Every summer we talk about traveling to Red Cloud, Nebraska (population 984), Willa Cather’s childhood home: “the only town named Red Cloud in the world,” according to the charming web site. Every summer we reread Willa Cather instead of visiting Red Cloud because it gets hot (and God knows Nebraska is even hotter) , and every summer we imagine her world as vividly as if we toured the restored house and Opera House.
Back in the ‘70s, when we first discovered Cather, her novels were not taught in universities. Her work was dismissed as that of a craftsman, not an artist, and sometimes even marketed as juvenile fiction. Of course, those were the days when the “boys’ club” reigned: Hemingway and Fitzgerald were worshipped as gods. Yet some of us were quietly reading lost women writers who have since gained “a room of their own” in the canon. In our student rooming house, friends and I traded Cather paperbacks and were transported over Ramen Noodles and Snackin’ Cakes to the prairie of My Antonia, the opera house of The Song of the Lark, and the Chicago of Lucy Gayheart. I know no men or women who don’t admire The Professor’s House . And a few years ago I blogged on A Lost Lady, a classic which has sorrowful charms.
This summer I’m reading portions of the Library of America edition of Willa Cather’s Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. This volume contains Uncollected Stories 1802-1929, Alexander’s Bridge, Youth and the Bright Medusa, My Mortal Enemy, Obscure Destinies, The Old Beauty and Others, April Twilights and Other Poems, Not Under Forty, and Selected Reviews and Essays 1895-1940. Quite a feast!
Short stories don’t have the allure for me of novels, but Cather is an accomplished storyteller. Last night I read Alexander’s Bridge, a compelling if slightly awkward novella (not the one to start with), the story of the restless Alexander, a world-famous engineer, who in middle age is numbed by his clockwork life, disillusioned by success, and simultaneously terrified by the emptiness of his fame.
Cather gracefully describes Alexander's midlife crisis.
“He had expected that success would bring him freedom and power, but it had brought only power that was in itself another kind of restraint. He had always meant to keep his personal liberty at all costs, as old MacKeller, his first chief, had done, and not, like so many American engineers, to become a part of a professional movement, a cautious board member, a Nestor de pontibus. He happened to be engaged in work of public utility, but he was not willing to become what was called a public man. He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape.”
And the novella is tragic, like so many of Cather’s stories. Alexander no longer cares for his work - the projects are forever stymied by money problems and he doesn't directly supervise his bridges anymore - nor does he appreciate his beautiful, loving wife in their beautiful house in Boston, as does his good friend and former teacher, Wilson, who visits twice and observes the changes in Alexander, and inquires about the frequent travel to England (though he doesn’t know what it means). Alexander does the middle-aged thing: he has an affair with an old friend, now a famous actress in London, whom he had known years ago in Paris. He comes alive with Hilda as he remembers their youth: and yet it never seems quite real. It makes him more and more agonized and torn - not less. He is in love, but Hilda is more in love. And while he should be concerned about building the biggest bridge in Canada, which he has been forced to cut corners on by his employer, he travels to London and broods about his emotional problems.
This, as you can imagine, proves fatal.
I have started Youth and the Bright Medusa, Cather’s first collection of stories. I’ll report later on these.
Perfect reading for the heat. It’s supposed to be 99 in Red Cloud tomorrow.