Saturday, June 14, 2014

Five Stories by Willa Cather

Two of the five I have already read--Tom Outland’s Story, which is a good chunk of The Professor’s House (1925), and The Best Years, which was first published in The Old Beauty and Others, and was the last story that Willa Cather completed.

The three new ones for me were:

The Enchanted Bluff

First published in Harper’s Magazine in April 1909. I have to admit, this one didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

Neighbour Rosicky

From Obscure Destinies (1932). A beautiful story about the differences between city life and country life, the choices and trade-offs between the two that our modern lives force us to make, and the distances that will always remain between the two and the people who choose them.

Rosicky is Anton Rosicky, a Bohemian farmer whose heart is failing him and whose doctor is cautioning him to lay off the strenuous farm work.

Like so much of Cather’s writing about the Nebraska farm people, there is true affection in the prose, put in many places, including in the heart of “Doctor Ed” Burleigh--a local boy who had gone off to Omaha for his medical training but, unlike so many others, had returned to the farm country to be with and care for the people that had formed him.

Sometimes the Doctor heard the gossipers in the drug-store wondering why Rosicky didn’t get on faster. He was industrious, and so were his boys, but they were rather free and easy, weren’t pushers, and they didn’t always show good judgment. They were comfortable, they were out of debt, but they didn’t get much ahead. Maybe, Doctor Burleigh reflected, people as generous and warm-hearted and affectionate as the Rosickys never got ahead much; maybe you couldn’t enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.

But Rosicky wasn’t always so easy going. He was born and bred in the city, and even enjoyed living there as a young adult. But he slowly grew despondent.

Rosicky, the old Rosicky, could remember as if it were yesterday the day when the young Rosicky found out what was the matter with him. It was on a Fourth of July afternoon, and he was sitting in Park Place in the sun. The lower part of New York was empty. Wall Street, Liberty Street, Broadway, all empty. So much stone and asphalt with nothing going on, so many empty windows. The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like a fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea.

He moves West, finding work as a farm hand and then marrying and getting a place of his own. It is a very different kind of life, but one he loves dearly. He is even at home in the local graveyard, adjoining his own property and already filled with his old friends and neighbors.

It was a nice graveyard, Rosicky reflected, sort of snug and homelike, not cramped or mournful--a big sweep all round it. 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 that he promised himself to mind the Doctor and take care of himself. He was awful fond of his place, he admitted. He wasn’t anxious to leave it. And 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 neighbors in the graveyard, most of them friends; there was nothing to feel awkward or embarrassed about. Embarrassment was the most disagreeable feeling Rosicky knew. He didn’t often have it--only with certain people whom he didn’t understand at all.

It is a life he wants to preserve for his children. And one of his biggest fears is for his son, Rudolph, who has recently married a city girl and is trying to make a go of it on a neighboring farm. The lengths that Rosicky goes to save their relationship are quite touching, and uniquely informed by Rosicky’s understanding of the allures of city life. In one scene, he takes the family car over to Rudolph’s and offers it to the young couple so they can go into town to see a movie, while he stays back and does all the kitchen chores. The young bride, Polly, is at first reluctant, but warms to the idea when she sees Rosicky’s serious intent.

That kind, reassuring grip on her elbows, the old man’s funny bright eyes, made Polly want to drop her head on his shoulder for a second. She restrained herself, but she lingered in his grasp at the door of her room, murmuring tearfully: “You always lived in the city when you were young, didn’t you? Don’t you ever get lonesome out here?”

Polly does.

As she turned round to him, her hand fell naturally into his, and he stood holding it and smiling into her face with his peculiar, knowing, indulgent smile without a shadow of reproach in it.

And Rosicky knows that she does, even though she is not able to say it.

“Dem big cities is all right fur de rich, but dey is terrible hard fur de poor.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d like to take a chance. You lived in New York, didn’t you?”

“An’ London. Da’s bigger still. I learned my trade dere. Here’s Rudolph comin’, you better hurry.”

“Will you tell me about London some time?”

“Maybe. Only I ain’t no talker, Polly. Run an’ dress yourself up.”

Polly’s loneliness is palpable, as much as Rosicky’s desire to help her adjust to her new life on the farm. Cather’s skill at creating aching tension is on full display, and watching it play out between these two simple characters--one experienced and resigned, the other inexperienced and hungry--is a sheer delight.

Later, when Polly and Rudolph and the whole family are gathered for a Sunday meal, Rosicky tells stories of being poor, cold and hungry in London. Not at all like his life in Nebraska.

