Response to “The Enchanted Bluff.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

“The Enchanted Bluff” by Willa Cather was a delightful short story to read on a hot summer afternoon. That is, until the end when the narrator jumps twenty years into the future. This story is one of Cather’s earlier works, and this leap in time at the end of a story is a device she’ll often use in her future fiction.

This is a story you can feel and smell about a group of boys who are on their last camping trip along the river outside of their town, Sandtown. It’s late summer and they’re at the age when young people start leaving home and heading off to create their destinies.

Willa Cather quote: "It came up like a galleon in full sail; an enormous, barbaric thing, red as an angry heathen god."

As the boys sit around the campfire, looking at the stars and watching the moon rise — “It came up like a galleon in full sail; an enormous, barbaric thing, red as an angry heathen god” — talk eventually turns to places they want to visit. Tip tells them about The Enchanted Bluff somewhere down in New Mexico. It captures everyone’s imagination. Months later, when the boys are back together at Christmas time, they renew their resolution to go to the Bluff and get to the top.

Fast forward twenty years into the future and the boys have turned into men who never pursued that adventure. In fact, one of the guys had done nothing but sit around their sleepy town. He dies at twenty five. There’s a sense that the other men are living lives that are not very joyful or fulfilled.

When I turned the last page I thought, “What a bummer.” Is this ending supposed to be realistic, as in dreams are for children? Or is it a warning not to give up on your dreams?

Native Americans

Even before Tip starts talking about The Enchanted Bluff, I was struck by mentions of “Indians” and how they capture the imagination of these white boys. Arthur says, “Look at the Milky Way! There must be lots of good dead Indians.” I read the comment as flip, made to draw laughter. Instead of laughing at Arthur’s comment, the boys get contemplative and “lay back and looked, meditating, at the dark cover of the world.”

I did a quick search on Native Americans and the Milky Way and learned that the Skidi Pawnee tribe of Central Nebraska, where Cather grew up and where this story is set, called the Milky Way The Pathway of Departed Spirits. Below is a Skidi star chart that was made around the year 1700.

Skidi Pawnee Sky Chart circa 1700

The image is from Astro Bob’s blog. Read his post, “Seeing Stars The American Indian Way” HERE.

It is interesting how much the boys know about stars, their historic use and myths, and as well as various cultural ideas and purposes stars serve. I was getting swept up in this variety and started thinking about the diversity of traditions. It is all rather romantic.

Yet some of the uses man has made of the stars was to navigate the seas to conquer new lands or for war. And the boys are on land that was stolen from Native Americans. They’re also dreaming of ways to get to the top of the Enchanted Bluff where myth says there may be gold. Or maybe there’s nothing but bones left. Tip just wants to see it.

One of the boys says that there were Spaniards “all over this country once,” looking for gold. To which another boy asks, “Was that before the Mormons went through?” They all laugh at this and are told it was long before, even before the Pilgrim Fathers. I thought it was curious that they laughed at this comment but not at the “dead Indians” comment. Why do you think that is? Does the difference in what the stars represent for various cultures cause the boys to get thoughtful? Why does that thoughtfulness apply to the stars and not to the land?

I read this and think it’s an acknowledgement of the way Native American rights have been trampled and their land taken for hundreds of years. But perhaps some readers — in Cather’s time and ours — see it as a march toward the white man’s right. Manifest Destiny.

The Enchanted Mesa

The Enchanted Bluff is based on a real place called the Enchanted Mesa. It captured Cather’s imagination as a youngster. This Wikipedia article mentions that a canon was used to shoot up a rope for access during an expedition in 1897.

Cather published this story in 1909. Years later she would use the Mesa again in her novels The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Our story next month is actually a section taken from The Professor’s House called “Tom Outland’s Story.” Neither of the storylines that involve the Mesa in these novels end well. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Sandtown boys never made it to The Enchanted Bluff.

Oh! It just dawned on me that maybe Cather was playing with the word “bluff” and it’s various meanings. Wow, now I have to rethink the whole story!

What struck you about this story? Feel free to respond to my questions or leave your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s chat!

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