Saturday, May 12, 2018

Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather

Another collection of short stories by Willa Cather, and another volume in which at least one story has appeared elsewhere. The overlap of stories in the three Cather short story collections that I’ve now read prompted me to go to Wikipedia and try to figure out how many stories Cather had published and in which volumes they appeared, originally or in reproduction. Imagine my surprise when my search returned a total of 55 short stories written by Cather -- many not published in books but it literary magazines in the early 1900s.

Note to self: Collecting original copies of the magazines in which Cather’s stories appear could be my next literary affectation. What a delightful quest that would be!

But more directly for the purposes of this post, let me try to summarize what I’ve learned about Cather’s publication chronology of short story collections.

First came The Troll Garden in 1905, which I have not read. It included:
1. “Flavia and Her Artists”
2. “The Sculptor's Funeral”
3. “A Death in the Desert”
4. “The Garden Lodge”
5. “The Marriage of Phaedra”
6. “A Wagner Matinee”
7. “Paul's Case”

Next came Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920, which I just finished. It included, using the same numbers from above to show the ones republished:
8. “Coming, Aphrodite!”
9. “The Diamond Mine”
10. “A Gold Slipper”
11. “Scandal”
7. “Paul's Case”
6. “A Wagner Matinee”
2. “The Sculptor's Funeral”
3. “A Death in the Desert”

Next came Obscure Destinies in 1932, which I have not read. It had three “new” stories:
12. “Neighbour Rosicky”
13. “Old Mrs. Harris”
14. “Two Friends”

Next came The Old Beauty and Others in 1948, which I read in August 2013. It also had three “new” stories:
15. “The Old Beauty”
16. “The Best Years”
17. “Before Breakfast”

And finally came Five Stories in 1956, after Cather’s death, and which I read in June 2014. It included, using the same numbers from above to show the ones republished:
18. “The Enchanted Bluff”
19. “Tom Outland's Story”
12. “Neighbour Rosicky”
16. “The Best Years”
7. “Paul's Case”

So, in other words, only 19 of Cather’s 55 stories were published in these five books, two of which I have not read. If I want the other 36 stories (and I do) I’ll have to dig them out of dusty corners of the Internet.

It’s also interesting that among the stories that have been republished in different collections, “Paul’s Case” is the only one to be included three times -- first in The Troll Garden, then in Youth and the Bright Medusa, and finally in Five Stories. It’s a story that made a deep impression on me when I first read it in Five Stories, but, frankly, less so when I read it again in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

A more compelling question for me in reading the other stories -- other than “Paul’s Case”, all new to me -- was trying to figure out what they had to do with each other. Did they all explore some kind of underlying theme? And, weirdly, did that theme have anything to do with what I take to be the strange and cryptic title of Youth and the Bright Medusa?

The Bright Medusa

Trying to figure out what The Bright Medusa of Cather’s title means or represents led me down one of the Internet’s many rabbit holes. Most search results on “The Bright Medusa” resulted in links to Cather’s own book or descriptions thereof, none that I read containing any information about the origin of the collection’s title. Farther down I found a poem of the same title by Sir Henry Newbolt, and then a story of the same title by the same author in a collection called The Book of the Blue Sea. Both the poem and the story seem to be about an old wooden British warship, The Medusa, with the story clarifying that the Bright Medusa refers to the gilded figurehead on its prow.

What any of that has to do with Cather’s short stories is beyond me. If I stretch my imagination, I I can maybe see a juxtaposition between youth, the first part of Cather’s title, and the disillusionment of the artist who comes to realize that her work can be used most perversely by the mercantile and imperial forces of her society, something like the glittering sculpture on the front of a warship. And although Cather’s stories are almost certainly about the madness of art (more on that later), interpreting the title in this fashion feels like I’m grasping at straws.