They would have to work hard on the farm, and probably they would never do much more than make a living. But if he could think of them as staying here on the land, he wouldn’t have to fear any great unkindness for them. Hardships, certainly; it was a hardship to have the wheat freeze in the ground when seed was so high; and to have to sell your stock because you had no feed. But there would be others years when everything came along right, and you caught up. And what you had was your own. You didn’t have to choose between bosses and strikers, and go wrong either way. You didn’t have to do with dishonest and cruel people. They were the only things in his experience he had found terrifying and horrible; the look in the eyes of a dishonest and crafty man, of a scheming and rapacious woman.

In the country, if you had a mean neighbor, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours. But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbors was part of your life. The worst things he had come upon in his journey through the world were human--depraved and poisonous specimens of man. To this day he could recall certain terrible faces in the London streets. There were mean people everywhere, to be sure, even in their own country town here. But they weren’t tempered, hardened, sharpened, like the treacherous people in cities who live by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-men. He had helped to bury two of his fellow-workmen in the tailoring trade, and he was distrustful of the organized industries that see one out of the world in big cities. Here, if you were sick, you had Doctor Ed to look after you; and if you died, fat Mr. Haycock, the kindest man in the world, buried you.

It seemed to Rosicky that for good, honest boys like his, the worst they could do on the farm was better than the best they would be likely to do in the city. If he’d had a mean boy, now, one who was crooked and sharp and tried to put anything over on his brothers, then town would be the place for him. But he had no such boy. As for Rudolph, the discontented one, he would give the shirt off his back to anyone who touched his heart. What Rosicky really hoped for his boys was that they could get through the world without ever knowing much about the cruelty of human beings. “Their mother and me ain’t prepared them for that,” he sometimes said to himself.

The climax comes when Rosicky takes it upon himself to complete some farm work at Rudolph’s--something his son is not tending to but which could ruin his chances for a successful crop--and in the course of it suffers a heart attack. Only Polly is there to help him, and with great struggle and dedication she helps him back to the farmhouse and tends to him until the terrible pain passes.

As the pain gradually loosed its grip, the stiffness went out of his jaws, the black circles round his eyes disappeared, and a little of his natural color came back. When his daughter-in-law buttoned his shirt over his chest at last, he sighed.

“Da’s fine, de way I feel now, Polly. It was a awful bad spell, an’ I was sorry it all come on you like it did.”

Polly was flushed and excited. “Is the pain really gone? Can I leave you long enough to telephone over to your place?”

Rosicky’s eyelids fluttered. “Don’t telephone, Polly. It ain’t no use to scare my wife. It’s nice and quiet here, an’ if I ain’t too much trouble to you, just let me lay still till I feel like myself. I ain’t got no pain now. It’s nice here.”

In the tender moment that follows, it is revealed that Polly is pregnant, and the news--a secret still to everyone else--forms a permanent bond between Rosicky and his daughter-in-law.

“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 color. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there.

Rosicky does love Polly. He loves her, but he also loves what she and her unborn child represent for the lives of son and his descendants here in the country.

Rosicky dies the next morning, when a second heart attack strikes him in his bedchamber, Doctor Ed is away when it happens, and when he returns after Rosicky’s funeral his finds time to visit Rosicky’s final resting place in that “snug and homelike” graveyard. He reflects:

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.

Paul’s Case

From The Troll Garden (1905), and considered by some the best short story Cather ever wrote. I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it is very much to mine, exploring, as it seems to, the unbearableness of a life that does not live up to its ideal.

Paul is a high school student who is as disgusted with the ordinariness of his life as he is intoxicated by the bright lights and transitory glory of artistic achievement. He works as an usher in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, where he is able to glimpse the life that so enchants him, and much of the story deals with the peaks and valleys he experiences as he moves between his two worlds.

The peak…

When the symphony began Paul sank into one of the rear seats with a long sigh of relief, and lost himself as he had done before the Rico. It was not that symphonies, as such, meant anything in particular to Paul, but the first sigh of the instruments seemed to free some hilarious spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman. He felt a sudden zest of life; the lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor.

And the valley…

After the concert was over, Paul was often irritable and wretched until he got to sleep--and tonight he was even more than usually restless. He had the feeling of not being able to let down; of its being impossible to give up this delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all.

After the concert he follows the soprano to her hotel and, unable to enter, he looks adoringly through a door left ajar and imagines the scene within.

