Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

I was really looking forward to this one. One of my favorite authors (Willa Cather) dealing with one of my favorite themes (the sacrifice of the artist in pursuit of great art). It’s a theme that frankly intoxicates me. And primed for it, as I was when I picked up this novel, I admit that I began to see it almost immediately. This is from page 38 of my paperback copy.

Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with Johnny, and everybody liked him. His popularity would have been unusual for a white man; for a Mexican it was unprecedented. His talents were his undoing. He had a high, uncertain tenor voice, and he played the mandolin with exceptional skill. Periodically he went crazy. There was no other way to explain his behavior. He was a clever workman, and, when he worked, as regular and faithful as a burro. Then some night he would fall in with a crowd at the saloon and begin to sing. He would go on until he had no voice left, until he wheezed and rasped. Then he would play his mandolin furiously, and drink until his eyes sank back into his head. At last, when he was put out of the saloon at closing time, and could get nobody to listen to him, he would run away--along the railroad track, straight across the desert. He always managed to get aboard a freight somewhere. Once beyond Denver, he played his way southward from saloon to saloon until he got across the border. He never wrote to his wife; but she would soon begin to get newspapers from La Junta, Albuquerque, Chihuahua, with marked paragraphs announcing that Juan Tellamantez and his wonderful mandolin could be heard at the Jack Rabbit Grill or the Pearl of Cadiz Saloon. Mrs. Tellamantez waited and wept and combed her hair. When he was completely wrung out and burned up--all but destroyed--her Juan always came back to her to be taken care of--once with an ugly knife wound in the neck, once with a finger missing from his right hand--but he played just as well with three fingers as he had with four.

This is the first portrait of an artist that The Song of the Lark presents to us, one that will be formative and instructive to our heroine, Thea Kronberg, as she moves forward with discovering the kind of artist the world will allow her to be. “Spanish Johnny” is, of course, a tragic figure, an artist prevented from practicing his art for long stretches of time, only to burst forth in self-destructive paroxysms of music and song when his artistic spirit can no longer be contained. It is both the antithesis of the ideal, and typically, the only kind of artist that the world will allow marginalized individuals to become.

But he and Thea do share something in common.

She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different. But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. She brought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself. The something came and went, she never knew how. Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out-of-doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there--under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast--a kind of warm sureness. And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people. When this companion was with her, she could get the most wonderful things out of Spanish Johnny, or Wunsch, or Doctor Archie.

Spanish Johnny has this companion, too, this warm sureness, and Cather, I believe, is not just saying that all artists do, but that it is what makes them artists and makes them different from everyone else.

It is something that one of Thea’s early music teachers (Professor Wunsch) recognizes immediately, this hidden talent. And even at an early age he tries to encourage her, to understand that the opportunity to realize her calling lies within her, not within her surroundings.

Wunsch accompanied her, and as they walked between the flower-beds he took Thea’s hand.

“Es flüstern und sprechen die Blumen,” he muttered. “You know that von Heine? Im leuchtenden Sommermorgan?” He looked down at Thea and softly pressed her hand.

“No, I don’t know it. What does flüstern mean?”

“Flüstern?--to whisper. You must begin now to know such things. That is necessary. How many birthdays?”

“Thirteen. I’m in my ‘teens now. But how can I know words like that? I only know what you say at my lessons. They don’t teach German at school. How can I learn?”

“It is always possible to learn when one likes,” said Wunsch. His words were peremptory, as usual, but his tone was mild, even confidential. “There is always a way. And if some day you are going to sing, it is necessary to know well the German language.”

Thea stooped over to pick a leaf of rosemary. How did Wunsch know that, when the very roses on her wallpaper had never heard it? “But am I going to?” she asked, still stopping.

“That is for you to say,” returned Wunsch coldly. “You would better marry some Jacob here and keep the house for him, maybe? That is as one desires.”

Thea flashed up at him a clear, laughing look. “No, I don’t want to do that. You know”--she brushed his coat-sleeve quickly with her yellow head. “Only how can I learn anything here? It’s so far from Denver.”