One of the things that makes me doubt this interpretation is that the epigraph for Youth and the Bright Medusa is not from Newbolt’s poem, but from another poem, by Christina Rossetti, called “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 Internet tells me that “Goblin Market” is a famous poem, sustaining many different interpretations since first published in 1862. The one that seems most relevant to Cather and her fiction, and the one best embodied in the epigraphed stanza, is that art is a wonderful but dangerous thing. The excerpted words are spoken by one sister to another, warning her not to indulge in the luscious fruits of the Goblin men. The woman ignores her sister’s advice, indulging deep in their fruitful delights, only to begin a slow withering towards death as she tries to live the rest of her life without them.

From my read, the characters in Cather’s stories all wrestle with something similar -- perhaps Paul in “Paul’s Case” as the most famous example. His world is bleak and uninteresting. But he becomes intoxicated by the bright and gilded world of the theater and, once exposed, finds the outside world not just bleak and uninteresting, but insufferable.

The Madness of Art

So this brings me to the theme I think I see in all the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa.

In “Coming, Aphrodite!”, Don Hedger, a painter, is intoxicated by his artistic vision of the ideal woman, which, he believes, has moved in next door to his studio apartment in the person of Eden Bower, an aspiring actress.

Eden Bower, by the way, is the name of a poem by Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in which the Eden in question is the Garden of Eden, and Eden’s Bower is the location of the Talmudic myth of Lilith, Adam’s consort prior to Eve, who refuses to submit to his authority and who, in Rossetti’s poem, manipulates the snake into tempting Eve and orchestrating the fall of Man.

Prior Cather’s Eden Bower moving in, Hedger’s understanding of women was rather limited. He’s an orphan, raised primarily by a well-intentioned Catholic priest, who encouraged his artistic explorations.

Women had come and gone in Hedger’s life. Not having a mother to begin with, his relations with them, whether amorous or friendly, had been casual. He got on well with janitresses and wash-women, with Indians and with the peasant women of foreign countries. He had friends among the silk-skirt factory girls who came to eat their lunch in Washington Square, and he sometimes took a model for a day in the country. He felt an unreasoning antipathy toward the well-dressed women he saw coming out of big shops, or driving in the Park. If, on his way to the Art Museum, he noticed a pretty girl standing on the steps of one of the houses on upper Fifth Avenue, he frowned at her and went by with his shoulders hunched up as if he were cold. He had never known such girls, or heard them talk, or seen the inside of the houses in which they lived; but he believed them all to be artificial and, in an aesthetic sense, perverted. He saw them enslaved by desire of merchandise and manufactured articles, effective only in making life complicated and insincere and in embroidering it with ugly and meaningless trivialities. They were enough, he thought, to make one almost forget woman as she existed in art, in thought, and in the universe.

Okay, before going any farther, I have to comment on “He saw them enslaved by desire of merchandise and manufactured articles, effective only in making life complicated and insincere and in embroidering it with ugly and meaningless trivialities.” Simple and uncomplicated, it is prose like that that keeps me reading Cather again and again.

But back to Hedger. His world -- at least the world in thematic question here, the world of “woman as she existed in art, in thought, and in the universe” -- is bleak and uninteresting. But then, through an accidently discovered peephole in the back of his closet, he sees Miss Bower in her most natural state.

Yonder, in a pool of sunlight, stood his new neighbour, wholly unclad, doing exercises of some sort before a long gilt mirror. Hedger did not happen to think how unpardonable it was of him to watch her. Nudity was not improper to any one who had worked so much from the figure, and he continued to look, simply because he had never seen a woman’s body as beautiful as this one, -- positively glorious in action. As she swung her arms and changed from one pivot of motion to another, muscular energy seemed to flow through her from her toes to her finger-tips. The soft flush of exercise and the gold of afternoon sun played over her flesh together, enveloped her in a luminous mist which, as she turned and twisted, made now an arm, now a shoulder, now a thigh, dissolve in pure light and instantly recover its outline with the next gesture. Hedger’s fingers curved as if he were holding a crayon; mentally he was doing the whole figure in a single running line, and the charcoal seemed to explode in his hand at the point where the energy of each gesture was discharged into the whirling disc of light, from a foot or shoulder, from the up-thrust chin or the lifted breasts.

