Willa Cather, The enchanted bluff (Review)

I’ve reviewed a few Willa Cather stories on this blog now, as well as her gorgeous novel, My Antonia, but as a love her stories, I can’t resist reviewing the latest to have been shared by the Library of America (LOA), albeit that was a couple of months ago now. The story is titled “The enchanted bluff” and was published in 1909, making it the latest of the stories I’ve reviewed to date. Between the previous latest story, “A Wagner matinee published in 1904, and this one, Cather had moved to New York and started working for, writes LOA, “the notoriously difficult” editor, S.S. McClure, at the eponymously named McClure’s.

LOA explains that her years working there were “both rewarding and gruelling”, but that she “proved a perfect foil to her boss’s temperament and was even ghostwriter of his 1914 autobiography. McClure praised her as “the best magazine executive I know”. However, the downside was that she had little time left for her own writing. A common author-problem eh? The work you do to keep you alive takes you away from the work for which you live!

Enchanted Mesa

Enchanted Mesa, By Ethan (originally posted to Flickr as Enchanted Mesa) using CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

She did though manage to write several short stories, of which “The enchanted bluff” is regarded the best. It appealed to me, as I read it, not just because it is a Cather story and is imbued with her wonderful description of place and landscape, but because its focus is the legend of the lost tribe of the Enchanted mesa, a high sandstone butte in New Mexico. LOA tells us that “like the boys in her story, Cather had been fascinated by the legend” since childhood but had never been there (at least not by the time she wrote this story). Now, I’ve been to New Mexico and fell in love with its culture and landscape, so reading this story took me back to a most enjoyable time in my life …

“Enchanted bluff” feels a bit different from many of Cather’s stories. It has the nostalgic or melancholic tone common to many, and it has what I’ve described before as “her evocative, careful use of landscape and nature”, but it is more reflection than even a character-driven story. This however didn’t bother me because it does what I most like: it presents a bunch of ordinary people (in this case 6 boys and young men) going about their ordinary lives (in this case a last summer camping trip before they all head back to school.)

Camping trip, do I hear you say? Surely something dramatic happens there? Well, no, not really. The six boys, ranging in age from around 10 to 17, swim, cook their supper, and sit around the campfire talking. There’s an “angry” moon, and the loud “scream” of a whooping-crane, but nothing untoward happens. However, there is a point, to which I’ll come soon.

Cather starts her story by setting a rather idyllic scene. It’s Nebraska, where many of her stories are set, and the “brown and sluggish river”, contains little sand islands created during spring turbulence:

It was on such an island, in the third summer of its yellow green, that we built our watch-fire; not in the thicket of dancing willow wands, but on the level terrace of fine sand which had been added that spring; a little new bit of world, beautifully ridged with ripple marks, and strewn with the tiny skeletons of turtles and fish, all as white and dry as if they had been expertly cured. We had been careful not to mar the freshness of the place, although we often swam out to it on summer evenings and lay on the sand to rest.

You can feel the boys’ love of and joy in the place can’t you?

Anyhow, having set the scene, Cather then describes the boys – brothers Fritz and Otto, sons of the German tailor, and the youngest in the group at 10 and 12; fat Percy Pound who loved to read detective novels; hard-working Tip Smith, the “buffoon” in their games; tall 17-year-old Arthur Adams whose “fine hazel eyes … were almost too reflective and sympathetic for a boy”; and our narrator who would soon be leaving “to teach my first country school in the Norwegian district”. Quite a diverse group, but this is common perhaps in small country towns.

Having set the physical scene, and described her boys, Cather then shares their conversation. We soon realise that this is a story – as many of Cather’s are – being told about the past. Our narrator, in other words, is reminiscing about this last summer camp. And here is where the point starts to become apparent, because after general talk, including discussing the mystery of where the river goes after leaving their area, they start to talk about where they’d like to go. Tip tells them about Enchanted Bluff. They are all fascinated by its “dolorous legend” and discuss, as boys do, various possibilities. All are intrigued and would like to visit it, so agree that whoever “gets to the Bluff first” must tell the rest “exactly what he finds”. The summer ends, the following Christmas the boys catch up and renew their resolution, and then it’s twenty years later, from when the narrator is telling this story. None of them, he tells us, had climbed the Enchanted Bluff. Instead …

It’s a beautifully rendered story about the dreams of youth and the reality of adulthood. There’s a nostalgic glow, a sense of “enchanted youth”, but it’s offset by the reality of what happened to the boys. And this is supported by the language in which warmth and beauty are counterpointed by hints of other forces, not malevolent ones but ones which remind us that few things are as they seem or turn out the way we might dream. A good read.

Willa Cather
“The enchanted bluff”
First published: Harper’s Magazine, April 1909.
Available: Online at the Library of America

11 thoughts on “Willa Cather, The enchanted bluff (Review)

  1. I haven’t heard of this author, so often the case across all these blogs. Sounds like a lot to fit in one short story. One of the luckiest parts of my childhood growing up in the country was being able to go camping, often without adults, and over a wide-ish range of ages.

    • You’d like this story then Bill. It would be interesting to see whether you felt it rang true for a bunch of boys – it felt so to me. I think you’d like Cather. My Antonia is her most famous novel. I’ve read it twice – and there aren’t many non-Jane Austens I can say that for. I also really enjoyed her Death comes for the archbishop. I’ve read a couple of other novels, but need to read the other two related to Antonia – O Pioneers and The song of the lark (I think that’s its title). She can be pretty spare and is a good read for those who love stories about remote lives and regions.

  2. I read this one a couple years ago in a collection of Cather stories and I agree, it’s a good one! Cather is such an amazing writer whether the story takes place in New York, on the prairie or around a campfire. I briefly considered naming my new bike Willa but it didn’t quite fit.

  3. Pingback: Reading Bingo 2016 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Well, it took me 2 months, but I read it. I don’t really get the conventions in short stories, and this one, like many of its time, seems to be mostly about ‘atmosphere’, so that at the end you’ll say ‘yeah, I remember days like that’ (and I do).

    • Haha, Bill, I’m glad you read it. I’m not sure what to say about the conventions of short stories, early because even though I like them I haven’t stopped a lot to analyse them as a whole. There are definitely the stories with the twist – like Guy de Maupassant’s famous Necklace or Kate Chopin’s Desiree’s baby. But there are other types too, quieter slice of life ones for example. But this of course has that edge of youth’s dreams – I’m gonna – versus the reality of adulthood. The drive to nostalgia is offset by the sense of lost/missed dreams?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s