Cather, Willa (Short Story Criticism)
Willa Cather 1873–-1947
(Born Willa Sibert Cather) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. See also O Pioneers! Criticism.
Cather is regarded as one of the most important American authors of the early twentieth century. While she is best known for such novels as O Pioneers! (1913) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather began her career as a writer of short stories, and many critics consider her a master of the form. Like her longer works, Cather's short stories often focus on sensitive, alienated individuals and examine their varying degrees of success in resolving conflict.
Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884 the Cathers moved to Webster County, Nebraska, but establishing a farm on the prairie proved a more arduous task than Cather's father was willing to undertake, and a year later the family moved to the nearby town of Red Cloud. There, Cather began to attend school on a regular basis, and she rapidly distinguished herself as a brilliant, though somewhat temperamental, student. Sometime shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Cather adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male and began signing her name “William Cather Jr.” or “William Cather M.D.” While biographer James Woodress suggests that this behavior can be construed as just one aspect of Cather's blanket rejection of strictures placed upon females in the nineteenth century, others contend that Cather's masculine persona was an authentic reflection of her identity, citing as proof her consistent use of male narrators and her strong attachments to female friends. In either case, Cather was eventually persuaded by friends to return to a more conventional mode of dress, and she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing. Although Cather intended to study medicine when she entered the University of Nebraska, she reconsidered her choice when an essay she had written for an English class was published in the local newspaper, accompanied by lavish praise from the editor. By the time she graduated from the university, she was working as a full-time reporter and critic for the Nebraska State Journal. After graduation Cather moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women's magazine called the Home Monthly. While she continued to write and publish short stories, Cather made her living as a journalist and teacher for the next seventeen years. In 1906 she moved to New York City to assume the managing editorship of the influential McClure's magazine. Cather's affiliation with McClure's proved to be pivotal in her writing career: Cather's work for the magazine brought her national recognition and it was S. S. McClure, the dynamic, iconoclastic publisher, who arranged for the release of her first volume of short stories in 1905, The Troll Garden. While on assignment in Boston in 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, an author whose work she greatly admired; after reading Cather's fiction, Jewett encouraged her to abandon journalism and Cather relinquished her responsibilities at McClure's in order to devote herself to fiction writing. After one unsuccessful attempt in the novel Alexander's Bridge (1912), Cather found her “quiet centre of life” in childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of remarkably successful novels between her retirement from McClure's and her death in 1947.
Major Works of Short Fiction
During her lifetime, Cather published three volumes of stories; a fourth, in preparation at the time of her death, was issued one year later. The majority of her stories, published in various periodicals between 1895 and 1913, she later repudiated as apprentice work unworthy of further notice, and these were not collected until after her death. In each of the four collections compiled by Cather herself, the stories are grouped around a specific subject: in The Troll Garden and Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) the topic is the artist and society; in Obscure Destinies (1932) it is death; and in The Old Beauty and Others (1948) the theme is lost youth. The stories in The Troll Garden describe various characters' encounters with the art world, which is implicitly equated with the compelling but treacherous troll garden. In one of the most widely discussed tales of the collection, “Paul's Case,” an impoverished young man is beguiled by the splendor of the art world, represented by the music hall where he works, to the extent that he steals money in order to immerse himself in its sensual pleasures, and this action results in disgrace and death. Although some of the characters portrayed in The Troll Garden do successfully enter and exploit the art world, many more, like Paul, do not, and those who do must make great sacrifices for their art. Like The Troll Garden, Cather's second volume of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, focuses primarily on the “vision of aspiring youth,” reprinting four stories from the earlier collection and presenting four others. The best-known of the latter group is entitled “Coming, Aphrodite!” and is frequently counted among Cather's finest short pieces. In this story Cather juxtaposes a young painter, whose devotion to his art is pure and spiritual, with an aspiring opera singer who is motivated primarily by a desire for fame and material comfort. Each of the three stories in Obscure Destinies concerns the death of a character who embodies a vanishing ideal. However, while the stories in Obscure Destinies lament the demise of these characters and the values they represent, critics note that they also affirm the continuity of life itself. Although the three stories of Cather's fourth collection, The Old Beauty and Others, do not deal as specifically with death, they do lament the transience of youth, the disappearance of the pioneer values that Cather revered, and the increasing materialism of twentieth-century American society.
While critical response to The Troll Garden was not very favorable, the success of the novels Cather produced between 1913 and 1920 resulted in greater attention to and wider acceptance of Youth and the Bright Medusa, although several of the stories had in fact appeared in the former volume. Indeed, from the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913 onward, Cather's literary prominence was assured. In the decades following her death, a critical reappraisal of Cather's stories led to increased emphasis on her importance as an author of short fiction. While her novels remain at the center of her critical reputation, Cather is also recognized as an accomplished writer in the short story genre.
