“The Clemency of the Court” • July 2021 Reminder • Willa Cather Short Story Project

Our Willa Cather story for July is “The Clemency of the Court,” which takes us back to the Great Plains. It appeared in the October 26, 1893 issue of The Hesperian.

In the June 8, 1893 issue of The Hesperian, it was announced that Cather was elected managing editor for the next school year. She had been one of two literary associates prior to this honor. In the old board’s announcement of the new board, there are several mentions about how this new progressive board will no doubt work in harmony. Methinks this smacks of some recent behind-the-scenes drama.

Click here to read “The Clemency of the Court” on the Willa Cather Archive and see how it originally appeared here in The Hesperian on the Nebraska Newspapers archive.

Misery on the Great Plains

This is a dark story that includes child abuse, killing a dog, and prison torture.

The setting is the western part of an unnamed state of the Great Plains where Serge Povolitchky, the protagonist, was born. Like “Peter” and “Lou, The Prophet,” this is a story about an isolated individual who suffers at the hands of others.

What’s next?

Read “The Clemency of the Court” sometime this month and then come back to discuss it on the response post I’ll share on July 28th, the fourth Wednesday of the month. Or, feel free to read it 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!


  1. Several years ago, when I was doing research for “Prairie Bachelor” and had read a great deal about the hardships on the prairie, especially on young children and women, I wrote a short story. The plot involved a young boy who had attended a funeral for a child with his parents, and when he returned home he removed his shoes and lest ragged clothes and went outside to work. His baby sibling was not feeling well and was malnourished from the lack of milk and food in general, as were all members of the family. The baby cried and whimpered all the time, and his brother didn’t know how to help.

    As the mother worked at her chores, she realized that she hadn’t heard the baby crying for some time, and she rushed into the house to check on the baby. She could see the bloodied sheets even before seeing the baby. She ran outside to see if her other child was all right, and he was hard at work in the garden. As she got closer, she could see blood on his clothing, and an old ax handle propped against the fence.

    She began to scream, and her son ran to her. “Don’t cry, Mother. Everything is all right now. Just like the pastor said this morning at little Billy’s funeral. ‘Baby has gone to a better place now, where there is no more hunger or suffering, and there are no more tears.”

    That was the basic plot (although I haven’t read my story since what I am about to share happened). I shared my short story with a friend. He was angry with me. “Why would you write something like that?!” he shouted at me. He was truly disgusted that I would write such a story.

    I share that event because I experienced a similar reaction to Cather’s “Clemency” short story. It was difficult to read, and I could not help but wonder why she would have written it. It was a strong condemnation of “the state” and of the lack of humanity in the individuals Serge encountered. Cather used the affection for the dog to not only draw parallels between the dog and Serge but also to touch the emotion readers would feel for the dog to foreshadow the empathy and emotion for Serge we would feel.

    It is an interesting story to read at the present time when current feelings about “the state” are so troubled.

    • Wow, Lyn, just reading that brief synopsis of your story is intense. It seems realistic to me, though, having read about horrific situations people have found themselves in, and how literal interpretations of religious beliefs can have unintended consequences. I often wonder if people who react so strongly to stories of violence (whether fictional or nonfiction) are desperate to stay in their state of denial, either as victims themselves or perpetrators (and people are often both).

      I really, really hate to read about violence against children and animals, but there’s no denying it exists. Considering there is so much of it in today’s world when we supposedly “know better” and practically everyone has a camera in their pocket, access to the internet, not to mention 911 — I cannot imagine the depth and breadth of violence in the past when victims had zero ways to get the word out about what was happening and everyone “minded their own business.” I say this understanding full well that although much has changed, much stays the same. Children and certainly animals have no agency.

      On a happier note, I (finally!) got a copy of Prairie Bachelor last month and look forward to reading it later this summer.

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