“The Count of Crow’s Nest” by Willa Cather • WCSSP Response Post

Willa Cather, Chicago Studio Portrait, 1895
Cather in Chicago, 1895 (source)

Hello, Cather Fans! Did you have a chance to read “The Count of Crow’s Nest,” our story this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project?

The story was published in two parts in The Home Monthly. The first in September 1896 and the second in October. It explores the theme of old world aesthetic and aristocratic values vs materialistic bourgeois culture.

I enjoyed “The Count of Crow’s Nest.” The story is set in ante-Columbian Chicago (so before 1893). There’s a scene set in Kingsley’s restaurant. Some Googling reveals that this was indeed an actual restaurant in Chicago. Jan Whitaker writes on her blog that, “By 1884 Kinsley’s was considered Chicago’s finest restaurant and society’s first choice for catering dinners and parties. In 1885 he built a new four-story restaurant on Adams Street.” The photo below is of Kingsley’s on Adams. This sets the story between 1884 and 1893. I wonder if Cather ate there during her 1895 trip to Chicago.

Kingsley’s Restaurant on Adams in Chicago (source)

The central protagonist is Harold Buchanan, a young man just out of college. He has potential but is currently going through the disillusionment of new adulthood and figuring out what he wants to do with his life. Buchanan knows he’s “painfully immature,” but it is this self-awareness and his artistic sensitivity that makes you think he might eventually find his groove even if now, “he hated humanity as only a nervous sensitive man in a crowded boarding house can hate it.”

The other residents of this less than desirable boarding house are all down-on-their-luck creatives who had not, and apparently would not, make it in their chose fields. The one exception is Count de Koch who is dignified, artistic, amiable, but reserved. The other residents gossip about him, but his title is real. He’s an aristocrat who left Europe with only his title and a daughter who is now an adult living on her own. He’s poor and lives with dignity, she’s a mediocre singer who lives beyond her means.

Edgar Allan Poe. June 1849. Daguerreotype “Annie”, given to Poe’s friend Mrs. Annie L. Richmond; probably taken in June 1849 in Lowell, Massachusetts, photographer unknown.

Both Buchanan and Count de Koch are men of deep aesthetic feeling. Their initial conversation is a spontaneous discussion sparked by a collection of Théophile Gautier‘s romances, particularly “La Morte Amoureuse.” I am not familiar with this story, but looked it up and it’s a priest-vampire love story. (I am so getting my hands on a copy of this!) Then they discuss and praise Edgar Allan Poe as the only American writer who is a stylist, capable of artistic effects and not formulaic writing.

Their friendship blossoms. Enter the Count’s daughter, Helena. To use her own words, “Papa is an aristocrat, while I am bourgeoisie to the tips of my fingers.” Helena is a mediocre singer without values or aesthetic sensibilities. At one point while out to dinner at Kingsley’s she says, “Life is a play-thing, life is a toy!” I could picture her jumping on the table and belting out, “Life is a cabaret old chum!”

After a certain element is introduced into the storyline, I easily envisioned how things would turn out, but the story remained entertaining. This is another early Cather story that has been called Jamesian, but I think it has more in common with Poe and the Gothic tradition. There’s the fall of an aristocratic family for one. It also has strong Gothic vibes: shadows (literary, historic, one’s past), isolation, an atmosphere of gloom portrayed here by personal and societal disillusionment. It would be interesting to reread “The Fall of the House of Usher” with “The Count of Crow’s Nest” in mind.

I’ll end this post with a quote that brings in another Gothic monster: “Perhaps it was one of those casual actions which we scatter so recklessly in our youth, and which, grown monstrous like the creature of Frankenstein, rise up to shame us in our age and spread desolation which we are powerless to check.”

What do you think?

Did you enjoy “The Count of Crow’s Nest”? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s chat in the comments below.

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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