The Namesake by Willa Cather #WCSSP2023

The Namesake by Willa Cather
Illustration from drawings by E.L. Blumenschein

“The Namesake” is our story this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project. It was published in 1907. As mentioned in the reminder post, scholars have made much of this story in relation to Cather’s naming and renaming of herself. As the Library of America introduction states, “Cather’s story of the origin of her name, however, appears to be part fantasy, part misremembered family history.” Their introduction and the links they provide to other sources are definitely worth exploring.

I am surprised by how sad this story is. Do you think it’s supposed to be sad? I’m not sure if the denouement is supposed to be uplifting or what.

A young American artist, Bentley, is called home from Paris to attend to family matters. The situation prompts a story from Hartwell, an older, successful artist who, fifteen years previously, had been called home to attend an ailing aunt. He spent two years living with her in Western Pennsylvania.

The once idyllic homestead of his grandfather and the birthplace of his father has turned into “one of the largest manufacturing cities in the world.” For hundreds of miles around, the landscape has been turned into an industrial wasteland. Those trees that haven’t been clearcut are “doomed things” and the river is in “tragic submission.” Hartwell remains detached from his aunt and his ancestors except for a portrait of an uncle.

An old solider in town tells Hartwell about his Uncle Lyon’s heroism during the Civil War. He enlisted at fifteen and served as a color sergeant. During a battle Lyon charged fiercely carrying the flag. The hand and lower arm in which he carried the flag was shot away. He carries on with good humor, holding the flag with his other hand. That entire arm is blown off and he falls over a wall to his death, “the flag settling about him.”

Hartwell is riled up and reads about the Civil War. Then he discovers his uncle’s trunk in the attic. A “leather trunk with my own name stamped upon it.” His namesake.

As he looks through his uncle’s things, nostalgia for a time period, a war, and a kinsman Hartwell never knew become intwined with patriotism, ancient stories, and the winds of a storm that darkens the sky and fills the air with the scent of roses. He sees in a flash the image of his uncle just before he fell in the battle.

It is all very romantic. In addition to being a great sculptor, Hartwell is a good storyteller. He says of this experience,

“It was the same feeling that artists know when we, rarely, achieve truth in our work; the feeling of union with some great force, of purpose and security, of being glad that we have lived. For the first time I felt the pull of race and blood and kindred, and felt beating within me things that had not begun with me. It was as if the earth under my feet had grasped and rooted me, and were pouring its essence into me. I sat there until the dawn of morning, and all night long my life seemed to be pouring out of me and running into the ground.”

He’s also a mentor who concludes by saying, “And so . . . I naturally feel an interest in fellows who are going home. It’s always an experience.” This is a kind thing to say to a young man who is dejected by being called home. He seems to be implying that it is in those times of our lives when we are not pleased with our circumstances and feel trapped that we might have the biggest break throughs.

“Despite the dullness of the light, we instantly recognized the boy of Hartwell’s ‘Color Sergeant.'” Illustration by E.L. Blumenschein

The quote above made me think of the famous lines from Cather’s 1918 novel, My Antonia,

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

This sentiment is voiced by Jim Burden as he sits among pumpkins. I also thought of O Pioneers! (1913) when Alexandra Bergson feels some great force carrying her. And of course there is the combat death of Claude Wheeler in One of Ours (1922). It is interesting to see Cather work with this idea in various manifestations.

Have you had a chance to read “The Namesake”? I’m so curious about what sticks out for you about this story and connections you’ve made to other Cather works. Or works by other writers. It’s been too long since I read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri but now I’m wondering if there might be a similar sentiment in that novel.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let's talk!

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