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Willa Cather 1873–-1947

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(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

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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

E. K. Brown (essay date 1953)

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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 her home and gravitated toward the arts. She did not care for the society in which it was thought fit the daughter of a judge should move; she preferred the company of players, singers, writers. She shared Willa Cather's passion for music and the stage. And she was an avid reader. Elizabeth Moorhead, who has written of Willa Cather's life in Murray Hill Avenue in These Too Were Here, thought Isabelle McClung “the most beautiful girl I had ever seen … large of mind and heart, entirely frank and simple with natural dignity of manner. Not an artist in the sense of producing, she could identify herself wholly with the artist's efforts and aims. She had an infallible instinct for all the arts. She never mistook the second-best for the best. She became for Willa Cather what every writer needs most, the helping friend.”

Isabelle McClung proposed to Willa Cather that she leave her boarding-house and come to live in the McClung mansion. Dorothy Canfield Fisher remembers:

The McClungs had a great rich house, with plenty of servants, conducted in the lavish style of half a century ago. Isabelle was simply devoted to Willa always, and was sweet, warm-hearted and sincere—as well as very beautiful, at least I used to think her so, in a sumptuous sort of way. There was a good deal of stately entertaining carried on in the McClung house too, the many-coursed dinners of the most formal kind, which seemed picturesque (and they really were) to Willa.

For Willa Cather the invitation must have been a welcome one. It meant release from boarding-house life and greater freedom to write in ideal surroundings. In a sense she was achieving a childhood dream and reliving a childhood experience; there had always been in Red Cloud the other house, the house where there were books and pictures and cultivated manners—that of the Wieners—which had later been translated into the Westermann home in Lincoln. The McClung residence was the Wiener or Westermann house many times more spacious and elegant. Isabelle McClung offered Willa Cather a quiet room at the back of the house; it had, like the study in The Professor's House, been the sewing-room. Here she could work in peace, looking down over garden and trees to the Monongahela and the hills beyond. It is of this that she wrote when she dedicated The Song of the Lark:


          On uplands,
          At morning,
The world was young, the winds were free;
          A garden fair,
          In that blue desert air,
Its guest invited me to be.(1)

Judge McClung's house stood high on the top of a hilly street, on a little ridge with steps leading to a front porch banked with honeysuckle.

Isabelle McClung's parents at first wondered at the propriety of having Willa Cather come to reside in the household, though they welcomed her as their daughter's friend. The daughter promptly threatened to leave home if she could not have her way; her parents yielded and Willa Cather settled in Murray Hill Avenue as a temporary guest. She remained there, at Isabelle McClung's urging, during the rest of her Pittsburgh stay. Life for her now became even-paced and less driven; she could spend precious hours in her room writing in a more sustained fashion than hitherto. Elizabeth Moorhead, who called at Murray Hill Avenue after the publication of “Paul's Case,” and became a friend of both Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung, says that evening after evening the two young women would forsake the McClung family group and spend their time reading Tolstoy, Turgenev, Balzac, and Flaubert. This was the way Willa Cather appeared to her when she first called at the house:

Short, rather stocky in build, she had a marked directness of aspect. You saw at once that here was a person who couldn't easily be diverted from her chosen course. “Pretty” would indeed be a trivial word to describe a face that showed so much strength of character as hers, yet she was distinctly good-looking, with a clear rosy skin, eyes of light grey and hair a dark brown brushed back from a low forehead—an odd and charming contrast in color. They were observant eyes, nothing escaped them. … She looked me straight in the face as she greeted me, and I felt her absolute frankness and honesty. She would never say anything she didn't mean. …

To the years in Murray Hill Avenue belong the poems that constituted Willa Cather's first book and the tales that were incorporated in her first volume of prose fiction, The Troll Garden.


Before Willa Cather published her first two books she had to undergo one further experience; she had to discover the world that lay beyond the Eastern seaboard, beyond the Atlantic. Her first journey to Europe was made with Isabelle McClung during the summer of 1902 when she had completed her first year of teaching. To go to the sources from which much in America was derived, to discover links with a distant past, made the journey a time of exciting intellectual and æsthetic discovery. In England it was not only the present that interested her—and she saw it with the open eyes of a newcomer in its ugliness as well as its beauty—it was the evidence that still remained of the Imperial Rome of her Latin excursions with Mr. Ducker in Red Cloud. So in France later she discovered the sources from which sprang not only New France but the missions of the Southwest. In later years Willa Cather was to say that it takes the right kind of American to go to France—one with character and depth and a passion for the things that lie deep behind French history and French art. In a sense she was describing the qualifications of Claude Wheeler, her hero in One of Ours, and indeed her own. Grounded deeply in American soil, the novels of Willa Cather nevertheless are attached also by visible threads to roots in the Old World. The journey of 1902 was a landmark in the formation of the novelist.

It is possible to follow Willa Cather's European itinerary in the series of vivid letters which she contributed to the State Journal during her travels. She sailed with her companion in June. Presently they were in Chester, where three decades earlier another American novelist, Henry James, had begun his English tour recorded in Transatlantic Sketches. We catch the note of Willa Cather's mood from the first as she and Isabelle spent half of a June day “in utter solitude” at the foot of Chester's reconstructed tower: “The rains and winds of a thousand years have given the masonry of the tower a white clean-washed look, like the cobble-stones of the street after a shower.” The solitude is complete, the swallows nest serenely in the embrasures and loopholes, past and present merge in a timeless synthesis.

Speedily the journey becomes a pilgrimage to literary scenes, to the graves of the great. Under the impulse of Willa Cather's admiration for A. E. Housman there was a lively and enthusiastic trip through Shropshire, and later, as we shall see, a call on the poet himself. But Willa Cather did not confine herself to the arts in her European reportage; her journalistic training enabled her to gather information rapidly and translate it into readable narrative; thus, at this point, she reported to her fellow Nebraskans in a lively and circumstantial manner on English canals, boats, crews. In London they stayed in a comfortable little hotel in King Street off Cheapside and Willa Cather's transition from the world of castles and romance and the English countryside to the sharp Hogarthian picture was complete:

… the living city and not the dead one has kept us here, and the hard garish ugly mask of the immediate present drags one's attention quite away from the long past it covers. If the street life … is in any city more gloomy, more ugly, more grimy, more cruel than in London, I certainly don't care to see it. … Of all the shoddy foreigners one encounters there are none so depressing as the London shoddy. We have spent morning after morning on High Holborn or the Strand watching this never ending procession of men in top-hats, shabby boots, ragged collars; they invariably have a flower in their button-hole, a briar pipe between their teeth, and an out-of-the-fight look in the eyes that ranges from utter listlessness to sullen defiance. … But very few of these night birds are fond of water and next to gin they are enamoured of life; of these muddy skies and leaky night skies, of their own bench along the embankment, of the favorite neighbor they beat or chew or claw, of the sting of cheap gin in empty stomachs and the exciting game of chess they play with the police back and forth across the marble squares.

Willa Cather observed the London shop girl: “She wears flowers and paste jewels but she seldom bathes, never has enough hair pins and considers tooth brushes necessary only for members of the royal family”; and the flower girl: “We have nothing at all at home to correspond with her. Her voice is harder than her gin-sodden face, it cuts you like a whip lash as she shouts ‘Rowses! Rowses! penny a bunch!’” Rowses! Rowses! The cry was to be remembered and despite its whiplash was to acquire a romantic connotation for Willa Cather as the theme for a poem:

Roses of London, perfumed with a thousand years …
Roses of London town, red till the summer is done. …

Joined by Dorothy Canfield, Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung traveled to Paris at the Bank Holiday in August. They took the overnight boat from Newhaven to Dieppe. “Certainly so small a body of water as the English Channel never separated two worlds so different.” In the dawn they had their first glimpse of the twinkling lights of France. Presently they were breakfasting at a Dieppe hotel, and on its stone terrace Willa Cather caught the glare of the sun on white rock and yellow sand and “a little boy … was flying a red and green kite, quite the most magnificent kite I have ever seen, and it went up famously, up and up until his string ran short and of a truth one's heart went just as high.” This vision of escape from the things that bound one to earth was always to haunt Willa Cather. In “Coming, Aphrodite!” the pigeons wheeling out of the dust of Washington Square into the sky were described in the same way, and in the opening pages of Lucy Gayheart, from her sleigh Lucy sees the first star in the frosty sky and it “brought her heart into her throat. … That joy of saluting what is far above one was an eternal thing, not merely something that had happened to her ignorance and her foolish heart.”

On that memorable day Willa Cather saw from the doorway through which she entered France the play of light and color, the reach of something for the sky, even though but a child's kite, and warm impressions flooded upon her, lighting up France for all the years to come. They proceeded to Rouen with its many associations of Flaubert. Willa Cather's report was sharply personal: “Late in the day we arrived at Rouen, the well-fed, self-satisfied town built upon the hills beside the Seine, the town where Gustave Flaubert was born and worked and which he so sharply satirized and bitterly cursed in his letters to his friends in Paris. In France it seems that a town will forgive the man who curses it if only he is great enough.” She might be writing of Rouen, but she seems to have thought of Red Cloud. “The Sculptor's Funeral” was already in her pen.

They viewed the Flaubert monument and the bust of Flaubert's protégé, Maupassant, and continued their travels. Looking at Paris from a terrace in Montmartre, Willa Cather saw it gleaming and purple across the ribbon of the Seine “like the city of St. John's vision or the Heavenly City that Bunyan saw across the river.” The pilgrimages to the graves of the great continued: Heine's, which Willa Cather found covered with forget-me-nots, Musset's, Chopin's, the Balzac monument, “conspicuously ugly and deserted, but Balzac seems more a living fact than a dead man of letters. He lives in every street and quarter; one sees his people everywhere. He told the story not only of a Paris of yesterday, but of the Paris of today or tomorrow.” To Willa Cather he seemed second only to Napoleon himself.

A visit to Barbizon caused her to reflect that creative artists had worked there leaving “intact the beauty that drew them there. They have built no new and shining villas, introduced no tennis courts, or golf links, or electric lights.” Looking beyond the town, she translated a French paysage into familiar terms for her readers:

The wheat fields beyond the town were quite as level as those of the Nebraska divides. The long even stretch of yellow stubble, broken here and there by … Lombard poplars recalled not a little the country about Campbell and Bladen and is certainly more familiar than anything I have seen on this side of the Atlantic.

She was interested in discovering in the field a reaper of American make.

In September they journeyed into the south, into the warm land of Alphonse Daudet, where the mistral blew “more terrible than any wind that ever came up from Kansas.” Willa Cather drank in the warmth and color of the land and rejoiced in its people. The impressions of Provence garnered now were ineffaceable to the last. She rejoiced in the landscape, the history, the architecture, the food, the wine; she stayed at the hotel in the ancient Papal city of Avignon, which Henry James had affectionately praised in his travel writings. Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung were the only English-speaking people in the town; there seemed to be no other tourists and Willa Cather enjoyed saturating herself with the life and aspect of the place. Here on the bank of the Rhône the young woman from the Divide had found something that touched her more deeply than the metropolitan density of London or the luminous quality of Paris; a life rooted in the centuries—what she later had in mind when she spoke of the things that lie deep behind French history and French art. That art extended to the sense of well-being that comes from sun and light and artfully cooked food; it is reflected in Bishop Latour's remark when he tastes the soup cooked by Father Vaillant: “… a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”

A rapid trip to Nice and Monte Carlo was followed by a return to the heart of Provence, to Arles, where Willa Cather again could discover the Roman past:

It is with something like a sigh of relief that one quits the oppressive splendor of Monte Carlo to retrace one's steps back into Daudet's country. I am sure I do not know why the beauty of Monte Carlo should not satisfy more than it does. … I had a continual restless feeling that there was nothing at all real about Monte Carlo; that the sea was too blue to be wet, the casino too white to be anything but pasteboard, and that from their very greenness the palms must be cotton … nothing at all produced or manufactured there and no life at all that takes hold upon the soil or grapples with the old conditions set for a people.

In Arles she found no pasteboard. The Roman ruins had withstood the centuries; the Roman colonists had “a sort of Chicago-like vehemence in adorning their city and making it ostentatiously rich,” and the great eagle with a garland in its beak mounted on a section of cornice, “the one bird more terrible in history than all the rest of the brute creatures put together,” had the inscription above him: “Rome Eternal”—amid ruins! Willa Cather wondered, as she described this, whether the Latin peoples, inheritors of the Romans, “must wither before the cold wind from the north, as their mothers did long ago.” It was a pity. “A life so picturesque, an art so rich and so divine, an intelligence so keen and flexible—and yet one knows that this people face toward the setting, not the rising sun.” It was difficult for Willa Cather to accept anything that did not endure.


The visit to A. E. Housman during the English phase of the European journey deserves to be chronicled apart since Ford Madox Ford made the episode the occasion for one of his finely spun imaginative anecdotes of his late years and because it reflected some of the passion and intensity Willa Cather brought to poetry and to literary achievement during this period of her life. She had discovered Housman's poetry long before he became a celebrated figure. As early as 1900 she had written in her Nebraska column: “I wonder who and what this man Housman may be.” She found his touch “as genuine as Heine's” and its quality “as unmistakable as it is rare.” In writing from Ludlow to the State Journal she observed that anyone “who has ever read Mr. Housman's verse at all must certainly wish to live awhile among the hillside fields, the brooklands and villages which moved a modern singer to lyric expression of a simplicity, spontaneity and grace the like of which we have scarcely heard in the last hundred years.” She related that she went to Shrewsbury “chiefly to get some information about Housman—and saw the old files of the little country paper where many of his lyrics first appeared as free contributions and signed A Shropshire Lad. There was one copy of his book in the public library, but no one knew anything in particular about him.” The Western countryside was full of reminders of the poems; her original enthusiasm for them was natural enough in one for whom Stevenson's verse had so great an appeal. The Housman poems and the Housman countryside, reacting upon each other, produced an excitement that was different from any she had experienced in the work of other living poets. She determined to see the writer.

Ford Madox Ford in his Return to Yesterday, with that fondness for spinning stories which H. G. Wells characterized as “a copious carelessness of reminiscence,” turned the story of Willa Cather's visit into a veritable saga. She and Isabelle McClung are here described not merely as curious young American women seeking out their favorite poet, but veritable emissaries sent abroad by the “Pittsburgh Shropshire Lad Club” to present a solid gold laurel wreath to Housman; Ford tells in detail of their wandering across England and their calls at innumerable parsonages in search of the writer of the lyrics. To make Ford's long story short, they ultimately discovered Housman, laid the wreath on his grand piano, and departed after he had mistaken them for American cousins.

As with all of Ford's elaborate reminiscences, there was only a germ of truth in the story and even that was not accurately recounted. What actually happened was that Willa Cather began to inquire, when she reached London, where Housman lived (he was then teaching Latin at University College). One afternoon, accompanied by both Isabelle McClung and Dorothy Canfield, she made the trip to his lodgings in Highgate. On the bus she was still wondering what he would be like. “We may find he's a blacksmith, working at his trade, or perhaps a retired officer living on half pay.” This was the image his poetry had created in Willa Cather's mind. Dorothy Canfield Fisher remembers:

I think from what he turned out to be in personality that nothing would have induced him to let in three young American women, entire strangers to him, on an incense-burning trip. He came racing down the stairs full of cordiality, holding out both hands, thinking that we were three Canadian cousins whom he was expecting and whom he had never seen. It was a shock to him to find who we were, and I think if he could have managed it without actually pushing us out of the house he would have been very glad to get rid of us with no delay.

What followed was a little comedy of manners, a veritable scene out of Molière. The man envisaged by Willa Cather as a robust retired officer or a brawny blacksmith who could write immortal lyrics appeared to be more prosaic than the Browning of the London drawing-rooms. He had for the young women a reticent presence, perhaps an awkward charm, but a minimum of conversation. Shabbily dressed, as withdrawn as only Englishmen can on occasion be, he lamely, in a flat accent of conventional acceptance of an unexpected social situation, asked his visitors upstairs.

While Dorothy Canfield, who had not had a sight of Shropshire and to whom Willa Cather had not imparted the full extent of her enthusiasm, was looking at their reluctant host, the academically shabby furnishings (totally unendowed with the grand piano Ford Madox Ford later moved into the rooms), and the commonplace books on the shelves, Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung tried to convey to him what the poems had meant to them. This was not a kind of conversation that Housman found easy or even agreeable. Soon an awkward silence enveloped the group. Willa Cather in her newspaper days had met celebrities and knew how to cope with them. But how cope with this shy and seemingly aloof English professor who was not then a celebrity and seemed to be the very opposite of all his poetry suggested? As the silence grew thicker, Dorothy Canfield mentioned her work at the British Museum. Housman was interested; French drama, the study of dubious and corrupt texts, the relation between French and Latin poetry, the kinds of Latin poetry and the difficulties they offered to the research student—on topics like these Housman could be expansive and was. It was the opportunity he needed to depersonalize the situation, to lower a protective curtain between himself and his admiring guests. Indeed, nothing could persuade him to abandon the discussion, which became a dialogue between Dorothy Canfield and the poet. There was no more said about his lyrics or about himself. When the three left, Dorothy Canfield was embarrassed at having monopolized the conversation. Magnanimously Willa Cather said: “But Dorothy, you saved the day.” And then on the bus-top as they rode back to the city she suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobs. They were tears of rage and of exasperation—and of disillusionment. Years later she told the anecdote with amusement and spoke of it as “my very pleasant visit with Housman,” told it, indeed, once too often, to Ford one day at McClure's. To Carl J. Weber, of Colby College, who questioned her about the Ford version, she said that it had all happened “many years ago when I was very young and foolish and thought that if one admired a writer very much one had a perfect right to ring his doorbell. On the occasion of that uninvited call—certainly abrupt enough—Housman was not in the least rude, but very courteous and very kind. I judged he was not accustomed to such intrusions, but he certainly made every effort to make one feel at ease.” And she added: “Some day I intend to write a careful and accurate account of that visit for persons who are particularly interested.” Unfortunately the account was never written. Yet it had undeniably been an emotional experience. The poet Willa Cather imagined in the work seemed, perhaps, difficult to reconcile with the poet she met that day in the flesh. …


Publication of April Twilights won Willa Cather a measure of recognition and a marked degree of respect from her fellow teachers and pupils. Ethel Jones Litchfield, a musician and a friend of Willa Cather's for almost half a century, remembers her at this time, when she first met her, as busy with her school work, her writing, her friends, and caught up in the web of calculated social life provided by Isabelle McClung. Yet she found time always for music and the theater and in particular liked to listen until all hours of the night to chamber-music rehearsals, in which Mrs. Litchfield, an accomplished pianist, participated with Pittsburgh's leading musicians as well as guest artists. One such guest, at a later date, was Jan Hambourg, the violinist, who was to marry Isabelle McClung and to whom Willa Cather dedicated two of her later novels. Jan Hambourg was a cultivated musician of a mixed Russian-Jewish-English background, a sensitive performer, an avid reader, particularly fond of the French novelists and a man of considerable general culture. He lived in Canada, in Toronto, where he and his brother Boris, the cellist, and their father taught music. The time was to come when Hambourg would sit for a not wholly flattering portrait as Louie Marsellus in The Professor's House.

Willa Cather's literary output during the three years that followed the European journey was modest. She wrote slowly and with great care and had little difficulty in placing her work in the larger magazines. She appeared in Lippincott's, the New England Magazine, Scribner's, Everybody's, and McClure's, and the publication of “Paul's Case” in the last in 1905 gave her a foretaste of the interest her work would arouse increasingly with an ever-growing public. In retrospect it seems fitting that she climaxed her stay in Pittsburgh by producing her first volume of short stories; when she was assembling it she did not know that it would mark the end of a decade, and indeed of a distinct period of her life; but with the appearance of The Troll Garden in 1905, published by McClure, Phillips & Company, Willa Cather closed a door upon her formative years and by the same token opened another upon her future.

Her first book in prose contained two groups of stories. Three of the stories, the first, the third, and the fifth, present artists in relation with persons of great wealth. Alternating with these sophisticated tales is another series, comprising the second, fourth, and sixth stories, in which an artist or a person of artistic temperament from the prairies returns to them in defeat. The collection closes with “Paul's Case,” the story of a sensitive Pittsburgh youth, for which there is a subtitle: “A Study in Temperament.” The book, dedicated to Isabelle McClung, carries two epigraphs. The first, facing the title page, is a quatrain from Christina Rossetti's “Goblin Market”:

We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?

The second epigraph, on the title page, is taken from Charles Kingsley:

A fairy palace, with a fairy garden … inside the trolls dwell … working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange.

When Willa Cather brought out her second collection of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, fifteen years later, she discarded the sophisticated stories of the artists living amid wealth and the troll epigraph, but retained the tales of artistic defeat in the West and the epigraph from the “Goblin Market,” thus ratifying the inescapable conclusion that The Troll Garden consists of two interwoven themes, with “Paul's Case” as a sort of coda.

Willa Cather was under the spell of Henry James at this time and quite possibly was struck by the manner in which he always arranged his short-story collections thematically. If one were to seek a parallel to The Troll Garden in James, it is to be found in his volume The Two Magics, published while Willa Cather was in Pittsburgh, in which he juxtaposed a tale of black magic (“The Turn of the Screw”) with what might be considered a tale of white magic (“Covering End”)—the one baleful, filled with suggestions of nightmare and evil, the other bright, sunny, cheerful, fairy-tale-like in substance and denouement. So Willa Cather's two strands in The Troll Garden are the baleful and the sunny, the evil-working goblins and the industrious trolls. Her stories of artists creating “things rare and strange” amid the wealthy belong to the trolls and to that “fairy garden” which was also the “garden fair … On uplands” to which Isabelle McClung had invited Willa Cather. The fairy palace and the fairy garden are the preserves of art; and the trolls are artists or persons with artistic temperament. In each of the stories the trolls come into relation, and usually into conflict, with those who live outside the preserves of art or trespass upon them. The tales of the defeated artists from the prairies are tales filled with an undercurrent of malaise and a sense of nightmare: those who venture into the goblin market, that great and exciting yet treacherous world beyond the prairies, risk eating of the poisoned fruit. The goblins will “get them”—if they don't look out! The sensuous fruits of life and of luxury can be tainted with evil. Success somehow exacts an ominous price. There is always the danger of having to retrace one's steps, back, back into the open stretches. This is the equivalent of death: the stony death that lies in the deceptive stare of the Bright Medusa. The attitude toward the aspect of the prairies, toward the people who live on them and form the ideas that prevail there, is still hard.


The first of the three tales of the “troll” series, “Flavia and Her Artists,” is the story of the wife of a manufacturer of threshing machines. Lacking any æsthetic responses, and unaware of her lack, she collects artists and intellectuals so that from the phrases she forces from them she can make an appearance of cleverness before the rest of the world. An ironic story might have been written about Flavia's parasitic relation with her artists; and that story is in fact here, but entangled with much else. It is entangled, for instance, with the presentation of her artists—some of them persons of the first rank in performance—as sorry, stunted human beings. The crux of the story comes when a French novelist, just after he leaves the house-party, gives an interview in which Flavia's type is ridiculed; everyone who remains, except Flavia, sees the report of the interview; and her loyal husband, believing that what Monsieur Roux has said the rest of the artists think, rebukes them at his own table. “As for M. Roux,” Arthur Hamilton says, “his very profession places him in that class of men whom society has never been able to accept unconditionally because it has never been able to assume that they have any ordered notion of taste. He and his ilk remain, with the mountebanks and snake charmers, people indispensable to our civilization, but wholly unreclaimed by it; people whom we receive, but whose invitations we do not accept.” An ironic story might have been written also about the chasm between the artist's devotion to beauty and what is sordid and trivial in the rest of his life; there are fragments of that story here, in the crude manners of one, the simper of another, the “malicious vulgarities” of a third; but only fragments, for just where this story required definition and elaboration, in the rendering of Roux, it evaporates. There does not seem to be anything wrong with Roux except that he is candid where the laws of hospitality require silence or a lie. The center shifts from Flavia to her artists and then to her husband, not with development, but only with vacillation.

The second in the series, “The Garden Lodge,” is essentially a record of an inner conflict. Caroline Noble questions whether the practical stodgy life she lives in reaction against the fecklessness of her musician father and painter brother is not a negation of life. In the rendering of Caroline's bitter, anxious mood one can feel not only Willa Cather's personal sense of the value for one's life of devotion to art, but no less, and for the first time in her writing, a sense that sustained labor, when forced upon one by ambition and determination and directed toward a nonartistic goal, threatens the very core of personality. This was an opinion that Sarah Orne Jewett was soon to preach to her; her own experience was already leading her to feel its force.

The third and most Jamesian of the tales, “The Marriage of Phaedra,” tells of an artist's visit to the studio of a fellow artist after his death and his discovering there an unfinished masterpiece. He decides after talking with the late Hugh Treffinger's servant, whose name is James, to write a biography of the artist. This leads to a meeting with Treffinger's widow. As later, in “Coming, Aphrodite!” he discovers the woman understood neither the artistic aims nor the temperament of her husband. In the end she sells the great unfinished picture to a dealer in a distant land. The story is filled with Jamesian echoes, and notably of those of his tales of artists and writers which appeared during the 1890's. As in “Flavia,” the author writes from a recent superficial absorption of the material. The process Stephen Crane described, the “filtering through the blood,” had not occurred, had not begun to occur.

From the group, the work of an author who had been thinking about the arts more than about anything else for fifteen years, it is unexpectedly difficult to derive any theory, any general idea. Artists do not often appear practicing their art, or theorizing about it, and never do they attempt either theory or practice at length; they appear in their relations with others, usually either with nonartistic persons or with persons who are merely appreciative. One may safely derive the idea that artists are crucially unlike other beings; Roux's discourtesy is an outcome of his radical honesty, his need to tell the truth whatever may fall; Treffinger loved his wife, but he sacrificed her as he sacrificed everything else that threatened his art; the emphasis on the unlikeness of the artist runs through all the stories. The unlikeness often brings havoc into the lives of those who surround the artist. The emphasis on the enriching force of an artist's personality also runs through the stories, and Willa Cather has made no attempt to weigh the havoc and the enrichment in the balance: she is content to suggest that both are real, both weighty.

The most promising source for a general idea about art is “The Marriage of Phaedra,” for here one artist is seeking to unravel the artistic method as well as the personality of another. The narrator discovers that Treffinger was guided toward his method and the range of his subjects by an older painter from whom he learned as much as an artist of genius can learn from anyone; in order to paint his masterpiece he needed to add to what he had learned the fruit of painful intimate experience. The clue to Treffinger's greatness as an artist is in the fusion of experience with instruction. Simple as this formula may be, it is not superficial. It applies generally to Willa Cather's writing—to the few promising pieces she had done before “The Marriage of Phaedra” and to the works she was to do.

The stories in which art and the prairies are brought together were of quite another sort, as Willa Cather herself recognized when she reincorporated them into Youth and the Bright Medusa. These stories arise from old memories, they have the richness that long preoccupation can give. They have been filtered through the blood. In “A Wagner Matinée” the deep source is in Willa Cather's brooding over the life of an aunt for whom the years on a farm in Webster County were a form of slow suffocation to which she was almost inhumanly resigned; in “The Sculptor's Funeral” the source is in her sense of her own differentness, vulnerability, and value during her years in Red Cloud. The incidents scarcely matter, and there is no contrivance in the arrangement of them: the stories take their life and also their shape from the force and fineness of the feelings poured into them. The quality that animated those passages in “The Garden Lodge” where the theme is the woman's feelings about the crucial and irremediable mistake in her management of her life sweeps through “A Wagner Matinée” and “The Sculptor's Funeral.” For “A Death in the Desert”—the title derived from Browning—one cannot say the same. It is like the other two stories about art and the prairies in the rendering of the foreground; but in the background is the world of “Flavia and Her Artists,” evoked as the dying singer and the brother of the great composer she has loved talk away her last afternoons in the Colorado summer, with the same chasm between the artist's devotion to beauty and what is ugly and small in his personal life. The fall in force from the scenes in the foreground to those in the background is always palpable. Only in the rendering of the Western elements is there an effect of moving authenticity or of depth.

In a very direct manner these tales are saying what Thomas Wolfe expressed more crudely as “you can't go home again.” An image of “home” creates the tense and emotional climax of “A Wagner Matinée.” As the music in Boston dies away and the reality of Nebraska replaces it, the aunt sobs: “‘I don't want to go … I don't want to go!’ … For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.”2 In “A Death in the Desert” Katharine Gaylord's fate is summed up by her brother: “… She got to Chicago, and then to New York, and then to Europe, and got a taste for it all; and now she's dying here like a rat in a hole, out of her own world, and she can't fall back into ours.” The burden of “The Sculptor's Funeral” is that even in death the artist cannot escape the harshness and hostility of his home surroundings where he is fated to be remembered as “queer” because he never conformed, and because he fled to unfamiliar worlds undreamed of by his family and friends. It is the town lawyer who pronounces the strange eulogy over the sculptor's coffin: “There was only one boy ever raised in this border land between ruffianism and civilization who didn't come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels.” One couldn't go home even in death. Or, as Lucy Gayheart was to discover, to go home was to die.

Although different in setting and material, “Paul's Case” is of a piece with these tales. It has been the most widely read of Willa Cather's short stories; for many years it was the only one she would allow to be reprinted in anthologies or textbooks. A surprising number of the aspects in her experience of Pittsburgh are gathered into “Paul's Case.” Paul is a student at the Pittsburgh high school; and in the early scenes the life of the school is given in classroom vignettes and in one long disciplinary incident in which the boy is under attack from principal and staff. The neighborhood where Paul lives has the petty-bourgeois dreariness that Willa Cather had resented during her years of boarding-house living: the ugly dirty plumbing, the kitchen odors, the unbuttoned laziness of Sunday afternoons, the everlasting sameness from house to house and street to street. Into this stagnant world there seeps one romantic element, the legends of “the cash-boys who had become famous.” On every stoop there were tales of the prodigies of effort by a Carnegie or a Frick, and of their costly pleasures, their Mediterranean cruises, their Venetian palaces. The practical deposit of these legends was not inspiriting to a boy like Paul: the whole duty of a boy was to qualify by hard work, miserly economy, respectable living, and the shunning of all distractions. One might almost as well have lived in the small Western town of “The Sculptor's Funeral,” in Red Cloud. From the routines of home and school Paul's regular escape is to the symphonies and pictures in Carnegie Hall; and for him the great “portal of romance” is, as it was for Willa Cather, the stage entrance to the downtown theater where a stock company plays. The doors to the Schenley Hotel, where she had gone to interview so many visitors when she wrote for the Leader, make another such portal: Paul is drawn to them not only because they are the approach to luxury but because the singers and actors with whom he identifies himself are always passing through them. Like Willa Cather and so many others who lived in Pittsburgh, he felt the pull of New York, the wish to exchange Carnegie Hall for the Metropolitan Opera, the Schenley for the Waldorf, to feel himself in the center of “the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations.”

The first half of the story describes Paul amid his circumstances in Pittsburgh, the second his yielding to the pull of New York, stealing a thousand dollars from his employers, buying everything one should have to mingle with the millionaires, and after his few days at the Waldorf carrying out the last phase of his plan by taking his life. In the end Paul too can't go home again; he has burned his bridges and has no wish to rebuild them. The Pittsburgh scenes are vivid beyond anything in the series of sophisticated stories, with sharp strokes from experience both of outer objects and of personal states, never multiplied in excess of what the effects demand. New York is drawn in a contrasting manner, for which there is not a parallel in any of the other stories, as a dream city, snow-covered, with a beautiful thick impressionistic haziness that suits the setting for the dreamlike climax of Paul's life.


The two strands of The Troll Garden belong to one experience. At the end of her decade in Pittsburgh Willa Cather stood at a crossroad: there was disillusionment in the garden and danger in the marketplace. The artist from the cornfields that reached to daybreak and the corrals that reached to sunset was still searching for a path upon which to set her feet. In the houses of the rich the trolls proved to be less magical and less creative than they seemed; in the goblin world the roots of success were tainted with the poison of evil and the threat of destruction. And there was that other world to which one might have to return like Katharine Gaylord, dying, or Harvey Merrick, dead, or even young Paul, frustrated and a suicide, a boy who “got under the wheels,” the world of the Philistine of which Thea Kronborg discovered that “nothing that she would ever do … would seem important to them, and nothing they would ever do would seem important to her.” The inner texture of these stories seems to reflect strong ambiguities of feeling: a continuing resentment of the West, a continuing fear of attaining success in the world into which Willa Cather had escaped and in which, temporarily, she had found a garden sanctuary. How to make peace with these two haunting worlds—this was the problem to which Willa Cather was to address herself, and the very book that stated the problem was instrumental in offering a solution.

S. S. McClure, publisher of the magazine that bore his name, came to Pittsburgh to meet the author of The Troll Garden. The stories had produced a marked impression on him. He dined at Judge McClung's and talked brilliantly all evening. Then he had a talk with Willa Cather. The upshot of it was that at the end of the school year she resigned from Allegheny High and moved to New York to enter upon a new career that mingled the experience of her journalistic days with her literary talents and ambitions. She became a member of the staff of McClure's Magazine. There had been the sudden, unexpected leap from Red Cloud to Pittsburgh ten years earlier; and now, as she neared her middle thirties, Willa Cather made the second leap—from an obscure classroom to a post on an important national magazine. S. S. McClure, with the magic of his talk and his capacity for eloquently pyramiding grandiose plans, had swept Willa Cather into the very path for which all the years of striving in the West and the bright hard years of Pittsburgh had prepared her. The inexperienced young girl who, tense and eager, had stepped from the prairies into the smoky Eastern city a decade before was now a mature woman of thirty-two; and though she could not have known it at this singularly triumphant moment, she was entering the final and most exacting phase of her long literary apprenticeship.


  1. Willa Cather retained the dedication but eliminated these lines in the collected edition of her works.

  2. This passage is quoted from the first edition. It underwent slight verbal alteration in the collected edition.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5945

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 Rosicky” and “The Best Years” portray the complexity of a seasoned relationship between human beings and the land, and involve an intensification of concern for memories of early days.

One seems justified in saying that, in the course of her literary commitment to the land, what Willa Cather does is to adjust her emotional attitude to that reality. This adjustment process takes the form of her progressive deemphasis of a sociological approach to the people of the land, and a growing emphasis on characters as persons in their own right. Concomitantly it involves her presentation of the land as something worthwhile in itself and as a standard of worth.

Despite the somewhat justified belief that Willa Cather in her stories from 1892 through 1912 concentrated her efforts almost exclusively on dramatizing the shortcomings of the land and especially of its inhabitants, analysis of these stories reveals the presence—at least in germ—of many of what I shall term cardinal principles of her “land-philosophy.” Especially evident are such ideas as: First, the land as symbolizing a sense of reality and, second, the land as representing a yearning for the unknown, the ultimate, the transcendent. These basic ideas, along with a variety of natural details, or “land-details,” constitute for her an effective and pervasive means for pointing up—even in these early stories—matters of theme, characterization and symbolism.

Of the forty-four stories Willa Cather is known to have written during the period 1892-1912, some eleven stories have Nebraska “land” settings, in the wide use of that term; two are set in Kansas, and one in Wyoming. From these fourteen stories I have selected the seven stories which I judge to be the most directly concerned with the land and which supply a sufficient and significant basis for demonstrating Miss Cather's attitudes toward the land during this first period of her literary career. The stories are as follows: “Lou, the Prophet,” 1892; “The Clemency of the Court,” 1893; “On the Divide,” 1896; “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” 1900; “A Wagner Matinee,” 1904; “The Enchanted Bluff,” 1909; “The Bohemian Girl,” 1912 (Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction 1892-1912, intro. Mildred R. Bennett, Lincoln, 1965; the remaining seven “land” stories are: “Peter,” 1892; “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” 1896; “The Dance at Chevalier's,” 1900; “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional,” 1901; “The Treasure of Far Island,” 1902; “A Death in the Desert,” 1903; “The Sculptor's Funeral,” 1905).

These stories reveal that, during this twenty-year period, Willa Cather's feelings and reactions regarding the land are indeed ambivalent. Denigration and rejection appear in this fiction; so also do appreciation and acceptance. This is true within individual stories as well as within the stories taken as a group. Several characters appear as unimaginative drudges for whom the land exists as the unpleasant scene of their labors; others show themselves to be somewhat sensitive individuals whom life on the land embitters and perhaps crushes. On the other hand some characters find the land to be a liberating force which advances their unique personalities; further, some individuals find in the land setting a certain beauty and delight that sharpens their desire for transcendent beauty and delight. The fact is that these varied reactions depend much more on the particular individuals and classes of society than on the land itself. And this fact will become ever clearer as this study proceeds.

Willa Cather portrays the title character in “Lou, the Prophet” as “a rather simple fellow” with “a touch of romance in him.” Many other emigrants from Denmark to Nebraska spend little time thinking where they are and where they came from. Depicted by Miss Cather as losing their love for their fatherland quickly and having little sentiment about them, “The men only know that in this new land their plow runs across the field tearing up the fresh, warm earth, with never a stone to stay its course” (535). But unlike these other—usually middle-aged—immigrants, young Lou cannot remain indifferent to what soil it is which gives him his bread. In his case, the Nebraska land actually brings on a mental derangement for which he has the predisposition.

Jilted by his fiancée because of the loss of his cattle, and grieving over the loss of his affectionate mother, Lou breaks under perhaps “the greatest calamity of all … the threatened loss of his corn crop” (536). In the course of a disturbed dream about the lack of rain, “he felt something give way in his poor, weak head” (536). He then translates the immediate situation—his personal losses and the drought which threatens to destroy the crops—into teleological and apocalyptic terms:

Nature did not comfort him any, he knew nothing about nature, he had never seen her; he had only stared into a black plow furrow all his life. Before, he had only seen in the wide, green lands and the open blue the possibilities of earning his bread; now, he only saw in them a great world ready for the judgment, a funeral pyre ready for the torch.


Convincing several little Danish boys that the drought results from the sins of the world, Lou leads them in prayer for a thirsty land.

O Father, we are so thirsty, all the world is thirsty; the creeks are all dried up, and the river is so low that the fishes die and rot in it; the corn is almost gone; the hay is light; and even the little flowers are no more beautiful … if the end is indeed come, be merciful to thy great, wicked world.


Only a few days later, Lou sees a “great light” over the river bluffs and runs wildly to tell sinners of the world's imminent destruction.

In Lou's mysterious demise, the little Dane boys who constitute this “prophet's” followers and believers and who are caught up emotionally in his fundamentalist religion, do indeed purport to see the supernatural at work. But the majority of the people of the area—ordinary, hard-working people—are satisfied with the realistic conjecture that Lou drowned and disappeared into quicksand.

The second of the seven early stories, in contrast to the first, emphasizes the land's relationship to liberation and fulfillment more than to confinement and frustration. This story, “The Clemency of the Court,” ranks as perhaps Willa Cather's strongest statement of the love of the land—as land—before O Pioneers! For Serge Pvolitchsky, the plains atmosphere, which implies broad vistas and freedom, figures importantly in his often inarticulate desires for human fulfillment and happiness. Imprisoned for instinctively taking the life of the man who killed his beloved dog, Serge is persecuted for his clumsiness in hooping barrels. Miss Cather portrays him analyzing his situation:

He thought he could work in the broom room if they would only let him. He had handled straw all his life, and it would seem good to work at the broom corn that had the scent of outdoors about it. … He could not work in the house, he had never been indoors a whole day in his life until he came here.


Serge responds to the plains and is fascinated by them because they correspond to his feeling of loneliness and symbolize a yearning for the transcendent which he feels but cannot express in words. Denied the actual view of the land while imprisoned, Serge longs to see the fields—to satisfy a human need for delight, beauty and pleasing surroundings.

… he lay tossing on his iron bunk, wondering how the fields were looking. His greatest deprivation was that he could not see the fields. The love of the plains was strong in him. It had always been so, ever since he was a little fellow, when the brown grass was up to his shoulders and the straw stacks were the golden mountains of fairyland. Men from the cities never understand this love, but the men from the plain country know what I mean. When he had tired himself out with longing, he turned over and fell asleep.


But eventually reaching the limits of his endurance, Serge, in a half stupor, thinks

… how lovely the plains would look in the morning when the sun was up; how the sunflowers would shake themselves in the wind, how the corn leaves would shine and how the cobwebs would sparkle all over the grass and the air would be clear and blue, the birds would begin to sing, the colts would run and jump in the pasture and the black bull would begin to bellow for his corn.


This “morning” vision of the plains contrasts with Serge's former “sunset” views of the same plains. The yearning for the transcendent which accompanied the sunset reminders of death seems to be promised fulfillment both in this pre-death morning scene and in the foetal position Serge's body assumes before his ambivalent death-rebirth.

Noteworthy when considering Serge's feeling for the land is the fact that he has lived all his life in Nebraska. On the other hand, Miss Cather describes the Norwegians of the third story of this study, i. e., “On the Divide,” as “bring[ing] with them to the Divide only the dregs of the lives they have squandered in other lands and among other peoples” (496). One of their number, the crude giant Canute Canuteson, chooses alcohol in preference to suicide or religion to counteract the emptiness of his life in Nebraska. Living on “Rattlesnake Creek,” decorating his shack with snake skins, and carving even his kindling wood with innumerable demon serpents and skulls, Canute “was a man who knew no joy, a man who toiled in silence and bitterness. The skull and the serpent were always before him, the symbols of eternal futileness and of eternal hate” (496). He sees little but ugliness in the plain on which his shanty is located.

North, east, south, stretched the level Nebraska plain of long rust-red grass that undulated constantly in the wind. To the west the ground was broken and rough, and a narrow strip of timber wound along the turbid, muddy little stream that had scarcely ambition enough to crawl over its black bottom. If it had not been for the few stunted cottonwoods and elms that grew along its banks, Canute would have shot himself years ago.


But the stunted cottonwoods and elms are there; and Canute, despite his shaggy hair, dirty beard and excessive drinking, has sufficient sensitivity to perceive these trees as well as to note the distinctive qualities of the prairie at different seasons and under various conditions.

He knew by heart every individual clump of bunch grass in the miles of red shaggy prairie that stretched before his cabin. He knew it in all the deceitful loveliness of its early summer, in all the bitter barrenness of its autumn. He had seen it smitten by all the plagues of Egypt. He had seen it parched by drought, and sogged by rain, beaten by hail, and swept by fire, and in the grasshopper years he had seen it eaten as bare and clean as bones that the vultures have left. After the great fires he had seen it stretch for miles and miles, black and smoking as the floor of hell.


Perhaps when Canute's latest sensitivity is kept in mind—sensitivity exemplified both in his responses to the prairie and in his crude carvings wherein he tries to objectify his feelings—his real love for Lena, at the close of the story, becomes as credible as does his earlier abduction of her. For an inarticulate Canute can force an issue circumstantially where he cannot express his feelings in words.

When Canute undertakes to bring beauty and love into his life in the person of Lena, his emerging humanity is represented by Willa Cather in his stance as an heroic Norseman who draws determination and purpose from the very land that has embittered him. Perhaps a strong earth symbol, but a real man as well, Canute goes “striding across the level fields at a pace at which man never went before, drawing the stinging north winds into his lungs in great gulps” (501). This abduction of Lena by Canute, Willa Cather describes as the act of a soul which, “weary of conventions that are not of it, … with a single stroke shatters the civilized ties with which it is unable to cope, and [with a] strong arm reaches out and takes by force what it cannot win by cunning” (501). Not only does Canute want to bring Lena to his shanty, he wants her to accept him. But unable to articulate these desires, just as he was unable to court her by “cunning,” he instinctively assumes his final posture in the story, i. e., “stretched in the snow at her feet, his face in his hands, sobbing on the door step” (504).

If the seemingly impossible love in “On the Divide” eventually becomes possible, that of “Eric Hermannson's Soul” actually does not. The latter story illustrates the fact that confined existences of one sort or another can be opened up to a realization of life's real possibilities as well as its limits. But some of the possibilities in this story remain only that—possibilities.

Eric Hermannson, immigrating to America at eighteen, loved dancing, his fiddle and questionable girls to such an extent that the Free-Gospel preacher thought him “the wildest lad on all the Divide” (360). At that time his violin “stood, to him, for all the manifestations of art; it was his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul” (361). But “toil and isolation had sobered him, and he grew more and more like the clods among which he labored” (369). Through Margaret Elliot's good offices, however, the seeds of discrimination and beauty and the warmth of understanding and appreciation find the fertile soil of Eric's nature that Free Gospellism had temporarily hardened into insensitivity.

For her part, Margaret, as a visitor from the East, finds that the Nebraska plains correspond to her yearning for the unknown, to her desire to open out to the limits of experience. She wants “to taste the unknown which allures and terrifies, to run … [her] whole soul's length out to the wind—just once” (363). The metaphorical “wind” finds its actual counterpart in the gusts of hot wind which evoke Wyllis Elliot's observation: “This wind is the real thing. … It's the keynote of this country” (364). Complete openness and immersion in the real—but “just once”—this Miss Cather proposes as Margaret's goal in her Nebraska experience. Typical of this aspiration is Margaret's request to run the horses when she and Eric ride through the French settlement “where the prairie is as level as the surface of a lake” (369). It is significant that the prairie here is “level” rather than “flat”; for “level” lacks the undesirable connotations of “flat.”

More than once Margaret comments on the condemnation of triviality and the challenge to greatness of spirit which she finds inherent in this wide, windy world that is so new to her experience. At one point Willa Cather has her observe:

I think if one lived here long enough one would quite forget how to be trivial, and would read only the great books that we never get time to read in the world, and would remember only the great music, and the things that are really worth while would stand out clearly against that horizon over there.


When contrasting Eric Hermannson in his reaffirmation of life and freedom with her supposedly cultured but actually insipid fiancé, Margaret sees no possibility of finding “one thing in it all [her fiancé's way of life] that mattered greatly” (374). But Miss Cather suggests strongly that Margaret will find “one great moment” with Eric.

In the scene atop a windmill with Eric on her final night in Nebraska, Margaret experiences both a yearning for greatness and expansiveness in love and a hope that this hunger may ultimately be appeased. Her yearning and her hope are reinforced by the setting.

Margaret wondered if she would not hunger for that scene all her life, through all the routine of the days to come. Above them stretched the great Western sky, serenely blue, even in the night, with its big, burning stars, never so cold and dead and far away as in denser atmospheres. The moon would not be up for twenty minutes yet, and all about the horizon, that wide horizon, which seemed to reach around the world, lingered a pale, white light, as of a universal dawn.


In their elevated position, Eric reminds Margaret of the statute of the Greek Doryphorus in the Louvre “who stands in his perfect, reposeful strength” (376). Miss Cather portrays Margaret's idealization of Eric's classic naturalness—a characteristic in keeping with her land surroundings—as a parallel to Eric's idealization of Margaret's “civilized” happiness. Margaret reflects that

She belonged to an ultra-refined civilization which tries to cheat nature with elegant sophistries. Cheat nature? Bah! One generation may do it, perhaps two, but the third—Can we ever rise above nature or sink below her? … Does she not always cry in brutal triumph: “I am here still, at the bottom of things, warming the roots of life; you cannot starve me nor tame me nor thwart me: I made the world, I rule it, and I am its destiny.”


The Eric whom Margaret has helped to “renew his youth,” seems to her on this final night to be “Siegfried indeed. His hair was yellow as the heavy wheat in the ripe of summer, and his eyes flashed like the blue water between the ice packs in the North Seas” (375). Willa Cather allows his presence to awaken in Margaret what D. H. Lawrence would probably call “blood consciousness.” Margaret judges this experience to be “wealth before undiscovered, this music set free. … For the first time in her life her heart held something stronger than herself, was not this worth while?” (375).

In contrast to Margaret's whole summertime experience of Nebraska and of Eric—of forces latent with life and art—comes her memory of “the drooping shoulders, high white forehead and tight, cynical mouth of the man she was to marry in December” (375). Significantly, Miss Cather lets this absent man remain nameless throughout the story.

Yet what is involved here, as Willa Cather works out the story, is something more than a “natural” versus “artificial” antimony. “Love's self,” Margaret believes, “comes to one only in dreams or in impossible places like this, unattainable always … in a moment it would die” (378). In Eric's kiss, and in the embrace to which she yields herself without reserve, Margaret sees his total love for her. When she draws her face away from his, her face reflects a degree of fear such as he, with a Free Gospeller's vision of hell before him, apparently, does not experience.

Whatever Miss Cather's real intentions with regard to Margaret and Eric (in “The Dance at Chevalier's,” written the same year, 1900, a character speaks of being “seized and mastered and borne away by that floodtide of tenderness which we can know but once in our lives, and then seek, hunger for all the rest of our sunless days,” 554), and whatever her success or failure in dramatizing those intentions in the land setting she employs, a more positive picture of Eric emerges than of Margaret. She appears as a restless person who experiences a moment of truth which she is incapable of sustaining, although one feels that Eric can.

Probably the closest thing to an unrelieved picture of ugliness and toil that crush and embitter in Willa Cather's early land fiction appears in “A Wagner Matinee.” In this story the dessicated aesthetic roots of a middle-aged drudge—a Nebraska farmer's wife—revive amid pain and tears when she attends a Wagner matinee with her nephew in her native Boston. The point of view is that of the nephew, Clark, who lived with his Aunt Georgiana for a few years in Nebraska before coming to Boston. In addition to recalling the music, the Latin and the Shakespeare his aunt had taught him, he remembers “ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change” (239).

This young man presents a lengthy pejorative description of the setting which is largely responsible, he feels, for the “waste and wear” his Aunt Georgiana has undergone and which he has escaped.

I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.


Underscoring Miss Cather's intent in the passage just quoted are the images of siege and war, i. e., “black and grim as a wooden fortress” and “conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.” In the description of the house there is the repetition of the adjective “naked,” suggestive of complete human destitution. Such words as “pitted” and “gullied” accentuate the roughness as well as the lack of beauty apparent from this kitchen-door perspective. Ash trees, usually notable for their graceful movement, become in this setting “dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry.”

Perhaps the most significant feature of Aunt Georgiana's world, in view of Willa Cather's later extensive use of the circle as a symbol of fulfillment and completion, is found in the statement that “The world there was the flat world of the ancients.” The cornfield may “stretch” to daybreak and the corral may “reach” to sunset, but there is no indication that there is a promising horizon beyond whose curve the fulfillment of aspiration—whether of short range or of long range—lies. Further, the Nebraska world of this story seems “flat” in the sense of dull and uninteresting. Only one thing elicits from Aunt Georgiana any humane feeling toward that world; that is the little weak calf that needs her attention.

In the next of the seven stories under discussion, “The Enchanted Bluff,” Willa Cather not only employs her familiar Nebraska land setting but alludes meaningfully to the “mesa” country of the Southwest. The Nebraska river setting, with its elements that combine pleasant escape, illusion and willful wildness, offers a variety and an instability that parallel qualities in the boys themselves, i. e., their eagerness for life and activity, for experiencing and dreaming. Spurning the ordered, developed and predictable land of the Norwegian settlement as an ideal to strive for, the boys set as their goal discovering the mysterious secrets of the apparently unscalable heights of a bluff in New Mexico. But Willa Cather presents twenty years of exposure both to the crassness of Sandtown and to the larger world of business as all but extinguishing the lofty ideals the boys had entertained along the river. The river had, however, tried to tell them what their boyish approach to reality consisted in and what it held in store for them. “Our water [the river] had always these two moods: The one of sunny complaisance, the other of inconsolable, passionate regret” (72). Not only does this quotation capture succinctly the boys' relationship to present and future reality, it also shows that this river could well be the symbol of Miss Cather's ambivalent attitude toward the land at this stage of her literary career.

Whereas Willa Cather allows the Nebraska world of boyhood in “The Enchanted Bluff” to provide a place and a mood in which to plan for a spiritual reality the boys were never to achieve, she permits the Nebraska of “The Bohemian Girl” to exercise an explictly named “pull,” toward, it would seem, a moral reality. In the latter story both of the main characters, Nils Ericson and Clara Vavrika—as well as young Eric Ericson and his mother—feel, in varying degrees, the attraction of the earth with its implications of contact with reality. Nils and Clara neutralize its influence, however, and seek an apparently unreal freedom together.

But if Miss Cather stresses the “pull” of the land, the “gravitational” attraction toward reality, she also shows that the land can stultify—can make even more blockish, for instance, an already stolid land owner-politician such as Clara's husband, Olaf Ericson. He not only builds a bigger barn to accommodate his larger crops, as does the man in the Gospel story, but like that same man he does it at the expense of his “soul”—here, in the Catherian sense.

Indeed Willa Cather portrays the attitude of the majority of the Ericson family toward farming as that of operators of a big, encroaching business. “They've spread something wonderful—run over this here country like bindweed” (5), one old man of the neghborhood phrases it. With the Ericsons' “advancement” in relation to the land being no more desirable than is the advance of the bindweed used to describe it, even the mother, Mrs. Ericson—except for two small but significant instances—fits into the materialistic scheme of things. Her deficiencies stand out especially in relation to her automobile and to threshing. For Miss Cather the automobile of the early decades of the century symbolizes a progress that involves more loss than gain. And Mrs. Ericson's “snortin',” “chargin',” vehicle suggests that very thing in regard to her. Likewise, throughout the bulk of Willa Cather's fiction, threshing suggests not only—or even mainly—hard work, but rather warm sociability and fulfillment. But threshing no longer concerns Mrs. Ericson. “Don't be foolish, Nils,” she responds to her son's question. “I don't thresh now. I hitched the wheat land onto the next farm and have a tenant” (7).

Another suggestion of the land's negative character, and of the negative character of most of its local inhabitants, appears in Miss Cather's description of Clara Vavrika riding her horse “upon the crest of a high land.” With her vivacity and love of freedom, this Bohemian girl regularly dominates the countryside and the stolid Swedish people who live there just as now “This horse and rider, with their free, rhythmical gallop, were the only moving things to be seen on the face of the flat country” (6-7).

But Nils Ericson, having run away from home twelve years previously, now resides in that “flat country,” temporarily. His remark, “Land's a good thing to have,” and his mother's response, “Only when you stay on it!” (10) are not the only words Willa Cather puts into their mouths to show Nils' selectivity in regard to the claims of the earth, as well as the guessing game the family is playing regarding a possible second will. Twelve years before the opening of the story, Nils and his youngest brother, Eric, both thought “the leaves [of the cottonwood tree outside their window] were whispering when they rustled at night” (11). Nils interpreted their message to him as an invitation to take to the sea, or at times even to undertake what he terms a desperate tearing loose. On the occasion of Nils' visit home, Eric again brings up the matter of the cottonwood tree as the brothers wander down the road near their home at night. A mantle of “darkness and thick silence, and the smell of dust and sunflowers” (10) covers the soft, dry road where the brothers' conversation occurs. Eric says the cottonwood tree now talks to him of Nils. But Eric's anxiously whispered “Hadn't we better go back now? Mother will get tired of waiting for us” (11), suggests that Nils' influence on Eric's dreams and ambitions contains its disturbing elements. It suggests likewise the turn away from Nils and toward his mother that Miss Cather will have Eric take at the close of the story.

Thus does Willa Cather continue to convey artistically the ambivalent attitudes of her “land-philosophy.” Significantly, the setting she chooses for the Ericson brothers' encounter—a setting very similar to that in “Two Friends,” a later story that takes place in Kansas—can legitimately be presumed to have a symbolic meaning similar to that elaborated in the other story. In “Two Friends” the dust of the road “lay soft and meek like the last residuum of material things,—the soft bottom resting place” (Obscure Destinies, New York, 1932, p. 212). In such an atmosphere, then, as that in which Nils and Eric converse, Miss Cather suggests that with material concerns reduced to their basic components—as symbolized by the earth broken down into fine dust particles—values of the spirit stand out with freedom and objectivity. But from Nils' and Eric's shared experience in this symbolic setting, it is Eric—not Nils—who profits, as the story will later reveal more clearly. For Miss Cather will portray Eric's sensitivity and love of life combining with unselfishness and concern for the rights of others.

When Nils and Clara meet on the night Nils plans to take Clara away with him, Miss Cather creates a setting which reflects a suspension of the ordinary world in the face of a splendor which seems transcendently beautiful.

The moonlight flooded that great, silent land. The reaped fields lay yellow in it. The straw stacks and poplar windbreaks threw sharp black shadows. The roads were white rivers of dust. The sky was a deep, crystalline blue, and the stars were few and faint. Everything seemed to have succumbed, to have sunk to sleep, under the great, golden, tender, midsummer moon. The splendor of it seemed to transcend human life and human fate. The senses were too feeble to take it in, and every time one looked up at the sky, one felt unequal to it, as if one were sitting deaf under the waves of a great river of melody.


Caught up in this atmosphere, Nils finds his own life to be “strange and unfamiliar …, as if it were something he had read about, or dreamed, and forgotten” (34). After Nils asks Clara if she will leave with him that night, “Clara looked off across the fields. … [She says] ‘something seems to hold me. I'm afraid to pull against it. It comes out of the ground, I think’” (37). Miss Cather has Clara characterize her resistance to leaving this countryside as opposition to a departure from the admittedly stifling scene of “her old sorrows …, her old discontent”; but that land, she now realizes, is “dear to her, inexpressibly dear” (37).

Clara sank down on a sheaf of wheat and covered her face with her hands. … The great, silent country seemed to lay a spell upon her. The ground seemed to hold her as if by roots. … She felt as if her soul had built itself a nest there on that horizon at which she looked every morning and every evening.


But, letting Nils lift her onto her horse in silence, Clara joins her lover as they begin an elopement expected to advance life and freedom. With their departure, Willa Cather pictures “the great, still land” as stretching “untroubled under the azure night” (38).

So here again for Miss Cather the land in its positive effects does endure—the flight of Clara and Nils notwithstanding—to be a prompter of values and meaning to Eric but probably to be to Olaf Ericson what Nils suggests it will be—a monetarily valuable substitute for his lost wife.

A year after the elopement young Eric discontinues his journey—the object of which was to join Nils and Clara—and returns instead to his mother on the “home farm” which she “always meant to give” him. This usually taciturn woman, whom Willa Cather pictures as sitting “as only the Ericsons and the mountains can sit,” (40) now twines her fingers in her youngest son's hair and hears his simple explanation for his return: “you might be needing me, maybe” (41).

For Eric the whispering of the cottonwood leaves probably spoke, as it had to Nils, of freedom. But Eric employs his freedom to accept rather than to reject the gravitational “pull” of the earth in its literal and symbolic senses.

In the preceding discussion of Willa Cather's early short stories, it is evident that as a balanced literary artist the author allows some characters to react negatively toward the land, and others positively, because she herself feels ambivalently toward the land at this time. For Miss Cather, the land suggests on the one hand ugliness, bitterness and improverishment in relation to theme, character and symbolism; on the other hand it implies satisfying reality, generosity and hope of fulfillment. If the critic cannot make, with any real assurance of accuracy, a definitive statement about Miss Cather's feelings and attitudes regarding the land in the early stories, he can point out that the society on that land fares worse than does the land itself. Although what can loosely be termed “positive” and “negative” attitudes toward the land and the meaning of the land function equally in defining character, in elaborating theme and in carrying symbolic weight, no convincingly dramatized, fully satisfactory relationships of persons with the land obtain in the early stories. True, there are individuals such as Margaret Elliot and Eric Ericson who attain to certain insights because of the land. But it is noteworthy and significant that the only character who actually loves the land, as land, is the prisoner, by clemency of the court, Serge Pvolitchky.

We must look to the second and third periods of Miss Cather's fiction to see dramatized a fully satisfactory relationship with the land—to find a character who looks to the land with yearning and love, one who makes of life on the land something complete and beautiful. We must likewise look to those later periods to see what in her early stories is latent commitment to the land as a value in itself and as a touchstone of value which will evolve into the pervasive and successful vehicle to carry her final profound and satisfying artistic vision.

“Sound apples” these early stories may not be, as Miss Cather herself suggests they are not (Collected Short Fiction, p. vii); but hopeful indications of a better crop to come they surely are, whether they are viewed from an over-all vantage point or from the point of view of her unique “land-philosophy.”

Sargent Bush, Jr. (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2564

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 her career: the loss of youth. As in all of her best works, she also creates in “The Best Years” a vivid impression of place, which is immediately relevant to—even partly determinant of—the emotions and tensions of the characters. The story, therefore, in both matter and method stands as a fitting conclusion to Willa Cather's literary career.

Just as the more widely admired “Neighbour Rosicky” revolves around and is dependent on our full understanding of its central character, so does “The Best Years” gain its strength from its main figure, Lesley Ferguesson. The centrality of this vital girl to the lives of those around her is emphasized by the structure of the story. Sections I through V show her warm affection for her family and for Miss Knightly, the county school superintendent, while demonstrating the great value that Lesley's presence has for them. Section VI tells briefly but poignantly of her death from exposure in a snow storm. The seventh section then offers a final glimpse of the Ferguesson household twenty years later. Miss Cather emphasizes the need for each individual to preserve the youthful ability to find challenge in the present and to hope and work for a better future for oneself and those he loves. In the final section it becomes clear how thoroughly Lesley embodies this theme when we see the effect her absence has on her mother. Mrs. Ferguesson sorrowfully comments in Section VII that “our best years are when we're working hardest and going right ahead when we can hardly see our way out.”3 By the time Mrs. Ferguesson makes this comment, we fully understand that, for her and the rest of her family, “the best years” were the years they shared with Lesley and which, like her, are now gone.

We see Lesley ultimately, therefore, as representative of youth itself. Miss Cather, very near the end of her own life and career, reaffirms here a fundamental implication of her best early novels: the outlook of youth is life-giving and life-preserving, and to lose it is to make life pathetically empty. When the combination of challenge, hard work, and love no longer exists, the essence of life disappears. Lesley is made of some of the same stuff—more fragile but no less vital—as Ántonia Shimerda and Alexandra Bergson, while Mrs. Ferguesson is sadly reminiscent of Mrs. Forrester of A Lost Lady in her ultimate willingness to submit to oppressive circumstances. She is, in effect, victimized by regret, a fate that Miss Cather's more admirable characters never permit to occur, though the threat is usually present. In the final section of “The Best Years,” we see Mrs. Ferguesson looking backwards; she has lost the vitality and purposefulness she had always shown when Lesley was with her in “the best years.”

Throughout the first six sections of the story, Miss Cather concentrates on establishing the importance that Lesley's love has to each of the other characters. In her they find joy and encouragement in their struggle for security and comfort in the “new country.”4 Sections I, II, and part of III establish the warm affection that Miss Knightly feels for the girl. The older woman's willingness to go out of her way to enable Lesley to be with her family for a week end is the most significant detail we are given in the author's definition of this relationship.

It had been at no trifling sacrifice that Miss Knightly was able to call for Lesley at six thirty. Customarily she started on her long drives at nine o'clock. This morning she had to give an extra half-dollar to the man who came to curry and harness her mare. She herself got no proper breakfast, but a cold sandwich and a cup of coffee at the station lunch counter—the only eating-place open at six o'clock. Most serious of all, she must push Molly a little on the road, to land her passenger at the Wild Rose schoolhouse at nine o'clock.

(pp. 115-116)

As the narrator further observes, “Such small inconveniences do not sum up to an imposing total, but we assume them only for persons we really care for.” (p. 116)

The relationship between Lesley and her family is detailed in sections III, IV, and V. Lesley says a great deal about her attachment to her brothers when, after Miss Knightly asks, “‘You still get a little homesick, don't you, Lesley?’” she understates her feeling by saying, “‘I do miss the boys’” (p. 91). Her brothers, we find, miss her equally as much and feel quite possessive about her affection. After Lesley has said of the students in the country school at which she teaches, “‘I just love some of them,’” four-year-old Bryan jealously insists, “‘No, no! … you don't love anybody but us!’” (p. 95), and he is rewarded with “the tight hug he wanted.” Her brother Hector's delicate love for Lesley is revealed in the brief Section V, which describes his making telegram deliveries on Christmas Eve. He is wearing the overcoat Lesley had bought for him, and he gratefully reflects on the gift: “He was thinking how kind Lesley was, and how hard she had worked for that money, and how much she had to put up with in the rough farmhouse where she boarded, out in the country. … When he grew up, and made lots of money (a brakeman—maybe an engineer), he would certainly be good to his sister.” (p. 117)

It is sections III and IV, however, that undoubtedly do most to establish Lesley as the fulcrum on which the family's happiness balances during these “best years.” In this central part of the story, Miss Cather uses setting—the Ferguessons' little home in the depot settlement—as her chief tool in delineating the love between Lesley and the rest of her family. In seeing specific parts of the house as Lesley sees them, we understand that they are, for her, representative of these strong emotional bonds. For instance, we read that “‘upstairs’ was a story in itself, a secret romance” (p. 106). Here the children had slept and had their delightful “dream adventures” together. “There was certainly room enough up there for widely scattered quarters, but the three beds stood in a row, as in a hospital ward. The children liked to be close enough together to share experiences” (p. 108). As in most Cather works, emotional ties are strongly felt, though seldom directly expressed or described by either characters or narrator. The Ferguesson children have “never told their love” (p. 109), but because Miss Cather has given significant details, such as the mere disposition of their beds, we understand their deep affection for each other nonetheless.

Other portions of the home function in a similar way. “The turnpike” going up to the attic, the back porch, the parlor with its “real Brussels carpet” that Lesley had bought, the dining room with the dangling light bulb whose glare goes unnoticed—all of these parts of the house carry deep emotional associations for Lesley. It is this identification of the house with the family's mutual love that enables Lesley, when she sits down on the floor of the back porch with her feet on the ground, to sink “into idleness and safety and perfect love” (p. 112). In this same scene we learn that, from Lesley's point of view, “the feeling of being at home was complete, absolute: it made her sleepy. And that feeling was not so much the sense of being protected by her father and mother as of being with, and being one with, her brothers” (pp. 112-113). We are always aware that the house is somehow a necessary part of this feeling. Mrs. Ferguesson's children “… were bound to her, and to that house, by the deepest, the most solemn loyalty. They never spoke of that covenant to each other, never even formulated it in their own minds—never. It was a consciousness they shared, and it gave them a family complexion.” (pp. 104-105)

After Miss Cather presents Lesley and her close relationship with her family, she reveals the girl's sudden death in Section VI. At her best, Miss Cather knows when to avoid the sentimental, and it is a sure artistic judgment that has caused her to introduce Mr. Redmans, a blunt, matter-of-fact railroad conductor, to announce to Miss Knightly and the reader the news of Lesley's death. Knowing the indefinable importance of Lesley's presence in the family, we appreciate the classic simplicity and truth of Redmans' observation that “that family are terrible broke up.” (p. 125)

The story might end with Section VI and still be a well-told and moving story, though its chief effect would be pathetic. We comprehend the essential meaning of the story, however, only by seeing the first six sections in the reflected light of Section VII. “The Best Years” closes as do nearly all of Miss Cather's major works, with an epilogue set many years after the action of the rest of the story. Here Miss Knightly—now Mrs. Thorndike—returns to MacAlpin after some fifteen years' absence and visits Mrs. Ferguesson. The motif of this section of the story is change. The town has expanded, “ottos” have largely replaced horses and buggies, and, most significantly, Mr. and Mrs. Ferguesson occupy a different house. In place of the little house in the depot settlement, they now live in a large house with a polished oak hall and stairway and four unused upstairs bedrooms. Their sons have moved away and have become successful and independent, while Mrs. Ferguesson herself, once a vital woman with “a great deal of influence” in MacAlpin, has “grown softer” and is presently made “helpless” by a sprained ankle—injured, significantly, on her own new, slippery staircase. She is overjoyed to see Miss Knightly, who she knows has not forgotten Lesley. As she says, “‘There's nothing in all my life so precious to me to remember and think about as my Lesley.’” (p. 134)

In spite of these memories, the old life, presented in the first six sections of the story, is now dead for Mrs. Ferguesson. For a moment Miss Knightly's reappearance, bringing memories of that life, is a way for Mrs. Ferguesson to clutch at her years “in the old house down by the depot,” with her children “up in the loft.” But, as she tragically realizes, her upstairs is now big and empty, her children are gone—Lesley, who meant the most, is irretrievably gone—and “the best years” are decidedly past. Those years cannot be reclaimed any more than can Lesley's life, and Miss Knightly's appearance only heightens the tragedy of this realization for Mrs. Ferguesson, who has given herself over to the full-time occupation of looking backward. Miss Cather's works typically affirm the value of the past and the enrichment that its experiences and our memory of them can bring to the present; but in her presentation of Mrs. Ferguesson, the author warns against total devotion to the past. In Miss Knightly's return to MacAlpin, the past is not recalled; its pastness is affirmed. The story thus insists upon the need to reconcile oneself to the passing of youth and the presence of change. Certainly this is the author's view of what must happen if Mrs. Ferguesson—or anyone—is to survive the loss of youth.

Miss Cather's thematic accomplishment in this story has been chiefly to affirm the value of youth while insisting upon a positive reconciliation to its loss. In doing this, she establishes Lesley as an embodiment of the mood of “the best years,” identifies this character and her great warmth and family love with a physical object—the old house—and then presents a picture of the consequences for Mrs. Ferguesson of the loss of Lesley and of the house with which she was identified. The final section raises the significance of the story onto a broader scale of tragedy than it could have without this section. Here we see the loss of Lesley as more than the loss of a beloved daughter, sister, and friend; it becomes essentially the loss of youth, with all of its joys, satisfactions, and struggles. Thus, while Miss Cather successfully creates and employs Lesley as a character in the first six sections of the story, in the final section she gives Lesley a symbolic significance that becomes the key to the essential thematic import of the entire story.

Certainly “The Best Years” is a moving and powerful story. What is more, it seems an appropriate story to close Willa Cather's career since it expresses so successfully the author's view of the value of present challenge and the challenge of maintaining past values—both concerns that are central to her whole literary canon—while at the same time achieving an artistic level that earns for the story a position with the best of Miss Cather's fiction. It is in her ability to understand and to depict such essences of life as the mutual love of Lesley and her family, while still avoiding the maudlin, that her ability had previously surpassed that of most other writers of fiction. In her final complete creative effort, Willa Cather reveals no suggestion of atrophied ability, but rather the very strengths that had contributed to her prior successes.


  1. “Willa Cather's Unfinished Avignon Story” in Five Stories by Willa Cather (New York, 1956), pp. 177-214. See especially pp. 194-195 and p. 213. Edith Lewis and Elizabeth S. Sergeant also indicate appreciation of the power of the story in very brief comments in their two biographical works. See, respectively, Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record (New York, 1953), p. 196, and Willa Cather: A Memoir (Philadelphia and New York, 1953), p. 279.

  2. Dorothy Van Ghent, Willa Cather (Minneapolis, 1964), p. 42.

  3. “The Best Years,” The Old Beauty and Others (New York, 1948), p. 136. Hereafter, all quotations from the story will be from this edition.

  4. In showing the Ferguessons' struggle to establish a comfortable existence in a “new country,” “The Best Years” of course echoes another of the themes that had been at the heart of Miss Cather's writings ever since the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913.

L. Brent Bohlke (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4198

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. Her first published work of fiction, “Peter” (1892), a short story, was a recounting of the suicide of Mr. Francis Sadilek, which had occurred in Webster County, near Red Cloud, two years before the Cather family moved to that area of Nebraska. Willa Cather later used the same incident in her novel My Ántonia. In another early story, “A Night at Greenway Court,” she draws upon her family history in Virginia and, as Mildred R. Bennett points out, incorporates elements of the style of James, Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, and Daudet in the telling.4 In one of the first stories published after she left Nebraska, “The Count of Crow's Nest,” we can see definite Jamesian influence in a variation on the theme of “The Real Thing.” Mildred Bennett notes the debt owed to Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda,5 and Bernice Slote makes another suggestion: “Sometimes we find in 1893-1896 the seeds of later work. In 1896 did the newspaper account of Baron Constantine de Grimm, which appeared in May, suggest the character of the Count de Koch in ‘The Count of Crow's Nest,’ a story published in September? Both the Baron and the Count were Europeans in America, had known royalty, and had won the iron cross on the field of Gravelotte.”6

This complex mixture of sources continues throughout the career of Willa Cather, and as she advances in her art the mixture is accomplished with much more subtlety. She emphasized the importance of memory in her technique and spoke often of its use in creating her fiction:

If I had made notes, or should make them now, the material collected would be dead. No, it's memory—the memory that goes with the vocation. When I sit down to write, turns of phrase I've forgotten for years come back like white ink before fire. I think that most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before he is fifteen. …

Back in the files of the college magazine [the Hesperian], there were once several of my perfectly honest but very clumsy attempts to give the story of some of the Scandinavian and Bohemian settlers who lived not far from my father's farm. In those sketches, I simply tried to tell about the people without much regard for style. These early stories were bald, clumsy, and emotional. As I got toward my senior year, I began to admire, for the first time, writing for writing's sake.7

One of those “honest but very clumsy attempts” was a short story published in the Hesperian, at the University of Nebraska, on October 26, 1893, entitled, “The Clemency of the Court.” The story has a number of sources, both in literature and in current Nebraska history, some of which have not been pointed out before. By analyzing and recounting those sources, we may better understand the technique of “memory” that was to serve Willa Cather throughout her life in the creation of her kingdom of art.

The plot of “The Clemency of the Court” is not a difficult one. Serge Povolitchky, the simple son of a Russian immigrant woman who drowns herself shortly after his birth, is buffeted about by the more powerful people around him until he finally is taken in at the Davis farm to work for his board and clothes. While he is there a little yellow dog attaches herself to Serge, and the two become inseparable companions. One day Mr. Davis becomes angry with the dog and puts a hatchet through its head. Quietly and slowly, Serge does the same to Mr. Davis. He then proceeds to wrap the dog's head in a red silk kerchief—the prettiest thing he has—bury it, allow himself to be taken, tried, convicted, and imprisoned at the State Prison. Throughout all this action the thoughts of Serge are about the “State” as being some mythical goddess who will come to his rescue. Finally, because he is not doing his work at the penitentiary correctly, he is put in “the dark cell” and dies there in solitary punishment, dreaming of his “great mother, the State.”

It has been suggested that a connection to the writings of Turgenev is shown in the axe murder, for “the latter wrote a story in which a serf splits open his master's skull with an axe.”8 That story, “Old Portraits,” does have some similarities to “The Clemency of the Court.” Ivan, the serf, like Serge, the farmhand, is bounced around from household to household. He is used and treated spitefully. The descriptions of the murders are extremely close. In Turgenev's tale, “Ivan took an axe from under his skirt, came up to the master from behind, knocked off his cap, and saying, ‘I warned you, Pietr Petrovitch—you've yourself to blame now!’ he struck off his head at one blow.”9 Serge's action in Cather's story is similar: “He took the bloody hatchet and went up behind his master. He did not hurry and he did not falter. He raised the weapon and struck down, clove through the man's skull from crown to chin, even as the man had struck the dog.”10 The connection to Turgenev is obvious, but seems to go further than the axe-murder episode of “Old Portraits.”

Serge is the intellectual and emotional twin of another of Turgenev's characters, the serf Gerasim in “Mumu.” Gerasim is a deaf-mute endowed with remarkable strength. He had grown up in the country and was “set apart by his infirmity from communion with his fellow-men.”11 Serge “was born in the western part of the State [Nebraska], where he did not see many people” (p. 516). When Gerasim was “transported to the town, he did not understand what was happening to him; he felt bored and puzzled … he would suddenly go off to some corner and flinging his broom or his shovel far from him, would throw himself on the ground downward, and lie motionless on his breast for whole hours at a time, like a captured wild beast.”12 Serge had the same trouble with the city: “He used to go to town sometimes, but he did not enjoy it, people frightened him so … he would slink away behind his team” (p. 517). Gerasim lived alone in a tiny chamber over the kitchen, and Serge slept in the barn.13

After a particularly painful loss to another suitor of a girl servant whom he had been clumsily pursuing, Gerasim bids her farewell as she leaves with her new husband and gives her as a souvenir a “red cotton kerchief which he had bought expressly for her a year before.”14 After walking some distance beside her cart, the big silent man pauses at the Crimean Ford where he finds a tiny puppy floundering in the water. Gerasim takes her to his room, nurses her to health, and names her Mumu. “She attached herself passionately to Gerasim, never left him by a pace, and was always following him, wagging her tail … she was extremely intelligent, fawned upon everyone, but loved Gerasim alone. Gerasim himself loved her madly.”15 In much the same manner a dog comes into Serge's life in Nebraska. On the first morning of his stay at the Davises, “a little yellow cur came up to him and began to rub its nose against his leg. He held out his hand and the dog licked it. Serge bent over him, stroking him and calling him Russian pet names. For the first time in his lonely, loveless life, he felt that something liked him” (p. 517). The two become constant companions, and he calls the dog “Matushka.” These comparisons show Gerasim and Serge to be brothers of the spirit. Their similarities are more than coincidental. We know from her early reviews and other critical writing that Willa Cather had read a great deal of Turgenev and admired him. It is this literature of the past which gives us the character of Serge and his brutal act. Time and time again throughout her career she was to use bits and pieces of previous literature of which she was fond.

But we dare not neglect Willa Cather's present. Despite her emphasis on memory being an important factor in her creative endeavor, she was by no means isolated from the world around her. The crisis in her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, parallels the actual collapse of the Quebec bridge on August 29, 1907. The disastrous hotel fire in her story “Behind the Singer Tower” is quite similar to New York City's Windsor Hotel fire of March 17, 1899. In “The Diamond Mine” (1916) Cressida Garnett sails on the Titanic and is drowned. In these and other stories Willa Cather finds sources in current events, and she did just that in “The Clemency of the Court” as well.

