The Awakening and American Libraries

For three-quarters of a century, scholars have been studying the reception of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in 1899 and the following years. Some scholars wrote that the book had been banned (apparently not true). Others wrote that it had been removed from the shelves of public libraries.

Charles Johanningsmeier (University of Nebraska at Omaha) has published an important article showing that the matter is very complex. In his article, Johanningsmeier explains that he has been “investigating how American public libraries, and specifically those who ran them, actually dealt with a wide variety of works by realist and naturalist authors between 1880 and 1914.” He describes how he had examined data (finding lists and catalogs) at eighty American public libraries to see how the library staff had dealt with The Awakening and other fiction at the turn of the twentieth century. His conclusion:

“The new information related here does highlight . . . how important it is to continue examining long-held beliefs about the role libraries played in making texts available—or not available—to American readers in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cases of other works of boundary-pushing fictions such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, and The Damnation of Theron Ware, I have found that a surprisingly large number of librarians—chiefly from larger towns and cities—courageously purchased them and made them available to patrons, despite the likelihood of encountering community resistance. With The Awakening, unfortunately, there were many more librarians who chose to take the safer option of not adding it to their collections.

Nevertheless, it is clear more refined brushstrokes are needed to more accurately depict Chopin’s reception among American librarians, and that scholars should continue questioning and investigating aspects of her career that have been repeated so frequently as to appear almost unquestionable. The result of such scholarship will, undoubtedly, be a more complex and accurate picture not only of how Chopin’s contemporaries regarded her and her fictions, but also of what kind of cultural work they performed.”

Johanningsmeier’s article appears in Studies in American Naturalism (Winter 2013), volume 8, no. 2, pp. 236–48.

A Rediscovered Kate Chopin Short Story

Kate Chopin scholars Bonnie James Shaker and Angela Gianoglio Pettitt sent us this message:

We wish to share news of recovering the printed text of Kate Chopin’s “Her First Party,” which first appeared in the Youth’s Companion, 30 March 1905. Chopin had alternately titled the manuscript “Millie’s First Party” and “Millie’s First Ball” in her Account and Memoranda Notebooks.

“Her First Party” appears as a Reprint Feature in the December 2013 issue of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Volume 30, Number 2. It is accompanied by our critical essay, which attempts to reconstruct editorial publishing history at the fin de siècle in hopes of understanding why the Youth’s Companion may have held Chopin’s manuscript so long that the story appeared seven months after her death.

You can read Kate Chopin’s “Her First Party” in a PDF of its original appearance. The story was published in Youth’s Companion on 30 March 1905 (Volume 79, Issue 13).