The Troll Garden 1905
Youth and the Bright Medusa 1920
Obscure Destinies 1932
The Old Beauty and Others 1948
Five Stories 1956
Early Stories of Willa Cather 1957
Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 1965
Uncle Valentine, and Other Stories 1973
April Twilight (poetry) 1903
Alexander's Bridge (novel) 1912
O Pioneers! (novel) 1913
The Song of the Lark (novel) 1915
My Ántonia (novel) 1918
One of Ours (novel) 1922
A Lost Lady (novel) 1923
The Professor's House (novel) 1925
My Mortal Enemy (novel) 1926
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
Shadows on the Rock (novel) 1931
Lucy Gayheart (novel) 1935
Not Under Forty (novel) 1936
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (novel) 1940
Kingdom of Art (essays) 1966
The World and the Parish (essays) 1970
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SOURCE: Brown, E. K. “Troll Garden, Goblin Market, 1902-1905.” In Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, pp. 95–124. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1953.
[In the following essay, Brown traces Cather's early literary development.]
The decade Willa Cather spent in Pittsburgh—from her twenty-third to her thirty-third year—fell evenly into two periods devoted to the two careers; she was a newspaperwoman for five of these years and a teacher for the remaining five. As if to establish, also, a difference between the unsettled, exacting journalism and the settled life of the classroom, the second half of the decade was marked by a change from boarding-house life to residence in a sedate mansion, in Pittsburgh's finest section, where Willa Cather found herself surrounded by the luxuries she had craved when young and a warm friendship that was devoted to providing her with an environment helpful to creative writing.
Willa Cather met Isabelle McClung in Lizzie Collier's dressing-room backstage at the stock company apparently in 1901, and it took very little time for the two to become close friends. Isabelle McClung was the daughter of a conservative Pittsburgh judge, a strict and upright Calvinist of considerable dignity and affluence, who lived with his wife, son, and two daughters in a large house at 1180 Murray Hill Avenue. She had revolted early against the rather rigid pattern of life in...
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SOURCE: Schneider, Sister Lucy, C. S. J. “Willa Cather's Early Stories in the Light of Her ‘Land-Philosophy.’” Midwest Quarterly 9 (1967): 75–94.
[In the following essay, Schneider discusses Cather's notion of the value of land as depicted in her short fiction.]
In Willa Cather's literary love affair with the land as manifested in her fiction with a Midwestern setting, it is helpful to suggest three stages, roughly corresponding to the periods 1892-1912, 1913-1918, and 1922-1947. Although in general there is adequate and sometimes abundant evidence to support a theory of Miss Cather's developing attitude toward the land, still when one examines the whole sweep of her fiction, he finds a basic continuity in her commitment to the land as a value in itself and as a touchstone of value. That commitment, which at first is only latent, progressively becomes ever more overt and explicit.
With this qualification in mind, one can safely generalize about the three periods of Willa Cather's writing suggested above. The short stories of the first period enumerate the faults of the land and reject its offer of close association. The novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia of the middle period accept, generally speaking, the land and revel in the harmony existing between it and those who love it. The pertinent novels and short stories from One of Ours through “Neighbour...
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SOURCE: Bush, Sargent, Jr. “‘The Best Years’: Willa Cather's Last Story and Its Relation to Her Canon.” Studies in Short Fiction 5, no. 3 (spring 1968): 269–74.
[In the following essay, Bush maintains that the power of Cather's fiction did not diminish with “The Best Years,” as other critics have asserted.]
Willa Cather's last completed short story, “The Best Years,” is a work that has usually been either downgraded or ignored by her critics. With the exception of some appreciative general comments by George N. Kates,1 the consensus has been that the story is not up to Miss Cather's full capability in the genre. An extreme statement of this view describes the story as “only the somewhat querulous writing of old age.”2 I should like to suggest, however, that “The Best Years” does convey much of the power characteristic of Willa Cather's best novels and short stories.
Works such as My Ántonia, “Neighbour Rosicky,” A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock succeed largely through her ability to describe the subtle strengths and weaknesses of the relationships between characters who are richly and convincingly depicted. It is in just this way that “The Best Years” is particularly effective. In addition, Miss Cather here returns to a theme that had occupied her again and again throughout...
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SOURCE: Bohlke, L. Brent. “Beginnings: Willa Cather and ‘The Clemency of the Court.’” Prairie Schooner 48, no. 2 (summer 1974): 134–44.
[In the following essay, Bohlke dilates upon Cather's sources for her story “The Clemency of the Court.”]
Henry James once wrote in “On the Genesis of ‘The Real Thing’,” that the story had been suggested to him by an incident “related to me by George du Maurier.”1 It seemed to be a simple tale, but it was one that captured the imagination of James. Later, he was to recount how a simple remark of William Dean Howells, which was related to him by someone else, proved to be the genesis of an entire novel, The Ambassadors.2 Sherwood Anderson discusses the same kind of phenomenon. He tells of overhearing chance remarks, unfinished tales, unconnected sentences. “A few such sentences in the midst of a conversation overheard or dropped into a tale someone told. These were the seeds of stories.”3
The sources of fiction have long fascinated researchers and students of literature and will most likely continue to do so for some time to come. For the fiction of most authors provides a maze of sources—all ultimately coming from the writer's experience, be it his life, travels, reading, conversation, or simply daydreams.
