The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather

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Critical Evaluation

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The West and the past—one is the physical background of Willa Cather’s writing, the other is its spiritual climate. Against her chosen backgrounds, she projects her stories of pioneers and artists, men and women of simple passions and creative energies. The very nature of her material determines her own values as an artist: to find in the people of her creation those realities of the spirit that are almost overwhelmed in the complexity and confusion of the present. The Song of the Lark, which carries Thea Kronborg from an obscure Colorado town to the concert and opera stage, is a novel rich and sustaining in homely realism. The character of Thea is drawn in part from Olive Fremstad, a Swedish American opera singer, but there is much of Cather’s own story in the experiences of her heroine. Like Thea, she made common things and disciplined effort the shaping influences of her art. The story of the artist in America is usually sentimentalized or idealized. This novel is a notable exception.

Though it never shared the success of some of Cather’s other works, The Song of the Lark is nevertheless a rewarding and significant part of the Cather canon. The novel has been criticized, and perhaps justly so, for its unselective use of detail and episode in developing Thea’s story; yet such thoroughness is also what has allowed Cather to convey so fully to the reader Thea’s passionate spirit for living. Thea’s growth as an artist is shown in the context of two themes that run throughout Cather’s works: the invigorating, spiritual significance of the Southwest and its history, and the alienation of the artistic temperament from conventional life and values. The Song of the Lark is essentially a chronicle of the delicate awakening of the artistic sensibility and its consequent struggle to escape the limitations of a commonplace environment.

This theme is introduced in the novel through Thea’s early opposition to the standards and values of Moonstone. The young girl’s friends are those who, like Thea herself, display a quality of mind and spirit for life that Moonstone conventionality interprets as either wild and eccentric or blatantly selfish. The lifestyles of Dr. Archie, old Wunsch, Ray Kennedy, and Spanish Johnny are in marked contrast to the provincial conformity and petty materialism embodied in the likes of Mrs. “Livery” Johnson or the community’s endorsement of Thea’s less talented rival, Lily Fisher. Although Thea’s talent and ardent nature set her apart from the rest of her community, she finds happiness and fulfillment in expanding her awareness of things. Visiting the countryside with Dr. Archie, learning German from Wunsch, or singing songs with Spanish Johnny, she is progressively introduced to a broader sense of values and culture than the narrow environment of Moonstone can supply. Her later experience with the ancient pottery at the cliff dwellings in Arizona only makes Thea more conscious of the immense aspirations and possibilities within her own spirit and the human spirit in general.

Seeking to develop her own aspirations to their fullest, Thea becomes more and more dedicated to the disciplines of her art. By the end of the novel, her commitment leaves almost no time in her life for other people, but she fulfills the artistic impulse that drove her beyond the limitations of a small-town environment and into a world of intense, rapturous feeling for the quality of life. Her disciplined, self-imposed isolation from the conventional world is the price the serious artist must pay for his expansive spirit.

When The Song of the Lark was reissued in 1932, Cather revised the novel rather heavily in an attempt to reduce wordage and tighten its style. Most of the changes occurred in the later parts of the book, where the author felt that, because Thea’s struggle was now over, the dramatic pull of the story necessarily lagged into the anticlimactic. None of these changes, however, appreciably affect the novel’s content or thematic statement.

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