Well, here we are at the end of Phase One of the Willa Cather Short Story Project. Thank you to everyone who has participated over the last twenty months! Some folks like Kate and Robin have read along for all the stories and others have dropped in here and there. I’ve appreciated all of your comments, emails, and connections on social media.
Stay tuned for an announcement about Phase Two sometime in October. We’ll start reading again in January 2021. I figured we could all use a break for a few months, especially with the stress of the upcoming election. That said, now is the time to confirm that you are registered to vote and then PLEASE VOTE on November 3rd. [Update: or request and send in your absentee ballot ASAP]
George N. Kates Essay
We’ve read the nineteen short stories in the Collected Stories by Willa Cather from Vintage Books. The last item in the book, George N. Kates’ essay “Willa Cather’s Unfinished Avignon Story,” is our reading for this month.
Kates wrote his essay in the 1950s and perpetuates (or helped create?) the now debunked storyline that in later life Cather was a pessimistic recluse focused only on the past, her pain, and impending death. I couldn’t disagree with him more in general, as well as with many of the specific interpretations that he offers of Cather’s stories and novels.
To be fair, I do have the benefit of 70 additional years of criticism, social change, and revelations about Cather’s life that have appeared since his essay was written. One of the most impactful revelations is the publication of Cather’s Selected Letters. But I don’t think Kates is a particularly sensitive or careful reader. He seems to have had his thesis in mind and read through her stories raking out what he could use to support it.
The first warning that I would have some issues with Kates’s essay was when he writes that the pull of Europe, “impregnates the whole body of her [Cather’s] work.” True, but eeww. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve come across this metaphor in literary criticism, but it is inappropriate for a variety of reasons. It also doesn’t make much sense, unless he’s equating Cather with the phallus. This wouldn’t be too far of a stretch considering that later critics have pointed out that Cather, through her male characters, often assumes the male gaze. However, I don’t think that’s what Mr. Kates had in mind.
The Bitch Goddess of Worldly Success
I do agree with Kates that Cather was not riding the “festal train of the Bitch Goddess of worldly success.” I love this line, even in spite of the derogatory term “bitch.”
The term “Bitch Goddess” was first used by William James (Henry’s brother) in a 1906 letter to H.G. Wells. James is writing in response to Wells’s “Two Studies in Disappointment” in Harper’s Weekly and laments the lack of high American ideals in the face of injustice. He writes that it is,
“a symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease”(italics and bold are in the original quote. Click here to read more about the literary life of this term).
For Cather, success wasn’t primarily about monetary wealth. In some of her short stories we’ve seen her mock wealth without taste or talent such as in “Flavia and Her Artists” or praise the artist who makes enough money to get by but focuses his energies on capital A-Art, like Don Hedger in “Coming, Aphrodite!” On the other hand, she explores the pain and consequences of not having financial resources or hope in “Paul’s Case.”
But like all adults and writers, Cather did need financial security in order to live and create. She took savvy steps to increase her readership and income by switching publishers and controlling her image and how her work was presented to the public.
Sapphira and The Slave Girl
I’m completely digressing here. Can you tell I don’t want to write about Kates’ essay or the unfinished Avignon story? Literary history and how new discoveries can impact how we understand a writer’s work is usually fascinating to me. I assumed that reading Kates’ essay would be more interesting than it has been. I disagree with so many of his absolute statements, particularly about Sapphira and The Slave Girl.
I could write a long ranty post about what he writes about this novel. Suffice it to say I don’t think there’s anything slow-paced about this story about a young slave woman trying to avoid a revenge rape. I also think that escaping slavery and helping another escape slavery actually is a “heroic moment” in American life.
And then he writes, “Now it was enough to evoke quite ordinary moments from the past.” Did he even read Sapphira and The Slave Girl? An old woman plotting a revenge rape and a young slave woman trying to avoid rape is an ordinary moment from the past? WHAT?!? My brain had a hard time focusing after that.
It is interesting to have a tour through a significant portion of a writer’s oeuvre, but as a guide Kates is at best a Debbie Downer and at worst, as he quotes from One of Ours, a man of shallow emotions. Perhaps I’m over-reacting. What did you make of his essay? Also, what do you think about the importance of discussing an unfinished story?
New to this blog?
Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Stay tuned for information about Phase Two of this reading project which will begin in January 2021.