Willa Cather, Peter (Review)
Surely a whole year can’t have passed since I last wrote about a Library of America short story? But yes, it has. My last one was Robert Frost’s “The question of a feather” in July last year. Many times I’ve chosen one to read, and many times I’ve let other things get in the way – but finally I sat down to read a short piece by Willa Cather, one of my favourite American writers. The story is “Peter” and was apparently her very first published piece. It was published when she was 19 as the result of her university professor sending it off to a magazine.
LOA’s notes, as usual, provide some interesting background, including the information I’ve just provided above. They say that she went on to publish it two more times in 1892 and 1900, each with some revisions, and then incorporated its essence into her novel My Antonia which I’ve reviewed here. No wonder it felt familiar!
It is, essentially, a character sketch. Its focus is Peter, an old man – now 60 – who emigrated to Nebraska from Bohemia with his wife, oldest son Antone, and other children five years before the story starts. In Bohemia, Peter had been a second violinist “in the great theatre in Prague”. Without belittling the important role of second violinists, I think in terms of Cather’s story, “second” is meant to convey something about Peter:
He could never read the notes well, so he did not play first; but his touch, he had a touch indeed …
Why he could never read the notes well, we are not told, but we can guess because his neighbours in Nebraska see him as “a lazy, absent-minded fellow”. In fact, it is his son who runs the place:
… people said he was a likely youth, and would do well. That he was mean and untrustworthy every one knew, but that made little difference. His corn was better tended than any in the country, and his wheat always yielded more than other men’s.
There is no love lost between these two rather unappealing men. The story starts with Peter telling his son that “thou shalt not sell it [the violin] until I’m gone”. From his son’s point of view, Peter can no longer play due to trembling and the money would be useful. For homesick Peter though it’s his link to happier times. He doesn’t like “the country, nor the people, least of all he liked plowing”. Cather’s characterisation is effective. We are forced to choose between the hard but hardworking Antone who is trying to support the whole family in a harsh land, and the rather pathetic Peter who, even in his past, was “a foolish fellow, who cared for nothing but music and pretty faces”. Antone and Peter are set up as foils for each other, opposites, and Cather wants us, I think, to see and understand but not judge.
This is a classic migrant story, in which the old find it harder to adapt than the young, for whom the immigration was usually made in the first place! It’s also a father-son/generational clash story. Neither understands each other, and neither seems inclined, it seems, to make many concessions. Given all this, the ending is both shocking and not surprising.
It’s an impressive debut for a 19-year-old writer. However, according to LOA’s notes, Cather regretted allowing her professor to publish it before her style matured. Her biographer Phyllis Johnson wrote that the older Cather “warned aspiring young writers against too early publication”. I wonder why? What damage does she think it did to her? As a reader, I love having access to early works like this – or, to say, Jane Austen’s juvenilia. They illustrate, as LOA suggests, the writer’s “the literary journey”.
What do you think? Do you like to read early/youthful works of favourite writers, or would you rather only read their mature works?
First published: The Mahogany Tree, May 1892.
(Published several times after this, in various revised versions)
Available: Online at the Library of America