This is a tragic story, so let’s start by talking about flowers. Have you ever seen a buffalo pea flower? I have not and never looked them up before today. There are a couple lovely photos of them in this post by Chris Helzer, The Prairie Ecologist. He also shares three excepts from Cather’s novels where she mentions the buffalo pea. In these excerpts, the flower name is hyphenated, buffalo-pea. In his post, Chris writes the name as two words, buffalo pea. In “Lou, The Prophet,” it is presented as one word, buffalopea. I pronounced it as buffalo-pee-ya. Glad I looked it up.
An Immigrant Alone
Anyway, on to our story. I’m torn between thinking this short story is a hot mess and that it’s not all that bad for a young writer who’s also a young person. What do you think?
It is a brutal and bleak story, for sure. Poor Lou is alone in the world and finds no relief in his religion, nature, or other people.
I’m struck by how the townspeople offer no aid when they see Lou is distressed and instead immediately turn to the sheriff:
“When the people saw his emaciated frame and wild eyes, and heard his wild words, they told the sheriff to do his duty, the man must be mad.” **
Lou is a young man who grew up in the community. Granted, he didn’t live in town and may not have been an intimate, but you’d think people who’ve seen him grow up, from 15 to 22, would try to reach out and help when they see him in crisis. Lou has been in the West for seven years. We’re told he was “always considered less promising than his brothers,” yet he had managed to secure a future bride, the daughter of someone prominent enough to be given a name in the story, Nelse Sorenson. Reading between the lines, it’s probable that young Miss Sorenson didn’t have much of a choice in her marriage.
There is no compassion or soft place to land for this young man who lost his cattle, his promised bride, his mother, and who is now facing financial ruin due to the drought. Even the neighbor from whose well he gets water once a week, is apparently not concerned by Lou’s descent into . . . what? Madness? Religious mania? Does he have a feverish, waterborne illness (all that warm water baking in barrels)? Where are his brothers who are mentioned early in the story? There are no helpers in Lou’s life.
There are only his pigs that need to be fed, curious boys, and entitled townsfolk who pass the buck of caring for one’s neighbor onto the sheriff. You can almost hear the tail-ender on the sentence where they tell the sheriff to do his job: because we pay your salary.
There’s no Gospel of Jesus in this story. No love thy neighbor. Only harsh Old Testament judgment and apocalyptic horror.
Police Officers & Mechanical People
Curiously, near the end of the story, Cather uses the term “police officers” instead of sheriff or deputies. Is this just a beginning writer’s misstep, like her narrator’s slip into “I” at one point?
Or was she highlighting a social shift from sheriff, with the connotation of being a keeper of the peace, to a police department, where officers are charged with enforcement of law and order? If so, what law or order has Lou broken? Nonconformity, for one. He’s labeled “simple” and “weak headed” and has become disorderly by giving up his work and taking to yelling in the streets. A dangerous combination for a person in a capitalist country bent on white settlement.
Lou is an immigrant, which is rather chilling to think about in light of our national policing crisis over excessive force and brutality used against “the other.” Such violence has finally been undeniably and overwhelmingly brought to the public’s attention due, in large part, to the proliferation of phone cameras and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. In U.S. history, immigrant abuse by police and private security forces is well documented.
Early in the story, “mechanical people” are mentioned. At one point Lou even eats and sleeps mechanically. While reading the story, I thought the mechanical theme was dropped. Upon reflection, I wonder if it is carried on via the police officers as cogs in the social machinery.
Lou has been compared to the character of Ivar in Cather’s 1913 novel, O Pioneers! In that story, Ivar functions as a foil to characters who are focused on conforming to social norms. One of my areas of interest is looking at how people create a healthy sense of solitude in order to lead a personally fulfilling life. This often takes people to the edges of social expectations. I see solitude’s polar opposite as isolation, which is usually externally imposed upon a person and leads to an unfulfilled life, ruin, or even death.
In a past academic paper, I proposed that in O Pioneers! Ivar also functions as an example of someone who has created a healthy solitude for himself. He is in contrast to other characters in the novel who become isolated and meet sad ends. If young Lou is a precursor to old Ivar, in this short story he’s trapped in isolation and struggling for a way out. How interesting to think of these two characters together.
What do you think?
I’m getting a bit long-winded here, so will wrap up this post by asking what your thoughts are on “Lou, The Prophet.” Please leave a comment below. Let’s talk!
Read the reminder/intro post for “Lou, The Prophet” here.
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. Jump in anytime!
** This quote has been corrected. It was first erroneously quoted with the word emancipated instead of emaciated. That certainly changes interpretive possibilities! Thanks to Sue Dix for spotting my error.