“El Dorado” by Willa Cather #WCSSP

El Dorado WCSSP Response Post image

The full title of this month’s story for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional.” Why do you think Cather chose the word ‘recessional’? I looked up the definition because I thought it was an interesting word choice. The two main definitions from Goggle, via Oxford Languages, are:

  • adjective: relation to an economic recession, ‘recessional times.’
  • noun: a hymn sung while the clergy and choir process out of church at the end of a service.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition for ‘recession’ is “the act or action of receding: withdrawl.”

Word graph source: Google

All three of these definitions work in the context of the story. But I don’t think the story is tight enough to merit a close reading focused on a single word choice.

In the reminder post for this month, I shared how Cather had explained that this story was written by a “collective effort” of young writers. It does read as if there was more than one mind at work on it. There are some of the themes Cather had already started to explore in her fiction such as the person who moves from the old country to the new and struggles, and the beauty and fierceness of the landscape to name two.

But the descriptions are much more dramatic and stereotypical than Cather’s earliest stories. She had also moved beyond or never used some of the easy western tropes that appear in this story. And those tropes are awkward beside the classical and biblical mythology. Of course there’s also the myth of El Dorado.

There is also the direct autobiographical connection between the Colonel coming from Winchester, Virginia as did Cather’s family (but to Nebraska, not Kansas). Cather’s parents followed family members out west, not swindlers looking to dupe investors. The Gump family certainly had an elaborate scheme complete with fake maps and fake letters. The narrator says that others judging the situation after the fact say that the scam was blatantly obvious. But if this was an early scheme, set in motion before news of such scams got around, how was the Colonel to assess the situation?

The former English major in me is whispering in my ear that I need to provide examples to support the statement I’ve made above, but current me is in the final weeks of the semester and happy enough that I read the story and managed to write a response, however sketchy.

Did you read “El Dorado”? What did you think?

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