The writings of Willa Cather are no different in this respect....
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SOURCE: Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination, pp. 35–46, 73–82, 171–81. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Stouck discusses Cather's major narrative techniques as well as her portrayal of the artistic temperament in her short fiction.]
THE PASTORAL IMAGINATION
In pastoral the imagination counters the failures of the present by moving back into the past. In recovering lost time the artist may seek to recapture a world of childhood innocence, or he may attempt to resolve the conflicts in his past experiences which have prevented him from living meaningfully in the present. In either case the term pastoral here signifies not just a rural subject, but a mode of art based on memory. Pastoral, in keeping with its classical etymology, has been a term in literary criticism applied to works of art with a bucolic setting. William Empson, however, in Some Versions of Pastoral expanded the term to indicate the proletarian cause in works of literature that present the dialectic of class struggle. Moving in the opposite direction, I have taken as the common denominator in pastoral the idea of retreat from society, and have expanded the term on a psychological basis to denote the artist's withdrawal into himself and into the imaginative realm of memory.
In its simplest form a pastoral of innocence marks a retreat in time...
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SOURCE: Arnold, Marilyn. “Cather's Last Three Stories: A Testament of Life and Endurance.” Great Plains Quarterly 4, no. 4 (fall 1984): 238–44.
[In the following essay, Arnold explores the themes of survival and adaptability in Cather's final stories.]
Near the end of her career—and her life—in the conclusion to the story “Before Breakfast,” Willa Cather described the “first amphibious frog-toad” who, when he “found his water-hole dried up behind him,” undauntedly “jumped out to hop along till he could find another” and in doing so, “started on a long hop.”1 At first glance, this little parable might appear to be a misplaced curiosity in a story by a midwesterner about a frazzled businessman seeking refuge on an island off the North Atlantic sea coast. Closer scrutiny reveals it to be essential to the meaning of the story and crucial to the meaning of Cather's work. This “first amphibious frog-toad” is a survivor; he finds a way to live in spite of changed circumstances and environmental opposition. The emphatic concluding position of this frog in Cather's next to last story is significant. More than that, all three stories in the posthumous collection, The Old Beauty and Others (1948), reinforce this emphasis on adaptability and survival.
The stories in the Old Beauty collection could not have been written in Cather's early or...
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SOURCE: Arnold, Marilyn. “Apprenticeship in Journalism: Beginnings through 1900.” In Willa Cather's Short Fiction, pp. 1–36. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Arnold presents an overview of Cather's early career and stories.]
From 1892, when her first story appeared in print, until the end of 1900 Willa Cather published at least twenty-six short stories, and still others may yet be identified. During this period Cather was learning to write. A gifted young woman with immense potential, she learned by trying her hand at almost every kind of fiction imaginable—romance, realism, fantasy, mystery, parable, adventure, juvenilia, the occult—with mixed success. She employed every mode from the ironic to the sentimental; she experimented with drama and dialect; she used “down home” materials and exotic materials. Although many of the stories of this period are obviously apprentice work, at least two of them (both appearing in the spring of 1900), “Eric Hermannson's Soul” and “The Sentimentality of William Tavener,” are outstanding accomplishments for a beginning writer, and several others show Cather's unmistakable genius for telling a tale. All of them have value for the Cather enthusiast.
I. THE COLLEGE STORIES
A. STORIES OF THE DIVIDE
Four out of Cather's first nine published short...
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SOURCE: Arnold, Marilyn. “Refining the Gift: 1901–1905.” In Willa Cather's Short Fiction, pp. 37–67. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Arnold offers a thematic overview of the stories in The Troll Garden.]
I. A TIME OF TRANSITION
Cather left the Leader sometime during the spring of 1900 and went to visit her cousins in Washington, D.C. There she did some editing work before returning to Pittsburgh. In March 1901, she accepted a position teaching English and Latin at Pittsburgh's Central High School then later moved to Allegheny High School. By the time Willa Cather began teaching in Pittsburgh she had written more than many writers produce in a lifetime. It is estimated that by then, in addition to numerous short stories, poems, and an unpublished volume of drama criticism, Cather had written “more than five hundred columns, articles, reviews, and feature stories.”1 It was during Cather's teaching years that she composed and published The Troll Garden stories, a remarkable collection for a writer little known in literary circles. The four stories of this period that precede the Troll Garden group date from the spring of 1901 to the fall of 1902. They lack the crisp energy and control of “Eric Hermannson's Soul” and “The Sentimentality of William Tavener.” It was also at this time that Cather became...
