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

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

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Willa Cather’s landscape

In my review earlier this week I mentioned that Willa Cather‘s description of pioneer life in My Ántonia could apply pretty closely to Australia, but I didn’t say that her description of the landscape could too. Again, the details are different, but the sense is the same. The expansive blue skies and the preponderance of yellows and reds in a vast landscape are all very familiar to Australians. The book is full of gorgeous descriptions featuring the sun and sky, and with the colours of red, rosy, and yellow dominating.

Here is Jim in Book 1 describing a landscape that is still new to him:

I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.

Outback Australia, near Burra, SA

Outback Australia, near Burra, SA

And here he is in the 5th and final book some 30 or so years later:

Out there I felt at home again. Overhead the sky was that indescribable blue of autumn; bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. To the south I could see the dun-shaded river bluffs that used to look so big to me, and all about stretched drying cornfields, of the pale-gold colour, I remembered so well. Russian thistles were blowing across the uplands and piling against the wire fences like barricades. Along the cattle-paths the plumes of goldenrod were already fading into sun-warmed velvet, grey with gold threads in it.

If I think wheat instead of corn, and spinifex and wattles instead of Russian thistles and goldenrod, I could be reading about Australia. Not that I need to apply my reading to Australia, of course, but in this particular book it struck me again what similarities there are between the two New Worlds of Australia and America. For both our countries, Jim’s description that “there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” rings true.

Willa Cather, My Antonia (Review of eNotated edition)

Portrait Willa Cather 1936

I am a Willa Cather fan, and have read some of her novels and short stories, so was intrigued when eNotated Classics offered me an eNotated version of Cather’s My Ántonia for review. eNotated? That sounded like something worth exploring so, although I’ve read the novel before, I decided to read it again. I wasn’t sorry. It’s still a wonderful read.

My aim here is not so much to review the book, though I won’t be able to resist saying a little, but to explore this eNotated edition that I read on my Kindle. I understand from the website that eNotated Classics produces books for the Kindle, the Nook and iBooks. The company’s aim is to take “advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that increases understanding, engagement and reading pleasure”. Did they achieve this aim for me? That is the question!

I’d say yes and no – and will explain by discussing what I see as the three main components of the eNotated version.

eNotation links

These are underlined text (words or phrases) that you click for added information, which can be dictionary-style definitions, brief encyclopaedic-like descriptions, or interpretations. The eNotations can also be read as a group by clicking a single link at the beginning and end of each chapter, and they appear at the end of the book. In fact, the novel finished at the 77% mark in the book, with the last 23% comprising the eNotations and other material.

I was disappointed that many of the eNotation links contained the same information that the Kindle dictionary contains. Since the latter is faster to access by simply moving the cursor to the word to be looked up, those eNotations were rather superfluous. However, perhaps this depends on the dictionary the e-reader accesses, making the experience different with different e-readers.

There were a few of the more interpretive style and I appreciated those. One concerned the relevance of the play Camille which the narrator Jim sees with Lena. This sort of notation can be useful to students who may not, for example, know the play.

A useful feature is their identification system, which comprises a bracketed number at the end of each paragraph and each eNotation, making them easy to cite and to find. The number is obvious as you read, but you soon get used to it.

Theme indications

Now this one bothered me somewhat. See what you think: here are the first lines of the novel as they are presented in this eNotated version:

Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa (TIME) in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden as we still call him in the West.

Throughout the novel sentences or phrases are treated like this – formatted in italics followed by (TIME), (NARRATOR) or (ELEGIAC). The “How to read this book” section at the beginning of the book explains that these italicised passages are cited in the relevant theme essay – Time, Narrator or Elegiac – at the end.  These are not really “themes” in the literary analysis sense: “Time” is a theme but “Narrator” relates to voice, and “Elegiac” relates to tone. I did find these a little intrusive and wonder whether they would have been better handled as links to the essay they occur in without the bracketed upper case word to show the way.

Additional information

At the end of the book are several items designed to add value. Most of these are not unique to e-Books. They are the eNotations (which you can click on to go back to the text), the three theme essays, a History of Nebraska, a Willa Cather Timeline, a Key Event Timeline, a Bibliography and Images. These are all useful value-adds. I liked the fact that the 12 images can be enlarged, something I can’t do with maps and images in the travel guide I bought last year. It was fascinating to see an image of a Dugout house in Nebraska, though photo credits next to the captions would have been good.

