Stone & Kimball—and its successor, Herbert S. Stone & Company—was one of the most innovative publishing houses in the United States during the 1890s. In addition to launching the influential literary magazine The Chap-Book (1894-98), this Chicago-based publisher issued the first U.S. editions of such important psychological novels as Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1897). Arguably the most famous novel in this publishing house’s catalogue, however, was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), which caused a storm of controversy upon its initial appearance.
In this letter to her publisher, Chopin acknowledges the many damning reviews of her novel. Initial reviewers, including a young Willa Cather for the Pittsburgh Leader, had denounced Chopin’s depiction of a married woman’s search for emotional and sexual fulfillment on moral rather than aesthetic grounds. In contrast to this “drivel,” as Chopin puts it, she draws Stone’s attention to C. L. Deyo’s “intelligent” review in the 20 May 1899 St. Louis Post-Dispatch—one of the few favorable notices The Awakening received until it was rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s.
While many critics and biographers tend to emphasize Chopin’s courage at challenging conventional gender expectations in The Awakening, Chopin’s guarded question to Stone—“What are the prospects for the book?”—reveals that she was equally invested in the future of her own career. Chopin was clearly aware of the growing controversy’s potential damage to her professional reputation, and her letter can be viewed as an attempt at controlling that damage. Unfortunately for Chopin, her efforts were unsuccessful. The following year, Stone declined to publish Chopin’s short story collection A Vocation and a Voice (1991), and Chopin died in 1904, having managed to sell only a handful of additional short stories.
-Nathaniel Cadle, Florida International University