“The Willing Muse” by Willa Cather #WCSSP2023

This month’s story for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Willing Muse,” published in 1907.

“The Willing Muse” is about Kenneth Gray, a man consumed by “letters,” allegedly meaning “writing” in the context of what his friends have to say about him, but more on that later. Kenneth’s eyeglasses are thick and his shoulders droop. He’s a slow writer who published his first book at 35 and then one more prior to his marriage. He sounds like a tedious man yet his friends treat him with kid gloves, trying to nurture his writing life. Kenneth’s impending marriage to popular writer Bertha Torrence is seen as a “hopeful venture” or a “hopeful indication” for Kenneth. If Bertha can’t help him get it in gear, no one can.

The un-named narrator is a journalist who is, during the course of the story, gone for two years to Paris and then for two plus years to China. In between, he visits Bertha and Kenneth. Bertha is happily putting out two best selling books a year and Kenneth is allegedly working on a book. Yet, when the narrator visits and watches Kenneth attempt to answer a simple fan letter for his wife, he’s incapable of almost even holding a pen. (Freudians would have a field day.)

Meanwhile, Bertha’s writing is thriving and rising in quality. “There was every evidence that she had absorbed from Kenneth like a water plant, but none that she had used him more violently than a clever woman may properly use her husband.” She is not portrayed as an emotional or creative vampire, but more like a partner who is nourished by her spouse. Or was she a vampire? She does appear younger the next time the narrator sees her. Prior to the marriage she had snapped at the narrator that he and his friends have “put a halo about [Kenneth] until he daren’t move for fear of putting it out. What he needs is simply to keep at it. How much satisfaction do you suppose he gets out of hanging back?”

So what is Kenneth’s problem? His cocoon back in the college town of Olympia, Ohio didn’t exactly spur him on and he is further discombobulated by living with a successful writer in NYC. What is it that keeps him from being a productive writer?

Paul Julien Meylan drawing. C. W. Chadwick engraving. (source)

At one point it is said that he was born an anachronism, implying that he would have been better off in an earlier time. There are multiple instances when it is made clear that Kenneth is not in step with his times. “He was incapable of falling in with any of the prevailing attitudes.” The narrator goes on, “Commercialism wounded him, flippancy put him out of countenance, and he clung stubbornly to certain fond, Olympian superstitions regarding his profession.”

Cather often got/gets dinged by critics for nostalgia, creating stories that implied the past was better and that society has debased itself with industrialization and embracing all things modern. “The Willing Muse” seems in line with such criticism. As Bertha diligently types away in her office until 4 p.m. everyday, Kenneth’s brain, “was beaten into torpidity by the mere hammer of her machine, as by so many tiny mallets.”

But I get the sense that Kenneth wouldn’t have produced much writing back in some previous time either, when life was supposedly slower, cleaner, and quieter. The one time he laments the noise and bustle of the current age he asks the narrator, there must be “somewhere in the world, where a man can take a book or two and drop behind the procession for an hour.”

He longs for quiet to be alone with books, to read.

Now, I could be reading way too much into this story. On the surface it is about a male writer who feels misplaced and cannot write who marries a woman writer who is virtually a literary factory unto herself and thriving socially. (We get it, Bertha represents the modern current of industrialization and is thriving with her machine typewriter. Her last name is Torrence. Torrence the torrent.)

But what if Kenneth Gray (note his last name) does not have the temperament to be a writer? Maybe he was pushed in that direction by friends when what he really wanted to do was be a reader. Perhaps he wanted to enjoy books, not create them.

Still, there is the issue that Kenneth and Bertha are mismatched. She respects him intellectually but doesn’t seem to see his emotional struggle. She seems an unlikely choice for a guy who wants to be alone. Unsuccessful marriages do populate Cather’s fiction.

Early on in the story when the narrator and Bertha are talking about Kenneth’s challenges he tells her that by marrying his friend she is “accepting a responsibility.” She asks if he means Kenneth’s “uncertainty,” to which the narrator replies, “Oh, I mean all of them — the barriers which are so intangible he cannot climb them and so terrifying he can’t jump them, which lie between him and everything.”

It is a heartbreaking statement. Kenneth is caged and frozen. Today his condition would probably be diagnosed as a mental health condition, but in the context of the story, I think Cather was saying that someone like Kenneth, who is so out of step with contemporary society, cannot make it, let alone thrive. He has to escape.

I realize most stories don’t have one point, but I’ll ask anyway — what is the point of this story? Was it Cather exploring how society impacts creative types? That supportive friends and a muse might be willing to help, but you’ve got to help yourself? Was it a warning to herself not to get bogged down by things she did not like about society? Who is the willing muse?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts!

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we read one Cather short story a month. I remind everyone of what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Jump in anytime!

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