Chopin at the Fair

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black and white image of the "Home in the Old Plantation (Pike)" "living-exhibit" at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition or "World's Fair" of 1904 the photograph is of African American actors portraying a pre-Civil War era image of planation slavery life

When I moved to St. Louis for graduate school, I lived for a few years on either side of Forest Park, the original site of the 1904 World’s Fair. At one point, I lived a few blocks from the house where Kate Chopin spent the last couple years of her life. The building is a modest two-story brick structure that resembles the other houses built around the same time, many of them in a fevered rush to create housing in anticipation of the opening of the Fair. Chopin herself had a season pass to the World’s Fair that summer, and after spending a long hot day there on August 20, 1904, she suffered the brain hemorrhage that ended her life. This single detail—Kate Chopin attending the World’s Fair on the last conscious day of her life—seemed so rich with possibilities that I thought it was worthy of its own fiction, and for a time, I tried to write that story.

Today Chopin is probably best known as the author of The Awakening, the novel that ended her literary career. Before the publication of The Awakening, Chopin had had a respected reputation as a regional short story writer. Born in St. Louis in 1850, she was known in her lifetime for her short stories set in and around New Orleans, where she moved after marrying her husband Oscar Chopin in 1870. After his death in 1882, she carried on an affair with a local married planter in the small town of Cloutierville before moving back to St. Louis, where she made her name as a writer of stories known for their evocation of Southern life. In 1899, Chopin published The Awakening, which follows Edna Pontellier, a mother of two and wife to a New Orleans businessman, as she comes into the realization of her own personhood. At least on the surface, the novel is tame: Edna never consummates the relationships she forms with either of the two men she is attracted to. At the end of the novel, Edna, much like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, walks into the sea and drowns herself, an ending that Chopin might have thought would render the book acceptable to public taste. But the novel’s radical feminist underpinnings ensured that it received mostly scathing reviews upon publication. By 1904, Chopin would have had every reason to believe that her name and work would fade into obscurity—and it did, until the feminist movement in the twentieth century resurrected her.

When I first tried to imagine Chopin attending the World’s Fair, I thought of her as a woman in perpetual mourning for her literary career, trying to distract herself with the amusements she might find there. As I researched her life, however, I learned she had something more concrete to mourn. In July of 1904, her oldest son Jean’s wife, pregnant with Chopin’s first grandchild, had died in childbirth, as did the newborn. According to Chopin’s biographer, Emily Toth, Jean never recovered from the loss. By August, he had moved in with his mother to the house on McPherson Avenue. Perhaps in leaving the house that fateful day, she was also fleeing the presence of her despondent child.

In my early visions of the story I thought I might write, I was imagining Chopin interacting with the humorous aspects of the Fair, relishing in the pure spectacle of it. Intended to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, held in a city long-heralded as the “gateway to the West,” everything about the Fair—which continues to loom large in the city’s memory—was symbolic. Though remembered for its amusement park features, the fair was intended above all as a science exhibition, a showcase for American technology and industry. Visitors could view such thrilling attractions as the Palace of Machinery, the Palace of Industry, and the Palace of Electricity. There was a life-sized statue of an elephant made from almonds, a 65-foot Temple of Corn made from actual corn, and a large Ferris wheel that is rumored to still be buried somewhere on the park grounds. There was nothing small or unambitious about the Exhibition, which was intended above all as proof of the superiority of industrialized civilization.

Yet as I researched more about the Exhibition, the darker side of that imperialistic worldview became apparent. The Fair also hosted several so-called “living exhibits,” which gathered tribal peoples from around the world and placed them on display. The largest of these included over one thousand Filipinos, many of them members of the Igorot tribe, who lived in a recreated village on the fairgrounds; the Philippines had become a U.S. Territory in 1898. The living exhibits also included tribes of Native Americans, including the Apache and Sioux, who had been recently decimated by Western expansion. On the main thoroughfare, known as the “Pike,” a display entitled “Home on the Old Plantation” featured a recreated slave cabin, complete with black actors playing the slaves. What might Chopin have thought about this?

The house Chopin lived in is located on a street that ends, as do many of the streets in that neighborhood, in a cul-de-sac. A short walk away in one direction takes you to a street lined with mansions, cut-off from thru traffic by a large wrought-iron gate. The gate itself is beautiful, and seems almost decorative, but its main function is not decoration—it is to keep people out. When I first moved to St. Louis, before the popularization of the smart phone, I kept getting lost while driving. I would recognize a street name and think I knew where I was, only to have the street dead-end confoundingly in one of these cul-de-sacs, then begin again, non-contiguously, just a few feet away. “Who designed this city?” I remember asking my boyfriend, who grew up in North Carolina. “Segregationists,” he quipped. The longer I lived there, the truer this answer seemed. The city’s geography had been shaped by decades of redlining, discrimination, and white flight. This, along with the collapse of industry, had created a city that was both racially divided and noticeably empty. Many of those two-story brick homes built to house people during the World’s Fair were now deserted and dilapidated, sitting next to vacant lots where other houses had already been demolished. North of Delmar Boulevard, grass sprouted thick through cracked sidewalks. To drive through the city was to receive a lesson of a sort, but one that felt opposed to the triumphalist narrative of the Fair. The promises of industrialization seemed to have given way to a kind of post-industrial wasteland, the cityscape further undermined by decades of racist policies.