Denver is the big city. A mythical place of high culture and wonderment for the young Thea growing up in the rural Colorado town of Moonstone.

Wunsch’s loose lower lip curled in amusement.

Then, as if he suddenly remembered something, he spoke seriously. “Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing--desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.”

It is a lesson Thea will wrestle with throughout the rest of the novel, with Wunsch’s comment about marrying some local boy and keeping his house proving more prophetic than I would’ve liked. It becomes a dominant theme early on, with Ray Kennedy, and older man apparently destined by proximity and desire to marry Thea when she comes of age, clearly representing the domestic path Thea’s life could take.

Ray realized that Thea’s life was dull and exacting, and that she missed Wunsch. He knew she worked hard, that she put up with a great many little annoyances, and that her duties as a teacher separated her more than ever from the boys and girls of her own age. He did everything he could to provide recreation for her. He brought her candy and magazines and pineapples--of which she was very fond--from Denver, and kept his eyes and ears open for anything that might interest her. He was, of course, living for Thea. He had thought it all out carefully and had made up his mind just when he would speak to her. When she was seventeen, then he would tell her his plan and ask her to marry him. He would be willing to wait two, or even three years, until she was twenty, if she thought best. By that time he would surely have got in on something: Copper, oil, gold, silver, sheep--something.

Ray Kennedy is a freight train conductor, familiar with the wider world, with dreams of lucrative business ventures and definite plans for a life that includes Thea as his bride and companion. And he, like many in Thea’s early life, is a likeable character, whose intentions are both wholesome and noble, given the world that surrounds him and the prizes that it values.

Meanwhile, it was pleasure enough to feel that she depended on him more and more, that she leaned upon his steady kindness. He never broke faith with himself about her; he never hinted to her of his hopes for the future, never suggested that she might be more intimately confidential with him, or talked to her of the things he thought about so constantly. He had the chivalry which is perhaps the proudest possession of his race. He had never embarrassed her by so much as a glance. Sometimes, when they drove out to the sandhills, he let his left arm lie along the back of the buggy seat, but it never came any nearer to Thea than that, never touched her. He often turned to her a face full of pride, and frank admiration, but his glance was never so intimate or so penetrating as Doctor Archie’s. His blue eyes were clear and shallow, friendly, uniquiruing. He rested Thea because he was so different; because, though he often told her interesting things, he never set lively fancies going in her head; because he never misunderstood her, and because he never, by any chance, for a single instant, understood her! Yes, with Ray she was safe; by him she would never be discovered!

I think what I find most interesting about this excerpt is that it, including its conclusion, comes from the narrator’s point of view. We are neither in Ray’s nor Thea’s head here, but rather that of the omniscient storyteller--Cather herself--who, here and elsewhere, clearly expresses a point of view on what is means to be an artist and how the well-intending world, through its focus on commercial success and happiness, frequently works at cross purposes to artistic sensibilities.

At one point, Wunsch’s “big” and “little” metaphor about “desire” and “human life” comes to the very forefront of Ray and Thea’s relationship. Here’s the scene. They’re in one of Ray’s train cars together, and he’s telling her about a time he tried to raise sheep for profit in blizzard-stricken Wyoming.

“And you lost all your sheep, didn’t you, Ray?” Thea spoke sympathetically. “Was the man who owned them nice about it?”

“Yes, he was a good loser. But I didn’t get over it for a long while. Sheep are so damned resigned. Sometimes, to this day, when I’m dog-tired, I try to save them sheep all night long. It comes kind of hard on a boy when he first finds out how little he is, and how big everything else is.”

Thea moved restlessly toward him and dropped her chin on her hand, looking at a low star that seemed to rest just on the rim of the earth. “I don’t see how you stood it. I don’t believe I could. I don’t see how people can stand it to get knocked out, anyhow!”

She spoke with such fierceness that Ray glanced at her in surprise. She was sitting on the floor of the car, crouching like a little animal about to spring.