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SOURCE: Petry, Alice Hall. “Harvey's Case: Notes on Cather's ‘The Sculptor's Funeral.’” South Dakota Review 24, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 108–16.
[In the following essay, Petry locates the meaning of the story “The Sculptor's Funeral” in the protagonist's homosexuality.]
The fictional works of Willa Cather that have always enjoyed substantial critical attention and popular acclaim are her best-known novels: O Pioneers!, My Antonia, The Professor's House, and Death Comes For the Archbishop. But her fine short stories such as “Neighbor Rosicky,” “Paul's Case,” and “The Sculptor's Funeral” have generated significantly less interest. Surely one reason for the dearth of responsible scholarly attention paid to these short works is that critics and readers too often take them at face value, imposing upon them preconceived and rather superficial interpretations which brush past their thematic and technical complexities. A case in point is “The Sculptor's Funeral,” which has generally been dismissed lightly as “apprentice work” simply because it was written in 1903. For example, Howard Mumford Jones terms it “a sketch not much beyond the range of a bright literary undergraduate”; David Daiches perceives it as “simply an excuse” for one of the characters to make a speech—“and though it is a good speech it does not in itself make a good story”;...
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SOURCE: Rosowski, Susan J. “The Troll Garden and the Dangers of Art.” In The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, pp. 19–31. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Rosowski examines elements of temptation and salvation in The Troll Garden, and the ways these themes represent Cather's feelings about being an artist.]
We must not look at Goblin men, We must not buy their fruits.(1)
“In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service so exacting that there are few men born of women who are strong enough to take the vows,” Willa Cather wrote in 1896.2 Brave words, ringing with youthful fervor, yet articulating an ideal that Cather was to realize only after a long apprenticeship. For the same year that Cather spoke of the total commitment necessary to the artist, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked as editor of the Home Monthly, a women's magazine designed for large sales in the popular market. The following year she left the Home Monthly to join the staff of the Pittsburgh Leader, where she remained until she left in 1900 to do freelance writing, then to teach high school Latin, algebra, and English until 1906.3 By then a decade had passed, and though Cather had left Nebraska, she hadn't yet made the commitment necessary to enter the kingdom of art. Instead, she had...
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SOURCE: Rosowski, Susan J. “Obscure Destinies: Unalterable Realities.” In The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, pp. 189–204. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Rosowski contends that Cather's main theme in Obscure Destinies is the acceptance of life as apparent reality, in contrast to her earlier themes of idealism.]
Wonderful things do happen even in the dullest places.1
In the decade before Obscure Destinies appeared in 1932, it seemed that Willa Cather had turned from Nebraska as resolutely as had her characters Claude Wheeler and Niel Herbert. After One of Ours and A Lost Lady, she had written novels about other places (Michigan, the Southwest, Quebec), distant times (the mid-nineteenth century, the seventeenth century), and historical people (French priests in New Mexico and immigrants to Canada). But for the three stories included in Obscure Destinies, Cather returned to memories of Red Cloud and Webster County. Childhood friends reappear—Annie Pavelka's husband (along with memories of Charles Cather) as the prototype for the Bohemian farmer Anton Rosicky, Grandmother Boak for Mrs. Harris, Margie Anderson for Mandy, Mr. Richardson and Mr. Miner for Mr. Trueman and Mr. Dillon, and young Willa for Vickie Templeton and the narrator of “Two...
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SOURCE: Baker, Bruce P. “Nebraska's Cultural Desert: Willa Cather's Early Short Stories.” Midamerica 14 (1987): 12–17.
[In the following essay, Baker explores Cather's early view of Nebraska as a hostile place for artistic pursuits.]
For many years Willa Cather's novels set in Nebraska have been praised for their evocation of the era of the pioneers, a time of splendid heroism and achievement symbolized by the famous plow against the sun in My Ántonia. On the plains of the great Midwest, sturdy and creative men and women joined themselves with the fertile soil and brought forth a kind of new Eden wherein fallen man seemed to be able once again to unite with the raw material of the earth and create something beautiful and enduring. For example, in Cather's rhapsodic tribute to the pioneer spirit in O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson transforms “The Wild Land” in part one into the rich, fruitful fields of part two. It is important to note that Cather does not seem to portray Alexandra's success as merely an Horatio Alger rags-to-riches exemplum. Rather, her triumph is not so much a material as an artistic one; in a very real and significant way, Alexandra is a creator, an artist who has shaped out of often unwieldly material an orderly and beautiful work.
But Cather had not always viewed the Nebraska of her formulative years as a place wherein the artist, be it...
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SOURCE: Woodress, James. “Obscure Destinies.” In Willa Cather: A Literary Life, pp. 170–83, 435–48. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Woodress presents an overview of the stories in The Troll Garden and Obscure Destinies, and addresses the effect these publications had on Cather's career and personal life.]
