“The Dance at Chevalier’s” by Willa Cather

The Dance at Chevalier's by Willa Cather
Image from the Willa Cather Archive

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

This month’s story for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Dance at Chevalier’s” (1900). It’s about a love triangle between an Irish man, a Mexican man, and a French woman. It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, and it is a rather gnarly story. The plot is good but the racist terminology and stereotypes make it hard to read or recommend.

As I wrote in the reminder post, there are racist stereotypes in this story that are primarily aimed at Signor, the Mexican character. Native Americans are also disparaged. They are standard stereotypes of the time (and sadly, today). However, I was surprised that the term “Greaser” is used to describe Mexicans.

👍 Ayyy! 👍

I associate this term with white boys and men who wear leather jackets, t-shirts, jeans, and slick their hair back. One of my uncles was a greaser. He married a “girl” from a better neighborhood who wore fuzzy sweaters, pearls, and skirts à la Sandra Dee. I understand that “greaser” for this group can be used derogatorily but I don’t recall ever hearing it used in a racial context in my neighborhood. My generation was saturated with the movie Grease, Fonzie from Happy Days, and The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton all of which showed social judgements toward greasers, but like women prostitutes in many stories, they often have a heart of gold under their tough exterior. But I digress.

The word as used in this story may have arisen in the southwest in the mid-nineteenth century. Wikipedia offers the idea that the slur came from labor associations. “The slur likely derived from what was considered one of the lowliest occupations typically held by Mexicans, the greasing of the axles of wagons; they also greased animal hides that were taken to California where Mexicans loaded them onto clipper ships (a greaser).” There is no citation for this “likely” etymology.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a more offensive example. “A native Mexican or native Spanish American: originally applied contemptuously by Americans in the south-western United States to the Mexicans.” The earliest citation listed in the OED is from 1848: “G. F. A. Ruxton Life in Far West in Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. June 7 14/1  ‘The Greasers payed for Bent’s scalp, they tell me. Note, The Mexicans are called ‘Spaniards’ or ‘Greasers’ (from their greasy appearance) by the Western people.'” (This definition is behind a paywall, I’m sorry to say. I accessed it via my university library.)

Western stories

“The Dance at Chevalier’s” is set in the southwest, in Oklahoma. Cather published this story under a male pseudonym, Henry Nicklemann. The southwest setting and male pseudonym make it obvious that Cather was trying to write a western in the style of Stephen Crane or Bret Harte, two popular writers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. A quick search reveals that Crane, Harte, and later Zane Grey used this racial slur in their works.

We know Cather wrote racist stories in the Yellow Peril trope as a college student with “A Son of the Celestial” (1893). That is the story that she reworks into “The Conversion of Sum Loo” (1900), which, like this month’s story, was published in the short-lived weekly paper called Library. All three of these stories are set in parts of the west that Cather had not yet traveled to so she did rely on other stories and stereotypes. This is not to say that Cather’s more mature works set in landscapes where she had spent significant time are free of racist attitudes or stereotypes, but they are more layered and nuanced stories, and the prejudices are perhaps more her own than are these apprentice stories that rely on tropes.

An erotic poet

There is one more thing I have to comment on in this story. The Irish character, Denis, is a handsome giant of a man who has a way with the ladies.

. . . this big choleric Irishman was an erotic poet undeveloped and untamed by the processes of thought; a pure creature of emotional impulses who went about seeking rhymes and harmonies in the flesh, the original Adam.

This is hands-down the most graphic description of sex that I’ve read in Cather. An “erotic poet” who seeks “rhymes and harmonies in the flesh”? Whoa. I understand the point that she is making about Adam not having cultural restrictions dampening his “emotional impulses,” but have you ever imagined Adam in, um, rhymes and harmonies with Eve?

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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