Response to “The Diamond Mine,” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather
First edition with dust jacket

“The Diamond Mine” is the second story in Cather’s 1920 short story collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa.

What a delight! From the first paragraph to the last, I enjoyed reading this story. I was intrigued by the scenes aboard ship, the tension between Cressida Garnet and her family, and what the deal was with those four husbands.

For those of you who haven’t yet read this short story, here’s the opening paragraph:

I FIRST became aware that Cressida Garnet was on board when I saw young men with cameras going up to the boat deck. In that exposed spot she was good-naturedly posing for them, amid fluttering lavender scarfs, wearing a most unseaworthy hat, her broad, vigorous face wreathed in smiles. She was too much an American not to believe in publicity. All advertising was good. If it was good for breakfast foods, it was good for prime donne—especially for a prima donna who would never be any younger and who had just announced her intention of marrying a fourth time.

Doesn’t it make you want to read more? It did me. I actually LOL’d over the quip about Americans and publicity.

What captured my attention most was the parallel between Cressida’s money-grubbing family and her husband Bouchalka’s diminished creative expression after he was warm and well-fed.

Cressida’s brothers and sisters don’t attempt to try their own hand at success. They all have a lack mentality. As Cressida says of them, “They take the view that there were just so many prizes in the bag; I reached in and took them, so there were none left for others (110).” She had wanted to make her family happy and instead it seems they became passive dependents.

Her money doesn’t help Bouchalka, either. He went from being a passionate but homesick and starving artist to having everything he could want, including food delicacies (and more) from his home country. The narrator wonders whether, “he could compose only under the spur of hunger and loneliness, and whether his talent might not subside with his despair” (129).

Money is shown to be a corrupting force. Even Cressida is not immune. It seems to keep her from being intimate with people. She says at one point that,

“Somehow, my relations with people always become business relations in the end. I suppose it’s because,–except for a sort of professional personality, which I’ve had to get, just as I’ve had to get so many other things,–I’ve not very much that’s personal to give to people. I’ve had to give too much else. I’ve had to try too hard for people who wouldn’t try at all” (110).

How do you take this? It’s a bit of a mixed message, isn’t it? Her relations always become like a business relationship because she doesn’t have a personal, intimate, self to share. Was she always like that or did the death of her first husband change her? Maybe Cressida was always emotionally distant or lacking in intimacy. Or maybe she changed after the fame and money started rolling in. Perhaps its a chicken or egg question. Cressida’s situation reminds me of stories I’ve heard from contemporary stars like Oprah who has talked about how after she became famous and wealthy, family members thought they deserved handouts from her.

When it comes to Cressida’s family who sees her as a diamond mine that will keep giving, perhaps her conditioning of them is one reason why her family is full of passive people unwilling to work for their own way. If she hadn’t tried “too hard for people,” would they have tried harder for themselves?

As a reader, I’m thrown a bit off balance by the title. The alliteration makes me want to say “The Diamond Mind,” as if I have diamonds on the mind. And the word “mine” does have more than one meaning that fits well with this story. The possessive mine, the excavation mine, and perhaps even the destructive mine that blows up under the surface.

As for Bouchalka, the idea that artists need to struggle and endure hardship in order to create is an old trope. One of Cather’s major themes throughout her work is the rising threat of materialism in American culture and how it debases art and culture. She certainly shows here how being closely related to wealth makes people shallow and selfish creatures. I am in alignment with her concerns about materialism, but I think the stereotype about the poor, starving artist is BS and harmful to people who have a desire to create.

In this story Cather is rather heavy handed in making her point about an artist needing to keep his or her edge. An artist’s financial stability and life conditions are not as simplistic as presented here. Bouchalka couldn’t create as a kept man but he also wouldn’t have been able to maintain his earlier mode of being — he was heading to sickness and ruin.

What is probably most important to a create live is finding one’s own independence and an optimal level of financial stability when it comes to creating conditions in which to pursue one’s art.

In her own life, Cather worked hard to create the conditions she needed in her life as a writer, and not without struggle along the way. Finding the right creative conditions for one’s self seems to be a bit like homeostasis. That is, finding a relatively stable balance between having the time and headspace in which to create and having food and shelter. It’s a balance that’s continually being impacted by outside forces.

What Are Your Thoughts?

What did you think of “The Diamond Mine”?  Let’s chat about it in the comments below.


  1. I also thoroughly enjoyed this story. I kept wondering why she continued to allow herself to be manipulated by her husbands (minus the first husband) and her family. I agree, maybe the death of her first husband truly had a profound impact on her. Hard to say. Maybe she felt the next husband would be the one to bring true connection and happiness. When she makes the comment you quote it’s after a series of husbands and after she’s achieved artistic and material success. It’s as if she had been reaching for intimacy through her husbands and maybe even her siblings by supplying them with all their material wants.That didn’t work out too well, did it? I think she was really hoping things would be different with Bouchalka (so was I!).

    The image of her sitting ill in her stateroom as the Titanic goes down certainly strengthened the image of her being completely mined and depleted of her vitality. Dramatic stuff. Perfect for a prima donna, and talk about the final publicity!

    • I had forgotten that she went down with the Titanic. What publicity indeed! Nothing bigger. That’s a great connection about her being completely minded and depleted of her vitality. And she never seemed to fight against anything in her life so for her to be seen struggling…no, must keep up appearances.

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