Thursday, October 15, 2020

Uncollected Stories by Willa Cather

Source of book: I own this.


I think I may actually have the complete Willa Cather as part of my Library of America collection - one of my library sale finds. 


You can read my posts about O Pioneers! and Death Comes For the Archbishop if you like. In addition, I read My Antonia before starting my blog.  


The uncollected stories represent shorter works that Cather wrote for various magazines between 1892 and 1912. The stories are presented in chronological order, which, interestingly, also shows a progression in setting. The earlier stories are all set in the northern Great Plains, like her early novels, and feature Scandanavian immigrant farmers, for the most part. The later stories are set in cities, and focus on middle class sorts caught in the rat race. All of them showcase Cather’s skill in portraying ordinary, if eccentric, people in a compassionate and nuanced way. 


Original Illustration from the magazine version of "The Namesake." 


I won’t detail every one of the fourteen stories, but I do want to mention a few, and quote some good lines. The first one, “Peter,” was later recycled in large part in My Antonia, as the scene in which Antonia’s father, a violinist who cannot adapt to his new home away from Bohemia, kills himself. There are a few differences in the situations, but the idea is clearly there in the earlier story. 


“On the Divide” likewise presages the “prairie” novels, although in this case with characterization rather than plot. The large and silent Canute, lonely for human company, practically kidnaps a young woman, who decides she actually likes him. A bit of its time, but the characterization is excellent, making the ludicrous plot seem plausible. 


I was particularly struck by “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” as it involves fundamentalist religion in its most joyless form. Asa Skinner, the itinerant preacher, seeks to convert Eric Hermannson, allegedly the “wildest lad on all the Divide,” known for playing fiddle and dancing with great skill. Horrors. A couple of lines lay out the conflict. 


Here and there among the cowering, sweating multitude crouched some poor wretch who had felt the pangs of an awakened conscience, but had not yet experienced that complete divestment of reason, that frenzy born of a convulsion of the mind, which, in the parlance of the Free Gospellers, is termed “the Light.” 


Yep, the complete divestment of reason. Look, I have no problem with ecstasy or emotions or spiritual experiences. But I don’t come off one (say, after playing Mahler) and decide to burn my book collection or live on bread or water.


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.


Well, I’m playing my fiddle all the way to hell, then. It is annoying that such lovely things as stringed instruments and felines should be associated with demons in that way, but such is the folklore, I guess. One more quote nails the essence of the attraction of fundamentalism:


The whole congregation groaned under the pressure of this spiritual panic. Shouts and hallelujahs went up from every lip...The hymn was sung in a dozen dialects and voiced all the vague yearnings of these hungry lives, of these people who had starved all of the passions so long, only to fall victims to the basest of them all, fear.


Really, sex may sell, but fear sells better, and makes worse people than sex. The whole Trump era is based on selling fear. But so is the Gothard cult. Fear of the world, fear of the devil, fear of sin, fear of people different from you. The fruit is, well, rotten. 


Margaret made a gesture of impatience. 

“Those Free Gospellers have just cast an evil spell over this country, haven’t they?”

“Well,” said Lockhard, cautiously, “I don’t just like to pass judgment on any Christian sect, but if you’re to know the chosen by their works, the Gospellers can’t make a very proud showin’, an’ that’s a fact. They’re responsible for a few suicides, and they’ve sent a good-sized delegation to the state insane asylum, an’ I don’t see as they’ve made the rest of us much better than we were before. 


Eric, alas, gives in to the pressure, and converts, smashing his fiddle, and forswearing all pleasure henceforth. 


This man understood things literally: one must live without pleasure to die without fear; to save the soul it was necessary to starve the soul. 


Yes, it is interesting that all fundamentalist movements are like this. Including (as I learned recently, Maoism.) This idea of denying pleasure isn’t ever just concentrated on sexuality (although it is typically obsessed with sex), but easily spills over into all human pleasures - including the highest and most transcendent - except for, of course, the base pleasure of self-righteousness. It literally is starvation of the soul. 


Fortunately, Margaret is able to save Eric from this malaise, and he is able to find his wholeness again through his fiddle and dance and love. 


Many of the stories, like the above, are fairly long - longer than one would normally expect for a “short story.” These are not vignettes or short narratives like O Henry might write, but longer, with a more complex plot arc. But, while they are often divided into a few chapters, they are not novellas either, focusing on a single main character, with no subplots. 


There are also some more conventional short stories, such as “The Sentimentality of William Tavener.” The Taveners are fairly strict parents, but not overbearing, and the story tells of how they end up letting their sons go see the traveling circus. I found particularly interesting the dynamic between the spouses. She is talkative, competent, and strong. He is definitely a “beta,” slow of speech and uninterested in being the boss. But their relationship works and works well, largely because they do not try to fit it into expected gender roles. 


When people spoke of William Tavener as the most prosperous farmer in McPherson County, they usually added that his wife was a “good manager.” She was an executive woman, quick of tongue and something of an imperatrix. The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted. 


And later:


His sisters in Virginia had often said that only a quiet man like William could ever have lived with Hester Perkins. Secretly, William was rather proud of his wife’s “gift of speech,” and of the fact that she could talk in prayer meeting as fluently as a man. 


While nobody would ever confuse me with a quiet person, I too am rather proud of my own strong and assertive wife. Her ability to match - and exceed - any man is one reason I have completely rejected patriarchy. It is fun to see examples of similar couples throughout history in both real life and fiction. Strong women have always existed, and have even found men that understood and admired their strength. 


