women, as well as children's tales.

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The original print run of Bayou Folk was a respectable 1,250 and over the next sixteen years, it was reprinted several times. That the land about which Chopin wrote intrigued Americans was immediately obvious from the first review to appear in the New York Times (reprinted in Emily Toth's biography). Under the heading, ‘‘Living Tales From Acadian Life,'' the reviewer devoted all but two sentences of the review to an often-erroneous discussion of Louisiana life and culture. The review, however, was the first national critique of Chopin as a short story writer:

A writer needs only the art to let these stories tell themselves. It is not an art easily acquired, but Kate Chopin has practiced it with force and charm in the several stories of her agreeable book.

The word charming was to appear in many of the some one hundred press notices that followed publication of Bayou Folk, which established Chopin as a new and important writer. Laudatory reviewers from national magazines commented on Chopin's artistry. The Atlantic Monthly reviewer asserted, ‘‘In this work we have a genuine and delightful addition to the ranks of our storytellers.'' Nation wrote, ‘‘Her pen is an artist's in choice of subject, in touch, and in forbearance.’’ The Review of Reviews as stated in Toth's biography, Kate Chopin, A Life of the Author of 'The Awakening,' called Bayou Folk ''decidedly one of the best volumes of short stories which has appeared for some time.’’ Several reviewers also saw in Chopin's work the influence of short story masters such as Guy de Maupassant. Wrote a reviewer for the Pittsburg Bulletin and reprinted in Toth's biography, Chopin's ‘‘dramatic effects are worthy of that artist.’’

Some reviewers did call out ''Désirée' s Baby'' as a stand-out in the collection. As Toth points out in her biography, Rosa Sonneschein, publisher of a new magazine called The American Jewess, wrote in 1895 that the story was the ''most remarkable'' of all those in Bayou Folk, and one which ‘‘set the critics wild with enthusiasm.’’

For the most part, however, reviews focused on the ‘‘local color’’ aspect of Chopin's work instead of its literary merit, which disappointed the author. As reprinted in the Toth biography, she wrote in her diary, ''I am surprised at the very small number [of reviews] which show anything like a worthy critical faculty.’’

In the decades following Chopin's death, her body of work went generally unnoticed. Thanks largely to the efforts of the critic Fred Lewis Pattee, who repeatedly anthologized ‘‘Désirée's Baby’’ in collections he brought out, that story was still known to an audience. In his historical survey, The Development of the American Short Story , published in 1923, he laments the critical neglect of her...

(The entire section contains 810 words.)

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