The year 1893 was a crucial one for the Nebraska State Penitentiary at Lincoln. Beginning very early in the year, on January 10, a young convict was found dead in the solitary cell. The initial news story in the Nebraska State Journal of January 11, 1893, carries the headline “Hung Himself in a Cell” and goes on to say that the coroner's jury which had been assembled at the penitentiary to investigate the case “formulated a verdict stating that Powell had come to his death by strangulation caused by his own voluntary acts and resting no blame on anyone else.”17 The next day, Thursday, the Journal editorial page called out for complete publication of the facts concerning such punishment and suggested that the legislature undertake a full investigation. On Friday an article stated that a number of rumors were floating around Lincoln concerning the tragedy and that it had been learned that one of the members of the coroner's jury refused to affix his signature to the report because he considered it a “whitewash.”18 Saturday, January 14, saw the publication of a letter that had been hand-delivered to the Journal offices by a well-dressed young man who was apparently an ex-convict, since the letter went into complete detail about the horrible disciplinary procedures in practice at the penitentiary. Sunday's paper carried the text of a resolution offered the previous day in the legislature to establish both House and Senate committees to investigate punishment procedures at the State Penitentiary. Both committees were formed and worked together, and the news report of January 20, 1893, indicates that they were making some progress, but that the investigation might take longer than had originally been anticipated. Another lengthy letter, this time from an anonymous former convict telling of a number of problem areas at the penitentiary, was published in the Journal on March 6, 1893. The writer recounted the cruelty and punishment procedures and told of rotten food being served, beatings for no reason, and abusive language used by the guards. On March 9, 1893, the full report of the legislative committee was published in the Nebraska State Journal under a very different headline from the one beginning the entire episode on January 11, 1893. This time the page screamed out, “Powell Murdered.”

During all this time, Willa Cather was a sophomore at the University of Nebraska and was literary editor of the Hesperian. She had published two articles in the Nebraska State Journal in 1891, and in November of 1893, she became a regular contributor. One of her very first columns as a regular included the description of a worship service at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

In October of that same year “The Clemency of the Court” was published in the Hesperian, and a comparison of details between the fact and the fiction is quite informative. “The Clemency of the Court” opens with Serge receiving a verbal lashing from a guard concerning his hooping of barrels improperly. The guard tells Serge, “‘Now I'll sit down here and watch you hoop them barrels, and if you don't do a mighty good job, I'll report you to the warden and have you strung up as high as a rope can twist’” (p. 515). In the early newspaper accounts of the penitentiary scandal it is recorded that the convict in question was punished for “not doing his work properly,” but as the investigation intensified we later find a more concrete reference to his work in the first article from an ex-convict:

Let us enquire into the cause of the punishment which resulted in the destruction of human life. The task in the hooping department, where Powell was employed is twelve barrels per day, and this is no more than a fair day's work for the average man, but there are occasionally those who are absolutely not able to do this task. It is a well known fact that some men cannot work at mechanical trades with any degree of success, because they have no manual dexterity, no matter how hard they may work, or how many motions they may go through, they do not produce any satisfactory result.19

Serge knows that lack of success very well:

Serge turned to his work again. He did wish the guard would not watch him: it seemed to him that he could hoop all right if he did not feel the guard's eye on him all the time. His hands had never done anything but dig and plow and they were so clumsy he could not make them do right. The guard began to swear and Serge trembled so he could scarcely hold his hammer. … It was strange he could not hoop as well as the other men, for he was strong and stalwart as they, but he was so clumsy.

[Pp. 515-16]

This is not the only time the guard begins swearing at Serge. The story opens with the guard shouting, “‘Damn you! What do you mean by giving me hooping like that? … We will send you to a school where you can learn to hoop barrels. We have a school here, a little dark school, a night school, you know, where we teach men a great many things’” (p. 515). In a Journal article headlined “A Convict's Testimony” we find the following: “I wish to draw attention to another fact and that is this. The favorite expressions of the officers are: ‘Say, you damn—you get there on that work or I will send you down, God damn you,’ and like expressions.”20

Serge feared the punishment—and for good reason: “He was very much afraid of the dark cell. His cell was next to it and often at night he had heard the men groaning and shrieking when the pain got bad and begging the guards for water” (p. 515). One of the anonymous writers in the Journal describes a similar experience when one of the convicts was being punished: “His groans could be distinctly heard through the whole building. … A prisoner was in punishment for some trivial offense and was moaning from the pain, whereupon the night cellhouse keeper took a billy and beat him over the head and shoulders while he was triced up so that the blows could be heard all over the cellhouse.”21 Another of the anonymous writers complained of the food at the penitentiary which he said was sometimes so rotten that the men would eat only bread and water by choice. Serge had trouble with the food also: “Serge's bringing up had been none of the best, but it took him some time to get used to eating without knife or fork the indifferent food thrust in square tin bowls under the door of his cell” (p. 520).

Perhaps the punishment itself is the most telling. After the warning, Serge's work did not go any better so they took him to the dark cell and tied him up:

They put his arms behind him and tied them together, then passed the rope about his neck, drawing [his] arms up as high as they could be stretched, so that if he let them “sag” he would strangle, and so they left him. The cell was perfectly bare and was not long enough for a man to lie at full length in. The prisoners were told to stand up, so Serge stood. At night his arms were let down long enough for him to eat his bread and water, then he was roped up again. All night long he stood there. By the end of the next day the pain in his arms was almost unendurable. They were paralyzed from the shoulder down so that the guard had to feed him like a baby. The next day and the next night and the next day he lay upon the floor of the cell, suffering as though every muscle were being individually wrenched from his arms. He had not been out of the bare cell for four days.

[Pp. 520-21]

In the course of the investigation the Nebraska State Journal contained several descriptions of the punishment which Convict Powell underwent. All of them have certain similarities to Cather's passage quoted above, but one from an article of January 14, 1893, will suffice here to show the likeness:

The prisoner's hands are handcuffed behind his back, a noose is placed around his neck and the end of the rope is drawn tightly around the handcuffs, thus bringing the hands and forearms up behind the back till the hands are nearly level with the shoulders. This position is maintained for the term of punishment except at an interval three times a day when the culprit is allowed a ration of bread and water. It is easily seen that if the muscles of the arms are relaxed the weight all comes upon the neck, tending to produce strangulation.22

A minor bit of testimony during the legislative committee hearings concerned some tiny holes in the door, from which the prison officials tried to say Powell had hanged himself. The testimony determined it was impossible, since the holes were so small and were there only for light and ventilation. Cather tells us, “All the ventilation came through some little augur holes in the door and the heat and odor were becoming unbearable” (p. 521). It was further established that the minimum term of punishment was three days, the longest, indefinite, but the average stay in the dark cell was seven days. Serge was there four days. Finally Serge is unable to respond to the guard when he comes into the cell. “‘Gittin so stuck up you can't speak, are you? Well, we'll just stretch you up a bit tighter.’ And he gave the stick in the rope another vicious twist that almost tore the arms from their sockets and sent a thrill of agony through the man's whole frame” (p. 521). The most thrilling and unanticipated testimony during the investigation conducted by the legislature concerned the deputy warden, a Mr. Wagner. M. D. Welch, the secretary and treasurer of the Western Manufacturing Company, who held the prison contract on the barrel manufacturing, testified, “This man Wagner went in there and gave this rope another twist on him and screwed him up higher. Well you can manage a man's hands tied behind him. The blood will stop circulating and he will lose control over them entirely, and when he gave him that other twist, why, his arms were dead. They strangled that man to death that is what they did. It is as plain as A.B.C.” Another witness corroborated this testimony: “I was told that the night before he died the deputy warden went to the cell while he was in the position this gentleman was, and put in a stick behind the rope and twisted it. I was told he was lying on the floor and not triced up to the door, but was lying on the floor unconscious.”23

Such was the end of Abel Powell and of Serge Povolitchky. But the actual case did not end there. Further reports were made and legislation enacted that began the reform of the Nebraska Penal System. The investigation had turned up other matters that were equally serious, and the process of reform was to go on for some time. Curtis Bradford has claimed that the story “Behind the Singer Tower” is Willa Cather's one attempt at direct social criticism.24 Yet, to the city of Lincoln in the fall of 1893 after following ten months of accusations, investigations, and startling testimony, “The Clemency of the Court” must have been a stinging indictment. The actual events coupled with Serge's eternal trust and hope in the “State” and “Justice” become distressing. Serge is constantly convinced that he is much luckier to live here than in Russia because the State here is so good to its people. The irony in the title is that Serge's sentence has been commuted from death to imprisonment for life—by the clemency of the court. But in the end—in fiction and in fact—it is all the same thing.

That the reforms instituted at the penitentiary as a result of the Powell case were effective—or at least pleasing to Willa Cather—may be assumed due to her later references to the penitentiary, both in the Journal and in her novel O Pioneers!, which are far less harsh on the state prison.

The fictional case does not end here, either. Turgenev, Hugo, personal experiences with immigrants in Webster County, a relation to the good earth and sky, and a scandal at the Nebraska State Penitentiary are all wrapped up into what Miss Cather herself called an “honest but very clumsy attempt.” Yet we can see the beginnings. In the original disassociated and dissimilar experiences of Willa Cather's memory we see the beginnings of a story. In her use of those experiences we see the beginnings of a technique that was to be polished and refined greatly. And in the story itself we can see the beginnings of a talent that was soon to express itself in other short stories and novels that were to be known and loved around the world.


  1. Henry James, Notebook entry for February 22, 1891, The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 102.

  2. S. P. Rosenbaum, ed., The Ambassadors (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 372.

  3. Sherwood Anderson, “Form, not Plot,” A Story Teller's Story (1924; rpt. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968), p. 255.

  4. Mildred Bennett, ed., Early Stories of Willa Cather (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1957), pp. 77-91.

  5. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction: 1892-1912, ed. Virginia Faulkner, intro. by Mildred R. Bennett (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. xxvii. Passages from “The Clemency of the Court” which are quoted below are taken from this edition, pp. 515-22.

  6. Bernice Slote, ed., The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 84.

  7. Collected Short Fiction, p. xxvi. Quoted from a 1921 interview.

  8. Bennett, Early Stories, p. 33.

  9. Ivan Turgenev, A Desperate Character and Other Stories, trans. Constance Garnett (London: William Heinemann, 1899), p. 209.

  10. Collected Short Fiction, p. 518. Further references to “The Clemency of the Court” will be cited by page number in parentheses within the text.

  11. Ivan Turgenieff, The Diary of a Superfluous Man and Other Stories, trans. Isabel F. Hapgood (1852, rpt. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), p. 204.

  12. Ibid., p. 205.

  13. The description of Gerasim's chamber with its epic bed of oaken planks on four blocks, its stout chest, sturdy table, and squatty chair is similar to Cather's description of the interior of Canute's cabin in “On the Divide” with its unplaned plank bed that is eight feet long, its chair and bench of colossal proportions, and its tall box holding a pair of shoes of “incredible dimensions.”

  14. Turgenieff, Diary of a Superfluous Man, p. 225.

  15. Ibid., p. 226.

  16. Ibid., p. 231.

  17. “Hung Himself in a Cell,” Nebraska State Journal, 11 January 1893, p. 6, col. 3.

  18. “Convict Powell,” Nebraska State Journal, 13 January 1893, p. 4, col. 4.

  19. “Penitentiary Discipline,” Nebraska State Journal, 14 January 1893, p. 4, col. 5.

  20. “A Convict's Testimony,” Nebraska State Journal, 6 March 1893, p. 8, col. 2.

  21. “Penitentiary Discipline,” Nebraska State Journal, 14 January 1893, p. 4, col. 5.

  22. Ibid.

  23. “Powell Murdered,” Nebraska State Journal, 9 March 1893, p. 3, col. 1.

  24. Curtis Bradford, “Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories,” American Literature 26 (January 1955): 537-51.

David Stouck (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13142

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.]


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 and place to an enclosed, green world, a retreat expressing man's dream of a simplified, harmonious existence from which the complexities of society and natural process (age, disease, and death) are eliminated.1 Mythically, pastoral seeks to recover a “Golden Age” when existence was ideally ordered and there was no conscious separation of self from the rest of the world—no separation of subject and object, all things sharing an identity of order and purpose. Wordsworth gives powerful expression to the dream of pastoral innocence in “Tintern Abbey” when he discovers in nature a principle of unity that informs “all thinking things, all objects of all thought,” and is the source and nurse of his moral being. The pastoral landscape is ultimately a place of innocent erotic fulfillment wherein the imagination is reunited to the world in a maternal embrace.

A pastoral of experience is more complex: while it embodies the adult's escapist desire to return to childhood, it also recognizes that the past was not the perfectly secure and ordered world that it appears to be in retrospect. A pastoral of experience inevitably moves toward that point of recognition where the past is revealed as a time of rejection and failure, a time of anxiety rather than perfect happiness. The outrage committed by the past on the present is writ large in Faulkner's novels, where the myth of a more perfect past—the antebellum South—is exposed as an illusion and a lie. In a pastoral of innocence the imagination evades crisis and awareness, but in a pastoral of experience the imagination is caught up in conflict again and brought to a point of recognition and acceptance.

Pastoral is constantly preoccupied with the arresting of time, for its passage moves the adult farther away from childhood and innocence. Images of time reflect the protagonist's deepest anxieties and his despair. The extent to which he is reconciled to the fact of mutability measures the degree of awareness and acceptance achieved. Sexual awakening marks the end of childhood, so that in a pastoral of innocence the imagination also attempts to exclude sexuality. In a pastoral of experience, however, it cannot be evaded because it is the failure of sexual initiation which ties the imagination to the past.

Because it is highly subjective, pastoral art is impressionistic in style. Nostalgia is most effectively evoked by a nondramatic, allusive style which charges the subject (and thereby reshapes it) with the artist's emotions: vague outline in painting, lyrical description in literature, the dissolve and soft lens of the camera. The style of pastoral art is also highly selective, for in recapturing the past the artist seeks to evoke certain emotions and exclude others. Although its application is general, Willa Cather's dictum for the unfurnished novel provides a fitting description of the pastoral style. In her essay “The Novel Démeublé,” she asserts that high quality in art derives from what is suggested rather than from what is described in detail, from “whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there.” Realistic detail only assumes an esthetic dimension for Miss Cather when it is subsumed within the “emotional penumbra of the characters themselves.”2 Because pastoral is a wholly subjective art, it can be realized only through a style which places value, not on the details themselves, but on the emotion which they inspire.


Willa Cather's imagination was varied in its responses from the outset. In her early pieces of fiction she explored the different imaginative modes through which her later writing moved in more clearly discernible phases. In “Eric Hermannson's Soul” we find the primitive emotions of epic, in “The Treasure of Far Island” the nostalgia of pastoral, and in “The Sculptor's Funeral” the bitter reflections of satire. In one very early story, “The Burglar's Christmas,” we even find the theme of filial waywardness which was to become a preoccupation in some of her last writings. Many of the stories and novels represent a blending of modes: the emotions of epic and pastoral are inextricably intertwined in “The Bohemian Girl” and O Pioneers! But the mode to which Willa Cather repeatedly returned and which informs to some degree almost all of her fiction is the pastoral, because most of her art was grounded in memory and autobiographical in impulse.

The earliest stories, many of them scarcely more than sketches, are pastorals similar in feeling to Wordsworth's poems about poor beggars and cottage dwellers. Willa Cather's poor country folk are European immigrants on the American plains, but, like Wordsworth, she identifies imaginatively with the humbleness and loneliness of their lives. “Peter” (1892), “Lou, the Prophet” (1892), “The Clemency of the Court” (1893), and “On the Divide” (1896) are all tales motivated by the author's sympathy for the downtrodden social misfit. These tales are pastorals not because of their rural setting, but because they project psychologically the author's imaginative retreat from the world of her contemporaries. Like Wordsworth's old shepherd, Michael, or his Cumberland beggar, the characters in these stories are not the artist's equals in society, but reflect instead her image of self-worth and dramatize feelings of homesickness and failure. The sensitive Peter (an early version of Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia), suffocated by material concerns and by homesickness for Prague, commits suicide; Lou, a homesick Dane, finds release in mystical visions and preaching until he eventually disappears from the countryside; Serge Povolitchky (“The Clemency of the Court”) is a motherless Russian boy who dies in prison after murdering the man who killed his dog. Only Canute Canuteson, the gloomy Norwegian in “On the Divide,” finally overcomes his despair and with a new bride looks forward to the future. These stories with their numerous cultural allusions seem like folk tales, but the classification is not accurate: no matter how crude or simple, they are the product of an individual imagination rather than a group.

Some of the earliest stories are very crude psychological tales which dramatize vividly the mechanisms of the artist's psyche. These tales may be loosely termed pastorals for, although they do not deal directly with either a rural landscape or childhood, they embody certain psychological preoccupations which are obsessive and which do have their origins in childhood. The crudest and most painful of these stories is “The Clemency of the Court,”3 mentioned above. Here the author identifies imaginatively with the plight of a Russian boy who is brutalized by the prairie environment. His own mother being dead, he is told that the State is his mother and will look after him. But after killing his master in a moment of desperation, he is sentenced to life prisonment and is slowly tortured to death in his cell. Serge is an innocent, and the sympathy we feel for him is that for a child searching for its mother, always a central imaginative preoccupation in Willa Cather's fiction and, broadly speaking, of pastoral art as a whole. (We might note here that Willa Cather's orphans are numerous, especially protagonists whose mothers are dead. They include Jim Burden, Don Hedger, Niel Herbert, Tom Outland, Myra Henshawe, Cécile Auclair, Lucy Gayheart, to mention only major figures. The orphan is more than a romantic convention in Willa Cather's fiction; it suggests a psychological state central to her art.)

In “The Elopement of Allen Poole” (1893)4 we find a crude dramatizing of another psychological state—the inevitable frustration of erotic experience. The hero of this tale, set in the Virginia of Miss Cather's earliest childhood, plans to elope with his sweetheart, but he is shot by her relations and only when he is dead does he spend the night with her. Nelly comes to him through the woods “like a little Madonna of the hills,” and as he is dying we are told that “she rocked herself over him as a mother does over a little baby that is in pain,” like an image of the Pietà. The lover identified as a mother figure and the fulfillment of such love through death are persistent preoccupations of pastoral. “The Burglar's Christmas” (1896)5 with its Kafkaesque night setting and dreamlike coincidence is a more sophisticated treatment of the mother-child relationship. A destitute young man is about to rob a wealthy house when he discovers that it is his parents' home. He is reunited with his loving mother in a scene of heightened erotic wish-fulfillment: “She leaned over and kissed him, as no woman had kissed him since he left her.” The young man is filled with remorse at having deserted her years before, a theme to appear in Willa Cather's last books, but we leave him with “the assurance of safety in that warm bosom that rose and fell under his cheek.”

Willa Cather's first book was a collection of poems entitled April Twilights, published in 1903.6 Like so many of her early stories these poems are written in the pastoral mode, expressing despair with the present and nostalgia for the past. The feeling which pervades the whole collection, more pronounced in some poems than others, is that of youthful insecurity and self-doubt—the hesitation of a university graduate going out into the world. The past, both literary and personal, provides a temporal escape from the dilemma of the present, but at the same time its irrecoverable and anxiety-ridden aspects urge more keenly the necessity of going forward into the future. These conflicting emotions are suggested in the title of the collection: April is the spring and the time for setting forth, but twilight suggests death and the reverting back to winter. The poems weave together what T. S. Eliot would describe as “memory and desire” with no sure movement in either direction, since the past can never be recaptured and the future for the artist is overshadowed by a conviction of certain failure.

The poems divide into two kinds: literary and personal. Just as the author's first novel, Alexander's Bridge, is characterized by a literary quality, so most of the poems in April Twilights reflect their source of inspiration in poetic models. In form and manner many of the poems are conventional and imitative: one hears the melodious romanticism of Hugo, Musset, Verlaine, and their English counterparts in Tennyson, Kipling, and Stevenson. Even more frequently one hears echoed the elegiac sadness of A. E. Housman, whose collection of pastorals, A Shropshire Lad, was probably Willa Cather's greatest enthusiasm at the time she was writing the poetry in this collection. The poem “Lament for Marsyas” is modeled closely on Housman's elegy “To an Athlete Dying Young,” and another poem, “In Media Vita” with its celebration of life undercut by the repeated phrase, “And the dead, under all,” echoes several of Housman's lyrics about life's transience. The literary world of antiquity—Arcadia—provides a retreat in time and place for the poet, but she is aware that classical pastoral is also preoccupied with mutability: et in Arcadia ego. The invoking of Arcadia in several of the poems produces nostalgia for the golden age that has passed with its heroes and lovers. In “Winter at Delphi” the poet knows that life will be renewed in the spring but that “Apollo, the god, Apollo” will not return; and in “Arcadian Winter” the shepherd lads now have silver hair and the maids are no longer fair. The alternate theme in the collection—the artist's sense of failure in the present—is also explored in poems of formal, literary inspiration. Poems such as “The Encore,” “Song,” “Sleep, Minstrel, Sleep” and “The Poor Minstrel” evoke pity for the artist—his suffering for an unrequited love, his early death. The poet is identified as a troubadour or minstrel, and in a traditional “L'Envoi” we are told that only “Loneliness” remains faithful to the poet to the end.

The poems of greatest interest and literary value, not surprisingly, are those which derive from the author's personal past, fusing together the two themes of nostalgia and the artist's suffering. In its imagery and rhythm “‘Grandmither, Think Not I Forget’” gives moving expression to a complex set of feelings. On the one hand, there is the poet's love for her grandmother, which becomes nostalgia for childhood and the protection of the old woman who is dead. On the other, there is the poet's sense of guilt and unworthiness: she wonders that the grandmother could have “loved the lassie so” and accordingly castigates herself for not coming more often to visit her grandmother's “bed beneath the thyme.” The poet's nostalgia and feelings of guilt are occasioned by her failure as a lover. Her rejection in love sends her thoughts back to the old woman who cared for her, and the poem concludes with a death wish: “So when I plant the rose an' rue above your grave for ye, / Ye'll know it's under rue an' rose that I would like to be.” The death wish here is a sober variation on the pastoral dream of being reunited to the world in a maternal embrace. The emotions explored in the poem reappear in the novels (Claude Wheeler in One of Ours, rejected by his wife on their wedding night, thinks of his mother and poor Mahailey at their work) and find consummate expression in the short story “Old Mrs. Harris,” a tragic tale about the same grandmother, written nearly thirty years later. In “The Namesake” similar feelings are evoked: although here the poet assumes a masculine identity and likens herself to an uncle “with hair like mine” who died as a youth in the Civil War, the affinity with the uncle is based on the idea that he was rejected in love and rests in a lonely grave far from home. The conflict of emotions in the whole collection is underscored in this poem. In the next-to-last stanza the poet says to the dead uncle, “I'd leave my girl to share / Your still bed of glory there,” but in the last stanza reconsiders and promises to “be winner at the game / Enough for two who bore the name.” The ambivalent feelings of an April twilight—the excitement of going forth to conquer, the self-doubt and desire to retreat into the past—are carefully delineated in the blank verse “Dedicatory.” The poem is addressed to the poet's brothers, Roscoe and Douglass Cather, who with their older sister “lay and planned at moonrise, / On an island in a western river, / Of the conquest of the world together.” Their dream of a summer morning odyssey, however, is undercut by the April night of the poem, for twilight is a time of memory; moreover, the “somewhere, sometime” of the poem's first line is childhood and the past.

To the contemporary sensibility the short poem “Prairie Dawn” is perhaps the most effective piece in the collection. In eight chiseled lines of blank verse the author has rendered the essence of an emotion; as in the other poems it is that confused feeling of setting forth at dawn and at the same time relapsing into homesickness.

A crimson fire that vanquishes the stars;
A pungent odor from the dusty sage;
A sudden stirring of the huddled herds;
A breaking of the distant table-lands
Through purple mists ascending, and the flare
Of water ditches silver in the light;
A swift, bright lance hurled low across the world;
A sudden sickness for the hills of home.

The technique of seven exact lines of description in apposition to a concluding statement of feeling is not unlike the Japanese haiku, which Ezra Pound later introduced into the mainstream of English and American poetry. It is interesting that in this early poem the West represents the epic challenge of going forward, the odyssey of conquering, while pastoral emotion, as in “The Namesake,” is associated with Virginia—“the hills of home.” In the 1923 and 1933 editions of April Twilights the new poems, which are all related to personal rather than literary experience, identify the pastoral landscape as Nebraska. Homesickness, which is a persistent emotion throughout Willa Cather's writing, is expressed in “Macon Prairie” as a love for pioneer ancestors, and in “Going Home” the emotion is dissipated only when the narrator crosses the Missouri on the train going west—“the sharp curves and winding left behind.” The feeling of homesickness is probably strongest in the last poem added to the collection, “Poor Marty,” a lament by a fellow servant on the death of the kitchenmaid. The old woman was fashioned after the Cather family servant, Marjorie Anderson, who was also the model for Mahailey in One of Ours and Mandy in “Old Mrs. Harris.” The tensions of her daily round are recorded in the first section; in the second section remorse is evoked by the memory of the thoughtless summons sent to the old servant the morning she died. As in the first poem of the original collection, “‘Grandmither, Think Not I Forget,’” nostalgia is identified with pathos and remorse.

Willa Cather first approached the themes and special qualities of her pastoral novels in two short stories, “The Treasure of Far Island” (1902) and “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909). “The Treasure of Far Island”7 is an essential story in the Cather canon, for it embodies in both emotion and dramatic incident the substance of the author's imaginative life which gave shape to the major novels. In this tale a famous dramatist returns to his home in Nebraska to recapture something of his childhood. Margie, his old playmate, says to him that geniuses never grow up, and in her ironic and “adult” mood she calls him “‘a case of arrested development.’” They go out to “Far Island” together, the scene of their childhood play fantasies, and not only does Douglass experience a thrill that surpasses a first night in the theatre, but Margie herself becomes a completely natural and spontaneous woman again. Childhood is seen as the perfect state. The same idea is central to another story from this period, “Jack-A-Boy” (1901), wherein a child, like Wordsworth's “Lucy,” dies and escapes the inevitable disillusionment of the passing years, while the artist is left to reflect on the child's “divinity” in contrast with his own sad mortality. “The Treasure of Far Island” is an important story; but pastoral art achieves its effect through suggestion and the story suffers esthetically from being overexplicit. For example, when Douglass and Margie dig up a treasure box they had buried years ago, Margie explains what is already an obvious piece of symbolism, saying: “‘Why, Douglass, … it was really our childhood that we buried here, never guessing what a precious thing we were putting under the ground.’” There follows an interesting analysis of loss of innocence. Douglass tells Margie that it was when he saw her show fear he first fell in love with her: “‘That night, after our boat had drifted away from us, when we had to wade down the river hand in hand … you cried in a different way from the way you sometimes cried when you hurt yourself, and I found that I loved you afraid better than I had ever loved you fearless, and in that moment we grew up, and shut the gates of Eden behind us, and our empire was at an end.’” This first awareness of desire through fear looks forward to A Lost Lady, in which Niel Herbert's affection for Marian Forrester is aroused by her vulnerability. For all its explicitness, “The Treasure of Far Island” ends with a brilliantly ambiguous love scene in which the former child playmates kiss in the sunset. The scene is effective because the emotion is genuinely felt but, at the same time, recognized by the protagonists to be a hopeless cliché, a romantic parody—“he knew that she had caught the spirit of the play.” The tension of pastoral between desire (desire to recover childhood, desire to have Margie as a lover) and recognition of its impossible fulfillment is perfectly balanced, so that the romanticism in the last lines, evoking cities and romances of old, is wholly moving.

“The Enchanted Bluff”8 is very close in subject matter and feeling to “The Treasure of Far Island,” but this time Willa Cather avoided dramatizing the emotion and rendered it in its simplest, unfurnished manner—as a memory. The particular feeling she sought to capture was the romantic wonder of childhood. Through the eyes of a boy on a sandbank in a sluggish western river the untried world appears as a vista of splendid horizons. The story has no plot, but through description, allusion, and association creates a child's feeling for romance and adventure. The six boys watch the night sky fill with stars, and their thoughts are of Columbus taking his direction from the sky and Napoleon reading his fortune in the stars. The image of heroic voyage is extended when the moon comes up over the bluffs “like a galleon in full sail.” The moon is red and also suggests the Aztec rite of human sacrifice, which in turn evokes the story of Coronado, the Spanish adventurer, and his quest for the seven cities of gold. Each of the boys then muses about the places in the world he would like to see. The dream and the excitement of that night's musing is focused in the image of the Mesa Encantada, the great rock in the New Mexican desert which beckons to be explored and conquered. Each of the boys vows that he will some day climb that rock.

The story ends in a fashion similar to My Ántonia, with the narrator twenty years later looking back from the disillusioned perspective of adult life. None of the boys has climbed the mesa: one boy has died, another is a successful stockbroker and goes about only where his red touring car will take him. But even though none of them has been to New Mexico the narrator finds that the children of his friends are now dreaming of that same adventure. The story is shaped by the fundamental paradox of pastoral art: from the adult perspective in the larger world the imagination seeks to recover the experience of childhood wonder, which once imbued the world with the romance of discovery. The boys are impatient to set forth; yet we are aware, because this is a memory, that they are living in the most perfect time of their life.9

When Willa Cather came to write her first novels, the theme of memory's potency was subordinate to the drama of struggle and conquest: Bartley Alexander, Alexandra Bergson, and Thea Kronborg are all singled out as competitors and victors, each in his own way. But the pastoral theme is nonetheless important in all three books, for memory and the experiences of childhood carry the seeds of defeat for each of the protagonists. Alexander's desire to recapture his youth, to become a boy beside a campfire again, brings about the collapse of his bridge and his own death. The value Alexandra Bergson places on turning the wild land into a pastoral garden for her brother and Marie Shabata brings about the defeat of her highest hopes as a pioneer. Memories of childhood, which are fraught with hardships and failure, illumine the special defeat of Thea Kronborg as a human being and her transformation into a successful but hardened artist. The Song of the Lark is in fact a particular form of pastoral—a künstlerroman—in which childhood memories form a decisive aspect of the artist's growth to maturity.

Pastoral, however, became the dominant mode of her fiction when Willa Cather wrote her classic novel My Ántonia, published in 1918. Life for the author was changing in this period; the past was becoming more attractive than the present. The first flush of creativity and success for Willa Cather was over; the excitement of discovering her power as a writer was giving way to a more sober and thoughtful practice of her craft.10 In 1916 Isabelle McClung married the violinist Jan Hambourg. By this time Miss McClung's parents had died and the family mansion was sold, so that for Willa Cather the old friendship had changed in many ways. Olive Fremstad, the opera singer Cather admired and who inspired in part the portrait of Thea Kronborg, also married in 1916, and perhaps the author began to feel a certain emptiness in her own personal life at this time. Also, Elizabeth Sergeant tells us that Willa Cather was deeply affected by World War I: “the conflict loosed in 1914 … soon tore her apart.” To the spectacle of devastation in Europe Willa Cather responded: “‘Our present is ruined—but we had a beautiful past.’” This elegiac note marks the special mood of My Ántonia. In this novel the hero is no longer a strong creative character, but a man whose personal life is wanting, who retreats into the fuller life of his memories. Although the novel's heroine is a strong creative character, her value and significance are illuminated by the thoughts and feelings of a man who is in effect a kind of failure and wanderer. With My Ántonia Willa Cather shifted from the epic to the pastoral mode, no longer looking confidently to the future but celebrating the past. …


Epic and pastoral are imaginative modes which give expression to powerful, universal feelings, but there are many works of art in which our interest is directed principally toward an idea or a different form of consciousness rather than an emotion. In the experimental prose of Gertrude Stein, for example, fictional technique is used to explore levels of being and awareness, and in the plays of Bertolt Brecht our emotions are deliberately alienated in the interest of an idea around which a play has been conceived and constructed. One might loosely term these works of art as products of the critical imagination. Willa Cather, unlike the majority of her twentieth-century comtemporaries, distrusted ideas as a source and raison d'être of art. In her very earliest reviews and critical writings we find her stating repeatedly that a genuine work of art is never “clever”; that literature is not made out of ideas, but out of people and emotions—something quite apart from knowledge. In her fiction her most accomplished artists and critics have similar feelings: in The Song of the Lark, for example, Harsanyi, the pianist, recognizes that Thea Kronborg is not quick to learn, but he sees that she has the emotion and desire to be a great artist; Don Hedger in “Coming, Aphrodite!,” a painter far ahead of his time, avoids fashionable cliques of artists where ideas about art are discussed; Charlotte Waterford in “Uncle Valentine,” one of the most postive characters in Willa Cather's fiction, has “good taste” rather than intelligence about both art and living. This attitude extends to form in Willa Cather's fiction as well: her novels are always built around a feeling rather than an idea of form—something organic that retains the complexity of the living experience. One thinks of Jim Burden with his manuscript about Ántonia which “‘hasn't any form,’” which is just a memoir, or Godfrey St. Peter's finding the form for his histories in the visual impact of a series of mountain peaks. The author herself likened the form of Shadows on the Rock to “a series of pictures remembered rather than experienced” and to a fragment of an old song.11 Although Willa Cather never became an intellectual novelist, ideas did play an increasingly important part in her fiction as she grew older. This is especially true of the novels dating from the mid-1920s, a time in her life when she grew to distrust some of her strongest emotions. In order to illuminate the unique qualities of One of Ours and The Professor's House, this chapter will focus on the intellectual and critical dimensions of Willa Cather's art. The importance of these elements in her fiction is apparent when we recognize that in The Professor's House the author sought to free herself from the grip of self-destructive emotions through the discipline of a traditional structure of thought.

As in a study of epic and pastoral elements in Willa Cather's fiction, one finds in her apprenticeship pieces several examples of the critical imagination as well—in short stories constructed around baldly stated ideas. Through their esthetic limitations one gains another kind of insight into the nature of her craft. Some of the early “idea” stories are of continuing interest because their central theme or idea later became an organic aspect of Willa Cather's art. “A Son of the Celestial” (1893)12 is such a story, written out of the author's curiosity about the contrast between Western and Eastern cultures. The story concerns a once brilliant American scholar who has taken to drinking heavily and smoking opium with an old Chinese artisan in San Francisco. He discusses philosophy and literature with old Yung and is horrified by the lack of passion in Oriental people: “‘You are so old that you are born yellow and wrinkled and blind. You ought to have been buried centuries before Europe was civilized.’” The idea of civilization gradually depleting itself of energy always fascinated the author and frequently underlay the broad conflicts in her novels.13 Jim Burden, for example, feels the pull toward the vitality of the Nebraska farm country as well as toward the sophisticated but effete civilization of the East. In “A Son of the Celestial” the idea is given dramatic interest by the scholar's horror at seeing himself becoming like Yung. Another idea story is “The Count of Crow's Nest” (1896),14 which picks up the image of a people (here it is the European aristocracy) depleting itself—the blood growing tired and the family dying out. An aging and impoverished count lives in a Chicago rooming house treasuring his memories of a civilized past, while his daughter, a common woman, makes a living as a fifth-rate singer. She wants to publish some old letters that her father has brought from Europe which, because of their scandalous nature, would sell very well. The author resolves the conflict between the new life and tradition by giving her sympathy to what is imaginative, rather than to what is either simply old or new. The central character in the story, Buchanan, aids the count in resisting his daughter's exploitation of the past. Two other interesting ideas emerge in this story though they are not as integral to the plot. Near the beginning the narrator reflects that one hates most intensely where one has failed oneself. This recognition of human motives and behavior anticipates a deeply personal theme underlying The Professor's House. Also, when Buchanan and the old count are talking about art, it is interesting to hear the old man give expression to what is essentially the author's theory of the unfurnished novel; he says “‘the domain of pure art is always the indefinite.’” The value of this esthetic can be fully appreciated by contrasting these early tales to the later writing, where everything is suggested rather than openly stated.

A great number of the early idea stories are distinct failures. “‘The Fear that Walks by Noonday’” (1894), “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” (1896), “The Westbound Train” (1899), “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900), “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” (1901) are all particularly flat, unimpressive pieces of writing. What is instructive to note is that in each case the story's failure seems to derive from a common flaw—the author's attempt to develop plot and a clever, surprise ending. The invariable result is a quality of contrivance. In “The Westbound Train” a woman's travel passes are confused with another's and for a while she begins to doubt her husband and the validity of their marriage; when the confusion has been cleared away, so has any interest in the story. “The Affair at Grover Station” is potentially more interesting because it employs a male narrator reflecting on a love triangle and subsequent murder, but the focus falls finally on the narrator's having seen his friend's ghost, so the reader again is betrayed by suspense and a contrived ending. “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” also is a potentially interesting story, this time because the author is using an elegiac setting, a deserted prairie town, for which she clearly has much imaginative feeling. But as in another story called “A Resurrection” (1897) set in a dying town, the author projects our interest toward a conclusion which fails to satisfy our aroused expectations. In “El Dorado” a land speculator, who duped everyone into starting the town, returns for some pictures and artifacts connected with a woman he loved, and is killed by a poisonous snake as he is retrieving his goods. An old colonel who had stayed on in town after it failed is thereby able to get back his invested money. In “A Resurrection,” whose real imaginative subject is the unsung nobility of forgotten, small-town people (one is reminded of Gray's “Elegy”), the heroine finally receives a marriage proposal from the man she once loved and whose son she has been raising. The “happily-ever-after” ending belies both the realistic setting of a dying western town and the stoical conception of the heroine's character. In each of these stories there is a shift away from the original imaginative inspiration behind the story to develop an idea and to fulfill the more conventional demands of a short-story plot.

As Willa Cather's writing matured she turned less frequently to ideas as a source of inspiration for fiction. Eventually her best fiction was to be written out of an emotion and developed largely in terms of setting and character. But one form of idea story continued to interest her and that was the Jamesian ghost story. In “Eleanor's House” (1907)15 a ghost never actually appears, but a man's second wife finds that she must exorcise the spirit of his dead first wife before they can live happily together. The first wife, Eleanor, represents an idealized romantic youth and her decease must be accepted by the husband as the inevitable passage from innocence into the sober world of experience and responsibility. In its characters and setting (Americans living in Normandy) and in its emphasis on the subtle interplay of consciousness and feeling, “Eleanor's House” is probably the most Jamesian story Willa Cather ever wrote, but like so many of her other stories built around an interesting idea, it suffers from overexplicitness. The central consciousness in the story, a girlhood friend of the first wife, understands too well her friend's situation and we are left with few questions to tease the imagination. The final twist of the friend becoming obsessed by Eleanor—her husband says to her “‘You look like a ghost’”—is just that, a twist, rather than the revelation of a powerful hidden emotion in the story. In “Consequences” (1915)16 the ghost who haunts the hero in the form of an old man is very real. The old man prefigures everything that Kier Cavanaugh will become, and after several glimpses into the jaded, physically depleted world of his future, Kavanaugh chooses to commit suicide. The contrast between the ruddy-faced protangonist and the decayed old man who pursues him is quite effective, but unfortunately the emphasis in the story falls on a lengthy debate between the hero and an acquaintance as to whether or not all suicides are explicable, and in the context of a thesis being demonstrated Cavanaugh's story is considerably weakened.

A few stories Willa Cather published after leaving her post as managing editor of McClure's Magazine might be described as ideas or current interests worked up into fictional form; they betray that at this time the author still had to sell her work in order to make a living. In “Behind the Singer Tower” (1912)17 six men, out for a boat ride on the North River, reflect on the nature of a powerful city, their thoughts inspired by a fire in a great New York hotel which has killed hundreds of important people. One of the men, a humanitarian engineer, asks the others to consider also the countless little men, the many workers who are destroyed every day so that the city's great machinery can operate (the average for window cleaners who drop to the pavement, we are told, is more than one per day). When one of the group tells of “Little Caesar,” an Italian day laborer from Ischia who is needlessly killed in a construction accident, the story moves into direct social criticism. But it ends with a vision of evolutionary purpose behind the dynamic processes of the city: the men are left wondering what new “Idea” will be born into human history from their civilization on Manhattan Island. This ending looks forward to a similar theme in One of Ours. David Gerhardt, the violinist, wonders if there is some unforeseen purpose behind the devastation of the war: “‘I've sometimes wondered whether the young men of our time had to die to bring a new idea into the world … something Olympian’” (p. 409).18 This was an idea, however, which the author never dramatized any further. “The Bookkeeper's Wife” (1916) and “Ardessa” (1918)19 are two more stories drawn from her experiences in New York. They are both stories about office workers, people who count for little in the city's great scheme of things, but who nonetheless suffer from the ironic twists of fate. Except for their biographical nature (we are given a glimpse of that world in which Willa Cather herself worked for six years), these stories have little of lasting interest, for their ironies are of a wholly conventional and hypothetical kind.

The danger for the critical imagination is overintellectualization—the reduction of esthetic experience to an abstraction. Frequently, art of a critical and ironic nature represents the revenge of the intellect on emotions which the artist himself cannot control. But emotion rather than intellect is the immutable material out of which great art has always been fashioned. Consequently the most powerful form of critical art is satire, for not only does it promote the function of the critical consciousness, but also it gives expression to those emotions—indignation and outrage—which spur on critical judgment. In a satire the artist projects his sense of personal failure and self-disgust (those emotions he cannot handle) on to the world at large, and by pointing to social injustice and to irrationality in the behavior of others he mitigates his own sense of failure and inadequacy. For example, the righteous indignation of Swift at the presumptions of the human animal seems to have had its source in the writer's own emotional instability and a body wracked by disease and pain. Thus while a satirist's professed purposes are rational and corrective—he wants us to recognize and alter an unhealthy state of affairs—he is in fact giving vent to his deepest feelings, and by establishing a moral norm from which all human behavior is accordingly judged aberrant, he is effecting a personal revenge on the world through his art. The central motive in a satirical work of art is to impose one's individual sense of order on the world and, by inspiring hatred or ridicule, to revenge oneself on an unsatisfactory way of life. The emotions out of which critical or satirical art arise include cruelty on the one hand and self-pity on the other, sadomasochism being their psychological extremes.

Self-pity and cruelty are emotions which recur with significant frequency in Willa Cather's fiction and which point to a persistent dark side to the author's imagination. Consider the importance of such despairing, self-pitying protagonists as Claude Wheeler or Godfrey St. Peter, and the unmitigatable cruelty exhibited by Ivy Peters, Myra Henshawe, or Sapphira Colbert. In two very early stories the cruelty latent in the author's imagination finds startlingly direct expression. “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog” (1896)20 is in one sense an innocuous (and artistically unimpressive) tale written for children at Christmas. But at the same time it is almost Iagolike in its conception. The evil werewolf dog, who is despised and in return hates everything and everyone, leads Santa's reindeers out on a lake where the ice breaks and they drown after much struggling to save themselves. The tale ends happily with the other animals helping to deliver the children's gifts on Christmas Eve, but the one strong image in the story is that of the remorseless werewolf dog watching the reindeer drown. In “The Dance at Chevalier's” (1900)21 the two rivals' love for Severine Chevalier pales beside the loser's desire for revenge. The latter warns Severine that he likes to kill the things he loves, and before he poisons his rival at the dance he says to himself, “‘Love is sweet, but sweeter is revenge.’”

The author's personal drama of self-pity, cruelty, and revenge is set forth in a rather light-hearted but revealing tale entitled “Tommy, the Unsentimental” (1896),22 written when Willa Cather was about twenty-two. The author's frank, boyish nature with its suggestion of emotional complexity is probably nowhere else presented in such a direct and engaging manner. The plot of the story is not biographical, but one cannot help feeling there is considerable honesty and candor in the characterization of the protagonist and her feelings. The story tells about a tomboy in a small western town who saves her boyfriend from financial disaster and at the same time finds him a very suitable wife. The central character is Tommy Shirley, a rough, boyish young woman (not unlike Willa Cather in some respects), who has the figure of a half-grown lad. Tommy's best friends are her father's business associates, and she can hold her own with them, whether it is at whist, billiards, or making cocktails. However, it is in the relationship between Tommy and two other young people that we catch a glimpse of the complex psychological relationships among characters in the author's major novels, and that the drama of self-pity and revenge reveals itself. Quite out of keeping with her good sense and practicality, Tommy is fond of Jay Ellington Harper, an effeminate bank clerk from the East who, according to Tommy, is good for nothing but keeping his hair parted and wearing a white carnation in his buttonhole. But Tommy is also “sweet” on a girl she brings home from school in the East—Miss Jessica, a vaporous and delicate young woman given to sunshades. Eventually Harper's affection for Tommy changes to love for Miss Jessica and Tommy arranges for her two friends to marry, but not before her own confused emotions find temporary release in a scene of subtle revenge. In order to save Harper's bank from collapse Tommy and Miss Jessica must cycle twenty-five miles upgrade to the next town. The sun is like hot brass and Miss Jessica almost perishes from the heat; but Tommy drives her mercilessly on. Miss Jessica, watching Tommy in front of her, reflects “that Tommy was not only very unkind, but that she sat very badly on her wheel and looked aggressively masculine and professional when she bent her shoulders and pumped like that.” Finally, Miss Jessica, reduced to tears, gives up, collapses by the wayside and Tommy, laughing to herself, pushes on thinking that, after all, it only evened the score. But after saving the bank Tommy is left alone, and there is a touch of pathos to the girl who is a forerunner of Cather's lonely artist figure. However, in the controlled and rather light manner of the tale the heroine bites her lip and then shrugs her shoulders at both the foolishness and loveableness of more ordinary people.

For Willa Cather the emotions of cruelty and self-pity were most strongly associated with the small Nebraska town in which she was raised, and they first emerge as the substance of satire in “The Sculptor's Funeral” (1905),23 a story set in the West. Without doubt “The Sculptor's Funeral” is one of Willa Cather's best pieces of short fiction: detail is always suggestive rather than explicit and the essential elements of the story—the satire, the pathos—come together in exactly the right relationship. Perhaps this is because the author may have had a formal model for the story in the pastoral elegy, the classical lament of an artist on the occasion of a fellow artist's death. Whether consciously or not, Miss Cather has woven into her story many of the elements of pastoral elegy as practiced by the Greeks Bion and Moschus, and in English by Milton (“Lycidas”), Shelley (“Adonais”), and Matthew Arnold (“Thyrsis”). The artist's body is brought back by one of his students to be watched over by his kinsmen and former neighbors, but as in the traditional poem only the fellow artist truly mourns his loss. For while the professed purpose of a pastoral elegy is to sing a lament for the dead poet, its real motive is satiric—to rail against those forces which diminish an artist's life. In “The Sculptor's Funeral” it is the conformity and ugly materialism of midwestern society which come under attack. The unsympathetic mourners represent all those negative aspects of life from which the artist originally fled.

Point of view in the story is divided between Henry Steavens, the artist's student who accompanies the body west, and Jim Laird, a drunken lawyer from Sand City, who appreciates what Harvey Merrick, the dead artist, made of his life. Steavens's viewpoint distills for us the pathos of the artist's life: through his eyes we feel compassion for Harvey Merrick coming from such raw, ugly surroundings, and we are assured of his significant achievement in the larger world. Laird's viewpoint is the bitter, satirical one; with his “astonishing cataract of red beard that grew fiercely and thickly in all directions,” he is almost a personification of choleric man. In his angry speeches he denounces the drab western town where money is the only measure of success, and thinly disguised knavery the accepted means of acquiring it. Ideals in such a town, though everywhere professed, are destructive to anyone who takes them seriously, for cunning is the only currency with real value. The palm of distinction placed on Merrick's coffin, like the traditional tribute of flowers in pastoral elegy, is without significance to the townspeople; they discuss instead the possibility of a will and agree that Mr. Merrick should have sent his son to a business college instead of a university in the East.

The bitter mood of the story is underscored in the details describing the townspeople and the dead artist's home. The shuffling, ill-defined group of men gathered at the train station speak in a rough country slang and move about “slimily as eels.” The Merrick home with its clover-green Brussels carpet, its plush upholstery and hand-painted china plaques, is the epitome of conventional bad taste. The coffin is taken into the typically unused parlor and set “under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a ‘Rogers group’ of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax.” The satire of bad taste and crude manners in a small western town deepens into personal horror with the portrait of the artist's parents: the violent, terrifying mother whose outburst of grief soon gives way to abuse of the maid for forgetting the dressing for the chicken salad, and the shameful, broken father who looks at his wife “with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip.” Steavens recognizes them to be “the real tragedy of his master's life.” These parents are a caricature of the dominant mother and weak father, but they prefigure the essential nature of several couples in Willa Cather's fiction, perhaps most significantly the Templetons in “Old Mrs. Harris” and the Colberts in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, both modeled to some extent on the author's own parents. …


The themes in Willa Cather's fiction are many and varied; during a writing career which spanned more than fifty years she found materials for her art in subjects as diverse as the American pioneer experience, World War I, contemporary urban life, and the history of Catholic civilization. One theme, however, which persists throughout Willa Cather's fiction and which helps to bind the whole canon together into a continuous drama is the relationship between art and experience, or, to put it more directly, the dilemma of the artist caught between his commitment to art on one hand and to life on the other.

That art and life should be seen as contraries does not in theory hold. Art and life cannot after all be separated: from life experiences come the materials of art, and art in turn gives to human life a sense of purpose and design. But in practice the artist's pursuit of excellence in his work can place severe limitations on his personal life. Art is an achievement, and like excellence or success in any endeavor requires great concentration and dedication. The goal of art, moreover, is to transcend the human condition—to create something permanent, immutable, outside the world of time and chance—and the commitment required for artistic creativity often excludes the artist from a full participation in and enjoyment of life. Paradoxically, while the values of art are intelligence, order, insight, and sympathy, they are frequently achieved only if the artist denies them in his relations with others. Thus a great artist, exalted in the practice of his art, may well be selfish, aloof, and emotionally empty as a man. Art serves to enhance and enrich human life, but it requires that the artist sacrifice much in his own personal life to achieve its highest ends. Art and life become contraries through the demands they place on the artist.

We know from her early critical articles that even at the outset of her career Willa Cather was aware of the deep split between the claims of art and life. The newspaper articles were written when she was still in her early twenties, but she already seems to have recognized the difficulty for the artist of reconciling these two claims. In countless columns and reviews, whether her subject was painting, music, the stage, or literature, Willa Cather touched in some way on the nature of art and the artist. By temperament she was a romantic and her instinct accordingly was to view art as the highest form of human endeavor. Frequently she raised art to the level of the divine, an experience akin to religion through which man comes closer to God. In describing the great pleasure afforded by a certain actor, she says the enjoyment of his talent is “in watching a man give back what God put into him.”24 She shares in the public denouncement of Oscar Wilde as a criminal, but with the important reservation that the artist in him cannot be killed because “it is of God” and a “heavenly birthright … which makes [him] akin to the angels and to see the visions of paradise.”25 In one column she says it is the writer's task to translate God to man;26 in another she compares the artist's calling to a religious commitment: “In the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few men born of woman who are strong enough to take the vows.”27 Willa Cather also described the artist in heroic terms and repeatedly refers in her articles to the glory and victory attendant on a great work of art: “O yes, art is a great thing when it is great, it has the elements of power and conquest in it, it's like the Roman army, it subdues a world, a world that is proud to be conquered when it is by Rome.”28 These are the metaphors that Willa Cather would later use in The Song of the Lark to describe the ascendance and triumph of her artist heroine.

But Willa Cather recognized that there was a dark side to the artist's life as well. In a column on the actress Eleanora Duse she says that while the artist is one of God's “elect,” loneliness “besets all mortals who are shut up alone with God.” Referring to a letter published by Duse, Miss Cather writes: “There is something wonderfully beautiful in that letter, it is so full of the loveliness and lovelessness and desolation of art. Of the isolation … of all creative genius. … Solitude, like some evil destiny, darkens its cradle, and sits watching even upon its grave.”29 Frequently during her career Willa Cather felt that loneliness was the inevitable fate of the artist and that great art could be achieved only if the artist sacrificed all other forms of personal satisfaction to that one end. In writing about the forthcoming marriage of the opera singer Helena von Doenhoff she insists that marriage and artistic greatness are incompatible; she implies a comparison between Doenhoff as a pilgrim of the arts and Bunyan's Mr. Doubting, who turns back and is seen no more. In this same rigorous vein Cather argues that the artist who cares only for success eventually will find it “empty and unsatisfying”; and that in art “complete self-abnegation is the one step … between promise and fulfillment.”30 But on another occasion, describing the homesickness and concern that Réjane, the French comedienne, felt for her husband and children when she was on tour, Willa Cather writes that possibly Madame Réjane “knows that there are other things on earth than art, things higher and more sacred.”31 Cather also understood that artistic pursuits were sometimes “personal, intense, selfish”; and that some successful artists sustain wounds that glory cannot heal.32

From the beginning, then, we find Willa Cather very aware of the complexities surrounding the artist's commitment to his craft. An artist may be a conqueror and godlike in his ability to create higher forms of reality or truth, but he does so by denying himself companionship and community with his fellow man. The artist's dilemma—the necessity of choosing between the antithetical values of art and life—appears again and again in Willa Cather's writing; it is the subject of one of her earliest short stories, “Nanette, An Aside,” and I see it as a submerged but powerful countertheme in the last four books. In earlier stories such as “The Marriage of Phaedra,” “‘A Death in the Desert,’” or “The Namesake,” and in The Song of the Lark, although the dialectic may be broken temporarily by a strongly negative view of art, there is a deep underlying conviction that the artist's commitment to his work is ultimately sacred and positive. But in the last books (Obscure Destinies, Lucy Gayheart, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, The Old Beauty and Others) that instinctive faith, in my view, is gone and what gives those books their peculiar haunting power, in addition to much else, is their mood of doubt and uncertainty and the picture they suggest of Willa Cather in the last decade and a half of her life questioning the validity of both a life's choice and a lifetime's achievements. Willa Cather's vision of life perceived a duality in all human experience, and in much of her fiction she celebrates without contesting the double nature of both man and his world; but as an artist she also strove to find a way of reconciling the opposing claims of art and life which would allow her to be both an artist and a woman. The conflict of art versus life is perhaps the most profound subject for any work of art; not only does it insist on an examination of those values to which art and life lay separate claim, but it touches at the very quick of the artist's desire and need to create. This is the theme, whether it be explicit or concealed, which gives greatness to the art of Mann, Joyce, and Proust, and, as I hope to show, to the art of Willa Cather.

There is an artist figure—the violinist Peter Sadelack—in Willa Cather's first published story, but her first study of a professional artist appears in “Nanette: An Aside” (1897).33 Here we find an opera singer, Traduttori, who has achieved world renown as an artist, but whose personal life is almost a void. We learn in a brief aside that she has a crippled daughter hidden away somewhere in a convent in Italy and that her husband is a gambler and an alcoholic. Traduttori sadly explains to her maid, Nanette, that when she chose her career as a singer “‘everything dear in life—every love, every human hope’” lay between her and greatness and that she “‘had to bury what lay between.’” Nanette is the only person who has remained faithful to her and has been her confidante. The tragic side of Traduttori's life is dramatically revealed when Nanette decides to leave the singer to marry an Italian waiter. Traduttori wishes Nanette a lasting happiness, but after the maid is gone she puts her head down and weeps bitterly for her own loneliness and misery. The irony of the artist's fate is underscored in the last sentence where Willa Cather writes: “And yet upon her brow shone the coronet that the nations had given her when they called her queen.” The author reworked the story in “A Singer's Romance” (1900)34 to emphasize again the cruel ironies the artist suffers in life. In this story the opera singer believes almost till the end that she, not her maid, is the one being courted by the Italian. When left alone at the end she seems to be even more wretched, for not only is she unloved, but aging as well, although the unsentimental last line of the story (“Then she ordered her breakfast—and a quart of champagne”) suggests she has her consolations and that Willa Cather had learned a thing or two about divas in the three years between the stories.

In two other early stories art is connected with failure in one's personal life. Although the characters in these stories cannot, strictly speaking, be classified as artists, their lives are shaped by their concern with the arts. In “The Prodigies” (1897)35 an ambitious mother dedicates her two children, a boy and a girl, to a life of singing classical music in concert; but the vigorous physical discipline requisite eventually takes its toll on the girl and the final implication is that it will soon kill her. Although on its simplest level the story is about the cruel treatment of children, the fact that the mother's inordinate ambition seizes on music for its realization suggests something sinister as well as exalted about the arts. In “The Professor's Commencement” (1902)36 an old teacher being honored on his retirement looks back with regret on a life devoted to esthetics in an industrial town. The old teacher is not an artist, but a sense of failure in his life derives from a feeling that he has missed his true vocation—that dedication to art in uncongenial surroundings was an evasion of his real test as a man of the arts. In all these stories personal failure is in some way related to art.


Willa Cather's first published book of fiction was The Troll Garden (1905).37 The seven stories in this volume are closely related to each other, as they are all concerned with art and the artistic temperament, a subject which from the beginning was as important to the author as her pioneer childhood in the West. Critics have suggested that in theme and arrangement the stories form an intricate design. E. K. Brown sees them as arranged in a pattern of contrasting stories.38 Bernice Slote likens them to seven panels, a variation of the septenary, from which several combinations of figures are possible through association and contrast.39 Whatever their internal relationships, each story comes back to a fundamental problem which teased the author's imagination for years—the relationship of art to life. I shall consider the stories individually, because each story, like the facet of a prism, exhibits the nature of art in a different light. The full complexity of the book's theme, however, emerges through the qualifications that one story imposes on the others.

In the first story, “Flavia and Her Artists,” the practitioners and patrons of the arts are seen mostly in a negative light. The story focuses on Flavia Hamilton, who courts the favor and company of artists with a kind of hysterical desperation even though she has a congenial husband and three well-mannered children. Flavia and her somewhat decadent ménage are seen through the eyes of Imogen Willard, a serious student, who has been a friend of Flavia and her husband in the past. During Imogen's visit, M. Roux, a French writer who has recently been staying at the Hamilton home, cuts Flavia up in an article subtitled “The Advanced American Woman, … Aggressive, Superficial and Insincere.” Flavia's husband, Arthur, destroys the article before his wife can read it, but at dinner, in front of the guests, he condemns M. Roux and his kind as a reprobate class of men who, while indispensable to civilization, are unreclaimed by it.40 Flavia's guests are insulted and the next morning most of them depart, leaving Flavia devastated socially and furious with her husband. Arthur Hamilton's view of the artist as reprobate appears to be endorsed by the author. Ironically, Flavia accuses her husband of bad taste; but Flavia's passion for the arts is only a social ambition, while her husband's insight and self-sacrificing sympathy are genuine. In this story Willa Cather makes it clear that an artist to her is not by definition a sacred personage. Indeed, in cliques and fashionable gatherings artists are often insufferably vain and pretentious. Honesty and humility are more valuable qualities than good taste, and here they belong not to the artist but to a quiet man of business.41

But perhaps Willa Cather intended the word “artists” in the title of the story to be read ironically, for in the second story of the collection, “The Sculptor's Funeral,”42 the artist is the very opposite kind of man from Flavia's friends. Instead of the free-loading, fashionable man of the hour, the sculptor is a lonely, suffering figure who engages our complete sympathy. The distinction between the genuine artist and the celebrity is an important one in Willa Cather's fiction because only the true artist is capable of possessing nobility and insight. Tension in “The Sculptor's Funeral” exists between the world of the artist and that of the ordinary man which is seen as both limited and corrupt. As the townspeople rehearse in their crude and callous fashion the details of Harvey Merrick's life, we feel grateful, as does Jim Laird, the drunken lawyer and Merrick's old friend, that for a time he escaped the bleak realities of his home town, with its ugly, tasteless physical surroundings, its greedy, conformity-minded inhabitants, and its painful memories of home life. There is no question in this story but that the escape provided by art is valid and meaningful; only art has the power of infusing the sordid experiences of life with something more noble and lasting. Although “Flavia and Her Artists” and “The Sculptor's Funeral” appear to be antithetical in their view of art, they are fundamentally similar in lauding that which is genuine. Flavia's artists appear shams beside Harvey Merrick; indeed, they are as cruel and thoughtless as the townspeople in Sand City. The genuine response resists the pressures of fashionable conformity, whether it be a clique of esthetes or a group of small-town businessmen and farmers. What also is interesting in these two stories is that the artist is not held up as the sole repository of human values. Arthur Hamilton and Jim Laird, neither of whom is an artist, have the keenest insights into their respective situations.

In “The Garden Lodge” Willa Cather explores an altogether different aspect of art. In the person of Caroline Noble the respective claims of the practical and the imaginative life are at war with each other. Caroline's parents were indigent artists, and the impoverished, unhappy circumstances of her childhood were the result of her parents' excessive and impractical devotion to music. Caroline's brother, similarly enchanted by the muses, “shot himself in a frenzy” at the age of twenty-six. Reacting to these experiences, Caroline has repressed all her imaginative feelings and becomes a practical, successful woman. The crisis in her soul comes after a great opera singer, d'Esquerré, has stayed at her garden lodge; he awakens in her something vital which she has suppressed all her life, but which now demands expression. His singing gives her a glimpse of that spiritual world of the imagination whose existence transforms and gives meaning to what is mundane and assured. But Caroline's unrest is short-lived; when her husband suggests replacing the romantic garden lodge with a new summerhouse she gives her consent with little hesitation. The artists in this story are particularly interesting for their contrasting natures. Caroline's father and brother, who have failed to achieve wordly success through their art, are vindictive and self-pitying, and yet for the father, at least, the magic of great music continues to give purpose to his life. D'Esquerré, on the other hand, who has known great success, is an empty shell and only when he feels the fervent appeal of his audience can he experience again desire for the ineffable something beyond. Willa Cather was haunted from the beginning, as we have seen in her newspaper reviews and in stories like “Nanette: An Aside,” by the fact that artistic success does not guarantee happiness in the artist's personal life.

In “‘A Death in the Desert’” the story focuses directly on the artist's suffering. The central figure is Katharine Gaylord, a well-known singer who has become consumptive and has returned to her home in Wyoming to die. She recognizes her tragedy to be not simply her illness and approaching death, but also her unrequited love for the composer Adriance Hilgarde. Through her eyes we glimpse something of this man: on the surface Adriance is successful, dynamic, and flamboyantly happy, but when Katharine hears his most recent compositions she recognizes a tragic emotion which lies underneath. His tragic vision is that of human mortality, the fact that all of life's efforts must in the end be swallowed up by death. As she listens to his music, Katharine hears “‘the feet of the runners’” as they pass her by, an image of life hurrying on without her; also, an image of life as a dance of death. Katharine Gaylord is not presented to us directly but through the eyes of Adriance's brother, Everett; he loved her for many years, but she always overlooked him because of her passion for his brother. The feeling in this story is not so much that artists are cruel and indifferent to others around them (as Flavia's artists are), but that almost by definition the great ones are caught up in a quest which places them outside the daily round and the framework of values by which ordinary men are judged. Katharine on her death bed sees her whole life in retrospect as a self-destructive quest for punishment, pursued most dramatically in her fruitless love for Adriance. The desert of the title suggests a place of suffering and of tragic recognition.

In “The Marriage of Phaedra” Hugh Treffinger, the painter, is another tragic artist figure. The outline of his life is gradually reconstructed as his biographer, McMaster, gathers information for a book about him. From Treffinger's sister-in-law and from his widow, McMaster learns that the artist's marriage was not happy; he and his wife contended with each other for mastery (they are both described as strong and aggressive) and their marriage stalemated in hate. It is through the servant, James, that McMaster comes closest to the man himself, and it is James who confides that for Treffinger painting the Phaedra was a destructive passion: “‘It was the Marriage as killed 'im … and for the matter 'o that, it did like to 'av been the death of all of us.’” The Marriage, though unfinished, is considered Treffinger's highest achievement. It is a painting filled with guilt and the promise of suffering; the fatal attraction between Phaedra and her stepson is not pagan but Christian and medieval in conception; Phaedra is not a daughter of Minos but of the early church, “doomed to scourgings, and the wrangling of soul with flesh.” McMaster can learn no more about the painting or the artist's suffering translated on to the canvas. There is in the story something incoherent, because the guilt of Phaedra in the Marriage painting does not seem to relate to the failure in the artist's own marriage. Perhaps Willa Cather's chief concern was to dramatize the loneliness and misery of the artist's existence; certainly McMaster finds no one in Treffinger's personal life who cared for either him or his work except the loyal servant, James; and there lies another irony, for James is too uneducated to understand his master. The artist's life, in fact, inspired only hate; the story ends with Treffinger's widow vengefully selling the unfinished painting to a dealer from Australia in order to finance her new marriage.

“A Wagner Matinee,” like “The Sculptor's Funeral,” holds a special place in the corpus of Willa Cather's short fiction because it brings together the world of the arts and the world of the pioneer. The story itself is a simple one: the narrator's aunt returns briefly to Boston after a lifetime of pioneering in the West, and at an afternoon concert she catches a glimpse of everything that she has missed in her life on the frontier. Music here is a disturbing force; it brings not just pleasure but regret and longing for a world unrealized. In the careful juxtaposing of salient detail such as the elegant concert hall with the tall, unpainted house on the empty plains, the aunt's tragedy is poignantly delineated. Because of the point of view from which it is told, the story acquires a further, complex dimension: his aunt's presence evokes in the narrator a disquieting nostalgia. The dreariest details of life on the Nebraska farm—the dishcloths drying before the kitchen door, his aunt's concern for “a certain weakling calf”—bring to his mind the sacrifices she made for him when he was a boy; he owes to her “most of the good that ever came [his] way” in his boyhood, and it is a debt that never can be repaid.

In “Paul's Case” art is again a disquieting element. For the strange youth in this story, music and the theatre provide an escape from everything that is stupid and ugly in his existence. Art becomes a substitute reality which eventually claims him, body and soul. Paul is a classic study or analysis, as the title suggests, of an estranged youth—probably homosexual, certainly neurotic. Before the portrait was drawn the “type” was carefully observed: the hysterical brilliance of the eyes, the theatrical gestures, the twitching lips, and the physical aversion to human touch. The imaginative poverty of Paul's middle-class life with his father and sister, a life consisting of Sunday School picnics, petty economies, and cooking smells, is made tolerable by his work as an usher at Carnegie Hall. But when he is expelled from high school for insolence and forced to quit his job at the concert hall, he ends his compromise with the world, steals some money from his employer, and runs off to New York for a few enchanted days of luxury in a hotel. When his whereabouts is finally discovered, rather than return to his father's house he throws himself in front of a train. The seductive nature of art and the artistic temperament as touched by madness are set forth here in the most direct manner of all the tales in the volume.

The Troll Garden continues to be a vital collection of stories exactly because Willa Cather refused to mold them into a single pattern. Although the stories are built around such essential juxtapositions in her writing as art and experience, East and West, the artist and the “common” man, these dichotomies are viewed from a different perspective in each story, so that the collection as a whole becomes a complex network of interrelated themes. Design in this book touches on many of the author's major themes—the quest for what is genuine and lasting, the moral opacity of material possessions, the artist as tragic figure—and thereby in its own way comprehends the whole corpus of her work.


  1. I am indebted to the late Renato Poggioli for the term “pastoral of innocence.” In his article “The Oaten Flute,” Harvard Library Bulletin 11 (May 1957): 147-84, Poggioli distinguishes two kinds of pastoral: the pastoral of happiness in which the rustic landscape is a place of erotic fulfillment, and the pastoral of innocence, a domestic idyll which celebrates age rather than youth. A good example of the latter would be Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs. To denote its opposite I use the term pastoral of experience (with its Blakean overtones) rather than pastoral of happiness, as the retreat into memory more often uncovers sexual nightmare than erotic bliss.

  2. “The Novel Démeublé,” Willa Cather on Writing, pp. 35-43.

  3. CSF [Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912], pp. 515-22.

  4. CSF, pp. 573-78.

  5. CSF, pp. 557-66.

  6. April Twilights (1903), edited with an introduction by Bernice Slote, rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968).

  7. CSF, pp. 265-82.

  8. CSF, pp. 69-77.

  9. The story contains the seeds of much later fiction: the image of the boys on a sandbank in the river occurs in Alexander's Bridge and My Ántonia; the New Mexican mesa looks forward to the Southwest landscape in The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, Death Comes for the Archbishop; the Coronado theme recurs in My Antonia; and in A Lost Lady there are two German boys exactly like the Fasslers who take catfish from the river to sell in town. “The Enchanted Bluff” clearly gives expression to a particularly rich and fertile memory.

  10. Elizabeth Sergeant speculates whether the writing of My Ántonia was not for Willa Cather “a real turning point of literary maturity, when encouragement or criticism from without became irrelevant?” See Willa Cather: A Memoir, p. 148.

  11. “On Shadows on the Rock” in Willa Cather on Writing, p. 15. There are other examples. According to Elizabeth Sargeant in Willa Cather: A Memoir, Miss Cather wanted the heroine of My Ántonia to be like a Sicilian apothecary jar—“a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides” (pp. 138-40). In a letter she likens the narrative of Death Comes for the Archbishop to two white mules moving slowly forward (Willa Cather to Norman Foerster, May 22, 1933, Love Library, University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

  12. CSF, pp. 523-28.

  13. This is one of the major themes studied by Randall in The Landscape and the Looking Glass. See also “The Kingdom of Art,” the second introductory essay by Bernice Slote in KA [Kingdom of Art], pp. 93-97.

  14. CSF, pp. 449-71.

  15. CSF, pp. 95-111.

  16. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929, edited with an introduction by Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), pp. 65-84. Hereafter cited as UVS.

  17. CSF, pp. 43-54.

  18. One of Ours (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922). All references are to this text.

  19. UVS, pp. 85-97 and 99-115.

  20. CSF, pp. 441-48.

  21. CSF, pp. 547-55.

  22. CSF, pp. 473-80.

  23. CSF, pp. 173-85.

  24. Nebraska State Journal, March 3, 1895; collected in KA, p. 124.

  25. Courier, September 28, 1895, collected in KA, p. 392.

  26. Courier, November 23, 1895; collected in KA, p. 409.

  27. Nebraska State Journal, March 1, 1896; collected in KA, p. 417.

  28. Nebraska State Journal, January 26, 1896; collected in KA, p. 120.

  29. Nebraska State Journal, June 16, 1895; collected in KA, p. 153.

  30. Nebraska State Journal, January 27, 1895; collected in W& P, pp. 175-76.

  31. Nebraska State Journal, April 21, 1895; collected in W& P, p. 200.

  32. Courier, November 9, 1895, and Nebraska State Journal, December 15, 1895; quoted in KA, p. 71.

  33. CSF, pp. 405-10.

  34. CSF, pp. 333-38.

  35. CSF, pp. 411-23.

  36. CSF, pp. 283-91.

  37. The stories from The Troll Garden are reprinted in CSF, pp. 149-261.

  38. Brown, Willa Cather, pp. 113 ff.

  39. KA, pp. 93 ff. Bernice Slote also explains in detail the allusions behind the title and the epigraphs (from Christina Rossetti's “The Goblin Market” and Charles Kingsley's The Roman and the Teuton).

  40. This view of the artist follows through an earlier observation Willa Cather made about literary people in the Nebraska State Journal, June 7, 1896: “It is gravely to be feared that literary people are rather mean folk when you get right down to the selfish little pericardiums that lie behind all their graceful artistic charms. They love humanity in the abstract, but no class of men can treat the concrete individual more shabbily.” Quoted in KA [Kingdom of Art], p. 68.

  41. Some of the characters in this story are forerunners of types of figures which recur in Willa Cather's fiction. Arthur Hamilton, the quiet man of genuine good taste who is alienated from his unsympathetic wife and her clique of fashion-conscious friends, looks forward to Jim Burden, Godfrey St. Peter, Count Frontenac, Clement Sebastian, and Henry Colbert, to name only major characters. Imogen Willard, the honest, self-effacing observer, anticipates the shy, scholarly Nellie Birdseye of My Mortal Enemy, and there seems to be a direct line leading from the forthright “Jimmy” Broadwood to Cherry Beamish, the one-time music-hall performer in “The Old Beauty.” The reappearance of so many character types suggests both the unity and complexity of the author's imagination.

  42. “The Sculptor's Funeral” has been treated more fully in Part I as a form of pastoral elegy.

Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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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 middle career. They are the product of many years of struggle between the will to face life straight on and the wish to escape from life and the painful changes brought inevitably by the passing of time. Cather felt deeply that life is infinitely precious and yet infinitely difficult. She seems always to have placed a high premium on life—and for a time, life on any terms, at any cost. One need only remember how an artist like Thea Kronborg (The Song of the Lark) strove for it, or how characters like Clara Vavrika (“The Bohemian Girl”), Marie Shabata (O Pioneers!), and Marian Forrester (A Lost Lady) were willing to sacrifice almost anything to their need to feel alive. Cather's sympathy with this desire for life and with the ache that accompanies a diminishing of life runs long and deep, from some very early stories through Sapphira and the Slave Girl and the last stories.

But at the same time, with A Lost Lady (1923) Cather's expression of her feeling toward life began to take on a new dimension. For example, even though Marian Forrester and Marie Shabata are both adulterers, they can hardly be judged on the same moral grounds. Marie falls because she is young and terribly in love; the older Marian consciously chooses to be unfaithful. Marian is not only a woman who pulses with life, who must have it, but also one who must and will survive. Marie lacks that kind of toughness. More and more in Cather's later work, to live is less to vibrate with energy and desire than to endure, no matter what befalls one. Cather never lost her admiration for youth and the fire of life that seems to motivate it, as the late book Lucy Gayheart (1935) attests, but as her own perspective matured, she coupled that admiration with an increased regard for the capacity to absorb the shock of change without breaking, to look ahead as well as behind. She seemed increasingly to admire the survivor, and the theme of endurance, of survival, is central to her last three stories.

David Stouck argues that in Cather's last four books there is evidence that she mellowed and became more concerned with the importance of human relationships than she had been earlier. In these last works there is even a suggestion that she may have felt she erred in sacrificing so much on the altar of art.2 A further sign of possible reevaluation as Cather grew older is her increased veneration for the survivor—and her scarcely veiled scorn for the nonsurvivor in the Old Beauty collection. Cather seems to have concluded that it is possible to lose youthful verve without losing appreciation for youth, and that people could develop qualities of adaptability and endurance as an antidote against the changes that rob them of youth and beauty. Cather had written about a great many survivors and nonsurvivors before the 1920s—her stories and novels are full of those who adapt and survive and those who do not. Generally, in the stories, if not always in the novels, she seems to like the survivors better, but she herself does not appear emotionally involved with the question of survival in the early stories. She seems simply to project an intellectual approval for flexibility and hardihood.

In A Lost Lady, however, Cather makes a clear statement about survival. She does not want Marian Forrester to break under the strain of being caught between two eras. She wants her to adjust and go on living. Cather reaffirms this position in The Professor's House, where in the end Godfrey St. Peter takes the survivor, Augusta, as his model and faces the future with determination, if not joy. He must and will adapt to a difficult world. These novels are an important step in the evolution of thought and feeling that ultimately produced Cather's last three stories.

That evolution began perhaps as early as 1898 with a clever little story called “The Way of the World,” a story about a miniature Eve who deserts her hapless Adam in favor of the more resourceful and successful snake in the garden, the New Boy in town. The evolution continued through a series of stories about people who languish in the face of change, or who are destroyed because they cannot face change, or who seek refuge in the past, or who take up life and go on. Mary Eliza in “The Way of the World,” as Cather's first full-fledged, willful survivor, is certainly a prefiguration of Marian Forrester. But Cather's line of evolution is not a steady, unbroken movement in a single direction; her work nearly always asserts a double thrust. Although she begins with a nodding approval of the spirit of survival in “The Way of the World” and ends with a celebration of it in “Before Breakfast,” the last story in The Old Beauty and Others, along the way occurs a good deal of reversal—probably because Cather herself often wished she could turn her back on some disturbing aspects of contemporary life.

We see in Cather's work the two sides of her inclination, the desire to escape from what was painful in the present (and a certain sympathy with characters who do that) and a growing genuine admiration for the spirit of survival. What is different about her handling of these two impulses in the Old Beauty stories is that in one story, “The Old Beauty,” she openly dislikes her nostalgic major character, and in another, “Before Breakfast,” she moves beyond survival as stoic acceptance to an affirmative portrayal of survival as rebirth and renewal of life and faith. In “The Old Beauty,” she has almost no regard—pity, yes, but not regard—for her title character, who is unable to cope with the changes in the world and retreats into the past. More than that, Cather very nearly treats her with contempt. By way of comparison, her dislike of Harriet Westfield, a worshiper of the past in the much earlier story “Eleanor's House,” is veiled and subtle, a distant, intellectual distaste rather than an emotional disgust. By the time she wrote the Old Beauty stories, Cather's long-standing commitment to life and its preciousness is affirmed with seasoned, calculated, and yet feeling strokes, through negative illustration in “The Old Beauty” and positive illustration in “Before Breakfast.” The third story in The Old Beauty and Others, “The Best Years,” strikes a middle note, projecting the warmth of family life, a stoic acceptance of change and loss, and regret for life's permutations.

Readers have often assumed a devolution rather than an evolution in Cather's attitude about the value of life and the possibilities for living meaningfully. Her emotional and physical withdrawal from the world is legendary, and she is seen as issuing her final indictment against modernity in “The Old Beauty.” “The Best Years” is sometimes viewed as a sugary little nostalgia trip, and “Before Breakfast” is largely ignored.3 I suggest, however, that the Old Beauty collection is not a final sign of Cather's surrender to nostalgia and her wish for death, but rather positive evidence of Cather's continuing battle against those inclinations in herself. Far from indicating Cather's supposed defeat, the stories actually constitute a victory for her, going beyond mere acceptance of life and change, beyond the flexibility imposed by necessity upon Marian Forrester, beyond the grim acquiescence of Godfrey St. Peter. They turn the corner and say that to deny life is wrong and to be a survivor is blessed.