Another story that I really enjoyed was “The Bohemian Girl.” It too is about breaking free, but in a much less comfortable way. Like a couple of the other stories (and O Pioneers! too, come to think of it…) it involves a woman of feeling and free spirit married to a stolid, joyless, and in some cases abusive man. While most of the stories end tragically, this one ends with, well, the wife running off with the man she should have married in the first place. It doesn’t have quite the quotable lines of some of the stories, but the characterization is outstanding, and journey so well told that you truly understand why the situation was really for the best for everyone. 


These all so far have been “prairie” stories. The next one, “Ardessa,” is a “city” story, and wry, ironic, and humorous. The titular character is a secretary for the editor of a newspaper, and she has controlled his life by being indispensable. Specifically, she, being of the old school, greased his wheels around the “old money” folks that he needed to work with, freeing him to pursue his own goals. The problem is, the world has changed, and she has managed to work less and less, sending her duties down the line to the younger, harder working women in other departments. Then, she makes a fatal mistake, leaving a competent, vibrant young woman to cover for her while she takes a vacation… 


One line in this story truly cracked me up, though. 


Other people - Napoleon, Disraeli, Sarah Berhardt - had discovered that advertising would go a long way; but Marcus O’Mally discovered that in America it would go all the way - as far as you wished to pay its passage. Any human countenance, plastered in three-sheet posters from sea to sea, would be revered by the American people. The strangest thing was that the owners of these grave countenances, staring at their own faces on newsstands and billboards, fell to venerating themselves; and even he, O’Mally, was more or less constrained by these reputations that he had created out of cheap paper and cheap ink. 


One of the themes that runs through the “city” stories is the contrast in wealth and class between various characters. In “Her Boss,” a lawyer is given a diagnosis of terminal kidney disease. With his remaining time, he dictates his autobiography to a young stenographer, with whom he has a one-sided emotional affair of sorts. One of the attractions she has is the way she and her family roll with hardship. 


People like Sam and Annie admitted misfortune, - admitted it almost cheerfully. Annie and her family did not consider illness or any of its hard facts vulgar or indecent. It had its place in their scheme of life, as it had not in that of Wanning’s friends.


This is an interesting observation. I am not sure if it completely translates to class 100 years later in the same way, but it does by subculture. There are a number of (generally white, middle class) subcultures I have experienced for whom “positivity” is practically a religion. The idea of accepting that hardship and illness - including mental illness - and poverty and sadness are part of life is foreign to them, and unpleasantness is often swept under the rug. In some cases, this comes from terrible theological beliefs which blame pain and hardship on the one experiencing them. Ultimately, the story is a sad one, where the lawyer’s family does wrong to the stenographer in order to suppress the scandal. 


Another of the longer stories which I really enjoyed was “Uncle Valentine.” It is the tale of a young songwriter from a family which has gracefully and happily devolved from its peak. Uncle Valentine is full of the joy of life, and a bit of a force of chaos to those he knows. His family - uncles and great uncles and such - are every bit as eccentric and amusing. The narrator’s family lives next door and is close to him and his family. 


Valentine has a bit of a spotty past. He briefly married a local woman from an extremely wealthy and prominent family. Her rigidity and obsession with money doesn’t match with him, however, and he ends up running off with “a singer, notorious for her beauty and misconduct.” His ex-wife remarries a more suitable (for her) man, but there is, understandably, plenty of tension. Cather paints a contrast between Valentine and the narrator’s mother, who live authentically, and most of their acquaintance, caught up in the American quest for wealth and position. 


I could follow them in my mind: Valentine with his brilliant necktie and foreign-cut clothes, hurrying about the shops, so lightning-quick, when all the men they passed in the street were so slow and ponderous or, when they weren’t ponderous, stiff - stiff because they were wooden, or because they weren’t wooden and were in constant dread of betraying it. Everybody would be trying not to look at bright-colored, foreign-living, disgracefully divorced Valentine Ramsay; some in contempt - some in secret envy, because everything about him told how free he was. And up there, nobody was free. They were imprisoned in their harsh Calvinism, or in their merciless business grind, or in mere apathy - a mortal dullness.


This rings true. As Wordsworth put it:


The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!


And certainly any combination of Calvinism, corporatism, and apathy is dreadfully dull. Those people do indeed tend to envy those who are free to live authentically. 


The final story was one that had a few minor parallels with The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place place by E. L. Konigsburg. The plots were nothing alike, but the glass factory, the descent of an immigrant family into elderly poverty, and colorful old fashioned men were details that kind of corresponded. I quite enjoyed the story, too, which is yet another contrast of authentic an inauthentic living. As in many of the stories, it is the pursuit and obsession with money and social status that binds one, and those who are content with a simple live with real relationships are able to avoid the money trap. 


One line in this story was interesting to me. It occurs when the judge’s middle aged and widowed daughter recalls her childhood with the Engelhardt boys - who now have mostly passed on, and the one left has nothing left of the family wealth but a small house and a clerking job. And his elderly uncle. 


The Engelhardt boys were different, like people in a book or a play. All the young men in her set were scornful of girls until they wanted one; then they grabbed her rather brutally, and it was over. She had felt that the Engelhardt boys admired her without in the least wanting to grab her, that they enjoyed her aesthetically, so to speak, and it pleased her to be liked in that way. 


Really, it is impossible to find a bad book by Cather. I think she is criminally underrated (along with a number of other female American authors.) Her writing is every bit as good as the men who get the accolades and attention. I think I may have read one of these stories before, but for the most part, her books aren’t as well known as they should be. I highly recommend her. 


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