I’m not a Cather expert, but I found the Theme essays interesting – and expect they’d help both students and general readers. The bibliography is short and looks useful, though the most recent citation is dated 1987 which seems a little old. The novel might be a classic, but scholarship continues …

And now to the book itself

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways! I love its meditation on the past, on how the past intrudes into the present. Jim Burden is, really, “burdened” by his past. He meets Antonia when he is a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and she a 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant arriving with her family to settle there.  They end up on neighbouring farms and become friends when her father asks Jim to teach Antonia how to speak English. The novel then follows the next 30 or so years of their lives – the first four “books” cover 10 years from the novel’s opening, while the last “book” jumps to 20 years later. Jim, the narrator, keeps an eye on what happens to “my” Antonia over the years, but the book is as much about him and his inability to move on from the past. He says near the end:

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

 I love its language and tone. It’s delicious to read. I’d probably describe it as “melancholic” or “meditative” but I wouldn’t argue with Bedell’s “elegiac”. Here is an early description as Jim arrives in Nebraska from the greener, more lush Virginia:

Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Lovely, simple, spare writing.

And I love Cather’s description of pioneer life, and pioneer characters. Much of what she writes could easily apply to 19th century Australia. The landscape is different – but is similarly bare and harsh – and the ethic mix is different – but the experiences and hardship are universal. It’s a life and environment in which character is writ large – and Cather draws her characters beautifully. Even the minor ones – such as farm hands Jake and Otto who disappear early in the novel – are vivid. Here is Jim on Ántonia, late in the novel:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.

This is one of those novels that stays with you and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I recommend this eNotated edition? Yes. It’s a good attempt to take advantage of the eBook format and, while there are features that didn’t  work perfectly for me, at USD5.99, it’s hard to beat.

Willa Cather
The eNotated My Ántonia
eNotated by Barbara Bedell
eNotated Classics, V1.00 12/1/2011 (based on 1918 edition)
Kindle edition
ISBN: 9780982744864

(Review copy supplied by eNotatedClassics.com)

Willa Cather, When I knew Stephen Crane

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

Stephen Crane, 1899 (Photographer unknown; Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

I haven’t reviewed a Library of America offering for a while and so have decided it’s time I dipped again into its offerings. Willa Cather‘s essay/journalistic piece “When I knew Stephen Crane”, which they published last month, appealed to me because of a couple of synchronicities. One is that Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed Crane’s The red badge of courage a few days ago, reminding me that I have yet to read Crane. The other is a little more obscure. Colleen of Bookphilia wrote a post earlier this week in which she complained about Anthony Trollope‘s admission that he would, in order to meet a deadline, submit work that he believed was not very good. The synchronicity is that in her essay Cather writes that Crane

gave me to understand that he led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself, and doing it very well; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell. And he remarked that his poor was just as bad as it could possibly be …

Not having read Crane, I don’t know whether he really did present poor stuff, but Colleen, I suspect, would not be impressed with this admission!

“When I knew Stephen Crane” was first published in 1900, two weeks after Crane’s death. It documents 21-year-old Cather’s meeting with 23-year-old Crane in 1895 at the offices of the Nebraska State Journal not long after the journal had published The red badge of courage. The introductory notes state that she changed some facts and suggests she did this “to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect [her] own interest in writing and literature”. I can believe this may be the case as the article is peppered with foreshadowings of his early death. Nonetheless, the notes argue that her report “sounds authentic”.

Certainly, she doesn’t try to present him in a heroic light. She describes him as “thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven … His grey clothes were much the worse for wear … He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie.” He had, in other words, “a disreputable appearance”. She writes that she had read and helped edit, for the journal, The red badge of courage:

… the grammatical construction of the story was so faulty that the managing editor had several times called on me to edit the copy. In this way I had read it very carefully, and through the careless sentence structure I saw the wonder of that remarkable performance.

She writes eloquently of her moment of revelation from Crane, saying that

The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention … It selects its listeners wilfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour.

Hmm … I think there’s a lot of truth in this, at least in my experience as a giver and receiver of such “messages”. Anyhow, Cather, on a night when “the white, western moonlight threw sharp, blue shadows below us”, felt lucky to have had such a moment with Crane, one in which he talks about his craft, “his slow method of composition”. He tells her that while The red badge of courage had been written in 9 days, he had been unconsciously working on it throughout his boyhood. He also tells her that it would be months after he got an idea for a story before he’d feel able to write it:

‘The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever’, he remarked.

