Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2361
Willa Cather was always conscious of a double urge in herself, toward art and toward the land. As long as her parents were living, she found herself torn between the Western prairie and the cultural centers of the East and Europe. That basic polarity appears again and again in her stories, some of which deal with the artist’s struggle against debilitating influences, and some with both the pleasant and the difficult aspects of the prairie experience. Perhaps only in her work did Cather achieve a comfortable reconciliation of these polarities, by making the prairie experience the subject of her art.
All of Cather’s work is consistently value-centered. She believed in characters who are good, artists who are true to their callings, people who can appreciate and use what is valuable from the past, and individuals who have a special relationship with the land. Her chief agony lay in what she saw as a general sellout to materialism—in the realm of art, in the prairie and desert, in the small town, in the city.
The struggle of the artist to maintain integrity against an unsympathetic environment and the forces of an exploitative materialism is explored in three stories that are particularly important in the Cather canon. Two of them, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” and “Paul’s Case,” have been widely anthologized and are well known. The third, “Uncle Valentine,” is an important later story.
“The Sculptor’s Funeral”
“The Sculptor’s Funeral” is about the return in death of a world-renowned sculptor to the pinched little prairie town from which he somehow miraculously sprang. Harvey Merrick’s body arrives by train in the dead of winter, accompanied by one of his former students. There to meet the coffin are several prominent townsmen, among them a brusque, red-bearded lawyer named Jim Laird. Only he can appreciate the magnitude of Harvey Merrick’s achievement. The watchers around the body chuckle and snort over poor Harvey’s uselessness as a farm hand, over his inability to “make it” in the only things that count for them—money-making ventures in Sand City. Jim Laird, in a storm of self-hatred for having become the scheming lawyer these harpies wanted him to be, enters the room and blasts them mercilessly. He reminds the town elders of the young men they have ruined by drumming “nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers.” They hated Harvey, Laird says, because he left them and rose above them, achieving in a world they were not fit to enter. He reminds them that Harvey “wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes” for all of their material properties and possessions. Laird is too drunk the next day to attend the funeral, and it is learned that he dies some years later from a cold he caught while “driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps’s sons who had got into trouble there by cutting government timber.”
Harvey Merrick is not the tragic figure of the story, for he, thanks to a timid father who sensed something special about this one son, managed to escape destruction. He became the artist he was destined to be, in spite of his unlikely beginnings. The money-grubbing first citizens of Sand City can wag their tongues feebly over his corpse, but they cannot touch him or detract from his accomplishment. If there is a tragic element in the story, it is the life of Jim Laird. Like Harvey, he went away to school full of idealistic fire; like Harvey, he wanted to be a great man and make the hometown people proud of him. Instead, he says, “I came back here to practice, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer.” He became that shrewd lawyer and lost his soul in the process. The dead artist, imposing and serene in his coffin, serves as a perfect foil for Jim Laird, and the story stands as one of Cather’s most powerful treatments of the conflict between artistic ideals and materialistic value systems.
“Paul’s Case” presents a somewhat different view of that conflict. Paul, a high school youngster, is not a practicing artist, but he has an artistic temperament. He loves to hang around art galleries and concert halls and theaters, talking with the performers and basking in their reflected glory. It is glitter, excitement, and escape from the dripping taps in his home on Pittsburgh’s Cordelia Street that Paul craves. A hopeless “case,” Paul is finally taken out of high school by his widowed father because his mind is never on his studies. Forced from his usher’s job at the concert hall and forbidden to associate with the actors at the theater, he loses the only things he had lived for and cared about. When he is denied those vital outlets for his aesthetic needs and sent to do dull work for a dull company, he carries out a desperate plan. One evening, instead of depositing his firm’s receipts in the bank, he catches a train for New York. With swift determination, he buys elegant clothes and installs himself in a luxurious hotel suite, there to live for a few brief days the life he had always felt himself suited for. Those days are lovely and perfect, but the inevitable reckoning draws near: He learns from a newspaper that his father is en route to New York to retrieve him. Very deliberately Paul plots his course, even buying carnations for his buttonhole. Traveling to the outskirts of town, he walks to an embankment above the Pennsylvania tracks. There he carefully buries the carnations in the snow, and when the appropriate moment comes, he leaps into the path of an oncoming train.
A sensitive youngster with limited opportunity, Paul is not an artist in the usual sense. His distinction is that he responds to art, almost any art, with an unusual fervor. To him, anything associated with the world of art is beautiful and inspiring, while anything associated with lower-middle-class America is ugly and common. He is wrong about both worlds. With eyes only for the artificial surface glitter that spangles the world of art, he never sees the realities of hard work and struggle that define the life of every artist. Clearly, Cordelia Street is not as bad as Paul imagines it to be; it is, in fact, a moderately nice neighborhood where working people live and rear their families. Cordelia Street, however, has inadvertently taught him that money is the answer to all desires, that it can buy all the trappings that grace the world of art. Cordelia Street’s legendary heroes are the Kings of Wall Street.
In spite of his blindness, Paul captures the reader’s sympathies because he feels trapped in an aesthetic wasteland to which he cannot and will not return; the reader realizes at the end that perhaps Paul’s only escape lies in his final choice. The Waldorf, after all, provided temporary breathing space at best. His only real home is, as Cather tells us, in the “immense design of things.”