And this experience changes him. His lodging, always mean but once livable, is now unbearable to him. It is slovenly, disordered, a prison. He returns again and again to the closet peephole, anxious, obsessed, desperate to re-experience this pure vision of his feminine ideal. And, tellingly, he is aware that this is where his obsession resides.

He had no desire to know the woman who had, for the time at least, so broken up his life, -- no curiosity about her every-day personality. He shunned any revelation of it, and he listened for Miss Bower’s coming and going, not to encounter, but to avoid her. He wished that the girl who wore shirt-waists and got letters from Chicago would keep out of his way, that she did not exist. With her he had naught to make. But in a room full of sun, before an old mirror, on a little enchanted rug of sleeping colours, he had seen a woman who emerged naked through a door, and disappeared naked. He thought of that body as never having been clad, or as having worn the stuffs and dyes of all the centuries but his own. And for him she had no geographical associations; unless with Crete, or Alexandria, or Veronese’s Venice. She was the immortal conception, the perennial theme.

He doesn’t want to know Eden Bower, the person whose form he has so idolized. He only wants to commune with the beauty that she represents. It is a madness.

The Burden of Ordinary Existence

Next in the collection comes “The Diamond Mine,” which seems to be very much about the burdens that artists have to bear to pursue the thing that brings them joy. Even the most successful artist, like the story’s Cressida Garnet, whose success has created the diamond mine of the story’s title for all the bleak and uninteresting characters that surround her, even that artist can’t escape the need to fill their lives with the insufferable details of being.

Two Worlds in Collision

In “A Gold Slipper”, Cather seems to be contrasting the two worlds of the larger theme -- the one governed by the artistic sensibility with the one ignorant and hostile to it. Kitty Ayrshire is a famous singer and Marshall McKann is a businessman dragged to one of Kitty’s performances by his socialite wife. He did find some enjoyment at the performance, bewitched more by Kitty’s feminine form and mannerisms than by her art, but seems intent on souring the experience with his own understanding of himself.

The minx herself was well enough, but it was absurd in his fellow-townsmen to look owlish and uplifted about her. He had no rooted dislike for pretty women; he even didn’t deny that gay girls had their place in the world, but they ought to be kept in their place. He was born a Presbyterian, just as he was born a McKann. He sat in his pew in the First Church every Sunday, and he never missed a presbytery meeting when he was in town. His religion was not very spiritual, certainly, but it was substantial and concrete, made up of good, hard convictions and opinions. It had something to do with citizenship, with whom one ought to marry, with the coal business (in which his own name was powerful), with the Republican party, and with all majorities and established precedents. He was hostile to fads, to enthusiasms, to individualism, to all changes except in mining machinery and in methods of transportation.

But through a simple twist of fiction, McKann finds himself on the same train to New York as Kitty Ayrshire. The conversation they share is a playground for Cather to toy with the conflicting sensibilities of those who consider themselves artists and those who consider themselves more serious-minded.

“I’m a hard-headed business man,” [McKann] said evasively, “and I don’t much believe in any of you fluffy-ruffles people. I have a sort of natural distrust of them all, the men more than the women.”

[Kitty] looked thoughtful. “Artists, you mean?” drawing her words slowly. “What is your business?”


“I don’t feel any natural distrust of business men, and I know ever so many. I don’t know any coal-men, but I think I could become very much interested in coal. Am I larger-minded than you?”

McKann laughed. “I don’t think you know when you are interested or when you are not. I don’t believe you know what it feels like to be really interested. There is so much fake about your profession. It’s an affectation on both sides. I know a great many of the people who went to hear you tonight, and I know that most of them neither know nor care anything about music. They imagine they do, because it’s supposed to be the proper thing.”

