“The Fear That Walks by Noonday” Response Post • Willa Cather Short Story Project

University of Nebraska football team in 1897 when they were known as the Bugeaters (source)

Football season is upon us here in the U.S. and what great timing to read “The Fear That Walks by Noonday.”

As I wrote in the reminder post for this story, Cather’s friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher came up with the idea for the story while they were at a football game.

I wonder what was going on in the game when Dorothy came up with the idea for the story. Were players fumbling and playing so poorly it seemed like they had no control of their arms, playing “like dead men”? Did it seem like an unseen force was causing chaos? Or was Dorothy struck by the obsession of player that was so great he’d come back from the dead to haunt the field?

Dying for football

The plot of “The Fear That Walks by Noonday” is simple: Morrison, a formidible player from the opposing team (“the ‘Injuns”) comes back from the dead as an unseen ghost to help his team beat Marathon College’s team. Morrison died during a prior game between the two teams.

Players did die back then in college football games. The first time helmets were used was in an 1893 Army-Navy game. In 1905, twenty-three players died. Helmets were optional in college football until 1938. (Source, “The Evolution of Football Equipment” by Amy Daughters here.) This story was published in 1894.

In this story, one of the characters “went striding around the room seeking his nose protector with lamentations and profanity.” John Cranston, a player at Harvard from 1888-1890, created a nose guard. It was the first protective football equipment for the face.

John Cranston’s nose guard (source)

While much has changed in football culture since Cather wrote this story, one thing still holds true today: calling the coach an idiot.

‘Injuns vs. Marathon

The team name “‘Injuns” is now considered racist enough on it’s own, but Cather doubles down on common stereotypes of Native Americans being seen as a warlike people — they are playing “for blood” and “vengeance,” they are “cherishing their wrath.”

The Marathon players are associated with ancient Greeks and Romans by name and their more rational behavior as when Reggie directs policemen and takes control of the field. They have “divine afflatus,” which is redundant. Afflatus is divine inspiration (as conceptualized by Cicero). And one of the players knows something is wrong when he actually remembers some Greek.

Post-game banquet

After the game, in Part II, both teams are dining together. The mood is subdued. The ghostly presence returns. One of the men, a “negro waiter” is described as a Sambo-like character. He “had been leaning against the wall asleep” and “came forward rubbing his eyes.”

As the waiter approaches the table where Reggie sits, “he felt that chilling wind, wiht its damp, wet smell like the air from a vault, and the unnatural cold that drove to the heart’s center like a knife blade.”

All of the players felt the return of this presence, yet they sit in fear-induced laughter. The Black waiter, however, shrieks, “My Gawd!” and drops his tray. Then “with an inarticulate gurgling cry he fled out of the door and down the stairway with the banqueters after him.”

This could look like a comic scene at the expense of this character, a man who feels a spirit, shrieks, and runs away. However, he can also be seen as the outsider in the room, a man who is in touch with his intuition and doesn’t hesitate to leave a dangerous situation. His leaving prompts all the other players to act on their discomfort and leave. I don’t think this was intended to be a funny scene.

Reggie, the alpha male, stays and fights the spirit of Morrison. Does he win? What do you think of the ending? I’m not sure what to make of the McKinely bit. Does it work for you?

What do you think?

What do you think of “The Fear that Walks by Noonday”? Respond to this post or share your thoughts about the story in the comments below. If you haven’t yet read this story, you can find it here on the Willa Cather Archive. 

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!

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