Cather also briefly refutes the criticism by some that Crane is “the reporter in fiction”, arguing that his newspaper account of a shipwreck he’d experienced was “lifeless” but his “literary product” (“The open boat”) was “unsurpassed in its vividness and constructive perfection”.

She concludes the article on a somewhat sentimental note which is not surprising given its publication so soon after his death … but even this sentimentality is expressed in the robust language that we know Cather for:

He drank life to the lees, but at the banquet table where other men took their ease and jested over their wine, he stood a dark and silent figure, sombre as Poe himself, not wishing to be understood …

It is for Cather’s own writing and her insights into character, as much as for what I learnt about Crane, that I enjoyed reading this offering from LOA. I will still, however, read Crane one day.

Willa Cather, A Wagner matinée

Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Willa Cather's childhood home, Nebraska (Public Domain, By Ammodramus, via Wikipedia)

Willa Cather‘s short story, “A Wagner matinée”, was Library of America’s “Story of the Week” back in May. However, I was busy then, but I like Cather, so I put it aside to read later. And later has finally come!

I’ve reviewed another Cather short story here, “The sentimentality of William Tavener”, which was published in 1900. “A Wagner matinée” was first published a little later, in 1904. Like the previous story, and the novels of hers that I’ve read, this short story deals with her favourite preoccupation, the tough life of the pioneer. It is not, though, set in the midwest, but in Boston. The plot is slight, and can be summarised in a couple of sentences. The first person narrator’s aunt comes to visit him in Boston from Nebraska to which she’d eloped, against her family’s wishes, some three decades previously. Our narrator, Clark, has “a reverential affection” for this aunt who’d provided him with “most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood” and so he decides to treat her, an ex-music teacher, to an afternoon concert of Wagnerian music. The story chronicles the emotions aroused by this visit.

As usual, the Library of America’s brief introductory notes are illuminating. Apparently Cather attracted a degree of wrath after its publication, from Nebraskans and from her family. A Nebraskan editor slammed her depiction of prairie life suggesting that fiction writers who portray Nebraska should “look up now and then and not keep their eyes in the cattle yards”. If they did “they might be more agreeable company”. Take that, Willa!

Her family was upset because they felt she’d based the story’s Aunt Georgiana on her Aunt Franc who, like Georgiana, had lived in Boston and studied music before marrying and moving to Nebraska. Cather was apparently hurt by this as she’d maintained an affectionate correspondence with her aunt. Nonetheless, the notes say, when she revised and shortened the story for her 1920 collection, “she altered the portrait of Georgiana out of consideration for her Nebraskan family”. Hmmm … I should do my research and find the original as I believe the version provided by the Library of America is this 1920 one. In it, Georgiana seems a fairly sad case so I’d love to see what she’d written first. Regardless, it reminds me yet again of that fine line between fact and fiction that novelists who draw from life must tread.

Anyhow, the story. Aunt Georgiana arrives in a somewhat “battered” state, partly due to the arduous journey and partly, Clark implies, due to the hardness of her life. “For thirty years my aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead” which she had established side-by-side with her husband. Clark describes the time he’d spent out west with his aunt and the support and encouragement she’d given him. He also remembers her telling him once when he was “doggedly” practising a piano piece:

Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.

What was taken from her? Her music? Her old life? Was it taken or did she, willingly at the time, give it up? Her pain made clear, nothing more is said on this point. And I like the writing for it. The rest of the story describes the matinée and how he and his aunt react. The language is clear and strong, as you can see from this excerpt roughly half-way through the story. It describes the first piece in the concert, the Tannhaüser overture, which is particularly meaningful for me as Tannhaüser was my first opera:

… When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realised that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress …

Pretty stark stuff … and it becomes more stark as he describes his aunt’s physical reactions to the music and draws his own conclusions from it. Here she is reacting to “The prize song”:

Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks … It never really died, then – the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again.

Why Wagner, I wondered when I saw this story? It would be anachronistic to invoke our era’s discomfort with the man and, in fact, LOA tells us that Cather was passionate about Wagner. His is powerful, emotional music: this seems to be its relevance here. It is music which can stir the soul – and Georgiana’s soul has been stirred. She is no longer “semi-somnambulant” as she was when she arrived. Clark leaves us contrasting his emotional aunt with the “black pond” and “unpainted house” of home. However, because the story is told through Clark’s – albeit loving and sympathetic – eyes we cannot know what this all means for her. Instead, we are left to think about the sacrifices that attend the decisions we make and whether or not we can live with them. A thoughtful, moving story.

Willa Cather, The sentimentality of William Tavener

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!