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Shenango instructor collaborates to recover lost Kate Chopin short story

4/9/2014 —

A Penn State Shenango English instructor and a Kate Chopin scholar, with the assistance Penn State Shenango’s Reference Librarian, have collaborated on the recovery of a Kate Chopin short story considered lost or destroyed for more than a century.

Faculty member Angela Gianoglio Pettitt, independent scholar Bonnie James Shaker, and librarian Erin Burns uncovered Chopin’s “Her First Party” while searching the American Periodical Series Online, an electronic database of more than 1,100 periodicals circulating from 1741-1940 to which Penn State Libraries subscribe.

Pettitt and co-author Bonnie James Shaker then collaborated on publishing the first reprint of the story and writing a critical essay to accompany it, both of which appeared December 2013 in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 30.2.

“Finding the printed text of ‘Her First Party’ highlights the value of revisiting primary sources made electronically searchable by the digital humanities,” said Pettitt, “as well as the importance of continued university library subscription to such archives. This discovery also allowed us to more critically examine both Chopin’s final years, as well as the publishing practices of a major periodical of that time.”

Pettitt and Shaker discovered that the print version of the story ran seven months after Chopin’s death in the Youth’s Companion, the longest-running and most widely-circulating family periodical of the nineteenth century.

“Finding the story was quite a surprise,” Pettitt said. “We set out wanting to examine how Chopin’s short fiction, which is now almost exclusively read in reprints and anthologies, appeared to her original audience. We decided to focus specifically on the Youth’s Companion due to Chopin’s longstanding and prolific relationship with the famed 19th-century periodical.”

According to Pettitt, a simple author and title search within the APS database yielded a list of everything the Youth's Companion had printed by Chopin. “At the top of that list was a story titled, ‘Her First Party,’ which neither my co-researcher [Shaker] nor I had ever seen,” she said. "As far as we could tell, the story had been sitting there waiting to be found for at least the decade since the APS had migrated from microfilm to an online format, but apparently no one thought to review sources that were long-considered mined," Pettitt explained.

Pettitt, who is also the coordinator of the Shenango campus’ Learning Center, joined Shaker and Burns for a one-time meeting in the spring of 2012 at the Lartz Memorial Library, where the trio made the discovery. Co-authors Pettitt and Shaker then followed up with additional research into the Companion’s publishing practices, which provided an illuminating look into the gatekeeping influence of periodical editors.

“Looking back, these editors had enormous power over what we receive as literature today," Pettitt explained.

According to the abstract provided by Legacy, Pettitt and Shaker argue that the discovery of “Her First Party” also allows scholars to reconsider common understanding of the last years of Chopin’s life and career. “Unlike two other stories believed to be [Chopin’s] last publications, 'Her First Party' revises our understanding of Chopin’s post-Awakening writing, previously interpreted as somewhat depressed and defeated after the novel’s unfavorable reviews. Instead, 'Her First Party' allows us to see that Chopin actually enjoyed many successes with the Companion in the handful of years between her novel and her death.”

"'Her First Party' as Her Last Story" can be found online at Project MUSE and JSTOR. Print copies are available through The University of Nebraska Press or with a subscription to Legacy.

 

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