While Cather was basking in the glow of being a published poet, a momentous chain of events was taking place. H. H. McClure, head of the McClure Syndicate, passed through Lincoln scouting for talent, and Will Owen Jones urged him to look at the work of his former columnist. H. H. McClure told his cousin, S. S. McClure, the magazine editor and publisher, and that volatile genius wrote Cather inviting her to submit her stories for possible magazine and book publication. She mailed them to him in April but without much confidence that anything significant would happen. She already had submitted some of her stories to McClure's Magazine, and they had come back with rejection slips. A week after the parcel left Pittsburgh, however, she received a telegram from McClure summoning her to his office immediately. As soon as she could get away from her school, she took the train to New York and presented herself to McClure on the morning of May 1, 1903.
Life was never the same for her after that interview. She walked into...
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SOURCE: Hall, Joan Wylie. “Treacherous Texts: The Perils of Allusion in Cather's Early Stories.” Colby Library Quarterly 24, no. 3 (1988): 142–50.
[In the following essay, Hall underscores the difficulties for Cather in inheriting and drawing upon a predominantly male literary canon and the ways in which she addressed this problem through fiction.]
Willa Cather's recent biographer, Sharon O'Brien, suggests that the “intrusive references to male writers” in “The Treasure of Far Island” display a female author's urge to place herself in a tradition from which she feels excluded.1 Some of the same literary debts are apparent in “The Professor's Commencement,” another early Cather story that also appeared in New England Magazine in 1902.2 While she does not exaggerate the dominance of such allusions, O'Brien does overlook their suitability to the main characters in these particular stories and to Cather's early exploration of the theme of the artist, a theme she develops extensively in The Troll Garden (1905) and The Song of the Lark (1915). Most of the bookish references in “The Treasure of Far Island” and “The Professor's Commencement” are generated by a writer, Douglass Burnham, and by an English teacher, Emerson Graves. Their recourse to other men's works is natural but ultimately dangerous. In exposing the danger, Cather—near the...
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SOURCE: Nelson, Robert J. Willa Cather and France: In Search of the Lost Language, pp. 54–61, 98–104, 127–30. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
[In the following excerpt, Nelson explores the role of immigrants in Cather's stories, asserting that these characters represent Cather's struggle with the principles of American materialism.]
“FLAVIA AND HER ARTISTS” (1905)
In her “researches” into the life of the prairie which was to become the cosmopolis of so many of her early stories and early novels, Willa Cather offers what the contemporary French geneticist Albert Jacquard sees as the chief lesson of the workings of human biology: a “eulogy of difference.”1 For Cather that eulogy is due to the multilingual, multicultural demographics of the Nebraska and its avatars in which she sets her prairie novels and stories. The perceptive French Catherian, Michel Gervaud, has written: “Anticipating sociologists and novelists who, one day, would give evidence in their writings of the notion of ‘ethnic identity,’ Willa Cather had immediately perceived that, in the womb of the American population, the immigrants represented the element of difference which, for what concerned her, was indispensable to support the uniformity of her own culture and, later, to nourish her literary creation.”2 Gervaud quotes from Cather's own essay,...
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SOURCE: Haller, Evelyn. “‘Behind the Singer Tower’: Willa Cather and Flaubert.” Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (spring 1990): 39–55.
[In the following essay, Haller investigates the influence of French writer Gustave Flaubert had on Cather's story “Behind the Singer Tower” and on the decisions she made regarding her life as an artist.]
Cather, while an undergraduate, spoke of Flaubert as a writer who “sees” (Alvin G. Johnson, quoted in Sergeant 10). She became a comparably “visual” artist herself. It is no surprise, therefore, that she used Flaubert's novel Salammbô as a foundation, a visual commentary, for her early story “Behind the Singer Tower”; but it may come as a surprise that she also drew a metaphor from Flaubert for a crisis in her artistic life.
Cather wrote “Behind the Singer Tower” while she was still thankful that she had escaped from Nebraska—not merely to the cave of the Iron Kings that was Pittsburgh but to fabulous New York City itself. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant tells us how Cather gloried in what the city had to offer: the Metropolitan Opera, the green world of Central Park, tea in an elegant hotel dining room with attentive waiters. As managing editor of McClure's, she was not only earning enough money to pay for many of the things she wanted to do, but she was also enjoying prestige, recognition, and power. She was...
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SOURCE: Harris, Jeane. “A Code of Her Own: Attitudes Toward Women in Willa Cather's Short Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (spring 1990): 81–9.
[In the following essay, Harris addresses Cather's conflicted notions about gender and the ways she expressed this ambivalence in her stories.]
Efforts by feminist scholars to recover Willa Cather's literary reputation and to ensure her place in a male-dominated canon have caused some feminist critics to dismiss aspects of her personality too complex to fit into established categories of feminist literary criticism. In particular, feminist critics have not admitted the extent of Willa Cather's misogyny, even though it informs the male code of behavior that is the controlling consciousness of all her fiction.
