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Multi-cultural aesthetic in Kate Chopin's "A Gentleman of Bayou Teche."

"A GENTLEMAN OF BAYOU TECHE" BY KATE Chopin is seldom read and has attracted virtually no critical attention, but the subject and design of this sketch amply demonstrate that its author understood how subcultures can be particularly sensitive to the way they are perceived and recorded by outsiders. This sketch shows that Chopin had thoughtfully considered how the drawing of "local" characters can easily be distorted into the creation of stereotypes. But Chopin, writing a hundred years ago, not only illustrates the problems of writing about regional American life but poses a solution to these problems that readers today might find extraordinary for its manifestation of current pluralist and multicultural ideals.

This sketch, along with Chopin's own remarks(1), clearly indicates her ambivalence toward the "local color school" of American writing. A certain amount of this ambivalence may reflect Chopin's perception of how the term "local color writing" was becoming a means of diminishing the work of women and regional writers of the period. What this sketch makes clear is that this ambivalence goes deeper and is a reaction to the ethical and aesthetic problems of representing distinct ethnic and regional cultures.

"A Gentleman of Bayou Teche" appeared in Chopin's first published collection, Bayou Folk (1894), and relates the story of Mr. Sublet, an artist visiting the Hallet plantation looking for "bits of 'local color'." There Sublet is taken with the decidedly "local" appearance of a Cajun, Evariste Bonamour, and contracts to draw his picture, giving him two silver dollars to secure the contract. Evariste and daughter Martinette fail to make much sense of why Sublet wishes to draw Evariste dressed just as if he had emerged from the swamp, but Evariste gives the two dollars to Martinette to buy more substantial clothes for the winter. On her way to the store, Martinette stops to brag about the matter to Aunt Dicey, who reacts to the news by snickering at what she sees as the simplicity of Martinette and her father. In Aunt Dicey's view, Sublet intends to use the picture of Evariste to illustrate the "lowdown 'Cajuns o'Bayeh Teche!" Dicey recounts how Sublet's son had entered her cabin unannounced and asked to take her photograph while she was ironing. "I 'lowed I gwine make a picture outen him and dis heah flati'on, ef he don' cl'ar hisse'f quick," recalls Dicey. "An' he say he baig my pardon fo' his intrudement. All dat kine o'talk to a ole nigga 'oman! Dat plainly sho' he don' know his place."(2) Dicey comments that if she were to have her picture taken, she would want "'im to come in heah an' say: 'Howdy, Aunt Dicey! will you be so kine and go put on yo' noo calker dress an' yo' bonnit w'at you w'as to meein', an' stan' 'side f'om dat i'onin'boa'd w'ilse I gwine take yo' photygraph.'" Martinette believes Aunt Dicey's construction of Sublet's intention, and instead of going to the store returns home, ashamed.

The next day Martinette goes to the plantation house to return the money while her father goes fishing. Prevailed upon by Sublet to provide an explanation, Martinette finally blurts out, "My papa ent one lowdown 'Cajun. He ent goin' to stan' to have that kine o' writin' put down un'neath his picture!" (p. 299). Bolting from the house, Martinette runs into her father, who is ascending the steps bearing Sublet's son in his arms. Evariste has rescued the boy from the lake, where he had overturned in a pirogue. Sublet proposes to Evariste that he still draw his picture but subtitle it "a hero of Bayou Teche" (pp. 300-301), but Evariste demurs because to him saving the child was just an ordinary, not an extraordinary act. Sublet's host suggests a compromise whereby Sublet should draw the picture but Evariste would be allowed to title it. Evariste will return in his best pants and coat for the sitting, and the picture will be titled "Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent'man of de Bayou Teche" (p. 303).

This tale is more than a sketch of the pride and nobility that lie beneath the facade of the impoverished Cajun, or even a well-observed study of class relationships in the bayou community; it is a narrative of the artist's relationship with the subject and a moral tale for the local colorist.

Chopin evokes the conventions of the local-color school in the plantation setting, the presence of the chivalric noble savage, and the use of dialect, but the reader is invited to see beyond these conventions through the narrative's irony. The evocation of the plantation as setting is completed in the picture of the household of Evariste, where pride and gentility are valued as highly as they are in the household of the landowner. Similarly the chivalric actions of Evariste and his daughter are contrasted to the rudeness, impetuousness, and thoughtlessness of Sublet and his son. But the effect of these simple strategies, combined with the action, is to focus the story, not on the account of the heroic act of the Cajun but on the education of the artist. While the reader is entertained by the eccentric detail of the speech and setting, this fascination is undercut by a growing awareness of how such regard is perceived by the subjects of that condescending, if well-intentioned, study.

Sublet and his son betray an ignorance of custom and local manners that results in near tragic consequences. The capsizing of the pirogue is an effective trope for the subtle balance required in navigating the cultural backwaters of the bayou, and tragedy is only averted by the knowledge, tolerance and diplomacy of the locals. The story is a warning to the writer/artist who would venture into the bayou after "bits of local color." The substance of the tale is that the rendering of individuals as "types" is a literary exploitation. Chopin seems determined to build on her association with the conventions of "local color" while disassociating herself from its exploitative qualities.

Of course Chopin manages in this tale to have it both ways. She shows us the petty one-up-manship between the classes in the community and the sometimes comical extremes of pride--for example, when Evariste traces imaginary characters on the tablecloth with an imaginary pen to simulate writing even though he can neither read nor write. But these pictures are balanced by their opposites: the casual, everyday heroism, the persistence of pride in self-image despite poverty. Chopin's central perception is of the need to be sensitive and respectful to the culture being observed. Anthropologists and folklorists of Chopin's day were learning the same lesson. What was to result was a new observational technique that emphasized tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, the foundation for today's pluralist and multi-cultural ideals.

It is in the title of the story that Chopin's fictional framework finds its distillation. The proposal she places in the mouth of the plantation owner is that finally the decision as to how to mediate the inherent differences between local and outsider, observed and observer, between the dominant and the sub-culture--the decision as to who or what is to control the image--must reside in the local, the subject, the subculture. The subject must be permitted to explain itself. This is the particular breakthrough embodied in this sketch. It shows that Kate Chopin could and did use the techniques of the local-color school to deconstruct and transcend the limitations of the local-color writer.

(1)See Per Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1980), p. 83.

(2)Kate Chopin, "A Gentleman of Bayou Teche," Bayou Folk (Ridgewood, New Jersey: Gregg Press, 1967), p. 295.
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Author:Steiling, David
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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