“No occasion for you to see,” he said warmly. “There’ll always be plenty of other people to take the knocks for you.”

“That’s nonsense, Ray,” Thea spoke impatiently and leaned lower still, frowning at the red star. “Everybody’s up against it for himself, succeeds or fails--himself.”

Ray and Thea are talking about two different worlds. Ray’s world is a place where men and women marry and push the plow together, a plow that the man has purchased on credit to raise crops he is convinced he can sell for a profit after harvest. Thea’s world is a place where women (or men) confront the forces arrayed against them on the strength of their own talent and stubbornness. They don’t yet realize that they have these two distinct understandings of the world in their minds when they speak to each other. And when Ray responds to this direct challenge from Thea, he turns philosophic.

“In one way, yes,” Ray admitted, knocking the sparks from his pipe out into the soft darkness that seemed to flow like a river beside the car. “But when you look at it another way, there are a lot of halfway people in this world who help the winners win, and the failers fail. If a man stumbles, there’s plenty of people to push him down. But if he’s like “the youth who bore,” those same people are foreordained to help him along. They may hate to, worse than blazes, and they may do a lot of cussin’ about it, but they have to help the winners and they can’t dodge it. It’s a natural law, like what keeps the big clock up there going, little wheels and big, and no mix-up.”

And although Ray is speaking about his world--the one in which Thea is to play a very specific role as one of the “halfway people” who can help him win--there is wisdom here for the world Thea will decide to enter after a train accident tragically takes Ray’s life. Some people will build you up and others will tear you down, and the ones you attract are up to you or, more specifically, to the talent you are able to manifest in the world around you.

And it is her talent--that warm sureness that lives under her cheek--that is all that she winds up taking with her when she leaves Moonstone for Chicago shortly after Ray’s death.

Her eyes did fill once, when she saw the last of the sand hills and realized that she was going to leave them behind for a long while. They always made her think of Ray, too. She had had such good times with him out there.

But, of course, it was herself and her own adventure that mattered to her. If youth did not matter so much to itself, it would never have the heart to go on. Thea was surprised that she did not feel a deeper sense of loss at leaving her old life behind her. It seemed, on the contrary, as she looked out at the yellow desert speeding by, that she had left very little. Everything that was essential seemed to be right there is the car with her. She lacked nothing. She even felt more compact and confident than usual. She was all there, and something else was there, too--in her heart, was it, or under her cheek? Anyhow it was about her somewhere, that warm sureness, that sturdy little companion with whom she shared a secret.

This is one of the first mentions of Thea’s “sturdy little companion,” but it is something Cather will return to again and again in the text. It sustains Thea. It gives her the courage she needs to put herself out there, to perform in front of indifferent strangers and, when successful, to receive both their accolades and their envy. And it is this envy, or this enmity, or, worst of all, this indifference that the unimaginative world has for the artist, that will consume a large part of Cather’s thematic prose in The Song of the Lark. Early on, Thea has a kind of transcendent experience while performing, and then painfully realizes that the world around her is at best indifferent and, at worst, hostile to her enjoyment of that experience.

There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape. If one had that, the world became one’s enemy: people, buildings, wagons, cars, rushed at one to crush it under, to make one let go of it. Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now. Her eyes were brighter than even Harsanyi had ever seen them. All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to her hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, have it--it! Under the old cape she pressed her hands upon her heaving bosom, that was a little girl’s no longer.

Thea declares war. A war on the unimaginative world. The world that would drag her down and away from the ecstasy that comes with pursuing and achieving higher and higher states of transcendence in her art.

The Harsanyi mentioned above is Thea’s piano teacher while she is in Chicago, and he recognizes early on that Thea is not destined to be a piano player.

“When did you first feel that you wanted to be an artist?”

“I don’t know. There was always--something.”

“Did you never think that you were going to sing?”


“How long ago was that?”

“Always, until I came to you. It was you who made me want to play piano.” Her voice trembled. “Before, I tried to think I did, but I was pretending.”

