Born 30 November 1896, Napoleonville, Louisiana; died 3 April 1941, New Orleans, Louisiana
Daughter of Edward and Ophelia Gumbel Godchaux; married Walter Kahn (n.d., divorced); children: one daughter
Elma Godchaux, daughter of a prominent Louisiana planter and granddaughter of a Jewish planter and philanthropist, was raised at the Godchaux sugar plantation. The family owned one of the largest sugar refineries in the world in 1938. Godchaux attended Radcliffe College and remained in the East for a number of years, marrying and giving birth to a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce, and Godchaux again used her maiden name. After living in New York City for a time, she moved to New Orleans, where she resided until her death.
Godchaux published five short stories and a novel and was at work on a second novel at the time of her early death. In Stubborn Roots (1936), a novel of the Old South, Godchaux describes the operation of a sugar cane plantation in the 1800s. Her portrayal of the herculean efforts, by landowner and workers alike, to protect the sugar cane crop from devastation by floods indicates Godchaux's ability to realistically depict people from all classes. The novel was reviewed with a considerable amount of praise. The Saturday Review of Literature called it "a remarkable novel," and the London Times described its characters as being "drawn with bold decision." The uncommon background and the vivid way in which the author presents it were noted by the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Godchaux dedicated her novel to "the memory of Edward Godchaux, Louisiana planter," and the book was written after the death of her father. The focus of the novel seems to be on the planter, Anton, who is drawn from memories of her father and her grandfather. Some critics, perhaps looking for a more romantic figure than Anton, seemed to misread and felt the central figure to be his cruel undisciplined wife, Marie Elizabeth, but it is likely the epic quality of the story of Anton is exactly what the author was seeking to portray, and what readers of the novel today may find most interesting in it.
Godchaux's short stories were first published by the Southern Review and the Frontier and Midland, and then were included in the Best Short Stories of 1935, the Best Short Stories of 1937, the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories of 1936, and other anthologies.
In one of Godchaux's short stories, "Chains," the protagonist is a poor Cajun who owns only a small patch of swampland. Quite different from Anton, the leading character in Stubborn Roots, he is a most unusual sort of landowner in that, although he loves the land, he does not actually work it. Both the Cajun man and Anton, however, are indicative of many of the writer's characters, who act on their principles and become defined by those actions, rather than by tangible rewards or achievements.
Critics praised both Godchaux's novel and short stories in her own lifetime. She believed "all ordinary experience is fleeting.… Writing is something to live for. If it is your work you can hold it with you. Everything else somehow always escapes." Unfortunately, Godchaux's writing career, although noteworthy, was very brief. She did not begin to write until her daughter was in college, and she died prematurely at the age of forty-four.
Goldstein, A., "The Creative Spirit," in The Past As Prelude: New Orleans 1718-1968 (1968). McVoy, L. C., and R. Campbell, eds., A Bibliography of Fiction by Louisianians and on Louisiana Subjects (1935).
New Orleans Times-Picayune (5 April 1936, 4 April 1941).
—DOROTHY H. BROWN