Just having read “Old Mrs. Harris,” I couldn’t help think that the narrator of this story is Vickie Templeton from that story. When she describes the freedom of summer — “nights of full liberty and perfect idleness…there was no school, and one’s family never bothered about where one was. My parents were young and full of life, glad to have the children out of the way” — made me feel a pang of sympathy again for Vickie’s mom Victoria Templeton, who finds herself with yet another unwanted pregnancy.
As I mentioned in the reminder post for this month’s story, Cather wrote to her publisher that she thought “Two Friends” was the best short story she’d written. Not necessarily the most interesting, but she was proud of capturing the scenes from her memory of the time period and of these two men as if in a painter’s sketch.
I thought a lot about that letter while reading “Two Friends” this time. The first time I read the story, I read it to read it, as one does. The second time was around the 2016 presidential election. This story of two friends torn apart by politics — populist politics! — gave me an odd sense of comfort at the time. It was as if Cather was saying, “We lived through the 1896 election, you’ll live through this one.”
During this reading, I focused on the visual elements and emotions Cather was creating with her words. Here, again, are the relevant sentences from Cather’s letter to her publisher:
I think “Two Friends” is the best short story I have ever done. It’s a little like a picture by Courbet; has that queer romantic sort of realism. It is so ‘American’ of thirty years ago that when I look it over I quite forget who wrote it. When you do a thing that is so indigenous that the greatest foreign master couldn’t have done it, then, it seems to me, you bring home the bacon, even though it’s but a sketch- – a painter’s subject done in a painter’s way.
Below is a painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). If you click on the source link below the photo, you can browse through all of his paintings to get a sense of his style.
Back to the story
After years of gently ribbing each other about their political differences, the two friends in Cather’s story are quickly torn apart by the 1896 presidential election. Their falling out is a loss of innocence for the narrator who was 10-13 when she knew these two men that she then considered heroes.
Cather creates such vivid scenes with the two men that its easy to picture them against the backdrop of the store front in that small western town — from how they looked, to how they walked, to how they talked. They seem clear and realistic, yet do have a fuzzy romantic gleam around the edges.
Trueman made me think of John Wayne’s and other actors’ cowboy personas. The way he slowly walks as if used to open spaces or as if he’s a sailor on deck. But then this humorous line took him down a few pegs, at least in my mind,
Mr. Trueman was a Republican; his rear, as he walked about the town, looked a little like the walking elephant labelled “G.O.P” in Puck.
Even though Cather calls this story a sketch, it does have all the elements of a western drama, including a woman who runs a “celebrated sporting house” (Mary Trent! I wanted to know more about her), gambling, and small-minded “unsuccessful men [who] were pleased, as they always are at the destruction of anything strong and fine.”
Thinking back on “Two Friends” as I write this, the novel True Grit (1968) comes to mind. The younger, unnamed narrator of this short story may not be as feisty as 14-year-old Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s novel, but I feel a connection of time, place, and a young girl observing two very different men.
In the end, the narrator of “Two Friends” shares how she is often reminded of the breakup of this friendship when she sees other scenes that makes connections so deep in her psyche that at first she doesn’t understand her feelings of sadness. (This is Cather implementing the literary technique of objective correlative). But then she’ll dream of Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman which makes her realize who triggered her feelings. She also goes on to say that their situation was something that, “could so easily have been mended; of something delightful that was senselessly wasted, of a truth that was accidentally distorted–one of the truths we want to keep.”
What do you think this truth is?
Categories: Willa Cather