Our story this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Elopement of Allen Poole” which appeared in The Hesperian on April 15, 1893.
Here’s the link to the full story at the Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss023
You can also read the story and then browse through The Hesperian at Nebraska Newspapers, which is the source for the image above. I also enjoy looking at the ads, such as the one below.
Telegrams and horse-drawn wagons. Ads like this provide a little slice of what life was like in a late-19th-century city and show us what is still the same. Instead of telegrams we have texts, instead of wagons we have FedEx, and apparently reliable messengers will always be a strong selling point.
From San Fran to the South
The last two stories we read, “A Son of the Celestial” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” were set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a place 19-year-old Cather had not visited. In this month’s story, Cather is taking us back to the South of her childhood. She was nine years old when her family moved from Virginia to Nebraska. You’ll notice a much stronger sense of place in “The Elopement of Allen Poole.”
Read “The Elopement of Allen Poole” sometime this month and then come back to discuss it on the response post I will share on June 23rd, the fourth Wednesday of the month. Or, feel free to read now and comment here if you can’t wait until then!
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. I remind everyone of what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Jump in anytime!
The thing that makes those of us love Cather is the same thing that makes others find her unappealing–her gift of description. The paragraph with the sentence “It takes a man of the South to do nothing perfectly…” and what follows in that paragraph and the next are the details at which Cather excels–details that pull the reader into the world of Allen Poole but don’t really advance the plot.
We sensed from the beginning that the elopement wouldn’t happen, but we wanted to spend the day with Allen (and Cather) anyway. And, we knew that it was a mistake for Nell to join Allen–a decision she would come to regret, just as Allen all but admitted with his dying words. Yet, we would have been sad if Nell hadn’t come. Those who don’t appreciate Cather would dismiss this story as predictable from the start. Those of us who admire her would feel disappointed for those who don’t appreciate an afternoon with Allen in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For many of us, Cather’s endings are just the introduction to her characters. They linger in our imaginations, forcing us to continue their stories. We know that Allen would have broken Nell’s heart had they married, one way or another. While his death may have broken her heart, it left the memory of romance. Marriage almost certainly have brought disappointment, regret, worry, separation from her family, and all of those things that chip away at romance. Cather knows that she has left the reader with the responsibility to carry Nell’s story forward…explaining the ruined dress, facing her future without Allen, imagining for ourselves whether her reputation is as soiled as her dress or is a secret past she will want to hide…
What a beautiful response. You are so spot on that what makes some people like Cather is also what makes others not appreciate her writing. I never really thought about that but it rings true.
I also appreciate your questioning whether Nell’s reputation “is as soiled as her dress.” It has made the story spin a bit differently in my mind.
Thank you for sharing so many insights to this story! I can’t wait to re-read it with them in mind.
[…] her thoughtful response to this story txfen wrote, “For many of us, Cather’s endings are just the introduction to her characters. They linger […]