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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Grace King

Grace King called herself a "southern woman of letters." Persistent assumptions about southern women might suggest that she was a living oxymoron. But King's life and work have offered recent critics the opportunity to tease out some of the enormous complexities of privilege and oppression in the American South.

Robert Bush's anthology (1973) and biography (1983) have brought Grace King back to legibility after decades of oblivion. Bush identifies King's as "the patrician voice" of the post-Civil War South, a voice that spoke for southern tradition against Reconstruction's devastation. Yet her work is polyvocal. She wrote, most crucially, as a woman in a patriarchal literary establishment, a fact that contradicted the very conventions of race, class, and language that she otherwise represented. As a woman whose most honest relationships were with other women, she both manipulated and criticized men's power. As a woman writer, she refused to "just rip the story open and insert a love story!" as advised by Thomas Nelson Page. As a white woman, she wrote about blacks from conflicting positions of racism and identification. She experienced poverty after the Civil War when her family moved to a working-class neighborhood in New Orleans, yet she never identified herself as other than patrician. She defended the South yet befriended writers and feminists in the North. And as a bilingual Protestant writer, equally fluent in French and English, she wrote from a position of "other" about the Roman Catholic Creoles. Thus, though frequently indirectly and perhaps unwittingly, she challenged the very tradition for which she spoke. What difference, if any, such indirect challenges make to a dominant ideology is one of the questions raised by her work.

Grace King was born in New Orleans in 1852. She spent most of her life in New Orleans. After the war, her father slowly rebuilt his law practice; it was a great victory for the King children when, in middle age, they were able in 1904 to own a house that fit the family image. King never married; she lived with her (also unmarried) sisters and traveled widely and independently after gaining fame as a writer. Her brand of "local color" struck the right note for late-nineteenth century American readers.

In 1885, King wrote her first story, "Monsieur Motte," which appeared in the New Princeton Review. She wrote it in a state of pique at the popularity of George Washington Cable's representations of New Orleans, particularly his sympathetic portrayals of the oppression of blacks. When Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century, asked her, "Why do not some of you write better?" she sat down to write a story about a black woman's devotion to her young white mistress, suggesting the traditional southern view of "good darkies." Yet she also wrote about the agony of Marcelite's internalized racism. The popularity of "Monsieur Motte" led her to complete three more sections and make it into a novel. The social connections King made in New Orleans with visiting members of the northern literary establishment such as Julia Ward Howe, Richard Watson Gilder, and Charles Dudley Warner gave her a professional entrée. Visiting the enclave of writers in Hartford, Connecticut, she became Olivia Clemens's confidante and befriended the feminist Isabella Hooker. And in Paris she befriended Madame Blanc (who published as "Th. Bentzon"), a pupil of George Sand. Her work as well as her person circulated nationally and internationally.

Early in her career King focused on short fiction, of which one story is included in the book. "The Little Convent Girl" appeared in Balcony Stories, a collection that took its title from the habit of New Orleans women to sit on their balconies and tell tales. "The Little Convent Girl" is a good example of the ways in which questions of gender and race become entwined in the South with issues of identity. After publishing another collection of stories, Tales of a Time and Place, King moved next to writing histories, appropriating a traditionally public, "masculine" genre for New Orleans: The Place and the People and Stories from Louisiana History. During the teens, she returned to fiction; she spent years composing what some consider her masterpiece, The Pleasant Ways of St. Medard. A "novel" set during Reconstruction, it is arguably an early modernist text in its experimental structure. King's last novel, La Dame de Sainte Hermine, appeared in 1924; her autobiography, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, appeared in the year of her death, 1932.

Anne Jones
University of Florida

In the Heath Anthology
The Little Convent Girl (1893)

Other Works
Monsieur Motte (1888)
Tales of a Time and Place (1892)
Balcony Stories (1893)
New Orleans: The Place and the People (1895)
Stories from Louisiana History (1905)
The Pleasant Ways of St. Medard (1916)
La Dame de Sainte Hermine (1924)
Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters (1932)

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American Authors
A comprehensive portal to King on the web, including numerous links to primary texts.

Documenting the American South
Full-text version (with illustrations) of King's Balcony Stories.

from The Recent Movement in Southern Literature
A scanned portrait from this 1887 book.

Grace King House
A photograph of King's house.

Secondary Sources

Robert Bush, Grace King: A Southern Destiny, 1983

Robert Bush, "The Patrician Voice: Grace King," in Literary New Orleans, ed. Richard S. Kennedy, 1992

Linda S. Coleman, "At Odds: Race and Gender in Grace King's Short Ficiton," in Louisiana Women Writers, eds. Dorothy H. Brown and Barbara C. Ewell, 1992

Joan DeJean, "Critical Creolization: Grace King and Writing on French in the American South," in Southern Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Jefferson Humphries, 1990

Zita Z. Dresner, "Irony and Ambiguity in Grace King's 'Monsieur Motte'," in New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, ed. Regina Barraca, 1992

Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Women on the Color Line: Evolving Stereotypes and the Writings of George Washington Cable, Grace King, and Kate Chopin, 1994

Anne Goodwyn Jones, "That Great Mother Stream Underneath," Tomorrow is Another Day, 1981:93-134

Clara Junker, "Grace King: Feminist, Southern Style," Southern Quarterly 26 (Spring 1988):15-30

Clara Junker, "The Mother's Balcony: Grace King's Discourse of Femininity," New Orleans Review 15:1 (Spring 1988):39-46

Karen A. Keely, "Marriage Plots and National Reunion: The Trope of Romantic Reconciliation in Postbellum Literature," Mississippi Quarterly 51:4 (Fall 1998):621-48

Ahmed Mineiri, "'Reconstruction, Which Was Also War...': Realism and Allegory in Grace King's The Pleasant Ways of St. Edard," Mississippi Quarterly 41 (Winter 1988):39-54

Lori Robison, "'Why, Why Do We Not Write Our Side': Gender and Southern Self-Representation in Grace King's 'Balcony Stories'," in Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, eds. Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, 1997

Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, "Grace Elizabeth King," in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, eds. Denise D. Knight and Emmanuel S. Nelson, 1997

Katherine Capshaw Smith, "Conflicting Visions of the South in Grace King's Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters," Southern Quarterly 36:3 (Spring 1998):133-45

Helen Taylor, "The Case of Grace King," Southern Review 18 (October 1982):685-702

Helen Taylor, Gender, Race, and Region in the Writings of Grace King, Ruth McEnery Stuart, and Kate Chopin, 1989