In The Awakening, Edna conceives of her suicide as a final escape from the imprisonments of marriage and motherhood: “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them.” I think that upon early readings I passed over the phrase “soul’s slavery” without a thought, but the more I learned about Chopin and the society that produced her, the more weight that word took on.

There is a tendency throughout Chopin’s work to code women’s emancipation in terms of slavery and freedom. In the short story “Athénaïse,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896, the titular character attempts to leave her brutish husband, Cazeau, in the bayou and return to her parents’ house. When Cazeau comes to claim her, Athénaïse accompanies her husband without complaint. On their return journey, Cazeau is overtaken by a “hideous” feeling when, returning to his property, they pass an oak tree that he recalls as the spot in his childhood where his father had allowed an escaped slave, Black Gabe, to rest after being recaptured: “Cazeau’s father was a kind and considerate master, and every one had agreed at the time that Black Gabe was a fool, a great idiot indeed, for wanting to run away from him.” Here, Chopin clearly equates Athénaïse’s position as runaway wife with that of a fugitive slave, but it remains unclear whether the author extends the same sympathy to Black Gabe that she does to Athénaïse.

In Unveiling Kate Chopin, Toth notes that at the time of Chopin’s birth, her father Thomas O’Flaherty owned at least four slaves who would have lived with the family in their St. Louis mansion. Two of these were young girls listed in the records as “mulattos.” Toth speculates that it is entirely possible that the children were O’Flaherty’s, which would have made them Chopin’s half-sisters. In “La Belle Zoraïde” (1894), the titular character, a light-skinned enslaved woman in New Orleans, falls in love with a dark-skinned black man whom she sees dancing in Congo Square. When she gives birth to his child, her white mistress, angry that she has “bred” without the family’s consent, lies and tells her the child is dead. Zoraïde loses her mind, and spends the rest of her days roaming the streets with a bundle of rags clutched to her chest. Toth writes that this “was an extraordinary story for the daughter of slave owners to produce.” Chopin’s political views are largely unknown and her fiction aims for objectivity; her work is notably lacking for its time in moral judgment of her characters. Yet “La Belle Zoraïde” lends a surprising sympathy to an enslaved woman, granting her both sexual desire and immense love for her child.

So, what might have Chopin thought or felt, viewing the “living exhibits” at the 1904 World’s Fair? Might she have felt a glimmer of recognition, some stirring of memory, something familiar from her very young childhood, at the site of human beings being offered up like possessions for display? Certainly in my version of her story she would. In my version, the flicker of this memory would be accompanied by a feeling of dread, perhaps the first misfire in her brain, a vague presentiment of doom. But did I have that right, to presume that Chopin might have thought such a thing?

Whatever Chopin’s political views may have been, her fiction shows an ability to penetrate at least some of the prejudices of her time.  In “Désirée’s Baby” (1893), Désirée, a foundling, is adopted as an infant and grows into an attractive woman with a dark complexion. Local landowner Armand takes her as his wife, but not long after their first child is born, the neighbors start to remark upon the darkness of the baby’s skin. In a horrible scene, Désirée implores her husband to tell her “what it means”: “‘It means,’ he answered lightly, ‘that the child is not white; it means that you are not white.’” Despondent, Désirée takes the baby, disappears into the bayou, and “did not come back again.” A few weeks later, Armand decides to burn all his possessions that remind him of his wife, and, while going through her things, uncovers a letter from his deceased mother to his father. The story ends with an ironic twist: “‘But above all,’ she wrote, ‘night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.” “Désirée’s Baby” is perhaps Chopin’s mostly widely anthologized story, due to its skillful compression and the precision of its twist ending. Read today, it feels strangely contemporary for the way that it destabilizes whiteness, revealing it to be a kind of foundational illusion of American life.

It’s probably clear by now that I never managed to write my own short story about Chopin at the Fair. Perhaps I had just become too taken with the many resonances of the “real” story that it seemed that history had already outdone any fiction I could write about it. Or perhaps I felt that any fictionalized version of Kate Chopin that I could write could not stand up to the fiction she herself had produced. The more closely I read Chopin’s work, the more I admired both her literary skill and her ability to question some of her society’s most closely held assumptions about gender and race. Walking through the Fair in August of 1904, Chopin would have had every reason to believe that her work would disappear. Luckily for us, it has not.