Response to “A Death in the Desert.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Inter-Ocean Hotel, on right with porch, where Everett stays. [Source]

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!


  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading along with The Willa Cather Short Project during 2019. Thank you! Reading your posts and each short story has given me new insights into Cather. I really appreciate the literary history and context you provide for each story. Before this year, I think the only short story of hers that I had read was Paul’s Case. It’s still a favorite, but as I reflect on the other stories this year, I keep remembering the character of Kitty Ayrshire in A Gold Slipper and Scandal. She was a fun and memorable character. And there’s something about the ballooning episode in Coming, Aphrodite — I wish Cather had written a short story about Molly Welch.

    One thing that shouldn’t be surprising to me is how often place is another character in these stories, whether it’s a drawing room, a train depot, cruise ship, or the landscape in this last story of 2019. The way Cather depicts setting always makes me feel inside the story. In A Death in the Desert some of the descriptions are particularly haunting and evocative of what the landscape must have been like at that time, “The grey and yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red boxes of station-houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the blue-grass yards made little green reserves fenced off in that confusing wilderness of sand.” I enjoyed how Cather brings this description back when Everett enters the music-room to visit Katherine. He literally does a double-take – is he still in Wyoming, or back in New York. It conveys how disorienting it must have been to travel back and forth between East Coast city life and the open landscapes of the mid and western states at that time.

    Looking forward to Cather in 2020. Happy New Year to you, and best wishes for a joyful new year!

    • Happy New Year, Robin! And thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying reading Cather’s short stories.

      I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the stories and how Cather creates such a strong sense of place and character in relatively few pages. Since reading A Death in the Desert, that scene you quoted from has been on my mind, too, including the two sentences that come before — “The four uncomfortable passengers were covered with a sediment of fine, yellow dust which clung to their hair and eyebrows like gold powder. It blew up in clouds from the bleak, lifeless country through which they passed, until they were one colour with the sage-brush and sand-hills.”

      It’s like the passengers are slowly becoming one with the landscape and that some sort of fairy powder is casting a subdued and potentially deadly anti-glow over them.

      One thing we haven’t talked about is the epigraph Cather used for Youth and the Bright Medusa:

      “We must not look at Goblin men,
      We must not buy their fruits;
      Who knows upon what soil they fed
      Their hungry thirsty roots?”

      It’s from Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market. Here’s a link to the full poem: I’m going to re-read it this month and see what connections jump out between the poem and these stories.

      I was also struck by the two girls who were traveling home after attending the Exposition in Chicago. Having read The Devil in the White City, I couldn’t help but think they were two that Henry H. Holmes didn’t murder.

  2. Thank you for the link to the Rossetti poem! I’m not familiar with it and look forward to reading it. Believe it or not, I have not read Larson’s Devil in the White City yet. Almost every reader I know has! Maybe 2020 is the year for me to read Erik Larson for the first time. I saw that he has a new book coming out at the end of February that also looks really interesting: The Splendid and Vile,

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