Written in 1936, though not published until it appeared in The Old Beauty and Others in 1948, “The Old Beauty” is a classic story of a character totally unable to adapt to an altered world.4 Her survival into old age is a matter of chance rather than choice. Gabrielle Longstreet's single exercise of will is to retreat into a past that is congenial to a woman of her nature. She is probably the most pathetic character Cather ever drew, and some readers, assuming that Gabrielle speaks for Cather, have erroneously deemed Cather pathetic.5

The story is set in France, and Gabrielle is accompanied by two persons, one repelled (as she is) by anything modern, the other not. Henry Seabury, a chivalric expatriate American out of Gabrielle's past, becomes her protector in the present but prefers to remember her and the world as they once were. On the other hand, Cherry Beamish, the aging beauty's companion of several years, is just the opposite. Although she values the past, she still loves life and young people and modern ways.

While returning from an outing, the three of them are involved in a minor automobile accident with two American tourists, brassy young women in soiled knickers who call each other by nicknames. The clash with modernity is too much for the Old Beauty, and she succumbs during the night. Gabrielle is clearly an antilife force, hating the young and worshiping what is dead in the past. The story is full of death and living death; the very atmosphere sags with it. Gabrielle Longstreet has none of the qualities Cather admired in her survivors, and she uses Gabrielle as a striking example of negativism, escapism, and needless surrender. The story is framed with her death, and that death is given symbolic significance: it is the death not simply of an individual, but of a whole way of thinking and of viewing the world. In the story's opening pages, Seabury is contemplating Gabrielle's death and wondering whom he should notify since most of her admirers are dead. In the end, the reader is forced to contemplate the Old Beauty's body and to watch her coffin as it is loaded on a railroad car. Her body appears in death to be “regal” and “victorious” at last (p. 70), having achieved the only state she would have deemed worthwhile. Cherry's comment that now the Old Beauty is at last with her “own kind” (p. 71) has a double meaning, for Gabrielle's own kind are and have always been the dead or nearly dead.

As an aging woman, the Old Beauty actually resembles a corpse. She is “stern, gaunt-cheeked,” and has “a yellowing complexion” (p. 9). But even as a young woman she is almost painstakingly described as the very antithesis of the young women who embrace life in so many of Cather's works—Marie Shabata, Clara Vavrika, Thea Kronborg, Nelly Deane, Lucy Gayheart. Her association has never been with the young and alive but with the old, whose lives are essentially over. The beautiful young Gabrielle surrounded herself with throngs of aged men who thrilled her with stories of their valorous pasts. When she is old, Gabrielle carries about with her the pictures of these men and displays them in her hotel rooms, still enjoying their hovering presence. Ever a woman of death, she confesses, “My friends mean more to me now than when they were alive” (p. 32).

Cather is careful to note that the life force was always low in Gabrielle and that her beauty was all she had to recommend her. She was not “witty or especially clever,” and furthermore, “she showed no great zest for this life.” “There was no glitter about her, no sparkle,” and although she never said anything stupid, “she was not spirited, she was not witty” (pp. 17-18). Thinking back on her, Seabury recalls that he remembers her eyes best, “no glint in them, no sparkle, no drive.” All she was was beautiful, “and now it was all gone” (p. 24). An upsetting incident left her in a “langour of exhaustion” with “her hands lying nerveless” on her chair (pp. 54-55). Her chief attraction for the then very young Seabury was her helplessness.

In the present, Gabrielle is characteristically “dissatisfied” and “resigned” (p. 10), suffering “strange regrets,” and brooding miserably (p. 43). Her voice, which in her younger days was cool, is now cold. An illness some years back has left her sadly reduced, with no desire to live anywhere but in the past. When Seabury mentions that he is at least grateful to be alive in “a France still undestroyed,” she replies, “Are you grateful? I am not. I think one should go out with one's time” (p. 46). She is simply waiting to join the old men whose pasts she admired more than anything the present could offer.

Gabrielle, then, is the classic nonsurvivor, the person who has linked herself with death instead of life. She may show in the extreme some traits Cather saw in herself—nostalgia, a distaste for some aspects of the modern world, a tendency to resist change—but in other ways her attitudes are the opposite of Cather's. For example, Gabrielle hates young people, and Cather loved them. Cherry has learned to steer Gabrielle away from places where young people are likely to be, and Gabrielle's typical comments about them are suggestive and indecent. On one occasion, she observes wryly that on a dance floor the young look “like lizards dancing—or reptiles coupling” (p. 58). Her distaste for the young American women who caused the fateful accident is venomous. She comments bitterly that her driver had no choice but to ram the rock wall rather than run the two young women off the cliff, adding, “They happened to be worth nobody's consideration, but that doesn't alter the code” (p. 68).

Cherry, always the antidote for Gabrielle's poison, is more like Cather in her attitude toward young people. She finds them delightful and wonderful even though their dancing is not as spirited as she herself prefers. She, like Cather, is happily attached to a “swarm of young nieces and nephews” (p. 45). Moreover, although Cherry regrets some changes in modern life, she adapts readily and enjoys life immensely, approaching it with spunk and good humor. Cather clearly appreciates Cherry's zest and love for life, even if she herself could not consistently keep a youthful, optimistic outlook. Unlike Cherry, Gabrielle has been devastated by change, and she hates it. Ironically, she is more altered than the world. Her great beauty, her only distinguishing feature, is wholly gone, and her “face was not unrecognizable” (p. 25). Gabrielle herself admits that it is her encounter with youth and modernity, not the physical effects of the automobile accident, that most shocks her delicate constitution. She attributes her latest indisposition not to “the bruises we got,” but to “the white breeches” (p. 68). The Old Beauty contrasts, certainly, with Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, Cather's next major fictional character, an obstinate survivor who is more to her liking.

The next story in the collection, “The Best Years,” is actually Cather's last known completed piece of fiction, even though it precedes the slightly earlier “Before Breakfast” in The Old Beauty and Others. Along with the other two stories in the collection, “The Best Years” provides important insight into the nature of the resolution that seems to have occurred for Cather on the question of whether or not one can or should endure painful loss and difficult change. Cather's vivid picture of a nature almost totally antithetical to life in “The Old Beauty” differs considerably from her portrayal of life in the vigor and continuity of enduring family love in “The Best Years.” The story tells of the death of a beloved young person and her mother's sorrow over a modified world, but it is not a story about death. It is a story about living and loving and learning to accept life's vicissitudes.

Lesley Ferguesson leaves home very young to become a country schoolteacher, and the story recounts the first return visit of her second year, her joy at being once more in familiar rooms with her loved ones. In the aftermath of a terrible blizzard, Lesley dies of pneumonia. Many years later, Mrs. Ferguesson is still lamenting the loss of her daughter, and she seems never to have accepted the other changes that have disturbed her life.

Paradoxically, although the death at the center of “The Best Years” is much more tragic than the death of the Old Beauty, the later story is not dominated by an atmosphere of death or loss. Notable, too, is the cemetery in “The Best Years.” Near the school and a prominent feature of the landscape, it is a natural and acceptable part of life and holds no terror for the children. In fact, they like to gather there and sit on the headstones to talk. Cather treats death differently in order to feature attitudes very different from those of Gabrielle Longstreet. Most noticeable, perhaps, is Cather's handling of the actual events of death. In “The Old Beauty” the corpse is described, the coffin is present, reporters are seeking information about the dead person, and a mysterious man appears with carloads of flowers. In “The Best Years,” Cather mutes the effects of young Lesley's death by announcing it in a conversation, almost as if it were an afterthought by the speaker, several days after its occurrence. A substitute railroad conductor mentions it to Evangeline Knightly, Lesley's superintendent, as just one of many unfortunate incidents connected with a recent blizzard.

Cather further softens the theme of death by stressing Miss Knightly's controlled reaction to the shocking news. She turns white, but through what is clearly practiced effort, she recovers herself and asks calmly for a full account. Readers learn the story secondhand, as Miss Knightly hears it, and their responses are cushioned and controlled along with hers. The ability to accept loss and change is a dominant motif in the story, appearing again many years later, when Mrs. Thorndike, the former Miss Knightly, visits the still-aggrieved Mrs. Ferguesson. During that visit the former superintendent again demonstrates her conviction that wisdom lies in regarding change and loss as inevitable, in accepting them as part of the natural course of things. In her eyes the town even seems “much changed for the better” (p. 132).

Miss Knightly's kindly stoicism and the loving family circle of the Ferguessons stand in sharp contrast to the weary complaints of Gabrielle Longstreet and the death-filled atmosphere in which she chooses to move. Moreover, unlike the young Gabrielle, the young Miss Knightly radiates life. The “splashes of colour” in her eyes “made light—and warmth. When she laughed, her eyes positively glowed with humour, and in each oval cheek a roguish dimple came magically to the surface. … Her voice had as many colours as her eyes—nearly always on the bright side, though it had a beautiful gravity for people who were in trouble.” And while the young Gabrielle is incredibly beautiful, Miss Knightly is “plain—distinctly plain” (pp. 76-77). Miss Knightly also has a warm appreciation for youth and thinks that the young people she knows later in the story are rather braver and finer than those she knew in her own youth.

“The Best Years,” representing a final touching tribute to Cather's own beloved family and her Nebraska childhood, seems the perfect concluding story for Cather's life. “Before Breakfast,” on the other hand, seems an appropriate concluding story for her career as an artist, especially if that career is seen as one attesting to the value of life and to a human being's capacity for survival. In a real sense, The Old Beauty and Others is the culminating volume of this lifelong concern, and “Before Breakfast” is the culminating story in that volume. Cather looks at the life permeated by death, unable to adapt to change; she looks at stoicism and love and acceptance of loss; and finally, she sorts through the facts of upheaval and loss and arrives at a new faith in the ability of nature and humanity to endure.

Henry Grenfell's resourceful frog, then, in “Before Breakfast,” serves as a final type or symbol for the Cather survivor, for the one who resourcefully adapts to whatever life metes out. Confronted with reduced possibilities, a world drying up, that frog does not lie down and die—nor does he try futilely to turn the world into a puddle. Rather, he learns to live on land as well as in water; he finds a way to survive. This is the saving insight that caps Henry Grenfell's rejuvenation in the closing pages of what must be one of Cather's most important stories, “Before Breakfast.” It is fitting that the story that climaxes Cather's artistic career affirms her commitment to life and her belief in the human capacity to adapt and survive—and at the same time presents the very real temptation to back away from life and its perplexities.

Seeking relief from the coldness of his family and the anxiety of a highly successful business career, Henry Grenfell is distressed when a geologist on the boat to his island off the Atlantic Coast reels off a whole string of scientific facts about the island, including figures about its age. Grenfell arrives at his cabin feeling like an alien, a thing with no staying power, insignificant in the vast cosmos. He sees Venus outside his window, a lesson in cosmic endurance that angers him. There is that orb, indifferent to the petty struggles of humanity—and of the animal kingdom too. Grenfell does not need, just now, to confront something else impervious to time and change, something reigning in “ageless sovereignty” to which even the unfathomable one hundred and thirty-six million years of the island's existence are nothing, a drop in the bucket. The island's longevity is scarcely impressive when sized up against the “hundred and thirty-six million” years that Venus had existed before the island was formed (p. 144). Faced with survival statistics like these, a mere mortal does not have much show. “A man had his little hour, with heat and cold and a time-sense suited to his endurance. If you took that away from him you left him spineless, accidental, unrelated to anything.” You depleted him, Grenfell realizes as he sits “in his bathrobe by his washstand, limp” (pp. 148-49).

Grenfell is fighting a personal battle for survival as well. Not only does he suffer a spiritual debility that requires solitude in a natural setting, but he also suffers from a disturbingly weak physical constitution. Refusing to give in to it, he works his frail body all the harder—big-game hunting, canoeing, whatever will test his physical endurance. Still out of sorts from his encounter with the geologist and with Venus, Grenfell goes for a walk before breakfast, taking a familiar route and seeing familiar things. He finds his beloved island just as he remembered it and begins to feel once again his old relationship with the earth and the universe. The age of the island, its long survival, after all, has “nothing to do with the green surface where men lived and trees lived and blue flags and buttercups and daisies and meadowsweet and steeplebush and goldenrod crowded one another in all the clearings” (p. 161).

His walk makes him feel better, but what ultimately rescues him from despair is the sight of a human figure, the geologist's young daughter, pitting herself gamely against the vast ocean, plunging into its icy waters and swimming the course she had set for herself. Her act, the fact that “she hadn't dodged,” but “had gone out, and she had come back,” assures him that humanity has the capacity to endure (pp. 165-66). It can meet the test; it will survive. So what if Venus will survive forever? Youth testifies to the durability of the human race. In the final paragraph of the story, after his experience of seeing the girl, Grenfell chuckles and thinks about the adaptability of “that first amphibious frog-toad” (p. 166). Whatever lives, if it has courage and the will to survive, proves humanity's value and life's value. Grenfell feels a part, now, of a race of survivors.

It is significant that it is a young person who triggers Grenfell's happy mood and his comment about the frog. He realizes, much as he likes his old “grandfather tree,” that “plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age” (pp. 165-66). This is not a new notion for Cather, nor is the message contained in the frog story new. Since the beginning of her writing career Cather had equated youth with what she herself valued most—life, energy, vitality. She wrote lovingly about the young, describing youth ideally as a glorious and difficult time of desire and need; she was willing to excuse the follies of youth. But only in the end does she suggest that the example of the young may be the salvation of us all, that as long as the young tackle the world head-on, the human race will endure. Surely this final assertion of the value of human capacity to meet life, to adjust to new circumstances, to adapt to change, and hence to survive, is the product of a lifelong personal battle for Willa Cather. With the passing years, Cather found change more and more difficult. She found herself wishing at times that she could return to an era when the old values seemed to be in place and things did not move so fast. This frame of mind must have given her a special skill in creating characters who suffer similarly over disruption and change. At the same time, her fiction—especially her short fiction and more especially her last collection of stories—suggests that she increasingly saw an inability to adapt, in both herself and her characters, as a weakness. Maybe in her admiration for the survivors in her fiction, for those able to accommodate themselves to altered circumstances and fortunes, there is just the hint of a wish that she could be more like them.


  1. Willa Cather, The Old Beauty and Others (1948; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 166. Citations from the three stories in this collection will be noted parenthetically.

  2. “Willa Cather's Last Four Books,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7 (Fall 1973): 41-53. This article appeared in revised form in Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 206-41.

  3. Bernice Slote in The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 92, acknowledges the quality and importance of “Before Breakfast,” calling it “one of the most remarkable things Willa Cather wrote: at the end, a re-affirmation of the beginning.”

  4. Cather sent the story to Gertrude Lane, editor of Woman's Home Companion, who indicated a willingness to print it even though she did not feel its quality to be on a par with Cather's better work. Cather asked her to return the story and did not publish it elsewhere.

  5. James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (1970; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Landmark Edition, 1982), pp. 256-57. Woodress's view is an exception to this general assessment. Although he sees the story as highly nostalgic, he nevertheless suggests that Cather's views are more nearly reflected by Cherry Beamish, the Old Beauty's companion, than by Gabrielle herself.

Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15122

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.



Four out of Cather's first nine published short stories—the nine known stories from the Lincoln (and Red Cloud) years—are set on the Divide and show a grim picture of life there. Little in these stories predicts the idyllic views toward the land seen in some later novels and stories. Chronologically, the stories are “Peter” (first published in The Mahogany Tree, 31 May 1892), “Lou, the Prophet” (first published in the Hesperian, 14 October 1892), and “The Clemency of the Court” (first published in Overland Monthly, January 1896).1

So blunt is the portrayal of life on the Divide that two of Cather's protagonists, Serge Povolitchky (“The Clemency of the Court”) and Canute Canuteson (“On the Divide”), and even to some extent “Lou, the Prophet,” are literally elemental men, at the mercy of nature and other forces they only dimly understand. Surviving largely by instinct, these men live in an atmosphere that is almost frightening in its coarseness, violence, and frank depiction of the raw underside of human existence bereft of the cultural trappings we count on to cover our nakedness. Here on the Divide, elemental man confronts untamed nature, unmitigated evil, and terrifying violence in a daily battle for his very survival. The land is a relentless threat, a heavy sorrow that breaks the body and the spirit. Perhaps Cather was still too close to the Divide to be objective when she wrote these stories, too aware of its agony to show its promise, and too young not to exaggerate that agony. Her hyperbolic portrayal of immigrant life might have been a literary pose, for as James Woodress notes, Cather's personal letters of the same period indicate that she liked Nebraska from the beginning.2

The mellowing changes that occur in Cather's literary treatment of the Divide are familiar to any who have read her later work, but it is useful to compare the suicide of Peter Sadelack in “Peter” with essentially the same incident in My Ántonia.3 Many details of the two accounts are the same, but Peter has none of the quiet refinement or the legendary quality of Ántonia's father. The mature novelist makes an appealingly heroic figure of the talented lost child of Europe whom the young storyteller had first conceived as a homesick and broken musician at the mercy of his oldest son's bullying. And although Peter is not a primitive, nearly everything about the early story is stark and bare. Stripped of all superfluity, the tale is in complete harmony with its setting where “there was nothing but sun, and grass, and sky.”4 The very style, with its rather short, mainly declarative sentences which often begin “He did,” or “He had,” or “He was,” echoes the austerity of life on the Divide. By contrast, My Ántonia (1918) portrays the heartbreaking displacement suffered by a character like Mr. Shimerda who cannot adapt to the harsh prairie, but in the novel the counterthrust of finding home through union with the prairie land is equally strong.

The story's antagonist is Antone (he foreshadows Ambrosch in My Ántonia), who, like the landscape, is unfeeling in his cruelty and inhuman in his demands. He threatens to sell his father's beloved violin and orders his father to violate his conscience by cutting timber on the Sabbath. It is this same Antone who, even though he is “mean and untrustworthy,” is adjudged repeatedly by the ironic narrator to be “a much better man than his father had ever been” (p. 542). What counted was that he was successful. Of his hapless father, “no one knew much, nor had any one a good word to say for him” (p. 541). Even Peter admits that his son is a better man than he. Out of homesickness for his own land and the things he loved there, out of yearning to hear again the marvelous human voice of the Frenchwoman (Sarah Bernhardt) he once heard on stage, out of love for his violin and the Virgin Mary, and out of fear of “the Evil One, and his son Antone” (p. 542), he “pulled off his old boot, held the gun between his knees with the muzzle against his forehead, and pressed the trigger with his toe” (p. 543).5

Again in “The Clemency of the Court” Cather uses the ironic point of view, this time to portray society, government—whatever constitutes “the State”—as a cold and loveless force, even more impersonal than the somber Nebraska plains. This story is Cather's first venture into overt social criticism in her fiction, and in spite of the narrator's overbearing irony, Cather manages to generate honest sympathy for her unfortunate protagonist. Uneducated, unloved, orphaned as a baby, “by no will of his own or wish of his own, Serge existed” (p. 516). Handed from one family to another, regarded more as an animal than a human being, this ignorant, primitive orphan believes that the State is a parent that will love him and care for him. He feels a vague kinship with the plains that seem desolate like himself, and likes to think of the State “as a woman with kind eyes, dressed in white with a yellow light about her head, and a little child in her arms, like the picture of the virgin in the church” (p. 518). The only love he has ever known is centered in a little yellow dog named Matushka, and when in a fit of anger his master cleaves the dog's head with an axe, Serge reflexively splits the master's head with the same axe. The idea of crime or sin never enters his mind; his one thought is for the dog. He buries the dog and is straightway hauled off to prison where he dons a convict's clothing, “the State's badge of knighthood,” his lawyer tells him. Clumsy at making barrel hoops, he is subjected to the torture and solitary confinement from which he eventually dies.6 The narrator concludes that thus “this great mother, the State, took this wilful, restless child of hers and put him to sleep in her bosom” (p. 522).

Canute Canuteson in “On the Divide,” perhaps Cather's most striking portrait of elemental man, is a seven-foot caricature of Serge Povolitchky. Canute, like Serge, is terribly alone but stirred by deep longings for human affection. His shanty is roughly furnished with a bed “fully eight feet long” and a “chair and a bench of colossal proportions”; his shoes are “of almost incredible dimensions” (p. 493). Cather's description of Canute's desperate battle to survive may be the bleakest picture she ever painted of life on the Divide, worse even than the account of the Shimerdas' terrible privations during their first winter in Nebraska. Adopting the simplified but highly dramatic style of the oral storyteller, Cather describes Canute as “the wreck of ten winters on the Divide” where winter is feared “as a child fears night or as men in the North Seas fear the still dark cold of the polar twilight” (p. 495). Cather's monosyllabic technique augments the dry barrenness of the summers which are nearly as great a test of human endurance as the winters:

Insanity and suicide are very common things on the Divide. They come on like an epidemic in the hot wind season. Those scorching dusty winds that blow up over the bluffs from Kansas seem to dry up the blood in men's veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves. Whenever the yellow scorch creeps down over the tender inside leaves about the ear, then the coroners prepare for active duty; for the oil of the country is burned out and it does not take long for the flame to eat up the wick. It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles after they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with.

(P. 495)

Cather graphically depicts the plight of these men who “spent their youths fishing in the Northern seas,” and now find themselves strapped to “hard work and coarse clothing and the loneliness of the plains” (p. 496). Canute's daily life is body-punishing labor modified only by the nightly ritual of drinking himself into oblivion with raw alcohol. “He drank alone and in solitude not for pleasure or good cheer, but to forget the awful loneliness and level of the Divide.” Canute was “a man who knew no joy, a man who toiled in silence and bitterness,” a man “mad from the eternal treachery of the plains” (pp. 496-97). In desperation one winter night, he walks the four miles to the home of his nearest neighbor and asks for the hand of Ole Yensen's spoiled and sassy daughter, Lena. She refuses, but he carries her bodily to his cabin in a driving snowstorm, then goes for the preacher. In the tenderly moving conclusion of the story, Lena cries out in fright at being alone in the cabin. Canute, who is huddled outside the cabin door after having taken the preacher home, answers her cry and offers to go for her mother or her father. She replies softly, “Canute—I'd rather have you” (p. 504). This miraculous answer to his heart's sorest need breaks the great manbeast into tears, and he falls sobbing in the snow at Lena's feet.

It is clear, however, that before love entered his life, Cather's primitive entertained a frightening conviction that the earth does indeed belong to the Devil. He hung snakeskins on the door and carved demons and serpents on his windowsills. In a gross version of the Dance of Death he depicted “men fighting with big serpents, and skeletons dancing together.” The demons could be distinguished from the men because “the men were always grave and were either toiling or praying, while the devils were always smiling and dancing” (p. 494).

Although it is the work of a very young writer, “On the Divide” is convincing and moving, even powerful at times. The language of the opening paragraph testifies to the writer's skill:

Near Rattlesnake Creek, on the side of the little draw, stood Canute's shanty. North, east, south, stretched the level Nebraska plain of long rust-red grass that undulated constantly in the wind. To the west the ground was broken and rough, and a narrow strip of timber wound along the turbid, muddy little stream that had scarcely ambition enough to crawl over its black bottom. If it had not been for the few stunted cottonwoods and elms that grew along its banks, Canute would have shot himself years ago.

(P. 493)

In “On the Divide” and “Lou, the Prophet” Cather drops the angry, ironic narrative voice she had used in “Peter” and “The Clemency of the Court” and introduces instead a narrator who speaks as one who lives “in our country” (p. 540). As such, he would know only too well that loneliness and hardship can bring a person to the brink of insanity and sometimes even push him over. Lou is a young man driven to insanity by loneliness, deprivation, sorrow, and drought. His sweetheart marries another, his mother dies, and his corn withers in the rainless summer heat. Under the strain of these disasters, Lou's mind snaps, producing a vision that convinces him that drought is a punishment for human sin. A group of small Danish boys entrusted with herding their fathers' cattle become his disciples, and when he finally disappears just a few steps ahead of the pursuing law, the boys loyally believe he has been translated like Enoch. Surely, Lou is an early conception of the full-blown character of crazy Ivar in O Pioneers!


The other stories of Cather's Lincoln years seem less typically Catherian, probably because the subjects, settings, and characters, for the most part, do not reappear in her novels. Several early stories feature Orientals, and still another is set in an unidentified eastern land centuries ago. Cather's newspaper columns, too, give evidence of her interest in eastern peoples and culture. An early Hesperian story, “A Son of the Celestial” (15 January 1893), characterizes the Chinese in America as people of “terrible antiquity,” who, even “in the new west, settled down and ate and drank and dressed as men had done in the days of the flood” (p. 526). A later story, “The Conversion of Sum Loo” (1900), confirms that the Chinese remained of interest to Cather as fictional subject matter.7 The two stories are different in plot and circumstance, but Cather quotes almost verbatim from “A Son of the Celestial” for filler material describing Sum Chin's early life in “The Conversion of Sum Loo.”

In “A Son of the Celestial,” as in “The Clemency of the Court,” Cather uses the ironic narrator to make a comment about a modern institution. (Perhaps Cather fell naturally into an ironic stance in her early fiction because she was using it so freely in her columns and reviews.) This time it is not the State or its penal system she attacks, but higher education and its sometimes stuffy pedantry. The tone of “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is lighter than that of “A Son of the Celestial,” however, for in the later story Cather enjoys a little joke at the expense of Christians who had wrongly assumed that their Oriental “convert” to Christianity was safely in their throng.

Another somewhat trifling, though exotically appealing, story was published just a month earlier in the Hesperian (22 December 1892) under the title “A Tale of the White Pyramid.” It describes a daring deed performed by a young stranger, and cryptically suggests a forbidden intrigue involving royalty. The beautiful youth, favored greatly by the king but not trusted by the king's people, leaps onto a slipping, tilting pyramid capstone as it is being lifted precariously into place. At great personal risk he restores its balance, saving the stone and a great many lives as well.

The three remaining published stories of Cather's Lincoln years are quite different again, though they too show her unabating interest in mystery and intrigue. “The Fear That Walks by Noonday” (Sombrero, 1894) is, surprisingly enough, a football story, while “A Night at Greenway Court” (first published in the Nebraska Literary Magazine, June 1896) and “The Elopement of Allen Poole” (Hesperian, 15 April 1893) deal with mystery among the historical gentry and love and death among the commoners. Supposedly prompted to write “The Fear That Walks by Noonday” by her young friend Dorothy Canfield,8 Cather describes fullbacks and ninety-yard runs and punts as if sportswriting were her business. We soon learn, however, that ghosts, not touchdowns, are Cather's primary business, in this story and others. She began writing about ghosts in 1894 with the publication of this story, and she was still writing about them in 1900 in “The Affair at Grover Station,” and again in 1915 when she published a rather Jamesian ghost story called “Consequences.” In “The Fear That Walks by Noonday” the ghost of a football player fatally injured in a previous game returns to haunt his team's opponents in a rematch. Ghostly stage effects and incidents abound—icy winds, sudden punts materializing out of nowhere, impossible fumbles, a player collapsing with a seizure just a few yards short of a certain touchdown—attesting to the presence of “the twelfth man, who won the game” (p. 513). The story's protagonist, halfback Fred Horton, resembles the lonely outcasts in Cather's Nebraska stories of this period in the fact that he is a loner, an isolate. He “was awkward and shy among women, silent and morose among men,” and he played football chiefly because it “made him seem like other men” (p. 510).

Still writing about loners and outcasts, Cather sets “A Night at Greenway Court” in colonial Virginia, the geographical, if not the emotional and social, territory of her childhood home. A good piece for a popular audience, the story is enhanced by its remote setting and by the noble figure of Lord Fairfax who dwells there in apparent exile. The name of Lord Fairfax appears also in Cather's last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, where he is identified as the patron of proud Sapphira's ancestor, Nathaniel Dodderidge. Fairfax, in the Sapphira account, owned millions of acres in Virginia which he deeded out to settlers for the laying out of towns. There is no suggestion in the novel, however, of the intrigue that surrounds the nobleman in this early story. The young narrator of Cather's story, like many others, wonders “why, in the prime of his manhood and success at court, Lord Fairfax had left home and country, friends, and all that men hold dear, renounced the gay society in which he had shone and his favorite pursuit of letters, and buried himself” in a wilderness home where “gentlemen who had left dark histories behind them” gathered, “where law was scarce more than a name” (pp. 486-87). One of those wilderness guests is a Frenchman, M. Maurepas, who, under the influence of too much ale, insults king, God, and Lord Fairfax. His final insult is to raise an eyebrow toward the woman in a portrait which hangs in Fairfax's house. In the ensuing duel, Maurepas is killed.

The story is packed with the standard elements of courtly intrigue—a mysterious lady, an oddly damaged portrait, a Frenchman who drinks and talks too much, a clergyman who takes more interest in a bowl of preserved cherries than in the soul's salvation, a viscount of questionable reputation, a near murder, and a duel at dawn—but it also pays homage to honor and loyalty. And Cather's applause when the narrator chooses to disgrace himself rather than disclose a “friend's secret” or imperil “a fair lady's honor” (p. 492) is probably only slightly ironic.

A somewhat earlier and less mysteriously complex story, “The Elopement of Allen Poole” is drawn directly from Cather's Virginia memories. Bernice Slote, who first identified the story as Cather's notes that “the story contains nothing less than a capsule description and recreation of Willa Cather's Virginia home, paralleled in almost every detail by passages in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.9 It is a charming if sad story of two young lovers who, in true “Highwayman” fashion, are thwarted in their plans for elopement by the revenuers' guns. Allen Poole, who has always distilled his own liquor, and always evaded federal revenue agents, is spotted and shot the very night he was to claim his love, Nell. Fatally wounded, he stumbles his way over the countryside, falls against the chestnut tree in Nell's yard, and whistles “Nellie Bly,” his prearranged signal. She comes to him in what was to have been her wedding dress, and cradles his head on her lap while he dies.

In telling this story Cather tries to represent phonetically the speech and flavor of the Back Creek/Timber Ridge area of Virginia. The dialogue is odd-sounding and somewhat distracting as this typical example illustrates: “See here, Nell, I hain't goin' to make yo' leave yo' folks, I hain't got no right to. Yo' kin come with me, or bide with 'em, jist as yo' choose, only fo' Gawd's sake tell me now, so if yo' won't have me I kin leave yo'.”10 In spite of the rather awkward rendering of dialogue, the young writer demonstrates that she can evoke a mood powerfully and draw a landscape with impressive skill: “Behind him were the sleepy pine woods, the slatey ground beneath them strewn red with slippery needles. … Down in the valley lay the fields of wheat and corn, and among them the creek wound between its willow-grown banks. Across it was the old, black, creaking foot-bridge which had neither props nor piles, but was swung from the arms of a great sycamore tree.”11 On the whole, “The Elopement of Allen Poole” and the other stories of Cather's college years provide a remarkably fine introduction to a young writer in whom a solid talent was manifest from the very beginning.


Probably on the strength of her reputation as a columnist for the Journal, and on the recommendation of friends, Cather was offered an editorial position with a Pittsburgh magazine, the Home Monthly, less than a year after she graduated from the university. In the time she worked for the Home Monthly (summer to summer, 1896-97), Cather published at least six short stories in that journal. Two were signed with pseudonyms, and very likely all six were written largely out of a practical need to fill space in a general magazine designed mainly for women and children.


“Tommy, the Unsentimental” (August 1896), the first Cather story to appear in the Home Monthly, is a rather customary little piece about a capable woman who loses a man to a frilly woman. When panic starts a run on Mr. Jay Ellington Harper's little bank, Tommy (actually Theodosia) pedals her bicycle over twenty-five “rough, hilly” miles (p. 477) with enough cash to bail him out. The delicate Jessica, Tommy's friend and schoolmate from the East, the darling whom Harper adores, starts out too, for she must stand by her love in his hour of need. But predictably she wearies and falters by the way, and it is Tommy who saves him only to lose him to the one person more helpless than he.12 We see emerging in this story the pattern of the strong female and the weaker male that appears in several of Cather's novels.

Still another story portraying a strong woman and a weak man, this time in a more serious treatment of the male-female love relationship, is the last story Cather published as an editor for Home Monthly. The setting for “A Resurrection” (April 1897) is Brownville, an actual town in southeastern Nebraska which Cather had featured in a lengthy article for the Journal three years earlier.13 In spite of some high points in the descriptions of town and character, the piece is basically a sentimental love story, and it sags at times under the burden of popular romantic expectations. As she was to do in many later stories, Cather stresses the rare attributes of a woman bottled up by circumstances, fated to spend her life among people too dull to recognize her quality. Marjorie Pierson is “one of those women one sometimes sees, designed by nature in her more artistic moments, especially fashioned for all the fullness of life; for large experiences and the great world where a commanding personality is felt and valued, but condemned by circumstances to poverty, obscurity and all manner of pettiness.” These are the “women who were made to rule, but who are doomed to serve” (p. 426). Cather obviously feels great sympathy for this woman, now past thirty, whose young life and womanly energies have been poured into the rearing of someone else's child.

As a young woman, Marjorie (Margie) had fallen in love with a river man, Martin Dempster, who jilted her to marry a wily little flirt of French extraction. When his wife drowns and his money runs out, Martin comes home in disgrace, allowing Margie to rear his child as her own. But with a turn in his fortunes Martin voices his long-repressed love for Margie. Stunned, she hesitates, but only a moment, for it is, after all, the eve of Easter; and Cather uses the resurrection motif for both its religious and personal implications. Margie, who thought all her romantic passions were asleep forever, feels them “throbbing again through the shrunken channels, waking a thousand undreamed-of possibilities of pleasure and pain” (p. 438). Both age and isolation are defeated through the resurrection of love.


“The Count of Crow's Nest,” another Home Monthly staff story, was published serially in September and October of 1896. Stylistically respectable, it is decidedly more solid than the sentimental, completely formulaic “The Burglar's Christmas” that appeared in the December issue under the pseudonym “Elizabeth L. Seymour.”14 Both are city stories, set in Chicago, and both describe characters who have fallen from high station. The narrator of “The Count of Crow's Nest,” Harold Buchanan, is a young man of supposedly great promise who so far has distinguished himself rather meagerly as an observer of life and a verbal champion of dignity and quality in life and art.15 Buchanan lives in a less than elegant boardinghouse dubbed “the Crow's Nest” alongside a whole gallery of embittered and failing artists of questionable talent. But among them is one person who keeps himself aloof from the general spoilage, a dispossessed old nobleman, Count de Koch, who has in his possession many valuable private letters and documents of immense scandal potential among Europe's noble families. The old man lives in near poverty, by moral choice; he had nobly sold his property to pay off centuries-old family debts. His stout daughter, Helena, a coarse, loud singer in the best kitsch tradition, propositions Buchanan to get the papers from the old man, expose their contents in a book, and make a fortune for them all. Buchanan, of course, refuses, and she retaliates by stealing the papers. In the last climactic scene, the old man and Buchanan confront her and recover the papers before she and her accomplice can leave town.

The count's chief sorrow is his daughter's spiritual poverty and her estrangement from him and all that he values. As a second-generation child in the new land, she foreshadows Cather's later exploiters of the pioneer West, exemplifying the worst imaginable in blatant materialism and shabby art. A cousin to crass opportunists like Ivy Peters (A Lost Lady) and Bayliss Wheeler (One of Ours), she is beyond redemption. But the old man and Buchanan, outsiders both, have found something of value in this cold world—an answer to their loneliness in human loyalty, personal integrity, and intellectual companionship.

More than the customary popular magazine potboiler, “The Count of Crow's Nest” also reiterates fictionally what Cather was saying about art in her columns and reviews. Helena, who sings “floridly” but does not “have perception enough to know it” (p. 461), represents all that is vulgar in third-rate art. And when Buchanan complains about the quality of English writing, the Count gives a Catherian response: “Yes, you [English writers] look for the definite, whereas the domain of pure art is always the indefinite. You want the fact under the illusion, whereas the illusion is in itself the most wonderful of facts” (p. 453).16

Unlike “The Count of Crow's Nest,” “The Burglar's Christmas” is clearly a seasonal piece in the popular mode, a sentimental, heart-warming story of a prodigal son's return home at Christmastime. Driven finally to the brink of starvation, William (last name unknown) slips into a plush mansion, intent on thieving, only to find that he has stumbled into the luxurious new home of his parents who have moved west in the hope of finding him. Cather's one serious notion in the story describes the restorative capacity of love to reach out and embrace a lost child, one who was “shut off as completely as though he were a creature of another species” (p. 558).


Although there is very little that distinguishes a piece like “The Burglar's Christmas,” at least one of the two children's stories Cather wrote for the Home Monthly during her year there deserves high praise. “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog” (December 1896) shows her genius for capturing the flavor of the oral tale in print. “The Princess Baladina—Her Adventure” (August 1896), on the other hand, is a rather plodding but sweet little tale. Woodress suggests that these are stories of the type that Cather used to invent for the delight of her younger brothers and sisters, and Elsie Cather's recollections substantiate the suggestion.17 “The Princess Baladina,” which appeared under the pseudonym Charles Douglass,18 recounts the adventures of a little princess who goes in search of a wizard and a prince with the assistance of a respectful miller's boy who carries her on his donkey.19 “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog” is one of those “how will Santa ever deliver the toys now?” stories so popular with children at Christmastime. In it Cather captures the flavor of the faraway northland with considerable charm and stylistic ease. She describes in shivering detail this

bleak, bitter Northland, where the frost is eternal and the snows never melt, … where the Heavens at night are made terribly beautiful by the trembling flashes of the northern lights, and the green icebergs float in stately grandeur down the dark currents of the hungry polar sea. It is a desolate region, where there is no spring, and even in the short summers only a few stunted willows blossom and grow green along the rocky channels through which the melting snow water runs clear and cold.

(P. 441)

The plot of the story is old, but wonderful, involving again the great White Bear that figured in so many of Cather's girlhood tales. The Bear is Santa's special helper, and Cather's narrator is a great admirer of the White Bear who he believes has been ignored in too many tales about Christmas. The Were-Wolf Dog is a reversal of the White Bear, as cruel as the Bear is gentle. The narrator's introduction of the Dog is a classic model of oral folk literature:

When all was quiet about the house, there stole from out the shadow of the wall a great dog, shaggy and monstrous to look upon. His hair was red, and his eyes were bright, like ominous fires. His teeth were long and projected from his mouth like tusks, and there was always a little foam about his lips as though he were raging with some inward fury. He carried his tail between his legs, for he was as cowardly as he was vicious.

(P. 443)

On this particular occasion the wicked Were-Wolf Dog gets the jump on everyone, tricking and destroying most of Santa's reindeer in an attempt to ruin Christmas for the children of the world. But one little reindeer survives to carry the White Bear on an agonizing search for substitute reindeer. The day is saved, of course, but not until the new reindeer are shamed into helping by an old grandfather seal who volunteers to hobble the whole distance to deliver presents to the children.

One other children's story from the Home Monthly period, so far uncollected, has been identified by Bernice Slote as Cather's. Published 26 November 1896, it dates from the same half-year as “The Burglar's Christmas,” “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog,” and “The Princess Baladina.” The story is titled “Wee Winkie's Wanderings,” and tells about a little girl who, tired of her dollies and of being told what to do by her mother, decides to run away.20 Her mother, in an effort to teach the little one a lesson, helps her pack a few things into a handkerchief and bids her farewell. After a long day of walking and sitting on the hilltop in front of her house, Wee Winkie returns home, tired and worn. Her mother washes and feeds her little daughter and puts her to bed, and neither of them, Cather concludes, “said a word about her running away.”

As Slote points out, the setting for the story is very much like that of Cather's childhood home in Virginia, the same area described in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and the incident may well be autobiographical. Wee Winkie is a shortened version of Wee Willie Winkie, a nursery rhyme character. Willa herself was nicknamed “Willie” by family and close friends, and, according to Slote, Cather's cousin Bess Seymour remembers that Willa was sometimes called “Winkie.”

At least one more sketch, this one in the “Editor's Talk” column of the National Stockman and Farmer of 24 December 1896, is attributable to Cather.21 More an anecdote than a short story, it is told by the editor as if it happened in his (her) family. And it probably did, for the chief characters are Jim and Elsie, and they correspond in age to Cather's brother Jim and her sister Elsie a few years earlier. The little sketch describes how six-year-old Jim tried to lower four-year-old Elsie down the chimney on a rope to see if the chimney would be wide enough for Santa.


Cather left the Home Monthly and went to Nebraska in June of 1897, but it was not long before she received and accepted an offer from the Pittsburgh Leader. She returned to Pittsburgh in September to an assignment on the newspaper's wire copy desk, and she also began writing drama criticism regularly for the Leader. In addition she sent material back to Lincoln, this time to the Courier instead of the Journal, under her old column title, “The Passing Show.” And she continued to write stories for the Home Monthly and to do a book column for that journal under the pseudonym “Helen Delay,” readily repeating Leader and Home Monthly materials in the Courier. Cather remained with the Leader until the spring of 1900, doing a fair amount of traveling as well as writing during that time. In the three years after she left the Home Monthly, Cather published only five known stories. Evidently her journalistic activities limited the time and energy she could devote to imaginative literature. Two of these stories appeared in the Home Monthly, two in the Courier, and one in Cosmopolitan.


Regardless of their artistic merits, or lack of them, “The Prodigies” (Home Monthly, July 1897) and “Nanette: An Aside” (Courier, July 1897) are important stories. They mark Cather's solid entrance into the world she had been exploring for some time as a journalist—the world of the artist. In them the young writer contemplates the excruciating cost of art for the artist, the nature of the conflicts the artist suffers, and the isolating consequences of the artist's dedication. These themes are important in later novels, particularly The Song of the Lark (1915) and Lucy Gayheart (1935). Both stories, and especially “The Prodigies,” which is the better story, argue that the price of art is too high to pay for the value received.

In “The Prodigies,” two children of exceptional talent are pushed by their mother's ambition beyond the endurance of their frail bodies. The little girl collapses during a performance, her voice strained beyond repair. Even then, apparently having learned nothing, the zealous mother passes the doubled burden to the narrow shoulders of her son. Art is no paradise, Cather says, especially for the young. Nelson Mackenzie, the physician who attends the stricken child, and who had witnessed her collapse, remarks bitterly to the children's mother about their European training: “Your foreign teachers have not been content with duping you out of your money, they have simply drained your child's life out of her veins” (p. 422). Not only was Cather adamantly opposed to the exploitation of young talent, but she also argues in numerous columns that genuine artistry generally comes only with maturity.22

Perhaps even more disturbing to Cather than premature overtures into art was the conviction that, to a large degree, a choice for art is a choice against human society. Thea Kronborg (The Song of the Lark) even missed her mother's funeral to grasp an opportunity that furthered her career. But as she grew older, she realized that she had given up a great deal in terms of human relationships to be an artist. Clement Sebastian (Lucy Gayheart) also contemplated at length the isolation he had necessarily suffered as the price of his art. So while art is in some sense a means for transcending the world, in another sense it makes life more difficult. In “The Prodigies,” the children hunger to be like other children, but they are not allowed to be. They can only longingly pretend to be “just the common children of the ‘new rich’ next door” (p. 421). They look jealously at children snowballing in the street, and long to go, just once, to a dog show instead of an opera. Perhaps saddest of all, the prodigies have been exploited to gratify their mother's vanity. They are castaways on art's island while she moves about in society displaying them and their hard-won prizes before eyes that envy and minds that never count the cost.

Using a device that was destined to become a trademark of her work, contrast and juxtaposition, Cather provides another set of children whose mother is envious of the “success” of the prodigies. Harriet Mackenzie, less wise than her husband, feels cheated to have borne only “thoroughly commonplace” (p. 413) children while Kate Massey was blessed with prodigies. Kate is obviously destroying her children, and Harriet apparently longs for the chance to do the same to hers, who, luckily, were born without talent.

In “Nanette: An Aside,” Cather introduces for the first time in her fiction the demanding, yet self-sacrificing woman of real talent who has denied herself nearly every impulse but the one toward art. This woman was to figure in several later stories, notably, “The Diamond Mine,” “A Gold Slipper,” “Scandal,” and “Coming, Aphrodite!” as well as in The Song of the Lark. “A Singer's Romance,” published just three years after “Nanette” appeared, follows basically the same plot line and repeats many of the details sketched out in the earlier piece. The main difference is that the German singer in “A Singer's Romance” is good, but not magnificent, while Tradutorri in “Nanette” is one of the best. For her, art must come first; there simply are no choices any more. Madame Tradutorri is shocked to learn that her personal serving woman, Nanette, wishes to marry. She cannot imagine a choice for love rather than art. But in the end Tradutorri gives Nanette her freedom, and her blessing, admitting that “there are women who wear crowns who would give them for an hour of” the love Nanette has found (p. 410).

More important than the narrative, however, is what Cather says in this story about art and the artist. The story becomes something of an essay. Tradutorri pulls from her dressing case an opera score for which she is to sing the title role and delivers this very important speech: “You see this, Nanette? When I began life, between me and this lay everything dear in life—every love, every human hope. I have had to bury what lay between. It is the same thing florists do when they cut away all the buds that one flower may blossom with the strength of all. God is a very merciless artist, and when he works out his purposes in the flesh his chisel does not falter” (p. 410). Perhaps Tradutorri's dismissing Nanette with a self-pitying comment is melodramatic, but the point must be made: the choice for art is a choice for loneliness and a denial of nearly all the usual domestic and social satisfactions. It is a great price to be paid by a human being under any circumstances, and Tradutorri weeps “lonely tears of utter wretchedness” (p. 410).23

“Nanette: An Aside” is important not only as a testimonial to the cost of art and the value of human association, but also for its explicit statements, absent from “A Singer's Romance,” about the performing artist. Tradutorri's greatness is described in terms of her ability to repress and wall up emotion so that what the audience perceives is “stifled pain.” Tradutorri's technique, thus, is to conserve “all this emotional energy; to bind the whirlwind down within one's straining heart, to feel the tears of many burning in one's eyes and yet not to weep.” “This,” says Cather, “is classical art, art exalted, art deified” (p. 408). Another kind of art, perhaps equally legitimate, has for its object “the generation of emotional power; to produce from one's own brain a whirlwind.” Singers who ascribe to this kind of art sing with the senses while Tradutorri sings with the soul. These “other singers” mainly “vent their suffering”; they “pour out their self-inflicted anguish” (p. 408). Cather's own remarkable restraint in her mature art, her preference for understatement, her desire “not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on,” probably derive from these early views. It is clear that the Duse-Tradutorri style was more congenial to Cather than the Bernhardt style.24

But regardless of the style, for Cather genuine art, even though it may increase the artist's suffering, also helps the artist and the sensitive members of his or her audience to understand their human suffering and momentarily rise above it, even if only briefly, in fleeting comprehension of the Divine.


In her next story, “The Way of the World,”25 Cather leaves the world of artists and becomes again the oral storyteller, cleverly reconstructing in stage play fashion a microcosmic Eden in a children's backyard playtown. Cather handles point of view superbly, blending humor and pathos through the consciousness of a narrator (or stage manager) who appears both amused and saddened, but not the least surprised, at what he reports.

The narrator is the key to the story, the detached deity, if you will. He projects himself as all-wise and much experienced, and tells his tale in the form of a parable, a modern replay of the ancient drama in Eden. We can almost imagine him as a self-possessed and still-lively grandfather, telling this story to a group of his grandsons, supposedly to educate them to the ways of women in this world, but in reality teasing them without their knowing it. To his naive audience his bias is clear; it is the old bias derived from centuries of male interpretation of Genesis: the female creature, charming though she be, is fickle and heartless and will bring man to ruin. This attitude is articulated by one of the child actors who mutters, “Girls always spoil everything a boy's got if you give ‘em a chance” (p. 400). But the wizened teller of the tale appears to have grown philosophical about what he cannot change.

The backyard playtown that the boys in his tale have constructed is called Speckleville after the town's founder and leading citizen; but as a bachelor stronghold which allows no females within its borders, it is Eden (peopled with several Adams) before the appearance of Eve.26 As Eve might have done before her, Mary Eliza approaches the privileged domain and “peer[s] at” the boys “through the morning glory vines.” Tomboy though she is, the narrator says with a wink, “the instincts of her sex were strong in her, and that six male beings should dwell together in ease and happiness seemed to her an unnatural and a monstrous thing” (p. 397). Then the narrator pretends to back off, declining “to rehearse all the arts and wiles by which Mary Eliza deposed Speckle and made herself sole imperatrix of Speckleville,” but “rehearsing” at least 90 per cent of them. The narrator carefully connects Mary Eliza to Eve by indicating that her first appeal to the boys was through their “stomachs,” adding, “When first a woman tempted a man she said unto him, ‘Eat’” (p. 400).

Dangerous though Mary Eliza is, the story's acknowledged villain is the boy from Chicago whom the narrator calls “the tragic motif” and “the heavy villain” (p. 401) of the tale. The New Boy undoes Speckleville as the serpent undid the Garden, beguiling the woman and tempting her to betrayal. With her defection the town falls apart. Notwithstanding the importance of the serpent's role, the narrator is aware that woman has, through time, born a heavy burden of blame for the fall from Eden. Ever since Mother Eve reportedly destroyed Adam's happiness and lost him the Garden, woman has been regarded by man as his nemesis. And in the tradition of his fathers Cather's narrator pretends to perpetuate the myth. He represents the Edenic experience as a prototypical one that will be repeated in various forms and settings through time, noting particularly that the advent of woman and her civilizing influence in the West has spelled the demise of the rugged frontier. The whole human race, generation after generation, will relive the fall from paradise in one form or another.

Cather's narrator puts on a good show, shaking his head and clucking his tongue over Mary Eliza's deceit, but he secretly laughs at the boys in his audience who are too naive to see beyond the popular interpretation of the Fall. As he pretends to glean valuable lessons from the Edenic myth and the form it takes in Speckleville, the narrator drops enough negative observations to tarnish the splendor of an all-male society and raise questions about the authenticity of popular interpretation of the Edenic myth. For example, we can see the narrator smiling as he introduces his flawed young Adam, an anxiety-ridden Speckle: “Indeed, cares of state were weighing heavily upon Speckle, and he had some excuse for gravity, for Speckle was a prince in his own right and a ruler of men” (p. 395). “What matter if he had to peddle milk to the neighbor women at night? … Tomorrow he was the founder of a city and a king of men” (p. 397)! With the same gentle irony the narrator discloses how it happens that the town is in Speckle's backyard and that Speckle holds “all the important offices in the town.” It seems, he says, that “Speckle's folks had been farming people, and regarded their backyard as the natural repository for such encumbrances as were in the way in the house; and Speckle was among them” (p. 396). We learn further that Speckle is a loan shark and that all the boys but one have weaknesses Speckle can exploit to get their approval of Mary Eliza. And we watch these once adamant males fall at her feet when she introduces smiles and sweets into Speckleville. We cannot forget, either, that the most sinister character in this drama is a male.

The narrator, then, uses his little production to reveal that he does not accept the standard interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. Both male and female in his drama willingly turn their Garden into a marketplace, and in so doing lose their youth and innocence as the opening verse of the poetic epigraph to the story testifies:

O! the world was full of the summer time,
          And the year was always June,
When we two played together
          In the days that were done too soon.

(P. 395)

And in spite of the narrator's good-natured horseplay, he knows that the loss of youth and innocence can leave a vacuum of loneliness as well as a head full of troubling knowledge.

Cather's next published piece, a trifling little dramatic sketch, has none of the cleverness and sensitivity exhibited in “The Way of the World.” “The Westbound Train” (Courier, 30 September 1899), published while Cather was still with the Leader, is just slightly more consequential than the two juvenile dialogues that survive from her campus years in Lincoln.27 The setting for “Westbound Train” is a railway station at Cheyenne, the plot a case of mistaken identity. Mrs. Sybil Johnston arrives to pick up passes only to discover that a Mrs. S. Johnson has already picked them up. This little sketch is either deliberate farce or an unsuccessful comic psychological venture which brings a woman into an unnerving confrontation with her presumptuous and snooty alter ego.


Published just a few months after “The Westbound Train,” “Eric Hermannson's Soul” (Cosmopolitan, April 1900) is a significant piece of work, blending tensions and conflicts from several sources into a complex weave of religious and sexual impulses. An important forerunner of Cather's prairie novels and later stories, this story, like Cather's earliest Nebraska stories, describes the Divide as a harsh world for Europe's lost children. The narrator grieves that the “arid soil and … scorching sun” have burned the more delicate responses out of “those Norwegian exiles,” and that one could “watch the light die out” (p. 369) of their eyes and see a heavy shadow fall over them. This is the landscape of the opening section of O Pioneers!, savage and unyielding, but without even the promise of a munificent future in the care of a human heart that loves it. The plodding Oscar Bergson could almost have stepped out of the setting of “Eric Hermannson's Soul.”

And if the land does not destroy a person's spirit, the unctuous Free Gospellers do, twisting religion into a punishing travesty of true worship. Cather of course presents some very positive images of religious devotion in books like Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931). But in One of Ours (1922) the spirit of the Free Gospellers finds muted expression in the religious attitudes of Brother Weldon and those who attend and administer the affairs of the Temple school where Claude Wheeler is unhappily enrolled. And like Eric Hermannson, Claude is one of the faltering “bad ones” who resists public conversion and a religion in which, as Claude observes, “the noblest could be damned … while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.”28 Pitiful as they are, the Free Gospellers are not without influence. Even Eric, wildest boy on the Divide, would eventually smash his beloved violin, “the final barrier between Eric and his mother's faith” (p. 361), and follow the holy and joyless life God seemed to require of him. The coming of Margaret Elliot from the East changes Eric's resolve, however. Forbidding himself the luxury of self-delusion, Eric willingly damns his soul, as he believes, for one night of music and dancing with her before she slips out of his life forever.

Implicit in Margaret Elliot's presence on the Divide is the East-West tug-of-war that was to characterize Cather's fiction and her life for years to come.29 “Eric Hermannson's Soul” is important as the first of Cather's stories to portray this conflict, a conflict that would surface repeatedly in her novels. Beginning with O Pioneers! Cather creates a whole string of narratives that chronicle the struggles of sensitive, prairie-born characters who yearn for the advantages of the East's more civilized lifestyle, but who nevertheless have the more vital, if cruder, West in their blood.

Cather portrays this conflict graphically in this story by contrasting Margaret's absent fiancé against Eric, and by showing Margaret torn between them. The easterner enters the story by means of a letter, perfectly timed. It arrives on the heels of a frightening experience with wild horses in which Eric, through brute strength and courage and love, saves Margaret from certain injury or even death. Written by a man with “drooping shoulders, high white forehead and tight, cynical mouth” (p. 375), the letter, predictably, is an affected parcel of drivel. Ostensibly a love letter, it begins: “My Dearest Margaret: If I should attempt to say how like a winter hath thine absence been, I should incur the risk of being tedious. Really, it takes the sparkle out of everything. Having nothing better to do, and not caring to go anywhere in particular without you, I remained in the city until Jack Courtwell noted my general despondency …” (p. 373). Cather juxtaposes this insipid, self-conscious, sexless chatter against Eric's capacity for action and his vibrating, ingenuous avowal of love. Having determined that Margaret is unharmed from her encounter with the mustangs, Eric delivers an impassioned, rawly poetic speech that also shows damningly the difference between an elemental feeling for language and a precious taste for the artificial frippery that sometimes passes for clever writing:

But if they [the mustangs] had hurt you, I would beat their brains out with my hands, I would kill them all. I was never afraid before. You are the only beautiful thing that has ever come close to me. You came like an angel out of the sky. You are like the music you sing, you are like the stars and the snow on the mountains where I played when I was a little boy. You are like all that I wanted once and never had, you are all that they have killed in me. I die for you tonight, tomorrow, for all eternity. I am not a coward; I was afraid because I love you more than Christ who died for me, more than I am afraid of hell, or hope for heaven.

(P. 372)

When deeply moved, Eric finds speech beyond his ordinary capabilities. The immensity of his declaration of love is better appreciated by the reader than by Margaret Elliot, who would not understand Eric's religious commitment. But her “slow smile” at her fiancé's letter indicates that the difference between the two expressions of love, and between the two men, has not been lost on her.

The content of the letter as well as its style addresses the subject of art, another favorite Cather topic, and further reveals the duality in Margaret's nature. One paragraph describes two pictures which her fiancé has purchased. In the first, by Puvis de Chavannes, “A pale dream-maiden sits by a pale dream-cow and a stream of anemic water flows at her feet.” The other picture, by Benjamin Constant, is characterized by “its florid splendor, the whole dominated by a glowing sensuosity” (p. 373). The pale picture is, of course, his favorite; he bought the voluptuous one because Margaret liked it. Beneath Margaret's civilized veneer is an elemental passion which heretofore had found expression only in such things as her taste in art. But it shows up now in the attraction she feels toward Eric whom she regards as a Sigfried of the plains. Carrying in her blood the primitive strain of “some lawless ancestor” (p. 375), she is thus clearly related to Bartley Alexander (Alexander's Bridge), Marie Shabata (O Pioneers!), Clara Vavrika (“The Bohemian Girl”), Thea Kronborg, and Godfrey St. Peter.

In still other ways the concern of “Eric Hermannson's Soul” for art, places it at the thematic center of Cather's work. Even for Eric, a semibarbarian on the scorching prairie, the yearning toward art becomes an expression of the desire for spiritual succor: “In the great world beauty comes to men in many guises, and art in a hundred forms, but for Eric there was only his violin. It stood, to him, for all the manifestations of art; it was his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul” (p. 361). And when Margaret plays the organ and sings for him, he is touched so deeply that he can verbalize for the first time his love for his little crippled brother now dead.

Cather's integrative handling of statements about art indicate an impressive achievement in technique in this work. Also impressive are her multiple use of incident and image and her careful control of rhetoric. The wild horse episode, for example, has significance beyond the contrast it engenders between Eric and Margaret's city man. It serves also to underline the turmoil that Margaret's coming has generated in Eric's Free Gospel-chastened soul and the turmoil that the prairie and Eric's primitive magnetism have generated in hers. Like the little horse newly broken to the saddle and highly susceptible to the ebullience of the mustangs, Eric finds that Margaret has awakened his deepest and truest yearnings—for music, for power, for love. All of his bottled-up passion comes roaring to the surface, and he dances with her though he burn in hell for it. She, too, is aroused. But as with the mustangs, Eric and Margaret's impassioned experience together is short-lived, leaving “as suddenly as it had come,” sweeping in a “struggling, frantic wave of wild life … up out of the gulch and on across the open prairie” (p. 372).

If Cather's language sometimes seems overexuberant, there is nevertheless ample evidence that she is working by conscious design and with no little skill. There are three moments of climax in the story in addition to the horse incident, and at each of these moments, Cather adjusts the volume of her rhetoric to an appropriate level. The first climactic moment occurs when Eric elects to cast his lot with the Free Gospellers, renouncing his only pleasures, music and dancing. At the crucial moment of conversion he breaks his violin. The language reflects rising emotion, but is nevertheless precise and clean: “Eric Hermannson rose to his feet; his lips were set and the lightning was in his eyes. He took his violin by the neck and crushed it to splinters across his knee, and to Asa Skinner the sound was like the shackles of sin broken audibly asunder” (p. 362). The next moment of climax occurs when Eric agrees to dance with Margaret at her final party. She has no idea what she is asking him, and he fully believes that he is assenting to his own damnation. When she asks, he answers simply and quietly, though his eyes are flashing, “Yes, I will.” But “he believed that he delivered his soul to hell as he said it” (p. 371). Here the emotion of the moment emerges through understatement. In the final climactic scene at the dance, Eric and Margaret have climbed the windmill tower. Nearly spent from excitement and inner turmoil, Margaret responds to instincts deep within her, and the once sarcastic narrator grows eloquent: “This woman, on a windmill tower at the world's end with a giant barbarian, heard that cry tonight, and she was afraid! Ah! the terror and the delight of that moment when first we fear ourselves. Until then we have not lived” (p. 377).

Every incident in the story has been building toward that moment on the tower, as if it were inevitable from the first time Margaret and Eric saw each other. Eric's is the ancient story of damnation and salvation, and he misinterprets its meaning. To him, his conversion to holiness is symbolized by the smashing of his violin, and his return to “evil” is signaled by his taking up that devil's instrument to play at the dance, and by his dancing with a woman. His damnation, he thinks, is confirmed by the kiss he and Margaret exchange on the windmill tower. While the reader understands that the two mortals are at this moment in tune with the universe, answering an urge that comes from “the bottom of things, warming the roots of life” (p. 377), Eric believes that he will pay for this night in hell, and he almost savagely exults in the prospect: “Ah, there would be no quailing then! If ever a soul went fearlessly, proudly down to the gates infernal, his should go. For a moment he fancied he was there already, treading down the tempest of flame, hugging the fiery hurricane to his breast” (p. 378).

Then suddenly the tempest ceases, as if a sexual climax has passed. The subdued rhetoric signals the change: “It seemed but a little while till dawn” (p. 378). Margaret boards the carriage that points her eastward, and Eric prepares for the day's work. Asa Skinner appears on schedule, but his convert is impervious to him. Eric's conviction that he has irrevocably lost heaven, that he has exchanged heaven for this one night, extricates him from Skinner's strangling grasp. If Margaret had not come, Eric might have shriveled into a joyless, guilt-ridden Free Gospeller. Regardless of his assumptions about the state of his soul, we perceive that by renouncing Asa Skinner's brand of religious piety, by answering the basic urges of creation, and by sacrificing himself for love and beauty's sake, Eric has found, not lost, his soul. He is calm, even cheerful, in the face of Asa Skinner's accusations.

Clearly, the story ends more positively than it had begun. In spite of their sorrow there remains in Eric and his fellow immigrants “something of the joyous childhood of the nations which exile had not killed” (p. 374). And for Eric, one breath of paradise is enough to offset countless millenia of suffering in both earth and hell. Margaret, on the other hand, may never achieve Eric's calm, but she leaves the prairie knowing more about herself than she did when she came. Her brush with elementalism has stirred the youth self in her toward almost uncontrollable desires. It is therefore Margaret again, even more than Eric, who adumbrates characters in Cather's later work, characters who are driven by desires they do not always understand. Margaret is one of those eternally restless souls who ache with the “desire to taste the unknown which allures and terrifies.” She wants “to run one's whole soul's length out to the wind—just once” (p. 363), the same restless urge that visits Thea Kronborg on countless summer nights in Moonstone, Colorado.

“Eric Hermannson's Soul” is an important story in the Cather canon, something of a culmination of her earlier work and a promising introduction to her later work. If for no other reason than that she produced this story in her years with the Leader, those years were important in her development as an artist.


Cather resigned from her position with the Leader in the spring of 1900, and in the next few months published several stories in the Library, a Pittsburgh literary magazine of short life published by Charles Clark. George Seibel writes rather sarcastically about the magazine and his own connection with it, indicating that it was conceived when Clark found himself in possession of a $20,000 gift and decided that Pittsburgh needed a literary journal. Seibel says that he and Cather, who were good friends, began writing for Clark in exchange for “chunks of Chick's uncle's or grandma's coin.”30 Of the five Library stories identified and collected, two, “The Affair at Grover Station” and “The Sentimentality of William Tavener,” deserve lasting attention.


“The Dance at Chevalier's” (Library, 28 April 1900) and “The Affair at Grover Station” (Library, 16 June 1900) both develop murder plots; the latter even depicts the return of the victim's ghost. “The Dance at Chevalier's” is a slight piece, probably entertaining enough if told aloud, but rather thin and almost juvenile. “The Affair at Grover Station,” on the other hand, is a skillfully wrought mystery story, not as good as Cather's more mature work, but having considerable merit.

Through the symbolic use of dancing Cather creates a link between “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” “The Dance at Chevalier's,” and “The Affair at Grover Station.” Each of the stories features a dance, and each dance is conducted at a different level of social sophistication. The first is a Norwegian dance, the second a French, and the third an American inaugural ball. The Norwegian dance is a rather primitive affair, soul-stirring, if coarse. The Chevalier dance, however, is much brighter, for the French immigrants are not so dehumanized by their battles with the soil as are their Norwegian counterparts. Nevertheless, Cather's narrator cannot help noting that these folks, though livelier, are anything but pure French; their blood is an impure mixture of French, Canadian, and Indian (“red squaw”) sources. In fact, the narrator regrets, they retain their Frenchness only in “their names, and their old French songs, and their grace in the dance” (p. 551). Finally, in “The Affair at Grover Station,” when the Anglo-Saxons throw a dance, frontier amenity reaches its peak. The event described, the inaugural ball for the governor of Wyoming, requires formal attire and flowers for the women.31

“The Dance at Chevalier's” never rises above the popular piece it is advertised to be in its opening lines: “It was a dance that was a dance, that dance at Chevalier's, and it will be long remembered in our country” (p. 547). Nevertheless, it foreshadows the much happier Catholic fair sponsored by the French immigrants in O Pioneers! This story develops a standard love triangle plot with Denis, the handsome primitive Irishman, vying against the evil “Signor” for the affections of the beautiful Severine Chevalier. The Signor gives Denis a poison drink, blackmails the French beauty into granting him a kiss before Denis's incredulous eyes, and then rides off into the night. With the poison coursing through his body, Denis dances a final dance with Severine, a grotesque rendering of the Dance of Death. He dies believing her unfaithful. As strictly a folk tale, the story might have succeeded. The Signor's slow poison is straight out of folk literature, home brewed according to a recipe from “an old, withered Negro from the gold coast of Guinea.” But Cather does not sustain the story's oral folk atmosphere; the storyteller tends to drift in and out, now controlling the narrative, now relinquishing control.

In some sense, “The Affair at Grover Station,” a story which prefigures Cather's repeated use of railroad workers and incidents in her novels, also features a dance of death. While the victim's friends are dancing, he is killed and hidden in a box car.32 The plot is similar to that of “The Dance at Chevalier's” with a devilish rejected suitor killing his rival in love. Larry O'Toole, a railroad man from up the line, was to have made Cheyenne on a late train and escorted the lovely Miss Masterson to the governor's ball. When he fails to appear, his good friend “Terrapin” Rodgers, narrator of the murder tale, worriedly calls for Miss Masterson, assuring her that O'Toole must be coming on a later train. O'Toole, of course, never comes. The villainous Freymark arrives very late at the dance, “effusively gay” (p. 344), but interrupted in his attentions to Miss Masterson by the appearance of O'Toole's wounded dog who throws himself howling at Freymark's feet. The next morning at Grover Station, stymied in his search for clues, Rodgers falls into an exhausted sleep in the railroad office where O'Toole worked. He wakes in paralyzed terror to see the dead man's ghost, in formal attire, scratching the vital clue to his body's whereabouts on the chalkboard. When the body is found, it is not difficult to tie the murder to the nefarious Freymark.

Not only is the plot intriguing, but the whole production, and it is a production, is handled with impressive grace. The opening sentence is nearly perfect as the narrator of the frame story sets the stage: “I heard this story sitting on the rear platform of an accommodation freight that crawled along through the brown, sun-dried wilderness between Grover Station and Cheyenne” (p. 339). No laborious dredging up of suspense here, no self-conscious storytelling; only the solid, but plastic, style of a teller sure of his tale and a writer sure of her craft. Exercising an infallible sense of pace, Cather and her narrator take time to set the mood, to draw Rodgers out, and to allow him ample room to tell the story however he wishes.33 With calculated restraint, the narrator introduces Rodgers and relates his tale, withholding none of the horrors but underplaying them to just the right degree. With Poe-esque deliberateness the plot advances step by logical step toward the final climactic detail—the revelation that the corpse of the murdered man, when finally found, has blue chalk dust on the fingers of its right hand.


A story of this period which bears little resemblance to those just described is a short but excellent piece called “The Sentimentality of William Tavener” (Library, 12 May 1900). It charts briefly and quietly the awakening of a long dormant tenderness between a married couple grown distant through many years of husk-building habits. Accustomed to an almost adversary relationship in which his wife has regularly aligned herself against his implacability as an advocate for her sons, William Tavener denies the boys money and permission to attend the circus the next day. But the occasion has seeded fertile ground, and that night the two adults find themselves exchanging memories of a long ago circus. Softened by their newfound consonance, he pulls out ten dollars so that the boys can build a few of their own circus memories. The boys indeed get their wish, but they realize that something has changed. In their mother's unexpected admonition not to waste their father's hard-earned money is the revelation that “they had lost a powerful ally” (p. 357).

Cather's growing sense of how much to say and how much to leave unsaid, her increasing skill at delineating a character with one stroke, her almost uncanny ability to define a relationship with a single apt observation, and her marvelous feeling for low-keyed humor are evident. For example, in the scene where William Tavener sits calmly refusing to acknowledge the agitation of his wife and the moodiness—even muffled sobs—of his sons on the eve of the circus, Cather captures the man with one sentence: “But William Tavener never heeded ominous forecasts in the domestic horizon, and he never looked for a storm until it broke” (p. 354). Similarly, one sentence tells us a great deal about his wife Hester: “The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted” (p. 353). Beneath the hard rock of their individual inexorability, however, we divine an immense well of mutual regard: “William set his boys a wholesome example to respect their mother. People who knew him very well suspected that he even admired her” (p. 353). The almost miraculous resurrection of that old set of long-forgotten feelings is lovely, but Cather reminds us that some things lost cannot be wholly restored. There are wasted years of emptiness that cannot be recovered and filled. Hester's somewhat pensive joy at meeting her husband again on old grounds is marred by “a painful sense of having missed something, or lost something” (p. 357) over all those lonely years when they had merely lived together like “landlord and tenant” (p. 356).

Set in farming country and describing people who might well have been Virginia-born relatives of the Burdens in My Ántonia, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener” is familiar material for Cather, and she uses it readily and gladly. A fine companion piece to “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” it reveals another aspect of life on the Divide. While “Eric Hermannson's Soul” abounds in fiery, elemental passion, this story concentrates quietly on habitual human relationships. Calm and yet deep, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener” suggests a new solidity, a gentle tone that would be felt again in the stories of Ántonia and Rosicky and Bishop Latour.

The other two stories of the Library group, “A Singer's Romance” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” were described earlier in connection with stories treating similar materials.

Thus in these groups of early stories, produced by the young journalist in Nebraska and Pittsburgh, lie the seeds for a rich art that was already showing its genius. In these earliest stories Cather is, for the most part, the observer who maintains a distant, rather impersonal perspective. Willa Cather, the developing artist, is in these stories, but Willa Cather, the woman, generally is not. Here she observes the phenomena, the human race struggling through its sentence of exile, and reports it. As yet, she herself is not in the struggle, but she is beginning to understand its terms. And she is beginning to see the loss of Eden as something of a total metaphor for describing human experience. The barren landscape and the lonely human being are the dominant images in the more serious of the stories. And while their basic movement chronicles loss, they chart a countermovement of recovery, of search for the Eden that has been lost—or of search for the human relationships and values that can reconcile humankind to its loss. In the next group of stories there is a noticeable change in perspective as Cather continues to develop her basic theme. In some of the Troll Garden stories, she shortens the distance between herself and some of her characters. She begins to care in a more personal way about them and about her subject matter.


  1. “Peter” was apparently edited lightly by Cather's English teacher, Herbert Bates, and sent off for publication without her knowledge. The Hesperian was a student magazine at the University of Nebraska, and the Sombrero was the University's yearbook. The Mahogany Tree and Overland Monthly were commercial journals.

  2. Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, p. 60. Slote in “Willa Cather as a Regional Writer,” p. 10, observes that “Willa Cather's stories have at least a double view of the new world, and sometimes even greater complexity.

  3. Bradford (“Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories,” pp. 540-41) makes such a comparison, noting particularly the differences between Ántonia's “gentle father” and the “drunken, dirty old man named Peter Sadelack.”

  4. Faulkner, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, p. 542. Unless otherwise noted, all page references to stories through 1912 are from this volume as previously documented (page references are in parentheses in the text). I am also indebted to Mildred Bennett's introduction to this volume and to the editor, Virginia Faulkner, for other facts and dates pertinent to these stories.

  5. Francis Sadilek, Annie's (Ántonia's) father, apparently committed suicide in just this way. Cather heard the story many times after she arrived in Nebraska.

  6. Bohlke (“Beginnings: Willa Cather and ‘The Clemency of the Court,’” pp. 138-43) discusses the similarities between the details in Cather's story and those surrounding the death of a convict as reported and editorially exercised in the Journal early in 1893 when Cather was in her sophomore year at the University of Nebraska. The event caused quite a scandal and an intense investigation of punitive practices at the Nebraska State Penitentiary at Lincoln.

  7. In Faulkner, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, p. 481, “Conversion of Sum Loo” is described as a reworking of “Son of the Celestial.”

  8. Ibid.

  9. Slote, Kingdom of Art, p. 104. On a strict chronology this story comes between “Son of the Celestial” and “Clemency of the Court.” It appears unsigned in the Hesperian of 15 April 1893, and is reprinted in appendix 2 of Kingdom of Art, pp. 437-41, as well as in the revised edition of Faulkner's Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction. In an editing note, p. 437, Slote suggests that the fact that Cather was literary editor of the Hesperian at this time may explain why the story does not bear her signature. In her introduction to The Kingdom of Art, pp. 104-206, Slote discusses the obvious connections between the contextual details of this story and Cather's Virginia background, as well as connections with Cather's later fiction.

  10. Slote, Kingdom of Art, p. 437.

  11. Ibid., p. 438.

  12. Tommy suggests a scant likeness to the young Willa Cather. She is a bit mannish, and she is more at home among the old men of the town than among the young.

  13. For the Brownville article as it appeared in the Journal, 12 August 1894, see Curtin, The World and the Parish, pp. 102-12. Some details from Cather's visit there also appear in a 1900 article in the Library, titled “The Hottest Day I Ever Spent.” Cather signed this piece with a pseudonym, “George Overing.” See Curtin, World and the Parish, pp. 778-82. Mariel Gere, a friend of Cather's who visited Brownville with her to gather material for the article, wrote to Mildred Bennett in a letter dated 6 February 1956, of her embarrassment at the rather brash young Cather's “journalistic” methods. Cather on that occasion apparently sought out examples of deterioration rather than points of pride. Mariel Gere worried over the disappointment the article must have been to the governor and the local people who thought they were going to get some lovely publicity out of Cather's visit. One incident in particular distressed Mariel. Cather reportedly piled all the kneeling benches in one end of a chapel she visited, and asked Mariel to photograph the room that way. (Letter in Nebraska State Historical Society archives in Lincoln.)

  14. Elizabeth L. Seymour is one of several pseudonyms that Cather used in the early years of her career. Like some others, it is derived from a family name, in this instance the name of a cousin, Bess Seymour, who stayed in the Cather home in Red Cloud. For a discussion of Cather's journalistic pseudonyms, see Hinz, “Willa Cather in Pittsburgh,” pp. 190-207. Faulkner, in Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, describes the pseudonyms briefly (p. 546) and indicates that Hinz was sometimes in error (p. 593).

  15. Buchanan is a forerunner of the peripheral character-narrator who appears several times in Cather's later work. Jim Burden is the most obvious example of the type.

  16. Cather's oft-quoted statement in “The Novel Démeuble” describes what she in some measure achieved in her own work as she matured as an artist: “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.” The essay is printed in two collections of Cather essays, Willa Cather On Writing and Not Under Forty.

  17. Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, p. 82. Mildred Bennett, who identified “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog,” tells of mentioning her discovery to Cather's younger sister, Elsie, and of Elsie's excitement over it. Elsie later wrote to Mrs. Bennett that she remembered hearing the story when she was a child; it was another of the much-loved White Bear tales that Roscoe and Willa used to tell to the other Cather children. Elsie was too young to have heard the story from Willa, but Roscoe repeated to the younger Cather children the stories he and Willa had told to the others years before. See Bennett, “A Note on … The White Bear Stories,” p. 4.

  18. According to Faulkner (Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, p. 546), the pseudonym “Charles Douglass” is a combination of the first names of Cather's father Charles and her brother Douglas. At Cather's request, apparently, Douglas adopted her spelling preference and began adding a second “s” to his name. This double “s” spelling appears again in the story, “The Treasure of Far Island.”

  19. Century and Harper's both ran serial stories about princesses in 1895 which drew Cather comment in the Journal. Perhaps she decided to join the fray with her own princess story. For excerpts from Cather's Journal remarks, see Curtin, World and the Parish, pp. 152-53.

  20. The story first appeared in the National Stockman and Farmer, a weekly which listed the same address as the Home Monthly, and for which Cather apparently also wrote while she was with the Home Monthly. The page titled “Our Young Folks” seems to have been her particular responsibility, for the material on that page in 1896-97 bears her stamp. This is explained by Slote in a short introduction to the reprinted story and in her essay, “Willa Cather: The Secret Web,” delivered at the Merrimack Symposium and published in Murphy, Five Essays on Willa Cather, pp. 5-8. The story was first reprinted in Vogue (June 1973), p. 113, with a note by Slote.

  21. This sketch is reprinted with “Wee Winkie's Wanderings” and is also introduced by Slote.

  22. In an 1895 column in the Courier, however, Cather writes of being enthralled by the performance of the Dovey sisters, ages ten and twelve, who are apparently the sources for the slightly older children in “The Prodigies” (see Slote, Kingdom of Art, pp. 146-49). A week later in a column on Josef Hofmann, a young pianist who returned to America to thrill concert-goers a second time, Cather makes a more typical comment. She offers her congratulations that Hofmann is no longer a prodigy. She says, “As long as he was a prodigy he could never be an artist, indeed not a musician even. There have been certain great men, Mozart and Paganini chief among them, who have been able to live down the fact that they were once prodigies, but they had to be great indeed to do it.” For Cather there was even something grotesque about a child's performance. She spoke of it as a “sacrilege to childhood” and a “blasphemy to art” (Courier, 26 October 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, pp. 185-86; and Slote, Kingdom of Art, pp. 148-49).