When reading their dialogue, it’s important for the reader to understand that Cather is having them speak not just as characters in a story, but as archetypes in a cultural milieu. McKann, the serious-minded, has strong opinions about things he knows very little about, things he has been culturally conditioned to distrust and avoid. And Kitty calls him on it.

“But isn’t that so in everything?” she cried. “How many of your clerks are honest because of a fine, individual sense of honour? They are honest because it is the accepted rule of good conduct in business. Do you know” -- she looked at him squarely -- “I thought you would have something quite definite to say to me; but this is funny-paper stuff, the sort of objection I’d expect from your office-boy.”

“Then you don’t think it silly for a lot of people to get together and pretend to enjoy something they know nothing about?”

“Of course I think it silly, but that’s the way God made audiences. Don’t people go to church in exactly the same way? If there were a spiritual-pressure test-machine at the door, I suspect not many of you would get to your pews.”

Kitty, remember, is the artist, and her archetypal job is to expose the hypocrisies of the serious-minded for what they are. Later in the dialogue, Kitty offers as pure a statement of the artistic ethic as is possible in the bounds of Cather’s fiction.

“I can’t understand your equivocal scheme of ethics. Now I can understand Count Tolstoy’s, perfectly. I had a long talk with him once, about his book ‘What is Art?’ As nearly as I could get it, he believes that we are a race who can exist only by gratifying appetites; the appetites are evil, and the existence they carry on is evil. We were always sad, he says, without knowing why; even in the Stone Age. In some miraculous way a divine ideal was disclosed to us, directly at variance with our appetites. It gave us a new craving, which we could only satisfy by starving all the other hungers in us. Happiness lies in ceasing to be and to cause being, because the thing revealed to us is dearer than any existence our appetites can ever get for us. I can understand that. It’s something one often feels in art. It is even the subject of the greatest of all operas, which, because I can never hope to sing it, I love more than all the others.”

There it is. Art feeds the soul like nothing else. And McKann, the serious-minded? What’s his response to all of this?

Kitty pulled herself up. “Perhaps you agree with Tolstoy?” she added languidly.

“No; I think he’s a crank,” said McKann, cheerfully.

Of course he does. To McKann, the path to happiness doesn’t lead away from the evil appetites, but from the ever increasing indulgence in them.

The Path of the Artist

In “Scandal” Kitty Ayrshire appears again, this time vexed by a story a friend tells her about a woman masquerading as her in the social circles of Manhattan. Angered that men could mistake the imposter for her, she bursts out with this delightful indignation:

“Why do we ever take the trouble to look like anything for any of you? I could count on my four fingers” -- she held them up and shook them at him -- “the men I’ve known who had the least perception of what any woman really looked like, and they were all dressmakers. Even painters … never get more than one type through their thick heads; they try to make all women look like some wife or mistress. You are all the same; you never see our real faces. What you do see, is some cheap conception of prettiness you got from a coloured supplement when you were adolescents. It’s too discouraging. I’d rather take vows and veil my face for ever from such abominable eyes. In the kingdom of the blind any petticoat is a queen.”

But the story has a dark turn, for the provocateur behind the imposter is Siegmund Stein, a wealthy businessman who wishes to don the trappings of artistic refinement and patronage -- not for the elevation of the arts but for his own prestige and social advancement. When he has derived all the advantage he can out of the imposter, a young woman named Ruby, he has risen far enough in wealth and position that he can hire the real Kitty Ayrshire to serve as a coach and mentor for another up-and-coming singer, a young man named Peppo Amoretti. But even that is a ruse, as Kitty herself relays in a discussion with her friend, Pierce Tevis.

“A week later Peppo came to me in a rage, with a paper called The American Gentleman, and showed me a page devoted to three photographs: Mr. and Mrs. Siegmund Stein, lately married in New York City, and Kitty Ayrshire, operatic soprano, who sang at their housewarming. Mrs. Stein and I were grinning our best, looked frantic with delight, and Siegmund frowned inscrutably between us. Poor Peppo wasn’t mentioned. Stein has a publicity sense.”

