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!

English: Willa Cather's childhood home in Red ...

Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy: Museumsparrow via Wikipedia)

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?

Willa Cather
First published: The Mahogany Tree, May 1892.
(Published several times after this, in various revised versions)
Available: Online at the Library of America

20 thoughts on “Willa Cather, Peter (Review)

  1. I like being able to see the journey. That said, I’d collapse in embarrassment if anyone got their hands on most of my teenage poetry!

  2. On the whole I would rather read what the author thought was worth reading. The Willa Cather story does illustrate that reading apprentice work can have value. The short story “Paul’s Case”, quite a famous Cather short story does show her detached quality = of understanding and not judging.

    • Thanks Ian. I’ve read a few of her short stories but not Paul’s case. I’ll look out for it. I understand your point about reading what the authors would like to put forward. Reading the other material I guess is more for those who really want to explore an author after they’ve read all the main “stuff”, like me with Jane Austen!

  3. This sounds like something that I would really love.

    I have been meaning to read Willa Cather for years. I really need to get around to doing so.

    • Oh she’s great Brian … My Antonia is probably the place to start with her novels. LOA has several short stories of hers available free on the net. You can find some of them by checking out my Cather posts in my Author index. Peter is very short – just 3 pages – so would also be a good place to start.

  4. I love Cather, she really is marvelous. I wonder if her concern about being published “early” is more about feeling trapped into staying in a certain style? Or maybe feeling pressured if success also came with that publication?

    • It would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it Stefanie. The biographer may give more details. I was wondering if it’s about people making assumptions about your writing before you’ve really developed and, maybe, being turned off?

  5. My Antonia – Cather … Brings it all back. My Antonia was my mother’s favourite book. My mother was born in Nebraska of immigrant parents and she was the one who introduced me to Cather. It’s been a while since I last read a book of hers – not even sure of the name. But you have nudged me. Thanks.

    • Oh thanks Sarah … I’ve read My Antonia twice and loved it both times. I should though read Song of the lark – I think that’s the title – next time. I’ve read The professor’s house, and Death comes for the archbishop. I need to red more …

      • Yes, of course! Death Comes to the Archbishop! That was the name I had in my head but wasn’t sure. And Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House. Read them in the 1980s – while starting out writing. Yes, I do too, need to read more. There’s always so much to catch up on. There’s a beautiful photograph of Cather I’ve seen. Do you know Julia Ryan? It looks just like her.

  6. I just read Kim Scott’s first novel and loved it. it may be my favorite of his.
    Off to find LOA and read the Cather. She is a real favorite of mine, too.

    • Is that Benang, Marilyn? I could go look up but that’s the one I first became aware of him with. I haven’t read it though. My bad, eh! Let me know what you think of Peter. It’s impressive writing for 19 years old … the voice, the lack of sentimentality.

  7. I haven’t read Willa Cather since my teens and would like to catch up with this. I like the idea of migration/generation clash.
    I still have my first published story called ‘Elton John’s Mother’ and I can’t say I’m unhappy with it. Australian Short Stories went on to republish it several years later in their Fabulous at Fifty anthology and I think I was placed near Beverly Farmer!

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