    The whole subject of the youthful artist is an interesting one, for while Cather was a young woman, and even as late as 1925 when she published “Uncle Valentine,” she seemed to feel that with few exceptions, like those of Alexandre Dumas, who began doing great work at age twenty, and the Menuhin children whom she met in 1930, significant artistic achievement comes only with age and experience. The Dovey sisters are precious and extraordinary, but who can tell whether or not they will eventually be true artists? Time after time Cather quotes Helena von Doenhoff: “Art does not come at sixteen.” Speaking of singers, Cather says that an artist does not arrive at a full realization of self until after age thirty (Journal, 27 January 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 175). In these early columns Cather worries over youngsters who become performers too early, who “go too soon into an artificial atmosphere, an atmosphere where there is no time for silence and reflection and in which study is unknown” (Courier, 26 October 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 186). She has especially strong opinions about youthful novelists. In a Journal column in October 1894, she says, “The practice of youthful novel writing has done as much as any other one thing to weaken and vitiate literature. The notion seems to have gone abroad that a man can write before he has lived …” (Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 131). Still later, in May of 1895, she stresses again that one must live before one can write. She insists that “glorious and beautiful” as youth is when it is sincere, it cannot produce great novels.

  23. Cather certainly saw both sides of this issue, and displayed at least some ambivalence toward an exclusive choice for art. Sometimes she seemed to suggest that the gifted artist had an obligation to give all for art, and other times she applauded the artist who turned aside from art in favor of love and domesticity. In a Journal column (27 January 1895) she speaks regretfully of Helena von Doenhoff's choice for marriage and bids her a somewhat sarcastic “long farewell.” Admitting that “the lonely and homesick time of life” is apt to come on a great singer in her early thirties, Cather says that the only “thing that can save her” is her loving “art better than success.” Cather insists that “in art it is only the player who stakes all who wins, and that complete self-abnegation is the one step between brilliancy and greatness, between promise and fulfillment. If Doenhoff were a few years younger she might afford to take a few years off to dabble in matrimony, but she is now at the crisis where a slackening of the tension means the end” (Curtin, World and the Parish, pp. 175-76). In later columns, however, Cather pays a tribute to Mary Anderson who retired from the stage and married happily. Cather speaks admiringly of this woman who exemplified “the charms of wise and noble living, which is the highest art of all. …” She describes the kinds of things a great artist can call up in an audience and then says, “There is only one thing greater—to give them up. Many have been bold enough to win glory, but few have been strong enough to renounce it. Having won the best the world has to give, then to quietly put away all the glamour and brightness and intoxication of it because there is still a higher life unfilled, to have been a queen and then to be merely a woman, that is indeed greatness. It was Anderson's greatest creation” (Journal, 21 July 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, pp. 201-2). Nearly a year later Cather qualifies this statement by praising Mary Anderson Navarro as a person, but lamenting the loss art suffered through her defection. Navarro, she says, had the good sense to estimate the rewards of a life dedicated wholly to art at their true value and turn her back on them and live her life. “It was this clear vision, this correct estimation of the values of things that ennobled her as a woman and sadly limited her as an artist. … If all artists could end so it would be happy indeed for them, but sad, sad for art” (Journal, 3 May 1896; Slote, Kingdom of Art, p. 158; and Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 202).

    Cather was to return to this theme again and again in her columns and in her fiction. Especially eloquent in her praise of actress Eleanora Duse, Cather points to Duse's awareness of “the loveliness and lovelessness and desolation of art. Of the isolation … of all creative genius. Of the loneliness which besets all mortals who are shut up alone with God. Of the gloom which is the shadow of God's hand consecrating his elect.” Speaking of genius, Cather says, “Solitude, like some evil destiny, darkens its cradle, and sits watching even upon its grave. It is the veil and the cloister which keep the priesthood of art untainted from the world” (Journal, 16 June 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 208).

  24. Cather describes this same dichotomy of style in a column that compares Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. The two schools of art, she says, are the schools of senses and soul. Duse's acting is “done in marble just as Bernhardt's is done in color. … Bernhardt's acting is a matter of physical excitement, Duse's of spiritual exaltation. … Art is Bernhardt's dissipation, a sort of Bacchic orgy. It is Duse's consecration, her religion, her martyrdom” (Journal, 16 June 1895; Curtin, World and the Parish, p. 207).

    The phrase cited here is from a letter Cather wrote to the editor of Commonweal in answer to a request for information about Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her reply, titled “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” appears in Willa Cather on Writing, pp. 3-13. See p. 9 for the quotation cited above.

  25. Cather may have borrowed her title from William Congreve's Restoration comedy by the same name. She at least superficially treats Congreve's concern over the problem of human relationships, particularly between the sexes, and concludes that it is difficult for honest affection to flourish in an atmosphere of artificiality and shallow fashion.

  26. Willa Cather created a playtown called “Sandy Point” in her backyard. She was thirteen at the time, and became mayor as well as editor of the town newspaper. The shops were set up in packing boxes, and transactions were conducted with pins and Confederate money brought from Virginia as packing material. In many details the town matched Speckleville, except that in Willa's town all the proprietors were female, probably by choice rather than decree. Bennett (World of Willa Cather, pp. 172-73) describes the Sandy Point operation.

  27. Cather's interest in drama and dramatic forms was lifelong. In The World of Willa Cather, pp. 169-212, Bennett describes that interest. As a youngster Cather loved to write and produce and act in plays. The first of the campus pieces, titled “A Sentimental Thanksgiving Dinner: In Five Courses,” appeared in the Hesperian, 24 November 1892. The second is a biting satire on Greek-letter fraternities titled “Daily Dialogues; Or, Cloak Room Conversation as Overheard by the Tired Listener” (Hesperian, 15 February 1893). Apparently, the catalyst for this awkward bit of satire was a not-so-friendly rivalry between the literary societies and the “Greeks.” See Shively, Writings from Willa Cather's Campus Years, p. 17.

  28. Cather, One of Ours, p. 50.

  29. Cather was always pulled toward the West, even though she knew that she was to make her life in the East. In an interview cited by Bennett, World of Willa Cather, p. 140, Cather calls the tug toward Nebraska the “happiness and curse of my life.”

  30. Seibel, “Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska,” pp. 205-6. Seibel recalls that Cather still “wrote under a variety of noms de plume, as she had done for the Home Monthly.” He remembers specifically that one was “Nickelmann [sic], borrowed from a folklore figure in Gerhart Hauptmann's Sunken Bell, which we had read once.” The full name was Henry Nicklemann, which, according to Faulkner in Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction (p. 546), “appeared on some seventeen articles,” including “When I Knew Stephen Crane,” which was “credited to Nicklemann in the Library,” but “signed Willa Sibert Cather when it appeared in the Lincoln Courier.” “The Dance at Chevalier's” was signed Henry Nicklemann.

  31. It is sometimes painful to read in Cather what today would be regarded as openly racist comments. We must remember that such treatment was common among early writers of “realism.” Cather unblushingly, really unconsciously, repeats demeaning racial stereotypes in these early stories. As she matured, slurring racial references disappear, or when they do appear they are usually intended as a judgment against whoever utters them. In many novels, she speaks fondly and respectfully of immigrants from Europe as well as of Mexicans and Indians, although some comments and characterizations might be regarded as anti-Semitic. Certainly, American movies traded on these old racial stereotypes long after Cather no longer felt inclined to use them.

  32. “The Affair at Grover Station” was probably inspired by a summer visit Cather paid to her brother Douglass, then a railroad station agent in Cheyenne. See Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, pp. 96-97. Bennett, World of Willa Cather, p. 36, says the story “was written with his assistance”; presumably he provided the railroading details.

  33. Anticipating the narrative device she was later to employ in My Ántonia, Cather creates a narrator who repeats someone else's story. And, as in My Ántonia, the story begins with a train ride. In My Ántonia, however, we encounter the third party only in the “Introduction” where he (or she) meets Jim Burden, a childhood friend, on a train. The two reminisce about Ántonia, and months later Jim drops off a manuscript for his old friend to read. The manuscript is the novel. In “Affair at Grover Station,” the narrator reports the story as it was told to him.

Marilyn Arnold (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13176

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.]


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 acquainted with Isabelle McClung with whom she was to enjoy a lifelong friendship. That same spring she moved out of her boardinghouse and into the McClung home where she was accorded the privacy and atmosphere she needed for her writing.2 And Cather continued writing, in spite of a demanding teaching schedule.


The four stories alluded to above have a particular flavor, something of a genteel sentimentality, a self-consciousness that had not fretted the best of Cather's earlier stories. One is tempted to credit some of this genteel intrusion to the move from the bumpy cadences of boarding house living to the more gracious rhythms of the McClung household. Two of the stories, “Jack-a-Boy” (Saturday Evening Post, 30 March 1901) and “The Treasure of Far Island” (New England Magazine, October 1902), are highly romantic. The other two, “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” (New England Magazine, June 1901) and “The Professor's Commencement” (New England Magazine, June 1902), are less sentimental, but tend to be overwritten. Nevertheless, these four stories have a memorable quality; they stick in the mind. Perhaps Cather was just reaching the age where she could begin to be nostalgic about childhood, for both “Jack-a-Boy” and “The Treasure of Far Island” are quite different from her earlier treatments of childhood themes.3 “Jack-a-Boy” is written like a juvenile tale, fraught with characters like “The Woman Nobody Called On,” but its little hero is almost oppressively Greek. This is not to suggest, however, that the story is without charm. On the contrary, Cather's facility with language rhythms and sounds mesmerizes the reader as the Golden Age luxuriates across the story's pages like a banquet comprised solely of desserts.

The child Jack-a-Boy moves with his parents into an apartment house verging on decay and wins the hearts of its most crabbed and lonely occupants. But he grows sick with a fever and dies. Cather's narrator (a lonely female occupant of the building) sentimentally describes the boy's passing in terms of his rejoining “some joyous spirit with whom he had played long ago in Arcady.” Noting that “the flowers and the casket and the dismal hymns” are “cruelly inappropriate for such a glad and beautiful little life,” she bravely tries “to forget all that, and to remember only that Jack-a-Boy heard the pipes of Pan as the old wood gods trooped by in the gray morning, and that he could not stay” (pp. 319-20). Another neighbor, an old professor who is immersed in the scholastic dry dust of the Classical Age, is as prodigal as the narrator with his sentimental indulgences, avowing that “sometimes the old divinities reveal themselves in children,” radiating “that holiness of beauty which the hardest and barest of us must love when we see it” (pp. 320-21).

The story has another problem too, a problem with taste. As it draws to a close the old classicist suggests that the young lad was an instance of Walter Pater's assertion that “the revelation of beauty” is perhaps, after all, “to be our redemption.” Taking her cue from the professor, the narrator frames a less than subtle comparison between the boy and the Savior. In light of the story's theme, this comparison is not offensive, but in a context of wood nymphs and Greek divinities frolicking in the fields of Arcady, such an allusion jangles the sensibilities. The story's chief value lies in its poetic fluency and its thematic affirmation of human caring as an antidote for loneliness.

“The Treasure of Far Island,” no less exuberant and sentimental, is not so quaintly storybookish as “Jack-a-Boy,” and hence less justified in its excesses. It is the story of Douglass Burnham, a successful eastern playwright who returns to his childhood home on the Divide to recapture his youth and his love. With his somewhat reluctant pirate playmate of yore, the now lovely Margie Governor, Douglass rows on the appointed day to their childhood island to dig up the treasure they had buried many years ago. For a time, Margie is the pessimistic counterbalance to Douglass's optimism, but Douglass gradually breaks down Margie's reserve and together they recapture the world of their childhood where “the meadows … were the greenest in all the world because they were the meadows of the long ago; and the flowers that grew there were the freshest and sweetest of growing things because once, long ago in the golden age, two children had gathered other flowers like them, and the beauties of vanished summers were everywhere” (p. 276). Their world is shot through with celestial fire and furbished with romantic profusion:

The locust chirped in the thicket; the setting sun threw a track of flame across the water; the willows burned with fire and were not consumed; a glory was upon the sand and the river and upon the Silvery Beaches; and these two looked about over God's world and saw that it was good. In the western sky the palaces of crystal and gold were quenched in night, like the cities of old empires; and out of the east rose the same moon that has glorified all the romances of the world—that lighted Paris over the blue Aegean and the feet of young Montague to the Capulets' orchard.

(P. 282)

The self-imposed curbs and low-keyed restraint that distinguish Cather's later work are absent here, but we can readily recognize in these lines an early manifestation of the lyrical impulse that invigorates Cather's novels.

This story is also interesting because it foreshadows setting and theme in Cather's later work, especially My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart. The river and the island described here and in the novels are part of her own childhood memories of adventures on the Republican River. And like many of Cather's works, “The Treasure of Far Island” testifies that youth is the best time, the time of power, the time of aliveness, the time most worth living, the time too soon gone forever. This theme carries through many of the novels and into later stories like “The Joy of Nelly Deane,” “Uncle Valentine,” “Double Birthday,” “Two Friends,” “The Old Beauty,” and “The Best Years.” So convinced is Cather of the value of youth over age that several of her young characters die in almost merciful escape from the disillusionment that accompanies age. Claude Wheeler, Tom Outland, Nelly Deane, and Lesley Ferguesson (“The Best Years”) are all granted that fate.

Thinking of “the other gallant lads who sailed with us then,” Margie sighs, “It is very sad to grow up.” Douglass counters, “Sad for them, yes. But we have never grown up …” (p. 277). As the two continue to discuss their child selves, Margie cries out that the pirate's treasure they so carefully saved “was really our childhood that we buried here, never guessing what a precious thing we were putting under the ground” (p. 280). Douglass agrees that the burial rites marked the end of their golden childhood days, but he insists that they can find youth again. Margie, however, charges him with losing it for them in the first place by growing up and taking on “the ways of the world” (p. 281). This appears to be an authorial allusion to the earlier story of that title in which Cather traces the calamity wrought in the child world by a sellout to a materialistic ethic. “The Treasure of Far Island” reverses the tragedy of “The Way of the World,” recouping the loss and returning its characters to freedom and light and childlike sharing.


The titles of the other two stories in this group, “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” and “The Professor's Commencement,” suggest an interesting contrast which, in fact, is reversed in the stories themselves. “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” ironically ends with an upturn toward a new life while “The Professor's Commencement” moves steadily downward, confirming again that youth once lost is gone forever. The abundant optimism of “The Treasure of Far Island” is absent from these stories, but Cather is as munificent in describing Desolation as she was in describing Arcady. Cather opens “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional” with a grim picture of the Solomon Valley through which “a turbid, muddy little stream … crawls along between naked bluffs, choked and split by sand bars” (p. 293), until it plays itself out. The abundance of desolate detail is in absolute contrast to the description of setting in “The Treasure of Far Island” and harks back to the dreary landscape of Cather's early prairie stories. Here again, she peoples the landscape with the most solitary of characters.

Completely alone in the world, Josiah Bywaters sits in his store, the sole inhabitant of El Dorado, a town advertised as “the Queen City of the Plains,” to which he had come from Virginia, like Cather's people, to make a new life. Instead of finding wealth, he found himself the victim of a land fraud. When the other losers pulled out, he stubbornly remained, and watched angry creditors dismantle the town board by board, stone by stone. In the end, however, when the man who had bilked him returns on a sentimental errand, Bywaters discovers him killed by a rattler. He pockets the ten thousand dollars he finds on the body, burns the store, and heads east without looking back.

The story picks up one of Cather's dominant motifs, isolation. It occurs not only in story after story, but in most of the novels as well. Bywaters' store is the town's “solitary frame building,” and it is “the solitude rather than any other hardship” (p. 294) that makes him suffer. He is “a sort of ‘Last Man’ … stranded on a Kansas bluff” (p. 295). Left there alone, he had become “almost a part of that vast solitude, … homesick for his kind” (p. 295). Even the land “seemed as lonely as himself and as unhappy. No one cared for it.” God himself seemed to have grown tired of it and deeded “it over to the Other Party” (p. 303).

The final story of this group, “The Professor's Commencement,” treats both the isolation and the youth themes. Although the professor has the companionship of his widowed sister and various colleagues and friends, he is essentially a solitary man. Facing retirement, he glumly attends the high school commencement services that formally mark the end of his daily communion with teachers and students. Emerson Graves, another of the multitude of Cather characters who mourn the passing of youth, has harbored the conviction that if he could somehow retain his youth, he could forever fend off loneliness. Interacting daily with literature's lyric poets and with high school students had, he felt, “prolonged his youth well into the fifties,” and anyone observing the professor's mouth would note that it “was as sensitive and mobile as that of a young man” (p. 284). Graves fancies himself as one whose “real work had been to try to secure for youth the rights of youth; the right to be generous, to dream, to enjoy; to feel a little the seduction of the old Romance, and to yield a little” (p. 287). The professor regrets that even while his students are still in school the industrialism that will eventually devour them is so close that it fills the classroom with its ravenous sounds, eager to feed upon these youngsters. This is the same industrial threat that Cather describes later in “The Namesake” and “Uncle Valentine.”

The professor faces retirement with a heavy heart, feeling “like a ruin of some extinct civilization,” for “he had been living by external stimulation from the warm young blood about him.” Now, with “the current of young life … cut away from him” he feels “horribly exposed,” drunk dry by “those hundreds of thirsty young lives” (p. 289). In his sense of loss that seems inevitably to accompany the passing of years, Emerson Graves foreshadows Godfrey St. Peter. And just as the discouraged St. Peter thinks on his youth self, so Graves before him asks himself what he has done with his own bright youth and remembers with mixed pleasure and pain his one remarkable student. St. Peter, too, has such a student, Tom Outland, and Cather gives the whole center section of The Professor's House (1925) to “Tom Outland's Story” as St. Peter reads through Tom's notebook one solitary summer. Tom might have been devoured by the material world, as Graves knows his students will be, but Cather rushes him off to war where, like Claude Wheeler, he is killed before the brightness of his youth can be tarnished.

With the facile rhetoric of one who has not yet been there, Cather eloquently describes the bitterness of aging felt by the professor and his colleagues: “With youth always about them, they had believed themselves of it. Like the monk in the legend they had wandered a little way into the wood to hear the bird's song—the magical song of youth so engrossing and so treacherous, and they had come back to their cloister to find themselves old men—spent warriors who could only chatter on the wall, like grasshoppers, and sigh at the beauty of Helen as she passed” (p. 290). Professor Graves tries to recapture his youth self and even correct its mistakes by repeating the poem he had delivered at his own commencement, a recitation he never finished because his memory failed him at a critical moment. Everyone in the audience appreciates the significance of his attempting the poem again some forty years later. Predictably, he stumbles on the same line, time's merciless reminder that the past is irredeemable.



Two of the best pieces of fiction Cather ever wrote appeared in 1905, in McClure's separately and as part of her first collected volume of prose, The Troll Garden. Surely, “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” deserve the respect they have earned as hallmarks in American fiction. “A Wagner Matinee,” which appeared in 1904 in Everybody's Magazine before it was collected in The Troll Garden, also shows the sure touch of a first-rate writer of fiction.4 The whole collection, probably written in the two-year span from the fall of 1902 to the fall of 1904,5 demonstrates that for Cather a long and productive apprenticeship was over. In fact, nothing Cather wrote in the subsequent six or seven years is better than the best of this collection, or even as good. Gone is the somewhat stylized literary pose of the “Jack-a-Boy” group and the rather superficial treatment of serious themes.

Perhaps the wisest approach to The Troll Garden collection is through a consideration of its title and the two epigraphs with which Cather introduces it. One epigraph, appearing on the title page, is from Charles Kingsley's The Roman and the Teuton: A Series of Lectures Delivered Before the University of Cambridge. More specifically, the lines Cather borrows come from a parable titled “The Forest Children” which Kingsley repeats in one of his lectures.6 This is the epigraph as Cather uses it: “A fairy palace, with a fairy garden; … inside the trolls dwell, … working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange.” The other epigraph, appearing opposite the title page, is a stanza from Christina Rossetti's “The Goblin Market”:

We must not look at Goblin men,
          We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
          Their hungry thirsty roots?(7)

Cather elides a few words from the Kingsley quotation which, when included, cast a very different light upon the epigraph and indeep upon the whole volume of stories. The parable as Kingsley tells it opens, “Fancy to yourself a great Troll-garden, such as our forefathers dreamed of often fifteen hundred years ago;—a fairy palace, with a fairy garden; and all around the primeval wood. Inside the Trolls dwell, cunning and wicked, watching their fairy treasures, working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange; and outside, the forest is full of children; such children as the world had never seen before, but children still. …”8 In appropriating that passage, Cather preserves references to the magic and the creativity of the trolls, but omits references to their evil natures. And, she does not mention the children outside in the forest.

E. K. Brown takes the passage with its elisions at face value. In his view, the pair of epigraphs define the two thematic strands of the book: first, the artist and second, the forces which are unsympathetic and even destructive to art. Brown identifies the artists as the “industrious” trolls, while the “evil-working” goblins are the enemies of art; and each story in the collection, he believes, illustrates the conflict between these two forces. Brown distinguishes between what he calls the “baleful” strand and the “sunny” strand, the baleful strand portraying the defeat of the artist, and the sunny strand portraying the artist at work “in relation with persons of great wealth.” Brown believes that the first six stories deal alternately with the two interwoven themes, and that “Paul's Case” stands as a coda to the two sets. Stories one, three, and five—“Flavia and Her Artists,” “The Garden Lodge,” and “The Marriage of Phaedra”—show “artists or persons with artistic temperament” working “amid the wealthy” to produce “things rare and strange”; this is the troll, or sunny, strand. Stories two, four, and six—“The Sculptor's Funeral,” “A Death in the Desert,” and “A Wagner Matinee”—which comprise the goblin or baleful strand, are “tales filled with an undercurrent of malaise and a sense of nightmare,” the consequences of venturing “into the goblin market” where the goblins destroy with their poisonous fruits.9

Bernice Slote, however, pointing to Cather's ardent interest in myth and history, argues convincingly that Kingsley's parable says essentially the same thing as Rossetti's poem. Trolls and goblins alike display their dangerous enticements temptingly before the eyes of childish innocence. Slote also insists that Cather's intent is not merely to invoke the conflict between artist and society that her critics are so fond of describing. Slote points out that in Cather “the greedy and insensitive are everywhere, and even in art there are both Trolls and Forest Children (the overrefined versus the genuine, the real desire versus the false).”10 Cather uses the two epigraphic items, it appears, less to define the dichotomy (which certainly is present) of the book and the individual stories in it than to give double emphasis to the threat of materialistic seduction. As Slote says, “The Troll Garden is about corruption, the distortion of values; in every human sense there may be goblin fruit to desire, and Trolls who guard their riches.”11

Before The Troll Garden, Cather had defended her values boldly in columns and reviews, but had only occasionally moved beyond simple sentiment or intrigue or entertainment in her fiction. But with her first collection of stories12 we detect a new sense of obligation to use art as a weapon against its enemies, against the trolls and goblins of this world. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom see The Troll Garden as a battleground where the artist struggles incessantly with a society that is hostile to both art and artist. In keeping with the general thesis of their book, the Blooms regard the collection of stories as “primarily an extended colloquy between the artist as hero and a personified middle-class society as the villain.”13 While their position has merit, particularly as it describes a story like “The Sculptor's Funeral,” the force of it is diminished by the truth of Brown's important observation about the stories: “Artists do not often appear practicing their art, or theorizing about it, and never do they attempt either theory or practice at length; they appear in their relations with others, usually either with non-artistic persons or with persons who are merely appreciative.” The problem is “that artists are crucially unlike other beings,” and this “unlikeness often brings havoc into the lives of those who surround the artist.”14 The Blooms also speak of the social separateness of the artist, but chiefly in terms of the artist's self-immolation, a sacrifice which could never be understood by “‘normal’ ungenerous individuals.” Because the artist has given all, he must be granted special dispensations by society for behavior that would not be tolerated in the ungifted. Hence, “the mutual suspicion” between artist and society in general is probably to be expected.15

It must be remembered, however, that the Troll Garden stories are not stories of struggling artists. They are, rather, stories that deal with human values and relationships played against genuine art as an index of value. In them Cather is concerned with a much broader value system than that of art for its own sake. She is talking about both art and humanity, refusing to separate the two, insisting that whatever works against art works also against humanity. The connection she discovered and described in The Troll Garden, the connection between aesthetic (or artistic) sensibility and meaningful human life and interaction, became the foundation upon which she built for a lifetime. The troll garden was to become for Cather forever the territory of the enemy, the country of materialism and false art, and hence the country where the artist and the nonmaterialist would forever be aliens. It is this country that Cather explores in the Troll Garden stories, warning against its false fruits, enchantingly delicious, but destructive to art and humanity alike.


The first story in The Troll Garden is “Flavia and Her Artists,” appropriately named for the flamboyant woman who adores artists and is happy only when her house and life are filled with them. Assuredly, Flavia's house is the seductive troll garden which lures artists, pseudoartists, and other people of arty or intellectual reputation to partake of its worldly pleasures and in turn to bestow the privilege and the prestige of their company upon their eager hostess. Imogen Willard, the handsome and scholarly daughter of Flavia's friend, arrives as a houseguest, one of Flavia's “chosen” personalities, each one selected because of some supposed talent or celebrity value. Another guest is the square-shooting actress, Jemima “Jimmy” Broadwood. Flavia is married to the sensitive Arthur Hamilton who owns, by virtue of inheritance, a highly successful farm machine manufactory. Some of the guests are trolls themselves, having come in their cunning to exploit Flavia; others, like M. Roux, appear to be genuine, if less than gracious, artists.

Arthur has a blind spot where Flavia is concerned and would even sacrifice his relationship with her to save her from pain. Roux is not similarly handicapped. Though somewhat perplexed at first, Roux comes to some uncomplimentary conclusions about Flavia which he publishes in a newspaper interview in order to punish her and women like her for using him as a showpiece. He had wondered why she gathered artists about her, for he had perceived “at a glance” what the narrator already knew, “namely, that all Flavia's artists have done or ever will do means exactly as much to her as a symphony means to an oyster; that there is no bridge by which the significance of any work of art could be conveyed to her” (pp. 164-65). Flavia is both troll and forest child, both temptress and wide-eyed innocent. Ambitious, demanding, oblivious to her own blindness, she lives parasitically off the borrowed light of those whom she persuades to accept her sumptuous hospitality.

The narrator, who grants that Flavia is a “remarkable woman,” nevertheless characterizes her in rather harsh terms at times. Flavia's inclinations toward people tend to smack of “violence” and “vehemence and insistence.” Her “enamel” face “a perfect scream of animation” (Jemima Broadwood's term), Flavia lives in constant anxiety for fear that “the fabric of her life” might “fly to the winds in irretrievable entanglement” (pp. 156-57). Flavia, who thinks she is in complete harmony with the artists of the world, strikes Imogen as one who projects a note which is “manifestly false.” And apparently, Flavia's weakness is not simply a matter of ignorance. These people whom she regards as “her natural affinities” she also regards as “lawful prey” (p. 149), a term which carries ugly suggestions. Unable to construe opinions of her own, Flavia adopts the positions of others and argues them with fervor. The “most worn word in her vocabulary” is “best” (p. 150); the creed she repeats daily is that one must seek “the best” and give “the best.”

In her house Flavia's great ambition has been realized, to provide an “asylum for talent,” a “sanitorium of the arts,” terms which unmistakably suggest a harbor for the diseased or unhealthy. Still, for Flavia the house is “the mirror of her exultation; it was a temple to the gods of Victory, a sort of triumphal arch” (p. 152). The sneer is obvious in the voice of the narrator in this description of Flavia and her dream for her artists: “A woman who made less a point of sympathizing with their delicate organisms, might have sought to plunge these phosphorescent pieces into the tepid bath of domestic life; but Flavia's discernment was deeper. This must be a refuge where the shrinking soul, the sensitive brain, should be unconstrained …” (p. 152).

This story is not simply a dramatization of the conflict between the artist and society. Flavia, who believes herself to be the very soul of art appreciation, but who is in fact shallow and foolish, is in many ways a more likeable character than the “artists” who know what she is, but pretend to admire her in order to enjoy the material advantages Arthur's money provides. Thus, though they scale the wall and enter her troll garden, they perhaps are the greater beguilers. Even M. Roux, who is certainly more worthy of the title of artist than the hack novelist Frank Wellington, cruelly betrays Flavia after eating at her table. Jemima's obvious scorn for all the celebrities who devour Flavia's goblin fruit carries significant weight in the reader's mind, for she has an uncanny ability to tell things straight. The “artists,” in fact, have beguiled Flavia into believing that they have magical powers and extraordinary sensibilities which she would do well to nurture and even worship. Then too, Hamilton's regard for his wife speaks in her favor as well as his.

It seems clear that Cather's main concern is not with art per se, but with the attitudes and behavior of human beings, some of whom happen to be artists. Art can and often does suggest a standard of truth for human thought and action, but in this story it is Arthur Hamilton, manufacturer, not the artists, who becomes the measuring stick. It is Hamilton, who resists the false attractions of materialism and exploitive art alike, against whom Cather judges both artists and plebeians. It is he who acts instinctively and selflessly out of love and human caring. And it is he who is therefore destined to be misunderstood and to dwell as a stranger in his own home. In this story Cather demonstrates the principle she had come to believe and avow with increasing fervor: the exploitive instinct is destructive to both art and humanity, and it isolates human beings from their most salutary sources of sympathy.

“The Sculptor's Funeral,” the next story in the collection, presents a shining still-life portrait of the nonexploitive artist, the true artist who may appear to have been selfish because of his single-mindedness, but who in fact has offered a kind of total sacrifice of self on the altar of art and humanity. It was surely not by accident that Cather chose to juxtapose Flavia and her perfidious artists against the sculptor, damning them by the integrity of his example. And in some ways, the hostile environment of the small Kansas town to which Harvey Merrick's body returns for burial is no more pernicious than the hothouse corruption of Flavia's “asylum” for “delicate organisms” and “shrinking souls.”

“The Sculptor's Funeral” is a landmark in Willa Cather's career. Not only is it her first truly great story, but it is the first story in which she herself is totally involved. Cather is writing from the heart about things that are so terribly true for her that the whole force of her personality and her belief resonates through the lines. Perhaps for the first time the vitality of her mind and art speaks more convincingly than the content of her words or the grace of her style. Cather seemed to recognize the story's quality, for she selected it to appear in a later collection of short stories as well as in her collected works; and she allowed it to appear in anthologies, a rare concession for her.

“The Sculptor's Funeral” is Cather's most important fictional statement to date on what were for her the enduring values of human life. The coffin of the sculptor is in some sense a monument to those values, like the tombs of ancient monarchs. In life, however, the sculptor was regarded as an embarrassment to his father. The townspeople pitied Harvey Merrick's father for trying to run a farm with a son who aspired to an education and advanced training in art rather than property and money. Even as a youngster Harvey could not be trusted to tend cows responsibly because he might be distracted by a sunset. The sculptor's body is shipped home where the “successful” men of Sand City come to sit through the night with it, cackling over Harvey's prodigalities and failures, completely unaware of the meaning of the palm on his coffin.16 The sculptor, dead before reaching middle age, is a world-renowned artist who had somehow miraculously sprung up in their midst.

Jim Laird, who went off to college with Harvey and returned to be the shyster lawyer his townsmen wanted him to be, in a fit of anger and self-hatred bursts in on the watchers and delivers what is probably the most powerful speech Cather ever wrote. In that speech she clearly draws the battle lines for what was to be a lifelong effort to fortify the things of the spirit against material incursions. Jim Laird, who is really the central character of the story, knows that he succumbed to the trolls' enticements while Harvey resisted, and he throws his self-disgust back at his fellow townsmen in a verbal cyclone: “There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization, who didn't come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he's a mind to; but he knew Harvey wouldn't have given a tinker's damn for his bank and all his cattle-farms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps” (pp. 183-84). He attacks what he calls the “sick, sidetracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks” such as “the here-present financiers of Sand City” mercilessly and praises Harvey Merrick, who “wouldn't have given one sunset over your marshes for all you've got put together” (p. 185).

In some sense Jim Laird is both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story. The central conflict is not between the sculptor and the townspeople, for Harvey Merrick has already won the old battle and is safely out of the fray. The central conflict is between Jim's better nature and the self that prospers by serving scoundrels. The return of Harvey's body has stirred to the surface a side of Jim's nature that he has repressed for many years, a side that values all that Harvey stands for. It is as if Harvey's body had to come home to deliver its silent message to Jim Laird. More specifically, the return of his friend's body for burial is the symbolic return of Jim's own conscience which is then promptly buried with the sculptor. So the “sculptor's funeral” is indeed the most important event in the story. It precipitates the awakening of conscience that some years ago might have saved Jim Laird; but it also brings him face-to-face with what he has become, and the shame of it is too painful to bear. Too drunk to attend the funeral, Jim awards the victory over his soul to the antagonist within him whom he despises.

Jim, as the central character, is subtly played against the other characters in the story. The rather nondescript Steavens who accompanies his master's body home could never speak so passionately for personal integrity as Jim Laird, nor could he fall so miserably into the service of the enemy. Jim's townsmen, unlike Jim, are too dense to see the evil in their natures. But Harvey's mother is particularly important because she is like an exposed nerve someone has stepped on, Jim's nerve. Cather's description of her is superb, terrible and superb, complete in just a few lines. The woman's face is brutally handsome, “but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so coloured and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there.” Steavens perceives that “she filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water.” Even he “felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool” (p. 176). Jim has some of that same raw power, but with him it is usually tempered by expediency. Besides Jim, only the feeble old father and the family's mistreated housegirl seem to have sensed the sculptor's quality.

During the wake Cather allows each of the watchers to reveal himself through his smug comments. What better way to show an artist's fineness than to bring him mute into the company of all that is sordid and crass? And what better way to show what Jim Laird has sold out to? In reporting that Jim does not attend his friend's funeral services, the conclusion reconfirms that the story's central concern is Jim Laird's self-division and the successful repression of his better nature: “The thing in him that Harvey Merrick had loved must have gone underground with Harvey Merrick's coffin; for it never spoke again, and Jim got the cold he died of driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps's sons who had got into trouble out there by cutting government timber” (p. 185).

The next story in the collection, “The Garden Lodge,” works in still a different way with the troll garden theme. The distinctions between trolls and forest children are deliberately blurred in “Flavia and Her Artists,” with troll-like characters appearing everywhere. But the distinctions are lucid in “The Sculptor's Funeral” where the self-satisfied trolls flourish with little outside interference. “The Garden Lodge,” however, exposes no evil trolls; its only trolls, in fact, live in the garden of art. Cather admits, through allusion and direct statement too, that art itself can be a form of sorcery, a garden of incorporeal delights that may tempt the innocent to sorrow and even destruction, or hold out promises that forever elude. “The Garden Lodge,” a ready confession that art is both agony and ecstasy, is an important story for Cather. She makes it plain that art scarcely guarantees the devotee glamour or material ease or a lifetime of emotional high tides, though at various moments it can bring all of those. Art can spell poverty and pain and social censure as well as wonder. To have risen to the top and received worldwide acclaim as the sculptor had done is one thing; to have sacrificed everything to one's artistic desire and reaped only hardship, “petty jealousies,” and a “cowardly fear of the little grocer on the corner” (p. 189), as Caroline Noble's father had done, is quite another.

Determined first of all to survive, Caroline has consciously rejected the sentimental and molded herself into what her friends perceive as a “cool-headed” and “disgustingly practical” woman who is “always mistress of herself in any situation” (p. 187). What her friends do not know, of course, is what she had endured as a youngster:

She had grown up in Brooklyn, in a shabby little house under the vacillating administration of her father, a music teacher who usually neglected his duties to write orchestral compositions for which the world seemed to have no especial need. His spirit was warped by bitter vindictiveness and puerile self-commiseration, and he spent his days in scorn of the labour that brought him bread and in pitiful devotion to the labour that brought him only disappointment, writing interminable scores which demanded of the orchestra everything under heaven except melody.

(P. 188)

This, she learned, was what art meant: a mother “who idolized her husband as the music lord of the future,” a brother who “had inherited all his father's vindictive sensitiveness without his capacity for slavish application” (p. 188), and a house that “had served its time at the shrine of idealism,” brought “low enough” by “vague, distressing, unsatisfied yearnings” (p. 189). She remembers that in that house where a “mystic worship of things distant, intangible and unattainable” prevailed, the family nevertheless always had “to come down to the cold facts of the case; to boiled mutton and to the necessity of turning the dining-room carpet” (p. 189).

After the deaths of her brother and mother, Caroline had assumed control of the household, and by giving lessons and eventually playing recital accompaniments, she managed to pay the bills and take life in hand. She met and married a widower, a successful businessman, and for the first time she “paused to take a breath”; finally, with him, she felt “entirely safe” (p. 190). But the world of art eventually intrudes upon her hard-won peace. Secure and decidedly unsentimental, she scarcely expects to be thrown off balance by the visit of opera star Raymond d'Esquerré who elects to rest, study, and practice for a month at the Nobles' home, singing many hours in the garden lodge with Caroline accompanying him. Until her husband suggests after d'Esquerré's departure that they tear down the garden lodge and build a summer house there, she had not known what deep lodes of her essential being had been tapped by the singer's presence and his art. Her initial reaction favors preserving the lodge because d'Esquerré had sung there. That night, unable to sleep, Caroline goes to the lodge, vulnerable to a flood of throttled feelings and memories. While a storm holds itself in poised abeyance, she plays from the last music that the artist had practiced there. Finally, she breaks down sobbing; and the storm, as if on cue, crashes around her. After so many years of studied control, Caroline begins “fighting again the battles of other days,” helplessly entertaining long-buried ghosts from her past. By the next morning, however, she has successfully collected and ordered her feelings again. When her husband asks her if she has come to a decision about the lodge, she calmly votes to raze it. She has not fallen in love with the man for whom she played accompaniments as Lucy Gayheart does, but she is momentarily caught in his spell. Older than Lucy, and far less impulsive, she is less vulnerable, but she is also less vital and appealing.

The focal point of the story is Caroline's experience in the garden lodge on the night of the storm. There she is visited by a vestige of her young self, and also by the realization that the things she had come to believe in as realities were perhaps only shadows after all. And “the shadows of things, always so scorned and flouted,” were in fact “the realities.” Even more painfully, she realizes that “her father, poor Heinrich [her brother], even her mother, who had been able to sustain her poor romance and keep her little illusions amid the tasks of a scullion, were nearer happiness than she.” This realization is reinforced by an allusion, the second in the story, to Klingsor's garden: “Her [Caroline's] sure foundation was but made ground, after all, and the people in Klingsor's garden were more fortunate, however barren the sands from which they conjured their paradise” (pp. 195-96).17

So, the contest is not between the sordid money-grubbing world and the heaven of pure art, but rather it is between the practical and the imaginative impulses which can quicken inside anyone. But given a choice, who would not finally prefer the excesses of the imagination? The story develops an interesting paradox on this point. D'Esquerré, who creates an enchanted world for his largely female audiences, seeks relief “near a quiet nature, a cool head, a strong hand” (p. 190), while Caroline, who has committed herself to matter-of-factness, has her moment of truth in the realms of feeling and imagination. D'Esquerré is only too aware that with his art he escorts women aching for his magic into the garden of the trolls, or in this case, of the sorcerer Klingsor. The sorrow, of course, is that the garden of the imagination is enchanting chiefly to those outside it. Only occasionally is d'Esquerré stirred to “believe again.” For the most part he lives with a “tacit admission of disappointment under all this glamour of success—the helplessness of the enchanter to at all enchant himself” (p. 194). True artists do not fool themselves, do not partake of their own goblin fruit, except in rare moments when their audiences give it back to them with “fervent and despairing appeal” (p. 194).


The next story in The Troll Garden, “A Death in the Desert,” is generally regarded as an important story even though it is not so strong stylistically nor so credible as “The Garden Lodge.” In “A Death in the Desert” Cather warns again that the garden of art can be a sorcerer's garden which, though it seems to promise perennial youth and the rarest of sweet fruits, may, in fact, deliver a bitter harvest of isolation and death.

By accident of his passing through Cheyenne, Everett Hilgarde becomes a watcher with Katharine Gaylord and her brother Charlie during the last weeks of her life. Although Everett had loved her for many years, she had loved only Everett's look-alike brother, Adriance Hilgarde, her teacher and fellow performer who is now safely abroad. Her continuing futile passion for the talented and self-serving Adriance only adds to Everett's distress as he watches her die. Katharine's anguish is overstated almost to the point of melodrama, and we become aware that this story is less the account of a woman's pitiful dying than it is the tragedy of a man's being subsumed in the identity of a famous brother whom he has the misfortune to resemble. Katharine Gaylord's approaching death provides a set of circumstances under which Everett's bitter lifelong eclipse can be revealed.18 Everett, not Katharine, is the story's main character, just as the main character in the Robert Browning poem of the same title is not the dying man, but the one who ministers to the dying man.19 Katharine's “death in the desert” has momentary significance, chiefly as it affects and elucidates Everett's life. Everett's death is continual.

“A Death in the Desert” begins and ends with Everett's being mistaken for his older, yet more youthful, brother, of whom he is a somewhat crudely molded copy. All his life, people have noticed or loved Everett chiefly because of his resemblance to Adriance; all his life they have preferred Adriance to him. Everett's chief value has been his ability to call up the apparition of his brother for the artist's worshipful admirers. The opening scene of the story introduces Everett's everlasting predicament. The setting is a westbound train in Colorado where a traveling man mistakes Everett for Adriance and plies him with questions about his famous brother, “the only subject that people ever seemed to care to talk to Everett about” (p. 200). Never free from his own face nor his brother's fame, Everett no sooner steps from the train in Cheyenne than a “woman in a phaeton uttered a low cry and dropped the reins.” Embarrassed, Everett “lifted his hat and passed on. He was accustomed to sudden recognitions in the most impossible places, especially by women” (p. 201).

This particular woman, of course, is Katharine Gaylord. Answering her pleading summons, Everett is greeted with an all too familiar exclamation: “How wonderfully like Adriance you are” (p. 206)! Always on the periphery of Adriance's life and career, Everett resentfully recalls that as a young man he was habitually enlisted for backstage emergencies, but no one paid him any attention, “unless it was to notice the resemblance” he bore to Adriance (p. 207). He recalls bitterly that even his mother, in her loneliness for Adriance, “used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face up in the light … and kiss me, and then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance” (pp. 207-8).

As Everett's days with Katharine in Wyoming stretch into weeks, he realizes that even here, with the woman he loves present and Adriance an ocean away, he remains, as always, a stand-in, or, as the narrator says, “a stop-gap.” In everything, he has found “himself employed in his brother's business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde's.” He sorrowfully realizes that his vigil with Katharine is only another “commission from his brother,” and that “his power to minister to her comfort … lay solely in his link with his brother's life” (p. 210).

Cather reminds us again of the consequences of consuming the enticing fruits of art. Art takes its toll on the character of the artist who may, like Adriance, be so absorbed in himself that he is unconscious of another's love or suffering. It also takes its toll on a person like Katharine who gives all for it, but is quickly forgotten when she can no longer meet its demands. Finally, it takes its toll on a person like Everett who is swallowed up by it because of simple proximity and accident of birth and countenance. Katharine is a victim once, but Everett is a victim again and again, for there are many Katharines in the overspill of a life like Adriance's. Everett's eternal agony is to be nothing to anyone except a look-alike for the wonderful Adriance. Even the woman he loves, in her last living moments, touches his hair, looks into his face, and whispers, “Ah, dear Adriance, dear, dear” (p. 217). As Everett at last boards the train to leave Wyoming, the story comes full circle, for a huge German woman rushes up to him ecstatically, thinking he is Adriance. He must say again, “I see that you have mistaken me for Adriance Hilgarde. I am his brother” (p. 217).

Cather carefully creates a cyclical effect in this story, suggesting that what we have seen is just one episode in a series that endlessly repeats itself in Everett's life. Although it does not make Katharine's pain any easier to bear, her story will be repeated in the lives of others, each one suffering only his (or, more usually, her) individual fate. Everett's story, however, will be repeated again and again in his own life. Since he is something of a second self for Adriance, he becomes a conscience for his brother, accepting responsibility for the rejected, easing the pain Adriance has managed to sidestep. It is unjust, surely, but perhaps such injustice is inevitable if the truly gifted artist is to rise. The Blooms insist that, being “several cuts above ordinary people, the artist must be willing to be preoccupied with himself,”20 and Cather would be the last to argue against the hard and sometimes damaging choices the artist must make. Understanding the necessity for the artist's selfishness, Katharine absolves Adriance from blame, insisting, “It wasn't in the slightest degree his fault. … I fought my way to him, and I drank my doom greedily enough” (p. 215). But Everett has swept up too many broken pieces of human lives to accept that analysis wholeheartedly. At the end, he boards the train, fully expecting his next “commission” from Adriance to present itself before long, fully expecting to be erased himself, again and still again.

Cather seems to be saying that the immolation of Everett is a high price to pay for the privilege of Adriance. Even in The Song of the Lark the artistic gains Thea Kronborg makes by willfully denying some of her tender impulses are offset to some degree by the losses that she suffers as a human being, and that others suffer through her neglect. And though she has to separate from her family in order to become an artist, she has also to rediscover those old ties in order to find peace and self-renewal. Cather had learned, as Brown puts it, that “there was disillusionment in the garden and danger in the marketplace.”21

“The Marriage of Phaedra,” the fifth story in The Troll Garden, is probably the least memorable in the collection.22 The point of view is essentially that of an American in London, but the story is not really his, and he is no Jamesian American abroad. In fact, the story has no convincing central figure; perhaps that is why it seems somewhat anemic and out of focus. “The Marriage of Phaedra” does, however, treat rather straightforwardly the conflict between society and art. If it contains a forest child, that child is the late Hugh Treffinger, a painter known for his extravagant personality and his equally extravagant artistic methods. He had ventured into the troll garden of high society to pursue and win the attractive, if brittle, Lady Ellen. Unable to resist the tempestuous charm of his courtship, she married him, only to watch him lapse into his old habits and social preferences. Experimental and courageous in his art, he attracted a school of devotees, but Lady Ellen had absolutely no feeling for his work. His best painting, The Marriage of Phaedra, was never finished, and on his deathbed, Treffinger made it understood that the painting was never to be sold. James, Treffinger's personal valet and loyal servant, steals the painting when he learns that Lady Ellen, on the brink of a second marriage, plans to sell it to an unscrupulous art dealer from Australia. James carries the painting to the American artist, MacMaster, who convinces James that the painting would be recovered regardless of their efforts to hide it. MacMaster makes a feeble effort to save it by appealing to the Lady Ellen, but she rebuffs him, and the painting is sold. The sale of the precious painting by one who has no interest in it other than its monetary value foreshadows Roddy Blake's selling to a foreign art dealer the Indian relics he and Tom Outland had found (The Professor's House). In both cases, the art pieces are taken away from the one who values them most.

The most interesting and puzzling aspect of the story is its title, the same title attributed to the painting which James believes precipitated the strokes that killed Treffinger. The Theseus-Phaedra-Hippolytus allusion is a puzzle because it has no clear application to the story. Cather's work testifies to her conviction that art and marriage make a difficult mix, and perhaps this notion is hinted at in Treffinger's painting where Phaedra turns from her husband for a stealthy glance at Hippolytus, the object of her helpless passion. If one's desire is bent in a particular direction, one is helpless to change it. For the artist, art can be the only consuming passion, marriage and mate notwithstanding.


Two of Cather's finest stories, “A Wagner Matinee” and “Paul's Case,” complete the Troll Garden collection. Both deal with sensitive characters whose environments shackle their artistic spirits. Although it portrays the East-West conflict that is prominent in Cather's work, especially in books like The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart where the artist is particularly sensitive to the strictures of western family life and mentality, “A Wagner Matinee” is not so much about the contrasting worlds of Boston and Nebraska as it is about Aunt Georgiana and what those worlds have in turn made of her. As a young woman she had taught music in the Boston Conservatory, but she turned her back on that world when she fell inexplicably in love with a shiftless young New Englander and went west with him to stake out a homestead in the rugged prairie lands of Nebraska. After thirty years of unrelieved toil, she returns to Boston to settle the matter of a small legacy from a deceased relative. She is met there by a nephew who as a youngster had lived with her family and worked for her husband on the Nebraska farm. He has planned a surprise for her, a Wagner concert, the first real music she has heard in half a lifetime. She is moved immeasurably as the artist in her nature, so long asleep, trembles to consciousness. When the concert is over she cannot bear to leave, because “just outside the door of the concert hall” is the world she must take up again, “the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crooked-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door” (p. 242).

This story may be, as some have suggested, chiefly an indictment of “the toll exacted by the land,”23 but more than that it is a revelation of human love and appreciation. A nephew discovers a new depth of feeling for an aunt who, in spite of the narrow circumstances of her own life, taught him an appreciation for the fine and the beautiful, gave to him gifts she could not give to herself, opened doors for him that were forever closed to her. Out of this young man's memory a wonderful, almost heroic, portrait takes shape; this portrait is the woman, and this woman is the story. Georgiana arrives in Boston, black with soot and sick with travel, a “misshapen figure” in a “black stuff dress.” Her nephew Clark, so terribly aware of her oddness, nevertheless regards her with unmistakable “awe and respect” (p. 236). Every detail, even down to her bent shoulders, “sunken chest,” “ill-fitting false teeth,” and “skin as yellow as a Mongolian's” (p. 236), is mellowed by his loving regard for her. Seen through another pair of eyes she would have been a country caricature, but seen through his eyes, she becomes a symbol of the pioneer spirit.24

Through Clark's memory Cather reconstructs incidents that define Georgiana's character. His earliest recollections must have come to him secondhand, perhaps as an old family story. He remembers hearing that as “an angular, spectacled woman of thirty,” she conceived an “extravagant passion” for “a handsome country boy of twenty-one” and eloped with him, “eluding the reproaches of her family” by going to the Nebraska frontier where, through incredible hardships, she and Howard Carpenter managed to establish themselves. Georgiana becomes for Clark something like what Ántonia was to become for Jim Burden, heroic and wonderful, if not mythic. In spite of coarse outward circumstances, she retained a fineness of spirit with which she unconsciously and continually blessed his life. He reflects gratefully, “I owed to this woman most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood, and had a reverential affection for her” (p. 236). He remembers the countless times that she stood at her ironing board at midnight, after the day's chores were over and the six young children were in bed, drilling him on Latin verbs, or listening to him read Shakespeare. He recalls further, “She taught me my scales and exercises, too—on the little parlour organ, which her husband had bought her after fifteen years, during which she had not so much as seen any instrument, but an accordion that belonged to one of the Norwegian farmhands” (p. 237). It was she who gave Clark “her old text-book on mythology,” the first book he ever owned. It was she who listened to him practice, counting out the time with him. Once as he struggled with an old piece of her music he had found, she came up behind him, put her hands over his eyes, and drew his head to her shoulder. With trembling voice she warned, “Don't love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you. Oh! dear boy, pray that whatever your sacrifice may be, it be not that” (p. 237).

Now, years later, he wonders if the concert will mean anything to her, wishing “for her own sake … her taste for such things quite dead, and the long struggle mercifully ended at last” (p. 237). Her chief concern as they travel the city she had once known so well is for “a certain weakling calf” at home, and “a freshly-opened kit of mackerel in the cellar” which could spoil in her absence. But when the music begins, she meets it in a rush of combined anguish and joy. By turns she clutches at Clark's coat sleeve, or moves her “bent and knotted” fingers across an imaginary keyboard on her old dress, or weeps silently. Clark knows then that the feeling “never really died,” that “the soul that can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again” (p. 240).

However much this story discloses the irreclaimable loss suffered by a woman who exchanged her artistic loves and drives for the cruelties of frontier life, however painful the experience in the concert hall is for all of us who sit with Clark beside Aunt Georgiana, we are not back “on the Divide” with Canute Canuteson. Even in our grief we are in an atmosphere of human caring and appreciation; we are in the presence of genuine feelings unshamedly expressed. Cather evokes these feelings through the momentary collision between the world of music and culture which Georgiana had rejected so long ago and the stark, barren world she chose out of love. Her two worlds pause in equipoise as the concert ends and the musicians exit, “leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield” (p. 241). And, as Clark observes, just outside that door in Boston is Nebraska waiting to claim its stepchild.

After thirty years, Aunt Georgiana has tasted again of the goblin fruit, the luscious nectar that never satisfies, but only increases the appetite. Again the lure is the world of art, quite different from the evil materialism of the fabled troll garden, but a lure nevertheless. Appropriately, Cather leaves the story at the door of the concert hall, with the return to Nebraska as inevitable as the winter prairie wind. The cold, harsh world of the Divide may yet again scar over the wound newly opened, and Georgiana may slip gratefully into the somnambulant routine of her life in Nebraska; but for the moment she is caught hopelessly between the two worlds that have shaped her life. Clark's mournful observation at the beginning of the Pilgrim's chorus (Tannhauser overture) seems to define the mood of the story in terms of opposition, change, and loss: “With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and trim as a wooden fortress …” (p. 239).

“Paul's Case,” the final story in The Troll Garden, is drawn from Cather's experiences as a high school English teacher and lower-middle-class neighborhood dweller in Pittsburgh. It was the only story for some time that Cather allowed to be anthologized. Published seven years before Cather's first novel would appear, it remains one of her most widely read and acclaimed works.

Eccentric, maybe even half-crazy, Paul abhors the dull respectability of his neighborhood on Cordelia Street and his high school. He finds his only pleasure as an usher at Carnegie Hall and as a hanger-on with the stock theater company where he can bask in the artificial glow emanating from stage lights which never play on him, from hotel lobbies he is forbidden to enter, from music and paintings he does not understand, and from the lives of performers he completely misinterprets. By comparison, school and home are drab, unbearable; he cannot be bothered with them. After a minor inquisition in which his teachers “fell upon him without mercy” (p. 244), Paul still shows no inclination to study or to be agreeable. It is decided finally that he must quit school and go to work, and that he must forego Carnegie Hall and the stock company.

Thus imprisoned in Cordelia Street with all legitimate avenues of escape effectually closed, Paul commits a desperate act. Entrusted to deliver his company's weekend bank deposit, Paul makes his decision and takes flight. Structurally, the story is as bold as Paul. Part 1 ends with the adult collusion that separates Paul from the only things he loves; part 2 begins in abrupt juxtaposition with Paul on a train bound for New York. Once in New York he lives for several marvelous days the life he had always believed he was suited to live, the life of a wealthy boy in a luxurious room at the Waldorf, wearing fine clothes, eating elegant food, and surrounding himself with flowers.25 But those self-indulgent days make it impossible for him to return to Cordelia Street. When Paul learns from the Pittsburgh newspapers that his father has repaid the stolen money and is en route to New York to retrieve him, he takes a ferry to Newark and a cab out of town. Then he dismisses the cab and struggles through deep snow along the bank beside the Pennsylvania tracks. When the train comes he leaps into its path. In the instant before he dies, however, he suffers a heartbreaking realization: he had been too impatient in grabbing his one moment of splendor; he should have gone to exotic lands across the seas.

A fitting climax to the Troll Garden collection, “Paul's Case” is the most overt treatment of the troll garden/goblin market theme in the book. Paul is obviously the hungry forest child who is utterly helpless before the luscious appeal of the garden, represented for him in the trappings of wealth and in his adolescent perception of the artist's world. For Paul there is no reasoned choice, no weighing of alternatives and consequences, no will to resist; for him there is only ugliness and the garden, and he must have the garden. But Paul is also Cather's ultimate alien. He belongs nowhere, and can never belong. Expanding the theme she had introduced in her early stories on the Divide, Cather portrays in Paul a being who is alienated by more than environment and lack of human contact and understanding. Peter, Canute, Serge, and Lou could all have been saved by altered environmental circumstances and human caring, but not Paul. He thinks an environmental change is all he needs, but he is wrong. And he will admit no need for the love of mere mortals.

Paul knows that he is unsuited for Cordelia Street; what he does not know is that he is unsuited for the worlds of art and wealth as well. Paul is an alien because he has a warped perception of everything; he is unable to see anything in his world as it really is. His mind reconstructs the world in his image of it, and then he tries to inhabit the world he conceives. Since in truth one segment of Paul's world is better than he imagines it to be, and the other is worse than he imagines, he is always out of step no matter where he is. Cordelia Street is repulsive to him, utterly ugly with its “grimy zinc tub[s]” and “cracked mirror[s]” (p. 251) and its insufferable monotony. Cather indicates, however, that Paul's view is not necessarily correct. Cordelia Street is a respectable neighborhood where semi-successful white collar workers and their wives rear great broods of children and attend ice cream socials at church. The fact that Paul's father can readily make good Paul's theft suggests that he is far from destitute.

Paul wants to believe that Cordelia Street and his high school represent the very antithesis of the world for which he was made, the world of wealth and glamour. What he fails to perceive is that the ideals of Cordelia Street are identical with his own. He only thinks his values are out of place there; in actuality they are not. Cordelia Street, like Paul, worships glamour and money and the things money can buy. Its gods are the wealthy business magnates for whom the men on Cordelia Street work. Up and down the street people like Paul's father sit on their front steps and exchange “legends of the iron kings,” tales of their bosses who cruise the Mediterranean but still keep office hours on their yachts, “knocking off work enough to keep two stenographers busy.” The street fairly buzzes with “stories of palaces in Venice, yachts on the Mediterranean, and high play at Monte Carlo,” stories absorbed greedily by the underlings of the “various chiefs and overlords” (pp. 249, 250) whom Paul would like to emulate. Cordelia Street constructs a golden vision of the world Paul longs to enter.

The only thing within Paul's reach that approximates that fairy world is the world of art—music, drama, painting. It seems to offer what he seeks.26 But he is just as wrong in his perception of that world as he is in his perception of Cordelia Street. He mistakes its stagey glitter for its essence. Like Flavia, he knows nothing of true art. Since mere finery is what he craves, “symphonies, as such,” do not mean “anything in particular to Paul”; but he loves them for their show just as he loves paintings and the theater. For him art is the soloist's “elaborate gown and a tiara, and above all … that indefinable air of achievement, that world-shine” (p. 246). He longs to enter what he perceives to be a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease” (p. 247). But not being an artist himself he has no real place in that spangled world.

Cather makes it clear that not only is Paul not an artist, but his perception of the artist's life and the artist's glittering world is miles from the truth. The artists in this story have no delusions—and no wealth. Scarcely the “veritable queen of Romance” that Paul believes her to be, the German soloist is, in fact, “by no means in her first youth, and the mother of many children” (p. 246). Paul's notions about the stock company players is equally distorted, and they, “especially the women,” are “vastly amused” when they learn of the romantic stories Paul has told about them. “They were hardworking women, most of them supporting indigent husbands or brothers, and they laughed rather bitterly at having stirred the boy to such fervid and florid inventions.” It is a further irony that Paul's idols “agreed with the faculty and with his father that Paul's was a bad case” (p. 253). His alienation from the world of art is complete.

Paul's last desperate effort to find place, to be where “his surroundings explained him” (p. 257), is also destined to failure, again because he mistakes artificial sheen for reality—and because he can make no distinction between the radiance of art and the shimmer of the Waldorf. The latter is just another version of the opera house to him. Art equals shine; shine equals wealth. To him it is all one desire. In New York, with a thousand dollars at his disposal, he believes he is home at last, for “on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.” Here, he thinks, is the center of life; “… the plot of all dramas, the text of all romances, the nerve-stuff of all sensations was whirling about him like the snow flakes.” He glides easily about the Waldorf, at last with “his own people,” feeling “as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone” (p. 256).

But Paul has merely purchased the sensation of home, played his only ace for a few days of belonging. With stolen money he buys an artificial environment in which to enclose himself—linens, suits, gorgeous people, a fine room, and the hotel itself. Even Central Park is not real, but is “a wonderful stage winterpiece” (p. 256). The Waldorf encasing Paul is the final symbol of his alienation because its artificial splendor isolates him from encroaching reality. Cather represents the Waldorf and its displaced occupant in repeated references to the alien hothouse flowers that bloom “under glass cases” on the streets of New York, all the “more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow” (p. 256). Like Paul, the flowers can survive for a time if they are protected by artificial light and heat. But even then, their days are limited, and if they are ever removed from their heated cases, they wither and die.

In the story's final scenes, Cather continues to equate Paul symbolically with flowers out of place in a harsh environment. Walking along the tracks, having made the decision never to return to Cordelia Street, Paul notices that “the carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, … their red glory over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (p. 260). As if prompted by this symbolic description of his own brief moment of splendor and its inevitable end, Paul buries a blossom in the snow, acknowledging his death in a cold world that holds no lasting home for him.

Paul misconceives the garden of art as a glittering world of wealth and ease, and he fails to perceive that the chief difference between Cordelia Street and the Waldorf is the difference between wanting and having—a difference not of kind but of degree. Understanding these worlds so little, he has no home in either of them. Only in his death, when he “drop[s] back into the immense design of things” (p. 261), does the alien child appear to find place.

Thus, the pursuit of art and the pursuit of wealth exact their tolls. One by one the stories in The Troll Garden show the consequences of such pursuits, whether misguided or true, whether understood by the seekers or not. And then, in the climactic story, “Paul's Case,” the two are seen as one goal, a final impossible and intolerable irony in which Paul equates God and mammon.


  1. Faulkner, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, p. 264. Unless otherwise noted, all page references to stories through 1912 are from this volume (page references are in parentheses in the text).

  2. Isabelle was the daughter of a distinguished Pittsburgh judge, Samuel A. McClung.

  3. Bennett, World of Willa Cather, p. 38, indicates that Cather's youngest brother was called “Jack-a-boy” as a youngster, and that in the story Cather “described her admiration” for him. “She told friends that she would give anything just to look into his eyes for ten minutes.” The sentimentality of the story may be partly attributable to Cather's feelings for Jack. Her continuing fondness for him is apparent in a letter to Frances Cather (Aunt Franc), dated 17 November 1914 (presumably), Nebraska State Historical Society archives. Jack had been staying with her in New York, attending school, and she speaks proudly and affectionately of her little brother who is becoming so manly.

  4. “The Sculptor's Funeral,” “A Death in the Desert,” “A Wagner Matinee,” and “Paul's Case” also appear in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

  5. These composition dates are suggested in Faulkner, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, p. 148.

  6. Charles Kingsley, The Roman and the Teuton: A Series of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge (London and New York: MacMillan & Co., 1891), pp. 1-5. Bernice Slote discovered this source. In an appendix to Kingdom of Art, pp. 442-44, she reprints the entire “Forest Children” story.

  7. In a tribute to the deceased Rossetti in a Journal column, 13 January 1895, Cather describes “Goblin Market” as Christina Rossetti's “one perfect poem,” and she quotes from it and discusses it at some length.

  8. Slote, Kingdom of Art, pp. 442-43.

  9. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, pp. 113-15.

  10. Slote, Kingdom of Art, p. 95. See also Bradford (“Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories,” p. 545) who says, “A reading of the uncollected stories dealing with artists reveals that Miss Cather's attitude toward the artist was more complex than might be supposed from reading only the accepted stories.”

  11. Slote, Kingdom of Art, pp. 95-96.

  12. She also published her only volume of poetry during this period, April Twilights in 1903.

  13. Bloom and Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, p. 117.

  14. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, p. 118.

  15. Bloom and Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, p. 149.

  16. Slote (“Willa Cather as a Regional Writer,” p. 11) suggests that even though the inhabitants of Sand City are crude and materially corrupt, “‘The Sculptor's Funeral’ cannot be taken altogether as a judgment of the small town in the west; it is based on more general observations.” She notes that the situation in the story is actually based on an incident that occurred in Pittsburgh, the return of the body of artist Charles Stanley Reinhart for burial. Bennett (“Willa Cather in Pittsburgh”) was the first to make the connection between the short story and an early newspaper column in which Cather describes the Reinhart homecoming.

  17. See Wagner's Parsifal. When Parsifal breaks the sorcerer's spell, Klingsor's garden, like that of the trolls, collapses in ruins.

  18. The Blooms (Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, pp. 148-49) interpret the story to be Katharine's. They speak of the “sacrificial motif” in the story, of the artist who destroys herself in creating beauty for a world that is largely disinterested. They even describe Katharine's disease-wracked body as “the personification of the artist's self-immolation.” Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, also believes that if the story contains tragedy, Katharine's life is that tragedy, while Everett's life is only pathos. Several Cather letters make it clear that she had serious doubts, both early and late, about the quality of “A Death in the Desert.” Still, she elected to include it in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

  19. Bradford (“Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories,” p. 544) makes the interesting comment about both poem and story “that attending an artist is as destructive of one's personal life as attending a saint.”

  20. Bloom and Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, p. 146.

  21. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, p. 123.

  22. The idea for this story comes from a visit Cather made to the studio of artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones on her first trip to England in 1902. That visit is described in an account she sent back to the Journal. It has since been collected in Kates, Willa Cather in Europe. As Kates says, “… it is with no great surprise that we find the entrance lodge, the ‘bare tank’ of the studio itself, and, above all, this active-minded talkative guardian—even with his own name [James]—eventually reappearing in further work” (p. 66). There was also an unfinished picture in the Burne-Jones studio, not on the Phaedra subject, which caught Cather's attention and became the central concern of her story.

  23. See Bloom and Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, p. 8, for example.

  24. See Bennett, World of Willa Cather, note, p. 254, and Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, pp. 116-17, for references to the ire Cather's portrait of Georgiana raised in Nebraska when “A Wagner Matinee” first appeared in 1904. Cather, distressed over the reaction of local people to her picture of life on the Divide, softened the portrait of the old woman for the Troll Garden collection and cut the offending paragraph describing Georgiana altogether for the Youth and the Bright Medusa collection (1920).

  25. At least two sources suggest that Cather used two different models for her portraits of Paul in Pittsburgh and Paul in New York. In a 15 March 1943 letter to John Phillipson (Willa Cather archives in Red Cloud), Cather says that the Pittsburgh Paul was a boy she had taught in her Latin class, and the New York Paul was herself. The boy was high-strung and erratic like Paul, and tried to make people believe that he was a favorite of a theater stock company. So far as she knew, he never ran away or jumped under a train. She indicates that the New York Paul reflects her own feelings about New York and the Waldorf-Astoria when as a young woman in Pittsburgh she made occasional visits there. Cather also says that sometimes a character develops from a writer's grafting another person onto herself. Seibel, in his recollections (“Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska,” p. 205), reports that he read “Paul's Case” and insisted to Willa Cather “that the Paul of the first pages would not act like the Paul of the closing pages.” He says, “Paul was not drawn from one boy in her high school classes, but from two boys—hence the dualism I sensed and she later admitted.”

  26. Slote (Kingdom of Art, pp. 96-97) speaks of Paul's “genuine if excessive feeling for art” and later describes him as “a Forest Child who desires things rare and strange, but to excess and with no one to help him.”

Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3272

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”; and Philip Gerber, speaking for most critics, posits it as a commentary on “the impossibility of artistic fulfillment on a frontier where practical needs are overwhelming.”1 True, a few commentators have recognized its merit, including James Woodress and Sarah Orne Jewett (who do not probe the sources of its excellence), and David Stouck, who in Willa Cather's Imagination argues that the story is modeled upon the classical elegy.2 But it seems to me that one of the most important aspects of the story has been quite overlooked: I find “The Sculptor's Funeral” to be a remarkably astute study of a family, a town, a society failing to come to terms, not with a young man's artistic inclinations, but rather with his homosexuality.

That Harvey Merrick is a homosexual is evident in the story's opening scene. As the residents of Sand City, Kansas, await the arrival of the night train bearing the remains of the noted sculptor who grew up in their bleak frontier town, it is apparent that their speech and conduct are hardly what one would expect. Merrick died young (at 40) and far from home (in Boston), and these facts alone would lead one to anticipate a tearful scene at the railway station. Further, he had already achieved considerable fame as an artist—a fact which would lead one to expect the town to provide some sort of “hero's welcome” at this dawn of Babbitry in Middle America. But there are no tears, no brass bands: the nervousness of the townsmen is as palpable as the crude curiosity of the ophidian little boys, whose “dull eyes” reveal a “momentary animation” at the sound of the train whistle.3 The very body language of the townsmen reveals their discomfort at the idea of being associated with Merrick, even in death:

The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly …


The only townsman who seemed to know “exactly why he was there,” the lawyer Jim Laird, “kept conspicuously apart” (173); and it is his isolation from the others (physically, verbally, and intellectually) which not only parallels that of Merrick, but which also foreshadows the eventual revelations about Laird's earlier relationship with the sculptor—a relationship which, as shall be seen, seems to have involved Laird's recognition of Merrick's homosexuality. For the moment, though, it is especially noteworthy that the scene at the railroad station lacks Merrick's family: neither his feeble (albeit mobile) father Martin, nor his feisty mother Annie, nor his numerous brothers (reportedly “scattered” about the area [175]) are present to receive the body. In fine, the one group of people from whom one would expect some show of compassion is missing, and their absence is made all the more conspicuous when young Steavens, the Boston art student who accompanied his teacher's body to Kansas, addresses the Sand City contingency:

“Are Mr. Merrick's friends here?” inquired the young man.

The group on the platform swayed and shuffled uneasily. Phillip Phelps, the banker, responded with dignity: “We have come to take charge of the body …”


It is not enough that Merrick has no one who will publicly admit to being a family member: no one will even admit to having been the dead man's friend, as is obvious from spokesman Phelps' pat refusal to say “Yes” to Steavens' simple question. Only the suggestion of something radically socially unacceptable—something even more striking than an admitted preference for art over commerce—would compel a presumably educated, responsible individual to deny he was even the “friend” of a helpless dead man. That “something” could well be sexual deviance, wherein the innocuous term “friend” commonly serves as a euphemism for “sexual partner.”

That Merrick was a homosexual is further substantiated by Cather's careful rendering of his home and family. The sculptor's boyhood home, “a naked, weather-beaten frame house” surrounded by “an icy swamp” (175), is not only an environment clearly alien to an artistic temperament, but also the apt emblem for a childhood of insecurity and abuse; and, indeed, Laird reveals to Steavens that Merrick's home life in Sand City had been “‘a hell’” (178). Likewise, the interior of the house is not simply offensive to even the most rudimentary sense of style (the parlor features a “clover-green Brussels [carpet], … fat plush upholstery; … hand-painted china plaques and panels, and vases” [176]), but also a pathetic symbol of the life of ostensible domestic bliss which Merrick had rejected: it's not for nothing that Steavens feels that “some horrible mistake” has been made when Merrick's coffin is placed before “a ‘Rogers group’ of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax” (176)—a veritable altar to the first famous heterosexual couple in the annals of America. Indeed, we learn that the only element in the parlor which seems to Steavens to be suggestive of Merrick is the crayon portrait of him “in kilts and curls” (176). Such effeminate attire for little boys was, of course, common enough until the early twentieth century; but in Merrick's case it assumes a whole new dimension when Cather presents us with the sculptor's immediate family.

The one element which is most insistent in Cather's presentation of the Merricks is sexual confusion. The mother is a brute:

There was a kind of power about her face—a kind of brutal handsomeness, even, but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so coloured and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there … [H]er teeth were large and square, and set far apart—teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water …


Far from being loving and affectionate, Annie Merrick is a tough, masculine harpie whose first remark to her dead son is a reproach (“‘And this is how you've come home to me!’” [176]) and whose reaction to the kitchen maid's failure to make salad dressing for the mourners is characterized as “injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty” (178). Further, she is physically imposing: “a tall, corpulent woman” with “masses of strong, black, shiny hair” (176), she sounds more than a little like Bertha Mason Rochester, the insane, violent wife confined to the attic in Jane Eyre. In sharp contrast, Annie Merrick's husband Martin is “frail, … with shaggy, unkept grey hair and a dingy beard”; small wonder that the ineffectual, emasculated Martin looks at his wife “as a spaniel looks at the whip” (177). Clearly the sexual identities of the husband and wife have been reversed and exaggerated virtually to caricature. It comes as no surprise, then, to find their daughter “flat and angular,” “raw-boned” and large-knuckled (176), a silent husk of a human being whose personality and body are devoid of any discernible femininity. The unfortunate sexual situation which Cather so carefully depicts makes it plausible that Harvey—himself the victim of his mother's cruelty (178)—would reject the twisted version of heterosexual love as he had perceived it while growing up in the Merrick household. The only other resident of the Merrick home is Roxy, the kitchen maid, who seems genuinely distraught at the wake, and who could tell stories about life with the Merricks “‘that would curdle your blood’” (178). Instinctively Steavens walks over and stands beside Roxy (177)—not only, I would argue, because he is moved that she cared for Harvey and was likewise abused by Annie, but also because she is in a situation similar to that of both the sculptor and his student. That is to say, as a previous resident of the local poorhouse and a mulatto to boot, Roxy knows what it is like to be rejected by Sand City—precisely as Harvey was rejected for being “different,” and as Steavens is being rejected throughout the story. In fine, I believe that Harvey and Steavens are suspected of having been lovers, and that the townspeoples' singularly cold treatment of the young stranger is a manifestation of this suspicion.

From the outset, Steavens is treated coldly. Even as the Sand City townsmen await the arrival of the train, the soldier in the G.A.R. suit says, “‘It ain't likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse …’”; but since the speech tag is only a vague “he went on reflectively,” it is impossible to determine if this is said with relief, fear, or hope (173). Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that Steavens is not greeted with the famed Midwestern hospitality. As noted above, it is he who must make the first move, asking if Merrick's friends are present, and he “look[s] about him helplessly” (175) as no one offers to make him feel comfortable in this unfamilar town after a sad journey across half the continent. Sand City's patently inhospitable treatment of the young stranger evidently reflects not only their uneasiness about Harvey but also their instinctive belief that whoever accompanied the body from Boston—that hotbed of dubious relations between persons of the same sex, made famous by Henry James's The Bostonians (1886)—would quite likely be of the same sexual inclinations as the sculptor. That Steavens probably is homosexual is apparent from various elements in the story. As one would expect of a lover, he hovers protectively over Merrick's coffin, even insisting upon riding with it in the hearse (175); he is literally nauseated at the sight of Harvey's mother, and feels desperately “that he must get away from this place with what was left” of Merrick (179); and in a surprisingly blatant stereotypical handling of effeminacy, the fainting Steavens finds that he is too physically weak to open a window (179). Steavens is rescued, as it were, by the more masculine Jim Laird, who loosens the window sash “with one blow of his red first” (179) and befriends the hapless young Bostonian; and in fact it is the rather elusive relationship between Merrick, Steavens, and Laird which constitute one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. Steavens apparently feels instinctively drawn to the lawyer, who seems to possess “the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in some one, even here” (178). “Understanding” of what? Quite possibly it is less Laird's tolerance of Harvey's “impractical” artistic sensibilities than his knowledge and acceptance of Merrick's sexual preferences. Laird and Merrick had been close enough that they had attended the same school back East (184), and it is the sympathetic Laird who first really speaks to Steavens at the train station. Further, we learn that there was some “thing in [Laird] that Harvey Merrick had loved” and that was buried with him (185), and even Steavens “could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel [Merrick] and so sooty a lump of potter's clay [Laird]” (178). Even though these bits of information do not necessarily mean that the sculptor and lawyer had been lovers, they at least suggest that Laird was sufficiently open-minded that he alone in the community would befriend Merrick—an attitude which is also extended to Steavens, and which renders him something of a pariah in the Kansas town.

Whatever the ultimate source of the friendship between Laird and Steavens, it seems genuine and heartfelt, and it is through their discussions that we learn much of the personality of Merrick. For example, both agree that Harvey was unusually shy, and Steavens notes that he “‘distrusted men pretty thoroughly and women even more’” (179). Further, each admired in Merrick qualities which would be undersirable in a man living on the Kansas frontier: Laird describes him as having been “sweet” despite his upbringing, and Steavens repeatedly terms him “wonderful” (178-79). But it is through the comments of the hostile townspeople that we learn the most about Harvey's personality. In a scene parallel to that of the story's opening, the Sand City men are assembled in the Merrick parlor, callously commenting on the dead sculptor. The coal-and-lumber dealer remarks that Harvey had a “lady-like voice,” and that once (in a situation akin to that of Steavens and the window) he had helplessly appealed to Cal Moots to “‘please come cord my trunk’” (182). This incident is interpreted to mean that Harvey “‘shore was never fond of work’” (181), and in fact it is unclear whether the men of Sand City cannot, or simply will not, articulate their uneasiness about Merrick's homosexuality. They speak of it as a disinclination for practical matters (“‘What Harve needed … was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college’” [182]), and they associate it insistently with Merrick's artistic temperament (he once let a Jersey cow run away while he was contemplating an “‘oncommon fine’” sunset [182]). This blurring of homosexuality, impracticality, and creativity is precisely what one finds in “Paul's Case,” a story written at the same time as “The Sculptor's Funeral.”4 “Paul's Case” focuses upon an artistically-inclined young homosexual whose father pressures him to secure a conventional job and be married, just like the other young men on dreary Cordelia Street. His inability to accept such a life, coupled with his passion for the theatre and beautiful possessions, ultimately compels him to steal from his employer and then to commit suicide after a few days of bliss at the Waldorf. One of the most striking things about Paul is that even as he slept his lips would twitch, “stiff with a nervous tension that drew them back from his teeth.”5 Compare the face of the dead Merrick:

[I]n it there was not that beautiful and chaste repose which we expect to find in the faces of the dead. The brows were so drawn that there were two deep lines above the beaked nose, and the chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once wholly relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect perfect peace—as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.


In large measure, the tension which is evident in the faces of the two men even when they are not conscious reflects fear: in Merrick's case, it is basically a fear of damnation. Indeed, the dying Merrick had asked to be returned to Sand City for burial, not out of sentimentality, but out of the conviction that after the towns people had “‘had their say I shan't have much to fear from the judgment of God’” (182). It is a grim assessment of the situation of those who are “different”—by virtue of their “impractical” creative impulses and/or their unconventional sexual preferences—that they should fear the displeasure of the Lord.

