The MLA Rankings of American Writers that I posted yesterday have been greeted with some skepticism. There are still only five women in the top 25, the quota-minded observe — without bothering to name the women who ought to be ranked or the men who ought to be bumped off the list in their favor. The implication is that nothing has really changed. Despite the rise of literary feminism, despite the calls to shake up the canon, the same male writers are studied in the same old numbers.
Or maybe not. Take the case of Kate Chopin, for example. A minor novelist of the late 19th century who is described in The Oxford Companion to American Literature as belonging to “the local-color movement,” she was rediscovered by the male critic Kenneth Elbe, who wrote an essay on her “forgotten novel” The Awakening in 1956 for the Western Humanities Review. His essay did nothing to resuscitate Chopin’s reputation, however. Nor did the new edition of The Awakening that Elbe saw into print eight years later. Starting in the Seventies, interest in Chopin began to pick up. In 1975, a Kate Chopin Newsletter was founded, although it lasted only two years. (Typical article: Cathy N. Davidson’s comparison of The Awakening to Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing.) By the end of 1986, slightly more than 200 pieces of scholarship had been written on her.
Then came the explosion. In just seven years, the scholarly output on Chopin doubled. While scholars have slowed down, probably because there is less and less to say about a writer who published only four books in her lifetime, the fact remains that more than 550 stretches of scholarly prose have been laid across Chopin’s domain in the past 25 years — nearly four times the amount that was written on the Louisiana novelist over the previous forty years. This chart vividly shows the boom in Chopin scholarship:
The Awakening is a central text for literary feminism because of the main character’s refusal to be treated like “a valuable piece of personal property” by her husband. Edna Pontellier leaves him and their young children and takes up a Bohemian existence in New Orleans, where she experiences a sexual awakening. When confronted by a friend (“think of the little ones”), she hotly announces that she would never sacrifice herself for her children. “I would give up the unessential,” Edna says; “I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” Perhaps needless to say, literary feminists celebrate Edna’s decision, although it is not at all clear that Chopin does so.
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar included The Awakening, complete and unabridged, in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985). And when copious amounts of scholarship poured in afterwards, Chopin’s place in the American literary canon — an enormous change from her almost total obscurity just 15 years earlier — was secure and self-evident. Those who laugh contentedly that race, class, and gender have had small effect upon American literature could not be more wrong.