Review Of Great Short Works Of Willa Cather
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/23/05
In reading through the Great Short Works Of Willa Cather I was taken not by any of the individuated works, but by the cadences of the writings, and their themes and mileux. Thatís not to say that any of the individual tales had no traits to booster, but the truth of it is, as I am writing this review about three to four weeks after I read the book, not a single narrative sticks in my mind, save for a tale about some Midwestern folk, in a small town, waiting for the corpse of a citizen, killed in World War I, to arrive home. At least I recall its premise. I do not recall its denouement. And that is precisely Catherís weakness as a short story writer. There is sort of a Midwestern sepia to all she writes. No characters embed themselves the way characters of a Herman Melville, or Raymond Carver, do.
I see waves of grain blowing tidally in the winds. Perhaps the most interesting thing that I recall about Catherís short tales were their dialogues- the conversations. And perhaps itís because she was a writer of her time, but I just get a sense that she had no real ear for dialogue. By this I do not mean that there were not people who spoke in the stiff tones her characters did, but the conversations seem as if they were specifically written for the page, not gleaned from a real overheard colloquy. Carver is probably the best writer to do this, although some might claim that his characters are too foul mouthed. But, that is not what I mean by realistic conversation. Real people hem and haw when they speak- this being the reason that punctuation was initially developed- to allow writers to denote what is said- a pause being a comma, a longer pause being a period, etc. Only later did these diacritical signages get transformed into rationalized things, such as a period not just being a long pause, but the end of a coherent thought, or sentence.
This is where Raymond Carver excels. His conversations often meander and stumble about the subject matter, and the conversants often skip off into other topics before moseying back to the original one. Not so with Catherís dialoguers. There never seems to be an out of place (read- real) moment in their interactions, whether verbalized or not. The conversation is merely a tool to propel the plot, rather than also develop the characters. Simply plot-driven stories always risk falling over due to their weightedness in one direction. This is what happens to too many Cather tales. Granted, she does not fall into the caricaturization trap of a Flannery OíConnor nor a William Faulkner, yet her tales are not ripping good yarns, nor are they particularly insightful probes into a person, an event, or a psyche amidst a crisis. They do read as a document of a time and place, though, and as such, perhaps, the best way to describe a Cather tale is to call it travelogue writing. Her endings also are tinged with a Horatio Algerian quality that, to me, at least, does not welcome re-reading. Her tales tell me, ĎWeíre safe and tucked in now, thanks for stopping by.í
This may seem to some like I am suggesting Cather was a pre-PC PC Elitist. No, sheís not. Perhaps the nearest analogue I can think of, of those writers Iíve read, is she is to the Midwest what Eudora Welty was to the South. Both are more concerned with the neatness and aura of their talesí settings, than in anything that occurs within those bounds. In looking about for some othersí analysis of Catherís writing I see that most critics tend to see Cather in her tales, mostly her novels, for her short stories are considered a minor part of her oeuvre, yet I think that is a mistake, unless one is to believe Cather, a newspaper reporter, was a very introverted, unobtrusive sort. Her characters are pallid, and I know, as perhaps a third of my fictive characters have aspects of myself, that itís nearly impossible to not Ďinhabití a character that resembles you. This is not a criticism, just a statement. I could be wring, but then I would have to ponder Catherís psychology from a Freudian point of view, and that basically is an abnegation of the text, therefore fairly worthless in speaking of the strengths and weaknesses of Catherís tales.
This is not to imply that Cather did not try to limn characters manifestly not herself- she did, in such tales as Paulís Case and The Sculptorís Funeral- stories that feature male homosexual artistes (she was a lesbian), but taken as a whole Catherís characters are a remarkably impassive lot, and nothing reflects that better than their conversations- stilted, unnatural- which seem to be a staple of older writers; certainly those pre-1950. There are other writers whose name brand rests primarily on their longer novels than their short stories- such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Herman Melville- and Cather is the only one of that lot whose longer works Iíve not read, so it will be interesting, once I get around to the longer works, to see if the Ďstraightjacketingí I feel in her short stories is also present in those works, or do her novel characters Ďrealizeí with the added length their tales have to tell? If they do, I wonder if thatís a consequence of the form, or the fact that about 70% of her short stories were written and published before her first novel was. My guess would be the formís dictates as Catherís short stories herein span a third of a century, with little change in tone or approach.
Interestingly, Cather seemed to acknowledge her lack of skill in the form by actively downplaying her short fiction and proclaiming herself a Ďnovelistí first- to the point of actually refusing to allow many of her short stories, some collected in this book, to be anthologized or republished in her lifetime. Notice that Iíve not selected a single selection to portray her prose. This is because not a single piece of it moved me greatly, one way or the other, and that there is sort of a uniformity to her prose, which allows a reader to read any reasonably sized paragraph of hers, and be able to extrapolate her whole world from it. This is an observation, and could be both a good and bad thing. I think it just is, for Cather is a remarkably static writer, and in reading through the Great Short Works Of Willa Cather I was taken not by any of the individuated works, but by the cadences of the writings, and their themes and mileuxÖ.Hmm? Where did I read that before?
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