Tommy, the Unsentimental • Response Post • WCSSP

“Tommy, the Unsentimental” is our January selection for the Willa Cather Short Story Project. I’m a day late with the response post this month. How is it already the end of January?

I’m intrigued by this short piece. I read it decades ago and remembered the bicycle action, but other aspects of the story didn’t stick.

This time around I’m fascinated by how “unsubtle” it seems that Tommy is a lesbian, or at least queer. She is more than just a tomboy.

If it looks like a duck . . .

Tommy, real name Theodosia, acts and looks like a boy. “Her keen gray eyes and wide forehead were scarcely girlish, and she had the lank figure of an active half grown lad.” She has a head for business and “was of a peculiarly unfeminine mind that could not escape meeting and acknowledging a logical conclusion.” She’s a natural athlete with “a shrewd face, that was so like a clever wholesome boy’s.” And although it is said that some business acumen is expected from women out West, Tommy is basically running the bank while her dad is regularly out of state on business.

In addition to running the bank, Tommy is also doing the work of one of the tellers, Jay Ellington Harper, who has zero business sense. Jay and Tommy are friends. He’s a bit of a dandy who wears a white carnation in his button hole. “A weak brother” is the phrase locals use to describe him.

The Old Boys

There are seven “Old Boys,” friends of Tommy’s father who have always felt responsibility for her to the extent that they “had rather taken her mother’s place.” With them Tommy plays cards, shoots pool, and is so well-know for her cocktails that “professional compounders of drinks always bowed respectfully to her as though acknowledging a powerful rival.” She was one of the boys.

Cather 1895 (source)

The Old Boys make me think of a Greek chorus. They see the incompetent “weak brother” Jay as a threat to Tommy’s future. Eventually, he’s “relocated” to another town.

It is abundantly clear that Tommy does not fit late 19th century gender roles or stereotypes of what a girl or young woman should look like or how she should behave. Yet she’s accepted by everyone.

But then Tommy surprises folks and goes East for a year of school. More shocking is that when she comes home, she brings a girl with her, one “she had grown fond of at school, a dainty, white languid bit of a thing, who used violet perfumes and carried a sunshade. The Old Boys said it was a bad sign when a rebellious girl like Tommy took to being sweet and gentle to one of her own sex, the worst sign in the world.”

The worst sign in the world

“The worst sign in the world.” Hmm. That is loaded statement, especially when you consider this story was published a year after Oscar Wilde was put on trial for homosexuality and subsequently imprisoned.

The Greek Chorus sounds shrill. Tommy is no longer a chip off the old block, but is now labelled rebellious. She has crossed a line and the Old Boys seem to be in full heterosexual panic mode. Are the Old Boys worried about losing Tommy to a Boston marriage?

The phrase “the worst sign in the world” seems like a surprisingly blatant acknowledgement of lesbianism for a family magazine in 1896. Then again, Cather was the managing editor of The Home Monthly when this story appeared in August 1896.

Sentimental Tommy

I’ve started looking for scholarship on “Tommy, the Unsentimental.” One article that I’ve bookmarked to read is, “Constructing modernist lesbian affect from late Victorian masculine emotionalism: Willa Cather’s ‘Tommy, the Unsentimental’ and J.M. Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy” by Michelle Ann Abate.

Here’s the abstract:

J.M. Barrie by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1892 (source)

This article recoups the once powerfully present but now largely forgotten link between J.M. Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Willa Cather’s “Tommy, the Unsentimental” (1896). As the original fin-de-siècle readers would have recognized—and as Cather herself undoubtedly intended—her short story about a figure who adamantly rejects sentimentalism was written in response to Barrie’s book about one who enthusiastically embraces it. Sentimentality has long been seen as a central component to the formulation of gender roles during the late Victorian period, but placing Barrie’s novel and Cather’s story back within their original cultural conversation reveals that it was also equally central to emerging modernist forms of queer sexuality.

Women’s Writing, November 2011, 18(4): 468-485 DOI: 10.1080/09699082.2011.600044).

What a connection. I look forward to reading the article. So much nuance within a story, or a writer’s impetus for writing a piece, can be missed when we don’t know the literary history of a time period. Or, to put it in a less blamey way, our reading of a story can be enhanced by knowing the literary tradition or social climate out of which a story is born. In this case, the title “Tommy, the Unsentimental” would have been a blinking neon sign for potential readers.

I immediately looked into Sentimental Tommy: The Story of His Boyhood by James Matthew Barrie. It’s a novel that weighs in at over 450 pages, so I won’t be reading it on a whim. It is available on Project Gutenberg if you’re interested in checking it out. It was a bestseller but has since been overshadowed by Barrie’s most famous story, Peter Pan.

What do you think?

What do you make of “the worst sign in the world”? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any other aspect of the story that struck you.

If you haven’t yet read the story, you can read 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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