The association of homosexuality with the artistic temperament, and the tension which it generates, are quite evident in both “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case.” They are so prominent, in fact, that they are perhaps indicative of Cather's state of mind during the early 1900s. It is quite true that “The Sculptor's Funeral” reflects Cather's “sense of her own differentness, vulnerability, and value” during her formative years in Nebraska,6 but the story seems to be far more complex, more intensely personal than this appraisal would suggest. As a lesbian seeking acceptance as a writer, Cather must have perceived Harvey Merrick as a psychological projection of what could have happened to her, dying young and being shipped back home for burial in an unappreciative prairie town; and in fact Red Cloud clearly was the prototype for Sand City, just as her own parents were the inspiration for the Merricks.7 Not surprisingly, she always felt a special fondness for the story, reprinting it in The Troll Garden (1905) after its initial publication in McClure's (XXIV, January, 1905), and then including it in Youth and the Bright Medusa fifteen years later. Fortunately, the ordeal to which the life and art of Harvey Merrick were subjected was something Willa Cather was mercifully spared.

And yet a knotty critical problem remains: is the homosexual issue of “The Sculptor's Funeral” the story's primary focus? Or is it intended essentially to enrich the story's theme of the rejection of those who are artistic, or at least impractical? More precisely, does homosexuality—even today a highly emotional element with which many readers are acutely uncomfortable—compromise the impact of “The Sculptor's Funeral” by blurring the issues and, conceivably, turning some readers against the very characters with whom they were intended to sympathize? For Cather, that would be the ultimate irony.


  1. References are, respectively, to Howard Mumford James, “Excerpt from The Bright Medusa” in Willa Cather and Her Critics, ed. James Schroeter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 236; David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951), p. 145; Philip Gerber, Willa Cather (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), p. 44.

  2. James Woodress sees the story as more than just as expose of philistinism in a prairie town, arguing that “it really fits into the larger pattern … of Willa Cather's consideration of the forest children versus the trolls” (Willa Cather: Her Life and Art [New York: Pegasus, 1970], p. 112). Jewett wrote Cather an encouraging letter after reading The Troll Garden; she was especially impressed with “The Sculptor's Funeral” (see Gerber, p. 54). For David Stouck's brief analysis of the story as a rendering of a pastoral elegy, see Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 80-82.

  3. “The Sculptor's Funeral” in Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, intro. Mildred R. Bennett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 174. All further references to the story are indicated parenthetically in the body of the paper.

  4. For an examination of the homosexual dimension of the story, see Larry Rubin, “The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather's ‘Paul's Case,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 12, no. 2 (Spring, 1975), 127-31.

  5. “Paul's Case” in Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, intro. Mildred R. Bennett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 245.

  6. E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, completed by Leon Edel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), p. 119.

  7. Woodress, p. 112; Stouck, p. 82. For a discussion of the possible literary source of the story, Hawthorne's “The Artist of the Beautiful,” see Eben Bass, “The Sculptor of the Beautiful,” Colby Library Quarterly, 14 (1978), 28-35. Marilyn Arnold's new book, Willa Cather's Short Fiction (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984), unfortunately contributes nothing to the present discussion.

Susan J. Rosowski (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6124

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 worked as a journalist, writing about what others were doing, and as a teacher, telling what others had done.

Before this period Cather had written often of two worlds; for her first volume of fiction, The Troll Garden (1905), she gathered stories that warned against losing one's soul in the limbo between them.4 Written by a woman devoted theoretically to the kingdom of art, these stories are paradoxical, for they show the world of the imagination as dangerous. To introduce the volume, Cather used two epigraphs. The first is a quatrain from “Goblin Market,” by Christina Rossetti:

We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?(5)

Rossetti's long narrative poem tells of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who live in loving harmony until Laura is tempted by goblin men to taste of their fruit, after which she wastes away until she “seemed knocking at Death's door.” To save Laura, Lizzie seeks out the goblins. After resisting their temptations to taste their fruit and suffering their anger, scorn, and attacks, Lizzie returns to Laura, who sucks from her the juices of the goblins' fruit, smeared on her body when they attacked her, until she falls unconscious. Lizzie cares for sister through the night, and in the morning Laura awakens, restored to her former innocence. Years pass, and the two, now married, warn their own children against the haunted glen and the wicked goblins. The poem ends by a ritual of forming human bonds to ward off evil:

Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,—
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

For her second epigraph Cather quoted from the parable used by Kingsley to introduce The Roman and the Teuton:

A fairy palace, with a fairy garden;. … Inside the trolls dwell, … working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange.

The story, which provides the best introduction to The Troll Garden, is little known by readers today. The full text from Kingsley is as follows:

Fancy to yourself a great Troll-garden such as our forefathers dreamed of often fifteen hundred years ago;—a fairy palace, with a fairy garden; and all around the primæval wood. Inside the Trolls dwell, cunning and wicked, watching their fairy treasures, working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange; and outside, the forest is full of children; such children as the world had never seen before, but children still: children in frankness, and purity, and affectionateness, and tenderness of conscience, and devout awe of the unseen; and children too in fancy, and silliness, and ignorance, and caprice, and jealousy, and quarrelsomeness, and love of excitement and adventure, and the mere sport of overflowing animal health. They play unharmed among the forest beasts, and conquer them in their play; but the forest is too dull and too poor for them; and they wander to the walls of the Troll-garden and wonder what is inside. One can conceive easily for oneself what from that moment would begin to happen. Some of the more adventurous clamber in. Some, too, the Trolls steal and carry off into the palace. Most never return: but here and there one escapes out again, and tells how the Trolls killed all his comrades: but tells too, of the wonders he has seen inside, of shoes of swiftness, and swords of sharpness, and caps of darkness; of charmed harps, charmed jewels, and above all of the charmed wine: and after all, the Trolls were very kind to him—see what fine clothes they have given him—and he struts about while among his companions; and then returns, and not alone. The Trolls have bewitched him, as they will bewitch more. So the fame of the Troll-garden spreads; and more and more steal in, boys and maidens, and tempt their comrades over the wall, and tell of the jewels, and the dresses, and the wine, the joyous maddening wine, which equals men with gods; and forget to tell how the Trolls have bought them, soul as well as body, and taught them to be vain, and lustful, and slavish; and tempted them, too often, to sins which have no name.

But their better nature flashes out at times. They will not be the slaves and brutes in human form, which the evil Trolls would have them; and they rebel, and escape, and tell of the horrors of that fair foul place. And then rises a noble indignation, and war between the Trolls and the forest-children. But still the Trolls can tempt and bribe the greedier or the more vain; and still the wonders inside haunt their minds; till it becomes a fixed idea among them all, to conquer the garden for themselves and bedizen themselves in the fine clothes, and drink their fill of the wine. Again and again they break in: but the Trolls drive them out, rebuild their walls, keep off those outside by those whom they hold enslaved within; till the boys grow to be youths, and the youths men: and still the Troll-garden is not conquered, and still it shall be. And the Trolls have grown old and weak, and their walls are crumbling away. Perhaps they may succeed this time—perhaps next.

And at last they do succeed—the fairy walls are breached, the fairy palace stormed—and the Trolls are crouching at their feet, and now all will be theirs, gold, jewels, dresses, arms, all that the Troll possesses—except his cunning.

For as each struggles into the charmed ground, the spell of the place falls on him. He drinks the wine, and it maddens him. He fills his arms with precious trumpery, and another snatches it from his grasp. Each envies the youth before him, each cries—Why had I not the luck to enter first? And the Trolls set them against each other, and split them into parties, each mad with excitement, and jealousy, and wine, till, they scarce know how, each falls upon his fellow, and all upon those who are crowding in from the forest, and they fight and fight, up and down the palace halls, till their triumph has become a very feast of the Lapithæ, and the Trolls look on, and laugh a wicked laugh, as they tar them on to the unnatural fight, till the gardens are all trampled, the finery torn, the halls dismantled, and each pavement slippery with brothers' blood. And then, when the wine is gone out of them, the survivors come to their senses, and stare shamefully and sadly round. What an ugly, desolate, tottering ruin the fairy palace has become! Have they spoilt it themselves? or have the Trolls bewitched it? And all the fairy treasure—what has become of it? no man knows. Have they thrown it away in their quarrel? have the cunningest hidden it? have the Trolls flown away with it, to the airy land beyond the Eastern mountains? who can tell? Nothing is left but recrimination and remorse. And they wander back again into the forest, away from the doleful ruin, carrion-strewn, to sulk each apart over some petty spoil which he has saved from the general wreck, hating and dreading each the sound of his neighbour's footstep.

What will become of the forest children, unless some kind saint or hermit comes among them, to bind them in the holy bonds of brotherhood and law?6

From these sources Cather took quotations that emphasize a struggle between opposing forces: each quotation presents one side of that struggle—that from Rossetti's poem a warning to resist, that from Kingsley's story a temptation to succumb. Yet both sources in full present the same ideas: both tell of temptations to commit sins of vanity, lust, and idolatry, and both call for a human savior, in Rossetti's poem for Lizzie to save her sister, in Kingsley's story, for “some kind saint or hermit” to come among the forest children and “bind them in the holy bonds of brotherhood and law.” These are the ideas of temptation and salvation in The Troll Garden. The stories fall into two groups, garden stories and prairie stories. In the first Cather writes of a garden that is false; in the second, of a wilderness that cannot satisfy. What quest exists is not for art but for humanity, a stay against both the lure of the troll garden and the threat of the desert existence outside it.7 Her heroes, if these stories have heroes, are ordinary people who save their souls by speaking out against falsity.

Cather used different points of view for different aspects of her theme, arranging the stories so they alternate garden with prairie, inside with outside. The first two stories present the contrast. “Flavia and Her Artists” concerns one who tried to enter the world of art falsely, is mocked by those inside, and is saved by her husband. Flavia Hamilton, a woman of neither taste nor talent, has been bewitched by the glitter of success and, like the maidens in Kingsley's story, will bewitch others. She has left her Chicago house on Prairie Avenue and moved outside New York, where she has constructed an “asylum” for artists, to which she entices “the best.” There, falsity reigns: guests and hostess, the possessed and the possessor—all are corrupted. In this artificial world, Flavia seems a grotesque imitation of wife, mother, and hostess; her artists seem older and dimmer versions of themselves. Only two guests are still “forest children”: Imogen Willard, the scholar daughter of one of Flavia's friends, and Jemima (“Jimmy”) Broadwood, a comedian. Together these characters are the Jamesian observers at a house party given by Flavia for her artists.

The central incident of the story is the exposure of Flavia by a novelist who, after visiting at her house, writes a savage satire titled “Roux on Tuft Hunters; The Advanced American Woman As He Sees Her; Aggressive, Superficial and Insincere.” But Jimmy Broadwood is most interested in Flavia's husband, Arthur Hamilton, who apparently loves his wife and who protects her from ridicule. Hamilton exposes the writer as a mountebank and snake charmer, in doing so driving away the other guests, who are sensitive to the same charge. In the end the artists have departed, leaving Flavia with her husband, “a pillar of sanity and law in this house of shams and swollen vanities.”

The story Cather used to introduce the volume may well be the most personal in it, for Cather apparently used herself and the Canfields as prototypes for her characters. Dorothy Canfield, like Imogen, had studied French language at a university in Paris; Cather, like Jimmy Broadwood, had a hearty laugh, a boyish manner; Flavia Canfield, like Cather's character, “worshipped at the altar of art”;8 and James Canfield, like Hamilton, was a practical, gentle man, temperamentally the opposite of his wife.9

“Flavia and Her Artists” complements the second story of The Troll Garden. In “The Sculptor's Funeral” Cather wrote of corruption outside the garden fully as ugly as that within it. The story is of those greedy persons who, attracted by the lure of riches, send their children into the world, then corrupt those who return. The sculptor Harvey Merrick's body is returned to the frontier Kansas town of his boyhood, “a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness.” Cather uses a Jamesian observer, Henry Steavens, to describe the horror of the life from which Merrick came. The physical desolation is matched by the pettiness of the town's inhabitants, who scorn the sculptor as a failure in what matters—making money—until Jim Laird, the shrewd town lawyer, “plugs” the truth to the men: he and Harvey went East to school with similar visions of greatness. Laird returned to his hometown, but the townspeople wanted his talents only as a tool for their greed. Harvey Merrick had a soul they couldn't “dirty,” however, and that is why the townspeople hate him. After his one moment of defiant truth, Laird returns to alcohol and corrupt law, but that moment, the climax of the story, strands as a testimony that the best in human nature will “flash out at times.” Together the two stories present grim alternatives, the corrupting pull of success and a similarly corrupting threat of a wasteland.

In “The Garden Lodge” Cather tells of Caroline Noble, a woman who “held determinedly to the middle course” to overcome her childhood in a shabby house of illusion, set up as “the shrine of idealism” by her father, a vacillating music teacher. She feared worshipping an idol and was determined to see things as they really are. When twenty-four she married Howard Noble, who, as good as his name, rescued her by providing the money, position, and energy she needed to feel safe. All went smoothly until the singer Raymond d'Esquerré visited, staying in the Nobles' garden lodge. Though she recognized that his retinue was composed of grotesques and his successful life covered personal disappointment, Caroline fell under the spell “of the beautiful illusion.” The temptation she faced was ambiguous. On the one hand, she was drawn by “an illogical, womanish desire” to comfort d'Esquerré; on the other, she was tempted by the power of dreams within herself, romantically triggered by a stormy night and memories of d'Esquerré's presence and of his music: “It was not enough; this happy, useful, well-ordered life was not enough. It did not satisfy, it was not even real. No, the other things, the shadows—they were the reality.” In the morning, however, she recovered her balance and, laughing, told her husband she had decided to tear down the garden lodge and build a summer house. The story ends with relief that by recalling the human bonds of love, Caroline Noble had saved herself.

In “A Death in the Desert,” Cather moved again outside the garden, to the seductive power of illusion over mortals who can never enter the rarified realm of great art. While passing through a desert town in Wyoming, Everett Hilgarde, the look-alike brother of the famous composer, Adriance, meets the singer Katharine Gaylord, who had left her family to be educated in art but had then returned to the family she had outgrown to die of consumption. Just as Lizzie keeps watch over Laura in Rossetti's poem, so Everett keeps watch over Katharine. The temptation of art comes by a letter from Adriance, with which he encloses a brilliant sonata he has just composed. The story tells of resistance to that charm. Though he yearns to enter the world of his brother, Everett has the courage to realize he has only talent, not genius; and though she loves Adriance, Katharine has the courage to resist falling victim to that love. In the end the two have the solace of human kindness and the dignity of maintaining themselves against “the madness of art.”

Temptation is the theme of the least successful story of the volume, the Jamesian “Marriage of Phaedra.” Cather moved from the desert wilderness of her previous story to the garden ruins of a fairy palace and constructed a plot that closely resembles Kingsley's parable. The observer, MacMaster, passes through “a high garden wall” to reach the nearly deserted studio of the deceased artist Hugh Treffinger. Inside he finds Treffinger's man, James, from whom he learns a story of temptation and destruction. Treffinger was an urban version of Kingsley's children, a “London street boy” who almost unawares entered the world of art and who, in turn, persuaded Ellen to join him. Treffinger's courtship of her was unnatural, frenzied, and “theatrical to the point of being ridiculous”; not unexpectedly, their marriage was unhappy, each dissatisfied with the treasure that, when possessed, proved to be empty.

The theme, which concerns temptations to betray human life in the name of art, is represented by Treffinger's most brilliant though unfinished painting, Marriage of Phaedra. The painting depicts Phaedra at her marriage to Theseus greeting her husband's son, Hippolytus, with “her first fearsome glance from under the half-lifted veil,” like art terrible in its all-consuming passion. Character relationships reveal the human consequences of betraying life, seen most clearly in the marriage between Treffinger and Lady Ellen. It is not enough to say that this is the story of an artist unhappily married to an unsympathetic wife. Cather makes clear that Treffinger's courtship was a charade of which Lady Ellen was a victim: to paint his masterpiece, Treffinger brutally denied both his own human needs and those of his wife.

The temptations continue after Treffinger's death. Betraying her husband, who did not want his painting to leave his studio unfinished, Lady Ellen prepares to sell it to an unscrupulous Australian dealer; to protect it from this “ignominious fate,” James steals it from the studio, then turns to MacMaster for help. Saving the painting would mean James and MacMaster would ruin themselves in society, for the evidence would weigh so heavily against them that they would be implicated in, perhaps prosecuted for, theft. In a weak compromise, MacMaster directs that the painting be returned to the studio, half-heartedly pleads for it to remain in England, and finally knows it will be “entombed in a vague continent in the Pacific on the other side of the world.” There is some sense that this is the best place for it, for although Cather calls the painting a masterpiece, her plot suggests that such art is a curse against humanity.

The last two stories of The Troll Garden are the most successful and best known of the volume. “A Wagner Matinee” and “Paul's Case” present characters who do leave the common world and enter a rarified one, only to find a return unbearably painful. In “A Wagner Matinee” Cather writes of Clark, who grew up in the Midwest, then moved to Boston. There he lived, remote from childhood hardships, until he welcomes to Boston his Aunt Georgiana, the woman who had reared him and to whom he owed most of the good of his boyhood. She had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory when, at thirty, she met “a handsome country boy of twenty-one” and eloped with him to the Nebraska frontier, where they lived in the most primitive of conditions. In Boston Clark takes her to a Wagner matinee, to hear music that “broke a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains.”

The story can be read as that familiar one in Cather of a sleeping mortal awakening to another world when music carries her past “the happy islands.” But it is also the story of the narrator's awakening humanity. As Aunt Georgiana moves from unconsciousness to consciousness, Clark moves from cold objectivity to empathy. When he meets his aunt at the train, his description is as pitiless as the wind that had beaten against her in Nebraska. He describes her bent shoulders, her uneven gown, and her ill-fitting false teeth as if she is a grotesque object he observes from a distance. But once within the concert hall Clark comes to realize “how superficially I had judged her.” As the scene assembles below them, Clark describes his perceptions, consciously drawing upon impressionistic art:

We sat at the extreme left of the first balcony, facing the arc of our own and the balcony above us, veritable hanging gardens, brilliant as tulip beds. The matinée audience was made up chiefly of women. One lost the contour of faces and figures, indeed any effect of line whatever, and there was only the colour of bodices past counting, the shimmer of fabrics soft and firm, silky and sheer; red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colours that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat.

When the musicians come up on the stage, Clark identifies with his aunt, feeling “how all those details sank into her soul” by recalling how they sank into his when he had first come from Nebraska. His description becomes fuller, more sensuous, the colors lovingly moving among the bodies of the instruments: “the beloved shapes of the instruments, the patches of yellow light thrown by the green shaded lamps on the smooth, varnished bellies of the 'cellos and the bass viols in the rear, the restless, wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows.” Upon hearing the first strains of the Tannhäuser overture, Clark joins his experience to hers so fully he can speak for her, and for all who are powerless to combat “the waste and wear” of living:

There came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-cloths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door. The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.

After the concert, Clark describes the scene before them dissipating as colors deserting a pallet, leaving it as “empty as a winter cornfield.” When his aunt cries that she doesn't want to go, Clark replies, “I understand,” then concludes the story with their shared emotion: “For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.” This scene, repeated here for the third time, has ceased to be a place and has become a symbol of human desolation, conveyed by adjectives ordinarily used for human beings—“naked,” “crook-backed,” and “gaunt.” And Clark, by joining with his aunt in experiencing the pain of that desolation, provides the compassion that is the only stay against it.

In her last story of the volume, “Paul's Case,” Cather provides no such comfort. Subtitled “A Study in Temperament,” the story tells of Paul, who sought to leave behind the ordinary world of Cordelia Street, where he lives with his father, and to enter “the portal of Romance” at the theater and concert hall where he works as an usher. Paul is an observer of art. Without talent or ambition to perform, he is forever separated from the glittering world he seeks to enter, yet just as separated from the common world he seeks to leave. Taken from school, expelled from the theater, and put to work, Paul rebels. He takes his company's cash deposits and goes to New York, where he rents a suite at the Waldorf and briefly lives the golden days of his dreams. When the world is again closing in upon him, his money exhausted and his father come to retrieve him, Paul escapes forever by committing suicide.

In Paul Cather has created a character who, having looked into Kingsley's troll garden and tasted the fruit of Rossetti's goblin men, has lost his soul. Cordelia Street is ugly indeed, with its vulgar art, oppressive smells, and near-sighted people; but the fantasy Paul attempts to enter is equally inhuman. The story presents the horror of worshipping a false idol and the tragedy for one who, having been bewitched by the artificial, has no one to save him.

When considering The Troll Garden, one is tempted to stress promise, to point out that in it certain themes and images foreshadow Cather's finest writing.10 But perhaps a more productive question results from the recognition that as a whole the stories are nowhere near Cather's finest writing. What, one asks, distinguishes them from the mature fiction? The first impulse—to cite technical skill—doesn't take us very far, for Cather's technique in these stories is often quite good. What is missing instead, I believe, is conviction.

In her essays Cather was remarkably consistent in her allegiance to a romantic creed: imagination, subjectivity, passion, creativity, and total commitment are prerequisites for entering the kingdom of art. Yet the stories of The Troll Garden present a suspicion of precisely those qualities. Cather's central metaphor reveals much. She wrote of art made by trolls or hawked by goblins to lure innocents away from human existence. The point of view in each of these stories is that of the ordinary person outside the garden who glimpses the troll magic or hears stories of it but, because unable to create it, is distrustful. For such persons art is painful or threatening. There are few references to the greatness of art; those that exist are secondhand reports (a stranger recalls that Harvey Merrick had sculpted materials into living art), incomplete promises (Hugh Treffinger died before finishing The Marriage of Phaedra), or painfully transitory experiences (the music of Wagner carries Clark and his Aunt Georgiana only temporarily beyond themselves).

Settings (here as elsewhere in Cather's fiction psychological projections of characters) are uniformly deceptive. There is not one that offers security or warmth. The Merricks' home is “a naked, weather-beaten frame house” which one enters by passing over “an icy swamp” by “a rickety footbridge.” Those places that appear enticing become threatening: the first floor of Flavia's house is spacious and inviting, but the second floor consists of “cages” attended by “dim figures … lurking in the shadows.” Caroline Noble created a beautiful garden that turns out to be a “maze” in which she becomes lost. Other settings suggest death: Katharine Gaylord has created in the desert a music room, a mausoleum of past dreams where she is dying of consumption; and MacMaster enters the dead artist's studio to find it is a coffinlike “long, narrow room, built of smoothed planks … cold and damp even on that fine May morning … utterly bare … windowless.” Alternatives are momentary illusions. The concert hall for the Wagner matinee is transformed temporarily into an impressionistic painting, but then the colors fade and the scene becomes blank, leaving Clark and his aunt with the horror that “just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond”; and Paul can escape the desolation of his home only through an illusion obtained by deception.

In these stories art is most often an unholy spell, frequently suggested by imagery of the Arabian Nights. Flavia's darkened smoking room has the “suggestion of certain charmers in the Arabian Nights.” In her garden Caroline Noble recalls the decadence of her artistic brother, “a Turkish cap upon his head and a cigarette hanging from between his long, tremulous fingers”; shuddering, she thinks of her own experience of art as like “the Arabian fairy tale in which the genii brought the princess of China to the sleeping prince of Damascus, and carried her through the air back to her palace at dawn.” The sculptor Harvey Merrick had magic in his fingertips, “like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress spell for spell,” and Adriance Hilgarde writes from Alhambra, enclosing his letter within “the subtleties of Arabic decoration [that] had cast an unholy spell over him.”

As threatening as the world of art, the ordinary world is a Browningesque landscape of alienation. The black pond on a Nebraska farm seems not a swimming hole but a symbol of death; a train through the Midwest passes through a wasteland where “the grey and yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns”; and a Kansas town is reached by passing “long lines of shivering poplars that sentinelled the meadows.”

In such a world, Cather's admirable characters are those who see through falsity and possess the courage to speak of what they see—Jimmy Broadwood, Imogen Willard, Jim Laird. These are the “solid” ones who are economically and intellectually independent and who get on with things: Arthur Hamilton, with his money from threshing machines, and Caroline Noble, who earned her way out of shabby dependency. These admirable characters live by a creed of human kindness: Arthur Hamilton protects his wife, Clark shares his aunt's loneliness, and Everett Hilgarde ministers to the dying Katharine Gaylord. They are the ones who resist the temptation of the troll garden.

Cather's progress in her early writing is often interpreted as a matter of coming to terms with her native materials—that is, Nebraska. But the reverse may more accurately be true: she needed to suppress her own world long enough to allow her imagination free rein, to create a vision by which she might transform those materials into art. Her power to do so is first apparent in “The Enchanted Bluff,” published in Harper's Monthly in 1909. Here Cather turned from action almost entirely: nothing much happens in this story, at least physically. Its interest is entirely imaginative. Through her first-person narrator, Cather tells of one night in which, before leaving their hometown to explore the world, young friends camp on a sandbar in a Nebraska river. Around a “watch fire” they probe first the past and then the future, their imaginations asking questions about a spiritual reality that maps, telling only of a physical one, cannot answer.11 The narrator builds to an inset story of an enchanted bluff, a place “awful far away” in New Mexico, to children as remote as another planet, where cliff dwellers once lived in a past as distant as that of fairy tales. The enchanted bluff is a magical spot, in a desert yet miraculously lush with water and grass; the telling of it is a magical moment, in time yet removed from it. The story is interrupted by “a scream above our fire,” and the boys “jumped up to see a dark, slim bird floating southward far above us—a whooping crane, we knew by her cry and her long neck.” The bird “floating” above them is a sign that there is a southern land to which unfettered creatures can travel. In the end the sandbar island, like the enchanted bluff, has become a symbol of such a freedom. Here is the duality of human experience Cather so often described in her early essays: her characters begin in the physical world of everyday existence, momentarily rise above it to a spiritual, imaginative world, then fall back to the world they had left, but forever changed by their dream. Here too is the reassurance of art suggested by the continuity of story telling, which passes the dream of the enchanted bluff from one generation to another, told by an uncle to a boy, then by the boy to his friends, and, later, to his own son.


  1. Christina Georgina Rossetti, “Goblin Market,” in The Poetical Works, with Memoir and Notes by William Michael Rossetti (1906; rpt. Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1970), 1.

  2. Nebraska State Journal, 1 March 1896, in The Kingdom of Art, 417.

  3. I am indebted to Helen Cather Southwick for informing me that Cather taught algebra during her first months of teaching at Central High School in Pittsburgh (personal correspondence). Ms. Southwick has reported on Willa Cather's life in Pittsburgh in “Willa Cather's Early Career: Origins of a Legend,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 65 (April 1982): 85-98; see esp. 90.

  4. James Woodress speculates that “five of the tales that were included in The Troll Garden” were among the stories Cather sent to S. S. McClure in April 1903, preliminary to her first meeting with him. “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” were included, and probably “Flavia and Her Artists,” “The Garden Lodge,” and “The Marriage of Phaedra.” “A Wagner Matinee” may have been among the group; it appeared in the February 1904 issue of Everybody's Magazine. “A Death in the Desert” had appeared in the January 1903 issue of Scribner's. See James Woodress, ed., The Troll Garden (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), xv-xvi.

  5. Cather's Troll Garden stories are quoted from Woodress's edition, cited above. See Cather's 1895 extended discussion of “Goblin Market” as Rossetti's “one perfect poem,” Nebraska State Journal, 13 January 1895, in The Kingdom of Art, 346-49, more fully reproduced in The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902, ed. William M. Curtin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 1:143-47.

  6. Charles Kingsley, The Roman and the Teuton, vol. 10 of The Works of Charles Kingsley (London: Macmillan, 1884), 1-5. “The Roman and the Teuton” is a lecture that was first presented before Cambridge University and published in 1864. Bernice Slote first identified Cather's Kingsley quotation as from The Roman and the Teuton, and she included the text of Kingsley's story in The Kingdom of Art, 442-44.

  7. Other critics have offered other interpretations of thematic contrasts among stories in The Troll Garden. E. K. Brown notes resemblances to James's juxtaposition of black magic and white magic in the stories of The Two Magics, and sees in Cather's The Troll Garden similarly juxtaposed strands between “the evil-working goblins and the industrious trolls.” E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, completed by Leon Edel (New York: Knopf, 1953), 114-15. Bernice Slote argues that “we must consider the basic contrasts to be the Trolls inside and the Forest Children outside, the Romans and the Barbarians, Palace-Garden and Wood-Country, and the cyclic movements of decaying civilization and reconquering nature,” in The Kingdom of Art, 95. Marilyn Arnold interprets the stories as dealing “with human values and relationships played against genuine art as an index of value,” in Willa Cather's Short Fiction (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984), 45. And James Woodress relates the juxtapositions Cather made, “East against West, experience against innocence, civilization against primitivism,” as tensions she infused into her Troll Garden stories, in Woodress, ed., The Troll Garden, xvii.

  8. Ida H. Washington, Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography (Shelburne, Vt.: New England Press, 1982), 29.

  9. Woodress notes that Imogen was probably suggested by Dorothy Canfield. The Troll Garden, xix. To my knowledge, other critics have not written of parallels between Flavia Hamilton and Flavia Canfield, or between Arthur Hamilton and James Canfield.

  10. In an extended discussion of The Troll Garden, Marilyn Arnold writes that “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” as “two of the best pieces of fiction Cather ever wrote” and that the collection as a whole “demonstrates that for Cather a long and productive apprenticeship was over.” Arnold, Willa Cather's Short Fiction, 43. While agreeing with much of what Arnold writes about these stories, I consider them part of Cather's apprentice period, even at their best rather self-consciously “made” pieces of fiction. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom suggest thematic continuities between stories in The Troll Garden and Cather's later fiction and interpret The Troll Garden as “primarily an extended colloquy between the artist as hero and a personified middle-class society as the villain,” an early version of Cather's long interest in the artist as an individual. See Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), 117 et passim.

  11. “The Enchanted Bluff” is quoted from Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, rev. ed., ed. Virginia Faulkner, intro. Mildred R. Bennett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).

Susan J. Rosowski (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6510

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 Friends.”2

Any such identification of prototypes is useful only up to a point, however. In a letter to Carrie Miner Sherwood, Cather wrote that her stories came from emotion, not from the faces and arms and legs of people she knew.3 And though Cather did return to early materials for her 1932 volume, her emotions about those materials were different from those of O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. In her early Nebraska novels Cather's exceptional individuals fulfilled their destinies by rising above the common lot, and her sensitive observers strained to grasp immortal truths in the material world: Alexandra Bergson, to see the beauty of the land; Jim Burden, to see Ántonia as an earth mother; Niel Herbert, to get at the secret of Marian Forrester. Her characters proved their worth by escaping the ordinary—or by attempting to do so; their happiness was, as Jim Burden realized, being “dissolved into something complete and great.”4 The phrase echoes in “Neighbour Rosicky,” but with an important difference, for in her story of a Bohemian farmer Cather wrote of happiness not in greatness but in a simple life that was “complete and beautiful.” Whereas Cather formerly had pulled away to transcend mortality by converting life into art, she now wrote of accepting life as it is.

As so often, Cather's personal life inspired her art. Beginning in late 1927, events revealed the vulnerability of the places and people which youth takes for granted. Within four years Cather lost two homes (she left her Bank Street apartment in 1927; the next year her parents' Red Cloud home was closed) and both her parents (her father suffered a heart attack in 1927, then died in 1928; her mother suffered a stroke in 1928, became increasingly incapacitated during the next two years, and died in 1931). The two books Cather wrote during this period—Shadows on the Rock (1931) and Obscure Destinies (1932)—at first glance so different, are thematically complementary: both are about loss, one of home through exile, the other of persons through death. Each contains what the other lacks. In Shadows on the Rock, place comes alive, so that Cécile's kitchen seems the living idea of domesticity and the Rock that of faith. By comparison characters seem flat. Because they represent ideas rather than take on lives of their own, they are absolved from the mortal world of change, and death is a distant thing. Madame Auclair is preserved in memory; Euclide Auclair is “scarcely changed at all” by time; Cécile is apotheosized into a Canadian Holy Mother. Obscure Destinies is about this subject missing from Shadows on the Rock. It is the single volume in Cather's canon about dying (a different subject from death), and it contains Cather's most mature, satisfying treatment of human relationships.

Obscure Destinies opens with a death sentence on its first major character, Anton Rosicky:

When Doctor Burleigh told neighbour Rosicky he had a bad heart, Rosicky protested.

“So? No, I guess my heart was always pretty good.”

The scientific diagnosis is accurate: within the year Rosicky will die. But the story demonstrates how limited that diagnosis is, and how Rosicky does have a good heart in that which matters—the ability to love. The central tension of “Neighbour Rosicky” involves Rosicky's hunger “to feel sure [his boys] would be here, working this very land, after he was gone,” and his fear that his married son, Rudolph, will take a job in the city: “To Rosicky that meant the end of everything for his son. To be a landless man was to be a wage-earner, a slave, all your life; to have nothing, to be nothing.” That danger is heightened because the Czech Rudolph has married Polly, an American town girl whose suspicion of country life is evident in her plucked eyebrows, her bobbed hair, and her formal ways with Rudolph's family. “‘Good evening, Mr. Rosicky,”’ she says when her father-in-law comes. “She never called him father, or Mary mother.”

Rosicky cannot stop the drought that is making farming hard for the young couple, nor can he give to them material goods, for he is not a wealthy man. What he has is “a special gift for loving people,” offered in quiet, unobtrusive ways. He arranges that Polly and Rudolph will have the family car on Saturday nights; he cleans the kitchen for Polly; he tells of living in London—the most painful time of his life and a subject still so sore it scarcely bears touching—and he does so in English, a “bothersome” language for a long story, so that Polly can hear. Most important, he gives the example of his own contentment.

Cather presents the contentment of her character in the story's slow pace and calm mood. Rosicky quiets those about him by reminding others to talk softly and asking them to withhold questions until after a meal. He slows conversations by drinking coffee from time to time, pausing to take another piece of apple cake, filling his pipe. Alone, he follows the same calm pace. After seeing Polly and Rudolph off to the picture show, Rosicky “took his own time with the dishes. He scoured the pots and pans and put away the milk and swept the kitchen. He put some coal in the stove and shut off the droughts, so the place would be warm for them when they got home late at night. Then he sat down and had a pipe and listened to the clock tick.” Simple words and careful details maintain the slow rhythm of the passage. As scenes flow into each other with the same rhythm, their calm seems a preparation for death. After cleaning up at Rudolph's and Polly's, Rosicky walked home and “stopped by the windmill to look up at the frosty winter stars and draw a long breath before he went inside. That kitchen with the shining windows was dear to him; but the sleeping fields and bright stars and the noble darkness were dearer still.”

By such pauses Cather presents Rosicky's contentment; by shifting point of view she demonstrates its power. Doctor Ed, a hard-pressed professional who appreciates the welcome of a warm home, pauses to remember breakfast at the Rosickys', and Mary, once a rough farm girl, watches her husband drink coffee and thinks about the gentleness of their life together. These are unconventional materials for fiction, for here important moments are quiet ones when action is suspended, and the most powerful character is one who does little, in the ordinary sense of things. The story's most dramatic scenes occur when action is stopped and Rosicky does nothing. Polly awakens to life while she sits quietly beside her sleeping father-in-law, and Doctor Ed awakens to the beauty about him while he sits silently beside the graveyard where Rosicky lies buried.

Nevertheless, “Neighbour Rosicky” is about power—the power of a man who, like Christ, changes the world by inspiring others to love. Anton Rosicky is a priestly intermediary between flesh and spirit, life and death. Two features, especially, suggest his effect: Rosicky's queer eyes twinkle, so that light surrounds him as if a halo; and his warm touch heals, as if by a laying on of hands. The eyes and the hand, light and warmth, appear in the most casual moments—in the twinkling smile of Rosicky's eyes as he puts more coal in the fire or talks to Mary; in the warmth of his hand as he extends a fee and a handshake to Doctor Ed, an extra ration of oats to his workhorses, an evening in town to Polly. Casual moments, yes, but ones that convey the magical, even sacred power of love. The story's climatic scene is about this power. When Polly sees Anton Rosicky double over in pain, she runs toward him and cries, “Lean on me, Father, hard.” In so doing Polly acknowledges Rosicky as her worldly father (shortly thereafter she reveals she is pregnant and, implicitly, will take her place in the Rosicky family) and her spiritual one. When his pain has gone, Polly takes his hand and opens herself to the grace of love:

His hand pressed hers. She noticed that it was warm again. The twinkle in his yellow-brown eyes seemed to come nearer.

“I like mighty well to see dat little child, Polly,” was all he said. Then he closed his eyes and lay half-smiling. But Polly sat still, thinking hard. She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone, really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there. You saw it in his eyes,—perhaps that was why they were merry. You felt it in his hands, too. After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his warm, broad, flexible brown hand. She had never seen another in the least like it. …

Polly remembered that hour long afterwards; it had been like an awakening to her. It seemed to her that she had never learned so much about life from anything as from old Rosicky's hand. It brought her to herself; it communicated some direct and untranslatable message.

Polly's awakening completes the ironic reversal begun in the story's opening exchange: Rosicky dies of a “bad” heart, content in having seen into Polly's good one. His last thoughts are an extended play upon the meanings of “heart,” by now used exclusively for the capacity to love: “Girls nowadays didn't wear their heart on their sleeve. … Either a woman had that sweetness at her heart or she hadn't. … if they had that, everything came out right in the end.” Medical distinctions between good and bad hearts are finally irrelevant; as physical organs, all hearts will fail. The important meaning of “heart” concerns the capacity to love, by which continuities are possible—endings with beginnings, one person's dying with new life forming.

Assured about the future of his family, Rosicky feels “the cramp” (not “heart attack”) begin again in his chest, and rises, “to get to his bed if he could.” Again a play on words presents continuity between life and death, for the bed Rosicky reaches is the grave. As comfortable with death as he was with life, he is ready to rest in “the sleeping fields.” Cather prepared for this death by following Rosicky's thoughts as he passed the graveyard, then—something only a highly skilled writer could make work—as he imagined himself lying within it. Upon his death the passage echoes in the reader's mind, as if from the grave Rosicky describes his continuing contentment:

A man could lie down in the long grass and see the complete arch of the sky over him, hear the wagons go by; in summer the mowing-machine rattled right up to the wire fence. And it was so near home. Over there across the cornstalks his own roof and windmill looked so good to him. … it was a comfort to think that he would never have to go farther than the edge of his own hayfield. The snow, falling over his barnyard and the graveyard, seemed to draw things together like. And they were all old neighbours in the graveyard, most of them friends; there was nothing to feel awkward or embarrassed about.

For the conclusion Cather moves outside the Rosicky family to Doctor Ed, who again provides a long perspective. As Polly earlier had sat quietly beside the bed where Rosicky slept, Doctor Ed “stopped his car, shut off the engine, and sat there for a while” by the graveyard where Rosicky lay. Like Polly, Doctor Ed has an awakening:

A sudden hush had fallen on his soul. Everything here seemed strangely moving and significant, though signifying what, he did not know. Close by the wire fence stood Rosicky's mowing-machine, where one of the boys had been cutting hay that afternoon; his own work-horses had been going up and down there. The new-cut hay perfumed all the night air. The moonlight silvered the long, billowy grass that grew over the graves and hid the fence; the few little evergreens stood out black in it, like shadows in a pool. The sky was very blue and soft, the stars rather faint because the moon was full.

For the first time it struck Doctor Ed that this was really a beautiful graveyard. He thought of city cemeteries; acres of shrubbery and heavy stone, so arranged and lonely and unlike anything in the living world. Cities of the dead, indeed; cities of the forgotten, of the “put away.” But this was open and free, this little square of long grass which the wind for ever stirred. Nothing but the sky overhead, and the many-coloured fields running on until they met that sky. The horses worked here in summer; the neighbours passed on their way to town; and over yonder, in the cornfield, Rosicky's own cattle would be eating fodder as winter came on. Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky's life seemed to him complete and beautiful.

In contrast to the quiet, even the stasis, of the previous scenes, this final one bursts with movement—of horses pulling the mowing machine, of new-cut hay perfuming the air, of wind stirring and neighbors passing. And in contrast to the previous focus on one person's life, specifics here join the universal: a little square of grass is “forever stirred” by the wind; one family's fields run into endless sky; a single man has merged with all of nature. This is a graveyard that is part of life, where the fence separating the living from the dead is hidden with grass, where some neighbors lie inside and other neighbors pass on their way to town. “It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness”: Whitman's words from “Song of Myself” describe Cather's story.5

“Neighbour Rosicky” is as Whitmanesque as was O Pioneers! In 1913 Cather announced the affinity with her title and then spelled it out with her conclusion—“Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, heat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!”6 In 1928 the affinity is relaxed, natural, unobtrusive—yet nonetheless present as powerfully as ever. Like Whitman, Anton Rosicky bequeathed himself to the dirt to grow from the grass he loved.7

In a 1936 essay on Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather praised the “virtuosity” of Mansfield's short stories, then noted that “it was usually Miss Mansfield's way to approach the major forces of life through comparatively trivial incidents.”8 Cather could have been writing of her own “Old Mrs. Harris,” her finest story. It is a simple story, of a woman who has come with her daughter's family from Tennessee to Skyline, Colorado, where she keeps house for them. Here are none of the dramatic incidents of the conventional writer, but instead the seemingly unimportant ones that make up the daily lives of ordinary people: a neighbor brings a coffee cake for Mrs. Harris; a cat dies; the family attends a church supper; fifteen-year-old Vickie wins a scholarship; Victoria Templeton learns she is pregnant; old Mrs. Harris dies. Through such “comparatively trivial incidents,” Cather approached “the major forces of life.”

The story begins with Mrs. Rosen, the Templetons' cultured, learned Jewish neighbor who tries “to get … to the real grandmother” by laying siege to the Templeton home: she spies until she sees Victoria leave, then marches over with her coffee cake to catch Mrs. Harris unawares. But a person can't be “got” that easily. Troubled with the irregular visit, Mrs. Harris is on her guard, and Mrs. Rosen leaves disappointed. The scene establishes the rhythm that continues through the story, between outside and inside, expectation and reality. Before she met the Templetons, Mrs. Rosen was inconsolable, fearing a racket from their children and flies from their livestock; upon coming to know them, she was drawn to their pleasant ways and natural friendliness. She expected Mrs. Templeton as a southern woman to be “willowy or languishing,” then found her to be high-spirited, direct, and warmly genuine. She expected the Templeton parlor to be cluttered, then found it neat and comfortable; she expected the Templeton children to be ill-mannered, then found they were most courteous.

Mrs. Rosen's expectations are remarkably similar to a reader's, if my students are representative. Like Mrs. Rosen, these students feel impatience with Vickie, horror at Victoria (“she is a monster,” one said), and pity for Mrs. Harris. Yet even as they talk, they move beyond such easy generalizations: someone remarks that the self-centered Vickie is good about minding the baby and thoughtful in buying presents for her brothers; another that the selfish Victoria is loving (she gives her children “a real smile” when she sees them) and generous (without being patronizing, she includes the outcast Maude children in an ice-cream social). And another says that despite her loneliness and her exhaustion, Mrs. Harris is profoundly happy.

By shifting point of view from character to character, Cather maintains this rhythm between outside and inside, expectation and reality. Mrs. Rosen's thoughts about her neighbors are followed by Mrs. Harris's own thoughts, Victoria Templeton's, and Vickie's, until the story resembles a many-faceted gem.9 The technique resembles that of “Neighbour Rosicky,” but its effect is quite different: in “Neighbour Rosicky” points of view come together in a central character, while in “Old Mrs. Harris” individuals seem painfully lonely, each living a secret life which she keeps hidden. Mrs. Rosen does not discuss her sorrow over being childless; Victoria goes into her bedroom and closes the door when she is unhappy; Vickie thinks everyone is an enemy; Mrs. Harris speaks neither of her regret for Tennessee nor of her knowledge she is dying.

Shifting points of view, then, present intensely private lives of very different people; yet even while each individual is solitary, each is part of a family. To read “Old Mrs. Harris” is to experience a double life, “every individual … clinging passionately to his individual soul” and, at the same time, participating in a group life.10 The night Mrs. Harris is dying, we focus upon her, but we know where the others are and what they are feeling: Victoria is in her room, unhappy over her pregnancy; Mr. Templeton is at his farm, where he has enjoyed a chicken dinner and anticipates sleeping in the clean guest bed; Vickie is at her father's office, engrossed in reading; the twins are outside playing with the neighbors; Mrs. Rosen is in Chicago, celebrating her niece's wedding.

Not surprisingly, the contrasts that are fundamental to “Old Mrs. Harris”—the expected versus the unexpected, the interior life of an individual versus the group life of the family—produce irony. There are incidental ironies: one woman desperately wishes for children while another desperately wishes she were not again pregnant, and a man moves his family west to improve their fortunes, only to find reduced circumstances. There are humorous ones: Mrs. Rosen's plump body belies her ideal of a responsibly restrained life, and her actions undercut her thoughts (she accepts a second piece of chocolate cake even as she suffers from tightly bound stays and envies Victoria Templeton's figure). Finally, there are the most profound ironies of human existence: people living in a crowded household are lonely; youth is thoughtless and old age solitary; the miracle of life results in the tragedy of death; as one life is ending, another is beginning.

Though individuals in “Old Mrs. Harris” feel these ironies, no one understands them. No one has the keen perception of Anton Rosicky; no one experiences awakenings as did Polly and Doctor Ed. Sometimes characters turn to the folk wisdom of cliché: “[Life] is not at all fair!” (Mrs. Rosen); “Nothing comes easily in this world” (Vickie); “Life hadn't used her right” (Victoria); “Everything that's alive has got to suffer” (Mrs. Harris). Usually, however, individuals don't articulate truths at all; instead they simply rise above discrepancies by loving generosity. One scene serves as an example. When she sees Victoria Templeton nursing the baby, Mrs. Rosen “could not help admiring him and his mother. They were so comfortable and complete. … ‘What a beautiful baby!’ [Mrs. Rosen] exclaimed from her heart. And he was. A sort of golden baby. His hair was like sunshine, and his long lashes were gold over such gay blue eyes. There seemed to be a gold glow in his soft pink skin, and he had the smile of a cherub.” It is a moment of unexpected beauty, in which the woman Mrs. Rosen had thought selfish seems a Madonna with child. And it is one of great generosity—that of a mother feeding her child from her own body, and that of a woman who, bitterly aware she has no children, admires another woman's baby.

Such generosity ignores limitations of age, culture, education, and personality. Victoria regrets her youthful figure and freedom, yet she couldn't resist her twins the moment she saw them, and most surely she will love her new baby as readily. Traditionally southern in her belief that girls should be foolish and romantic, Mrs. Harris cannot comprehend her granddaughter's desire for an education; yet she sees that Vickie has the money to attend the university. Mrs. Rosen is deeply critical of the Templeton's improvident ways, yet she unhesitatingly arranges an unsecured loan to Vickie. Despite their youthful restlessness, the twins sit with their grandmother; and despite her exhaustion, old Mrs. Harris continues to work for her daughter's family. The mystery at the heart of this story is that the family from which individuals are fleeing offers freedom from individuality, and the children who mean unending work for an old woman bring to her youth:

The moment she heard the children running down the uncarpeted back stairs, she forgot to be low. Indeed, she ceased to be an individual, an old woman with aching feet; she became part of a group, became a relationship. She was drunk up into their freshness when they burst in upon her, telling her about their dreams, explaining their troubles with buttons and shoe-laces and underwear shrunk too small. The tired, solitary old woman Grandmother had been at daybreak vanished; suddenly the morning seemed as important to her as it did to the children, and the mornings ahead stretched out sunshiny, important.

Generosity such as this springs from compassion, from sharing in the suffering of another and giving aid or support; it appears in the most dramatic scene in the story. In the hushed stillness of night and by the soft light of an old lantern, Mandy “performed one of the oldest rites of compassion” by rubbing Mrs. Harris's feet. Less dramatic but similarly significant acts of compassion inform the most ordinary of days. The most powerful scene for me is that of Mrs. Harris's young grandson caring for her as she lay dying. Albert gets a wooden crackerbox as a bedside table, puts a clean napkin on it, pumps water until it runs cold and exchanges the tin cup for a glass tumbler; he then gets one of his linen handkerchiefs for his grandmother, loosens the curtains over the windows, and reads to her. Should Mrs. Rosen have visited her neighbor that night, she undoubtedly would have seen the ordinary objects and mean surroundings as signs of neglect, yet each was an expression of the most tender, thoughtful love. “Grandmother was perfectly happy,” Cather wrote of her last hours.

Understanding Mrs. Harris's perfect happiness means putting aside pity and feeling compassion. The distinction is central to the story, one toward which shifts in perspective (expectation and reality, outside and inside) and point of view (Mrs. Rosen, Victoria, Vickie, Mrs. Harris) lead. Pity comes from concern or regret for an inferior, and “to be pitied was the deepest hurt anybody could know.” Pity is the outside view of Mrs. Rosen or my students when they judge Victoria selfish and believe Mrs. Harris neglected. Compassion is shared suffering, which means shared humanity, for as Mrs. Harris knows, “Everything that's alive has got to suffer.” Compassion means realizing that the narrator, describing youth coming closer to age, includes each of us:

Thus Mrs. Harris slipped out of the Templetons' story; but Victoria and Vickie had still to go on, to follow the long road that leads through things unguessed at and unforeseeable. When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers. They will regret that they heeded her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: “I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know.”

“Two Friends” has an even less conventional plot than the other stories in Obscure Destinies: a narrator recalls a friendship that ended with a quarrel over politics. But as Cather explained privately, “Two Friends” was not meant to be about the two men at all, but about a picture they conveyed to a child.11 She indirectly makes the same point in her story. Beginning it, the narrator muses that “even in early youth … we yet like to think that there are certain unalterable realities, somewhere at the bottom of things. These anchors may be ideas; but more often they are merely pictures, vivid memories, which in some unaccountable and very personal way give us courage.” Seagulls are seemingly free and homeless, yet “at certain seasons even they go back to something they have known before; to remote islands and lonely ledges that are their breeding-grounds.” And like the gulls, people too have retreats. “Two Friends” tells of such a retreat that was lost, a picture that was distorted.

“Long ago … there lived two friends,” in a time as distant as youth is to the adult. Their friendship was exactly contemporary with the narrator's childhood: it began the year she was born; she knew the two men from the time she was ten; she saw them separate when she was thirteen, on the threshold of becoming an adult. In writing her story Cather told how things seemed to her as a child, who didn't notice certain things and exaggerated others, who looked up at her world and, especially, at the two men she admired. R. E. Dillon was the biggest banker of the community and the proprietor of its large general store; he owned farms “up in the grass country.” J. H. Trueman was “a big cattleman” with “a high sense of honour,” who “was large … about money matters.” Together they travelled “to big cities” in the wide world beyond their community, and together they represented “an absence of anything mean or small.”

Largeness was, it seemed, the one thing the men had in common. They were opposites in almost everything else. Dillon was Irish, Trueman American; Dillon's face was bony and his body wiry, Trueman's face solid and his body heavy; Dillon was a banker and Trueman a cattleman; Dillon lived a regular life, Trueman an irregular one; Dillon talked well, Trueman was usually silent; Dillon was a Democrat, Trueman a Republican. Such differences were unimportant, however, so long as the two men were alike in essentials, both “successful, large-minded men who had made their way in the world when business was still a personal adventure.”

To the child who knew them, the friends seemed as constant as nature itself. “Every evening they were both to be found at Dillon's store,” in cold weather inside playing checkers, in spring and summer outside in two armchairs. Gestures and rhythms catch their constancy—the poised and resting hands of each man, the cigar that seemed to belong in Mr. Trueman's hand, “like a thumb or finger,” the relaxed rhythms of their good talk and the comfortable silences of their friendship.

Details such as these contribute to the picture at the heart of the story: on moonlit summer nights two friends sit outside Dillon's store, a blind wall behind them and a dusty road before them. A simple picture, yes, but something quite remarkable happens in it. By an outpouring of moonlight and silence, sensations melt together—sound, touch, sight, and taste—and then the two men were most “largely and positively themselves.” To the child they seemed celestial bodies in space, catching the white light of the moon and casting dark shadows upon earth:

One could distinguish their features, the stripes on their shirts, the flash of Mr. Dillon's diamond; but their shadows made two dark masses on the white sidewalk. … Across the street, which was merely a dusty road, lay an open space. … Beyond this space stood a row of frail wooden buildings. … These abandoned buildings, an eyesore by day, melted together into a curious pile in the moonlight, became an immaterial structure of velvet-white and glossy blackness, with here and there a faint smear of blue door, or a tilted patch of sage-green that had once been a shutter.

The road, just in front of the sidewalk where I sat and played jacks, would be ankle-deep in dust, and seemed to drink up the moonlight like folds of velvet. It drank up sound, too; muffled the wagon-wheels and hoof-beats; lay soft and meek like the last residiuum of material things,—the soft bottom resting-place.

After such a moment the narrator scarcely needs to explain that “wonderful things do happen even in the dullest places—in the cornfields and the wheatfields.” When she goes on to recall, “sitting there on the edge of the sidewalk one summer night, my feet hanging in the warm dust, I saw an occultation,” she could be describing the two friends, who “seemed like two bodies held steady by some law of balance, an unconscious relation like that between the earth and the moon.” The occulation of Venus that the three saw one night seems a heavenly affirmation of the mysterious balance between the two friends.

That picture of two friends sitting together is one of those “vivid memories” by which we realize “certain unalterable realities, somewhere at the bottom of things”—the purity of high ideas and the constancy of large natures. On such memories we rest our faith that if the material world were distilled, its “last residuum” would be not mere matter but an idea. They are “truths we want to keep.”

Friendship between the two men ended, however, when Mr. Dillon returned from a Democratic convention afire with the populism of William Jennings Bryan, so simplistically held that a child could grasp it immediately: “that gold had been responsible for most of the miseries and inequalities of the world; that it had always been the club the rich and cunning held over the poor, and that ‘the free and unlimited coinage of silver’ would remedy all this.” History, politics, religion—all combined in arousing emotions about false ideas, based on nothing at all. “Dillon declared that young Mr. Bryan had looked like the patriots of old when he faced and challenged high finance with: ‘You shall not press this crown of thorns upon the brow of labour; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’” High-sounding phrases that, when examined, are nonsensical. Dillon's populism is as comically naive as that of Lou Bergson, another follower of William Jennings Bryan, who argued that populist responsibilities included blowing up Wall Street.12

When Dillon became a man obsessed with ideas Trueman held in contempt, their friendship was doomed. Trueman withdrew his money from Dillon's bank, and the rupture was complete. Without the other, each man lost the balance that had made him seem larger than the ordinary: Dillon's talk became shrilly sarcastic; Trueman's silence, heavily grim. Each seemed to become smaller; then each disappeared: Dillon unexpectedly died; Trueman silently left town. From San Francisco came another picture of Mr. Trueman, a sad parody of the largeness and harmony of his former friendship with Dillon. Trueman had taken “an office in a high building at the top of what is now Powell Street,” and there he “used to sit tilted back in his desk chair, a half-consumed cigar in his mouth, morning after morning, apparently doing nothing, watching the Bay and the ferry-boats, across a line of wind-racked, eucalyptus trees.”

What was lost for the narrator was a picture of equilibrium, a memory of harmony. She is left with the uneasiness of seeking a retreat that no longer exists:

The breaking-up of that friendship between two men who scarcely noticed my existence was a real loss to me, and has ever since been a regret. More than once, in Southern countries where there is a smell of dust and dryness in the air and the nights are intense, I have come upon a stretch of dusty white road drinking up the moonlight beside a blind wall, and have felt a sudden sadness. Perhaps it was not until the next morning that I knew why,—and then only because I had dreamed of Mr. Dillon or Mr. Trueman in my sleep. When that old scar is occasionally touched by chance, it rouses the old uneasiness; the feeling of something broken that could so easily have been mended; of something delightful that was senselessly wasted, of a truth that was accidentally distorted—one of the truths we want to keep.

The breaking of that friendship “has ever since been a regret,” Cather wrote, using again a word that in Obscure Destinies expresses the deepest losses: Mrs. Harris regrets her home in Tennessee, Victoria Templeton regrets her youth, and Vickie will regret that she heeded Mrs. Harris so little. In “Two Friends” the narrator too regrets a loss, made more painful when unexpectedly she comes upon “a dusty white road drinking up the moonlight.” The description of the earth and the moon pouring their energies into each other is as passionate as any Cather wrote, yet here the experience is of beauty without truth, balance without harmony, sound without meaning.

When I began writing about Obscure Destinies I responded most intensely to “Neighbour Rosicky” and “Old Mrs. Harris,” tacitly agreeing with critics who regard “Two Friends” as a lesser story. I now believe “Two Friends” belongs in the volume, is one of Cather's strongest stories, and is among the most disturbing of her writing. In this, apparently the most impersonal story in the volume, Cather wrote her most personal account of loss. By recalling a vivid memory that she once thought an unalterable reality “somewhere at the bottom of things,” then telling how it was “accidentally distorted,” Cather questioned the foundations of the romantic's faith. Truth in the sense Cather meant lies beyond accident (the transcendental romanticism of her early writing) or beneath accident (the archetypal symbolism of her later writing); because it is unalterable, it provides an anchor, a retreat, a breeding ground, “a soft bottom resting place.” By considering in “Two Friends” the possibility that this truth can be distorted and lost, Cather anticipated the dark romanticism of her final novels.


  1. Obscure Destinies (1932; New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1974). All references are to this text.

  2. For identification of models Cather used for characters in Obscure Destinies, see Bennett, The World of Willa Cather.

  3. In this letter Cather was writing specifically about “Two Friends,” but her point is a general one. Willa Cather to Carrie Miner Sherwood, 27 January 1934, Willa Cather Historical Center, Red Cloud, Nebraska.

  4. My Ántonia (1918; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Sentry Edition, 1961), 18.

  5. “Song of Myself,” stanza 50, 9th ed. (1891-92) of Leaves of Grass, in Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. James E. Miller, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside Editions, 1959), 67.

  6. O Pioneers! (1913; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Sentry Edition, 1962), 309.

  7. “Song of Myself,” stanza 52.

  8. “Katherine Mansfield,” in Willa Cather on Writing, 108.

  9. For a fuller discussion of the sequence of female narrators in this story, see Susan J. Rosowski, “Willa Cather's Women,” Studies in American Fiction 9 (Autumn 1981): 261-75.

  10. “Katherine Mansfield,” in Willa Cather on Writing, 108-10. Again, Cather's comments on Mansfield's stories seem a gloss to “Old Mrs. Harris”:

    One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour's household, and, underneath, another—secret and passionate and intense—which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.

  11. Willa Cather to Carrie Miner Sherwood, 27 January 1934.

  12. For a discussion of the relationships between Cather's writing and the Populist movement of the early 1890s, see Robert W. Cherny, “Willa Cather and the Populists,” Great Plains Quarterly 3 (Fall 1983): 206-18.

Bruce P. Baker (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2085

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 a Thea Kronberg or an Alexandra Bergson, could work out their destinies of creative artistry. Quite the contrary, for in much of Cather's early written response to the Great Plains, Nebraska is portrayed as a cultural desert, a setting often hostile to those of artistic bent, a place indifferent if not actively hostile to man's creative spirit.

Cather's first published story, “Peter,” which appeared in a Boston literary magazine, The Mahogany Tree, on May 31, 1892, portrays exactly that situation: old Peter Sadelack, a sensitive, artistic immigrant to the “dreariest part of southwestern Nebraska” finds himself unable to endure his new life on the plains. The piece is often very explicit; much is said, little is suggested. Cather comments: “[Peter] drank whenever he could get out of [his son] Antone's sight long enough to pawn his hat or coat for whisky. He was a lazy, absent-minded old fellow, who liked to fiddle better than to plow.” Peter is desperately homesick for his native Bohemia and particularly for the opportunities he had had there for artistic expression.

Cather uses the symbol of Peter's violin in order to enhance the story's theme and intensify the emotion: that beautiful instrument represents not only his dearest possession but also those values to which Peter has always been dedicated. The first two sentences in the story point up the conflict between father and son and characterize their respective points of view: “‘No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.’ [His son Antone replies,] ‘But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? Thy hand trembles so thou canst scarce hold the bow.’” In a flashback we learn that Peter was once a second violinist in Prague until partial paralysis of his arm brought those days to a close. Then come the last two paragraphs in which Peter “pulled off his old boot, held the gun between his knees with the muzzle against his forehead, and pressed the trigger with his toe.”

Before going to the old sod stable, however, Peter had attempted to play his violin for the last time: “His hand shook more than ever before, and at last refused to work the bow at all.” Peter's decision is irrevocable, Cather thus suggests rather obviously, for his “life,” his playing of the beloved fiddle, is already over. Hence immediately before pulling the trigger, Peter breaks his violin over his knee and comments: “[Anton] shall not sell thee, my fiddle; I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us. We have seen it all together, and we will forget it together.”

Peter himself thus personifies the violin in a speech which makes explicit the symbolic function of that instrument: Peter and his violin are one, both are broken, and the music which they have made together is now over. The style of “Peter” is, of course, rather heavy-handed by Cather's later standards, but in this first story Cather not only anticipates the suicide of Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia but also deals symbolically for the first time with a motif which appears in many of her other stories: the plight of the sensitive immigrant in an environment which does not yet value beauty and creativity.

Mildred Bennett calls “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” which appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine for April 1900, Cather's “first important story.” As the title indicates, this narrative is concerned with Eric Hermannson, “the wildest lad on all the Divide,” his “conversion” during a prayer meeting, and his reaction some two years later to the visit to the Divide of beautiful Margaret Elliot. Cather divides the story into three sections, the first dealing with Eric's conversion during a prayer meeting led by Asa Skinner, a “converted train gambler” who is now “servant of God and Free Gospeller.” Asa feels that “the Lord had this night a special work for him to do” and directs his “impassioned pleading” to handsome Eric. Section one is at once a remarkable transcription of a frontier revival meeting and an introduction to the central symbol in the story, Eric's violin.

Like the violin of Peter Sadelack, Eric's instrument represents his love of beauty and the importance of music to this passionate, young immigrant who has tried to capture some joy in life in spite of the barrenness of life on the Nebraska plains. The symbolic function of Eric's violin is fully explicated in this first section of the story; Cather again leaves little to the imagination and even less to suggestion. “In the great world beauty comes to men in many guises, and art in a hundred forms, but for Eric there was only his violin. It stood, to him, for all the manifestations of art; it was his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul.”

For Asa Skinner and the Free Gospellers, however, the violin is clearly an abomination to the Lord and the symbol of Eric's sinful ways; again Cather explains rather than suggests: “Tonight Eric Hermannson … sat in [the] audience with a fiddle on his knee, just as he had dropped in on his way to play for some dance. The violin is an object of particular abhorrence to the Free Gospellers. Their antagonism to the church organ is bitter enough, but the fiddle they regard as a very incarnation of evil desires, singing forever of worldly pleasures and inseparably associated with all forbidden things.”

By the end of section one, however, Cather succeeds in suggesting through these established symbols much more than is merely said. In the final sentence of this section Eric Hermannson is “saved” as he symbolically destroys what has been for him “his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul”: “He took his violin by the neck and crushed it to splinters across his knee, and to Asa Skinner the sound was like the shackles of sin broken audibly asunder.” Thus Cather suggests through the symbolism of the broken violin and the final simile in this sentence that the “saving” of Eric Hermannson's soul has in fact been a losing of it. The irony is clear: Eric has lost the only thing which helped make life worth while; his “soul” is destroyed at the very moment when Asa Skinner feels that it has been saved. Thus, like the harshness of the Nebraska land and climate itself, the narrow fundamentalist religions of the frontier have futher intensified the spiritual and cultural sterility of early life on the plains.

Of all Cather's early stories, perhaps it is in “A Wagner Matinee,” one of the seven stories in The Troll Garden (1905), that Cather most dramatically explores the plight of the sensitive and artistic person who finds himself in a restrictive if not oppressive environment. In the first paragraphs Clark, the narrator, awaits the arrival of his Aunt Georgiana, a woman whose early life as a music teacher in Boston had been drastically changed by her elopement with Howard Carpenter and their subsequent life on the Nebraska frontier. After their marriage, the Carpenters had homesteaded, “built a dugout in the red hillside,” and struggled for some thirty years in their effort to survive; during that time, Georgiana “had not been further than fifty miles from the homestead.” But now she is coming to Boston to attend to the settling of a small estate left her by a bachelor relative, and Clark dreads seeing “what was left of my kinswoman.” Her “misshappened figure” and stooped bearing are, it would seem, outward symbols of what Clark refers to as her “martyrdom.” He observes that his aunt appears to be in a “semisomnambulant state” and wonders if his plan to take her to the Wagner matinee was ill conceived: “I began to think it would have been best to get her back to Red Willow County without waking her.”

But they make their way to the first balcony, and as the orchestra plays the Tannhauser overture, “Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains.” As the program proceeds, Cather skillfully juxtaposes Aunt Georgiana's imaginative return to the world of the arts and Clark's return to the prairie on which he has been reared. Clark reminisces: “… I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sundried cattle tracks; their rain-gullied clay banks about the naked house. …” The repeated words are “naked” and “black,” adjectives which summarize Clark's attitude toward the Nebraska of his youth.

The ultimate questions which this story ask are ones which, no doubt, emerged from Cather's knowledge of life on the plains of Nebraska: what does the frontier do to the innately sensitive, artistic personality? Is it possible for such a person to survive in the nakedness of such an environment? Clark finds his answer: “Soon after the tenor began in ‘Prize Song,’ I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks, and I think, in a moment more, they were in my eyes as well. It never really died, then—the soul that can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again.”

As the concert comes to a close, Cather uses an image derived from the plains to suggest Aunt Georgiana's inevitable return to Red Willow County: “the men of the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield.” Georgiana's cry expresses her emotion: “‘I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!’” The story closes with Clark's perceptive observation: “I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crookbacked ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.” Aunt Georgiana must return to all this—and to her martyrdom. Thus in the last paragraph of the story, Cather uses setting as symbol in order to convey the sterility and bleakness of the scene. The unforgetable picture of the “unpainted house,” the “black pond,” the “crookbacked ash seedlings,” and finally the “gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door,” suggest powerfully the toll which life in Nebraska has taken upon the innately sensitive, artistic person who finds himself there.

Thus Cather's later reputation may well have been based in part on her ability to gain more perspective about the Nebraska of her youth, but in many of her early short stories, and especially in “Peter,” in “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” and in “A Wagner Matinee,” Nebraska is portrayed as a cultural desert, a setting antagonistic to the inherent artistic needs of the human spirit.

James Woodress (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13372

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 the offices of McClure's on East Twenty-third Street at ten o'clock that morning not worrying much, she wrote Jones afterwards, about streetcar accidents and such; at one o'clock she left stepping carefully. She had become a valuable property and worth saving. McClure with characteristic enthusiasm for his discoveries had offered her the world. He would publish her stories in book form. He would use them first in his magazine, and those he could not use, he would place in other journals for her. He wanted to publish everything she wrote from that point on. When she told him that some of the stories already had been rejected by McClure's, he said he never had seen them and called in his manuscript readers and asked them in her presence to give an accounting of their stewardship. She wrote Jones: “I sat and held my chin high and thought my hour had struck.” A moment like that turned back the clock for her and made her feel as important as when she was editor of the Hesperian. There were even more plans in the wind, she said, but if she wrote of them she would be writing until midnight. She thanked him for getting her launched at last, and with a light heart signed herself faithfully always.

There was more to come after the interview in the magazine office. McClure took her out to his home at Ardsley in Westchester County to meet his wife and children and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, who was visiting the McClures. Mrs. Stevenson already had read the stories, and they talked them over together. McClure accepted the tales without any revisions and wanted to know all about his new discovery, who she was, where she came from, what she had done up to then. There was no circumstance of her life that he did not inquire into, and he began to plan her future for her. She said that if he had been a religious leader he would have had people going to the stake for him. What a genius he had for proselyting! He took a hold of one in such a personal way that business ceased to be a feature of one's relationship with him.

McClure urged her to stay with them until she had to return to Pittsburgh, but Cather could remain only a day because she had promised to visit the Canfields, who then lived in New York. When she left McClure, she was in a state of delirious excitement, his captive for life. Three years later she went to work for him, eleven years later wrote his autobiography, and in his old age, when she was rich and he was old and poor, contributed to his support. Next to her father and brothers he was the most important man in her life. Her devotion to McClure, however, was a hindrance to her career, for he kept her editing his magazine long after she should have been channeling all her creative energies into writing fiction.

Meantime, her future seemed assured, and her first volume of fiction would be published the following year. She was out in the current and moving swiftly at last, ten years after her debut as a newspaper columnist and drama critic. Though she still had a lot to learn about writing, she never again would have trouble placing her work. But she still had to return to Pittsburgh and her classroom. As it turned out, she would remain on the faculty of Allegheny High School for two more years. McClure was longer on promises than on performance and did not bring out her book until 1905. He also used only two of her stories in his magazine and did not find other magazines to take three more that had not been published previously. She never commented on his failure; she was happy enough to have a contract that assured publication.

Seven stories made up the collection that McClure, Phillips, and Company agreed to bring out. One, “‘A Death in the Desert,’” already had appeared in Scribner's the previous January; another, “A Wagner Matinee,” was published by Everybody's Magazine the following February and may have been placed there by McClure. Two more, “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case,” generally regarded as the two best tales in the group, came out in McClure's in 1905, the latter appearing actually a few weeks after the book. Given the title The Troll Garden, the collection was published in April. It carried on its title page a quotation from Charles Kingsley: “A fairy palace, with a fairy garden; … Inside the Trolls dwell, … Working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange.” Across from the title page was another epigraph from Christina Rossetti's “The Goblin Market”: “We must not look at Goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits; / Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?” And the book was dedicated to Isabelle McClung.

All of the stories in The Troll Garden deal with art and artists. Readers of Cather's newspaper columns might have been surprised at these stories if they had remembered her writing in 1901, “The world is weary unto death of stories about artists and scholars and aesthetic freaks, and of studies of the ‘artistic temperament.’” Nevertheless she was interested in the lives of artists and musicians and continued writing stories about them for the next two decades. The East still had most of her attention, for five of the tales take place in Pittsburgh and New York, Boston and London. The Boston story is about the West, but only two are laid in Western towns.

There is overall design and meaning in the collection and a careful arrangement of stories to support the themes woven into the fabric of the text. The two epigraphs provide a clue to Cather's meaning. The quotation from Kingsley comes from The Roman and the Teuton and is part of a parable he tells to introduce a discussion of the invasion of Rome by the barbarians. The forest people, who represent the barbarians, are attracted to the troll garden (Rome), covet it, and finally overrun it, only to discover afterwards that they have destroyed the marvels they sought.

In Rossetti's poem two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, live innocently together in a fairy-tale cottage. Every morning and evening animal-like goblin men emerge from a sinister glen nearby hawking their luscious fruit. The girls know these are forbidden fruits, but Laura cannot resist the temptation and buys the fruit, paying with a golden curl. The dire consequences of this act are that Laura can no longer hear the seductive cries of the goblin men and goes into a physical decline. As she becomes prematurely old and haggard, Lizzie, who still can hear the tempting offers, sets about to save her sister. She confronts the goblin men with an offer to buy, but she will not taste. A dreadful fracas results, and the men smear the fruit over her. She rushes home, invites Laura to “eat me, drink me.” Laura kisses Lizzie hungrily but finds that the juices of the fruit are now bitter, repulsive. The outcome of this encounter, however, is the restoration to health and youth of the wayward sister.

In a column Cather wrote for the Journal in 1895 she quoted and summarized the poem, concluding, “Never has the purchase of pleasure, its loss in its own taking, the loathsomeness of our own folly in those we love, been put more quaintly and directly.” For her story collection she equated the fruits of the goblin men to the magical things rare and strange made by the trolls in their garden. In either case the possession was fraught with danger: things desired are not only delightful and marvelous but also dangerous and capable of corrupting. There is no evidence that Cather was aware of the sexual allegory here that contemporary feminist critics have read as the cry of a Victorian woman against the sexual politics of the nineteenth century.

In the arrangement of the stories, the first and the last, “Flavia and Her Artists” and “Paul's Case,” depict characters seduced by art. Flavia Hamilton, who operates a “hotel, habited by freaks,” as the ironical actress-commentator Miss Broadwood puts it, is pursuing false gods in her worship of art. Cather must have observed archetypal Flavias in her years as a music and drama critic in Pittsburgh when she attended soirées given by Pennsylvania matrons, wives of steel and coal moguls, who devoted themselves to lion hunting. Flavia Canfield was enough like the title character to cause a temporary estrangement between Cather and Dorothy Canfield. That Flavia cannot distinguish between the true and the false is overt enough in the talk, but her myopia is further accentuated by Cather's abundant use of Roman allusions, always ironically. Her house is a “temple to the gods of Victory, a sort of triumphal arch”; her relationship to her children is described as like that of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi; and the story ends with Arthur Hamilton, her husband, compared to Gaius Marius among the ruins of Carthage.

The Jamesian flavor of this story is obvious, for Cather was still in her Henry James phase, and the reason she never reprinted the story may well have been that it seemed later too much influenced by the master. But her attention to James's craftsmanship was important to her in developing narrative skill. The story is well told through the perspective of Imogen Willard, daughter of one of Flavia's old friends, who is invited to Flavia's menagerie because she has the odd distinction of being a woman who has earned a doctorate in philology. Imogen (perhaps suggested by Dorothy Canfield), because of her childhood friendship with Flavia's husband, can observe the relationship between the couple as Arthur's partisan. The invention of Miss Broadwood (much like the real actress Johnston Bennett), who doesn't take herself seriously, provides the running commentary on the “freaks” by one who is a real artist, not a stuffed shirt.

What Flavia does not know when she fills her house with artists is that her guests hold her in contempt. The story turns on the vicious profile of her that M. Roux, a famous French novelist, gives an interviewer after he leaves the house party. Flavia's indulgent, patient husband withholds knowledge of the interview from her and deliberately insults the guests in order to empty the house. The tale ends with her thinking that her husband is a barbarian incapable of appreciating art.

“Paul's Case,” perhaps Cather's best-known story, depicts a forest child destroyed by the forbidden fruit. Paul is a Pittsburgh schoolboy who cares nothing about Latin or math but lives for Carnegie Hall, where he has a job ushering, and for the theater, where he has friends among the local stock company. He hates his life in a prosaic, conventional, middle-class neighborhood. Paul's principal and his father decide that he must leave school, go to work, and stop hanging around the theater and Carnegie Hall. But Paul cannot stand life in a business office and steals a thousand dollars from his employer. He goes to New York, buys himself elegant clothes, rents a suite at the Waldorf, and lives for a while his dream life as a rich patron of the arts; then when his money is gone and his father is about to come after him, he goes to Newark and quietly drops under the wheels of an oncoming locomotive.

The story has been justly admired for its narrative skill and its psychological portraiture. It is the only important use Cather ever made of her experience as a Pittsburgh high school teacher and the only story she would allow to be anthologized towards the end of her life. It captures the tone of Pittsburgh in 1905 and was compounded, she remembered in 1943, of two elements: the first was a boy she once had in her Latin class, a nervous youth who was always trying to make himself interesting and to prove that he knew members of the local stock company; the other was herself, particularly the feelings she had about New York and the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when she was teaching and occasionally visiting the city. Another ingredient that she never mentioned was the theft of an employer's money by two Pittsburgh boys who ran off to Chicago. They were found broke in a Chicago hotel a week later and brought back home, but not prosecuted because the families reimbursed the employer. The Pittsburgh papers were full of the story, reported the Bookman in a brief profile of Cather at the time The Troll Garden was published. Cather also had sat on disciplinary committees, such as the one Paul appears before at the outset of the story. Norman Foerster remembered being disciplined by a committee on which Cather sat for carrying a crib-sheet into an examination.

“‘A Death in the Desert,’” the first story to be published in a magazine, is the centerpiece of the book. Its chief character, Adriance Hilgarde, inspired by Nevin, the composer, never appears in the story but is the dominant influence on the other characters. Cather must have written the tale soon after Nevin's death, but she later would not admit that she had put him into the story. She did concede that if people saw him in it, something of his personality must have been there. He was the first artist she had ever known, she said, and made a deep impression on her. She remembered him as a figure full of charm and grace and was glad if the story recalled him to friends who had known and loved him.

The story takes place on a ranch near Cheyenne, where one can see from the ranch house “a blinding stretch of yellow, flat as the sea in dead calm, splotched here and there with deep purple shadows; and, beyond, the ragged blue outline of the mountains.” Katherine Gaylord, singer, is dying of tuberculosis on her brother's ranch. Onto the scene comes Everett Hilgarde, younger brother of the great composer Adriance, who stops in Cheyenne en route to the West Coast. He accidentally discovers that Katherine is there dying and stays with her several weeks until the end. Years before when she had been on her way to stardom and one of his brother's students, he had loved her with a schoolboy's passion.

Not much happens in the story. Everett and Katherine talk, mostly about Adriance, and in their talk the lives of all three are revealed. Adriance sends the score of his latest sonata, the greatest composition he has yet written. As Everett plays it for her, she dissolves: “This is my tragedy, as I lie here spent by the race-course, listening to the feet of the runners as they pass me.” Adriance, youthful, charming, and exuberantly creative, still leads the race. While Katherine is dying Everett reflects on his own life. If her life is tragedy, his is pathos. He had the bad luck to resemble his brother, to aspire to an artistic career, but to be endowed with mediocre talent. He has accepted his fate, however, and resolved “to beat no more at doors he would never enter.”

Cather placed this story in the middle of the collection because it presents three different artists and three different careers. Katherine is a forest child who has entered the garden only to be destroyed there. Everett, who is always being mistaken for his brilliant brother, is one who is denied entrance. Adriance enters and survives. But Katherine and Adriance are really two sides of the same coin: Nevin in his prime and Nevin who died at the age of thirty-eight. The story gains irony from its setting in the stark landscape of eastern Wyoming and from the title, which comes from a poem by Browning, a dramatic monologue delivered by the Apostle John as he dies in a Middle Eastern cave attended only by a few faithful friends.