He seemed to feel himself go after her up the steps, into the warm, lighted building, into an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease. He reflected upon the mysterious dishes that were brought into the dining-room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper party pictures of the Sunday supplement. A quick gust of wind brought the rain down with sudden vehemence, and Paul was startled to find that he was still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway; that his boots were letting in the water and his scanty overcoat was clinging wet about him; that the lights in front of the concert hall were out, and that the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him.

Cather expertly contrasts what is inside and outside the hotel with what is inside and outside Paul’s heart.

There it was, what he wanted--tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime; as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whether he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.

It is so different from the world Paul actually lives in, which he views as mean and vulgar by comparison.

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 permeated 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.

Cather does such an amazing job painting us a picture of the people and the life Paul despises through Paul’s eyes, that I feel compelled to include it here:

On seasonable Sunday afternoons the burghers of Cordelia Street usually sat out on their front “stoops,” and talked to their neighbours on the next stoop, or called to those across the street in neighbourly fashion. The men sat placidly on gay cushions placed upon steps that led down to the sidewalk, while the women, in their Sunday “waists,” sat in rockers on the cramped porches, pretending to be greatly at their ease. The children played in the streets; there were so many of them that the place resembled the recreation grounds of a kindergarten. The men on the steps--all in their shirt sleeves, their vests unbuttoned--sat with their legs well apart, their stomachs comfortably protruding, and talked of the prices of things, or told anecdotes of the sagacity of their various chiefs and overlords. They occasionally looked over the multitude of squabbling children, listened affectionately to their high-pitched, nasal voices, smiling to see their own proclivities reproduced in their offspring, and interspersed their legends of the iron kings with remarks about their sons’ progress at school, their grades in arithmetic, and the amounts they had saved in their toy banks.

They are a programmed lot, perpetuating a bloated self aggrandizement their neither invented or understand. Unfortunately for our hero, it is these people who have the greatest sway over his life. Eventually, Paul’s father forces him to take a job in one of the local businesses, and using his influence to sever Paul’s connections to Carnegie Hall and a group of actors he idolizes. Not to be thwarted, Paul steals two thousand dollars from the company’s payroll, and makes off for one final orgy and splendor and luxury in New York, buying the finest of clothes and staying under an assumed name at the Waldorf.

It is an utterly ecstatic experience for Paul.

When he returned, the pause of the twilight had ceased, and the tune of the streets had changed. The snow was falling faster, lights streamed from the hotels that reared their many stories fearlessly up into the storm, defying the raging Atlantic winds. A long, black stream of carriages poured down the avenue, intersected here and there by other streams, tending horizontally. There were a score of cabs about the entrance of this 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 his towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.

The boy set his teeth and drew his shoulders together in a spasm of realization; 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 burnt like a faggot in a tempest.

And in all this excess and activity, it is for Paul, momentarily, like his old life never existed.

When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window. The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance. When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added--that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass--Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about. He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged looking business men boarded the early car? Mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul--sickening men, with combings of children’s hair always hanging to their coats, and the smell of cooking in their clothes. Cordelia Street--Ah, that belonged to another time and country! Had he not always been thus, had he not sat here night after night, from as far back as he could remember, looking pensively over just such shimmering textures, and slowly twirling the stem of a glass like this one between his thumb and middle finger? He rather thought he had.

Eventually, he is found out. He reads in the Pittsburgh papers, which he has arranged to be delivered to him, that his father has repaid the money he has stolen and that he was come east looking for Paul. The news pushes Paul to even greater excess than before, but when he realizes that he cannot wipe away all memory of his ordinary life, and is certain to be returned to it, he finally contemplates taking his own life.

He rose and moved about with a painful effort, succumbing now and again to attacks of nausea. It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street. Yet somehow he was not afraid of anything, was absolutely calm; perhaps because he had looked into the dark corner at last, and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there; but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been. He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live, and for half an hour he sat staring at the revolver. But he told himself that was not the way, so he went downstairs and took a cab to the ferry.

There is real truth here. The truth of what is and what we want things to be, the distance between them, and how that distance is so achingly close for some that it can no longer be borne. For me, the story could have ended better on this note. Paul’s suicide two pages later, throwing himself off a bridge and into frigid water, is anti-climactic.

But that doesn’t detract from Cather’s genius which, as perhaps best described by the author of this book’s afterword, is that “she can touch sublimity--can create it out of almost nothing.” If only Paul could have done the same.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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