Tevis rose.

“And you have enormous publicity value and no discretion. It was just like you to fall for such a plot, Kitty. You’d be sure to.”

“What’s the use of discretion?” She murmured behind her hand. “If the Steins want to adopt you into their family circle, they’ll get you in the end. That’s why I don’t feel compassionate about your Ruby. She and I are in the same boat. We are both the victims of circumstance, and in New York so many of the circumstances are Steins.”

The path of the artist, in other words, not just the righteous man, is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.

A Silence of Thirty Years

The purest exploration of the theme I’m proposing seems to be “A Wagner Matinee”, which, if truth be told, is frankly more just an exploration of that theme than it is a story. The story part of it is simple. A young man, Clark, welcomes his aging aunt, Georgiana, to Boston, and takes her to a matinee performance of the symphony, featuring compositions by Richard Wagner. But there’s an important backstory.

My Aunt Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, somewhere back in the latter sixties. One summer, while visiting in the little village among the Green Mountains where her ancestors had dwelt for generations, she had kindled the callow fancy of my uncle, Howard Carpenter, then an idle, shiftless boy of twenty-one. When she returned to her duties in Boston, Howard followed her, and the upshot of this infatuation was that she eloped with him, eluding the reproaches of her family and the criticisms of her friends by going with him to the Nebraska frontier. Carpenter, who, of course, had no money, took up a homestead in Red Willow County, fifty miles from the railroad. There they had measured off their land themselves, driving across the prairie in a wagon, to the wheel of which they had tied a red cotton handkerchief, and counting its revolutions. They built a dug-out in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions.

And there Georgiana did exactly that, reverted to the primitive conditions of the prairie, removed from the music and culture that she had loved so much in Boston. Our narrator, Clark, lived with his aunt and uncle for a time, and remembers not only the time fondly, but the aching absence that had been left in his aunt’s heart.

During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking the three meals -- the first of which was ready at six o’clock in the morning -- and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing-board, with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs. It was to her, at her ironing or mending, that I read my first Shakespeare, and her old text-book on mythology was the first that ever came into my empty hands. She taught me my scales and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she had no so much as seen a musical instrument. She would sit beside me by the hour, darning and counting, while I struggled with the “Joyous Farmer.” She seldom talked to me about music, and I understood why. Once when I had been doggedly beating out some easy passages from and old score of Euryanthe I found among her music books, she came up to me and, putting her hands over my eyes, gently drew my head back upon her shoulder, saying tremulously, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”

Music had been taken from Georgiana, obviously through the contrived circumstance of fiction, but it is in capturing this sense of loss, not in its structural form, that “A Wagner Matinee” shines. For in this telling, so much more so than in “Paul’s Case” or elsewhere, the juxtaposed world without music is about as bleak and insufferable as they come.

At first, Georgiana even has a hard time leaving it behind.

At two o’clock the Symphony Orchestra was to give a Wagner program, and I intended to take my aunt; though, as I conversed with her, I grew doubtful about her enjoyment of it. I suggested our visiting the Conservatory and the Common before lunch, but she seemed altogether too timid to wish to venture out. She questioned me absently about various changes in the city, but she was chiefly concerned that she had forgotten to leave instructions about feeding half-skimmed milk to a certain weakling calf, “old Maggie’s calf, you know, Clark,” she explained, evidently having forgotten how long I had been away. She was further troubled because she had neglected to tell her daughter about the freshly-opened kit of mackerel in the cellar, which would spoil if it were not used directly.

But the colorful world of the orchestra seduces her, just as Cather’s colorful prose seduces us.

The matinee 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. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.

And suddenly she -- and Clark -- are reminded of all that they have missed.

