By Meghan Caprez
Bonnie James Shaker, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently recovered nineteenth-century authoress Kate Chopin’s final short story, entitled “Her First Party.”
Shaker was first exposed to Chopin in graduate school, reading her most popular novel, The Awakening, in both her master’s and doctorate programs. Falling in love with Chopin’s writing and its reflection on the novelist’s personal life, Shaker wrote her dissertation about Chopin’s publishing relationship with theYouth Companion, a magazine popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
“I hadn’t read any serious female novelists until grad school,” Shaker said. “There was this whole female literary tradition I wasn’t exposed to.”
Shaker said she felt a “lightning bolt connection” to Chopin because she could identify with the female characters’ struggle to articulate their female selves, balancing responsibilities to the family while wanting a professional career.
“I had dreams of being a professional woman and a wife and a mother,” Shaker said. “I was unprepared for the push-pull of wanting to have it all, so I could really identify with the struggle.”
After several years in the workforce, Shaker decided to return to the world of academia with a research project.
She asked her former student, Angela Gianoglio Pettitt, to help research how Kate Chopin’s original audience received her writing.
Chopin published most of her short stories in theYouth Companion, but her last story, “Her First Party,” went unnoticed by literary scholars. When Shaker and Pettitt began their first database search of Kate Chopin, they found the long-lost story within the first 30 seconds.
“We never set out to find lost work,” Shaker said. “Finding the story itself was amazing. There is this view of Kate Chopin as this melancholic retiree who stopped writing after receiving negative reviews of The Awakening, and that wasn’t the case.”
“Her First Party” was published in the Youth Companion after Chopin’s death, proving that she continued to write until she passed away, Shaker said.
“We’re in the business of myth-busting,” Shaker said. “People have this idea of what Kate Chopin was like in her last few years of life, but ‘Her First Story’ completely changes that.”