Harsanyi reached out and caught the hand that was hanging at her side. He pressed it as if to give her something. “Can’t you see, my dear girl, that was only because I happened to be the first artist you have ever known? If I had been a trombone player, it would have been the same; you would have wanted to play trombone. But all the while you have been working with such good will, something has been struggling against me. See, here we were, you and I and this instrument”--he tapped the piano--“three good friends, working so hard. But all the while there was something fighting us: your gift, and the woman you were meant to be. When you find your way to that gift and to that woman, you will be peace.”

Her gift, her little companion, her warm sureness; it is there, and Harsanyi the fellow artist recognizes it immediately. With his encouragement, she gives up the piano and pursues her singing, tapping fully into her secret and inner desire...

Of this feeling Thea had never spoken to any human being until that day when she told Harsanyi that “there had always been--something.” Hitherto she had felt but one obligation toward it--secrecy; to protect it even from herself. She had always believed that by doing all that was required of her by her family, her teachers, her pupils, she kept that part of herself from being caught up in the meshes of common things. She took it for granted that some day, when she was older, she would know a great deal more about it. It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it. That meeting awaited her, just as surely as, for the poor girl in the seat behind her, there awaited a hole in the earth, already dug.

This last reference is to a consumptive girl, coughing in train car seat behind Thea as she journeys back from Chicago to Moonstone for a visit.

For Thea, so much had begun with a hole in the earth. Yes, she reflected, this new part of her life had all begun that morning when she sat on the clay bank beside Ray Kennedy, under the flickering shade of the cottonwood tree. She remembered the way Ray had looked at her that morning. Why had he cared so much? And Wunsch, and Doctor Archie, and Spanish Johnny, why had they? It was something that had to do with her that made them care, but it was not she. It was something they believed in, but it was not she. Perhaps each of them concealed another person in himself, just as she did. Why was it that they seemed to feel and to hunt for a second person in her and not in each other? Thea frowned up at the dull lamp in the roof of the car. What if one’s second self could somehow speak to all these second selves? What if one could bring them out, as whiskey did Spanish Johnny’s? How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely.

Here it is again. Her second self, her gift, her little companion, her warm sureness. But now the new idea that everyone might have something similar inside them. And the far-reaching dream that these guarded secrets could somehow be brought forth in unison and joy. But how?

It was to music, more than to anything else, that these hidden things in people responded. Her mother--even her mother had something of that sort which replied to music.

This is the thing--the ecstasy, not just of her own performance, but of the aspirational human reaction and fidelity with it--that will compel Thea into a necessary confrontation with the unimaginative world. And that world, of course, includes not just indifferent strangers, but her dearest friends and family members as well.

Thea had always taken it for granted that her sister and brothers recognized that she had special abilities, and that they were proud of it. She had done them the honour, she told herself bitterly, to believe that though they had no particular endowments, they were of her kind, and not of the Moonstone kind. Now they had all grown up and become persons. They faced each other as individuals, and she saw that Anna and Gus and Charley were among the people whom she had always recognized as her natural enemies. Their ambitions and sacred properties were meaningless to her. She had neglected to congratulate Charley upon having been promoted from the grocery department of Commings’s store to the drygoods department. Her mother had reproved her for this omission. And how was she to know, Thea asked herself, that Anna expected to be teased because Bert Rice now came and sat in the hammock with her every night? No, it was all clear enough. Nothing that she would ever do in the world would seem important to them, and nothing they would ever do would seem important to her.

Because there are two worlds, the world of the artist and the world of the unimaginative, and they are always and forever in conflict with another. Exploration of this theme is, for me, the best part of the novel, reminiscent of triumphant and tragic choice that artists of all stripes must make in order to achieve their highest calling. Doctor Archie, a lifelong influence on Thea, at one point puts the choice to Thea very plainly.