Valentine Ramsay, the title character in “Uncle Valentine,” is like Paul in many ways: He is sensitive, charming, flighty, unpredictable, temperamental, and intolerant of commonness. Unlike Paul, however, Valentine is a true artist, a gifted composer; it is not the artificial shell of art that he values, but the very heart of it. After several years abroad, he decides to return to Greenacre, his family home in the lush Pennsylvania countryside. He feels that perhaps at Greenacre he can shut out the world and find the peace he needs to write music.
He and the neighbors next door, with whom he shares a special affection, both artistic and social, have a magnificent year together, a “golden year.” They roam the fields and woods, they share music, and they increase in aesthetic understanding. Casting a tragic shadow over this happy group, however, is the figure of Valentine’s uncle, who haunts the premises like a grieving ghost. A child prodigy, he had left home to pursue his art, but for reasons never disclosed, he gave up his music and returned, burying himself in the ashes of his ruined life.
As a young man, Valentine had made a bad marriage to a rich woman whose materialistic coarseness became a constant affront to him; her very presence beside him in a concert hall was enough to shatter his nerves and obliterate the music he came to hear. Valentine has escaped from her, but she is destined to destroy his peace once again. He and his neighbors discover that she has purchased the large piece of property next to theirs, the property they had loved and tramped through for endless days. She intends to move in soon, bringing her fortune, her brash assertiveness, and Valentine’s only son. She, along with the encroaching factory smoke down-river, spells the end of the blessed life the little group of art fanciers has known at Greenacre. Valentine is forced to flee again, and we learn that he is killed while crossing a street in France.
Cather’s message is clear. The important things in life—art and the sharing of its pleasures, friendships, a feeling for land and place, a reverence for the past—are too often destroyed in the name of progress. When economic concerns are given top priority, whether on the prairie or in Pennsylvania, the human spirit suffers. Happily, in a much-loved story called “Neighbor Rosicky,” Cather affirms that material temptations can be successfully resisted. Valentine is defeated, but Rosicky and his values prevail.
Anton Rosicky, recognizable as another rendering of Ántonia’s husband in Cather’s best-known novel My Ántonia (1918), has instinctively established a value system that puts life and the land above every narrow-minded material concern. For example, when his entire corn crop is destroyed in the searing heat one July day, he organizes a little picnic so that the family can enjoy the few things they have left. Instead of despairing with his neighbors, Rosicky plays with his children. It is no surprise that he and his wife Mary agree without discussion as to what things they can let go. They refuse to skim the cream off their milk and sell it for butter because Mary would “rather put some colour into my children’s faces than put money into the bank.” Doctor Ed, who detects serious heart trouble in Rosicky, observes that “people as generous and warm-hearted and affectionate as the Rosickys never got ahead much; maybe you couldn’t enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.”
“Neighbor Rosicky” is one of Cather’s finest tributes to life on the Nebraska prairie, to a value system that grows out of human caring and love for the land. Rosicky had lived in cities for many years, had known hard times and good times there, but it occurred to him one lonely day in the city that he had to get to the land. He realized that “the trouble with big cities” was that “they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground,” so he made his decision and went West.
The only thing that disturbs his sleep now is the discontentment of his oldest son. Rudolph is married to a town girl, Polly, and he wants to leave the farm and seek work in the city. Rosicky understands Rudolph’s restlessness and Polly’s lonesomeness and looks for every opportunity to help the young couple find some recreation time in town. In spite of his efforts, however, Polly continues to dislike farm life and to find the Rosickys strange and “foreign.” Then one day Rosicky suffers a heart attack near Rudolph’s place. No one is there to care for him but Polly, and that day something lovely happens between the two of them: She has a revelation of his goodness that is “like an awakening to her.” His warm brown hand somehow brings “her to herself,” teaches her more about life than she has ever known before, offers her “some direct and untranslatable message.” With this revelation comes the assurance that at last all will be well with Rudolph and Polly. They will remain on the land and Rosicky’s spirit will abide with them, for Polly has caught the old man’s vision. It is fitting that Rosicky’s death a few months later is calmly accepted as a natural thing, and that he is buried in the earth he loved. That way there will be no strangeness, no jarring separation.
Rosicky is Cather’s embodiment of all that is finest in the human character. He had been a city man, a lover of opera and the other cultural advantages of city life, but he found his peace in the simple life of a Nebraska farm. By contrast, Harvey Merrick, the sculptor, had been a country boy, a lover of the prairie landscape, but he found his peace in the art capitals of the world. Nevertheless, Merrick and Rosicky would have understood each other perfectly. One’s talent lay in molding clay, the other’s in molding lives.
Cather is sometimes accused of nostalgia, of denying the present and yearning for the past. What seems clear in her work, however, is not that she wants to live in the past, but that she deplores a total rejection of the values of the past. She fears a materialistic takeover of the human heart, or a shriveled view of human life. She is convinced that the desire for money and the things money can buy corrupts character, cheapens life, destroys the landscape, and enervates art. In her exploration of the conflicts engendered by a destructive materialism, in her celebration of art and the land, Willa Cather’s devotion to an enduring system that spans time and space to embrace the good, the beautiful, and the true is made evident.
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