In her 1987 biography of Cather, Sharon O'Brien explores Cather's difficulty in reconciling her gender with the male-dominated literary tradition she hoped to join. But O'Brien does not acknowledge the depth or significance of Cather's hostility toward women. She admits that Cather had misogynistic views: “her early college journalism … frequently expressed … contempt for women in tones ranging from amused dismissal to bitter condemnation” (122). However, O'Brien argues that Cather's misogyny disappeared as she matured and asserts that Cather experienced what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar term “the woman writer's...
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SOURCE: Summers, Claude J. “‘A Losing Game in the End’: Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's ‘Paul's Case.’” Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (spring 1990): 103–19.
[In the following essay, Summers examines “Paul's Case” in the context of Cather's opinions about Irish writer Oscar Wilde and her retreat from the male-centered aestheticism that she espoused early in her career.]
Willa Cather's homosexuality, for years a well-guarded but scarcely well-kept secret, is by now widely acknowledged. Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice sensitively traces Cather's personal and artistic development, her emergence from the male-identified male impersonator of her adolescence and youth into the mature woman writer who created the first strong female heroes in American literature. Central to this transformation were Cather's eventual liberation from her early internalized male aesthetic after a long and difficult struggle and her acceptance of her lesbianism, even as she recognized the need to conceal her sexual identity as “the thing not named.” As O'Brien remarks, “Throughout her literary career, Cather was both the writer transforming the self in art and the lesbian writer at times forced to conceal ‘unnatural’ love by projecting herself into male disguises” (215).1
What has not been sufficiently noted, however, is Cather's early...
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SOURCE: Salemi, Joseph S. “The Measure of the Music: Prose Rhythm in Willa Cather's ‘Paul's Case.’” Classical and Modern Literature 10, no. 4 (summer 1990): 319–26.
[In the following essay, Salemi uses the example of “Paul's Case” to demonstrate his theory that Cather employed her training in the cadences and rhythms of classical writing in her own work.]
The elements of an individual prose style are elusive of definition. Although we can sometimes describe a writer's characteristic diction, imagery, and idiomatic preferences, most of our comments will be impressionistic and tentative rather than statistically precise. No writer is perpetually true to type, and fine prose, like every other creative manifestation, is often unpredictable in both its methods and effects. Nevertheless, in a well-established literature the rhetorical mannerisms of certain authors are usually distinguishable after long acquaintance. Habits of syntax and predilections in prosody, along with the stylistic resonances they produce, can be as distinctive as a signature in the world of letters.
One minor but useful prosodic device is prose rhythm and cadence. Although sometimes dismissed by plainstyle devotees as a superficial ornament, prose rhythm provides delightful embellishment to a well-constructed sentence by giving it a flow comparable to the measures of verse. These cadences need not follow a...
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SOURCE: Thurin, Erik Ingvar. The Humanization of Willa Cather: Classicism in an American Classic, pp. 94–158, 320–30, 355–63. Sweden: Lund University Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Thurin presents an overview of Cather's debt to classical Greek and Latin literature in her short stories.]
FROM BOLDNESS TO CONFORMITY
The narrative technique that was to allow Cather to express herself both fully and adequately was not developed in a day. The stories to be discussed … all belong to a long exploratory apprenticeship which Cather served as a writer of fiction, roughly the period ending with the publication of her first novel.1 A number of them were written during the time she was working as a journalist and composing her first poems; others are contemporary with the poems specifically written for the 1903 April Twilights, or those which she wrote or drafted during the immediately following years, before abandoning poetry. … [T]here is no particular reason to think that she knew from the beginning that fiction, and specifically the novel, would be her final choice of genre. Very few of her early stories were included in the library edition of her work, and in retrospect, she affected the same scorn for them as for the journalism and the poetry. She would almost certainly have disapproved of—indeed blocked—publishing ventures like Willa...
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SOURCE: Harris, Jeane. “Aspects of Athene in Willa Cather's Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 2 (spring 1991): 177–82.
[In the following essay, Harris discusses the stories in which Cather featured images of the Greek goddess Athene in an attempt to create female characters who embodied the ideals of her own masculine aesthetic.]
Willa Cather's conflicted or ambiguous attitudes about gender and sex roles are the result of the collision of her adopted male aesthetic and her gender. Seeking to mitigate the conflicts created between these two disparate forces, Cather experimented with various techniques that have been widely discussed, e.g., the use of a male narrator. But Cather's ambivalence regarding gender is also reflected in her early short stories by the creation of strong, “manly” female characters. Drawing on her considerable knowledge of Greek mythology, Cather chose the imposing figure of the goddess Athene to embody the paradoxical qualities that she sought to incorporate into her women characters of the period 1896-1905.
The goddess Athene figures in a cluster of stories Cather wrote during a nine year period; these stories and the women in them are strikingly similar to one another in their appearance, mannerisms and emotions. In these four stories—“Tommy the Unsentimental” (1896), “Resurrection” (1897), “The Treasure of Far Island”...