When the musicians came out and took their places, she gave a little stir of anticipation, and looked with quickening interest down over the rail at the invariable grouping, perhaps the first wholly familiar thing that had greeted her eye since she had left old Maggie and her weakling calf. I could feel how all those details sank into her soul, for I had not forgotten how they had sunk into mine when I came fresh from 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. The clean profiles of the musicians, the gloss of their linen, the dull black of their coats, the beloved shapes of the instruments, the patches of yellow light 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 -- I recalled how, in the first orchestra I ever heard, those long bow-strokes seemed to draw the heart out of me, as a conjurer’s stick reels out yards of paper ribbon from a hat.

And, as I said, it is the juxtaposition, the juxtaposition between the glory and aural color of the Boston orchestra and the earthy grime and blackness of the Nebraska prairie, that more than anything allows Cather’s theme to rise to its fullest height.

The first number was the Tannhauser overture. When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between 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 grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I 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.

This Borderland Between Ruffianism and Civilization

In “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” the tension between the artistic and the non-artistic becomes even more profound. In this story, the non-artistic is not just a burden that the artistic has to carry, it is an obstacle that the artistic has to overcome -- and, too frequently, doesn’t.

Just then the door leading into the parlour rattled loudly and every one started involuntarily, looking relieved only when Jim Laird came out. The Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, blood-shot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do, and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the court-room, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.

Here’s the situation. A famous sculptor, Harvey Merrick, a native of the small Kansas town of Sand City, has died, and a understudy of his, unfamiliar with the town, has escorted his body home. The understudy has just listened to the small-minded townsfolk passive-aggressively deride the sculptor, both for his success, and for his willingness to abandon the town that gave him birth.

“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” [Jim] began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Ruben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling-house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies and go to the pen?

Something, evidently, is rotten in the state of Denmark. And Jim Laird knows what it is.

The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here tonight, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys were young, and raw at the business you put them to, and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones -- that’s all the difference. 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 Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattlefarms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.”

Old Jim keeps calling the hypocrites out, but we come quickly to understand that this is more than just abstract justice for Jim. This is personal.

The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even I, and I haven’t lost my sense of humour, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practise, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer -- oh yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent. a month, and get it collected; and Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real-estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me!

Jim is beaten, but victorious, much, as I imagine, Cather herself must have felt at times, alternating between the crushing defeat and the soaring triumphs of her artistic soul.

“Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog-wallow, climbing the big, clean upgrade he’d set for himself.

Because, of course, in “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” Cather is both Jim Laird and Harvey Merrick, the shyster and the sculptor, one crying out in defeat for the victory of the other.

“And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter water; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City -- upon which town may God have mercy!”

The Thing Keats Called Hell

Finally, in “A Death in the Desert,” Cather sets her focus not just on the glory of the artistic embrace, but also on the painful reality of its ultimate absence. Katharine Gaylord is a singer, a former protege of an artistic master, now ill with what I take to be consumption.

“She was a great woman, as you say, and she didn’t come of a great family. She had to fight her own way from the first. 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. We’ve grown apart, some way -- miles and miles apart -- and I’m afraid she’s fearfully unhappy.”

That’s Katharine’s brother Charley speaking, and he’s describing her to Everett Hilgarde, a man Katharine had known years ago as a young admirer when she trained as an understudy to Everett’s famous brother Adriance. But more than that, focus on the words Cather places in Charley’s mouth. Katharine is “out of her own world, and she can’t fall back into hers.” Like I’ve been saying from the very beginning, she once lived in the golden and gilded world of art, and has now fallen back into our reality, where she is dying “like a rat in a hole.”

And her only lifeline, it seems, is Everett, whose striking resemblance to his brother reminds her of the joy she once beheld and enjoyed.

Day by day [Everett] felt [Katharine’s] need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her, his own individuality played a smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort lay solely in his link with his brother’s life. He knew that she sat by him always watching for some trick of gesture, some familiar play of expression, some illusion of light and shadow, in which he should seem wholly Adriance. He knew that she lived upon this, and that in the exhaustion which followed this turmoil of her dying senses, she slept deep and sweet, and dreamed of youth and art and days in a certain of Florentine garden, and not of bitterness and death.

