Willa Cather Essay - Cather, Willa (Short Story Criticism)

Cather, Willa (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

E. K. Brown (essay date 1953)

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...

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Sister Lucy Schneider, C. S. J. (essay date 1967)

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...

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Sargent Bush, Jr. (essay date 1968)

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...

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L. Brent Bohlke (essay date 1974)

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...

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David Stouck (essay date 1975)

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...

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Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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...

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Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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...

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Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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...

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Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1986)

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...

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Susan J. Rosowski (essay date 1986)

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,...

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Susan J. Rosowski (essay date 1986)

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...

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Bruce P. Baker (essay date 1987)

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...

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James Woodress (essay date 1987)

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...

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Joan Wylie Hall (essay date 1988)

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...

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Robert J. Nelson (essay date 1988)

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...

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Evelyn Haller (essay date 1990)

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...

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Jeane Harris (essay date 1990)

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...

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Claude J. Summers (essay date 1990)

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...

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Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1990)

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...

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Erik Ingvar Thurin (essay date 1990)

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...

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Jeane Harris (essay date 1991)

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...

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Loretta Wasserman (essay date 1991)

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...

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Michael N. Salda (essay date 1992)

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”...

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Emmy Stark Zitter (essay date 1993)

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...

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K. P. Stich (essay date 1994)

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...

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John H. Flannigan (essay date 1995)

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...

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Rob Saari (essay date 1997)

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”...

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Peter M. Sullivan (essay date 1999)

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...

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Sherry Crabtree (essay date 2000)

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...

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