The second and sixth stories in The Troll Garden are an appropriate pair, because they both deal with western characters whose lives end in defeat. “The Sculptor's Funeral” is one of Cather's best-known stories because for many years she allowed anthologists to reprint it. Then late in her life she decided it presented a false picture of prairie towns and withdrew permission to use it. The tale is set in a little town like Red Cloud, though she moved it to Kansas, doubtless to avoid the charge of satirizing the homefolks. It falls into the category of revolt-from-the-village literature and invites comparison with the earlier work of E. W. Howe or Hamlin Garland and, later, the fiction of Sinclair Lewis and the poems of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. The opening scene comes from the memory that inspired the poem “The Night Express,” and the plot was suggested by the funeral of a Pittsburgh artist, Stanley Reinhart. Cather wrote in a newspaper column at the time that Reinhart's family had not appreciated him, that no one in Pittsburgh knew anything about him, or cared, and that it passed all understanding how he could have come out of that commercial city.

The story begins with the arrival in Sand City of the body of Harvey Merrick, world-famous sculptor, who is regarded by his fellow townsmen as one local boy who did not amount to much. As the various characters sit about the mean and tasteless Merrick house during the wake, Banker Phelps expresses the general sentiment: “What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.” Then he might have amounted to something and helped run the family farm; instead, his father had indulged him and sent him off East and to France to study art. One man in town, however, knew, loved, and appreciated the sculptor, and voices scathing denunciation of the mean-spirited and ignorant villagers. He is Jim Laird, the local lawyer, who never managed to get away from Philistia, and by the time the sculptor's body is brought home, has become an alcoholic. The contrasts are further heightened by the creation of Henry Steavens, student and follower of the sculptor, who accompanies the body and provides a sympathetic audience for Laird.

“A Wagner Matinee” reverses the situation in “The Sculptor's Funeral” by taking a Nebraska farm wife to Boston. The story fits into the overall design of The Troll Garden because the narrator's Aunt Georgiana is a former musician who has been denied for more than thirty years any possibility of entering the garden. She has been exiled to the barbarous environment of a bleak prairie farm, where she has toiled like a slave helping her husband wrest a living from the inhospitable land. Cather paints a grim picture of Nebraska farm life in the pioneering days through her description of Georgiana with her “ill-fitting false teeth, and her skin … as yellow as a Mongolian's from constant exposure to a pitiless wind and to the alkaline water” and her hands that once had played the piano at the Boston Conservatory now “stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with.” When the aunt has to visit Boston to collect a legacy left her by a bachelor uncle, she stays with her nephew, a Nebraska farm boy who, like Hamlin Garland, has managed to shake the mud off his boots and get to Boston. The pathos of the tale is overwhelming as the narrator, with misguided kindness, takes his aunt to a symphony concert and reawakens in her the memory of the lost garden. This is an excellent story, lean and compact, narrated with skill from a young man's point of view, the same perspective Cather used later in My Ántonia and other works.

“A Wagner Matinee” caused Cather a great deal of embarrassment when it came out in Everybody's in 1904. Will Owen Jones took her to task in the Journal: “The stranger to this state will associate Nebraska with the aunt's wretched figure, her ill-fitting false teeth, her skin yellowed by the weather. … If the writers of fiction who use western Nebraska as material would look up now and then and not keep their eyes and noses in the cattle yards, they might be more agreeable company.” Cather wrote Jones defending herself, denying that she had any intention of disparaging the state. She had placed the story back in pioneer times, she said, and thought that everyone admitted those were desolate days. She had thought she was paying tribute to those uncomplaining women, who weathered those times. Farm life was bad enough when she knew it, and what must it have been like before that? She had to admit, however, that she had used the farmhouse where she and her family had lived before they moved into Red Cloud and some of her recollections.

She also had to admit that her family felt insulted by the tale. Everyone assumed that her Aunt Franc had sat for the portrait of Aunt Georgiana, because Aunt Franc had graduated from Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary and had studied music before marrying George Cather in 1873 and moving to pioneer Nebraska. The family told her it was not nice to write about such things as she put into the description of Aunt Georgiana. Cather wrote a friend that the whole affair had been the nearest she ever had come to personal disgrace. She seemed to have done something horrid without realizing it, but someday she supposed it would seem funny. That she could not have intended cruelty to her aunt is perfectly clear from the warm, affectionate tone of all her letters to Aunt Franc. After visiting her aunt on the farm when she was in college, Cather wrote Mariel Gere that Aunt Franc had organized a literary society among the farm families at Catherton and she surely did her share of distributing manna in the wilderness.

The third and fifth stories in the collection are “The Garden Lodge” and “The Marriage of Phaedra,” one dealing with a musician and the other a painter. These are the poorest tales in the volume, stories that were not placed in magazines before book publication, and stories that Cather never reprinted. “The Garden Lodge” concerns Caroline Noble, who deliberately gives up a career as a concert pianist (as Cather's friend Ethel Litchfield had done) to marry a Wall Street tycoon. Caroline had grown up in an artistic household where there had been intense devotion to art but never enough money to pay the bills. “Caroline had served her apprenticeship to idealism and to all the embarrassing inconsistencies which it sometimes entails, and she decided to deny herself this diffuse, ineffectual answer to the sharp questions of life.”

After six years of marriage this practical, sensible woman is surrounded by children, wealth, and an indulgent, loving husband. One day she invites the great Wagnerian tenor Raymond d'Esquerré to stay with them, and they spend hours together in the garden lodge. He feels the need to get out of Klingsor's Garden occasionally and to work in a quiet place, and he knows Caroline Noble is no lion hunter but a serious, gifted nonprofessional artist. After he leaves, she goes to the garden lodge alone, plays the first act of Die Walküre, the last of his roles they had practiced together, and the memory of his presence overwhelms her. “It was not enough; this happy, useful, well-ordered life was not enough.” A storm breaks and rain beats in, as Caroline passes the night in a dark agony of the soul. The next morning, however, she awakes, despises herself for her self-indulgence, creeps back to the house from the garden lodge, and resumes her life.

“The Marriage of Phaedra” is about the sale of an unfinished masterpiece by the widow of a recently deceased artist. The barbarian in this story is the widow, who sells the painting against the deathbed wishes of the painter to a Jewish art dealer from Australia. This, in the mind of the point-of-view character, a young artist-admirer who wishes to write a biography of the master, is the equivalent of destroying the great painting. The tale was obviously suggested by Cather's visit to Burne-Jones's studio in London during her European trip. The valet James, who presides over the empty studio and was invented for Cather's travel letter to the Journal, is appropriately named, for this story is very Henry Jamesian in its narrative technique. The story develops as the artist-biographer researches his subject by striking up an acquaintance with the valet and interviewing the dead artist's sister-in-law and wife. The tale owes a further debt to James in its use of the painting, “The Marriage of Phaedra,” to give meaning. The marital difficulties of the painter of the story and his wife are suggested by the tangled affairs of the Greek myth in which Phaedra marries Theseus and then falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus.

McClure's enthusiasm for Cather's fiction notwithstanding, reviewers of The Troll Garden were not overwhelmed. The only long signed review in a national magazine appeared in the Bookman, but this reviewer, Bessie du Bois, was not enchanted. She called the book a “collection of freak stories that are either lurid, hysterical or unwholesome, and that remind one of nothing so much as the coloured supplement to the Sunday papers.” Except for Jim Laird in “The Sculptor's Funeral” and Paul in “Paul's Case,” she thought the characters all “mere dummies, with fancy names, on which to hang epigrams.” And the subject matter dealt with “the ash-heap of the human mind—the thoughts and feelings that come to all of us when the pressure of the will is low, the refuse and sweepings of the mental life.”

Other national reviewers treated the book among their brief notices. These were anonymous paragraphs that in general saw promise in Cather's work but were restrained. The New York Times thought the stories showed “deep feeling and ability,” but many were too ambitious and seemed “to be more the work of promise than fulfillment.” This reviewer probably had not read beyond the first story, for he called “Flavia and Her Artists” the best of the collection. The Independent reviewer would recommend the stories “strongly but not widely” among his friends, but he did select “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” as the best. He rapped Cather on the knuckles for seeing only the ugly side of pioneer life. The Dial reviewer also seemed not to have read the entire book; the Critic found “real promise”; and the Reader Magazine described the tales as “singularly vivid, strong, true, original.”

When book buyers did not rush out to get The Troll Garden, McClure, Phillips, and Company did not reprint it, and there were still copies left in stock when the company sold its book business to Doubleday, Page and Company the next year. Cather took the book's lack of success philosophically and went on teaching high school. Witter Bynner, however, who then was fresh out of Harvard and McClure's office boy, had great faith in the book and tried to interest Henry James in it. He sent James a copy and followed it up with a letter. James replied that he had received the book but had had no intention of reading it until getting Bynner's letter. “Being now almost in my 100th year, and with a long and weary experience of such matters [receiving complimentary works of fiction] behind me, promiscuous fiction has become abhorrent to me, and I find it the hardest thing in the world to read almost any new novel. Any is hard enough, but the hardest from the innocent hands of young females, young American females perhaps above all.” But he added that in spite of these feelings he would do his best for Miss Cather. Bynner sent Cather a copy of the letter, to which she replied that it had given her a keen satisfaction. James's attitude was exactly the one she would have wished him to have, and she would have been very much hurt if he did not have the opinion he expressed about “promiscuous fiction.” She felt exactly the same as James about fiction by young females. His letter, she thought, was a kind of moral stimulant, and she promised Bynner she would stand up with good grace to whatever punishment James might mete out. There was, however, no further communication from James.

In 1911 Elizabeth Sergeant bought a secondhand copy of the book and read it for the first time. She found “The Sculptor's Funeral,” “A Wagner Matinee,” and “Paul's Case” all exciting stories, full of passion and superbly executed and wrote Cather of her “joy and critical estimate.” Cather replied that she was pleased Sergeant had found something to enjoy, but the stories had been written so long ago “that they now hardly seemed to belong to her. She herself had outgrown the harsh mood that had inspired the Western ones. The starvation of a girl avid for a richer environment seemed to stick out, to deform, to make the picture one-sided.” When Cather was chiding Edward Wagenknecht for wanting to resuscitate her early fiction in 1936, she said that if he wanted evidence against her, wasn't “‘A Death in the Desert’” poor enough? There was a certain honest feeling in it, she thought, of a very young kind, but it was really flimsy enough to bring up as a reproach to any writer.

By the time she wrote that letter she had completely abandoned “‘A Death in the Desert’” and was omitting it from her collected works. She had cut a third of the story when she reprinted it in 1920 in Youth and the Bright Medusa and improved it substantially, so much so that Dorothy Canfield Fisher in reviewing the later version commented on the changes. She suggested that anyone who wanted to see how a real artist could “smooth away crudeness without rooting out the life” of a story should study the revisions. Cather, however, was never satisfied with the tale and apparently decided it would be impossible to rework it further. The story contains more obtrusive literary allusions and quotations than any of her other stories, and it is likely that a young artist's death in the desert no longer had the power to move her at the age of sixty-five that it had when she was twenty-nine.

The three stories that Sergeant liked particularly survived in the collected works. Cather touched up “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” for the 1920 and 1937 reprintings but made no substantial changes. “A Wagner Matinee,” however, underwent a successive softening of the harsh portrait of Aunt Georgiana, as Cather revised the tale in 1920 and again in 1937. One should read the story in The Troll Garden version, for the author performed so much plastic surgery on her character that she transformed Aunt Georgiana from a cruelly used, worn-out farm wife from a harsh, isolated prairie farm into a quaint little old lady from the boondocks.

After the book came out and the 1905 school year ended, Cather and Isabelle McClung traveled west to spend two months in Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. They spent a week with Douglass in Cheyenne and a week camping in the Black Hills with Roscoe. After that they returned to Red Cloud for a month and helped Cather's father fix up a new house he had bought. She wrote Mariel Gere that her sister Jessica had a dear little home of her own and was pregnant and happy and that she had seen a good deal of Mrs. Garber, who was as charming as ever but greatly aged and saddened by the death of her husband. Her younger siblings Jack and Elsie were now big children, though they still seemed little to her. She thoroughly enjoyed her visit and thought the West was where she wanted to live. She said she was planning to get home to Red Cloud for a year before very long. After they left Red Cloud, McClung returned to Pittsburgh, and Cather went on to New York to visit Edith Lewis, whom she had met in Lincoln in the summer of 1903 and had visited in New York the summer before.

While Cather was awaiting publication of her book, she apparently tried to write a novel. If McClure wanted to publish everything she wrote, she would take him at his word. Little is known about this attempt, but several notes appeared in the Journal during the summer of 1905 when Cather was visiting Nebraska. The paper reported that she had finished a novel that would be published in the fall. It was said to be “in an entirely different vein from any of her previous work. It is her first long story … but will not make a very heavy book as it was cut down one-third with the intention of adding to its strength. The scene is laid in Pittsburgh.” By the following February the enterprise was dead, the manuscript returned from McClure. Cather wrote Bynner, who had asked what she was doing with the novel, that she had not taken it out of the wrapper he had mailed it in until a few weeks before when she needed a piece of string. She had done absolutely nothing with it. It seemed not quite bad enough to throw away and not quite good enough to wrestle with again. Therefore it was reposing in her old hat box. Thus it was back to teaching for another year.

Even if McClure had decided her manuscript was unpublishable, he did not forget that she was one of his authors. He must have sent her an invitation to Mark Twain's seventieth birthday dinner held in the Red Room at Delmonico's in New York on December 5. She was one of 170 literary and quasi-literary notables who attended the banquet arranged by Colonel George Harvey, head of Harper and Brothers. Cather also was one of the 50 guests who got to meet Twain before the dinner. Twain and Howells were the celebrities on this occasion, but there were many lesser notables that Cather must have been excited to meet or at least to see: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown, George Ade, Julian Hawthorne, and Owen Wister. Charles Major and Rex Beach were there too, but Cather disliked their writing. George Washington Cable and John Burroughs were present; so were Andrew Carnegie and Emily Post. Somehow Dorothy Canfield, who had not yet begun her literary career, managed an invitation. Viewed in retrospect, the only important writer at the dinner besides Twain and Howells was Cather. No one had thought E. A. Robinson, Edith Wharton, or Theodore Dreiser worth inviting. It was a glittering evening nonetheless, and Cather enjoyed it seated at a table between two editors, Edward Martin of the humor magazine Life and Frederick Duneka of Harpers. Cather had a high opinion of Twain's Mississippi River books, though Huck Finn one of the three most enduring American classics, and later when she was living in Greenwich Village followed up her acquaintance.

By the time the second semester began during the winter of 1905-6, Cather's years in Pittsburgh were rapidly drawing to a close. Sometime in the early spring McClure made a quick trip to Pittsburgh, went to see Cather at the McClungs' house, stayed for dinner, and enchanted everyone with his talk. His magazine was in a state of crisis; he needed new editors immediately. When he returned to New York, he had persuaded Cather to join his staff even before the school year ended. The high school paper reported in March: “When we return from our April vacation, we shall fail to see Miss Cather; but … we feel relieved in knowing that next September she will again be able to take her classes.” The canny McClure must have lured Cather to New York on a temporary basis, then after she arrived persuaded her to stay. The finality of her departure was made clear when the June issue of the paper printed her farewell letter, dated June 2:

Dear Boys and Girls:

Now that I find that I shall not return to the High School next fall, I have a word to say to you. A number of my pupils in various classes, and especially in my Reporting Class, asked me, when I came away, whether I should be with you next year. At that time I fully expected to be. The changes in my plans which will prevent my doing so have been sudden and unforeseen. I should hate to have you think that I had not answered you squarely when you were good enough to ask whether I should return, or to have you think that I put you off with an excuse.

I had made many plans for your Senior work next year and had hoped that we should enjoy that work together. I must now leave you to enjoy it alone. One always has to choose between good things it seems. So I turn to a work I love with very real regret that I must leave behind, for the time at least, a work I had come to love almost as well. But I much more regret having to take leave of so many students whom I feel are good friends of mine. As long as I stay in New York, I shall always be glad to see any of my students when they come to the city.

I wish you every success in your coming examinations and in your senior work next year.

Faithfully yours,

Willa S. Cather


One month after Shadows on the Rock came out, while Cather was at Grand Manan, her mother died in California. It was a relief to have the long ordeal over, but the pain of parting was nonetheless agonizing. With both parents gone Cather now was a member of the generation next to death. With neither husband nor children to cling to, the loss of parents was a heavier blow to Cather than to most people. She had come to appreciate her mother more and more as she grew older, and the sharp clash of personalities that once had struck sparks had long since given way to mutual love and respect. Jennie Cather, however, had remained an imperious, demanding mother to the end, and during the many months that she lay paralyzed in Pasadena, her daughter dared not revisit Red Cloud for fear of arousing her jealousy. Cather did not try to return to California for the funeral, nor did she go back to Nebraska when the body was brought to Red Cloud for burial.

She stayed on Grand Manan until the beginning of October, taking her daily walks along the solitary cliffs and adjusting to her new condition of life. She wrote Blanche Knopf three weeks after her mother's death that she was trying to get used to the strange feeling of having nobody behind her, nobody to report to. Helpless as her mother was, she expected an account of her children's activities, and Cather was glad her mind had not dimmed, as it would have in time. The next few months would be hard, Cather thought, and she didn't know just what she would do after leaving New Brunswick. She probably would go to Jaffrey, but then she might visit Virginia, where she had not been for nearly two decades. At any event, she was back in New York at the Grosvenor by the end of October 1931. She sent a note to Mrs. Canby on the thirtieth saying she wanted to see her as soon as she pulled herself together, but at that moment she felt unanchored, purposeless, and didn't know where to turn. The following year Cather wrote Zoë Akins that after forty-five it simply rains death and after fifty the storms grow fiercer. It seemed that she never opened a newspaper any more without reading of the death of someone she used to know. When she first knew Akins in her McClure days, she added, people didn't used to die at all.

During November she was sufficiently collected to make plans and decided to organize a family reunion in Red Cloud. At the end of the month she took a train west for her last visit to Nebraska. As soon as she reached Red Cloud, she plunged into the task of opening and cleaning her parents' house, which had been closed since her father died nearly four years before. She also had the roof reshingled and arranged for her mother's former maid, Lizzie Huffmann, to come from Colorado to keep house during the reunion. The family gathering was a great success, and Cather had a strong feeling of her mother's presence during the holiday season. With both parents gone her old ties of affection for her brothers must have seemed doubly precious. Her love for her brothers never had wavered since childhood, and she thought brother-sister relationships “the strongest and most satisfactory relation of human life.” In an essay she wrote in 1897, commenting on the love of Tom and Maggie Tulliver for each other in The Mill on the Floss, she had observed that the world didn't realize how strong this love can be that “sometimes exists between a brother and sister, a boy and girl who have laughed and sorrowed and learned the world together … who have entered into each other's lives and minds more completely than ever man or woman can again.”

The family reunion was good therapy. When Cather wrote Blanche Knopf to thank her for the gift of a gorgeous dressing gown, she reported having a wonderful Christmas season. She had been flying about in the car with her family seeing old friends, and the little town decked out with candles and Christmas trees was a beautiful sight under a full winter moon. They were having glorious weather, and she was feeling great affection for her patria, which to most people seemed so unattractive. Her parents' home was full of greens from New England and California and flowers from everywhere. She was planning a children's party on Holy Innocents' Day and had engaged the Grace Church choir boys to sing carols. She also had a lovely crèche with thirty figures that Isabelle Hambourg had sent her from France. This was her first real Christmas since her father's last Christmas in 1928.

Cather was almost totally unproductive in 1932. The only thing she wrote was her essay “A Chance Meeting,” which she published in the Atlantic Monthly early the next year. She returned from Red Cloud in January and in February went to bed with the flu. During the spring she read proof on her next book, Obscure Destinies, a collection of three stories she had written while at work on Shadows on the Rock, but apparently the next novel had not yet been conceived. The deepening Depression troubled her, though she was getting rich from her royalties. She had lost money on gilt-edged bonds; her old farm friends in Nebraska were in real trouble; and some of her friends and relatives had lost their jobs. When Mary Austin asked her to donate to a favorite charity, she declined on grounds that she already was helping keep half a dozen families and had loaned money to others who were in such dire straits she was sure they never could repay her. She continued her private benefactions throughout the Depression, and when her old friends on the farm were burned out during the terrible droughts of the thirties, she helped them survive. She even paid some of the taxes for the Pavelkas so that they would not lose their farm. She wrote Greenslet that she was willing to sell the movie rights to The Song of the Lark provided he could get a good price. Nothing came of this, however, but she did serialize her next novel, something she hated to do, in order to raise more money to assist people she loved.

The bright spot in her life at this time was the growing friendship with Yehudi Menuhin and his family. The meeting in Paris in 1930 quickly developed into a close relationship. Yehudi, who was fifteen in 1931, made a West Coast concert tour when she was visiting her mother in Pasadena, and she was able to attend his performances and spend some time with him. She was so taken with the Menuhin children, Yehudi and his sisters Yaltah and Hephzibah, that she wanted to dedicate Shadows on the Rock to them. She was talked out of this by a friend of the family, who thought the Menuhim parents were overly sensitive to the lionizing of their children and would have taken offense. In New York after the Red Cloud reunion Cather saw Yehudi several times. She recovered from the flu in time to have dinner with him and attend one of his concerts, and the day before he sailed for Europe they had breakfast together and then spent the entire morning in the park. She wrote Carrie Sherwood that his whole nature was as beautiful as his face and his talent. According to his nephew, Cather was one of the few outsiders who penetrated the defenses the elder Menuhins placed around their prodigies. When she decided people were worth her affection, she had a talent for friendship, and neither the Menuhin parents nor their children could resist her.

Lewis remembered: “She loved the Menuhin family as a whole, and each separate member of it individually.” Yehudi, of course, was the star, but she admired the mother and “found the two little girls—Yaltah was about seven, and Hephzibah a year or two older—endlessly captivating, amusing, and endearing.” “They were not only the most gifted children Willa Cather had ever known … they were also extremely lovable, affectionate, and unspoiled; in some ways funnily naive, in others sensitive and discerning far beyond their years. They had an immense capacity for admiration and hero-worship, and Willa Cather became, I think, their greatest hero.” Lewis called this friendship a “rare, devoted, and unclouded” relationship “that lighted all the years that followed.”

Obscure Destinies was published by Knopf in August 1932, even before all three of the stories in the collection had been serialized. The first of the trio, “Neighbour Rosicky,” had appeared in the Woman's Home Companion in April and May 1930, and the third tale, “Two Friends,” ran in the same magazine the month before book publication. “Old Mrs. Harris,” however, did not come out in the Ladies' Home Journal until September, October, and November 1932. All three stories return to Nebraska and old memories, and for some of Cather's public her abandonment of historical fiction came as a relief. Her father's death and her mother's long illness turned her mind to family and friends of her youth. The months she spent in Red Cloud both before and after her father died rekindled her enthusiasm for her adopted state. She wrote “Neighbour Rosicky” in New York before the end of 1928, “Two Friends” in Pasadena during her last visit to her mother, and “Old Mrs. Harris” at Grand Manan about the time her mother died.

“Neighbour Rosicky” is one of Cather's best known and most admired stories; best known because she allowed Whit Burnett to anthologize it in This Is My Best (1942), and Knopf subsequently let it be reprinted ten times in the two decades after her death; most admired because it ranks with “Coming, Aphrodite!” “Uncle Valentine,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” and “Tom Outland's Story” as the cream of her short fiction. The story is in a sense a sequel to My Ántonia, for Annie Pavelka's husband sat for the portrait of the Bohemian farmer Rosicky; but the emotional power of the tale derives from Cather's feelings about her father, and the title character's death by heart failure parallels the death of Charles Cather. She infused her memories of her father into Anton Rosicky much more successfully than she did into the apothecary Auclair in Shadows on the Rock. This story rarely fails to move even the most blasé reader.

At the outset of the tale one recognizes Ántonia's family some ten years after Jim Burden left them prospering on their farm. The children that Jim saw running up the stairs of the fruit cave, “a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into sunlight,” now are between twelve and twenty. Ántonia here is called Mary, an even more appropriate name for the Madonna of the Wheat Fields. The relationship between father and sons, husband and wife, is devoted and sympathetic, and the human equation in the Rosicky family always takes precedence over the economic one. Mary would rather put roses in her children's cheeks than sell her cream in town, and Rosicky, like Cuzak in My Ántonia, is an easygoing, good-natured husband. Rosicky is much less affluent than some of his neighbors, who are reminiscent of Nat Wheeler in One of Ours, but he owns his own land unencumbered and enjoys life.

The tone of “Neighbour Rosicky” is retrospective and elegiac and the story in Cather's usual fashion has little plot. It begins with Rosicky learning from his doctor that he has a bad heart and must take it easy for the rest of his life. This presents no problem because his five sons are old enough and willing to take over management of the farm. The conflict, which supplies what plot there is, concerns Rosicky's efforts to keep his oldest son from leaving the farm to work in the city. As an immigrant who had come to America from the slums of Europe, Rosicky has a horror of city life. Owning the land he has cultivated lovingly is for him the summum bonum. His son Rudolph, however, has married a town girl of native stock who is dissatisfied with farm life. Through a series of small incidents Cather draws Rosicky and his daughter-in-law Polly together, and at the conclusion when the old farmer dies he knows that Polly has become an integral part of his family. She is carrying his first grandchild, who will carry on the tradition, and he ends his life happy and fulfilled.

Rosicky is one of Cather's memorable characters. At the beginning and end he is observed through the eyes of Dr. Burleigh, and at key intervals in the narrative Cather inserts flashbacks to account for his life and attitudes up to the point at which the story begins. He also is seen in dramatic situations with the doctor, town merchants, Mary, and his children. On occasion the third-person narrative slips into Rosicky's consciousness to convey his ideas, and Cather's physical descriptions of the old man are highly evocative. All of these narrative strategies serve to create a fully developed, three-dimensional character. To accomplish this in a piece of short fiction requires the greatest artistry.

In the first of the small incidents that move the story along Rosicky asks his four boys who still live at home if they would be willing to forego driving into town Saturday night. He wants to take the Ford over to Rudolph and Polly so that they can go to the movies alone. The boys are disappointed, but Rosicky explains: “Polly ain't lookin' so good. I don't like to see nobody lookin' so sad. It comes hard fur a town girl to be a farmer's wife. I don't want no trouble to start in Rudolph's family. When it starts, it ain't so easy to stop. An American girl don't git used to our ways all at once.” He takes the car to Rudolph's nearby farm, insists that Polly leave washing the dishes to him while she gets fixed up for town. Polly is rather aloof at this point, still calls her father-in-law “Mr. Rosicky.”

Later Rudolph, Polly, and the rest of the family are together at Christmas. They discuss the outlook for crops the next summer. The last year was dry, and it looks as if the next one will be equally dry. The prospect is dismal, and Rudolph talks about getting a job in the city. At that point Mary tells about hard times when the children were little. It was one blistering day in July when a hot wind burned up the crops completely. Rosicky came in from the fields and announced that he was knocking off for the day. They were going to have a picnic in the orchard. He killed two chickens to fry and Mary prepared their supper. While they were eating, he announced that the crops had been ruined that day. There would be no corn at all that year. “That's why we're havin' a picnic. We might as well enjoy what we got.” Mary tells the children: “An' that's how your father behaved, when all the neighbours was so discouraged they couldn't look you in the face. An' we enjoyed ourselves that year, poor as we was, an' our neighbours wasn't a bit better off for bein' miserable.”

Following Mary's story, Rosicky tells of hard times when he was a young man. He had drifted from his native Bohemia to London where he apprenticed himself to a poor tailor. He boarded with his employer and his family, and none of them ever had enough to eat. One Christmas Eve the tailor's wife, who had been saving so she could have a goose for Christmas dinner, hid the roast goose in the cubby hole where Rosicky slept. He came in to bed late, smelled the goose, and was so hungry he ate half of it before he could stop. Later he was rescued from poverty in London by affluent Czechs, who helped him get to New York, where he made good wages as a journeyman tailor and for some years enjoyed a carefree bachelor life. Eventually he realized that city life was a dead end, went west to Nebraska, and became a farmer. After hearing this affecting story, Polly decides to invite all the Rosickys to her house for New Year's Eve.

The weather continues dry, but nonetheless Rudolph's alfalfa field comes up beautifully green in the spring. Rosicky worries that the Russian thistles blown in during the winter will take root and ruin the alfalfa, symbolically important because the field lies between parent and child. Because Rudolph is too busy to rake out the thistles, Rosicky does it without telling anyone. The work is too strenuous for him, and he has a heart attack. Polly finds him leaning against the windmill, gets him into the house, ministers to him, and the attack passes. She tells him before anyone else that she is pregnant, and as Polly sits beside him, she thinks: “Nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there. You saw it in his eyes.”

Shortly thereafter Rosicky has his fatal attack. The doctor is out of town when Rosicky dies, but several weeks later when his practice takes him into the country, he passes the graveyard adjacent to the Rosicky farm. He realizes that the old Bohemian farmer is no longer over on the hill where he sees red lamp light but here in the moonlight. He stops his car and sits there for a while. It strikes him that the graveyard is a beautiful place, unlike urban cemeteries, which are cities of the dead. “This was open and free, this little square of long grass which the wind for ever stirred. Nothing but the sky overhead, and the many-coloured fields running on until they met the sky.” Rosicky's mowing machine stands nearby where one of his boys was cutting hay that afternoon; neighbors pass by the graveyard on their way to town, and in the cornfield over yonder Rosicky's own cattle will be eating fodder in the winter. “Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got it at last. Rosicky's life seemed to him complete and beautiful.”

“Old Mrs. Harris” is a major accomplishment, perhaps the best story Cather ever wrote. It actually is longer than My Mortal Enemy and could have been published separately, but it fits in well with the other two stories in Obscure Destinies. All of them deal with humble individuals, “their homely joys and destiny obscure,” as Gray puts it in his famous “Elegy.” Anton Rosicky, Grandma Harris, and the two friends of the third story exist “Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife” in Webster County, Nebraska. Old Mrs. Harris, who was inspired by Cather's grandmother Boak, is the most unforgettable character of all—as memorable as Ántonia Shimerda or Marian Forrester. When Cather sent the manuscript of “Old Mrs. Harris” and “Two Friends” to her publisher at the end of the summer of 1931, Blanche Knopf wrote that the former seemed to her one of the great stories of all time. “I have never before read anything that got right inside me as that did.” She said she would never cease to wonder at Cather's ability to depict both atmosphere and people “in such a way that they become a good deal more real than the landscape outside the window or the person sitting across the table.” Cather herself thought she had done well in “Old Mrs. Harris.” When Akins wrote praising the story, she replied that the right things had come together in the right combination. It was the best story of the three.

“Old Mrs. Harris” appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal as “Three Women,” a title that the editors perhaps thought more appealing to the magazine's audience. Nevertheless, its focus is on Grandma Harris, although it also deals with two other generations: young Vickie Templeton, fifteen, and her mother Victoria, who is about to have her sixth child. The story's autobiographical elements, which already have been discussed, give the tale the antique, nostalgic flavor of Cather's best Nebraska fiction. The setting is Skyline, Colorado, which in actuality is Red Cloud once more. There also is a fourth important woman character in Mrs. Rosen, the neighbor modeled after Mrs. Wiener in real life, and the servant Mandy, one recalls, is another fictional portrait of Marjorie Anderson.

The story begins when Mrs. Rosen, carrying a pot of coffee and a coffee cake, crosses her lawn to the Templeton house to see Grandma Harris. She waits until she sees Victoria leave dressed for town because she wants to visit with the old woman alone. She admires Mrs. Harris a great deal and feels that her daughter and grandchildren take her too much for granted. A fine dramatic scene follows in which a great deal is revealed about the Templeton family and the grandmother. The setting for this tête-à-tête is the little Cather home in Red Cloud where Charles and Jennie Cather lived with their seven children, Grandmother Boak, and Marjorie Anderson. Grandma Harris occupies a queer little room, more like a hall than a bedroom, furnished with a sewing machine, a rocking horse, a wash stand, a curtained-off area for a closet, and a wooden lounge where Grandma Harris sleeps. The old woman is ill at ease having a caller who comes while her daughter is out and insists on her leaving before Victoria returns.

The next scene, also dramatically rendered, takes place that night and introduces Vickie, the other children, and Mandy, “the bound girl they had brought with them from the South.” Old Mrs. Harris is feeling poorly, her breath comes short, and her feet and legs are swollen. While Vickie reads to the smaller children, her grandmother darns stockings for the boys. Before she goes to bed, Mandy offers to rub her feet and legs and performs, as the third-person narrator says, “one of the oldest rites of compassion.” Then Grandma Harris retires to her lounge, which has no springs and “only a thin cotton mattress between her and the wooden slats.”

The following episode belongs to Vickie, who goes to the Rosens to borrow a book from their well-stocked library. Vickie, who is in her last year of high school, is a bright, attractive, self-centered youngster, eager for knowledge. Mrs. Rosen doesn't wholly approve of her, but the two carry on a conversation about books. Vickie opens an illustrated German edition of Faust and wishes she could read it. Soon she runs across the text of Dies Irae, which she can read, and translates the Latin haltingly. Mrs. Rosen says that she will try to get an English translation of Faust for Vickie the next time she goes to Chicago, but Vickie replies: “What I want is to pick up any of these books and just read them, like you and Mr. Rosen do.” This pleases Mrs. Rosen: “Vickie never paid compliments, absolutely never; but if she really admired anyone, something in her voice betrayed it so convincingly that one felt flattered.”

From this relationship between Vickie and the Rosens follows one strand of the slight plot. Vickie desperately wants to go to college, but her parents can't afford to send her. Encouraged by the Rosens, she studies hard and wins a special scholarship to the University of Michigan. But the award is not enough to pay all her expenses, and she is bitterly disappointed. As far as the Templetons are concerned, this is the end of the matter. Vickie's parents have no particular respect for education and expect their daughter to hang around Skyline until she finds a husband. Grandma Harris, however, knows what an education means to Vickie and surreptitiously asks the Rosens to lend her enough so that she can accept the scholarship. They do so, and Vickie prepares to leave for Ann Arbor.

Much of the story is seen through the eyes of Mrs. Rosen, who keeps the next-door Templetons under steady surveillance. Her central European Jewish background gives her a perspective from which to view her neighbors. She doesn't condone their easygoing Southern ways, but she likes to go to their house: “There was something easy, cordial, and carefree in the parlour that never smelled of being shut up, and the ugly furniture looked hospitable. One felt a pleasantness in the human relationships.” The Templetons don't know there is such a thing as exactness or competition in the world, and they are always glad to see people. When Mrs. Rosen first met Victoria, they had struggled home together in a blizzard from a card party in the north end of town. Victoria had invited her in to get warm and dry. As she sat with her feet on the base of the stove, Victoria disappeared into her bedroom, changed into a negligee, and brought out the baby. While they visited, she nursed the child. Mrs. Rosen, who never had been able to have children, was charmed by the scene of domestic intimacy, Victoria's warmth, and the baby's beauty.

The story develops through a succession of small incidents. The Rosens attend a Methodist lawn party in June where they observe the generous side of Victoria's character. They are pleased at her conduct towards the poor children of their laundress, who hang longingly over the fence. She invites them to the party, gives each a dime, and instructs Vickie to see that they get plenty of ice cream and cake. The next scene concerns Blue Boy, the children's pet cat, who gets distemper. The children are upset, but they go unthinkingly about their daily routine while Grandma Harris nurses the cat. She knows the cat will die; she's seen it all happen before. When Albert wants to know why Blue Boy has to suffer so much, she replies: “Everything that's alive has got to suffer.” Yet she who “had seen so much misery” wondered “why it hurt so to see her tom-cat die.” After the death of Blue Boy, the children have a backyard circus, Vickie wins the scholarship, and Victoria discovers she is pregnant once more. This is traumatic for her, and she takes to her bed while her husband conveniently leaves town to inspect a farm he owns. With five children already and a daughter ready for college, she can't bear the thought of another baby. She feels abused and put upon. “Why must she be for ever shut up in a little cluttered house with children and fresh babies and an old woman and a stupid bound girl and a husband who wasn't very successful? Life hadn't brought her what she expected.”

The second strand of plot ends with the death of old Mrs. Harris as Vickie is getting ready to leave for college. One morning Mandy finds the old woman unconscious on her lounge. “Then there was a great stir and bustle; Victoria, and even Vickie, were startled out of their intense self-absorption. Mrs. Harris was hastily carried out of the play-room and laid in Victoria's bed, put into one of Victoria's best nightgowns.” But grandmother was out of it all and never knew “she was the object of so much attention and excitement,” which in life she never had had. The self-effacing grandmother dies as she has lived, quietly and unobtrusively. The third-person narrator summarizes in the final paragraph: “Thus Mrs. Harris slipped out of the Templeton's story; but Victoria and Vickie had still to go on, to follow the long road that leads through things unguessed at and unforeseeable. When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers. They will regret that they heeded her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: ‘I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know.’”

This was Cather's mood as her mother was dying and she looked back over her life in her fifty-eighth year. She had been thoughtless and self-absorbed in her youth, as she wrote to Irene Weisz, and in this story she was laying out some of the wisdom she had acquired. Although both “Neighbour Rosicky” and “Old Mrs. Harris” end in the deaths of the title characters, they affirm life. Cather wrote Akins at this time that biologically speaking, life was rather a failure, but something rather nice happens in the mind as one grows older. A kind of golden light comes as a compensation for many losses. With this attitude Cather faced the fifteen years she had left to live, and while her physical strength steadily diminished and she gradually contracted the world she moved in, her spirit remained resolute.

The final story in Obscure Destinies, “Two Friends,” is the slightest of the three as well as the shortest. It is a small drama of memory built out of the effect two Red Cloud businessmen had had on Cather when she was between ten and thirteen. The Mr. Dillon of the story is based on the father of the Miner sisters, and Mr. Trueman on William N. Richardson, Red Cloud livestock dealer. The two friends used to sit on the boardwalk outside Dillon's store on pleasant evenings and carry on long conversations. The first-person narrator, an adolescent girl, loves to eavesdrop on the two friends: “I liked to listen to those two because theirs was the only ‘conversation’ one could hear about the streets. The older men talked of nothing but politics and their business, and the very young men's talk was entirely what they called ‘josh’; very personal, supposed to be funny, and really not funny at all. It was scarcely speech, but noises, snorts, giggles, yawns, sneezes, with a few abbreviated words and slang expressions which stood for a hundred things.” Dillon and Trueman, however, talked about everything: weather, planting, cattle, farmers, plays they had seen in the city. They had wide interests and their talks opened a window on the world for the young narrator. She found many pretexts for lingering near them and they never seemed to mind having her about. “I was very quiet. I often sat on the edge of the sidewalk with my feet hanging down and played jacks by the hour when there was moonlight. On dark nights I sometimes perched on top of one of the big goods-boxes.”

The denouement of the story comes after Mr. Dillon goes to Chicago on a buying trip for his store and happens to be there at the time of the Democratic National Convention of 1896. This was the occasion when Bryan delivered his electrifying “Cross of Gold” speech. Dillon, a lifelong Democrat, is on hand for the speech, is thrilled by it, and returns home full of Bryan. “We've found a great leader in this country, and a great orator,” he tells Mr. Trueman, who is a life-long Republican. “Great windbag!” mutters Trueman, and from this exchange ensues a heated political discussion that the narrator listens to with breathless interest. The debate, however, grows into a bitter quarrel, and the two friends part for good. Several years later Mr. Dillon dies and Mr. Trueman goes west to settle in San Francisco. This story is the unique exhibit in the canon of Cather's fiction in which politics provides plot.

After the story came out, Cather wrote Carrie Sherwood, Mr. Dillon's daughter, hoping that she and her sister Mary, who also lived in Red Cloud, liked the tale, or at least saw nothing in it that struck a false note. It was not meant to be a portrait of the two men, she said, but a picture of something that they suggested to a child. In a later letter she explained further that it was not really made out of the two friends at all but was just a memory. A story is made out of an emotion or an excitement and not out of the legs and arms and faces of one's friends, she added. This story, like the others in Obscure Destinies, has the nostalgic, retrospective mood of her best work, but Cather did not like to be told this. Several years later when Carl Van Vechten threw the word “nostalgic” at her, intending to be complimentary, she bridled. Everyone uses that term, she said, so don't you. Moreover, they used it about every book she wrote, and, my God, she wasn't always homesick. But she had to admit that one got sentimental when writing about old delights.

Cather's return to Nebraska in Obscure Destinies pleased the reviewers enormously. The critical reaction was similar to the sighs of relief that greeted A Lost Lady after One of Ours had been savaged in some of its notices. Again the chorus of praise was nearly unanimous. Michael Williams in Commonweal was typical of the enthusiastic reception. He was convinced that Cather possessed in a degree unique “among all contemporary American writers two supremely important qualities of the creative writer: sympathetic imagination, and mastery of language.” And he went on to rhapsodize: “How marvelously Willa Cather has restored the virtue of words to serve in the conveyance of an artist's sense of the wonder, and pity, and beauty, and mystery of human life is amply demonstrated in her latest book.” Even though all the characters die at the ends of their stories, Williams thought they would continue to live in this book “as long as authentic literature possesses any power in America. For there can be no stinting of one's statement concerning Willa Cather's work. She is permanently great.”

When the notices began appearing, Cather was again hidden away in her cottage on Grand Manan. She went to Canada in June and remained until September. She continued to delight in her island retreat and took pleasure that summer in having her niece Mary Virginia Auld visit her, but she was between literary projects and perhaps somewhat at loose ends. Even though she was beginning to slow down, work was her habit of a lifetime. She returned to New York after a short stay at Jaffrey, and by October was once again at the Grosvenor. She still professed to hate New York and to say that it was becoming ever less attractive as a place to live, but she couldn't bring herself to leave. She had written Akins earlier in the year, after her old friend had gotten married in middle age, that she envied Akins's willingness to take chances and her natural power of enjoying life. She was taking a chance on matrimony, but if anyone could make it go, she could. She had come to New York at the right time, left at the right time, and bought a house at the right time. Cather wrote that if she had enough courage she would leave New York for San Francisco. But this was only talk. It was, however, time to end her five-year bivouac at the Grosvenor Hotel.

She spent November house-hunting and by the end of the month had found an apartment she was willing to lease. It was on Park Avenue, number 570, at Sixty-third Street in a building with a uniformed doorman, a rather ritzy address for a person with Cather's distaste for ostentation. She had been persuaded by someone, perhaps Blanche Knopf, that this would be the right place for her, and after she moved in, she was pleased with her new quarters and the convenience of the location. After five years at the Grosvenor Hotel with all her own things in storage, she was happy to be surrounded once more by the books and furnishings she formerly had on Bank Street. She and Lewis moved into the new apartment before Christmas and spent the next few weeks getting settled. She wrote Irene Weisz in January that she now had a home, a somewhat glorified Bank Street, and best of all Josephine was back. She was the old original Josephine, somewhat subdued by misfortune, but with all her bubbling southern nature still in force. She was an even better cook than before, and oh what good meals they were having!

Sergeant went to see Cather soon after she moved into 570 Park Avenue and found the new apartment depressing. She then lived in a shabby part of New York and wrote potboilers to stay alive in the Depression. She rather resented the snobbish elegance of Park Avenue. As she entered the lobby of the apartment building, she couldn't help remembering all of Cather's previous comments about the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people to any serious efforts of the artist. She felt that the uniformed personnel guarding the building were there chiefly to keep out undesirable characters and wondered if Neighbour Rosicky or Grandma Harris would even have been allowed into the building. When she reached Cather's apartment, however, her old friend opened the door herself “and met me in the eager, warm, unchanged way with which she greeted old friends.”

She led Sergeant down a long hall to her bedroom at the back to dispose of her coat. That room seemed bright and attractive. Cather's bed was covered with a calico patchwork counterpane that must have been made in Red Cloud. Sergeant thought Cather might be able to work in that room, but she didn't see how she could work in the “luxurious sheltered cave of connecting rooms—spacious but not spatial. Noiseless but with no view of the sun.” All the windows of the apartment faced the blank north wall of the Colony Club. Cather, however, liked the quiet and had taken the apartment because there were no distractions. The walls and floor were thick, the windows far from the roar of Park Avenue; there was no one tramping about in high heels overhead, no radios to be heard. Cather told Marion King, librarian of the Society Library, that she had sat for hours in the apartment to test its quiet before signing the lease.

In the drawing room there was a fireplace, but it was not a hearth one could draw up chairs to, and the new furniture that supplemented the Bank Street pieces were more formal than the old things. There were many familiar objects, however: the orange tree, the freesias, the George Sand engraving, the bust of Keats. Something new Sergeant saw was “a melting, angelic photograph of young Yehudi Menuhin.” Cather went into the dining room, brought back glasses and served her guest sherry. They drank it in the drawing room, which was large enough for a party of thirty, and talked over Obscure Destinies, which Sergeant greatly admired. This reunion of old friends turned out to be a very satisfactory meeting, but they had to stay away from politics, because Sergeant was an ardent New Dealer and Cather disapproved of both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

Once settled in, Cather's creative energy began to return, and she was ready to start working again, but the new apartment was something of a cocoon. It sheltered her from the horrendous events taking place in the nation and in the world. Her letters reflect no preoccupation with the rise of Hitler to power in January, 1933, the closing of the banks in the United States, or even the end of Prohibition. She was much worried over the economic distress of friends and relatives, but she was, as always, apolitical, and it was not until the signs of World War II became unmistakable that her correspondence expressed larger concerns. She withdrew into a small circle of friends and found her recreation in music. In January the Menuhin family returned to New York, and Myra Hess, whom she knew through the Knopfs, also arrived from England for a concert tour. The Knopfs gave her a Capehart phonograph, then the Rolls Royce of sound reproduction, which afforded her many hours of enjoyment, and Yehudi presented her with recordings he had made. Her old Pittsburgh friend, Ethel Litchfield, whose husband had died, moved to New York to be close to her, and through her Cather met pianist Joseph Lhevinne, whose concerts she hardly ever missed. Lewis believed that “it was in part the happiness of living again in an atmosphere of music—she heard scarcely any music during the Grosvenor period—that gave Willa Cather the theme of Lucy Gayheart,” her next novel.

Joan Wylie Hall (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4487

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 beginning of her literary career—defies the very tradition upon which she nevertheless draws throughout her life. Her protagonists accordingly mime Cather's own continuing struggles with inherited texts in her effort to achieve not recognition alone but, more important, artistic independence.

As an author, Cather must have identified with Burnham, the “white-fingered playwright” (267), and with the scholarly Graves, whose “delicate, sensitive hands … were exceedingly small, white as a girl's” (284). She mentions hands repeatedly in her writing, often as a symbol of literary expression.3 Yet she provides both stories with women characters who undercut the self-conscious oratory of their men. Burnham, home in Nebraska for the first time in twelve years, tries to cast his childhood friend Margie as a fairy-tale heroine. “What plays have you been playing?” he asks her. “Pirate or enchanted princess or sleeping beauty or Helen of Troy, to the disaster of men?” (273). Margie insists that she has left such roles behind: “I have grown up and you have not. Someone has said that is wherein geniuses are different; they go on playing and never grow up. So you see you're only a case of arrested development, after all.”

When Margie and Burnham repeat their youthful trips on the river, he again resorts to traditional texts, linking their island voyage to Arcady, the Happy Isles, Wonderland, and the Jolly Roger. Leaping from the boat, he echoes The Tempest: “Descend, O Miranda, upon your island!” (278). Implicitly, he assumes the role of Prospero, Shakespeare's master artificer, who—like Burnham—views his fellow characters as actors in a literary plot. On the island, Burnham's allusions become increasingly classical as he withdraws ever more firmly into his idyllic past. He compares Margie to “Diana's women” (278), a dryad (279), and the Thracian women who “flayed unhappy Orpheus” (279). Again he identifies himself with an artist who possesses powers of enchantment, but Orpheus is also a pathetic figure, bereft of his love and his lyre. Margie's retort is once more deflating as she urges Burnham to rest his imagination.

Ironically, Margie forgets “all her vows never to grace another of his Roman triumphs” (282) and ends the story in Burnham's arms. Typically moderate in her use of literary sources, she finally seems infected by her lover's classical references and “rhapsodically” reveals that she has out-waited Penelope; she even describes herself in the third person, as if the epic role has absorbed her, and Burnham realizes that she has “caught the spirit of the play” (282). The narrator, however, is similarly affected, and “The Treasure of Far Island,” which opened with a simple fact of geography—“Far Island is an oval sand bar, half a mile in length and perhaps a hundred yards wide, which lies about two miles up from the Empire City in a turbid little Nebraska river” (265)—ends by depicting the same view with debts to Genesis, Exodus, Hellenic myth, and Romeo and Juliet.

Marilyn Arnold finds the closing description “shot through with celestial fire and furbished with romantic profusion,” an example of the “excesses” that are hard to justify in the story.4 Her criticism is appropriate to the final paragraph, where Cather overstates the pastoral-romance element of the resolution. Through most of the story, though, such rhetoric belongs to Burnham, whose nostalgic effort to avoid adulthood disillusionment by regaining “the land of lost content” (282) drives him back to familiar and comforting books. Margie's analysis of his literary fantasies as arrested development and her fear that Burnham's proposal of love in terms of the Edenic myth is “only a new play” (281) invest the story with a distrust of the derivative eloquence that troubles Arnold, O'Brien, and many other readers of Cather's earliest fiction.5

While Margie and the narrator of “The Treasure of Far Island” both surpass Burnham in the hyperbole of their closing allusions, this triumph of secondhand texts remains comic, and Burnham in fact gives signs of outgrowing literary dependency. In his final speech, he again plays Prospero's part, but just long enough to bid farewell to the island and to his artifice: “the pirate play is ended” (282). Moreover, Burnham has achieved national fame by creating his own varied texts, which include a political farce, the historical drama Lord Fairfax, and The Clover Leaf, a play that wins Margie's praise.

In contrast, Emerson Graves of “The Professor's Commencement” has little hope of producing a new text, and he twice fails to recite a memorized one. On the eve of retiring, the professor tries to convince himself that he should complete his long delayed history of modern painting, yet he lacks the energy. Exhausted by his teaching efforts, Graves compares himself to “one of those granite colossi of antique lands, from which each traveller has chipped a bit of stone until only a mutilated torso is left,” and he realizes that “all his decrepitude was horribly exposed” (289). Unable to compose a new work, the professor turns to an old one, but again he is silenced. At his retirement dinner, where he plans to make good his boyhood failure, Graves is vanquished by the same passage of poetry that had cut short his commencement oration thirty-five years ago. The final words of the story are the professor's lament to his sister, who has drilled him on both occasions: “I was not made to shine, for they put a woman's heart in me” (291).

This conjunction of sex, art, and betrayal (insinuated, perhaps, by the image of the mutilated torso) frames “The Professor's Commencement” and highlights the theme of the treacherous text. Its first occurrence is a description of the professor's library in the opening paragraph. A bachelor, Emerson Graves is introduced as a man bound by two loves: his bookshelves hold equal shares of literary and scientific works, “suggesting a form of bigamy rarely encountered in society” (283).6 Cather further yokes sex and art by praising the professor's skill in creating a room “as dainty as a boudoir and as original in color scheme as a painter's studio” (283). In this charged setting, Graves approaches a virginal text, an uncut volume of Huxley's Life and Letters, whose pages he absentmindedly taps with a paper knife. Half an hour later, he is “caressing his Huxley” (284) as his sister enters the study. The professor's intimacy with the printed word, established thus early in the story, gives him a unique vulnerability. More than Douglass Burnham, he is a victim of his exaggerated attachment to the literary tradition, and his inevitable downfall signals Cather's distrust of such devotion.

When Miss Agatha intrudes, she is described as a textual (and a sexual) variant, “a sort of simplified and expurgated edition of himself” (284). A more “masculine” character than her brother, she has no patience with his long struggle to share his knowledge with high school students. She undercuts Graves's borrowed eloquence much as Margie undercuts Burnham's, accusing him of sentimentality and childishness. Miss Agatha's figures owe little to books; she points out that Emerson's “best tools have rusted,” that his colleagues are “as envious as green gourds,” and that he is “goose enough to accept it all” (285). Graves defends his students by reminding Miss Agatha that “it is in the very nature of youth to forget its sources, physical and mental alike” (285). Ever mindful of his own sources, the professor, unlike Burnham, is never able to separate himself from the works that surround him. Cather stresses the identity of scholar and text: “To an interpretive observer nearly everything that was to be found in the Professor's library was represented in his personality” (283). As Graves surveys the banquet table at his retirement dinner, he reflects that his fellow teachers, bound to their own texts, are still discussing the same subjects that have occupied them for twenty years: “They were cases of arrested development, most of them. Always in contact with immature minds, they had kept the simplicity and many of the callow enthusiasms of youth” (289).

When Margie, in very similar terms, charges Burnham with failing to grow up, she blames his arrested development on his continued “playing,” another way of repeating given scripts. Emerson Graves too enacts many parts. His looks are ideal for the stage: “He had the bold, prominent nose and chin of the oldest and most beloved of American actors,” and his thick white hair and clear skin give him “a somewhat actor-like appearance” (284). In one of the story's early allusions to betrayal—the Celtic legend of King Marc, his betrothed Isolde, and her lover Tristram—the professor appears to be a moving speaker: “given certain passages from Tristram and Isolde or certain lines from Heine, his eyes would flash out at you like wet cornflowers after a spring shower” (284).

Graves frequently views himself as a participant in similar sad dramas. He fails to sustain relationships with the students he most loves. Early in his professorship, a pretty senior rejects his timid proposal and marries the Greek teacher. Graves's one brilliant student, a young man, dies at twenty-three in the professor's arms, “the victim of a tragedy as old as the world and as grim as Samson, the Israelite's” (290). The allusion to Delilah reinforces the hint of emasculation in the student's “gentle eyes and manner of a girl” and, at the same time, prefigures the professor's closing assessment of his own defeat as due to his woman's heart. Immediately after recalling the loss of his prize pupil, Graves reflects upon the loss of his youth and that of his colleagues. His illustrations again allude to an absence of virility:

Like the monk in the legend they had wandered a little way into the wood to hear the bird's song—the magical song of youth so engrossing and so treacherous, and they had come back to their cloister to find themselves old men—spent warriors who could only chatter on the wall, like grasshoppers, and sigh at the beauty of Helen as she passed.


The beautiful treachery of song and Helen, the celibacy of monk and “spent” soldiers of the Trojan War repeat the familiar pattern of art, sex, and betrayal.

The part of exhausted warrior is the one in which the professor most often casts himself. O'Brien remarks that Cather “surrounds him with martial imagery that links him with Bunyan's spiritual warriors rather than Rome's military ones.”7 The professor's allusion to The Holy War is certainly crucial.8 Characterizing their city as “a disputed strategic point” (285), he reminds Miss Agatha that they read Bunyan's book nightly when he was a boy, and he describes his own long battle against “the reign of Mammon” (286). Graves sees himself in a key defensive role as guardian of the first of the five entrances to Bunyan's allegorical city of Mansoul. He tells his sister that, in his teaching, he has been tending the Ear Gate, “and I know not whether the Captains who succeed me be trusty or no” (286).

In Bunyan's book, Captain Resistance originally guards the Ear Gate, and he is the first to die in the attack of the demonic Diabolus, whose subtle oration deceives the city's lords and gains him access to the gate. Fortunately for the terrified Mansoul, the savior-prince Emmanuel sets a new guard at the end of The Holy War. A courageous man, Captain Self-denial often ventures forth against the violent Bloodmen, who leave “several of their marks in his face; yea, and some in some other parts of his body.”9 The captain's name and his unspecified wounds may indicate that he resembles the professor not only in courage and idealism but also in sexual impotence. They are more obviously allied by their mutual responsibility for apprising their townsmen of words received from beyond their boundaries, a job they take very seriously.

Emerson Graves identifies so completely with the valiant captains that his high school becomes Bunyan's embattled but persevering Mansoul. Walking to class, he fantasizes that the building is “a fortress set upon the dominant acclivity of that great manufacturing city, a stronghold of knowledge in the heart of Mammon's kingdom” (286). Cather emphasizes the spiritual nature of the professor's struggle. He tells Miss Agatha that he sees a “call to arms” in Vedder's painting of the enemy sowing tares at the foot of the cross (286), and he cries out against Mammon as the Hebrew prophets cried out against proud Tyre. But the professor is also frequently aligned with legendary secular heroes. As a young man, he was “resolute and gifted, with the strength of Ulysses and the courage of Hector, with the kingdoms of the earth and the treasures of the ages at his feet” (291). Hector, however, fell in the Trojan War, and his defeat is more consonant than his promise with the professor's mood on his final day of teaching.

The text for the last lesson of the professor's career is Arnold's “Sohrab and Rustum,” a narrative poem in which the heroic Rustum kills the equally heroic Sohrab in battle, not realizing that he is the son he has never met. The professor is too moved to comment on the ending and must ask a student to read the stirring last lines about the Oxus. Typically, Graves associates himself with the allusion; he is stupefied by his “kinship to that wearied river” (288). The Oxus, which crosses the battle-plain, is like the “clogged channel” that straggles through the professor's dreary city:

It was difficult to believe that this was the shining river which tumbles down the steep hills of the lumbering district, odorous of wet spruce logs and echoing the ring of axes and the song of the raftsmen, come to this black ugliness at last, with not one throb of its woodland passion and bright vehemence left.


In the poem too, the river is “[b]rimming, and bright, and large” until split by sands that make it strain, “shorn and parcell'd,”

… forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil'd circuitous wanderer. …(10)

Emerson Graves, another such foiled wanderer, could relate to much else in Arnold's tale of disappointed hopes. The professor's sexual confusion has parallels in the tragedy of Sohrab and Rustum. Like the professor, Sohrab finds his heroic valor betrayed by a woman's heart. Touched in his soul, Sohrab is reluctant to attack the disguised Rustum during their duel, a hesitation he cannot explain. His delay precipitates Rustum's scorn:

                    “Girl! nimble with thy feet, not with thy hands!
Curl'd minion, dancer, coiner of sweet words!
Fight, let me hear thy hateful voice no more!”(11)

Ironically, at Sohrab's birth, Rustum was deceived by his distant lover, who feared the father would have a son trained in arms and so lied that the baby was a girl. Sohrab goes on to display his fearlessness but falls defeated. He is a harbinger of the professor, whose own sweet words likewise provoke a downfall from which there can be no recovery.

Another battleground is the setting for the most important of the many texts in “The Professor's Commencement,” Thomas Babington Macaulay's “Horatius,” first of the four Lays of Ancient Rome. K. R. Prowse cites debts to Homer and Virgil in the ballad and suggests that the main appeal of the story for Macaulay was Rome's heroic response to the tyranny of the Tarquins.12 Throughout Cather's story, Emerson Graves is equated with the faithful Horatius, who guards the bridge to Rome against the advancing troops of Lars Porsena. A standard recitation piece for turn-of-the-century high school commencements, Macaulay's poem is Graves's nemesis. The first reference to the Lays occurs as the professor, on his last day of class, helps seniors practice their orations. He wonders how many graduates of the past thirty years have kept their noble pledges. This thought of betrayed vows provokes the memory of his own graduation in the same chapel and his shameful failure to remember any word after “Then out spake bold Horatius / The Captain of the gate” (287). Tricked by the text, Graves becomes the unwitting hero of a new legend. His pupils “delighted to tell this story of the frail, exquisite, little man whom generations of students had called ‘the bold Horatius’” (288).

When Miss Agatha learns that many of her brother's old classmates and former students will attend the retirement dinner, she decides that Horatius should be heard at last. Having coached Emerson for the “fatal exploit” of his youth (289), she again directs his rehearsals, which he approaches “valiantly” (288). Among the audience at the chapel on both occasions is Dr. Maitland, the eminent theologian. The military-religious references once more identify the professor with the heroes of his texts, and two allusions to palms intensify the identification, hinting also that he is experiencing the agony of a personal Passion Week. In the morning, the professor meets boys bearing palms to the chapel for class-day exercises, and he realizes that this is “his last commencement, a commencement without congratulations and without flowers” (287). Graves's mood that evening is similar; when he takes his seat in the dim chapel, “green with palms for commencement week,” he is deeply depressed (289).

The professor makes a final effort, and his audience responds with approving laughter when he recites the opening lines of the ballad. But the professor is overcome by emotion at the end of the twenty-seventh stanza; he wavers as he declaims: “Outspake the bold Horatius, / The Captain of the gate” (291). Cather stresses his fragility as he gives up the struggle. His white hand nervously reaches toward his collar, his glasses, and his handkerchief; with “a gesture of utter defeat,” the professor sits down. Only the theologian—“his face distorted between laughter and tears”—breaks the silence: “‘I ask you all,’ he cried, ‘whether Horatius has any need to speak, for has he not kept the bridge these thirty years? God bless him!’” (291).

Macaulay's lay epitomizes the texts of treachery and conflict that the professor draws on throughout the story. Like the stalwart protectors of Bunyan's Ear Gate, Horatius at the gate to Rome is the main champion of his city. The congruence of sex and warfare seen in the tales of Tristram, Samson, Helen, and Sohrab is also repeated in the ballad. In his discussion of Macaulay's classical sources, Prowse mentions some important allusions which Cather does not cite, references to the Vestal Virgins who tended the eternal fire and to Lucretia's rape by Sextus Tarquinius.13 These are allusions that Emerson Graves cannot articulate. The words on which the professor twice stumbles are Horatius' assertion that a man can die no better than by risking great odds to save his family, his Gods, and, finally, “the holy maidens / Who feed the eternal flame” from “the false Sextus / That wrought the deed of shame.”14

Macaulay's preface to the poem explains that the ballad is supposed to have been made a century after the Tarquins' attack and just before the Gauls' taking of Rome.15 At the time of the telling, Rome is again in desperate need of leaders like Horatius. The poem concludes with a scene of Roman families at their firesides perpetuating the legend:

With weeping and with laughter
                    Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
                    In the brave days of old.(16)

The closing stanzas resonate in several details of “The Professor's Commencement,” from the students' legend of Horatius/Graves to Dr. Maitland's teary laughter.

Neither Rome nor Emerson Graves is saved by a knowledge of heroic stories. O'Brien blames the professor's downfall on a “somewhat servile approach to the classics: he regards them as texts to be memorized.”17 The professor's texts indeed prove treacherous, but his problem is more serious than O'Brien suggests. Like Douglass Burnham in “The Treasure of Far Island,” the professor does not simply read scripts; he reenacts them. While Burnham humorously abandons his texts for Margie's love, Graves is tragically betrayed by his. O'Brien believes that Cather herself was betrayed by her sources, and she links the abundant allusions in these early stories to Cather's sexuality. By imitating men's texts, she says, Cather uses a “verbal or stylistic costume” to disguise lesbian feelings.18 The obsessive pattern of sex, art, battle, and betrayal in the professor's references may indeed reflect such a tension. On the other hand, Cather's struggle with inherited texts does not end with her discovery of a “woman's voice,” a breakthrough that O'Brien identifies in O Pioneers!

Although she dedicates O Pioneers! to Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather owes her title to Walt Whitman and her epigraph to Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish Romantic poet. Many of her subsequent novels are highly referential. The Song of the Lark, the story of Thea Kronborg's formation as an artist, cites Byron, Ovid, Balzac, Coleridge, Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Robert Burns, and several other writers. In the World War I novel One of Ours, Cather again draws heavily upon her male antecedents, from Homer to Shakespeare to Longfellow. Sometimes Cather's sources have a wide-ranging impact on her books. Death Comes for the Archbishop was inspired by her reading of William Joseph Howlett's The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, and several histories of Quebec provided material for Shadows on the Rock. Susan J. Rosowski proposes that Lucy Gayheart is a retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula “from a woman's point of view.”19

By resorting—often openly—to such literary models, Cather risks the charge of arrested development that “The Treasure of Far Island” and “The Professor's Commencement” direct against men too bound by their books. Yet, at the same time she relies upon the male tradition, Cather clearly warns against overdependence. The most obvious caution in the two short stories is the reproof of Margie and Miss Agatha when Burnham and Graves cite literature sentimentally. The happiness of the one man seems assured when he eventually relinquishes his sources and turns to Margie's kisses. The despair of the other becomes permanent as he finally sits, unmanned by a Victorian rendering of a classical legend. At such moments, Cather challenges her masters. In some of her novels, the challenge becomes more direct. Although the woman as independent author and storyteller is often located on the periphery of Cather's fiction, she nevertheless performs crucial functions in shaping texts. One woman writes an introduction for Jim Burden's manuscript and so transforms an informal reminiscence into My Ántonia; Nellie Birdseye relates Myra Henshawe's story in My Mortal Enemy, and an unnamed newspaper woman at the end of that book is instrumental in evoking memories from Oswald Henshawe; the epilogue of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Cather's last novel, suddenly presents a narrator who, as a five-year-old girl, participated in the final scene of Nancy Till's story. Like these skillful framers of her fictions, Willa Cather artfully avoids the doom of Emerson Graves.


  1. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 372.

  2. Homer, Emerson, and Stevenson, for example, are alluded to in both stories. Virginia Faulkner provides publication details in her revised edition of Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, Introduction by Mildred R. Bennett (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 593-94. “The Professor's Commencement” was printed in June (New England Magazine, new series, 26 [1902], 481-88) and “The Treasure of Far Island” in October (New England Magazine, new series, 27 [1902], 234-49). Cather did not include either in her story collections; Faulkner discusses the author's generally critical attitude toward her early short fiction (pp. vii-ix). Collected Short Fiction is my source for the stories; pages will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. See Bennett's Introduction to Collected Short Fiction, p. xxxviii, and O'Brien, pp. 89-90 and p. 384.

  4. Willa Cather's Short Fiction (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1984), p. 39.

  5. David Stouck remarks that pastoral gains its effect “through suggestion” and that “The Treasure of Far Island” is overly explicit. On the other hand, he considers the final scene to be effective because “the emotion is genuinely felt but, at the same time, recognized by the protagonists to be a hopeless cliché, a romantic parody. …” See Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1975), p. 43.

  6. A similar figure occurs later in the story when the professor straightens his schoolroom desk and bookshelves for the last time: “The room had been connected in one way and another with most of his intellectual passions, and was as full of sentimental associations for him as the haunts of his courtship days are to a lover” (288).

  7. O'Brien, p. 265.

  8. Philip Gerber, who describes “The Professor's Commencement” as Cather's “first overt step” toward the theme of the artist in conflict with a materialistic society, says: “Emerson Graves is the first of the ‘trusty Captains’ who hold the Ear Gate of Mansoul.” See Willa Cather (Boston: Twayne, 1975), p. 96. Gerber notes that Cather's final treatment of the theme is forty years later in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, where she “returns to the source of thematic statement” (pp. 132-33) by having Henry Colbert read about Diabolus's attack and Prince Emmanuel's triumph in his well-worn copy of The Holy War. Susan J. Rosowski, in The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. xi, observes that Cather's early essays and stories “lay out the terms of her lifelong commitment to vindicating imaginative thought in a world grown material.”

  9. John Bunyan, The Holy War, ed. James F. Forrest (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1967), p. 263.

  10. Matthew Arnold, “Sohrab and Rustum: An Episode,” in The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), l. 881, l. 884, and ll. 886-88.

  11. Arnold, “Sohrab and Rustum,” ll. 457-59.

  12. “Livy and Macaulay,” in Livy, ed. T. A. Dorey, Greek and Latin Studies: Classical Literature and Its Influence (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 165.

  13. Prowse, p. 165.

  14. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius,” in Lays of Ancient Rome with Ivy and The Armada (New York: Hurst, 1890), stanza XXVIII, p. 73.

  15. Macaulay, p. 54.

  16. Macaulay, stanza LXX, p. 94.

  17. O'Brien, p. 268.

  18. O'Brien, p. 141.

  19. Rosowski, p. 224.

Robert J. Nelson (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8500

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.]


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, “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle” (The Nation, 1923), the 1910 census figures showing that three-fourths of the state's population at that time was made up of inhabitants of immigrant origin. This is the statistical and historical ground for the novelist's contention (probably too optimistic, in Gervaud's view) that “‘it is in the great cosmopolitan country known as the Middle West that we may hope to see the hard molds of American provincialism broken up; that we may hope to find talent that will challenge the pale proprieties, the insincere, conventional optimism of our art and thought.’”3

Cather's challenge to the convention of American materialism can be heard in the specifically French markings of her first short story, “Peter.”

He had seen all the lovely women of the world there [Prague], all the great singers and great players. He was in the orchestra when Rachel played, and he heard Lizst when the Countess d'Agoult sat in the stage box and threw the master white lilies. Once, a French woman came and played for weeks, he did not remember her name now. He did not remember her face very well either, for it changed so, was never twice the same. But the beauty of it, and the great hunger men felt at the sight of it, that he remembered. Most of all he remembered her voice. He did not know French, and could not understand a word she said, but it seemed to him she must be talking the music of Chopin. And her voice, he thought he should know that in the other world. The last night she played a play in which a man touched her arm, and she stabbed him. As Peter sat among the smoking gas jets down below the footlights with his fiddle on his knee, he thought he would like to die too, if he could touch her arm once, and have her stab him so. Peter went home to his wife very drunk that night. Even in those days he was a foolish fellow, who cared for nothing but music and pretty faces.4

“Rachel” is the great French actress, Elisabeth Rachel Félix (1820-58) and the actress whose name Peter cannot remember is “La Grande Sarah” (Rosine Bernard, 1844-1923) who will play Hamlet later in Cather's fiction (My Mortal Enemy, 1926). The play is Tosca (1887) by the French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), while the “Countess d'Agoult” is the French writer born Marie de Flavigny (1805-76). In “Peter,” we have the earliest premonition in Cather's fiction of the spiritual consonances I traced in part 2 [of Willa Cather and France].

Rather than see his fiddle sold by his materialistic son, the old man breaks it over his knee and then before shooting himself says: “‘But he shall not sell thee, my fiddle, I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us. We have seen it all together, the French woman and all.’” Paradoxically, in terms of the sacramental linguistics I find in Death Comes for the Archbishop, his suicide is a eucharistic transubstantiation of the things or “figures” of this world into the realities of the “other world.” He thereby recovers the lost language of the world of his youth, the Old World, a world lost to the New World with its simoniacal sale of the sacramental fiddle. In the New World of America which old Peter piously leaves one speaks English-commerce rather than French-Chopin. The religiously transcendent focus of that challenge through a salvific stress on things French marks as well other stories of the 1890s. For example, in “The Count of Crow's Nest” (1896), the hero, Count de Koch, is a Père Goriot in the setting of a Chicago boardinghouse, where he resides with his frivolous daughter; there, he barely supports them. She constantly urges him to sell for publication some private letters the destitute émigré has brought with him to America. The daughter cares for neither her father's sense of honor nor the damage such publication entails for the authors of the letters; she wants the money for her singing career. She thus echoes the son in “Peter.” However, in the boardinghouse there also resides an idealistic young American, from whose point of view the story is told. Sympathetic to the Count, he thus echoes Balzac's Eugène de Rastignac in the French writer's famous novel. However, Cather's young man is anything but the ambitious and erotically driven creation of Balzac. Siding with the destitute and honorable Count, he is, rather, an early instance of later priestly young heroes like Jim Burden of My Ántonia and, even more, Tom Outland of The Professor's House. Hierarchs of the past, these characters of the Cather canon have a sacramental sense of relics (the letters in the 1896 story; childhood on the plains and especially Antonia herself in My Ántonia; Cliff City for Tom).

Cather's French focus is less religious in the French-marked stories she writes soon after returning from the 1902 trip to France. In “Flavia and Her Artists,” one of the strongly French-marked stories of The Troll Garden (1905), she challenges along more secular lines the “pale proprieties” and “insincere, conventional optimism of our art and thought.” Among the secular concerns of this period is one which will increasingly and more overtly preoccupy the novelist in her fictions hereafter: conventional categories of “normal” sexual development as an “adjustment” by the male into “rugged masculinity” and by the female into a “dainty, white, languid bit of a thing.” I have quoted from a still earlier story, “Tommy, The Unsentimental” (1896),5 to indicate that this matter had concerned the writer prior to her travels to France. However, after those travels, the tone of Cather's challenge is without the defensiveness of the earlier story. The later stories have a greater daring and sophistication. They show Cather to be an early, confident, and rigorous student of sexuality, conventional and unconventional, in a very modern vein.

In “Flavia and Her Artists” the indications of unconventional sexuality are quite pronounced. Imogen Willard, the observer and narrator, thinks of the actress Jemima Broadwood as “a nice, clean, pink-and-white boy who has just had his cold bath.” Then there is the singer Frau Lichtenfeld: her speaking voice is “baritone,” and she is “a woman of immense stature” whom Imogen first sees “in a very short skirt and a broad, flapping sun hat, striding down the hillside at a long, swinging gait.”6 The fact that Imogen Willard is an American home from her studies in philology in Paris is of more than passing subtextual interest for an understanding of later Cather figures who also return from France—for example, Valentine in “Uncle Valentine” and Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor's House. Like Claude Wheeler who never returns from France, such characters usually find themselves more at home there than on their native soil. It is clear, however, that, from her earliest stories, Cather adopts the French point of view not only as the cosmopolitan one but, usually, as the most humane one. Imogen is a sympathetic observer of the sartorially and sexually odd artists at Flavia's house even as she is, like some of these artists, the champion of the silly Flavia's beleaguered husband. Given Cather's love of punning with names, we might well see, then, the author of “Flavia and Her Artists” inviting us to “imagine Willa” in “Imogen Willard”—inviting us, thus, to the point of view of Willa Cather returned herself a few years earlier from France.

Home in the States after her philological studies in Paris, Imogen and a number of mannish women and effeminate men have been invited to Flavia's house for an arty weekend. Yet, Imogen is not the specifically French narrative nucleus of the occasion: this is the guest of honor, M. Roux, French writer on the arts and arbiter of taste. At dinner on the eve of Roux's unexpected departure, Flavia and he debate the question of women's capacity for intellectual distinction. In his “Mes Etudes des Femmes” the Frenchman has shown himself hostile on the question. When Flavia challenges him at the dinner, citing “‘Mrs. Browning, George Eliot and your own Mme Dudevant,’” Roux replies: “‘Madame, while the intellect was undeniably present in the performances of these women, it was only the stick of the rocket. Although this woman has eluded me, I have studied her conditions and perturbations as astronomers conjecture the orbits of planets they have never seen. If she exists, she is probably neither an artist nor a woman with a mission, but an obscure personage, with imperative, intellectual needs, who absorbs rather than produces!’” Flavia wonderingly concludes from his tirade that Roux means that such a woman would be one “‘whose first necessity would be to know, whose instincts would be satisfied only with the best, who could draw from others; appreciate, merely?’” The French writer replies “with an untranslatable smile, and a slight inclination of his shoulders, ‘Exactly so; you are really remarkable, madam,’ he added, in a tone of cold astonishment.”7

Flavia has been had. If she doesn't know it, her guests and especially her husband, Arthur Hamilton, do. Arthur also learns from a newspaper, as does Imogen whom he had so cherished in her childhood, that, on returning to Paris, Roux had given an interview which the headline summarizes as “Roux on Tuft Hunters; The Advanced American Woman as He Sees Her; Aggressive, Superficial and Insincere.” Arthur keeps this derision of his wife to himself. However, at a subsequent dinner, he himself calls Roux a man with no “‘ordered notion of taste,’” to be classed with “‘mountebanks and snake charmers, people indispensable to our civilization, but whose invitations we do not accept.’” Flavia is furious at this outburst. Gallantly refusing to disabuse his wife via the newspaper account, Arthur suffers her anger without reproach. His dismay deeply affects Imogen, however, and she, like Roux, also cuts short her stay at Flavia's; she is too indignant at Flavia's naïveté and even more at her treatment of her husband. He and Miss “Jimmy” Broadwood help Imogen leave, all three maintaining their silence about Roux's duplicity, Arthur's gallantry, and Flavia's naïveté and superficiality.

The story of Flavia is a lesbian judgment of normal notions of sexuality. Its lesbian figures are sympathetic, while one of its two principal figures, the Frenchman Roux, is mocked precisely for his put-down of Flavia's departure from conventional notions of the woman—she is too aggressive for that phallocrat. And in the counteroffensive criticism of Roux himself, the principal male, Flavia's husband Arthur, joins with the lesbian figures. Yet, in an instance of reversal of terms within the phallocratic structure I discussed earlier, Arthur follows those he would lead, particularly the forceful Jemima—even as, in marriage, he had followed more than led his wife. Indeed, in another interpretive frame crucial to the story, one sees that it is less a conventional masculine aggressiveness than something else which leads him to counterattack Roux. If the story of Flavia is a lesbian vent against conventional phallocentrism, it is also an aesthetic vent against the artistically second-rate and their appreciative hangers-on. With his pompous and superficial antifeminism, Roux himself appears in this light. From those terms in which Arthur criticizes Roux, it is clear that on an aesthetic axis he rises to a conventional male aggressiveness. In this respect, Arthur and his lesbian allies are putting down all those uninformed participants at Flavia's dinner table: both performers (the Italian tenor) and appreciators (Flavia included to some extent) are tarred with the brush of Catherian disdain for those without genuine talent or an “ordered sense of taste” that she uses on the young hero of “Paul's Case,” also included in The Troll Garden but published separately in 1905. Roux is such a pompous figure that he could be seen to cast a dissonant light on France, of course. However, the sympathetic Imogen tempers Roux, a dissonant French light. It is the true light of France that Imogen sheds on the Hamilton household, especially on Arthur, that American household's best representative. The resolution is, thus, of a consonance between the best France has to offer and the best America has to offer.

