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Willa Cather, The sentimentality of William Tavener

February 15, 2010
Willa Cather

Willa Cather, 1936 (Photo: Carl Van Vechten; Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Last week’s Library of America story was Willa Cather’s “The sentimentality of William Tavener” (1900). I can’t resist blogging about this one because it’s by the wonderful Willa, to whom I was introduced when I first lived in the US in the early 1980s. I have read only three of her novels (My Antonia, The professor’s house, and Death comes for the archbishop) but loved her from the beginning: for her robust, somewhat terse and yet not unsubtle style, and for writing so evocatively about the nation I was living in and keen to learn about.

The Library of America’s introduction says that this story is one of her earliest pieces and that it “combines recollections from her childhood years in Virginia, where she was born, with the atmosphere of her family’s later home in Nebraska”. It also introduces us, the Library continues, to “the strong-willed pioneers who would be so prevalent in her later, more famous fiction”.

“The sentimentality of William Tavener” might be an early piece but it demonstrates well her ability to tightly evoke character and mood. Its plot is flimsy: it takes place in one evening and concerns Hester Tavener’s plan to get her husband to allow their sons go to the circus. He, it appears, is hard and demanding of the boys; she, their ally in obtaining some of the pleasures of life (“No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly that did Hester with her husband on behalf of her sons”). In less than 6 pages, Cather provides a powerful picture of this couple – of their individual (equally strong in their own ways) personalities and the somewhat distant relationship between them. In the first paragraph is this:

The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted.

And yet, he, the William of the title, is not a pushover – but he does things his way:

Silence, indeed, was William’s gravity and strength.

On the night of the story though, he breaks his silence and the astonishing effect, the ending teases us, is that it just may augur a new balance of power in the family. We see the possibility of this coming as the evening wears on and the barrier between the couple starts to break down through the sharing of memories, but it is heralded by a sudden change in style from concrete, matter-of-fact almost staccato reportage to a descriptive interlude:

The little locust trees that grew by the fence were white with blossoms. Their heavy odor floated in to her on the night wind and recalled a night long ago, when the first whip-poor-Will of the Spring was heard …

There is irony in the title: William is not presented as a sentimental man and yet, we find, a little sentimentality can work wonders.

The story introduces us to the Willa Cather to come – to her direct, matter-of-fact style; to her strong characters who often survive by the force of their own will in a world that is hard (or they perceive as hard); to her exploration of relationships and the challenges of maintaining them (particularly in the long haul); and to her evocative, careful use of landscape and nature. If you enjoy this story, and have not read any other Cather … then do move on to her novels.

POSTSCRIPT: For an excellent analysis of Willa Cather’s writing, see AS Byatt’s article in The Guardian. It takes a writer to know a writer!

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 12:34 am

    Hi, Willa Cather is also one of my favorites. Besides the novels you mention, ‘The Song of the Lark’ and ‘A Lost Lady’ are also excellent. And O’Pioneers.

    • February 16, 2010 12:42 am

      I wondered if you liked her – rather suspected you would. I don’t know much about A lost lady, but do have the other two you mentioned in my sights. I’ll add A lost lady to that list!

  2. February 16, 2010 2:32 pm

    Hi Whisperinggums,”
    “…to whom I was introduced when I first lived in the US in the early 1980s.” So the secret is out; you lived in the US at one time! I’m wondering where and what you were doing at the time. You also say ‘when I first lived in the US’ which seems to imply that you lived here on more than one occasion. I’m very curious.

    • February 16, 2010 2:52 pm

      Dear very curious,

      Yes I’ve lived in the USA twice, and in fact our first child was born there. Both times were for my husband’s work – on both occasions his company was subcontracted to an American company (different ones for the different stays) who won contracts for the Australian government. Bizarre really but all to do with tax offsets I think for transferral of knowledge or somesuch. Anyhow, we spent two years, 1983-1985 in Northern Virginia (5 miles east of Dulles Airport), and our son was born in Washington DC itself; and then three years, 1990-1993, in Orange County in Southern California. Both were great experiences. I made two subsequent quick trips back (one to Portland and one to DC) for conferences related to my work, and then we both went back for three weeks in 2008 when our daughter was doing an exchange year at UVA. We’ve managed to travel around a lot of the USA, except for the mid-west and, if it makes sense, middle north (though we did fly into Chicago for a couple of nights). We thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

  3. February 16, 2010 3:04 pm

    Interesting. I’m wondering if I should or shouldn’t recommend you read “How the Light Gets In” by M.J. Hyland which is about a female college student from Australia spending a year as an exchange student in Chicago. You are lucky that you have spent most of your time in the US in the warmer climates, especially Los Angeles, instead of the cold climates of Minnesota and Wisconsin. My wife, son, and I are headed to San Francisco in a few weeks; she has a conference there.

    • February 16, 2010 3:52 pm

      I think you should! In fact, I nominated that book for my Australian Literature yahoo reading group but it didn’t get selected. I will look out for it though as I haven’t read Hyland yet and this seems like a most suitable one for me to start with!

      And yes, I’m very glad we weren’t sent to those cold places (sorry!). While I missed having a real autumn in LA, I really did like the climate there…in fact I rather fell in love with the whole southwest. Loved everywhere we went in the US – all beautiful and fascinating but if I had to choose the southwest would be it. We thought that San Diego would be ideal in terms of climate and size of city for us? San Francisco is lovely to visit…have been there a couple of times. (And so have been to the lovely John Muir Woods that I mentioned I think in my John Muir post!). How long will you be there for?

  4. February 17, 2010 1:05 am

    Yes, I’ve been to San Diego – it is very nice. We are going to San Francisco for less than a week, but it will still be a nice break from ordinary life. My wife is an archaeologist, and we will be seeing the King Tut exhibit while there.
    The only reason I hesitated on recommending the Hyland to you is that the subject matter might be a little too close to home, and it is not a cheery book. It sounds like your daughter might find it very relelvant, since it is about living in an American family’s home.

    • February 17, 2010 9:34 am

      Archeologist – that’s fascinating. What does she specialise in? I rather suspected your hesitation was due to the content of the book. Fortunately, my daughter did her exchange 2007-08 so anything I read now is unlikely to unsettle me – and, I think I’m pretty good at separating my reading. I’m not one (yet, anyhow!) who likes to avoid unsettling material. Enjoy SF…hope the weather is good to you.

      • February 17, 2010 10:39 am

        Achaeologist I meant. I have no idea why I did that. I don’t usually spell it the “chiefly US” way – and you clearly don’t either! LOL.

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