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SOURCE: Wasserman, Loretta. “Part 1: The Short Fiction.” In Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3–78. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
[In the following essay, Wasserman surveys Cather's short fiction.]
INITIAL BEARINGS AND THE QUESTION OF MODERNISM
To describe the working habits of Professor St. Peter, the writer-historian in her novel The Professor's House, Willa Cather drew on an extended simile: “Just as, when Queen Mathilde was doing the long tapestry now shown at Bayeux,—working her chronicle of the deeds of knights and heroes,—alongside the big pattern of dramatic action she and her women carried the little playful pattern of birds and beasts that are a story in themselves.”1 This fanciful image of parallel paths serves for Cather's own writing as well—her novels being “the big pattern” for which she is best known, and her short stories “the little playful pattern.” The comparison holds if not pushed too far: Cather did indeed write short stories, some sixty of them, throughout her life (true, more earlier than later), and at times she was experimental in her short works—sketches, tales of the supernatural, fables, vignettes. Her best are not decorative birds and beasts, however; they are, like her novels, “chronicles” of her world. And they are indeed “a story in themselves.”
That being so,...
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SOURCE: Salda, Michael N. “What Really Happens in Cather's ‘Paul's Case?’” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 1 (winter 1992): 113–19.
[In the following essay, Salda questions the standard critical interpretation of the ending to “Paul's Case,” positing instead that the title character does not necessarily die.]
Critics agree that Paul commits suicide by throwing himself before a train at the end of Willa Cather's “Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament.” But is this the only reading possible; in fact, is this reading even likely given the story's details? Bessie du Bois, one of Cather's earliest reviewers, quotes the final paragraphs of “Paul's Case” and then says something that would strike most readers as quite odd: “One feels rather defrauded that the author has omitted to say what came next; it would have been so easy to go on” (du Bois 613).1 With Paul's broken body hurtling through the air, one wonders what the reviewer might wish Cather to add to the tale. After all, Paul is dead—or is he?
Let us review the day on which we meet Paul. The story opens in late November with Paul, a Pittsburgh High School student under suspension for various ill-defined infractions, about to appear before the faculty's “inquisition” (103). His teachers all take their turns attacking Paul, but he remains composed and unaffected. When the faculty finishes with...
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SOURCE: Zitter, Emmy Stark. “The Unfinished Picture: Willa Cather's ‘The Marriage of Phaedra.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 2 (spring 1993): 153–60.
[In the following essay, Zitter perceives the main female character of “The Marriage of Phaedra” as a precursor to Cather's later women protagonists.]
“The Marriage of Phaedra,” an early story published in Willa Cather's first collection, The Troll Garden, has never excited much critical or popular interest. Critics have condemned it as derivative, and readers have been put off by its stilted dialogue and unusually lifeless characters. Nevertheless, the story in some ways fights strongly against patriarchal ideas that underlie the rest of the stories of The Troll Garden, even as the painting that is at its heart suggests a new and revolutionary way of looking at men and women, at artists and non-artists alike. When she wrote the work, young Willa Cather was still very much under the spell of Henry James, and her almost slavish imitation of the Master—in her choice of a topic, in her use of a painting as the symbolic center of the story and in the perspective she chose for the story's narrative focus—is hinted at by such character names as “MacMaster” and “James.”1 Even the story's title derives from a work of art created by another artist, albeit an imaginary one.2 The Marriage of...
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SOURCE: Stich, K. P. “Woman as Enemy: Willa Cather's ‘The Marriage of Phaedra.’” In Modern Language Studies 24, no. 2 (spring 1994): 38–47.
[In the following essay, Stich views “The Marriage of Phaedra” as Cather's interpretation of the Greek Amazon myth.]
To the classical Greeks, Amazons were enemies because of their threat to patriarchal rule (Tyrrell, duBois); they had to be conquered in battle or, at times, through marriage. To Willa Cather, the Amazon archetype seems to evoke a comparable response in the creative minds of men, especially artists, whose sympathy with the so-called feminine does not at all preclude their exploitation of women. The Amazon archetype, I would argue here, is a variant of the anima archetype. As such, its disregard or abuse helps account for the anima's likely turning into one's “fatal” enemy in the alchemy of creativity as much as in the alchemy of individuation. In both contexts the focus is on the conjunction of opposites or “chymical marriage” (Jung, Mysterium 89, 555), which Cather, I suggest, often explores in her fiction through her mythic consciousness of Amazons, especially Amazons who find themselves married, and seldom happily so.
Having studied the Greek classics, Cather is aware of the latent capability1 of ancient myths to channel her myth-making needs as a modern writer. Thus she finds her...
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SOURCE: Flannigan, John H. “Words and Music Made Flesh in Cather's ‘Eric Hermannson's Soul.’” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 209–16.
[In the following essay, Flannigan argues that Cather's insertion of references to the opera Cavalleria Rusticana is a fundamental element to understand the title character of “Eric Hermannson's Soul.”]
