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!