“The Way of the World” by Willa Cather

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

The Way of the World - Willa Cather Short Story Project

Hello! Apologies that I am late with the response post for this month’s Willa Cather Short Story Project, “The Way of the World.” Have you read it?

The story was published in the April 1898 edition of The Home Monthly, the Pittsburgh magazine Cather had been managing editor of before it was sold, and she resigned.

“The Way of the World” is the story of a boy named Speckle who, with five of his male friends, has created a make-believe town in his backyard. It was not a one-day situation but a substantial town where each boy created his own place of business out of boxes (which would have been made of wood back then, not cardboard). All is swell until one day, neighbor Mary Eliza Jenkins decides she wants part of the action.

In the end, Speckle sits “in his deserted town, as Caius Marius once sat among the ruins of Carthage.” Cather will use the imagery of Marius among the ruins again in her 1904 story, “Flavia and Her Artists.”

Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage by John Vanderlyn, 1775-1852 (source)

As a child, Cather had created a similar town in her Red Cloud, Nebraska backyard called Sandy Point. She was the mayor.

Daryl W. Palmer in his recent study, Becoming Willa Cather, points out that “The Way of the World” is the earliest example of Cather using personal memories as the basis for a story, but instead of using a female character, she creates a male protagonist. She did this in other stories, such as My Antonia with Jim Burden, the narrator whose experience of moving from Virginia to Nebraska at a young age reflects Cather’s own early childhood.

Cather was a tomboy who dressed in what was considered boy’s clothing and sported a crew cut. Knowing that she created a similar play town and uses a male protagonist to express her memories makes the gender stereotypes and shenanigans in “The Way of the World” much more interesting.

Town wrecker Mary Eliza is a tomboy, and a good one. “For all boys will admit that there are some girls who would make the best boys in the world–if they were not girls.” As a former (?) tomboy, I can relate.

When humor isn’t funny

The gender play in this story is supposed to be amusing. The comedy is based on a variety of things such as:

  • 1) Ancient misogyny: Mary Eliza, “made it her business to appeal to every masculine instinct in the boys, beginning with their stomachs. When first a woman tempted a man she said unto him, ‘Eat.'” Eve tempting Adam with the apple. Okay, that was kind of funny for a second until one remembers all the horrors done to women over the centuries because of that fucking apple.
  • 2) Cather’s own documented misogyny concerning other women writers is reflected in Speckle’s doubts about Mary Eliza’s creative prowess: “He was not wholly certain as to the enduring qualities of feminine imagination.”
  • 3) A homophobic and xenophobic microaggression: the “heavy villian” of the story is a boy visiting from Chicago who, “invariably wore shoes and stockings, a habit disgustingly effeminate to any true and loyal Specklevillian.”

I imagine some people found this story funny or cute back in 1898 and might even today, as contemporary comedians still make a buck (or millions) off of women and minorities as the target of their “humor.” As someone who has had her own challenges with gender and discrimination, it does not come off as a charming story of the boy vs girl trope.

While I know some of it is tongue-in-cheek, I didn’t take much pleasure in reading the story, although I appreciate it for the peek into a time and place. Underneath the humor, I heard echoes of childhood pain and frustration.

This story is no doubt an important one in Cather’s development as a writer, and when looking at issues of gender (and more) in her life and times.

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!


  1. The story resonated with my 1950s childhood as well. Maybe we dressed as boys with the hope to be treted like them? Or the clothing was just more comfortable. So many times I was holding the flag in capture the flag and not recognized as the winner, the kickier of the can. It did off a certain freedom in the dissing. I could keep going without recognition–a good trait in life as our protagonist shows us.

    • Hi Margot! I agree with you on both — to be treated the same and more comfortable clothing. I appreciate you sharing the memories of playing capture the flag. How sad and infuriating. When I reached some seemingly arbitrary age, I suddenly had to start wearing tshirts in the summer time. I remember playing basket ball in the alley with my cousin Tommy, as usual, and my mom calling me into the house to put on a shirt. It was a sad day.

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