When “Coming, Aphrodite” was first published in the August 1920 edition of The Smart Set magazine, the editor changed a key component of the story. In the scene where Don peeps through the hole in his closet, Cather wrote that Eden is, “wholly unclad, doing exercises of some sort.” The editor changed it to Eden being, “clad in a pink chiffon cloud of some sort, doing gymnastic exercises.”
That really changes the tone, doesn’t it? Not just that she’s naked in one version, making Don’s behavior even more questionable, but it also takes away from Eden. Instead of a confident woman performing movement exercises like yoga or tai chi in front of a mirror in the nude, she’s presented as just another woman in pink doing routine physical exercises.
It also diminishes the Greek goddess connection. Ancient Greeks supposedly competed in the Olympics sans clothing to best show off their athletic bodies. Another connection to the Ancient Greek Aphrodite is the pigeons that show up throughout the story. What a nice touch. I assumed they were simply part of the cityscape that Cather was describing or perhaps that they symbolized a type of freedom — one that allows flight but is anchored in being fed and maintained by another, much like the artist-patron relationship.
No Stuffy Henry James
What a refreshing story this was to read. Instead of the Henry James-like set up of “Flavia and Her Artists,” “The Garden Lodge,” and “The Marriage of Phaedra” that set a male artist or artists against a society woman and that felt a bit stuffy, “Coming, Aphrodite!” feels open and alive.
Don Hedger and Eden Bower are presented as equals, two young artists near the start of their careers. While creating art is depicted as being a risk and not always sustainable, as represented by the playwright who gets evicted for not paying his rent, Don and Eden are two different versions of how artists can make it.
Don pays his rent. He can pursue his artistic vision and take on commercial work as needed to pay the bills. He is content living with his little dog, Ceasar III. Eden, on the other hand, has a wealthy patron. They are pursuing two different types of artistic lives. Don’s artistic integrity lies in his avant-garde vision and Eden seeks the fame and fortune of the stage. Both work hard.
Many Kinds of Success
As the art dealer, M. Jules says, “there are many kinds of success.” So true. At first, I thought the story leaned towards Don’s way of being an artist as the better choice. It seems as if it is a choice that’s perhaps more possible for men in that time period. Women still need to rely on men, it seems, and there is the hint of Eden prostituting herself. But in the end, Eden makes it and seems almost like a noble warrior. She has become Aphrodite but with some sacrifice: “A “big” career takes its toll, even with the best of luck.”
In addition to luck, there’s also risk involved in Eden’s artistry. Eden is the risktaker and Don is not, as the hot air balloon episode makes clear. Don’s masculinity seems to have been threatened in that episode, after which he cruelly tells Eden the horrific story of The Forty Lovers of the Queen that in the ends puts a woman ‘in her place.’ And then after a second quarrel, he throws a decidedly unmasculine tantrum and runs away to Long Island for five days.
Don’s life is thrown into upheaval by this passionate affair. Meanwhile, Eden carries on with her plans. The gender expectations and how they seem to flip-flop is part of the excitement of this short story.
Old New York
The scenes of old Washington Square are also a joy to read. Cather paints a wonderful image of how it was, before automobiles and electric lights invaded the city.
“After lunch Hedger strolled about the Square for the dog’s health and watched the stages pull out; — that was almost the very last summer of the old horse stages on Fifth Avenue. The fountain had but lately begun operations for the season and was throwing up a mist of rainbow water which now and then blew south and sprayed a bunch of Italian babies that were being supported on the outer rim by older, very little older, brothers and sisters. Plump robins were hopping about on the soil; the grass was newly cut and blindingly green. Looking up the Avenue through the Arch, one could see the young poplars with their bright, sticky leaves, and the Brevoort glistening in its spring coat of paint, and shining horses and carriages,– occasionally an automobile, mis-shapen and sullen, like an ugly threat in a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive.”
In her early days in New York, Cather lived in this neighborhood. Just like in her Nebraska fiction, she captured a landscape in time. [Click here for a tour of Cather sites in New York.]
What do you think of “Coming, Aphrodite”? Let’s chat about it in the comments below.
Categories: Willa Cather