But the true artist in this story is not Katharine Gaylord; it is Adriance Hilgarde, a character the reader never encounters but through the remembrances of Katharine and Everett. And that distance, of course, only serves to heighten the otherworldliness of the artist and his climes. At one point, Everett contacts his brother and asks him to write a letter to his former protege, the dying Katharine.

The letter was from Granada, written in the Alhambra, as he sat by the fountain of the Patio di Lindaraxa. The air was heavy with the warm fragrance of the South and full of the sound of splashing, running water, as it had been in a certain old garden in Florence, long ago. The sky was one great turquoise, heated until it glowed. The wonderful Moorish arches threw graceful blue shadows all about him. He had sketched an outline of them on the margin of his note-paper. The letter was full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship.

As Everett folded it he felt that Adriance has divined the things needed and he risen to it in his own wonderful way. The letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted. A strong realization of his brother’s charm and intensity and power came over him; he felt the breath of that whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path, and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others.

“That whirlwind of flame in which Adriance passed, consuming all in his path; and himself even more resolutely than he consumed others.” It is the fevered, throbbing, pulsation of the artistic life, felt even in a letter from the artist himself. It is amoral, pursuing its own esoteric interests to the detriment of any, including the artist, who draw too close, like the radioactive decay of a sizzling mass. And what is Everett’s and Katharine’s reaction to this refresher of Adriance’s power and condescension?

Then [Everett] looked down at this white, burnt-out brand that lay before him.

“Like him, isn’t it?” [Katharine] said, quietly. “I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but when you see him next you can do that for me. I want you to tell him many things for me, yet they can all be summed up in this: I want him to grow wholly into his best and greatest self, even at the cost of what is half his charm to you and me. Do you understand me?”

“I know perfectly well what you mean,” answered Everett, thoughtfully. “And yet it’s difficult to prescribe for those fellows; so little makes, so little mars.”

Katharine raised herself upon her elbow, and her face flushed with feverish earnestness. “Ah, but it is the waste of himself that I mean; his lashing himself out on stupid and uncomprehending people until they take him at their own estimate.”

They want to encourage him. Be more alien. Service your muse, not the stupid and uncomprehending people around you. What you are, what you create; that is the highest and most important thing. In its presence, even the lives of those who love you can wither and die.

Everett next plays a composition that Adriance has enclosed with the letter.

He sat down at the piano and began playing the first movement, which was indeed the voice of Adriance, his proper speech. The sonata was the most ambitious work he had done up to that time, and marked the transition from his early lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style. Everett played intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in particular. When he finished he turned to Katharine.

“How he has grown!” she cried. “What the three last years have done for him! He used to write only the tragedies of passion; but this is the tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell. This is my tragedy, as I lie here, listening to the feet of the runners as they pass me -- ah, God! the swift feet of the runners!”

Is this, perhaps, the highest and most sublime manifestation of Cather’s larger theme (or at least the theme I would like to see in Cather’s work)? It is one thing to experience art and then to subsist in the barren and bleak world of its absence. It is quite another to be the artist herself, to be capable of creating such tremulous joy in others in in one’s own heart, and to fall short of the attempt at transcendence.


In the end, after reading and now reviewing the stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa, I find myself feeling much like Clark’s Aunt Georgiana at the end of “A Wagner Matinee.”

The concert was over; the people filed out of the hall chattering and laughing, glad to relax and find the living level again, but my kinswoman made no effort to rise. The harpist slipped the green felt cover over his instrument; the flute-players shook the water from their mouthpieces; the men of the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield.

I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

I understood. 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.

These stories have surprising power. All the more so when you take the double meaning of Cather, who wrote so movingly of characters on the bleak Nebraska prairie, choosing to juxtapose the vibrancy of art with the bleakness of its absence through these twin metaphors of a symphony and the black and cattle-tracked setting of her own fiction. Is she saying something, I wonder, not just about that setting, but about the works themselves? The works and the price that their artist had to pay in giving them birth?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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