The lesbian frame in the story of the superficial Flavia and her gallant husband is crucial to the consonance established. As in other stories about socially ambitious and artistically preoccupied women, the husband is in the wife's shadow: he either gallantly accepts her silliness like Arthur Hamilton or finally resists it only when it threatens the well-being of others (e.g., “The Prodigies,” 1897). These men are usually gentle, ironic, skeptical, bookish, and ill-at-ease in the signifying chain of heterosexual commitment with its repetitions of intersubjective cruelty. Like Professor St. Peter in The Professor's House some twenty years hence (1925), they opt out.


Cather invites us to the same cosmopolitan and humane point of view in “Eleanor's House” (1907). The narrative strategy of this story is far more complex than that of “Flavia and Her Artists.” This tale of a bereaved husband, Harold Forscythe, is told by Harriet Westfield, an old and close friend to whom he comes in nostalgic reminiscence of his dead first wife, Eleanor, and thus in evident infidelity to his second wife, Ethel. Harriet and her husband are living at Arques, on the Normandy Coast near Dieppe, not far from “Fortuney,” the house he and Eleanor shared before her death. Harold feels he can confide in Harriet, telling her of his own secret visits to the old house inasmuch as Harriet and Eleanor had been girlhood friends:

He followed her about in grateful silence while she told him, freely and almost lightly, of her girlhood with Eleanor Sanford; of their life at the convent-school in Paris; of the copy of Manon Lescaut which they kept sewed up in a little pine pillow they had brought from Schenectady; of the adroit machinations by which on her fête-day, under the guardianship of an innocent aunt from Albany, Eleanor had managed to convey all her birthday roses to Père-la-Chaise and arrange them under de Musset's willow.8

“Eleanor's House” is less the story of a devoted husband than of a devoted girl friend. Harold disappears from Arques—he has not gone to the “absurd little town on the Mediterranean, not far from Hyères,” where he and Eleanor once got stranded (very likely the Lavandou where Cather spent such memorable days in 1902).9 Instead, he has gone to Fortuney, to “Eleanor's House,” as Ethel suspects. She appeals to Harriet to accompany her to find him and bring him back, but Harriet agrees with such apparent misgivings that her husband observes, “‘Ah, so it's to keep her out, and not to help her in, that you're going.’” Harriet replies: “‘I declare to you, I don't know which it is. I'm going for both of them—for her and Eleanor.’”10 At the house they find Harold immured in Eleanor's old room “which was hung with a heavy curtain. She lifted it, and there they paused, noiselessly. It was just as Harriet remembered it; the tapestries, the prie-Dieu, the Louis Seize furniture—absolutely unchanged, except that her own portrait, by Constant, hung where Harold's used to be. Across the foot of the bed, in a tennis shirt and trousers, lay Harold himself, asleep.” Astonished and angered upon waking to find Ethel and Harriet there, Harold argues with his wife for coming. She cries out that Eleanor could not have been “‘so contemptible as you all make her—so jealous!’” And Harold retorts “‘Jealous? Of whom—my God!’”11 Several weeks later, the Forscythes return to tell the Westfields that they are going to America. Ethel is pregnant, and in the face of this new relationship to his present wife, Harold finally forsakes the first wife, the dead Eleanor. He entrusts the care of “Fortuney” to Harriet. When Harold has left, Harriet and Robert Westfield reflect bittersweetly about Harold's new-found sense of responsibility to Ethel in light of his so long and so intense involvement with the dear Eleanor: “‘Well, we'll have Fortuney, dearest. We'll have all that's left of them. He'll never turn back; I feel such a strength in him now! He'll go on doing it and being finer and finer. And do you know, Robert,’ her lips trembled again, but she smiled from her misty eyes, ‘if Eleanor knows, I believe she'll be glad; for—oh, my Eleanor!—she loved him beyond anything, beyond even his love.’”12

Eleanor has lost Harold to Ethel, and Robert has lost Harriet to Eleanor. Harriet becomes Harold in the psychosexual economy of the story and thus, to use an old expression, “knows what every woman knows”—how helpless and childlike every man is. In psychoanalytical terms, Harold, returned to Ethel, is still caught up in the pursuit of the jouissance of the Other, signified for him in the body of Ethel and of the body within the body of Ethel. Harriet has assimilated the phallocentrism of Harold (he has become her in the narrative troping) and seen it for what it is: a nothing, the Øther in Lacanian terms. Yet, for the women of the final coupling, the sense of nought is not grim. Cather dissolves the phallocentrism of both subjects, male and female, by implicitly and ironically asking: “où en est le mal?” (where's the harm of it?). The subtextual importance of the France in which “Eleanor's House” is located prompts a near-homonym in the French Language which suggests a non-phallocentric consonance: “où en est le mâle?” (where's the man?).

Thus, the story represents an early instance of a pattern which will become especially pronounced in Cather's final published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940): a dénouement to heterosexual striving which issues in a world without men or a world of self-sufficient women among wimpish men like Robert here. However Jamesian in Woodress's view,13 Cather's early story seems to me to illustrate Lacan's notion that “there is no Other of the Other” and that a “woman is a symptom. The fact that a woman is a symptom can be seen from the structure which I am in the process of explaining to you, namely, that there is no jouissance of the Other as such, no guarantee to be met within the jouissance of the body of the Other, to ensure that enjoying the Other exists. A manifest instance of the hole, or rather of something whose only support is the objet a—but always in a mix-up or confusion.”14 The rejection of phallocentrism in “Eleanor's House” is perhaps personified by Cather in Harold's surname, Forscythe: the cutting off not only of the fore(skin) but of the phallus itself. On the other hand, Cather may be punning more phonetically than etymologically: bound to the past of his dead wife at the outset of the story, Harold is more hindsight than foresight.


The first night after he had settled himself at the Splendide he became interested in two old English ladies who dined at a table not far from his own. They had been coming here for many years, he felt sure. They had the old manner. They were at ease and reserved. Their dress was conservative. They were neither painted nor plucked, their nails were neither red nor green. One was plump, distinctly plump, indeed, but as she entered the dining-room he had noticed that she was quick in her movements and light on her feet. She was radiantly cheerful and talkative. But it was the other lady who interested him. She had an air of distinction, that unmistakable thing, which told him she had been a personnage. She was tall, had a fine figure and carriage, but either she was much older than her friend, or life had used her more harshly. Something about her eyes and brow teased his memory. Had he once known her, or did she merely recall a type of woman he used to know? No, he felt that he must have met her, at least, long ago, when she was not a stern, gaunt-cheeked old woman with a yellowing complexion. The hotel management informed him that the lady was Madame de Coucy. He had never known anyone of that name.15

In “The Old Beauty,” written in 1936 and published posthumously,16 the observer is “Mr. Henry Seabury, aged fifty-five, American-born, educated in England, and lately returned from a long business career in China.”17 The story begins “one brilliant September morning in 1922.”18 On that morning in the declining summer of 1922 Seabury is very upset by the news that Gabrielle has died in her room at the Hôtel Splendide at Aix-les-Bains where he has spent the past two months. The brilliance of the morning, the very name of the hotel, and the city in which it shines set that key year of Cather's symbolic calendar in a far happier light than in many other evocations of it by the novelist.19

It has been a brilliant and splendid summer for Seabury. During it, he has refound Gabrielle, long since divorced from Longstreet and now a widow of one “de Coucy, killed in the war.” (Her new married name echoes that of the dignified Olive de Courcy in One of Ours; Cather clings fast to her exemplary French women). Seabury asks Mrs. Cherry Allison (Gabrielle's companion and the well-known former “music-hall star,” Cherry Beamish) just who was this second husband of whom he has never heard. She replies: “‘I know very little myself, I never met him. They had been friends a long while, I believe. He was killed in action—less than a year after they were married. His name was a disguise for her, even then. She came from Martinique, you remember, and she had no relations in England. Longstreet's people had never liked her. So, you see, she was quite alone.’”20 Gabrielle, the Martiniquaise born of a French mother and an English father, is quite alone and quite sufficient unto herself. As Gabrielle she is pure French. The Frenchness of her second husband is a disguise which, paradoxically, kept her at a distance from the Longstreets, her first husband's family, who had never liked her in her intrinsic Frenchness. It was like her “hard, dry tone” which “was a form of disguise … a protection behind which she addressed people from whom she expected neither recognition nor consideration.”21

The austere old beauty could not and does not expect recognition or consideration. As Seabury tells the Thompsons, an English family from Devonshire where they had once known Gabrielle, “‘I gather that she is a little antagonistic to the present order,—indifferent, at least. But when she talks about her old friends she is quite herself.’”22 Through the Thompsons, Seabury has finally recognized the impressive old woman whom he seemed to know since his arrival at Aix-les-Bains. They, too, are people who recognize her, of course, and not only by name and face. In France to visit the grave of a son killed in the war, the Thompsons, like Seabury and Gabrielle herself, recognize the transcendent superiority of the past over the present, of the old over the new. Through the Thompsons Seabury has the chance to meet Gabrielle, to present himself to her as an old friend very much as Cather had presented herself to Madame Franklin-Grout at Aix-les-Bains in the summer of 1930. The parallel of these two chance meetings is underscored by the parallel of the compound English-French last names of the two old beauties. Cather does not parallel her own last name with that of Seabury, of course. Still, in his name we see the two old friends of the two old beauties performing a similar task: they “bury” the two older women “at sea.” Now, the sea and deep waters in general are usually, as Slote has noted, ominous images for Cather.23 In this story, Slote's insight holds true bivalently. Though it is in the present order in which Gabrielle is “at sea,” by burying her in the mountains of her beloved France, Henry Seabury gainsays that usually ominous signifier. Like Bishop Latour he shuts up its roiling complaint below the mountain in a most dignified burial. In her last days the old beauty is in the company not only of Cherry, as she calls Mrs. Allison of the “beaming” music-hall good humor, but also of Henry. He, too, had long been willingly out of touch with the present order thanks to his “long business career in China,” an ancient civilization whose people are also out of touch with that order.

Gabrielle and Henry had first been friends some two decades before, in New York where he was a young businessman and she a distinguished hostess. At the time, long separated from her jealous husband, she entertained a great many friends, old and young. With respect to these men as with others whom she entertained when she and Longstreet were together, “whether any of them were ever her lovers, no one could say.”24 Knowing Cather women of similar attractiveness, except Maidy Forrester, we assume probably not. The suitors are just a “succession of Great Protectors,” like Dr. Archie for Thea Kronberg. It is for his role as a great protector that Gabrielle particularly remembers Henry with gratitude, and he now wants to talk about that protection. However, Gabrielle insists on recalling the night in her New York apartment when Henry, invited, had entered her drawing room and

beheld something quite terrible. At the far end of the room Gabrielle Longstreet was seated on a little French sofa—not seated, but silently struggling. Behind the sofa stood a stout, dark man leaning over her. His left arm, about her waist, pinioned her against the flowered silk upholstery. His right hand was thrust deep into the low-cut bodice of her dinner gown. In her struggle she had turned a little on her side; her right arm was in the grip of his left hand, and she was trying to free the other, which was held down by the pressure of his elbow. Neither of those two made a sound. Her face was averted against the blue silk back of the sofa. Young Seabury stood still just long enough to see what the situation really was. Then he stepped across the threshold and said with such coolness as he could command: “Am I too early, Madame Longstreet?”25

This is one of the rare scenes of physical sex in Cather. As with the attack on Jim Burden sleeping in Antonia's bed by Wick Cutter, it is a scene of near-rape in which the intended victim is saved by a passive young man.

The scene in My Ántonia is, of course, double-edged: thinking he will find Antonia in the bed, Cutter rapes a man—the violence is both heterosexual and homosexual. In fleeing that scene, Jim is fleeing his own homosexuality. Typically, his disgust after the event is as much with Antonia as with Cutter. Young Seabury's coolness here is of a piece with Jim's flight from the erotic in general. Later, once the “stout, dark man” has fled, the young man sits with the distraught Gabrielle for a long while as she lies quietly in a “low chair beside the coal grate.” Henry thought “he had never seen her when she was more beautiful … probably that was because she was helpless and she was young.”26 Later when Gabrielle insists that they have dinner, “the young man caught at the suggestion. If once he could get her mind on the duties of caring for a guest, that might lead to something. He must try to be very hungry.”27 Seabury is both sexually aroused and frightened by his arousal. The something the dinner might lead to is erotic involvement; yet, it also leads away from it, away from the beautiful helplessness of Gabrielle that has aroused Seabury. Seabury had moved away from the arousal on that night some twenty years before, and he does so again on the present occasion. Both on that night and at the Hotel Splendide in 1922 the two old friends talk about the “beast,” the “leech” (in Gabrielle's terms) who had attacked her. Seabury tells her in 1922 that “‘the man's accent must have told you that he belonged to a country you did not admire.’”28 He thus repeats what he had told her after the incident: “‘but that was not an English-speaking man who went from here. He is an immigrant who has made a lot of money. He does not belong.’”29 The unwanted suitor has traits that echo the anti-Semitism which Cather scholarship has long noted; most recently, Phyllis Robinson writes: “She romanticized other nationalities and cultures, the Bohemians, the Swedes, the French, but where Jews were concerned, she seemed to have a blind spot. For the Biblical Jews, she had respect and admiration and people she knew, like the Wieners, were certainly not included in her antipathy, but one wonders what they and other Jewish friends who came later made of the obnoxious Jews who populate her stories.”30 The obnoxious Jew is found not only in the novelist's stories but also in the new material she prepared for Not Under Forty in 1936 (the same year as “The Old Beauty”). In her essay on Sarah Orne Jewett, she asks her reader to

imagine a young man, or woman, born in New York City, educated at a New York university, violently innoculated with Freud, hurried into journalism, knowing no more about country people (or country folks anywhere) than he has caught from motor trips or observed from summer hotels: what is there for him in The Country of the Pointed Firs?

This hypothetical young man is perhaps of foreign descent: German, Jewish, Scandinavian. To him English is merely a means of making himself understood, of communicating his ideas. He may write and speak American English correctly, but only as an American may learn to speak French correctly. It is a surface speech: he clicks the words out as a bank clerk clicks out silver when you ask for change. For him, the language has no emotional roots. How could he find the talk of Maine country people anything but “dialect?” Moreover, the temper of the people which lies behind the language is incomprehensible to him. He can see what these Yankees have not (hence an epidemic of “suppressed desire” plays and novels), but what they have, their actual preferences and their fixed scale of values, are absolutely dark to him. When he tries to put himself in the Yankee's place, he attempts an impossible solution.31

Could we be any further from the consonances of Old World and New World in Death Comes for the Archbishop, any further from the entente plus que cordiale of the rich polylingual and ethnographic mix of such novels as O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia? In those novels everybody spoke the lost language as if it were a living language. In “The Old Beauty” the lost language of many dialects seems lost forever; it is no longer appropriate to speak of dialects. Gabrielle and Seabury speak an idiolect, the language of “our kind of people,” now become, ironically in Cather, the only acceptable code of the lost language, a monolect, in sum. This notion has always been virtual within the concept of lost language, for it has always been precisely the lost language Cather's searchers have been seeking. However, in the fictions of consonance, the lost language has many dialects, susceptible of translation into many tongues. A linguistic as well as religious ecumenism characterizes the interlocutors of Death Comes for the Archbishop. In both the ordinary-language sense and in the figurative sense speakers of many languages can and do communicate with one another. The multilingual community of that novel is a “blessed Babel.”

However, the language community of “The Old Beauty” is a tower of Babel, erected by barbarous Americans and “stout, dark men” with unrecognizable accents into the Alpine empyrean of the last speakers of the lost language—Gabrielle, Seabury, and the Thompsons. Only two of its dialects are heard, English and French. In fact, French is more overheard than heard: Gabrielle and Seabury speak English in the surround of French. The question of the sheer text is not the issue here. At the level of text, other fictions with a “French surround” had manifested text in both the English and the French languages: for example, O Pioneers! One of Ours, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and, most prominently, Shadows on the Rock. In giving the French language to her English readers without translation into English, Cather does not indulge in the snobbery of an international author. Rather, the assumption is that, even without knowing French, the reader will perceive the international as intranational and see English and French as linguistic variants of a “global village” into which all “speaking beings” are born. The dissonances at the heart of Shadows on the Rock in particular suggest that, with respect to this intranational ideal of dialectical variants of the lost language, the novelist is building a dike against the English dominion. She is losing faith in the linguistic ecumenism of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In “The Old Beauty” the English dominion begins its ascendancy not only in the “shrill protestations” of American motorists but in the English that Seabury and Mme. Longstreet speak. In this connection, Gabrielle's companion is not French, in contrast with the case of so many of Cather's successful women (Thea Kronberg, for example, or the singer in “Nanette: An Aside,” 1897, and “A Singer's Romance,” 1900). Cherry is a former English music-hall star. In this story there begins, ironically, the atrophy of the French dominion that will mark Sapphira and the Slave Girl in the person of its limotropic Frenchman, Henry Colbert of Belgian French origin, as well as in the setting and characters of Cather's last two published stories, “The Best Years” and “Before Breakfast.” For Mme. Longstreet and Seabury, French and things French surround less the living and on-going, the lost language refound, than subtextual signifiers of the past. French is only a disguise and a shell protecting the kernel of the past to which she and Henry cling.

The shell is fragile, in danger of being shattered from within France itself. When Gabrielle, Cherry, and Seabury take a motor trip into the nearby mountains to see old monuments, their car has a near-accident with another. When both cars have stopped, from the other “two women sprang out and ran up to Seabury with shrill protestations; they were careful drivers, had run their car twelve thousand miles and never had an accident, etc. They were Americans; bobbed, hatless, clad in dirty white knickers and sweaters. They addressed each other as ‘Marge’ and ‘Jim’. Seabury's forehead was bleeding; they repeatedly offered to plaster it up for him.” Could we be farther from the spirit of Franco-American friendship of the American Expeditionary Force that had brought Claude Wheeler to die in France in grateful return of the assistance France had given the fledgling confederation of American colonies in revolt from Great Britain? Or further from the generosity and tolerance of tomboyish, and possibly lesbian, women in such figures as the heroine of “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” Thea Kronberg, and many of those in “Flavia and Her Artists”? The kernel of this serene recapture of lost time is itself but a fragile shell within a fragile shell. Evocations of the past run up hard against fragmenting images of the present. Gabrielle and Seabury dance a “spirited waltz” one night at the hotel: she dances with “attack and style, slightly military, quite right for her tall, straight figure”—a mannish style, but its erotic “attack” is stylized as usual in Cather. The old couple dance less to enjoy themselves than to do something better than the “tired tango” of the modern young dancers they had been looking at with boredom. From this boring, irrelevant, impertinent present Gabrielle's death rescues her: “Gabrielle lay on her back, her eyes closed. The face that had outfaced so many changes of fortune had no longer to muffle itself in fur, to shrink away from curious eyes, or harden itself into scorn. It lay on the pillow regal, calm, victorious,—like an open confession.”32

Death rather than life in “The Old Beauty” is the occasion of repose, of relief, of release. Death releases Gabrielle from the dissonant present; it re-leases her to and gives her a lasting hold on the past. She need no longer look on that past from the disadvantage of the present as she had earlier in the mountains. There she had looked into a “great open well” at the monastery while Seabury and Cherry left to see other parts of the monastery:

Mme de Coucy slipped a little mirror from her handbag and threw a sunbeam down into the stone-lined well. That yellow ray seemed to waken the black water at the bottom: little ripples stirred over the surface. She said nothing, but she smiled as she threw the gold plaque over the water and the wet moss of the lower coping. Cherry and Seabury left her there. When he glanced back, just before they disappeared into the labyrinth of buildings, she was still looking down into the well and playing with her little reflector, a faintly contemptuous smile on her lips.33

The smile at the play of yellow light on the great open well of the past will return in the last of Cather's published novels. …


“The Best Years,” the story of Lesley Ferguesson, a young schoolteacher in a remote school on the prairie, is set at the beginning in 1899. It is recorded in the framing story of the one-time County Superintendent of Public Instruction, Evangeline Knightly—a “charming person” of “oval face, small head delicately set … hazel eyes, a little blue, a little green, tiny dots of brown” which, “when she laughed, positively glowed with humour … in each oval cheek a roguish dimple”—who is considered in the community “an intelligent young woman, but plain—distinctly plain.”34 The Superintendent takes a particular liking to Lesley and the large Ferguesson family: the practical Mrs. Ferguesson; the two little boys and the older brother, Hector, with “the fair pink-cheeked complexion Lesley should have had and didn't”;35 the impractical, talkative, and “thinking” Mr. Ferguesson whose loquacity, like his Populist sentiments, makes him somewhat the butt of his good-humored neighbors. But the idyll of this happy family is broken by Lesley's death from pneumonia contracted when staying with her students through a sudden snow storm soon after Evangeline's visit. The news shatters Evangeline as much as it does the Ferguesson family.

The effect on Mrs. Ferguesson is especially long-lived. Some twenty years after the great blizzard in which Lesley died, Evangeline, now Mrs. Ralph Thorndike living back in her native New England, visits Mrs. Ferguesson in the new house where the more prosperous family now lives. At Mrs. Ferguesson's appeal the talk turns to Lesley. The two women who so loved the young schoolteacher share their happy memories and their sorrow. Mrs. Ferguesson repeatedly regrets the family's new station, longing for the old days, however hard: “‘our best years are when we're working hardest and going right ahead when we can hardly see our way out.’”36 She indicates that there is a kind of estrangement between her and her ever so busy husband, taken as he is with the modern world. She doesn't like to go out with him in the family car (Evangeline herself has preferred to hire a buggy rather than a car to visit Mrs. Ferguesson): “‘He's had some accidents. When he gets to thinking, he's just as likely to run down a cow as not. He's had to pay for one. You know cows will cross the road right in front of a car. Maybe their grandchildren calves will be more modern-minded.’”37 Evangeline leaves to visit the old schoolhouse. She does not see Mrs. Ferguesson again, but she writes to her “a long letter from Wiscaset, Maine, which Mrs. Ferguesson sent to her son Hector, marked, “‘To be returned, but first pass on to your brothers.’”38 So ends “The Best Years.”

The letter is probably the story itself, envelope and letter combined—an ingenious variation on Cather's common framing technique. Other aspects of the letter are also familiar: Mr. Ferguesson is a Dillon who has not died; Lesley is a Thea who stays on the prairie; Mrs. Ferguesson is more Mrs. Harris than the Myra or the Sapphira her sprained ankle momentarily makes of her, and she is more Oswald than Myra Henshawe in the sympathy of the Nellie Birdseye-like Evangeline; the plain little girl is boyish in her name (Lesley can be heard as Leslie) even as the manly big brother is girlish in his mien and so on. There is only the barest French marking in the story: Evangeline reverberates with a derived French source, Longfellow's Acadian heroine. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Evangeline Knightly is from Maine and is, possibly, as her first name indicates, partly of Kanuck origin. However, though she goes back to Maine, it is to marry a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and live on the hither side of French Canada as a Thorndike. Is this a “dike” against the “thorn” of that French branch of those “subtle, sensitive beauty-loving Latin Races”? In any case, become a Thorndike, Evangeline is far from Cather's once-favorite dialect of the lost language—French. This suggests that “The Best Years” is one of the most melancholy of Cather's fictions of dissonance.

In “Before Breakfast” we are beyond the border of French and things French. We are on the thither and northern border of French Canada, with Henry Grenfell on the cliff-side of a remote island off the shore of Nova Scotia. Henry is no Henry Colbert; he is a “gren-fell”—a “fell” (“noun. Northern Brit. a. a mountain, hill, or moor. b. [in combination] fell-walking,” with the first syllable of his name possibly “green” but also “grain” [Latin, granata]).39 The whole name thus tells the story of his life: he is from Colorado, the westernmost edge of the land of the grain, and winds up in the land of the fell. There is even less of a French marking, genetically and onomastically, in him than in Evangeline Knightly.

Yet, his story is not without many of the symbolic markings of Cather's other fictions. A middle-aged businessman, he comes to his island retreat to get away from his pretentious, intellectual sons, two of them college professors; in his typically Catherian passionless marriage he gets along well enough with his Flavia-like wife of theatrical and musical interests; for all his impatience with that kind of culture, he is a reader—of “Scott and Dickens and Fielding”40 and Shakespeare. Again, as he “fell-walks” about his island retreat alone, he greets a great old spruce as “‘grandfather’”—a British-Canadian grandfather, of course, not Godfrey St. Peter's “Kanuck” one. He is irritated by the intrusive presence of the geology professor he meets on the boat taking him to the island, although he is somewhat taken by the little-spoken daughter of the academic.

The professor's daughter figures more prominently in the story of Henry Grenfell than he might have suspected on their first meeting. He spends a particularly restless night in a “dryness of soul” not unlike that of the God-bereft Latour. In the morning he rises and goes “to the edge of the spruce wood and out on a bald headland that topped a cliff two hundred feet above the sea.” He moves along the cliff trail onto a grassy headland with a beautiful view of “four waterfalls, white as silver, pouring down the perpendicular cliff walls.” As he looks on this “splendid sight … all his own … not even a gull … not a living creature,” he suddenly spies “a human figure, in a long white bathrobe—and a rubber cap. Then it must be a woman? Queer. No island woman would go bathing at this hour, not even in the warm island ponds.” It is a woman: “the geologist's daughter … she opened her robe, a grey thing lined with white. Her bathing suit was pink. If a clam stood upright and graciously opened its shell, it would look like that … with a quick motion she shed her robe, kicked off her sandals, and took to the water.” Grenfell reflects on how “crazy” she is, but he is admiring rather than critical as he makes his way back to the cabin: “everything since he left the cabin had been reassuring, delightful—everything was the same, so was he! The air, or the smell of fir trees—something had sharpened his appetite. He was hungry. As he passed the grandfather tree he waved his hand, but didn't stop. Plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age.” When he gets near the cabin he smells the coffee brewed by his “man Friday,” William, an islander who helps him but without sharing his cabin. He knows that William has not waited to have his own breakfast: “As he came down the hill Grenfell was chuckling to himself: ‘Anyhow, when that first amphibious frog-toad found his waterhole all dried up behind him, and jumped out to hop along till he could find another one—well, he started on a long hop.’”41 The story ends, with the last published lines of Willa Cather's fiction to date.

We have an upbeat ending to the canon, it would appear, especially to the dirges, fragmenting shells and kernels of the fiction of the thirties. Consonances—particularly of the most distant of all pasts, the “origin of man,” and of the present—are restored. In seeing that “nothing has changed,” Grenfell is not Euclide Auclair on his Canadian rock at the end of Shadows on the Rock. It is not stasis that Grenfell finds in the unchanged Nova Scotian wild; it is the frame of life itself with its change towards growth. In this delight and reassurance the Henry who returns to his cabin has a sense of continuity and consonance between past and present which, however secular, recalls Latour's. On the North Atlantic headland he sees not a Myra Henshawe lashed in dissonance to a storm-whipped tree on the Pacific headland, but a young girl in the bloom of youth. “Fairweather” is her name, and as she takes to the chill waters of the rocky coast she stands for the elements at their fairest. This “comely creature” of breeding, of “delicate preferences” and “lovely eyes, lovely skin, lovely manners” is a “Venus on the half shell” who is herself a shell that cannot be broken by the kernel of dissonances roiling within the sea. Miss Fairweather is consonance restored, the lost language refound in the most ideal way for Willa Cather: pictographically rather than semantically. As “The Best Years” may be seen as an utter fiction of dissonance, so “Before Breakfast” may be seen as an utter fiction of consonance.42


  1. Albert Jacquard, Eloge de la différence.

  2. Michel Gervaud, “Un Regard autre” (originally entitled “Les Américains et les autres”), Actes du GRENA (Groupe de Recherches et d'Etudes Nord-américaines), p. 70.

  3. Loc. cit.

  4. CF, p. 542.

  5. CF, p. 476.

  6. CF, pp. 150-51.

  7. CF, p. 159.

  8. CF, pp. 101-2.

  9. See my quotation from Cather's travel journal of 1902, above, pp. 6-7.

  10. CF, p. 107.

  11. CF, p. 108.

  12. CF, pp. 110-11.

  13. James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, p. 125.

  14. Lacan, “Seminar of January 21, 1975,” Mitchell-Rose, p. 168.

  15. OB, p. 4.

  16. Now considered one of Cather's finest stories by many readers, “The Old Beauty” was begrudgingly accepted by the editor of The Woman's Home Companion, although she did not like it too much. Cather asked to have it returned. The other two stories in the volume are also published posthumously: “The Best Years” and “Before Breakfast.” I shall comment on them later here.

  17. OB, pp. 3-4.

  18. OB, p. 3.

  19. This was the year “or thereabouts in which the world broke in two” for Cather.

  20. OB, p. 42.

  21. OB, p. 33.

  22. OB, p. 37.

  23. Ominous sea-images also occur in an early story, “On the Gull's Road: The Ambassador's Story” (1908), and the novels Alexander's Bridge and Lucy Gayheart. In such fictions, the sea and deep waters are pictographs of the dissonant search for the “lost language.” They stand in sharp contrast to what Slote perceptively calls the “pull of the land” in the canon. KA, p. 107.

  24. OB, p. 23.

  25. OB, pp. 52-53.

  26. OB, p. 54.

  27. OB, p. 55.

  28. OB, p. 49.

  29. OB, p. 56.

  30. Robinson, Willa, p. 48.

  31. NF, pp. 93-94.

  32. OB, pp. 65-66, 70.

  33. OB, p. 64.

  34. OB, pp. 75-77.

  35. OB, p. 99.

  36. OB, pp. 136.

  37. OB, pp. 137-38.

  38. OB, p. 138.

  39. Collins Dictionary of the English Language.

  40. OB, p. 148.

  41. OB, pp. 161-66.

  42. Thus, E. K. Brown sees the story as “a kind of De senuctute in fictional form, an admission that ‘Plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age,’ but at the same time an assertion that however old one may be, life doesn't really change: if old age brings its trials and life has its difficulties, the process of living is still a challenge and a delight.” Brown and Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, p. 246. Woodress begins his commentary on the story by stressing its bleakness, but the young woman's appearance at the end leads him to conclude “‘life will go on.’ That girl on the beach, like the first creatures that crawled out of the primeval seas, will endure. Willa Cather would have applauded William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech in 1950, in which he said that not only would man endure but that he would prevail. Grenfell also thinks as he walks back to his cabin: ‘Plucky youth is more embracing than enduring age.’” Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, p. 268.

Evelyn Haller (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6037

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 no longer victim to the ignorant in Red Cloud; she was flying high on a job she mostly enjoyed and was aware that every minute of her new life was a substantial improvement on what she had feared when, sixteen years earlier in Red Cloud, she sometimes wrote “Siberia” as the place of origin of her letters.

Cather went through a personal crisis while trying to decide if she should take Sara Orne Jewett's advice and give up the rewarding position at McClure's to devote herself to fulltime writing. Although she knew the distinction between immediate rewards and personal immortality through art, she was also aware of the odds against her or anyone else who aspired to those heights. Moreover, she had been almost morbidly aware from adolescence of the sacrifice that art exacts. At the age of twenty-three she had written to Mariel Gere, “There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer: that's my creed and I'll follow it to the end …” (O'Brien, “Chronology” 1303).

That was her microcosmic crisis. The other was a macrocosmic problem she preferred to distance, for although Cather scorned the way reformers abused art for ulterior motives, she could not ignore the corruption nor the monumental cost in life and pain that her defiantly vertical New York City had exacted in its erection, in its maintenance, or in the conditions of life-diminishing work that provided its economic base. Cather was, after all, managing editor of the leading muck-raking journal in her day. In McClure's one read literate accounts of sweatshop conditions, fires in tenements, and fires in locked factory lofts. Moreover, McClure's readers were often reminded that sweated labor affected almost every household beyond the city through the clothes people wore or the household goods they bought.

Cather's Baptist upbringing made her aware of how the story of the Tower of Babel, warning of the retribution for those who defy hierarchical order, applied to her own two crises. The story also tells us that punishment can descend on aspiring mortals by frustrating them in their power to communicate with one another. On a literal level it suggests that those who attempt to reach their definition of heaven through their own strength will be cast down for their pride.1 Another story Cather would have known as a Latin student is Ovid's story of the giants' piling of Pelion upon Ossa, an additional paradigm of the consequences of aspiration. And in the central work of Latin literature, The Aeneid, she read of Carthage, a city destined to rival Rome, nourished by the funeral pyre of its grieving foundress queen after she had died on her deceased husband's sword. Dido may be said to have been victim of her aspirations by presuming to appropriate Aeneas to rule Carthage at her side rather than encouraging him in his destiny to found another city that would rival and eventually subdue her own.

Cather, however, had another literary matrix nearer in mind. Before S. S. McClure attracted her to New York, she read Flaubert again. This time she read the “merciless master” with the Pittsburgh editor George Seibel and his wife as they met regularly over many months to read French literature together. “Our most arduous adventure,” Seibel wrote, “was the seige of Carthage.”2 Seibel referred to Flaubert's Salammbô. This novel, denounced by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve for its sadism,3 was an imaginative reconstruction of the war waged by mercenaries against their former masters after the First Punic War. In other words, Flaubert wrote about the assault of the cheated and deprived upon an arrogant city.

Accounts of unintentional deaths of members of the privileged classes could be read in the magazine Cather edited. A relevant fact to which readers of McClure's were exposed was that death by fire cannot be averted by the rich and protected any more than by recent immigrants: WASP fraternity men in a stone mansion at Cornell University can burn to death as easily as Italian women sewing shirts—presumably on Singer Sewing machines—at the Triangle Factory when there is no way out.4

Cather's story, “Behind the Singer Tower,” is about a fire in a luxurious fictional hotel adjacent to the real building named in the title. In a frame alluding to Conrad's “Heart of Darkness,” a group of men on a launch in New York harbor look toward the site and recoil from their own experiences of “the horror.” They speak of the erection of the recently burned Mont Blanc Hotel and of other buildings.5 In comparing the indifference of the New York builders to the immigrant Italians who died erecting their vertical buildings, Cather refers to the indifference of “the Carthaginians … to their mercenaries” (“Singer Tower” 49).6 A maxim typical of Stanley Merryweather, the most successful of the captains of New York's upward expansion who is not among the men on the launch, is: “Men are cheaper than machinery” (“Singer Tower” 51). Indicatively, Stanley Merryweather's personal worth as a character is undercut because his motivations are the two-fold fixation of what Cather considered inadequately conceived fiction: getting the girl, who is bedizened with expensive symbols of a man's success, and succeeding in business. Thus Stanley Merryweather could fit into the kind of simpleminded fiction Cather deplored.7

A further allusion to Flaubert's novel Salammbô occurs when the illuminated Singer Tower (the first building to be spectacularly bathed in light as a regular nocturnal phenomenon), elicits the comment “Your Moloch on the Singer Tower over there” (54).8 Moloch is present by implication during the deaths that occur in the construction of the Mont Blanc Hotel and later during the fire that takes more than 300 lives. The burned-out hotel graphically resembles the reusable bronze statue of Moloch in whose belly human sacrifice is consumed in Salammbô: “[I]t was still standing there, massive and brutally unconcerned, only a little blackened about its thousand windows and with the foolish fire escapes in its courts melted down” (“Singer Tower” 44). Thus, the vertical structures remain essentially intact despite the loss of life within, having been fed by comparable fuels: unguents and cedar for the Baal, oiled wood for panelling in the luxurious hotel. Visually, the Cather story bristles with the verticality of New York skyscrapers; the Flaubert novel has its analogous ancient instances: towers, Baalim, engines of war, terraced buildings, aqueducts. In both Cather's short story and Flaubert's novel, these perpendiculars are visual analogues of what Flaubert calls “the tyranny of the male principle” (Salammbô 238).9

Why does Cather compare a significant New York building to Moloch? The aptness of the comparison is in its evocation of child sacrifice. The plot itself focuses on a story within the Conradian frame of friendship between Fred Hallet, “the most intelligent manipulator of structural steel” although “a soft man for the iron age” (47, 50), and Cesarino, an immigrant from Ischia, who dies in an avoidable disaster. As Cather constructs the story, Cesarino is in synecdochical relation to the undifferentiated masses whose daily deaths served Baalim both in their construction and maintenance. “The average for windows cleaners, who, for one reason or another, dropped to the pavement was something over one a day,” the narrator points out, then rationalizes: “In a city with so many millions of windows that was not perhaps an unreasonable percentage” (45).

The Singer Tower (1906-1908), designed by Ernest Flagg and built in twenty months by 1200 men,10 was the tallest building in the world for eighteen months. Sic transit gloria. In its general appearance, not only is the tower likened to Moloch, as we have seen, but with its “high-peaked turban” it also evokes the pointed hats of Carthaginian priests (Salammbô 60). Thus, the Singer Tower epitomized the heights and the idea of height that characterize not only New York, where “the matter of height was spoken of jocularly and triumphantly” (“Singer Tower” 45), but also Flaubert's Carthage. We are repeatedly told of the tallness of the Carthaginian structures: “The tall rows of six-storied houses, daubed with tar”; “the city, its tall, cube-shaped houses rising in tiers like an amphitheatre”; and “tall houses … grew taller and massed together like a flock of black goats coming down from the mountains” (Salammbô 33, 58, 30). Similarly, Hallet, a character in the Cather story, repeatedly refers to a hypothetical “goat track” on the volcanic island of Ischia (48, 49) from where his friend, the laborer Cesarino, came. The “goat track” on the volcanic island is significant, for it points to the perilousness and vulnerability of life. Indeed, Cather emphasizes sudden and horrible modes of death throughout “Behind the Singer Tower.” Note that the title suggests the inside story—a scoop—and that the narrator is a journalist.

Multiple deaths in the disastrous hotel fire, the framing event of the story, are anticipated by the death of Hallet's friend Cesarino in the construction of its foundations. Although Cesarino does not actually burn to death, Cather emphasizes the extraordinary heat of the summer night intensified by the steam engines in the hole. His birth on a volcanic island further reinforces this pattern. But unlike his father, who lies under “marvellously fruitful volcanic soil” (49), Cesarino is smothered by sterile sand when he is struck by the falling clamshell. And when the sand is removed, he does not resemble an ennobled Pompeiian statue-corpse but is so crushed that the ambulance orderlies glance at him “with the contemptuous expression that [they] have when they see that a man is much too shattered to pick up” (52). Thus Cather emphasizes the human cost and the danger inherent in the relentless verticality of the perpendicular city. As the narrator says, “Our whole scheme of life and progress and profit was perpendicular” (46). But what has this to do with Cather's personal crisis?

A great deal. I have chosen this story for analysis because it tells us not only about Cather's psychological state at a critical juncture in her life but also, more important, about her working methods—her technique—in applying lessons learned from Flaubert to her own work. Flaubert's choice of “le mot juste” has often been commented on, but Flaubert's ability to project a character's perspective or the perspective of a generalized observer had equal influence on his imitators. We can call “Behind the Singer Tower” an early story only in the sense of what Cather was later to accomplish, for she was thirty-nine years old when she wrote it. In it she transferred the ambience of Salammbô from Carthage to New York: its decadence, its sadistic violence, its verticality, its absence of conventional domesticity. She coupled that allusive mix of Flaubertian elements with a Conradian setting from “Heart of Darkness.” In her first sentence Cather composes a variation of Conrad's opening with a “launch, which was tied up in the North River” (43) resembling “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, [which] swung to her anchor … at rest” near “[t]he sea-reach of the Thames.” Through this allusion to a setting for telling a tale of the unspeakable, Cather was preparing not only for “the horror” to be found in her story but also perhaps for a fear that her ambition to become a great artist in New York was hubris approaching the scale of Kurtz's. Cather, moreover, begins her first sentence with “It was a hot, close night,” conjuring another “heart of darkness.”

Cather's basic attraction to New York, I would argue, was its difference from Nebraska in all respects, most immediately its relentless verticality. Wright Morris has suggested that the horizontal planes of the prairies demand verticals: hence, grain elevators: “There's too much sky out here, for one thing, too much horizontal, too many lines without stops, so that the exclamation, the perpendicular, had to come” (76). That Cather understood this impulse only too well can be inferred from the longing for the mountainous back country of Virginia she has Jim Burden express in My Ántonia. Furthermore, as one wants to grow up where one has been at home, so one wants to die where one can feel at home. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant has quoted Cather's impatient explanation to account for her “fear of dying in a cornfield,” a fear Sergeant had found baffling: “You could not understand. You have not seen those miles of fields. There is no place to hide in Nebraska. You can't hide under a windmill” (49).

Cather's emotional disposition blended with her concept of the artistic sacrifice she felt was required in order to achieve what she wanted. Although Mildred R. Bennett suggests the Windsor Hotel Fire of 17 March 1899 as a parallel (xli), more proximate and more likely parallels to the fictional Mont Blanc disaster are to be found: the Equitable Building fire that had raged for three days earlier in 1912 and the burning of a fraternity house on the Cornell campus—a fire that had been the subject of an article in McClure's. But to report these feelings, perceptions, and facts was not yet art. The matrix or matrices needed to transmute these diverse items into Cather's art had been provided by Flaubert's, for, through the intensive work of translation, the undergirding structure as well as the texture of Salammbô entered Cather's memory.

“Behind the Singer Tower” also provided Cather with a legitimate means to express horror at profligate waste of life and to do so impeccably under the aegis of the merciless master and supreme aesthetician. Cather later wrote in 1936 how she had become “disillusioned” with reformers during her time at McClure's. So many social workers brought in articles on fire-trap tenements, apologetically explaining that they were making these investigations “to collect material for fiction.” “I can't believe,” she insisted, “that any honest welfare worker, or any honest novelist, went to work in this way” (“Escapism” 23-24). Nonetheless she was ably managing a muck-raking periodical. Assuredly, the plight of people of obscure origins and destinies did not escape her. Thus, in “Behind the Singer Tower” she juxtaposes the deaths of the many who had died more anonymous fiery deaths in the city with those whose deaths in the Mont Blanc hotel fire provided newspapers material to fill their vertical columns. As the narrator, a journalist, notes:

Heretofore fires in fireproof buildings of many stories had occurred only in factory lofts, and the people who perished in them, fur workers and garment workers, were obscure for more reasons than one; most of them bore names unpronounceable to the American tongue; many of them had no kinsmen, no history, no record anywhere.


Nor were the deaths of the huddled masses with obscure destinies the only matter that could be safely hidden under the sacred veil—called the zaimph in Salammbô—of Flaubertian form. There was also the more personal question of ambition—its cost and ultimate futility—a lesson not to be lost on Willa Cather, who had read Pilgrim's Progress nine times one winter during her childhood and who was forsaking the continuance of editorial success for the less certain but more enduring crown of art.

In her disillusionment at McClure's Cather had wondered why “the propagandists use a vehicle [presumably fiction] which they consider rickety and obsolete, to convey a message which they believe all-important” (“Escapism” 23). In “Behind the Singer Tower” Cather escaped making propaganda and approached her later triumphs of Flaubertian-inspired structure. With this story she could satisfy both her conscience and her art because in Salammbô Flaubert had provided a structure she could imitate. Cather's structural steel is a hyperbolic extension of Flaubert's mechanical and architectural verticality.

To contain New York, Cather's narrator resorts to a violently mechanical metaphor: “It was an irregular parallelogram,” he states; “Pressed upward between two hemispheres, and, like any other solid squeezed in a vise, it shot upward” (46). Cather, however, had no illusions about what made New York the defiantly successful architectural display it is. As the intelligent Fred Hallet observes, we are “throwing everything we have into that conflagration on Manhattan Island” (53)—a statement that extends the recent disaster of the Mont Blanc Hotel fire to the entire enterprise of New York itself. Cather has transferred here from Salammbô, as she has throughout her New York story, an often vertiginous sense of height that attracts us while it diminishes and erases individual human consciousness, as in the frenzy of sacrifice to Moloch: “There was nothing for us but height. We were whipped up the ladder” (“Singer Tower” 46)—a comparison that suggests mercenaries whipped up ladders during the seige of a fortified city.

Furthermore, in Cather's story as well as in Salammbô, cranes, engines, machines, and towers abound. To read of the welter of men and machines in the hole that will be the Mont Blanc Hotel is to be reminded of the seige of Carthage as Flaubert describes it. Both writers stress the extravagant loss of life that accompanies each debatable element of progress. In keeping with the Carthaginian foundation of the story, Cather evokes child-sacrifice by emphasizing not only the extreme youth of the workers, but also their small Neopolitan and Ischian stature. Among them, Cesarino, who comes to stand for all the others, is especially small. The builders of New York are, by implication, not only “men of iron” but also tall men.

Adults as well as children died violent deaths in Carthage. Soldiers falling from war machines and citizens falling off Carthage's besieged walls bear comparison to the daily offering of a New York window washer to the “service of this unborn ‘Idea’” (“Singer Tower” 54). Again the undergirding of “Behind the Singer Tower,” its structural steel, is forged of stated and implied verticalities.

A further parallel: in his protracted description of child sacrifice, Flaubert clarifies the emotional and spiritual condition of the Carthaginians who are about to watch infants mechanically hurled into ovens by contrasting their allegiance to their male and female deities: “[T]he tyranny of the male principle prevailed that day in the consciousness of all, and the Goddess had even been forgotten” (Salammbô 238). Significantly, the priest Schahabarim defects from the moon goddess Tanit to Moloch: “The crowd horrified by this apostasy, let out a long murmur. One could feel the last bond snapping which linked men's souls to a merciful divinity” (238).

While Flaubert establishes Tanit as a merciful female divinity in opposition to the devouring Moloch, Cather uses the Statue of Liberty as a merciful but faded monumental maiden as the Singer Tower becomes an American Moloch:

Among the buildings of the New York skyline rose the clossal figure of the Singer Tower, watching over the city and the harbor like a presiding Genius. He had come out of Asia quietly in the night no one knew just when or how, and the Statue of Liberty, holding her feeble taper in the gloom off to our left, was but an archeological survival.


As Schahabarim has defected from the moon goddess Tanit, so New York in its ambition has defected from the promise engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “the wretched refuse” of Europe's teeming shore has become “waste for your machine” (“Singer Tower” 46).

What remedy, if any, can there be for such brutality? Cather posits redemptive kindness that moves from general charity to particular friendship in the relationship of the structural engineer Hallet, the “soft man for an iron age,” with the “dago” Cesarino. “Buono soldato” [good soldier], Hallet says to Cesarino and wins his heart. In Salammbô the only instances of sweetly domesticated love are found among the homosexual bondings of mercenary soldiers:

unions as serious as marriage, in which the stronger defended the younger in the midst of battles, helped him over precipices, sponged the sweat of fever from his brow, stole food for him; and the other, a child picked up at some roadside before becoming a mercenary later, repaid such devotion with countless delicate attentions and wifely favors.


In “Behind the Singer Tower” references to marriages are of hierarchical social import: Stanley Merryweather's marriage to “a burgeoning Jewish beauty,” whom “he hung … with the jewels of the East until she looked like the Song of Solomon done into motion pictures” (48), and Stanley's mother's marriage described as “an indiscretion”: “She had married a professor … who knew too much about some Oriental tongues I needn't name to be altogether safe” (47). These legal unions are referred to in the course of narration, but the full weight of a significant moment falls upon Hallet's self-deprecating reference to Cesarino's affection for him: “I used to feel ashamed of the way he'd look at me, like a girl in love. You see, I was the only thing he wasn't afraid of” (50).

The opening paragraph of Cather's story refers to the crowded steerage decks of the Re di Napoli passing near the launch in which the narrator rides. From similarly undifferentiated masses of Italian workers Cather takes Cesarino's case to remind us of the qualitative difference affection makes to perception. Whereas Cesarino was but one small Italian among the tens of thousands who came to New York, the implication is that each has his or her story.

For the original illustrations of 1912 that Collier's published to accompany “Behind the Singer Tower,” George Harding placed the huddled Italians on the steerage deck in the foreground of the New York skyline with the Singer Tower prominently centered. The variety of architectural decoration is not unlike the welter seen by the barbarian allies to the mercenaries in their distinct view of Carthage. “They argued,” Flaubert writes, about the siting of the temples: “Khamon's, facing the Syssitia, had golden tiles; Melkarth's, to the left of Eschmoun, carried branches of tile on its roof; Tanit's beyond, filled out its golden cupola among the palm-trees; black Moloch was below the water tanks, towards the lighthouse” (59). And, as with the buildings of early twentieth-century New York decades before the functionalism and severity of the recently displaced New Brutalism, the welter of this decorated skyline becomes a plethora. Flaubert describes how, “In the angle of the pediments, on top of the walls, in the corner of the squares, everywhere, could be seen divinities with hideous heads, colossal or squat, with huge bellies or disproportionately flattened, opening their jaws, spreading their arms, holding forks, chains, or javelins” (59). The equivalent, for Cather's narrator, in the modern city of traders (recall Carthage's Phoenician origins) is the “great incandescent signs … blazing across the night the names of beer and perfumes and corsets” when he decides “that, after all, that kind of thing could be overdone” (46). Flaubert concludes his description of the temple tops with the visually reinforcing statement: “and the blue of the sea lay at the bottom of the streets, made to look even steeper by the perspective” (59). Cather tilts the angle of that perspective to write of the view up from the hole made by work on the foundations of the Mont Blanc Hotel: “When you got down into the hole, the wall of the Savoyard seemed to go clear up the sky, that pale blue enamel sky of a midsummer New York night” (51).

The name of the hotel—Mont Blanc—suggests not only cold and massive indifference but also Swiss prestige. The more allusive connection of the banner with the strange device “Excelsior!” (ever higher) is flung visually and architectonically across both works. But that is not yet the whole textural effect, for like Longfellow's youth who bore the banner through the Alpine village surrounded by white mountains, characters in both Flaubert's novel and Cather's story have experiences that undercut the idea that higher is better. As Flaubert's translator, A. J. Krailsheimer, observes in his introduction to Salammbô: “Wherever one turns in the book every form of human endeavor and aspiration is made to seem utterly futile” (15). In Flaubert's novel we are told of “Hands … hacked away by cutlasses” [“Avec des coutelas on leur abattait les mains” (Éditions Garnier Frères 111)] as soldiers tried to climb up war elephants “by clinging to the fringes of the caparisons” (99). In symbolic relationship to ambition thwarted or cut short is the hand of an Italian tenor that the narrator of Cather's story finds “on the ledge of a window on the fifteenth floor … snapped off at the wrist as cleanly as if it had been taken off with a cutlass” (45). The narrator recognizes Graziani's hand on the window ledge of the fifteenth floor (he had fallen from the thirty-second) by its little-finger ring that he had seen “often enough” when the tenor had placed his hand “so confidently over his chest as he began his ‘Celeste Aida.’” An opera lover like Willa Cather was likely to have known that the first performance in Cairo of Verdi's Egyptian opera in 1871 was literally elephantine in its splendor, for elephants had appeared on stage. Indeed, elephants trumpet, stomp, and suffer their way through the text of Flaubert's novel.

If we juxtapose the ubiquitous elephant with those two passages about violently severed hands from Flaubert and Cather, we gain insight into Cather's situation in 1912. In other words, what happens when a no longer overtly young woman (she was thirty-nine) from Nebraska attempts to climb the caparisoned and charging war elephant of aspiration to greatness in art? Although Sarah Orne Jewett's admonition “to find her ‘own quiet center of life,’ ‘to deepen and enrich’ her work” (Slote and Woods 52), was sound, think of Cather forsaking not only a job she liked but also one that had rewarded her, for a less certain and more perilous prize. When one tries to climb a war elephant, one's hand might be—in fact probably will be—cut off, a terrible and finishing fate for men bearing arms and for writers bearing pens. Although this mutilation is transferred to an Italian tenor, Cather stays close to Flaubert's text, especially in her use of “cutlass” with its approximation to Flaubert's coutelas. Similarly, the leprous Carthaginian general Hanno says of the barbarian prisoners who had aspired to conquer Carthage: “cut off all their hands, and bring them to me in baskets” (Salammbô 101).

Hanno's brutal words correspond to a horrific memory Cather carried from her early childhood in Virginia when a mentally deficient child had threatened to cut off her hand while holding a knife. Even though, with extraordinary presence of mind, she diverted him by suggesting that he climb out the window onto a tree and thence to the ground, Cather never forgot her fear. Cather's later years were blighted by recurring trouble with her right hand. Often the medical advice was to keep it immobile. One cannot say with certainty that this affliction was psychosomatic—perhaps Cather suffered from carpal's tunnel syndrome. One can say that immobilizing her right hand was for her akin to cutting off her life as a writer and hence the major source of her identity.

Would she lose her hand, lose what she already had control of and what had served her well by aspiring higher? With hindsight we know Cather triumphed. What we know is what she could not have known then.

Having achieved success as managing editor of a leading periodical during the age of the magazine and having done it in New York with Nebraska and Pittsburgh behind her, Cather would have felt kinship with the barbarians confronting the ruthlessness of a tall city built on, indeed based on, large-scale and continuous sacrifice. “Ma perche?” (But, why?) Cesarino asks Hallet as he lies dying, having been crushed by a craneload of sand and struck by its clamshell container (“Singer Tower” 52). The only explanation—not justification—Fred Hallet can suggest for the conflagration is service to “a new idea of some sort” (54). “[T]he service of this unborn Idea” (54) provides another connection with Conrad's “Heart of Darkness.” This Idea—perhaps one as crude as New York being the best and the biggest (tallest) of cities as in Jupiter's title “Optimus Maximus”—as yet unrecognizable and thereby undefinable, is presumably made possible by tall machines because our civilization, as Hallet says, is “built on physics and chemistry and higher mathematics” (49). But unlike the ancient machines of war spontaneously named “onagers” or “asses” or “scorpions” after the beasts their actions resemble (Salammbô 212), the still unperceived Idea to which Hallet alludes or for which he gropes has more in common with Yeats's rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born for its agent than to zoological specimens.

In any case, Cather found in Flaubert's bloodbath of an imaginative although historically based novel—which is also a work of extraordinary visual splendor—the means to achieve what T. S. Eliot was to call the objective correlative in order to make her visceral as well as her intellectual insights work. Although Cather saw herself as having served an apprenticeship to the merciless master Flaubert, he was in time succeeded by a more merciless one: Cather herself, who never ceased to climb the charging and caparisoned war-elephant of art.12


  1. “The Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage, who travelled to the United States in November 1910 … could not … suppress the resurgent image of Babel as he contemplated the skyscrapers of New York; he wrote: ‘They seem a consummation of that dream / Of Babel's towers, these buildings that arise / And towering seem almost to touch the skies. …’” (Amerikaansche reisherinneringen, 1913, quoted in van Leeuwen 13). Van Leeuwen provides excellent commentary on this aspect of American culture.

  2. George Seibel declares, “Flaubert was our chief delight, and Willa's impeccable style was achieved by a sedulous study of this merciless master” (“The Quiet Observer,” Musical Forecast [June 1947]: 5, 11; quoted in Bennett xix). George N. Kates also refers to the young Willa's having made “a cult of Flaubert” (vii). See also Michel Gervaud and David Stouck.

  3. See Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve's articles on Salammbô from La Constitutionnel, 8-25 Dec. 1862, and translated by F. C. Green in the Appendix to the 1931 Everyman edition of Salammbô (279-319, see especially 299).

  4. The Asch Building (1901) was renamed the Brown Building after a fire that burned less than fifteen minutes on 25 March 1911 took the lives of 146 workers trapped behind locked doors in the three upper stories of the ten-story building and because the one fire escape at the rear of the building ended in mid-air. After this tragedy—clearly attributable to greed—“reform laws rose like a Phoenix from the ashes” (Tauranac 98-99).

  5. The history section of New York Panorama: A Companion to the WPA Guide to New York City provides a revealing summary: “Electricity for lighting began to replace gas in 1880; and in 1887 the tremendous task of moving electric light wires from the forests to poles to underground conduits was initiated. This latter move turned out to be of great advantage in the building boom that reached its peak in 1901, probably the year of greatest activity in real estate and building that New York has ever known. … Within a few years, the skyscraper began to dominate lower Manhattan, center of the city's big-business activities. The Flatiron, Singer, Metropolitan Life and Woolworth Buildings exemplified a new and distinctly American type of commercial architecture” (72).

  6. In Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction (43-54).

  7. “On the Novel,” Willa Cather in Person (169).

  8. By making the Singer Tower as Moloch the central figure or image in this early story, Cather anticipated the centrality of Ántonia, having likened her to an earthenware jar set in the middle of a round table. Cather was also anticipating the implied centrality of the statue of Archbishop Lamy as Archbishop Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop, as I argue elsewhere. Similarly, Glen Lick argues that Tom Outland, like the tower in the ruin, is the ordering principle in The Professor's House; the novel demonstrates the need for a center between the ideal world above and the sustaining world below.

  9. Unless noted otherwise, all quotations from Flaubert's Salammbô are taken from A. J. Krailsheimer's 1977 translation.

  10. See O. F. Semsch (9). Van Leeuween suggests that Semsch writes in the “idiom of the time” when he describes the tower “as a marvel which had ‘become as distinctive a feature of the sky line of New York as the Egyptian pyramids are of the Valley of the Nile.’” Van Leeuwen considers Semsch's topical reverence for the speed of the Singer Building's construction (“1,200 men employed for one year and eight months”) revealed in this “odd conclusion”: “Compare this with the time it took to erect Cologne Cathedral the twin towers of which the Singer Building surpassed in height. The Cathedral was begun in 1248 and finished 641 years later—in 1889. A comparison might further be made with the great pyramid of Cheops, on which 100,000 men were employed for 30 years, which would be equivalent to 3,000,000 men working every day for one year” (117).

  11. Curtis Bradford observed: “If we can judge from a single story, ‘Behind the Singer Tower’ indicates that she would have succeeded as a social critic had she wished to” (546-547).

  12. Earlier versions of this essay illustrated with slides have been presented at the Northeast MLA in New York, 3 April 1982, for the session on Cather and New York chaired by Judith Johnston; to a faculty research group at the University of Reading (England) on 15 November 1986; and at the Third National Seminar on Willa Cather at Hastings College and Red Cloud, Nebraska, June 1987. Sharon O'Brien quotes from this essay in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (384, 401 n6).

Works Cited

Bennett, Mildred R. “Introduction.” Cather, Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction. xiii-xli.

Bradford, Curtis. “Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories.” American Literature 26.4 (1955): 537-551.

Cather, Willa. “Escapism.” On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949. 18-29.

———. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction: 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.

———. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbô. 1862. Paris: Éditions Garnier Frères, 1961.

———. Salammbô. 1862. Trans. J. C. Chartres. Intro. F. C. Green. London: Everyman, 1931.

———. Salammbô. 1862. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1977.

Gervaud, Michel. “A Note on Willa Cather and Flaubert.” Willa Cather Pioner Memorial Newsletter 23.3 (1979): 2, 6.

Kates, George N. “Introduction.” Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of Her First Journey. New York: Knopf, 1956. v-xii.

van Leeuwen, Thomas A. P. The Skyward Trend of Thought: The Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper. 1986. Baltimore: MIT, 1988.

Lick, Glen. “Tom Outland: A Central Problem.” Southwestern American Literature 8.1 (1982): 42-48.

Morris, Wright. The Home Place. 1948. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.

New York Panorama: A Companion to the WPA Guide to New York City. 1938. New York: Random, 1984.

O'Brien, Sharon. “Chronology.” Willa Cather: Early Novels and Stories. By Willa Cather. New York: Library of America, 1987. 1299-1318.

———. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Semsch, O. F., ed. A History of the Singer Building Construction: Its Progress from Foundation to Flag Pole. New York: Trow, 1908.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Foreward. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963. 9-11.

Slote, Bernice, and Lucia Woods. Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1973.

Stouck, David. “Willa Cather and the Impressionistic Novel.” Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Ed. John J. Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1984. 48-66.

Tauranac, John. Essential New York: A Guide to the History and Architecture of Manhattan's Important Buildings, Parks, and Bridges. New York: Holt, 1979.

Jeane Harris (essay date 1990)

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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 anxiety of authorship” (83), that even though she denounced women writers, “Somewhere in her consciousness she knew that women could be strong and vibrant and creative storytellers” (125). As Cather matured, she eventually abandoned the male values she once associated with art, thereby reconciling the opposing roles of woman and artist. Thus, O'Brien insists, Cather was able to write novels that speak from a woman's experience. However, O'Brien's effort to make Cather “fit” into a female literary tradition not only distorts the central themes of her fiction but also diminishes Cather's complex and conflicted literary imagination.

For whatever reason, during her adolescence Willa Cather admired male behavior and even adopted male dress; her apparent identification with males is evident from her self-imposed nickname “Willy” or “Billy” that she used well into her college years at the University of Nebraska. Recent biographers have attempted to treat the psychological aspects of her William Cather period. For example, O'Brien analyzes Cather's feelings toward her mother in an attempt to explain her cross-dressing and short haircuts during her adolescent years. However, Cather's identification with the masculine goes beyond the starched shirtwaists, short haircuts, and sarcastic newspaper columns of her college years. Any discussion of Cather's strong identification with male values must include her alleged lesbianism, for although O'Brien warns that “we must be careful to distinguish her love for women, which endured, from her male identification, which did not” (140), a discussion of one inevitably leads to a discussion of the other. Indeed, Cather's lesbianism, which includes an assumption that she loved women, and her misogyny, which implies that she hated women, complicates the discussion of the male values that inform her fiction.

Cather's alleged lesbianism and the effect her sexual orientation had on her writing have been hotly debated for the past five years. Although early biographers of Cather do not directly address the question of her lesbianism, all acknowledge her deep emotional attachment to Isabelle McClung. Cather lived with Isabelle in the McClung family home in Pittsburgh for a number of years and, according to all her biographers, loved Isabelle very deeply. Cather herself said that all her books were written for Isabelle. Eventually, however, Cather left the pleasant domestic surroundings of the McClung home and accepted a job at McClure's magazine in New York City. There, Cather moved into an apartment with her friend Edith Lewis, whom she had met in Red Cloud a few years before. Cather and Lewis lived together until Willa Cather's death in April of 1947. Thus, like her contemporary, Gertrude Stein, Cather had a friend and helpmate with whom she shared her life for nearly four decades. Indeed, the Stein-Toklas, Cather-Lewis relationships are also similar in that they both “duplicated the imbalance apparent in many heterosexual unions” (Benstock 18). Evidence for this “imbalance” in the Cather-Lewis relationship is reflected in Sharon O'Brien's description of Cather's relationship with Edith Lewis:

Cather, however, did not create this sheltering home [5 Bank Street] alone. This was a shared space and it is possible that without Edith Lewis (or someone like her) Cather might not have been able to fashion such a nourishing and harmonious domestic environment. … In Elizabeth Sergeant's view Cather was unquestionably the dominant partner in the menage. … Lewis helped in many ways … by taking care of those messy, intruding details of daily life that we all wish someone else would handle for us … [she] served as a buffer between Cather and the outside world.


In fact, the comparison between Stein and Cather is apt in other ways as well. Like Gertrude Stein, Cather's male-identified values had a profound influence on her work. In her recent book, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940, Shari Benstock suggests that “the implications of Stein's alliance with the masculine are more complex and more extensive than have so far been suggested” (19). Again, Benstock's remarks are equally applicable to Cather, who, like Stein, “presents particular problems for feminist critics because, although an important woman in twentieth-century literature and culture, she remained absolutely uninterested in supporting the work of other women or even in acknowledging herself as one of them” (18).

This statement is too harsh to apply absolutely to Cather; in later years, she admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett and wrote a Preface to Jewett's book The Country of the Pointed Firs. Even her well-known admiration for Jewett, however, was qualified. “She was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving” (Willa Cather in Person 66). Cather's acceptance or praise of women writers is rare. For the most part, again like her expatriate contemporary overseas, Cather “wanted a place among the men of [the writing] community, and she accepted the implicit patriarchal belief that women were isolated and domesticated precisely because they were weak and non-intellectual” (Benstock 15).

For proof that Cather's misoygny was not merely a transitory attitude confined to her college years and for evidence of the male aesthetic that informs her fiction, we need look no further than a 1898 short story, “The Way of the World.” Written when Cather was twenty-five years old and working as a writer for the Home Monthly magazine in Pittsburgh, the story is parabolic. Its subject matter is the relationship between male and female and reveals much about Cather's male-identified code.

The main character of the story, Speckle Burnham, is a good boy, the kind Cather most admired. He has a “wonderful executive ability” and “inventive genius” (Collected Short Fiction 396). He is “a prince in his own right and a ruler of men” (397). In addition, Speckle is kind and not prejudiced against females; however, his kind and trusting nature is his downfall. He is done in by a girl, his playmate, Mary Eliza. Cather contrasts Mary Eliza with Speckle in a negative way. Instead of employing creativity and executive abilities, as Speckle does, Mary Eliza uses “arts and wiles” to get what she wants. She seeks to gain admittance into Speckle's play-town, Speckleville, a collection of “half-a-dozen store boxes of large dimensions, placed evenly in a row against the side of the barn” (395). Inhabited by Speckle and a few of his close friends, the citizenry of Speckleville is exclusively male. Cather attributes Mary Eliza's desire to be part of Speckleville to her gender: “the instincts of her sex were strong in her, and that six male beings should dwell together in ease and happiness seemed to her an unnatural and a monstrous thing” (397).

The admission of a woman threatens this cloistered male world, and Speckle's friends try to warn him not to let Mary Eliza in. “She's a girl, and this ain't a girl's play” (398). Over their objections, Speckle admits Mary Eliza to Speckleville, and she immediately begins making trouble. Cather never explains Mary Eliza's actions as the result of wickedness or meanness. Her motivations and actions are always the result of her gender. She appeals “to every masculine instinct in the boys, beginning with their stomachs” and eventually undermines Speckle's authority because she “possessed certain talents which peculiarly fitted her to dwell and rule in a boy's town” (400). Clearly these “talents” are uniquely female in nature, and her talents bring “disaster and ruin upon the town of Speckleville” (401).

Even feminine characteristics that boys display receive censure in Cather's story and are equally disruptive to the peace and order of Speckleville. When a “New Boy” arrives on the scene, Cather describes him as “disgustingly effeminate” because he wears shoes and socks and, instead of paying for his purchases with straight pins, the accepted currency of Speckleville, he gives Mary Eliza real money that she accepts. Cather indicates that this exchange is a serious breech of the male code. “They [Speckle and his friends] began to wonder as to just what a girl's notion of the square thing was, a question that has sometimes vexed older heads” (401-402). Predictably, Mary Eliza eventually goes off with the New Boy to start their own town, leaving the boys alone again. But the game is ruined, although Speckle is reluctant to admit it.

“Well, now she's gone,” protested Speckle, “so why can't we go like we did before?’

No one attempted to answer. It was scarcely a wise question to ask.

“I always told you she'd spoil the town, Speckle, and now she's done it,” said Jimmy Templeton.


The inhabitants of Speckleville quarrel among themselves, and soon the “town vanished as many another western town has done since then” (404).

There is little doubt that Cather means this story to be amusing; that is evident from the frequent authorial asides to the reader: “Now, alas! It is time to introduce the tragic motif in this simple chronicle of Speckleville, to bring about the advent of the heavy villain into the comedy” (401). Cather employs mock heroic elements in the story to add to the humor. When the question of admitting a girl to the all-male population of Speckleville arises, Cather commiserates with Speckle: “Poor Speckle! He had never heard of that old mud-walled town in Latium that was also founded by a boy, and where so many good fellows dwelt together in jovial comradeship until they invited some ladies from the Sabine hills to a party, with such disastrous results.” (398). Again, at the end of the story Speckle sits alone “with his empty pails in his deserted town, as Caius Marius once sat among the ruins of Carthage” (404). When Mary Eliza leaves Speckleville to start a new town, she invites the Speckleville boys to “come over to our town and buy things, and we'll come over and buy things at yours” (402-403). The male code, however, has been profoundly violated: “The treachery, the infamy of her deception never seemed to have occurred to her. It was as though Coriolanus, when he deserted Rome for the camp of the Volscians, had asked the Conscript Fathers to call on him and bring their families!” (403).

Throughout, Cather employs classical allusions, comparing the story of Speckleville to the fall of Rome. Cather uses such allusions deliberately and with a humorous intent. But although her intent is humorous, a bitter undertone taints the subtext, which is misogynistic. For example, early in the story Speckle wonders about the limitations of the female imagination: “He was wondering whether Mary Eliza could meet the large demands on the imagination requisite to citizenship in Speckleville. He was not wholly certain as to the enduring qualities of feminine imagination, but he did not know exactly how to express his doubts, so he remained silent” (399). It might be argued that Cather's intention in this story is to protest stereotypical notions of women; unfortunately, she does not allow for this reading of the text. “For all boys will admit that there are some girls who would make the best boys in the world—if they were not girls” (401). Thus, girls do not simply act like girls—they are girls. That fact, according to Cather, damns them.

Cather objects, in this story and elsewhere, to the foolishness, treachery, and meddlesome nature of women that many male writers and critics of her time expressed. Mary Eliza's violation of the male code when she accepts the New Boy's money indicates Cather's internalization of the male values and attitudes that permeated late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century America.

Another short story written during this period also indicates her admiration for male attributes and disdain for female characteristics. In her story, “Tommy the Unsentimental,” Cather introduces Tommy Shirley, who possesses “a peculiarly unfeminine mind that could not escape meeting or acknowledging a logical conclusion” and whose “shrewd face … was so like a clever wholesome boy's” (475). Miss Jessica, the stereotypical female described by Cather as “a white, dainty languid bit of a thing, who used violet perfumes and carried a sunshade” (476), is unable to complete an arduous twenty-five mile bicycle trip to save her would-be lover, Jay Ellington Harper, from a run on his bank. However, Tommy, who “looked aggressively masculine and professional when she bent her shoulders and pumped” (478), completes the journey in time to save Jay. In a typical Cather story, the male or the masculine woman performs in an honorable, unselfish manner whereas the female or feminine man behaves in a cowardly, selfish manner. The theme of a woman's violation, misinterpretation, or simple failure to live up to an accepted male code dominates this early short story.

But nowhere is the code of male behavior more graphically represented than in Cather's 1905 short story, “Flavia and Her Artists,” the story of a woman's violation of the male code that is exemplified by one man, Arthur Hamilton, and articulated by a masculine woman, Jimmy Broadwood. An examination of Arthur Hamilton's character provides insight into the male code of behavior that is espoused in “Flavia and Her Artists.” As she does in “The Way of the World,” Cather demonstrates the admirable character of the male by contrasting him with the female character who violates the male code his character represents. Thus, Arthur Hamilton conducts his business and his life “with quiet perserverance, marked ability, and amazing industry” (153). He is a hero to Imogen and “had been the magician of her childhood” (149). Like many Cather heroes, Arthur is outwardly laconic; his finest qualities are not initially apparent, but outward appearances are not important to the male aesthetic: “Arthur Hamilton was born, and he spent his boyhood in the West Indies, and physically he had never lost the brand of the tropics. … [He was] a self-sufficient, rather ascetic man of thirty, indifferent in manner, wholly negative in all other personal charms” (153).

Arthur is an unpretentious business man; he is wealthy enough to support his wife's prodigious demands for material belongings because of his business acumen, which she, of course, fails to appreciate and indeed of which she is ashamed. “The fact that her husband's name was annually painted upon some ten thousand threshing machines, in reality contributed very little to her happiness” (153). According to Cather's code, action, not words, are important. Women, who are only impressed by outward appearances, merely reveal their insensitivity to the male code by their preoccupation with superficial manifestations of taste. Unlike men they need public recognition for their beauty and taste. Men, on the other hand, even though they may have rough exteriors, are devoted to a code that considers outward appearance less important than quality of character. Women, however, are incapable of adhering to the male code of behavior. Flavia Hamilton is such a woman, and Cather describes her in less than generous terms.

Her face was the sort that does not show wear. Its blond tints were as fresh and enduring as enamel,—and quite as hard. Its usual expression was one of tense, often strained, animation which compressed her lips nervously. … A perfect scream of animation, Miss Broadwood called it. … At least this was the impression Imogen got from that note in Flavia which was so manifestly false.


The language Cather uses to describe Flavia Hamilton is clearly negative. She is hard, artificial, concerned only with material possessions—all the negative qualities Cather despises in women. Because she has no understanding of art, she surrounds herself with artists, who, sensing her total lack of understanding, secretly despise and mock her. Her very presence in the story is an affront to the male aesthetic that is embodied by her husband, Arthur Hamilton.

Arthur's adherence to the masculine code of silence or taciturnity prevents him from articulating the principles he embodies and by which he lives. Therefore Cather must employ another character to espouse the code for him. Like Tommy Shirley in “Tommy the Unsentimental,” Jimmy Broadwood is the masculine woman in “Flavia and Her Artists” who articulates the male aesthetic that governs the consciousness of the story.

As in many Cather stories, a woman's goodness and attractiveness are in direct proportion to her masculinity, and every reference to Jemima “Jimmy” Broadwood is accompanied by a description of her masculinity. “She always reminds me of a nice, clean, pink-and-white boy who has just had his cold bath” (150). “She wore her thick brown hair short and parted at the side; and rather than hinting at freakishness, this seemed admirably in keeping with her fresh, boyish countenance” (153). “She wore a white rosebud in the lapel of her coat, and decidedly she seemed more than ever like a nice, clean boy on his holiday” (162).

Clearly, Jimmy Broadwood is a character Cather admires, and although the story is told from Imogen Willard's point of view, her opinions and perceptions of the other characters are determined by what Jimmy Broadwood thinks. The omniscient narrator refers repeatedly to Jimmy's opinions throughout the narrative. For example, the narrator provides the following description of the Hamiltons' house:

Flavia's house was the mirror of her exultation; it was a temple to the gods of Victory, a sort of triumphal arch. … The “House of Song,” as Miss Broadwood had called it, was the outcome of Flavia's more exalted strategies. There was a smoking-room, which one entered through the library behind the staircase. On the second floor there was the same general arrangement; a square hall, and, opening from it, the guest chambers or, as Miss Broadwood termed them, the cages.


Flavia has a penchant for inviting well-known artists to stay at her house. She collects and displays them. Her absurdity stems from the fact that she is blind to their contempt of her and her hospitality, a hospitality which is offered at the expense of her husband's and children's comfort and well-being. Jimmy Broadwood explains the results of Flavia's foolishness to Imogen:

Chaos has already begun in the servants' quarters. There are six different languages spoken there now. You see, it's all on an entirely false basis. Flavia hasn't the slightest notion of what these people are really like, their good and their bad escape her. They, on the other hand, can't imagine what she is driving at. Now, Arthur is worse off than either faction; he is not in the fairy story in that he sees these people exactly as they are, but he is utterly unable to see Flavia as they see her. There you have the situation … all that Flavia's artists have done or ever will do means exactly as much to her as a symphony means to an oyster.


The “situation,” as Jimmy puts it, worsens when one of Flavia's artists, M. Roux, who has already insulted Flavia at her own dinner table, leaves the house and writes a scathingly accurate portrait of her in a newspaper. Jimmy is gleeful that at last Flavia will see herself as others see her, but Arthur, adhering to the chivalrous male code of behavior, burns the newspaper before Flavia can read it. Ignorant of what has happened, Flavia praises M. Roux at dinner in front of her other artists, who mock her by agreeing with her opinion of him. In a deliberate, obviously prepared speech, Arthur denounces M. Roux in front of his wife and their dinner guests. Shamed by Arthur's speech, the artists begin to pack up and leave. Imogen's description of Arthur's act of love and defense of his wife's honor exemplifies the male code. “He bared his back to the tormentor, signed himself over to punishment in that speech he made at dinner, which everyone understands but Flavia” (171). Flavia, of course, in her stupidity and arrogance, blames her husband for what has happened and denounces his behavior to Imogen.

You can't realize, knowing Arthur as you do, his entire lack of any aesthetic sense whatever. He is absolutely nil, stone deaf and stark blind, on that side. He doesn't mean to be brutal, it is just the brutality of utter ignorance. … I have spent my life apologizing for him and struggling to conceal it but in spite of me, he wounds them; his very attitude even in silence offends them. Heavens! do I not know, is it not perpetually and forever wounding me?


Imogen, having internalized many of the male values her society espouses, defends Arthur's character on the basis of his gender. “I think you mistake his attitude … that is, I fancy he is more appreciative than he seems. A man can't be very demonstrative about those things—not if he is a real man” (169, 170). Imogen's attempt to explain to Flavia the male code of silence is completely unsuccessful. Flavia's total egocentricity and unforgivable ignorance is thus brutally exposed by Cather's use of dramatic irony. Flavia, of course, is the one who has no aesthetic sense whatever; she is the one who is ignorant and whose ignorance of the male code of behavior, here exemplified by Arthur Hamilton's essential honesty and chivalric defense of his wife's honor, is unforgivable. Imogen's appraisal of his behavior and character are clearly Cather's.

How Cather experienced and came to terms with her lesbianism and the effect her identification with a masculine ethic had on her fiction are not easily determined. Her sentiments regarding men and women are puzzling. But, as an examination of three of her short stories has shown, Cather's identification with masculine values and ideals and her misogyny is not confined to her early adolescence or to her newspaper columns where she voices every male prejudice imaginable.

Shari Benstock argues about Gertrude Stein that “It is important to situate Stein among women writers of this [the expatriate Paris] community even though she would argue against such an alignment” (19). Benstock's remarks are equally relevant to Willa Cather. Cather probably did not consider herself part of a female literary tradition; she would undoubtedly have been insulted by such a notion. Thus, although it is important to examine Cather's relationship to other women writers, feminist critics cannot make room for Willa Cather in the feminist literary tradition by dismissing her misogyny as a youthful misstep. Such an approach oversimplifies the complex, troubling nature of her genius. Clearly, complicated forces were at work inside her psyche. Struggling with the growing awareness of her sexual nature and wishing desperately to be accepted by the male literary establishment, she denigrated women artists in her early newspaper writing and fiction simply because, again like Gertrude Stein, she perceived no other way to claim a place for herself in a writing community dominated by men. Although many of Cather's attitudes about women are confusing, one thing is abundantly clear: Willa Cather does not sit comfortably among other American women writers in a female literary tradition.