“Thea,” he said slowly, “I won’t say that you can have everything you want--that means having nothing, in reality. But if you decide what it is you want most, you can get it.” His eye caught hers for a moment. “Not everybody can, but you can. Only, if you want a big thing, you’ve got to have nerve enough to cut out all that’s easy, everything that’s to be had cheap.”

But Thea, unfortunately, is no Charles Strickland. She is not the unrealizable ideal that Maugham captured in The Moon and Sixpence. Thea is the portrait of a much more human artist. Given Doctor Archie’s choice, she waffles. She waffles not just between the artistic ideal and the human reality, but with the very domesticity that Strickland wholly rejected. She is in some very real ways afraid of her own metaphor for the artistic abandon she knows is necessary.

Thea sang an aria from “Gioconda,” some songs by Schumann which she had studied with Harsanyi, and the “Tak for dit Räd,” which Ottenburg liked.

“That you must do again,” he declared when they finished this song. “You did it much better the other day. You accented it more, like a dance or a galop. How did you do it?”

Thea laughed, glancing sidewise at Mrs. Nathanmeyer. “You want it rough-house, do you? Bowers likes me to sing it more seriously, but it always makes me think about a story my grandmother used to tell.”

Fred pointed to the chair behind her. “Won’t you rest a moment and tell us about it? I thought you had some notion about it when you first sang it for me.”

Hark now. Here comes the metaphor.

Thea sat down. “In Norway, my grandfather knew a girl who was awfully in love with a young fellow. She went into service on a big dairy farm to make enough money for her outfit. They were married at Christmas time, and everybody was glad, because they’d been sighing around about each other for so long. That very summer, the day before Saint John’s Day, her husband caught her carrying on with another farm-hand. The next night all the farm people had a bonfire and a big dance up on the mountain, and everybody was dancing and singing. I guess they were all a little drunk, for they got to seeing how near they could make the girls dance to the edge of the cliff. Ole--he was the girl’s husband--seemed the jolliest and the drunkest of anybody. He danced his wife nearer and nearer the edge of the rock, and his wife began to scream so that the others stopped dancing and the music stopped; but Ole went right on singing, and he danced her over the edge of the cliff and they fell hundreds of feet and were all smashed to pieces.”

It’s a horrible story, even if it’s not true. But there are so many layers in it that relate to the desire of the artist to create something great and the desire, often frustrated, of the patron to be transported by that greatness.

They’d been sighing around about each other for so long. The artist and the patron love each other, the patron for the ideal he believes the artist represents and the artist for the freedom that the patron can initially offer her.

Her husband caught her carrying on with another farm-hand. Artists do not follow the moral structures of normative human custom and culture. Indeed, if they are to pursue their muse, they must often violate them.

They got to seeing how near they could make the girls dance to the edge of the cliff. Novelty, excitement, and perhaps greatness lies in danger and risk.

He danced his wife nearer and nearer the edge of the rock, and his wife began to scream so that the others stopped dancing and the music stopped. When on this risky fringe, very few will see the benefit in continuing. They will be cowed by the danger. It takes a committed artist, or a demented patron, to find the greatness that lies beyond the edge of civility.

He danced her over the edge of the cliff and they fell hundreds of feet and were all smashed to pieces. The danger is real. Failure has painful consequences. And it is more often than not the demented patron, jealous of the thing the makes the artist the artist, that will push things past the point of no return.

Think I’m nuts? See how Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s potential patron, reacts to this horrific story.

Ottenburg turned back to the piano.

“That’s the idea! Now, come, Miss Thea. Let it go!”

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses into its later parts, Thea begins to dance not closer and closer but farther and farther away from the cliff, perhaps reflecting Cather’s own struggle against her culture’s natural and expected plan for women. It was frustrating. I, like Fred Ottenburg, wanted Thea to dance on the very precipice, to risk it all for her art, and instead had to suffer through page after page of Thea trying to choose, not even between domesticity and art, but between the love of one man over another. At one point, I was even compelled to scribble in the margin.

Willa! Why all this aimless rambling? Archie, Fred? What about art!

