Our story this month is “Tom Outland’s Story.” If you’ve read Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, The Professor’s House, then this month’s selection for The Willa Cather Short Story Project will be a re-read for you.
“Tom Outland’s Story” is the middle section of that novel. In The Professor’s House, young Tom is a cowboy who blows into the middle class, Midwest lives of Professor Godfrey St. Peter and his family. He captures their hearts and minds with his zest for life and tales of the Far West. Tom’s story details his experience of discovering a lost civilization atop a mesa and his efforts to save the artifacts.
Like much of Cather’s fiction, this story got its spark from real life events. In 1889, while searching for stray cattle, cowboy Richard Wetherill and his brothers stumbled upon ancient Native American ruins at Mesa Verde. (Read a brief history about it and view some wonderful photos on PBS.org HERE.)
During a trip to Mancos, Colorado in 1915, Cather not only soaked up the atmosphere of Mesa Verde, she interviewed one of Wetherill’s brothers about their experience.
The result is a stunning piece writing about the West and of historical fiction. Many scholars and critics consider “Tom Outland’s Story” to be among the best of Cather’s fiction. As biographer James Woodress writes, it is one of her “most memorable pieces of short fiction.”
If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat. It’s a longer story, just under 50 pages in the Vintage Classics Collected Stories edition that I’m reading. Since I’ve been staying close to home this summer due to the pandemic, it will be a bit of armchair and time travel.
The verse above was included in the first edition of Cather’s 1915 novel, The Song of the Lark, in the dedication to Isabelle McClung.
Read “Tom Outland’s Story” sometime this month. I’ll have a response post up on Wednesday, August 26th. Come back to share your thoughts about this story on that post or, if you can’t wait, feel free to leave a comment here.
P.S. You may also be interested in reading this short nonfiction piece written by Cather and published in January 1916: “A Visit to the Mesa Verde.”
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Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. I remind everyone what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response to that story on the fourth Wednesday of the month, which I hope sparks conversation about the story.