Our final read of the year for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “A Death in the Desert.” As I mentioned in the reminder post for this story, it was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in January 1903, then revised for Cather’s first short story collection The Troll Garden in 1905. Cather revised it further for her 1920 collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa.
The story went from 10,000 words in 1903 to 9,000 words in 1905 to 7,100 words in 1920.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a friend of Cather’s and fellow writer, wrote in a review of Youth and the Bright Medusa that it would be instructive to compare the early and later versions of this story:
“I cannot imagine an exercise which would be of more use to a young writer” . . . than to “compare it line by line with the original version.” Cather showed the touch of a master who could “smooth away crudeness without rooting out the life.”From Library of America Story of the Week
It would be a fun exercise to compare the first and last version, wouldn’t it? A writer would learn about craft and those studying Cather’s style would get a glimpse into her development. This story did seem less dramatic and not as nostalgic as some of the earlier stories we’ve read.
Everett Hilgarde is such a patient man. He handles everyone’s obsession with his brother with grace and dignity, understanding their need for connection with the “genius” who has brought them such pleasure through song.
Katherine, who is dying, finds no solace from the minister who calls on her — “He happened to be riding by on his bicycle and felt it his duty to stop.” It’s Everett who gives her comfort. Their past connection and mutual love of the art world of the East is what gives her consolation. Yet, Everett has no delusion that it’s about himself:
Day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her, his own individuality played a smaller part. His power to minister to her comfort lay solely in his link with his brother’s life.
It’s a beautiful gift Everett gives Katherine. A good death. His vacation was supposed to last a week. He had no idea he’d run into an old friend. Everett ends up staying for over three weeks to be the comfort he knows Katherine needs.
Everett doesn’t seem like a codependent martyr. He’s aware of and accepts his “destiny” with grace and understanding. He doesn’t seem particularly burdened by it. There’s a line in the middle of the story when Everett sits at the piano playing his brother’s new score for Katherine:
“Everett played intelligently and with that sympathetic comprehension which seems peculiar to a certain lovable class of men who never accomplish anything in particular.”
The narrator is referring to big, splashy, public accomplishments such as Everett’s brother makes in the art world. Yet, in life, what could be a greater accomplishment than giving a dying person a few weeks of your attention when they so clearly need what you have to offer, especially with so little effort on your part? It as if the two brothers create some sort of balance in the world.
Thanks to everyone who’s read some Cather with me this year and for sharing your thoughts both here and on social media. The Willa Cather Short Story Project will continue in 2020.
Wishing you health, love, and happiness this holiday season and in the new year!