Works Cited

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Cather, Willa. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction: 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

———. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speechs, and Letters. Ed. Brent L. Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Claude J. Summers (essay date 1990)

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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 contribution to gay male literature and to the debate about homosexuality sparked by the Wilde scandal. More particularly, “Paul's Case,” the acclaimed story that marks the beginning of Cather's artistic maturity after a prolonged period of apprenticeship, has not yet been placed in the context of its author's growing awareness of the limits of the masculine aesthetic that she originally espoused. Nor has the story's insight into the homosexual's plight in American society at the turn into the new century been adequately explored. In Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Roger Austen briefly discusses “Paul's Case” as a depiction of a sensitive young man stifled by the drab ugliness of his environment and places the protagonist in an American literary tradition of “village sissies” (31-33). And more exhaustively, Larry Rubin argues that the title character of the story is “very probably homosexual by nature and temperament” and that “Cather is trying to show us the tragic consequences of the conflict between a sensitive and hence alienated temperament, on the one hand, and a narrowly ‘moral,’ bourgeois environment, on the other” (131). But both discussions tend to sentimentalize the protagonist's gayness and to reduce the story to a simple conflict between the individual and society. Neither study locates “Paul's Case” in the context of Cather's response to the aesthetic movement in general or to the Wilde scandal in particular. Consequently, they fail to grasp the complexity of Cather's story and of her perspective on homosexuality in it.

For the young Cather, Wilde was a profoundly disturbing figure. The target of a number of her early critical remarks published in the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier (now conveniently collected in The Kingdom of Art,2) he unmistakably challenged some of her most deeply cherished social and aesthetic notions and roused her to some of her most visceral expressions of contempt. Cather's attitude toward Wilde and the aesthetic movement in these early newspaper columns and reviews is unremittingly hostile. Regarding him as a poseur who betrayed his talent, she despises his “insincerity,” his tendency to mock social conventions, his elevation of art at the expense of nature, and most important, his “driveling effeminacy” (135). Interestingly, her hostility to Wilde is expressed so vehemently—indeed, so excessively—as to make one suspect that he represented for her not merely an artistic creed with which she lacked sympathy but a personal psychological threat. The early comments on Wilde are extraordinarily revealing of Cather's cast of mind in the mid-1890s, as contrasted with the period some ten years later when she wrote “Paul's Case,” and they form an illuminating backdrop against which to explore the story.

In an 1894 review of Robert Hichens' “clever and inane” but insinuating satire on Wilde and his circle, The Green Carnation, Cather remarks that “it certainly ought to succeed in disgusting people with Mr. Wilde's epigrammatic school once and for all. It turns and twists those absurd mannerisms and phrases of Wilde's until they appear as ridiculous as they really are” (135). In the same year, in a review of Lady Windermere's Fan, she observes that Wilde's “philosophy is so contemptible, so inane, so puny that even with all its brilliant epigrams the club talk in the third act is wearisome” and that through the “little puppy Cecil Graham” (who, like the protagonist of “Paul's Case” and like Wilde himself, sports a carnation in his button-hole) Wilde “vents all his unwholesome spleen and his pitiable smallness” (389). She finds the play artificial and unbelievable because its theme is motherhood, a thing “which a man of Mr. Wilde's ethics and school and life cannot even conceive” (388). Cather's dislike for Wilde in these pieces and the personalizing of her repugnance go beyond measured criticism; clearly, she found his artificiality and iconoclasm, especially his challenge to sex-role conventions and to the hearty masculinity that she embraced at the time, deeply dispiriting. Her references to Wilde in terms of frailty—his “puny philosophy,” his “little puppy” of a character, his “pitiable smallness”—are particularly noteworthy. They indicate her contempt for any deviance from the masculine ideal that Wilde and his circle mocked and that she celebrated in her effusive praise of such writers as Rudyard Kipling as well as in her commendation of football as a force that “curbs the growing tendencies toward effeminacy so prevalent in the eastern colleges” (213).

In her 1895 columns following Wilde's imprisonment, Cather continues to denigrate him. She begins an essay on Swinburne by noting—almost gleefully—that “his brother in Apollo is picking oakum in prison” (349); and in a column bitterly denouncing the aesthetic movement, she extravagantly hails Wilde's downfall as prefiguring “the destruction of the most fatal and dangerous school of art that has ever voiced itself in the English tongue” (389). She says, “We will have no more such plays as Lady Windermere's Fan, no more such stories as The Portrait [sic] of Dorian Gray” and adds: “We can do without them. They were full of insanity” (389). She relishes the irony implicit in the “peculiar fact” that a movement that set such store in beauty “has ended by finding what was most grotesque, misshapen and unlovely” (389-390). She accuses Wilde of “the begetter of all evil—insincerity” and in effect congratulates herself on being among the few who were not blinded by the cleverness of Lady Windermere's Fan, who “felt in it that falseness which makes the soul shudder and revolt” (390). She explains the rise of the aesthetic school as a consequence “of the artificial way in which men and women are living. … Every century or so society decides to improve on nature. It becomes very superior and refined indeed, until right through its surface there breaks some ghastly eruption that makes it hide its face in shame” (390). She finds the aesthetes' insistence that nature imitates art particularly galling. She concludes the essay by saluting the salubrious effects of Wilde's disgrace: “We put on sackcloth and go back to our father's house and become again as little children. Then it is that human endeavor becomes bold and strong and that human art is charged with new life. For it is while we are in that child-like mood of penitence that nature opens her arms to us and God tells us the secrets of heaven” (390). In this conclusion, Cather at once embraces the triumph of the patriarchy, which is implicitly defined as “natural”—in effect, welcoming repression—and yet acknowledges a “shame” that she shares with the aesthetes. This barely concealed acknowledgment of identification with the movement that she vilifies may account for the extremity of her invective here. The tensions and contradictions palpable in this column suggest how thoroughly disturbing Cather found the aesthetic movement's challenge to conventional notions of the relationship of art and nature and to her own aesthetic of hyper-masculinity.

In a reflection on Wilde published later in 1895, Cather accuses him of having wasted his talent and of sinning against the holy spirit in man by having “used the holiest things for ends the basest” (391). “He might have been a poet of no mean order, he might have been one of the greatest living dramatists, he might have been almost anything,” she writes, “but he preferred to be a harlequin” (391), thus anticipating Wilde's own clown-like self-representation in De Profundis but denying the holiness he was to associate with the harlequin figure there. Although she asserts that the sins of the body are small compared to the sins of the spirit, she nevertheless judges him “most deservedly” imprisoned (392). “Upon his head is heaped the deepest infamy and the darkest shame of his generation. Civilization shudders at his name, and there is absolutely no spot on earth where this man can live” (392), she remarks with some satisfaction. Significantly, she herself shudders at the prospect of naming Wilde: she begins the article by quoting Wilde's “Helas!” and remarking that “I did not know whether to give the name of the author of that lament or not, for he has made his name impossible” (390); and she ends it by quoting lines from Browning's “The Lost Leader” that begin “Blot out his name then” (393). This difficulty with naming may well be the result of Wilde's association with “the Love that dare not speak its name” and with Cather's own preoccupation with her lesbianism, which she would later characterize as “the thing not named.”3 For her, Wilde is a dangerous figure, at once unmentionable yet unavoidably fascinating.

Cather's disparagement of Wilde in the 1890s is especially interesting insofar as it coexists with her own intense admiration for many French fin de siècle writers, including Verlaine. This coexistence indicates that her contempt for Wilde is not merely an expression of prudish conventionality, a reflection of her Nebraska readership, or evidence of a principled objection to fin de siècle preoccupations with immoral or unconventional subject matter. After all, in her warm tribute occasioned by Verlaine's death in 1896, she describes him as profligate and degenerate but nevertheless a supreme artist. “He was imprisoned again and again for unmentionable and almost unheard of crimes. … He was a practicer of every excess known to man” (394), she declares, yet proceeds to celebrate him as an artist of genuine inspiration and accomplishment, regarding his personal degeneracy as a necessary ingredient in the creation of his art. Moreover, in defending Verlaine, she attacks those who would denigrate him as “Philistines,” that Arnoldian term that Wilde appropriated as his own scornful epithet to hurl against the enemies of art. The point is not that it is necessarily inconsistent to disparage Wilde and to praise Verlaine but that the excesses and terms of Cather's attacks on Wilde are inconsistent with the strategies by which she defends Verlaine. Unlike many turn-of-the-century critics who saw Wilde and Verlaine as equally dangerous figures and who linked them in a common enterprise of decadence, Cather scorns the artificiality of the aesthetes but celebrates the blessed degeneracy of Verlaine. Even as she condemns Wilde's subversive credo as “puny,” she finds Verlaine's revolt against bourgeois values heroic, that is, masculine. The conclusion to be drawn from this apparent inconsistency is that Cather's principal objection to Wilde is as much personal as it is literary. More accurately, it is a reaction against his “drivelling effeminacy,” his subversive mockery of the masculine ideal, as well as a rejection of his elevation of the artificial and the precious at the expense of the natural and the ordinary. Only when Cather herself came to redefine the masculine aesthetic of her youth could she qualify her attitude toward Wilde and the aesthetes. In a very real, if not altogether obvious sense, “Paul's Case” reflects this modification in her thinking about Wilde and his circle.

The sources of “Paul's Case” are probably many, not least among them Cather's own personal experience as teacher and dreamer. Many years after the story's composition, she claimed that the protagonist was inspired by a student in the Pittsburgh high school at which she taught and that her character's experiences in New York were based on her own feelings about the city.4 But there is reason to think that the story owes a great deal to her evolving response to the Wilde scandal and to Wilde's role as a symbolic figure, particularly as a discredited aesthete and as a persecuted victim. The story was published in 1905, five years after Wilde's death and soon after the appearance of the first, abridged version of De Profundis, at a time when Wilde was once again very widely discussed in literary circles.5 Most significantly, the protagonist is depicted in easily recognizable terms as a Wildean aesthete, as a dandy who sports a carnation in his button-hole and who found “a certain element of artificiality … necessary in beauty” (251). In addition, the story's indictment of the failure of imagination in American society parallels Wilde's stress on imagination in De Profundis, although Cather ironically implicates the Wildean aesthete in her indictment.6 Moreover, placed as it is as the final story in a collection of stories focusing on art and artists,7 the work invites consideration as a meditation on aestheticism and on the connection between art and nature, the preoccupation of the aesthetes, as well as a consideration of the homosexual's problematic relationship to society.

Central to the full experience of the story is recognition of the fact of Paul's homosexuality, a “fact” that is nowhere stated openly. This lack of explicitness reflects both the difficulty of writing about homosexuality in 1905 and Cather's own preference for insinuation and implication. In her essay on the craft of fiction, “The Novel Démeublé,” first published in 1922, Cather calls attention to the presence of absence in her work. “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created,” she remarks. “It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself” (50).8 The startling phrase “the thing not named” connotes experience that the author does not, or cannot, express openly. As O'Brien notes, “the most prominent absence and most unspoken love in her work are the emotional bonds between women that were central to her life” (127). In “Paul's Case,” however, the thing not named is Paul's homosexuality, a presence made palpable not by direct statement but by numerous hints and a distinct emotional aura and verbal mood.

In his brief article Rubin details some of the most significant clues that the story offers of Paul's gayness, from the youth's slight physique and the “hysterical brilliancy” of his eyes that he uses “in a conscious, theatrical way, peculiarly offensive in a boy” (243), to his dandified dress, his attraction to the young actor in Pittsburgh and the Yale freshman in New York, his fastidiousness and use of violet water, his nervousness and internalized fears. In addition to the clues detected by Rubin, the very title of the story, with its medical and legal overtones, is suggestive, for in 1905 discourse on homosexuality was couched almost exclusively in terms of criminality or psychopathology. The protagonist, the title implies, is a fitting subject for a psychological or criminal case history. The subtitle, “A Study in Temperament,” is particularly telling insofar as it implies a psychological condition and insofar as “temperament” is practically a code-word for sexual orientation. But most interesting of all in light of Cather's reference to the importance of verbal mood in her strategy of revelation within concealment is the language of “Paul's Case.” Throughout the story, Cather repeatedly uses diction suggestive of homosexuality. Although in almost every instance the words are used with no specific allusion to homosexuality, the startling number and pervasiveness of such terms as gay (used four times), fairy, faggot, fagged, queen, loitering, tormented, unnatural, haunted, different, perverted, secret love, and so on create a verbal ambience that subtly but persistently calls attention to the issue. However innocently used, these words and phrases appear too often to be merely coincidental. They function to help establish the overtone by which the ear divines homosexuality in the text. Through this linguistic device, Cather creates a verbal mood that subliminally signals homosexuality as an important aspect of her work, even as she avoids any direct reference to the subject.

In the story, which might be described as a case study of a young aesthete, Paul's homosexuality is most vividly symbolized as the unnamed fear that has haunted him for years. “Until now, he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something,” he reflects after he has stolen the money. “Even when he was a little boy, it was always there—behind him, or before, or on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew” (255). The symbol of his gayness, this “apprehensive dread” profoundly shapes Paul's fearful, defensively contemptuous response to life and helps to account for his disaffection from the values of his middle-class environment. It is also clearly linked to his aestheticism, his preference for the artificial rather than the natural, and his immersion in art at the expense of life. Paul finds freedom from this pervasive fear only when he breaks decisively with his stifling life in Pittsburgh by stealing the money. Then he felt “a curious sense of relief, as though he had at last thrown down the gauntlet to the thing in the corner” (255), Cather writes, describing the break with his past as a kind of symbolic coming out. But although homosexuality in “Paul's Case” is a metaphor for alienation and helps explicate the protagonist's problematic relationship to his society, it is not offered as a sufficient explanation for the youth's tragedy. That is, the cause of Paul's unhappiness and suicide is not his homosexuality but his inability to integrate his homosexuality into real life. This inability is itself the result of the homophobia that pervades his society and that he himself internalizes.

The complexity of the story arises from its skillful, noncommittal narration. The omniscient third-person point of view enables Cather to enter her protagonist's consciousness yet also establishes a crucial distance from him. The narrator evinces and creates sympathy for Paul but never unambiguously endorses his perspective. The distance that Cather achieves by means of her strategy of concealment, dispassionate title, controlled narrative technique, and use of symbols is overlooked by the conventional readings of the story that explain Paul's tragedy as simply the result of an insensitive and uncaring society. But Cather withholds authorial judgment in the contest she presents between Paul and his environment, and she informs the poignancy of Paul's brief and unhappy life with a peculiar kind of irony. She finally implicates both Bohemia and Presbyteria (to use her private terms for the dichotomy)9 in the fate of her young aesthete, whose doom is conceived as a bitterly ironic tragedy of errors.

Complicating rather than reducing, Cather transforms the materials of an overly familiar tale of a tormented artist destroyed by Philistines into a rich and complex story that admits of no simple schematization. Her case study of an alienated youth almost mechanically moving to his doom is enriched by an awareness, subtly and delicately conveyed, of missed opportunities that might have saved him. Paul is not merely the homosexual victim hounded to his suicide by a society that persecutes him. Paul's society, including especially his teachers and father, is indeed culpable; but the youth himself partakes of the lack of imagination that culminates in tragedy. Although the understated narration imparts a sense of inevitability to his fate, Paul himself bears a major responsibility for the waste that it represents. In part shaped by the Wilde scandal, the story in effect comments on Wilde's own fate as one that might have been prevented and as one for which he must share the blame.

As in Wilde's De Profundis, imagination is a key faculty in “Paul's Case.” But in the story it is present by virtue of its almost complete absence, even as the work finally becomes itself an enactment of that imaginative sympathy of which its characters are revealed to be devoid. The lack of imagination on the part of Paul's father, teachers, and neighbors is obvious in their inability to understand the young man and in their simplistic attempts to help him, as well as in their indifference to art and beauty. The father confesses his “perplexity” regarding his son; and the teachers, for all their myriad speculations, admit that “there was something about the boy which none of them understood” (266). The inability of conventional society to understand, and to deal humanely with those who are different, is clearly attacked by the story and exposed as a crucial failure of imagination. This lack of imagination transforms well-intentioned teachers into vicious inquisitors when Paul appears before them to answer various misdemeanors in the story's brilliant opening scene. The teachers are not unkind by nature, but they lack the imagination to understand sympathetically Paul's temperament and consequently allow themselves to be goaded into actions that contradict their own values. What spurs them to their packlike behavior is not merely what Paul actually does but also his defiant attitude and dress. The reaction of the teachers to Paul parallels Cather's own excessive reaction to Wilde's mocking manner in the 1890s and may reflect the author's mature reconsideration of her own earlier lack of imagination in not dealing charitably with Wilde in his disgrace.

A similar failure of imagination leads Paul's father to force the son to break off his relationship with his only friend, the young actor, and to bar him from the theater and concert hall, the scenes of his only pleasures. Instead of regarding Paul's interest in art and in the friend (and potential lover) as possible resources that might be developed to help his son, the father reacts simplistically and increases Paul's isolation and alienation. The father's unimaginative response to his son's difficulties may be said to precipitate (if not to explain) the catastrophe, for, as Paul reflects after stealing the money, “It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theatre and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined. The rest was a mere matter of opportunity” (254).

But somewhat less obvious than the failures of those who might have helped him is Paul's own lack of imagination, in the sense that Wilde employs the term in De Profundis, as an awareness of the meaning of one's experience and of one's relationship to others and to society. Yet the power of the story—and its importance as an original contribution to the debate about homosexuality in the first decade of the twentieth century—pivots on this very issue, for it is the exercise of imagination that might have altered Paul's case and allowed him to find a niche in his society. Paul's failure to analyze his society and to perceive possibilities of accommodation within it are personal (although understandable) failures that contribute to his tragedy, but Cather intimates that the failure of imagination may be endemic to aestheticism itself, at least insofar as it became increasingly remote from ordinary life. In this sense, “Paul's Case” subtly criticizes the defiant rejection of society that De Profundis enacts (and that may have been a widespread temptation among homosexuals in the wake of the Wilde scandal) and calls for the exercise of imagination as a means of healing the rift between the homosexual and society.

Despite Paul's immersion in art, he is severely deficient in imagination. Art for him is merely a stimulation of the senses and an escape from human engagement. The art to which Paul is most attracted significantly excludes both ordinary reality and human relationships. For example, in the picture gallery he finds Raffelli's studies of Paris streets and Venetian scenes exhilarating, and he “loses himself” in a blue Rico seascape. In contrast, he jeers at the representations of human figures, such as Augustus and Venus de Milo. He is imaginative only in the limited sense of being able to alter mundane reality by fantasizing more exciting, romantic alternatives. Music, about which he is utterly indiscriminating, is simply the spark that ignites his escapist fantasies. In his music-induced reveries, he is able to transform the glamourless, matronly German opera singer—a woman “by no means in her first youth, and the mother of many children”—into “a veritable queen of Romance.” In the atmosphere of Carnegie Hall, he is even able to recreate himself temporarily, momentarily feeling “within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things” (251). Similarly, the stage entrance is for Paul “the actual portal of Romance.” It is a “wishing carpet” that whisks him from the realities of “smoke-palled” Pittsburgh to the “blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine” (252).

Not surprisingly, after his orgies of romantic escapism, Paul feels increasingly disaffected with mundane existence and alienated from ordinary life. Returning to his Cordelia Street home after an evening at the opera or theater, “he experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odours; a shuddering repulsion for the flavourless, colourless mass of every-day existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers” (248). As described here, Paul's depression is reminiscent of the neurasthenic morbidity associated with aestheticism and decadence, and exemplified, for example, in Wilde's Dorian Gray and Sir Henry Wotton. Significantly, despite his addiction to the stimulus of art, Paul is himself singularly uncreative. He is neither an artist, musician, writer, actor, nor reader: “He felt no necessity to do any of these things; what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything” (252).

What Paul lacks, of course, is imagination in the sense of sympathy for others, a capacity that is essential both for the creative artist and the successful human being. In the “physical aversion” he expresses toward his teachers, in his refusal to take others seriously or to consider the effect his behavior has on them, in his compulsive lying, and in his complete lack of remorse either for his petty cruelties or his betrayal of trust, Paul signals not merely his revolt against middle-class mores but his contempt for life itself. It is significant that he has almost no relationships with others. He is content to be a voyeur rather than a participant in life. Alone in New York, for example, he feels “not in the least abashed or lonely. He had no especial desire to meet or to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant. The mere stage properties were all he contended for. Nor was he lonely later in the evening, in his loge at the Metropolitan” (257). His brief fling with the Yale freshman, “a wild San Francisco boy,” ends with their “singularly cool” parting (257).10 In his expensive hotel room, he insulates himself from the winter storm raging outside and from the exigencies of life itself and is thereby subtly connected with the hothouse flowers he so admires, which he finds “somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow” (256).

Paul's failure of imagination distorts his capacity to perceive clearly his relationship to society and to others. He assesses everyday reality as “but a sleep and a forgetting” (251). His Cordelia Street neighborhood inspires in him only “a shudder of loathing,” and he approaches it “with the nerveless sense of defeat” (248). He thinks of his home as repulsive, with “his ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bathroom with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spiggots; his father, at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his night-shirt, his feet thrust into carpet slippers” (248). He rejects his middle-class origins and identifies with the wealthy, thinking of the inhabitants of the Waldorf as “his own people” (256). But Paul's own values—epitomized in his belief in the omnipotence of wealth, in the fact “that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted” (259)—are actually not fundamentally different from the materialistic values of Cordelia Street, which also worships wealth and enjoys the “legends of the iron kings.” Like his neighbors, he too relishes “the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous,” but unlike them “he had no mind for the cash-boy stage” (250). Paralleling the tendencies of the aesthetes, including Wilde himself, to identify with upper-class and aristocratic society, Paul's rejection of Cordelia Street values is not based on any probing social analysis but is simply of a piece with his disdain for the ordinary and the everyday. His alienation from his own origins bespeaks both self-loathing and a failure to sympathize with the struggles of others.

Similarly, his interpretations of the motives of others are as inaccurate as his romanticization of the opera singer and the members of the acting company, more telling as projections of his disaffection than as reality. An important example of the morbidity of Paul's imagination, of its tendency to distort the motivations of those closest to him, is provided when he returns home from the Carnegie Hall concert near the beginning of the story. Fearful of facing his father in his night-clothes at the top of the stairs, the young man spends the night in the basement. Unable to sleep, Paul creates various scenarios in which his father mistakes him for a burglar:

Suppose his father had heard him getting in at the window and had come down and shot him for a burglar? Then, again, suppose his father had come down, pistol in hand, and he had cried out in time to save himself, and his father had been horrified to think how nearly he had killed him? Then, again, suppose a day should come when his father would remember that night, and wish there had been no warning cry to stay his hand? With this last supposition Paul entertained himself until daybreak.


The key word in this important passage is entertained. It indicates the extremity of Paul's alienation, his failure to take entirely seriously either his own life or his troubled relationship with his father, and it illustrates the youth's almost obsessive need to translate life into art or at least into entertainment. This passage is also significant for its revelation of Paul's expectation that his father will reject him, that he might well someday wish that he had killed his son. This assumption is an expression of Paul's “apprehensive dread,” his fear that his father will discover his homosexuality. It reflects the homophobia he feels both in the larger society and within himself.

Rather than the unsympathetic ogre that Paul visualizes, his father is a concerned, though inept and unimaginative, parent faced with a difficult situation, the full extent of which he fails to recognize. Mystified by his son's peculiar devotion to music and theater and disturbed by his problems in school, the father simplistically hopes that Paul will model himself after their much admired young neighbor, who, “in order to curb his appetites and save the loss of time and strength that the sowing of wild oats might have entailed,” took his boss's advice and “at twenty-one had married the first woman whom he could persuade to share his fortunes” (250). Ambitious and hard-working, the father embodies the middle-class mores of his neighborhood, “where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived” (248). These values, symbolized by the pictures of George Washington and John Calvin that hang in Paul's bedroom, are limited, for they presuppose a sameness to human nature that does not admit difference, and they turn out to be ineffective in helping Paul. But the father's brief appearances in the story, his presence at the top of the stairs, his reluctant provision of car fare, his taking Paul out of school, and, most important, his reimbursement of Paul's theft and his trip to New York to retrieve his son provide evidence not merely of the tyranny that Paul sees but also of love and concern, however mistakenly and unimaginatively applied.

The failures of imagination that the story indicts are epitomized in the ineffective attempts of the father and his neighbors to help Paul after the theft and in Paul's rejection of these attempts. After the theft is discovered, the Pittsburgh newspapers report that

The firm of Denny & Carson announced that the boy's father had refunded the full amount of the theft, and that they had no intention of prosecuting. The Cumberland minister had been interviewed, and expressed his hope of yet reclaiming the motherless lad, and his Sabbath-school teacher declared that she would spare no effort to that end. The rumour had reached Pittsburgh that the boy had been seen in a New York hotel, and his father had gone East to find him and bring him home.


Clearly, the response of the father and the community to Paul's crime is predicated on a stifling and narrow religiousity. It is unimaginative in its inability to conceive that Paul's needs may be other than those that can be satisfied by home and church. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the response is unquestionably a generous and forgiving one. Paul, however, reacts to the newspaper report with horror. “It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever,” he thinks. “The grey monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years; Sabbath-school, Young People's Meeting, the yellow-papered room, the damp dish-towels; it all rushed back upon him with a sickening vividness” (258). Paul's failure of imagination is obvious here. Utterly oblivious to the generous concern expressed by his neighbors and exemplified by his father, he is as unable to imagine human sympathy on the part of others as he is to feel it himself.

The story is placed in perspective by its use of contrasting symbols associated with Paul and his environment. The very name Cordelia Street evokes Lear's daughter, whose death is as pathetic (and unnecessary) as Paul's.11 Cordelia functions in the story as a complex, double symbol, signifying at once the possibility of both individuality and community responsibility. On the one hand, Cordelia personifies individual integrity and fidelity to one's own vision, the refusal to sacrifice one's sense of self in order to make accommodation with the world. From this perspective, there is considerable irony in evoking Cordelia in connection with the monotonous and conformist neighborhood in which Paul lives, a place whose inhabitants seem unable to comprehend anything beyond their own narrow ken as they look over their multitude of squabbling children and smile “to see their own proclivities reproduced in their offspring” (249). But, significantly, despite rejection by her father, Cordelia comes to personify not only individualism but also agape, an association that is strengthened in the story by the framed motto, “Feed My Lambs,” that Paul's mother had worked in red worsted and that hangs in Paul's bedroom. Signifying community and family loyalty, caring for others and helping bear their burdens, the symbols of agape underline the story's insistence on the importance of imagination in the sense of a capacity for human sympathy. Moreover, agape is certainly present, at least potentially, in the generosity and forgiveness of the neighborhood's reaction to Paul's escapade. More important, it haunts the story as an unstated presence that promises the possibility of integrating outcasts like Paul—and like Wilde and other homosexuals—into the community, and doing so without violating their individuality. The optimism implicit in the notion of agape inevitably challenges the pessimism of any social analysis—such as that in De Profundis—that would lead homosexuals to reject society, or that would sanction society's persecution of gay people.12

In contrast to the symbols of agape associated with Cordelia Street is the red carnation favored by Paul. A hothouse flower, unnaturally cultivated and associated with Wilde, homosexuality, and aestheticism, the red carnation that Paul buries in the snow before leaping to his own death is a symbol of life's brevity and fragility and of the artificial mocking the natural. As Paul trudges through the snow, he notices that the flowers displayed in his coat have drooped, their red glory faded. He becomes sadly aware that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases his first night in New York have similarly failed. “It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass,” he acknowledges; and he concludes, “it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (260). In this meditation, soon before Paul's “picture making mechanism was crushed” and he “dropped back into the immense design of things” (261), Paul reaches a conclusion that contradicts his earlier confident assertion that his rebellion “had paid. … Ah, it had paid indeed!” (259). In so doing, he enunciates one of the story's central points. The “brave mockery” undertaken by Paul (and by Wilde and the aesthetes) is a losing game in the end. In “Paul's Case,” Cather is not so much intent on either prosecuting Presbyteria or defending it from the assaults of Bohemia as on indicating the futility of the battle in the first place.

In “Paul's Case,” Cather provides a case study of the Wildean aesthete. Her portrait of the young protagonist as a Romantic artist manqué is, I think, intended as a comment on Wilde and the aesthetic movement, particularly on the movement's celebration of the artificial and mockery of the natural, its privileging of the precious at the expense of the ordinary, and its elevation of art above nature. She tends to explain this phenomenon in sociological terms and with a measure of controlled sympathy, as when she comments:

Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odours of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly-clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the limelight.


In her unflattering depiction of American middle-class life, Cather provides a context that makes aestheticism understandable and attractive. At the same time, however, she exposes the unreality on which aestheticism is based and condemns it for its disdainful rejection of mundane life and human relationships. She convicts in turn both Presbyteria and Bohemia for failures of imagination, the one for its dullness and conformity, the other for its lack of generosity in divining the motives of ordinary people. But insofar as the story evinces a more humane and sympathetic response to Wilde as victim than Cather was able to muster in 1895, “Paul's Case” is also interesting as evidence of the personal growth its author attained in the following decade, when she progressed from embracing the masculine ideal to apprehending the need for diversity and acceptance of others. Her story indicting the failure of sympathy actually enacts that imaginative response, the lack of which it exposes in its characters.

In depicting the futility of the aesthetes' “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run,” Cather aims not so much to endorse those homilies as to indicate the loss involved in the “brave mockery” of them. But it is significant that she shares neither Wilde's pessimism nor his blanket rejection of society. In her tempered optimism, she clings to faith in the possibility of imagination and in the ideal of agape as antidotes to alienation and anomie. Moreover, she implies that the solution to the homosexual dilemma in an unaccepting society lies in integration rather than separation and in self-acceptance rather than self-hatred. The homophobia that Paul senses in the larger society is exacerbated by his internalized homophobia. His perception distorted by his fears, he fails to realize the possibilities for accommodation within his society and is thus doomed to his unhappy fate. His symbolic coming out, his defiant throwing down the gauntlet “to the thing in the corner,” is not an acceptance but a rejection, and it leads not to liberation but to death. In her contribution to the debate about homosexuality in the wake of the Wilde scandal, Cather places on society and the homosexual alike the burden of imaginative sympathy, indicting the stifling conformity of American middle-class values even as she characterizes the homosexual's contemptuous rejection of society as “a losing game in the end.”

“Paul's Case” is complex and resonant. By means of its masterful narration, it achieves an unusual balance of perspective. It vividly depicts what at first glance may seem the almost inevitable fate of gay people in an unsympathetic, nonpluralistic society, only to deconstruct this pessimistic assessment by subtly implying alternatives to alienation and suicide and envisioning possibilities implict in those homilies by which the world is run. Embodied most fully in the notions of agape and imagination, these possibilities arise from a social analysis quite different from that offered by Wilde and the aesthetes, one that seeks accommodation rather than confrontation. Cather's social analysis is, however, subject to question. Based as it is on appeals to concepts as inevitably vague as agape and imagination, Cather's accommodationism is severely limited as a practical response to homophobia; and one may justly complain that in placing equal burdens on an alienated adolescent and an entire society she comes dangerously close to blaming the victim. But by questioning the inevitability of its own plot, “Paul's Case” not only itself enacts an imaginative response but demands that its readers do so as well, both in the process of interpretation and in relating to others in the world beyond the boundaries of fiction. For all its reticence and indirectness, the story is actually surprisingly engaged. A work of unusual power that evokes genuine pathos, Cather's first major achievement is both a moving tale and a significant contribution to the debate about homosexuality sparked by the Wilde scandal.


  1. For other discussions of Cather as a lesbian, see Jane Rule (74-87) and Deborah Lambert. Phyllis Robinson discusses Cather's romantic attachments with women but does not use the term lesbian.

  2. All quotations of Cather's journalistic writings are taken from The Kingdom of Art.

  3. On the connection between “the Love that dare not speak its name” and “the thing not named” and on Cather's difficulty in naming Wilde, see O'Brien (126-127 and 142n).

  4. On the models for her portrait of Paul, see Kathleen D. Byrne and Richard C. Snyder (64-66). James Woodress (xx), and Marilyn Arnold (67n). Woodress suggests that Cather may also have been influenced by an incident widely reported in the Pittsburgh newspapers involving the thelf of an employer's money by two boys who ran off to Chicago.

  5. The story was first published in Cather's collection of stories, The Troll Garden, and then in McClure's Magazine in May 1905. The Troll Garden appeared in April or May 1905; it is not known exactly when Cather composed “Paul's Case,” but it is generally dated near the end of 1904. Wilde's De Profundis appeared in February 1905, so it is unlikely that Cather read De Profundis before writing “Paul's Case,” and my argument suggesting a similarity between the two works does not depend on the one influencing the other. Nevertheless, involved as she was in literary journalism, Cather would certainly have been aware of so important a literary event as the publication of Wilde's vindication, and this awareness alone may have stimulated her thinking about issues posed by his imprisonment and disgrace; and it is, of course, possible that she may have had access to a prepublication review copy of De Profundis.

  6. Imagination is the key faculty in the authentic self that Wilde attempts to create in De Profundis. All the charges that he brings against his erstwhile lover Lord Alfred Douglas are subsumed in the accusation that he lacked imagination. The opposite of shallowness, imagination for Wilde indicates a liveliness of the spirit, an awareness of the meaning of experience, a critical alertness to the nature of one's relationships both to others and to society and social institutions, and a constant questioning of established social codes.

  7. Another of the stories in The Troll Garden, “The Sculptor's Funeral,” also has a homosexual theme. Indeed, “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “Paul's Case” may be viewed as companion pieces. As Alice Hall Petry observes, “The Sculptor's Funeral” is “a remarkably astute study of a family, a town, a society failing to come to terms, not with a young man's artistic inclinations, but rather with his homosexuality” (108-109). In contrast, the emphasis in “Paul's Case” is, as demonstrated below, equally on a homosexual's failure to come to terms with his society.

  8. Cather's remark in a 1918 interview is also pertinent: “It is always hard to write about the things that are near your heart. From a kind of instinct of self-protection you distort and disguise them” (Overton 259).

  9. On Cather's use of these terms, see O'Brien (225-226).

  10. Rubin conjectures that the frostiness of the parting may have been the result of a sexual overture on Paul's part that the Yale freshman rejects. “Given the lack of any further elucidation of the situation, on Cather's part,” Rubin writes, “the reader is left with an unshakable sense of innuendo” (130).

  11. It should be stressed that Cather invented the name Cordelia Street: the actual street in Pittsburgh that probably inspired Cather's setting is Aurelia Street. See Byrne and Snyder (83-84).

  12. At the end of De Profundis, Wilde revels defiantly in his exclusion from society, his marginality as homosexual pariah. He rejects the society that has condemned him and looks to nature for comfort and consolation: “Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed” (238).

Works Cited

Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 1984.

Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1980.

Cather, Willa. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.

———. “The Novel Démeublé.” Not under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936. 43-51.

———. “Paul's Case.” Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Rev. ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970. 243-261.

———. The Troll Garden. New York: McClure, 1905.

Lambert, Deborah. “The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Ántonia.American Literature 53 (1981-1982): 676-690.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Overton, Grant. The Women Who Make Our Novels. New York: Moffat, 1918.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Harvey's Case: Notes on Cather's ‘The Sculptor's Funeral.’” South Dakota Review 11 (1986): 108-116.

Robinson, Phyllis. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Rubin, Larry. “The Homosexual Motif in Willa Cather's ‘Paul's Case.’” Studies in Short Fiction 12 (1975): 127-131.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis. Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979. 152-240.

Woodress, James. “Introduction.” The Troll Garden. By Willa Cather. Ed. James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983. xi-xxx.

Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1990)

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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 fixed pattern; the writer who strives for an auditory effect in prose simply highlights the natural rhythms of his native tongue through the artifice of arrangement and word choice. Certain combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables produce a pleasing, jarring, or otherwise noticeable effect in a sentence, and one which can reinforce the tone of a statement or smooth the flow of a narration.

Just a cursory glance at language provides elementary instances of my point. We can all sense (or rather hear) that the phrase “rife with corruption” is superior to “full of dishonesty,” not because one is any different from the other in meaning, but because the combination of a dactyl and a trochee (rífe with corruption) simply sounds better than a hobbling double dactyl (full of dishonesty). Similarly, the closing words of the Gettysburg Address depend for their effect as heavily on contrived stresses as on somber economy of expression:

government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here the three prepositional phrases are in accentual agreement, and this metrical identity gives extra strength to the isocolonic structure of the phrases. Moreover, the stresses on the last six words are arranged in such a way as to emphasize the unbowed hope and fixed determination of the speech's meaning.

I have chosen this last example deliberately, for prose rhythm is especially noticeable in the final words of a sentence or textual division. It is particularly effective, as Cicero has shown, at the conclusion of a complex periodic sentence, where rhythm can bring an argument, description, or narration to a close with singular power. In classical rhetoric such cadenced endings were called clausulae, and had fixed patterns. Of course, in Latin prose these clausulae were measured quantitatively rather than accentually, that is, they were based on the length of individual syllables rather than on the stress patterns of words. But English prose can use the paradigms of Latin clausulae to create artfully accented endings of sentences that have the same effect upon a reader as a Ciceronian period had upon its audience.1

Most writers who use prose rhythm in English do so in an instinctive rather than a calculated manner. In the case of Willa Cather, however, there are strong indications that her cadences were based on careful training in classical prosody. We know that she received a respectable if not extensive classical education, first from the Englishman William Ducker, who tutored her in Latin and Greek when she was a schoolgirl,2 and later at preparatory school and the University of Nebraska, where she studied the major ancient authors.3 As an undergraduate she published creditable translations of Anacreon and Horace in her campus literary magazine.4 Further, when Cather left home to start out on her career, one of the first positions she held was that of Latin teacher in a Pittsburgh high school.5 Such a background, certainly more common in Cather's time than it is today, ought to alert us to the possibility of classical influences on her style. And indeed when we look at her prose, we find evidence not just of a professional writer's attention to graceful word arrangement, but also of cadences that are deliberately reminiscent of stately Ciceronian periods.

Donald Sutherland, commenting on the Vergilian sonorities of Willa Cather's style, says of her prose that “not only every word counts, but every syllable counts, as in a poem.”6 Certainly her writing shows meticulous craftsmanship, and careful attention to the flow of words. However, Sutherland's view is that the rhythmic element in Cather's prose is the result of an aural sensibility steeped in the classical tradition, rather than any conscious use of clausulae on her part. I hope to show, by an analysis of her story “Paul's Case,” just how carefully constructed—and deliberate—some of the cadences really are.7

“Paul's Case” has been widely anthologized, and the story is probably familiar to most teachers of American short fiction. A young Pittsburgh student named Paul, progressively sickened by the numbing routine of his bourgeois family and dreary schoolwork, absconds with a thousand dollars to New York City. There he lives for a week, satisfying all the hunger for luxurious indulgence that had gone unfed in his respectably ordinary existence. At the end of the week, with no money left and his father in town to find him and reclaim him, he chooses to commit suicide rather than return to the leaden monotony of his former life. The story makes extensive use of sensory allusion; colors, odors, textures, tastes, and sounds are lovingly, even morbidly dwelt upon. Paul's drab life in Pittsburgh and his stolen pleasures in New York, the homespun provincial homilies of his town and the frank urbane hedonism of the city, are vividly and effectively counterpoised. Cather's normally solicitous search for le mot juste is intensified in the hothouse of sensuous imagery that the development of her theme demands. The story is deliberately tinged with a fascination for the sort of artificiality associated with Nineties Decadents, towards whom the mild irony of the story is probably directed in part.8

A good example of deliberate cadence can be found in the last words of a paragraph describing Paul's return to his home on Cordelia Street after a night at the Pittsburgh opera:

The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head. After each of these orgies of living he experienced all the physical depression which follows a debauch; the loathing of respectable beds, of common food, of a house penetrated by kitchen odors; a shuddering repulsion for the flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence; a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.9

The double dactyl of flavorless, colorless, with its heavy restraint, leads into a cretic and spondee clausula with a resolved variant:

mass of everyday existence.

This particular clausula pattern will be familiar to readers of Cicero. They will recall that Cather's everyday existence is metrically equivalent to esse videatur, as illustrated in the First Catilinarian 14.5. Now it is possible, of course, that this collocation of stresses in Cather is merely coincidental, but I am not inclined to think so. First of all, this same cretic and spondee pattern is repeated several other times in the story, and second, the pattern always occurs in end position. It would take the credulity of an invincible skepticism to believe that these cadences are purely fortuitous.10

In any case, to return to the text, consider how Cather finishes her paragraph after the words “flavorless, colorless mass of everyday existence.” The undertow of retarding stresses in these words emphasizes the barren constraint of Paul's life, the prose mirroring, as it were, the chafing repression that holds the boy's libido in check. But Cather completes her sentence with these words:

a morbid desire for cool things and soft lights and fresh flowers.

Here, the pent-up energy of the word desire, in itself metrically ambiguous, bursts the double dactyl opening of the phrase with a triple spondee. If the passage is read aloud, the effect is unmistakable; the rhythm compels the listener to believe in the power of Paul's desire to break out of his prison.

Another example of the cretic and spondee clausula can be found in a passage that describes Paul's reaction to the ambiance of the theater:

The moment he inhaled the gassy, painty, dusty odor behind the scenes, he breathed like a prisoner set free, and felt within him the possibility of doing or saying splendid, brilliant, poetic things. The moment the cracked orchestra beat out the overture from Martha, or jerked at the serenade from Rigoletto, all stupid and ugly things slid from him, and his senses were deliciously, yet delicately fired.


Most conspicuous, of course, is the heavily trochaic pattern of the adjectives (gassy, brilliant, ugly). But notice the final clause, in which the elements of the compound verb are divided by two contrasting adverbs. The words delicately fired form the clausula, but the four syllables that precede it mirror the resolved cretic:

deliciously, yet delicately fired.

This arrangement adds extra power to the paragraph's ending, but even more important, it helps Cather to awaken the auditory sensibility of her readers, and through that sensibility, their imaginative communion with Paul's experience. The point to be made here is this: cadence is never just an abstract pattern imposed upon language; the human ear and its innate hunger for a felicitous coupling of sound and sense are the motivating forces behind prose rhythm.

For yet another instance of the cretic and spondee clausula, let us turn to the close of a paragraph recounting Paul's flight from Pittsburgh and his arrival at an elegant New York hotel:

He was thoroughly tired; he had been in such haste, he had stood up to such a strain, covered so much ground in the last twenty-four hours, that he wanted to think how it had all come about. Lulled by the sound of the wind, the warm air, and the cool fragrance of the flowers, he sank into deep, drowsy retrospection.


The clausula drowsy retrospection is perfectly patterned after esse videatur, even to the detail of a final tetrasyllabic word. It serves to conclude a lengthy section filled with the hurried movement of Paul's impatient escape. The clausula marks the end of the description, in medias res, of that escape, and is followed by actual retrospection—a detailed flashback explaining how it was accomplished. Here we see Cather using the clausula in its two traditional functions: the winding down of prose movement, and the dividing of text.

The ultimate proof that Willa Cather was a deliberate creator of prose rhythm lies in a seemingly minor detail of syllabication that a careless reader might easily overlook. One rule of classical poetry is that a terminal and an initial vowel placed next to each other are to be blended into a single quantity. When Vergil writes (Aen. 4.54)

his dictis impenso animum flammavit amore

the words impenso animum, although they contain six syllables, constitute only five metric positions, for the o and the a are blurred in pronunciation into one sound. Such blurring (which also takes place if the second word is aspirated) is called elision. If for some reason elision does not occur when it normally should, there is an awkward gap or hiatus between the two vowels, and this contingency is almost always avoided in classical metrics. Willa Cather's conscious use of cadence is evident from her careful avoidance of hiatus in end positions. The following paragraph demonstrates how solicitous she could be for perfection in such matters:

There were a score of cabs about the entrance of his hotel, and his driver had to wait. Boys in livery were running in and out of the awning stretched across the sidewalk, up and down the red velvet carpet laid from the door to the street. Above, about, within it all was the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.


The rhythm of the last words (glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth) is based on three resolved cretics and a final isolated stress on the word wealth. This final stress clinches the key significance of money in the world that Paul has just entered, and the triple cretics hammer the idea into the reader's consciousness. But the rhythm does not work unless the e and the o of the omnipotence are elided. Cather uses a similar elision in another sentence:

He had only to glance down at his attire to reassure himself that here it would be impossible for anyone to humiliate him.


The last six words (impossible for anyone to humiliate him) contain another series of three resolved cretics, with elision of the word to and the aspirated first syllable of humiliate. The elision is in the same metrical position as in the previous example, and a triple resolved cretic with such blending may be a favored scheme with Cather; further study of the prose rhythms in her other works must confirm or reject this suggestion.11

After such evidence of conscious prose rhythm in the story, it would be natural to expect some pyrotechnic artifice at the ending of “Paul's Case.” Along with the protagonist, at this point readers have “caught the measure of the music,” flowing with it through crescendo to finale. And in fact we are not disappointed; Cather's description of Paul's suicide fully justifies the high estimation of her metrical gifts that the already quoted material urges. Here is the paragraph—the penultimate one in the story—depicting Paul's leap to death before a locomotive:

The sound of an approaching train awoke him, and he started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he should be too late. He stood watching the approaching locomotive, his teeth chattering, his lips drawn away from them in a frightened smile; once or twice he glanced nervously sidewise, as though he were being watched. When the right moment came, he jumped. As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.


What is immediately evident is the marked pause in the last line:

the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.

These two noun phrases are grammatically connected as the compound subject of a periodic sentence, but visually divided as disparate images. The pause between them, which is noticeable on sight reading alone, sets up what in formal rhetorical terms is an antithetical structure: blue water, yellow sands. But notice the stress pattern, and how it subtly reinforces the antithesis. On one side of the pause is our old friend the resolved cretic, coupled with a double trochee. On the other side is the same cretic followed by a choriamb. The variation is enough to unite the sea and sand in their one capacity (images of Paul's desire) while separating them in another (irreconcilable elements that suggest, by their opposition, the disorder of that desire). This contrived tension is crucial, for like the ending of a fugue, the last paragraph of the story will bring all contrapuntal chords to resolution. Listen to how Cather ends her tale:

He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.


This ending is a metrical tour de force, and one that is appreciated not only by specialists. Students untutored in metrics have commented on the powerful “beat” in the lines. We have to examine this truly remarkable piece of rhythmic craftsmanship closely to see exactly what happens. Look at the last line:

the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.

The cadence begins with an unusual measure: a choriamb. The force of the two separated stresses, followed by a pause, puts an audible end to the “disturbing visions” (and by implication, Paul's entire dream-filled life) with a hideous finality—all the colors, sounds, shapes and textures disappear in an instant. After the pause there is the highly unusual molossus tribrach: three stressed followed by three unstressed syllables. With the triple stress of “Paul dropped back” we can literally feel the fall of his body to earth, the fatality heightened immeasurably the rhyme of black and back. The three unstressed syllables which follow are a movement away from this peak of emphasis. They lead into a perfect trochee and cretic clausula: the immense design of things. And it should be pointed out that Cather's elision of the immense is no mere chance, but a sign of metrical virtuosity of the highest order.12

I anticipate the objection that one can hardly picture Willa Cather or any other great writer slavishly counting syllables and stresses in the heat of literary creation. Even if I were sure of the validity of that objection—which I am not—it would only serve to support my earlier contention that prose rhythm is judged solely by aural criteria; the cadence is there because we hear it, as the artist instinctively heard it in the toil of composition. It is not necessary to assume that every good author knows the minutiae of cadence, but what is certain is that fine prose has definite, stable rhythms to which its most masterly practitioners are drawn again and again, as to recurrent patterns of harmony. As one commentator has said, “This kind of artful prose is not so much the product of conscious effort as the overflow of a sensibility thoroughly saturated in a tradition, to the extent that the esthetic unity of form and content has become second nature.”13

Willa Cather was certainly gifted with such a sensibility, but I am also persuaded that she attempted to carry into her writing the graceful elegance embodied in the periodic and cadenced structure of Ciceronian Latin. The evidence of “Paul's Case” convinces me that she strove not just for excellent prose, but for a prose that registered, acoustically, the very heartbeat of her esthetic impulse. Cather once wrote that “[A great story] must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden.”14 There is no better description of the achievement of “Paul's Case” than these words, which remind us that language, even when silently read, evokes the memory of sound, and the resonance of imagined music.

Once we appreciate the subliminal acoustic capacities of written English as they are revealed in prose rhythm and cadence, we are liberated from the false notion—propagated by too many composition teachers—that prose is simply one more means of communication among a dozen others for getting across some abstractable message. This is a ubiquitous but degraded view of language that is in no small part responsible for the current decline in prose standards. For a master stylist such as Cather, fine prose is the complex product of many intellectual, esthetic, and emotional ingredients, all of them conspiring, as it were, to create a multifaceted mode of expression. The powerful effect of “Paul's Case” depends heavily on the hand-in-glove cooperation of sound and sense, on the conscious artistic complicity of diction, rhetoric, syntax, and rhythm. It is precisely this ideal unity of all the available resources of language that the artistry of Willa Cather aspires to attain.


  1. For a wide range of examples of prose rhythm in English see George Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm (London: Macmillan, 1922). Other useful studies are Norton R. Tempest's The Rhythm of English Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge U Pr, 1930); and Paull Franklin Baum's The Other Harmony of Prose (Durham: Duke, 1952).

  2. See James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (Lincoln: U of Nebr Pr, 1982), 42-43.

  3. See Writings from Willa Cather's Campus Years, ed. James R. Shively (Lincoln: U of Nebr Pr, 1950), 16.

  4. Ibid., 110 and 112.

  5. See E. K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York: Knopf, 1953), 92.

  6. Donald Sutherland, “Willa Cather: The Classic Voice,” In The Art of Willa Cather, ed. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner (Lincoln: U of Nebr Pr, 1974), 164.

  7. Sutherland is not the only critic to comment on the aural dimension of Willa Cather's prose. See also Richard Giannone's excellent essay “Willa Cather and the Human Voice,” in Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium, ed. John J. Murphy (North Andover, Mass.: Merrimack College, 1974), 21-49, wherein he argues that “sound is part of a complex sensorium that shapes Cather's writing.”

  8. Paul's Case was first published in 1904. Dorothy Tuck McFarland comments that the story (along with others collected in The Troll Garden) deals with “the allure and the dangers of the world of culture and art.” See her book Willa Cather (New York: Ungar, 1972), 11.

  9. This and all subsequent quotations from Paul's Case are taken from Willa Cather, The Troll Garden (New York: NAL, 1961), 117-138; 123.

  10. Other examples of the cretic and spondee clausula not dealt with in this paper are unimaginable splendor (121); and a sleep and a forgetting (126). Note that the last syllable in a clausula is anceps […], that is, it is reckoned long or short to suit the metrical scheme.

  11. A double resolved cretic with elision appears in the very last words of Cather's novel My Antonia: the precious, the incommunicable past.

  12. The words can also be construed as echoing (though not reproducing exactly) a molossus and cretic clausula with a resolved variation: into the immense design of things. As such, Cather's phrase would closely correspond to the Ciceronian tacitorum perspicis (Cat. 1.20.12).

  13. Anonymous introduction to The Rule of St. Benedict, 1980 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Pr, 1981), 101.

  14. Willa Cather, On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art (New York: Knopf, 1920), 50.

Erik Ingvar Thurin (essay date 1990)

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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.]


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 Cather's Early Short Fiction 1892-1912.2

The reason for Cather's suppression of so many of her early stories may not invariably have been that she considered them of inferior quality; several of them are better than some of the stories published in Youth and the Bright Medusa. When many of the forgotten tales became accessible again after the author's death, Curtis Bradford noted that she may have wanted to manipulate things in such a way as to make herself look like “primarily an affirmer of America's pioneer past and a critic of the later America which replaced it.”3 There are indications that she did want to project that image.4 One is also willing to agree with Bradford when he says that the picture Cather cared to give of herself is “rather less interesting than the actuality.”

The actuality gets even more interesting if one grants that a desire to suppress autobiographical clues may have played a role in this context. “The mature writer,” says Sharon O'Brien apropos of the suppressed early fiction, “could see how much it revealed.”5 There is certainly a “confessional” element in many of the early stories, and it is particularly noteworthy in the uncollected ones.

Cather's personal problems are, however, aired less frequently in the earliest stories, with which we are primarily concerned in this chapter; and there is some evidence that she was uneasily aware of the need for suppression even at that stage. If O'Brien is not entirely mistaken, her dilemma may, in fact, be encoded in “The Tale of the White Pyramid,” published in The Hesperian in December, 1892.6

This story is written in biblical language; and, strictly speaking, it is set in the Egypt of the early pyramid-building pharaohs, not in “the Egypt Cather found in Shakespeare, Daudet, and Gautier,” as suggested by O'Brien. Nor is Cather likely to have associated the Egyptian environment with “Daudet's One of Cleopatra's Nights,” this work being by Gautier. But no matter: One is willing to believe that historical accuracy meant little to her in this case and that her association of “sensual indulgence and unbridled hedonism” with the Hellenistic Egypt of Cleopatra plays an important part in the argument of “The Tale of the White Pyramid.” O'Brien's own argument must on the whole be called brilliant.

“The Tale of the White Pyramid” is set in Memphis and told in the first person by a priest using his predecessor as authority for some of the things reported. The pharaoh, Kufu, is burying the previous ruler of the land in a white pyramid. A problem arises as the workmen proceed to seal the top of the structure with a huge polished stone; it falls into place only thanks to the bold and quasi-miraculous intervention of “a youth of the Shepherd people of the north” (530). Kufu then acknowledges the deed in extravagant terms and announces that the young man will build the great pyramid he is projecting for himself. The final paragraph reads: “Of the great pyramid and of the mystery thereof, and of the strange builder, and of the sin of the king, I may not speak, for my lips are sealed.” As O'Brien says, the stress on the extraordinary personal beauty of the young man in connection with the references to mystery and sin suggests that his relationship with the king is a case of “Greek” love. Moreover, the analogy, so strongly hinted, between the difficult sealing of pyramids and the sealed lips of the fictional narrator can be taken as an allusion to the situation of the actual author, forced to bury her own secret within herself.

This is manifestly the situation of Cather as she began writing short fiction while an undergraduate student of the classics at the University of Nebraska. The subtle symbolism of “The Tale of the White Pyramid” is something of a miracle and not at all representative of the state of her art at the time. Generally speaking, she had not yet developed the poetic prose style in which classical allusions play so important a role. Without a suitable instrument it is hard to strike a balance between the conflicting needs for expression and suppression. The hazards of trying are suggested by another exceptional story, virtually contemporary with “The Tale of the White Pyramid,” in which her lips are not entirely sealed.7

This story also contains a classical element, although called “A Son of the Celestial” and involving China, a country about which Cather knew about as much as she knew about pharaonic Egypt. The scene is San Francisco, and there are two characters, an old American Sanskrit scholar called Ponter and Yung, an old Chinese Sanskrit scholar. Ostensibly—judging by the prefixed poem—the story is about the latter's desire to be buried in the land of his fathers, but the real subject is the relationship of the two men. Ponter does not really like China or the Chinese, and Yung tends to find American scholars distastefully ignorant; yet the two are united in a mystic (celestial?) friendship not unlike the one described in “Two Friends” (1932). It appears to be based on conversation, silence, and opium-smoking—the two have formed the habit of going to a place called “The Seven Portals of Paradise” and lying down on adjacent mats to suck pipes with “bowls of jade and mouthpieces of amber” (525). The pipes have been carved by Yung, who is also a remarkable artist—he is compared to Michelangelo. Ponter insists on reading all of Hamlet to him, translating it into “doggerel Chinese”; and while Yung says he does not understand the work, it is clear that he understands a good deal (526). Ponter also thinks his friend knows “more ethics than Plato” (527). He tends to complain of Yung's coldness but remains unflagging in his devotion to his queer friend. When Yung dies, the American gets his body ready for shipment to China, singing as he puts the last nails in the coffin: “Ibimus, Ibimus, Utcumque praecedes, supernum, Carpere iter comites parati.

This climactic Latin sentence, quoted somewhat erratically, is from the emotionally charged poem in which Horace answers his friend Maecenas, who has expressed a fear that the poet might die before him and thus leave him bereaved.8 Cather's interest in Hamlet's friendship with Horatio has already been touched upon. The references to Michelangelo and Plato speak for themselves. In spite of the veil of irony, one must conclude that the story reflects her fascination with male friendship, which again is likely to be a transposition of her own yearning for female friendship.9

One will, however, look in vain for other signs of this yearning in the stories Cather wrote before she left Nebraska in 1896. On the whole, she steers clear not only of that theme but of other overly personal subjects as well. Reminders of her interest in the classics are also sparse. Of the eight stories written and published during this period, only two contain classical references. There is nothing of the kind in those haunting, unflattering stories about early Nebraska: “Peter”; “Lou, the Prophet”; “The Clemency of the Court”; and “The Divide.”10 Nor is there any trace of her classical studies in her first Virginia tale, “A Night at Greenway Court.” The only other story from this time that does contain some classical matter is a curious political skit called “The Fear That Walks by Noonday.”11

The paucity of classical elements in the earliest group of Cather stories is all the more remarkable in view of the intense use of such elements in her journalism during the years 1892-1896, not only in self-revealing passages … but in virtually any context. One might almost think she felt at the time that classical references were too rhetorical and “high-stepping” for fiction. If so, she began to change her mind after arriving in Pittsburgh. Although some of the stories from the years she spent doing journalistic work in that city still lack references of this kind (“The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog,” “The Westbound Train,” “Nanette: an Aside”), there are even more that do contain a classical element: “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” “The Prodigies,” “The Way of the World,” “Count of Crow's Nest,” and “A Resurrection.” These five stories—all published in The Home Monthly—do not, however, suggest a strong desire to reveal and yet conceal some painful personal secret of the kind noticeable in “The White Pyramid” and “A Son of the Celestial.”

The three first-mentioned pieces do air a theme familiar from the early articles and reviews: that of the imperatrix. “Tommy, the Unsentimental” also has an autobiographical connection in that Tommy with her “peculiarly unfeminine mind” cannot but remind one of “Billie Cather.” Yet that story only has one classical allusion, albeit a strategically chosen one.12 “The Prodigies” has two.13 I shall therefore immediately turn to “The Way of the World,” which like “Count of Crow's Nest” and “A Resurrection” features an elaborate pattern of classical references and requires a detailed analysis.

“The Way of the World” features a primarily Roman pattern of allusions, and the effects to which they contribute are facetious as well as ironic. Published in 1898, it is the story of Speckleville, the town a boy called Speckle built in his father's backyard. At first there were only males in this town, but Speckle makes the mistake of yielding to the instances of Eliza, a strong and aggressive girl; he grants her full citizenship in spite of the strenuous objections of the other boys, who are afraid she will spoil the fun. For a while everything goes well. Indeed, the people of Speckleville grow dependent on the amenities and services introduced by the intruder; gradually they accept her as the new leader. Then the original fears of the boys are justified in an unexpected and ironic way. Eliza becomes very much impressed by a new boy from Chicago who signs himself Semper idem, and finally she absconds with him to found another city. Speckleville is no longer fun. It is abandoned by everybody except Speckle himself.

“The Way of the World” contains one fleeting biblical allusion. In mentioning the cream puffs with which Eliza mollifies the suspicious boys, Cather notes: “When a woman first tempted a man she said unto him, “Eat” (400). It is, however, to look for a depth that simply is not there to say that the main theme of the story is the loss of childhood innocence.14 For one thing, there is no indication that anyone has lost his or her childhood innocence at the end of the story. To be sure, the theme is in a sense the evil of sex: Disaster follows when a girl is allowed to participate in the boys' games. But, as mentioned, Speckle's male playmates anticipated trouble from the beginning. At no point does one find anything like the unawareness of sexual differentiation mourned in “Dedicatory” and various other poems of Cather's. Moreover, the chief image is not the Garden of Eden. Nor is it the Arcady Cather tends to associate with genderless childhood; it is the city of Rome. An explicit parallel is drawn between Speckleville and “that old mud-walled town in Latium that was also founded by a boy.” In fact, the rape of the Sabines is in this context adduced as an ominous historical event that might have made Speckle less eager to add Eliza to his settlement, had he known about it (398). Skipping a thousand years or so of Roman history, Cather says that Eliza in due time “made herself sole imperatrix of Speckleville” (400). Returning to early republican times, she notes apropos of Eliza's defection with the New Boy: “It was as though Coriolanus, when he deserted Rome for the camp of the Volscians, had asked the Conscript Fathers to call on him and bring their families!” (403). At the emphatic end of the story we find Speckle sitting down in his deserted town “as Caius Marius once sat among the ruins of Carthage.”

Cather's use of the classics in this instance reflects the general superficiality of the story. The reference to Marius is particularly unwarranted: The exiled Roman general came to Carthage and “sat” among the ruins of the old city because he was not allowed to enter the new city, the capital of the Roman province of Africa; he was not a Carthaginian and had nothing to do with the building of either city.15 The analogy between the domineering Eliza and the abducted Sabine women is also a bit vague. The superimposition of the classical parallels on the account of the children's games is justifiable in terms of the author's obvious desire to create a mock-heroic effect. But the jumping back and forth between imperial and republican times is indicative of a deficient sense of history; it would have been more appropriate if the author had been trying to create a timeless setting like that of Greek mythology rather than alluding to the evils associated with history and the founding of cities.

Rome is also the chief mythical point of reference in “The Count of Crow's Nest” (1896), which is otherwise a very different story. The setting is a not-so-chic Chicago boarding-house (“Crow's Nest”). The people who live there all have mediocrity and failure stamped on their faces, with two notable exceptions: Paul de Koch, an elderly count who belongs to one of the oldest families of Europe, and Harold Buchanan, a recent college graduate who has not yet decided what he is going to do with himself, although he clearly leans toward literature and the arts. The two are thrown together by an affinity that goes beyond education and intellect to the realm of feeling and values; in fact, what we have here is another sign of Cather's interest in male friendship. The story is basically about the irreconcilable conflict between the count's values and those of his daughter Helena, who is sentimentally involved with a person of the opposite sex whose morality is very much in doubt. Buchanan gets involved in this conflict rather against his wishes.

The classical references, which are all explicit, are delivered in the dialogue. To some extent they are used simply to suggest sophistication on the part of Paul de Koch and Buchanan.16 The count, in discussing literature with his young friend, speaks about the difference between wanting your sermon “in a flower” and wanting it “in a Greek word” (453); he refers to the tedium vitae that the new age inspires in him (457). Similarly, Buchanan, when shown the count's collection of old letters and other private documents concerning the high aristocracy of Europe, wonders what “the dominant note” would be if these papers were allowed to yield up their secrets—would it be “Ares or Eros”? He compliments Helena on her knowledge of the sermo familiaris, that is, the Midwestern vernacular (455 and 462).

But classical references are also used to elaborate the central theme, the contrast between two different attitudes to the duties of life. Indeed, Helena de Koch's way of picking up the local slang is one illustration of her general tendency to adopt the worst traits of her new country, the very traits shunned by her father, who has been able to hold on to traditional values in the best sense of the phrase. And here Chicago—the Chicago preparing to host the 1893 “World's Columbian Exposition”—is clearly compared to imperial Rome in terms reminiscent of the parallel Cather draws between imperial Rome and imperial America in an article published in the Nebraska State Journal.17 It is true that Paul de Koch, who feels decadent compared with his stalwart ancestors, compares himself, not to a Roman patrician of the old stock confronted with a vulgar new spirit, but to Julian, the quixotic Roman emperor who “clung to a despoiled Olympus,” blind to the advent of a new faith “throbbing with potentialities” (457). Nevertheless, the count's face is earlier described as different from the other faces in the boarding-house because of its “patrician” mold (451), and it is not difficult to see where we are supposed to find the real decadence: in the plebeian greed developed by Helena, an unsuccessful singer, in the stronghold of a new faith that has little to do with the early Church.

Helena de Koch also drops a classical reference in her attempt to get Buchanan to help her gain possession of her father's papers by hook or by crook; she wants to sell them to the press, and when Buchanan expresses certain doubts about the morality of her proposal, her rejoinder is: “That all may be, but when we are in Rome we must be Romans or provincials” (464). This reference is, however, immediately followed by a revealing statement: “You must give the people what they want.” That is the voice of modern consumerism and the mass media; and her idea of selling the secrets contained in her father's papers along with his honor cannot but call to mind the “bread and circus shows” to which the mobs were treated during the period of generalized Roman vulgarity. Helena also suggests that it is only serving Truth to expose the high-strutting aristocracy and let people know them for what they really are—“very common clay.” To this Buchanan's answer is that “the tragic buskin” is indeed borne to make men look taller than they are, but that he is not so anxious to be disillusioned that he wants to penetrate into the dressing-room to determine their real size: “If Caesar without his toga would not be Caesar, I would rather stay down in the orchestra chairs.” In short, “The Count of Crow's Nest” is noteworthy as a fictional illustration of the connection between Cather's espousal of aristocratic values and her use of decadent Rome as an analogue of modern vulgarity.

In “Resurrection” (1897), the urban and imperial frame of reference yields to a spiritual milieu that is provincial but also pastoral. The classical references are predominantly Greek. Since the characters are not highly educated people like de Koch and Buchanan, these references are introduced over their heads, as in “The Way of the World.”

The story is set in Brownville on the western bank of the Missouri. Here Marjorie Pearson, 30, has for some time been teaching school while taking care of her old mother and raising the child of the sweetheart of her teens, Martin Dempster. The latter, who is a river pilot, failed her by getting involved with an itinerant actress of French extraction who bore him a child but did him no good in the long run and ended up drowning in the river. As the story opens, Dempster is about forty and eking out a humdrum and lonely existence running the local ferry, too humiliated to propose to Marjorie Pearson, whom he yet loves as much as he respects her. At this very point, however, he is offered a much better job down in St. Louis and goes to tell her that he can now relieve her of the burden of the child—he will take the boy along with him as he goes to assume his new duties. The message upsets Miss Pearson, who envisions the loss of the sole object on which she can lavish her affections. Dempster retreats and says she can keep the child. He is still unable to say that he would like to take her along, too, but in the final scene he overcomes his feelings of inferiority and asks her to marry him. By bringing his masculinity to bear on the situation in a manner that is as adroit as it is unexpected, he prevails against her fear of being too old.

To return to the beginning of this edifying tale, we there find Miss Pearson assisting a certain oldish Mrs. Skimmons with the Easter decorations in one of the Protestant churches. This opening will cause some readers to the see the title of the story as an allusion to the resurrection of Christ, and no doubt it is. A pious allusion of this kind may, in fact, seem calculated to please many readers of the Home Monthly. The only problem from that point of view is that the author does not otherwise go out of her way to please Protestant church-goers. Mrs. Skimmons is portrayed as narrow-minded, very much part of the “petty provincial world” in which Marjorie finds herself trapped. The younger woman does not feel “a bit like Easter” until Dempster (pun on “redemption”?) suddenly turns up with a box of lilies.

Considering the erotic dimension of the story, one is hardly surprised that Cather does not labor to fit the Christian resurrection theme into the general argument of the story. She does at one point have Miss Pearson refer to everything she has “starved and crucified” in herself (428-429), but on the whole her release from spinsterhood, as well as Dempster's from bachelorhood, is described in terms of pagan imagery. At the center of the story is not Christ but the River, a symbol of life-giving power familiar from Greek and Roman literature. Like classical river gods, Cather's River does not invariably use its power in ways beneficial to man, but the gradual clearing up of the misunderstanding between Dempster, a worshiper of this god, and the love of his youth is counterpointed by the resurgence of the River in early spring. In the process, man is seen in a quasi-pastoral perspective—in his relation to nature, not in his relation to God.

The author does not, however, pursue the integration of attendant classical images with the central symbolism in too pedantic a manner. When she says that Brownville after the River changed its course because “a little Pompeii buried in bonded indebtedness,” she passes up a chance to draw an analogy between the fate of the former town and the decline of so many ancient cities for similar reasons.18 A specific parallel of this kind would have been a good illustration of what she cryptically refers to as the sad fate of the devotees of river gods.19 “Buried in bonded indebtedness” is nevertheless a nice image for the result of this tragic course of events.

Possibly one might also say that the reference to Pompeii goes well with the implied idea that Marjorie Pearson is buried treasure (an image also used in the case of the heroine of “The Treasure of Far Island”). Miss Pearson is at one point characterized as one of many “living masterpieces that are as completely lost to the world as the lost nine books of Sappho, or as the Grecian marbles that were broken under the barbarians' battle axes” (426). This passage again is interesting not only because it is the only explicit reference to Sappho in all of Cather's fiction but also because it shows once more that she associates the poetry of Sappho with the depiction of feminine beauty. She has just herself been describing the face of the heroine of “A Resurrection” in sculptural terms.

Cather also abandons the central image when she chooses to illustrate the point that the real wages of the River God “are of the soul alone” by referring to the intimate “sympathy with inanimate nature” that “the high-faced rocks of the gleaming Sicilian shore gave Theocritus” (433). But disparate as the comparison may seem, it is a way of making the readers aware that they are reading pastoral. Since Dempster is the one who is credited with the Theocritean sympathy with nature, the analogy prepares us for his poetic outburst at the end of the story, in which he in Dionysian language compares his—and Marjorie's—situation to that of the swollen river painfully but ecstatically digging a new channel.

Comparing “Resurrection” and the other stories from the late nineties with those from the early part of the decade, one immediately perceives a difference: In the latter group, stories without classical references, like “On the Divide” and “The Clemency of the Court,” are more serious artistic exercises than, say, “The Son of the Celestial,” which has several such references. In the former group, it is the other way around: The stories deprived of classical elements tend to be mere bagatelles, whereas those in which such elements are present have all the appearance of products intended to make an impression. Cather's increasing commitment to the classics as a writer of fiction is reflected not only in the greater number of classical references but also in the quality of the writing in which they appear.

It is also clear that the classical allusions in the Pittsburgh stories tend to be quite explicit and much less intriguing than those found in some of the earlier tales. Not only are there no hidden allusions; it is hard to find patterns of explicit references conveying a meaning that needs to be inferred. One may, in fact, speak of a kind of retreat compared with the stories of the Hesperian era. “The Tale of the White Pyramid,” as noted, features a subtle superimposition of Cleopatra's dissolute Egypt on the days that saw the pyramids rise. References to Plato and Horace—as well as to Michelangelo and Hamlet—form a conspicuous constellation in “A Son of the Celestial” and cannot but affect our understanding of the male friendship celebrated in this story. Even readers unaware of the intertextual pattern to which it contributes are likely to find it a bold product to come from the pen of a nineteen-year-old Midwestern girl.

The five Pittsburgh stories whose classical content I have discussed have nothing bold about them. Indeed, they appear to be pretty much in line not only with the values of classical humanism but with ordinary middle-class standards. Even the espousal of patrician values in “The Count of Crow's Nest” does not go beyond affirming traditional values like personal honesty and integrity; it can hardly be viewed as hostile to democratic ideals.

On the whole, Cather here reveals a desire not to be controversial that is often absent in her journalism and poetry. “A Resurrection” does contain a hint of the opposition between classical paganism and a life-denying Protestant creed … but it is no more than a hint. Her caution is particularly obvious in matters of sex. The touch is light in the portrayal of the intimate friendship of de Koch and Buchanan. Theodosia is depicted as androgynous, but the author makes it very clear that her interest in men is not merely collegial, having her say at the end with Jay Ellington in mind: “They are awful idiots, half of them, and never think of anything beyond their dinner. But O, how we do like them!” The one reference to Sappho (in “A Resurrection”) appears in the context of an enthusiastic endorsement of traditional values. In “The Way of the World,” the intrusion of sex into the boys' world is described in so ironic a spirit that the story does not in any way suggest a regressive yearning for a genderless world of the kind sometimes found in April Twilights. The imperatrix theme is prominent, but it is handled in a scrupulously moral spirit, without glorification of Roman or Egyptian vice. In short, the pieces written in Pittsburgh during the period covered in this chapter testify to a high degree of audience-consciousness. They are perfectly suitable for The Home Monthly.


The short fiction to be discussed in this chapter [of The Humanization of Wills Cather] was published during a brief but eventual period in Cather's life—her resignation from the Pittsburg Leader early in 1900; the months of free-lance journalism in Washington, D. C., her return to Pittsburgh to teach at Central High in 1901; her moving into the McClung residence; and her European trip in the company of Isabelle McClung in the summer of 1902. Bibliographically speaking, this period comprehends the stories predating those collected in The Troll Garden (the earliest of which, “A Death in the Desert,” was originally published in Scribner's in January, 1903).

This group of stories also includes some in which no classical references can be found: “The Sentimentality of William Taverner,” “The Affair at Grover Station,” “A Singer's Romance,” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” Yet another piece, “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional,” contains some scattered references that need not occupy us here. The chief interest of these stories from our point of view is that they prove that Cather's increasing reliance on the classics as a writer of fiction did not grow into a compulsion. I do not think anybody would like to see her more involved with them than she is in the remaining four stories: “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” (1900), “Jack-a-Boy” (1901), “The Professor's Commencement” (1902), and “The Treasure of Far Island” (1902).

With the exception of “The Sentimentality of William Taverner,” one must also say that the stories that do not contain a significant classical element seem slight compared with those which do. There is, in fact, a qualitative difference between the “classical” stories I am now preparing to discuss and those dealt with in the previous chapter. It affects the content no less than the form. Cather seems to be writing in a more serious vein, using her classical background to explore matters of fundamental importance to her. There is a sense in which all four of these stories have the experience of joy and beauty—through art as much as in life—as their central concern.

The first story in this group, “Eric Hermannson's Soul,” also has some things in common with “A Resurrection.” In this case, too, we are dealing with a revival of the soul—of the whole human being—through the experience of erotic attraction and the life of the senses. As in the earlier tale, the male party is portrayed as less refined than the female party but making up for this shortcoming, at least in some degree, through sheer, honest masculinity. “Eric Hermannson's Soul” is of course a more complex story. It is also more impressive from an aesthetic point of view, in part because Cather here avoids the pitfall of sentimentality.

The classical references are not particularly numerous in “Eric Hermannson's Soul.” But they are strategically placed, and their significance is very much enhanced by the philosophical tenor of the story. Throughout, there is an opposition between the life-denying forces associated with the Christian tradition as represented by the preaching of Asa Skinner and a pagan view of the world more in line with the natural tendencies of man. This view is stated by means of classical images reinforced by themes borrowed from Norse—partly Wagnerian—mythology.

Some sections of the story retrospectively describe Eric's conversion through the efforts of Asa Skinner, the “Free Gospeller,” and the sad changes it wrought in him. When he came over from Norway at the age of eighteen, and for some time after that, he seemed to be “in love with life”; his bearing was proud; his flashing eye was of “a fierce, burning blue,” and a “pagan smile” hovered about his lips (368-369). He was not entirely without culture. He had a craving for beauty, beauty of the soul as well as of the body. His violin-playing satisfied the former side of him; it was his bridge into “the kingdom of the soul.” But he also played for Lena Hanson, an attractive single woman “whose name was a reproach through all the Divide country” (360-361). When he crushed the violin to splinters across his knee at the moment of his conversion, it was therefore more than a symbolic gesture; it was a kind of self-mutilation, as the author herself suggests in describing the effect of “the gospel of maceration” on this young Siegfried: “‘If thine eye offendeth thee, pluck it out,’ et cetera.” In terms of another image, Eric has committed spiritual suicide. In becoming a Christian, he may have responded to Asa Skinner's “Lazarus, come forth,” but Cather makes no bones about telling us that religion did him in, assisted by toil and the isolation of the frontier. Nor is he the only one who suffers this fate: “Oh those poor Northmen of the Divide! They are dead many a year before they are put to rest in the little graveyard on the windy hill where exiles of all nations grow akin” (369).

Eric has been in a bad way for some time when the New Englander Wyllis Elliot arrives to buy some land, accompanied by his sister Margaret, who has never been out west before. Their minds and souls are not circumscribed by the rules of a monotheistic religion, as Cather immediately hints by suggesting that Margaret's arrival illustrates “by what improbable chances … the unrelenting gods bring us to our fate” (362). Margaret herself gives a first idea of the sources of her imaginative life as she expresses her favorable view of the West with its wide horizons and bracing air: “Wyllis,” she says, “I haven't been so happy since we were children and were going to discover the ruins of Troy together some day” (364). When she adds that she thinks she could stay forever in this primeval milieu, her brother objects that she would soon get bored and miss the fever of urban life: “There was a time when the gay fellows of Rome could trot down into the Thebaid and burrow into the sand hills and get rid of it. But it is all too complex now.”20

Wyllis obviously has no idea of the excitement the gods are preparing for his sister on this very spot. It does not take her long to discover Eric; and after her first conversation with him, she is certain that a soul is still languishing within that magnificent physique. He responds in a very positive way not only to her own beauty but to that of the music she plays and sings for him at his request. As Cather pointedly puts it, she is a “revelation” to him—a revelation of quasi-divine beauty. She represents a loveliness in the presence of which he “felt as the Goths before the white marbles of the Roman Capitol, not knowing whether they were men or gods” (370). That is Cather's own analogy, of course; Eric's frame of reference is entirely biblical—at one point he compares the smell of corn in the night to that of the flowers that grow in paradise (376). But thanks to this new influence he gradually recovers his manhood and his soul; and in the account of the climactic dance at which this process is completed, there is more classical imagery: As the old men stamp the floor “with the vigor of old Silenus,” Eric takes the violin of a Frenchman and begins to play again (374).

Margaret, on her side, is more and more impressed not only by Eric's masculine vigor but by the feeling that she is capable of inspiring in him. An important milestone on the way is what he says after