But I suppose I should be cautious about being too harsh a critic. What is it like to be a woman? To be a woman in 1890? A woman in 1890 in rural Colorado? This wandering, this drawn-out agonizing about settling down with Man 1 or Man 2, or foregoing both in order to achieve an artistic culmination that would otherwise be impossible, could be the quintessential essence of an uniquely human experience that only Cather was in a position to capture.

But it’s still a bitter pill to swallow, coming, as it does, after Thea’s sojourn and artistic epiphanies in Arizona--a place that would-be patron (and lover?) Fred Ottenburg takes Thea to in order to help her clear her head and decide which desire she wants to commit her life to. Visiting and meditating on an ancient and abandoned community of Cliff-Dwellers, Thea’s understanding of the function and importance of art seems to solidify.

One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself--life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.

As does her determination for living the artistic life.

There was certainly no kindly Providence that directed one’s life; and one’s parents did not in the least care what became of one, so long as one did not misbehave and endanger their comfort. One’s life was at the mercy of blind chance. She had better take it in her own hands and lose everything than meekly draw the plough under the rod of parental guidance. She had seen it when she was at home last summer--the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people toward any serious effort. Even to her father it seemed indecorous. Whenever she spoke seriously, he looked apologetic. Yet she had clung fast to whatever was left of Moonstone in her mind. No more of that! The Cliff-Dwellers had lengthened her past. She had older and higher obligations.

Thea’s waffling, her meanderings, her self-inflicted tortures over being what society expects her to be or being the artist her talent will allow her to be, was especially difficult for this devoted Cather fan to bear after such declarations. At one point, Fred speaks to Thea in the way I sometimes wished I could have spoken to Cather, spoken to her across the distance and the years, spoken to her while she was in the creative act itself, pushing the pencil across the paper that would become The Song of the Lark.

“Don’t you know most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding-school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second-hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.”

Precisely, Fred. Thea couldn’t live like that, so why does Cather subject her to such inner turmoil over the need to reject that way of life and claim the greatness that is her birthright? Is it because it is what she, Cather, herself, feels and has felt throughout her artistic life? As much as I have read and enjoyed Cather’s fiction, I know surprisingly little about the artist herself, other than the generalities associated with her career and her sexuality. She rose above the unimaginative in her own life, as Thea eventually does in The Song of the Lark. But in Thea’s struggle are we to see Cather’s? And since it was written early in Cather’s career, are we also then to see in Thea’s eventual triumph Cather’s yet-to-be-fulfilled wish for the same?

No matter. Cather’s prose is still a delight to read, and her insights are still as piercing as ever. Her narrative voice is strong and wise, tempered by the many trials and tribulations she herself had suffered for her art. A memorable example:

Thea was still under the belief that public opinion could be placated; that if you clucked often enough, the hens would mistake you for one of themselves.

And another:

The rich, noisy city, fat with food and drink, is a spent thing; its chief concern is its digestion and its little game of hide-and-seek with the undertaker. Money and office and success are the consolations of impotence. Fortune turns kind to such solid people and lets them suck their bone in peace. She flicks her whip upon flesh that is more alive, upon that stream of hungry boys and girls who tramp the streets of every city, recognizable by their pride and discontent, who are the Future, and who possess the treasure of creative power.

But for me, the most piercing insight of all from The Song of the Lark comes not from Cather, but from the novel’s introduction. In these few pages, written, as usual for novels such as these, by an English professor at some prestigious university, I stumbled across this wonderful tidbit about Cather’s writing.

In later years Cather developed a spare fictional aesthetic, represented by her phrase “the novel demeuble,” the unfurnished novel. Art should simplify, she thought, and aesthetic power derive from the unsaid, from the “inexplicable presence of the thing not named.”

This is what I have sensed, and enjoyed, about Cather’s writing for years. Her uncanny ability, I’ve said, to write about the spaces between people rather than the people themselves. And now to find that this practice had intention behind it--it was like discovering a diamond in the unlikeliest of places. What a testament to her genius.

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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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