Gilding the Corn-Tassels

“Eric Hermannson’s Soul” is our read this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project. It was published in the April 1900 edition of The Cosmopolitan. Thanks for your patience with me pushing back this response post by a week.

In the reminder post for “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” I mentioned checking out what James Woodress has to stay about the story. He writes that it is a “very competent piece of fiction and marks a clear advance in her narrative skill” (Willa Cather: A Literary Life, 144-45). He also considers it an important story because it was published in The Cosmopolitan, which had a large national readership. Prior stories had been published in smaller regional outlets.

Bodies for Ghosts

Woodress makes the connection between Eric and the less developed character of Canute Canuteson in “On the Divide,” a story we read last September. I also see connections to the short story “Peter,” in which a son plots to secretly sell his depressed and struggling father’s violin, and also “Lou, The Prophet,” in which an isolated man is driven mad and finds no comfort in religion. Cather explores these themes in her later novels as well, and it is exciting to see her working out ideas and themes in her earlier fiction.

Mildred R. Bennett in “Willa Cather’s Bodies for Ghosts” also points out that the character Lena Hanson shows up in various stories as well. She is Canute’s bride in “On the Divide.” We will see a Lena character later in “The Bohemian Girl” and she is the wonderfully independent Lena Lingard in My Antonia.

[Side note: I came upon Bennett’s article because I Googled “Willa Cather” and “ghosts.” It was pre-Halloween and, having recently read some of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, I was looking for more literary ghosts. The article traces how Cather develops some of these reoccurring characters in her stories and novels, many of which are based on real people she knew or stories she’d heard as a child.]

Sunrise, Sunset

One of the nature scenes in “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” that involves the sun made me think of a future famous scene that Cather would write years later in My Antonia (1918).

The scene in My Antonia is a sunset description that is so iconic it is used in the National Willa Cather Center’s logo (pictured above).

Here’s the scene from My Antonia:

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share–black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Gilding the corn-tassels

The sun scene in “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” is not quite as dramatic, but it is symbolic within the story and represents an important theme of Cather’s writing. The morning after the big dance, Asa Skinner, the Free Gospeller minister, rides up to Eric. Skinner judges Eric for dancing the night before, saying that he has set his soul “back a thousand years from God.”

Instead of sinking back into despair, “Eric drew himself up to his full height and looked off to where the new day was gilding the corn-tassels and flooding the uplands with light.”

It is such a beautiful image, as is the fact that Eric draws strength from the rising sun, the corn, and the land. His soul is being healed by his own choices, action, and nature. He is no longer the wild fiddler nor the zombie-like follower of a religious zealot.

Here’s the rest of the scene:

As his nostrils drew in the breath of the dew and the morning, something from the only poetry he had ever read flashed across his mind, and he murmured, half to himself, with dreamy exultation:

“And a day shall be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.”

The story ends there, with Eric claiming his own soul.

This line of poetry is a Biblical verse from 2 Peter 3:8, “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (King James Version).

I was surprised that Eric finds peace and strength in his soul with the help of nature after a night of passion with the woman he loves. I did not think things would end well for him. There is spiritual justice, too. The poetry that flashes in Eric’s mind is actually a Biblical verse which he (unknowingly) uses against this soul-crushing preacher and his religion.

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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