Reminder! “On the Divide” is our story this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project.
You can read the story at the Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss026
Apologies for being a day late with this reminder. The new semester started for me last week and my mind is all twirly as I settle into a new routine.
“On the Divide” was published in the Overland Monthly in January 1896. The University of Michigan has digitized the complete run of this magazine. Click here to check out the edition in which this story appeared.
After Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska in June 1895, she moved back home to Red Cloud and lived with her parents. She’d leave for Pittsburgh in June 1896 for a job editing Home Monthly magazine.
The Overland Monthly was a regional magazine with a good reputation, so this must have been an exciting placement for Cather. Or was it?
Some decades later, in 1938, Cather replied to a letter from Professor Edward Wagenknecht who wanted to publish some of her early stories. Regarding “On the Divide” Cather wrote to him:
You will see that in returning the list you sent me I have crossed out six of the early stories you attribute to me, because they are not really genuine; some of them are wholly spurious. I cannot give you the history of each of these, but let us take the first one, “On the Divide”. It was a college theme written for a weekly theme class. The professor was a very young man, just out of college himself, and was one of those mistaken young men who think they can reflect credit upon their department by rushing their students into print. As the Overland Monthly did not pay for contributions, he was able to get it printed there. Before he sent it there, he touched it up very considerably and added what he called “color”. My theme was a short account of a Swede farmer who carried off a girl in a storm. I forget now how much the professor added, but I remember I was amazed when he attributed to this Swede some skill in wood carving—said he did this in his lonely hours, or something of that sort. I have only the dimmest recollection of this theme, but I remember that he put in several high spots which amazed me. Incidently, he had the story printed quite without my knowledge. I was not in the least offended, and thought he had been very kind to dress up a dull college theme.Cather, Willa. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (p. 564). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Cather closes this letter by saying that a writer, like a carpenter, should be allowed to put their “flimsy work in his cellar and forget it” (565). I suppose she wouldn’t be too happy with us today for reading her earliest stories.
The editors of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather add commentary at the beginning of the letter quoted above that there is no evidence to back up the claims Cather makes about “On the Divide” and other early stories. They “are likely fabrications constructed to convince Wagenknecht to leave her alone” (563).
Read “On the Divide” sometime this month and then come back to discuss it on the response post I’ll share on September 22nd, 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!