As the first story Willa Cather placed in a national magazine (Cosmopolitan, April 1900), “Eric Hermannson's Soul” represents an important milestone in her career. According to Cather's biographer James Woodress, it is “a very competent piece of fiction and marks a clear advance in her narrative skill” (144-45). Bruce Baker argues that the story also provides an important reminder of Cather's belief, at least early in her writing career, that Nebraska was a “cultural desert … a place indifferent if not actively hostile to man's creative spirit” (12).
The story is notable, too, for the quantity as well as the quality of its allusions to other texts. Cather filled her story with a wide range of literary and musical references; there are brief glances at, for example, Norse mythology, Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda stories, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem “The Blessed Damozel,” Tennyson's The Princess, Edvard Grieg's incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt, and Methodist...
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SOURCE: Saari, Rob. “‘Paul's Case’: A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301.81.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 389–95.
[In the following essay, Saari presents a psychoanalytic interpretation of “Paul's Case.”]
Willa Cather's title “Paul's Case” (1905) invites us to ponder the question, “What exactly is Paul's Case?” Cather immediately informs us that Paul's case is mysterious. His own father is “perplexed” about his son's behavior, and the school faculty, who meet with Paul to discuss his recent suspension, speak of Paul with such “rancor” and “aggrievedness” that it is obvious that Paul's is “not a usual case” (221). At first, it appears that Paul is, perhaps, simply filled with the arrogance that adolescence sometimes brings, but, as Cather continues with Paul's case history, we learn that his problem is more deeply rooted. Paul's problem drives him to take his own life, and simple adolescent arrogance does not lead to such drastic measures. My diagnosis is that Paul suffers from what contemporary psychiatry calls a “narcissistic personality disorder.”
The term, “narcissism” comes, of course, from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Freud, who drew upon mythology to assist in his conceptual formulations of psychopathology, formally introduced the term narcissism into the psychiatric literature in his 1914 paper On...
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SOURCE: Sullivan, Peter M. “Willa Cather's German Connections: ‘Uncle Valentine’ and Wetherian Wandering.” Cather Studies 4 (1999): 319-29.
[In the following essay, Sullivan examines elements of German culture in Cather's stories, particularly the influence of Goethe on “Uncle Valentine.”]
More than 70 years after Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, her novels and stories continue to attract a wide readership. A wave of research has examined the enduring appeal of Cather's works from different perspectives. These approaches often lead back to beginnings: the novels and stories about the immigrant peoples and their struggles against an untamed prairie that Cather knew as a child. Although Nebraska is the setting for many of Cather's writings, her portrayals of the foreign settlers on the lands opened by the railroads emphasize the cultural links between the Old World and the New. Cather's early interest in Europe is well known. Discussion has often centered on Cather's love of France and its ancient civilization (Woodress 160).1 Cather's interests, though, were far-ranging and included other cultures. References to Germany and its heritage in music and literature appear in many of her writings.
Cather's interest in German music has been widely recognized. In an apprentice story, “The Prodigies,” there is a reference to a Schubert serenade,...
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SOURCE: Crabtree, Sherry. “Cather's ‘Paul's Case.’” Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 206–08.
[In the following essay, Crabtree considers the significance of flowers in “Paul's Case.”]
Critics frequently mention Paul's red carnation, in Willa Cather's short story “Paul's Case,” as a badge of “fidelity to his dream, his talisman” (Wasserman 125) or as a symbol of his alienation from the world (Randall 275). That analysis can be extended to include the story's frequent references to other flowers, which also symbolize Paul's desires and mirror his disconnection from the world. The expanded interpretation enhances the reader's understanding of Paul's fragility, his craving for beauty, and his inability to thrive in his environment.
Paul uses the red carnation as a visible symbol of his alienation from the world of Cordelia Street. Yet the symbol is misunderstood by his teachers, who see the flower as a vehicle of defiance. To them, the red carnation is not “properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension” (Cather 243), and this is reinforced later when they contend that Paul's “whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation” (244).
The bright color of the flower is in sharp contrast to Paul's drab surroundings, where the people “were as exactly alike as their homes, and...
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Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984, 198 p.
Critical study of the short fiction.
Meyering, Sheryl L. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994, 178 p.
Examines each of Cather's stories with respect to its publication history; circumstances of composition, sources, and influences; relationship to other Cather works; and interpretations and criticisms.
O'Brien, Sharon. “Disclosure and Concealment: The First Stories.” In Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, pp. 195–222. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Scrutinizes apparent contradictions in Cather's later reaction to her own early stories, finding in both Cather and the stories, tension between what Cather sought to reveal and those things she hoped to sublimate.
———. “The Troll Garden.” In Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, pp. 268–87. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Recounts the personal events in Cather's life that led to her writing the stories of The Troll Garden.
Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 304 p.
Study of the influences, aesthetics, and...
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