“Lou, The Prophet” Response Post #WCSSP2

Buffalo pea flowers mentioned in “Lou, The Prophet.” Also called Ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus). Copyright Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy (source).

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.” **

No Helpers

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.

O Pioneers!?

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.



Categories: Willa Cather

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13 replies

  1. Okay, where do I start?

    Wonderful response post — I so appreciated your opening with the buffalo pea flower — I’m a bit flower obsessed at the moment but didn’t think to google them myself!

    So, kneejerk response to this story was that it was okay – kind of overwrought – but a fine enough effort.

    After that, I started chewing over the why of this story — why the tragedy of it, or the ‘shock’? Was Cather trying to imagine a figure of the sort from the Second Great Awakening (no idea when that phrase was used for that era, but presumably US culture was still dealing with the impact of all these homegrown religious movements? This is where my pretty much nonexistent knowledge of 19th century US history is hindering me…)

    • Overwrought shock story is a good descriptor. I had thoughts along similar lines, wondering if, as a college student, she was exploring religious extremism and what compels people in that direction. Considering that Lou was a simple, thick-headed, and had a weak head, it doesn’t seem she had a good option of them! I know she was raised in a Baptist home and later in life became an Episcopalian, but she was never a Bible thumper (although she knew it well).

  2. I posted my response yester…er…Monday!
    https://katenread.wordpress.com/2021/01/25/reading-notes-1-25-21/

    Oddly, I didn’t think about the wider community helping Lou because I kind of figured that they had probably been hard-hit by circumstances as well, though there isn’t really anything in the story to indicate that.

    • That’s a good point. It seems like he’s suffering more than others, but all farmers in the area had to be in a similar predicament regarding their crops. Thanks for reading! I’m off to check out your post.

  3. I have only read O Pioneers! And this story reminded me of that. I agree, Lou, and the idea of ‘what is a crazy person,’ was similar in both stories, although Ivar was treated a little better than Lou, wasn’t he? I did wonder why suddenly Lou lost his mind and I wondered about the water, too. It was mentioned that he got water once a week from a neighbor and that it was hot in the summer. Was it tainted? But his diet left a lot to be desired. He had to be suffering from some kind of malnutrition in addition to the suspected water and that both together would affect you both physically and mentally/

    These immigrant farmers work so hard to make the land profit them, but are at the mercy of the capricious land and its weather patterns. Lou’s prayer was so poignant. I think there wasn’t ever going to be success for him and I think he knew that and that with all the disappointments in his life and with no one to encourage or support him–because you CAN get through rough patches when you know you are not alone–I think blaming himself (a sinner) was the only thing that made sense to him as his mind deteriorated.

    It made me angry that he had been painted so early on in his life, as stupid–weak headed. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy and is usually not true. Lou created a world view out of what he read in Revelation which took a lot of intelligence and if only he had someone to share that with, he might not have gone crazy with it.

    Cather touched a little on this in the first paragraph, but one thing I remember from O Pioneers! Is the different communities of immigrants. I remember Alexandra wanting to get information on how to turn her farm around by going, what was it? Across the river or something to the other community? In this story, Cather brings up these differences again, but briefly. I find this interesting that these communities have dissimilar outlooks or perspectives on their experience and should not be painted with the same brush.

    I really enjoyed the boys in this story and how they cared for Lou. If this were a longer story, I wonder how Cather would have fleshed them out? I could see Lou having made an impression on a boy of that age and it would have been interesting to see how that developed throughout his life. Plus, that would also mean that Lou lived on somehow and I don’t like it when people die….so there!

    Ok… the first story down! I am so looking forward to learning and reading more!

    • That made me angry, too — how Lou and his abilities were cast in stone. That’s a tragedy in itself. He’s been told his entire life he’s less than his brothers and even his mother feels like she stunted him by dancing while pregnant (superstition is hard to kick when it’s a family tradition). He’s born “defective,” looses everything and everyone he’s loved (it seems), so taking on the identity of sinner does make sense. It’s the only thing to turn to. And it’s his mom’s Bible, so maybe that made him feel closer to her.

      I do think Ivar was treated better in O Pioneers! mainly because Alexandra is always kind to him and eventually takes him in (I think against the wishes of her brothers, but it’s been a while since I read it). He’s also self-sufficient until his later years and doesn’t bother anyone. No ranting through the streets. Ivar is more philosophical and observant of nature. It’s what you’d expect of a person who has the temperament to live as a hermit. When I next read OP, Ivar as an older Lou will be something I’ll focus on.

      The little boys are interesting. I couldn’t help but wonder how those same boys would treat Lou as teenagers, had he stuck around. Maybe some would have grown up to be helpers. I do think a message of this story is the dangers of being alone in a harsh environment or during hard times. Or maybe times wouldn’t get so hard in the first place if he’d had a friend or mentor.

  4. Cather’s story reflects the hard times of the late 1800s, when farmers went into debt, thinking they could pay off their notes with what they produced, but crops failed or prices fell, and interest rates climbed. Some turned to God, others to political movements, some fled back to family–if they had anyone to take them in. Suicides were not unheard of.
    Cather included superstition within this story, referencing Lou’s mother’s guilt about dancing too much when she was pregnant with Lou. His romantic disappointment and loss of his mother deepened his depression.
    He had come to expect others thinking him “a simple thick headed fellow,” which must have made him feel inadequate to confront the circumstances.
    Lacking the escapes others turned to, poor Lou fled to madness.

    • That’s an interesting point, about some turning to God, others to political movements, etc. Makes me wonder that if Lou’s mother had political newspapers laying around instead of her well-worn Bible that “opened of itself at Revelations,” maybe he would have gone in a different direction.

  5. I’d hardly call this a story, more of a character sketch. And though it has no real action, and some awkward language, it has a certain vividness that makes Lou spring to life. I could imagine him as a real person Cather had heard of or seen and spun some more details around. I was struck by the line about how Lou had never seen Nature, “he had only stared into a black plow furrow all his life.” His spiritual life is similarly dark and constricted. That seems to be the point of this sketch.

    • I’m glad you wrote that you could imagine him as a real person. Sometimes I wonder if a story by a writer I’ve read a lot of is vivid and evocative OR if I just have such familiarity with their other stories that I’m filling in what might not be on the page, if you know what I mean.

      The line you quoted is so bleak. It made my heart ache for Lou. It is such a contrast to the hopeful farmer plowing dark, fertile soil and imagining all that good that will eventually grow from it.

  6. It’s nice to read something early from WC and realize how much her writing evolved, especially in what Lory refers to as “character sketching.” This attempt at prairie-noir never gets too far beyond the trenches, as a few have commented here, as WC grapples with issues of loneliness, self-imposed zealotry, externalized “madness,” and society’s response. The impact on the young boys is for me the most interesting part of the story. Their innocence (they didn’t know how to even pray) is not lost by WC’s very intentional analysis that children aren’t fooled by charlatans. This implies Lou’s legitimacy; as does his “escape” – lost to the land/water – the throughline for Lou – in life and in death.

    /jwt

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  1. "Peter." Willa Cather Short Story Project • Feb 2021 Reminder • Chris Wolak

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