Kate Chopin was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851.
At the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which may or may not be a piece of Southern Literature (it is)), our hero Huck promises to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” Huck’s dream of evading domestic responsibility (embodied in the maternal presence of Aunt Sally) is a signal theme of American literature, wrapped loosely in a transcendentalist garb that might help disguise all those Manifest Destiny urges seething underneath.
The freedom to light out for the Territory does not transcend all identities, as Kate Chopin’s short, dark, ironic story ‘Désirée’s Baby’ shows. Our Désirée is a foundling of uncertain parentage, discovered beneath the phallic “shadow of the big stone pillar” by her adoptive father Valmondé. Eighteen years later she’s transferred to another man, Armand Aubigny, who falls in love with Désirée, “as if struck by a pistol shot.” But when Désirée’s baby – also Aubigny’s baby – is born, something is a shade off. I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but it’s part of a pattern Chopin develops of female heroes whom she frees (as in Edna Pontellier of The Awakening) but can’t quite save. Chopin frees her heroes, but there’s nowhere for them to go, no Territory to light out for. Other writers will come to imagine other freedoms though.
First published in Vogue, Jan., 1893, and collected in Bayou Folk, The Riverside Press, 1894 and available to read here