Response to “Coming, Aphrodite!” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

Marble statue of Aphrodite, 1st or 2nd century A.D., from The Met website

Marble statue of Aphrodite at The Met (source)

Wholly Unclad

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.]

Your Thoughts?

What do you think of “Coming, Aphrodite”?  Let’s chat about it in the comments below.



Categories: Willa Cather

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5 replies

  1. I loved this story! it was so much fresher than the previous 3, yet again Cather is indulging her seeming obsession or artists’ lives. I don’t know enough about Cather, but I wonder if she was writing/observing other artists’ lives and trying to determine her path forward as a writer. Don and Eden are equally well written and their relationship was like so many first loves. She was on the cusp of her large European career and could not understand his understated career. He firmly believed in making his own way as he had earned every nickel he had. She was willing to be carried by patrons enthralled with her talent. I think Don suffered and worked hard in the early part of his career, and according to M. Jules he was still maybe his own worst enemy. Eden realized that being carried by patrons may have cost her personally. The return to Washington Square 18 years later completed the story nicely; the only string left hanging is Don’s happiness, but my guess is that the little bit of fame may have made him happy. The pigeons are still all over New York and I am glad Cather noticed them as well. I am sadly lacking in knowledge of mythology so the title is over my head.

  2. I think you’re right, it does seem like Cather was exploring those different ways of being an artist to help create her own path. She was definitely more interested in being a Don than an Eden, but I think she really admired the Edens of the world.

    I have a question for you: Do you think Don really beat his dog or was he just saying that to be jerky?

    • I don’t think he beat the dog. I think he thought that would impress her; that her well-being is more important than the dog’s. He was jerky (but I think people can be at the beginning of new friendships/relationships.

  3. So true, what a breath of fresh air! I agree, Cather has an amazing ability to capture place and her writing is so beautiful. I felt I knew exactly what it would be like to live in that Washington Square building and neighborhood. In my early 20s I lived in a historic apartment building and Cather’s descriptions made me remember those thin walls and narrow hallways. You couldn’t help but know your neighbors!

    Indeed, the change in that one detail in the first publication changes the tone so much! Wow. I wonder how many early readers were shocked when they came across the unedited version for the first time. That one detail makes the story so much richer. Thank you for including that piece of interesting publication history!

    I also enjoyed the ballooning and trapeze scenes at Coney Island, and the instant connection between Molly and Eden. I would have loved to see Cather take these two characters into another storyline and set them loose on the world!

    • The ballooning and trapeze scene was fantastic! Talk about vivid writing. It created a vibrant scene in my mind. I LOVED that Eden did what she did there and how Molly relished it as well. It brought to mind Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet and the vibe of 19th century women in entertainment.

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