“On the Divide” September 2021 Reminder • Willa Cather Short Story Project

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.

Overland Monthly

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).

What’s next?

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!


  1. I struggled with this one. Cather provided a strong description of Canute and the hardships of his life, but she did not give me enough reason to empathize with him. I felt slightly sorry for him but not enough to involve me in his life. As for Lena, she was vane, selfish, hurtful…also giving me little reason to care about her. Perhaps I could have imagined some sort of back story about each of them which might have given me reason to care, but I could not even generate the motivation to imagine that.

    Since Canute was the only one in whom I found reason for any sympathy, I was at least sad for him at the conclusion. I think my greatest sadness came from knowing that a lifetime with Lena was probably going to be hellish for Canute very quickly. As for Lena, her admission that “she had always intended to marry Canute some day, any way” didn’t predict any lessening of her vane, selfish hurtful nature, and her father had made it clear that he had little or no use for Canute

    Sadly, tiny clues indicated that Canute did posses a rough kindness and an effort to please that might have been nurtured by a woman who was kind to him–someone who was perhaps as awkward and lonely as he was but capable of respectful (if not loving) treatment of the man who provided a home, food, and security for her. But, Canute wanted Lena, and he got her. She had apparently accepted eventually becoming his wife, so she got what she had been willing to accept. If the story has a moral, the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for; you just may get it,” seems to fit.

    • I waited to read your comment until I read the story myself (late last night, finally!). I saw some hope at the end of the story, that maybe Lena and Canute could grow toward one another. Lena was a jerk to him, but I wonder if it was a case of trying to get his attention. I also wonder, if it is true that Cather’s professor added to the story, if that impacted our reading it in a negative way.

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