In January, I entered a scholarship contest offered by the Willa Cather Foundation. As part of the application, I was required to write a paper on a novel or three short stories written by Willa Cather. Being the procrastinator that I tend to be, I didn’t have time to read a whole novel, so picked up a book of short stories from the school library and read the first three I flipped to. I wrote the paper, sent in my application, and waited.
Then one Sunday afternoon I got a phone call from a gentleman named Virgil Albertini and he told me to sit down. Turns out I got first place and it’s kind of a big deal. I was invited to read my paper at the annual Willa Cather Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa Cather once lived. In fact, the presentation was to take place in the very room where Willa Cather gave her high school graduation speech.
It was a great experience and I met a whole bunch of Cather scholars who know infinitely more about her than I do. It was a bit intimidating, I’ll admit, since the only Cather stories I have read are the three I wrote the paper on. But I was honored to be there and felt pretty darn special.
And in case you want to read a paper about three obscure Willa Cather stories, here you go.
Lessons in Living: Success
“My dear, I have the most expensive luxury in the world…for I work to please nobody but myself.” (page 170). These words spoken by Don Hedger to Eden Bower in Coming, Eden Bower!, caught my attention when I read them and I have not been able to shake free of them since. Why this fascination with a few simple words? Allow me to explain.
My parents began reading to me at an early age and, consequently, words of all kinds have always held a certain, indescribable magic for me. As I grew, I discovered that I possess a wonderful gift, the ability to arrange words on paper in such a way so as to cause emotion and images to spring up from the forest of black ink that is set against the white paper. Writing is my passion, but at times I question whether I would really be allowed to make a decent living pursuing something that provides me with such great joy. Surely that wouldn’t be fair to the hundreds of men and women who slave away at jobs they hate in order to make ends meet for their families. Why should I be granted the extravagance of spending my days sculpting masterpieces out of vowels and consonants and earn a fat paycheck for it? Surely I couldn’t be successful doing the thing I love, could I? These are my fears.
A number of Willa Cather’s short stories detail the lives of characters who strive to find their niche in the world. An individual’s profession so defines him or her that it is clear why so many of Cather’s stories have main characters who question his or her chosen line of work. I find these stories timely as I look ahead to college and am faced with the imminent decision to choose a field to study and eventually enter into as part of the work force. The characters from the following works by Willa Cather have become to me role models for the upcoming stage in my life – they have taught me what is important in an occupation as well as what mistakes to avoid.
In Uncle Valentine, I was introduced to a young and vivacious composer named Valentine Ramsay. The narrator of the story speaks of Valentine glowingly but often alludes to a scandal surrounding the man. As I read on, I soon discovered that Valentine had been married to Janet Oglethorpe – thedaughter of a wealthy family – but had left her for another woman. In way of explanation for his indecent behavior, Valentine blames it on his former wife’s personality. He says, “I was dragged about the world for five years in an atmosphere of commonness and meanness and coarseness. I tell you I was paralyzed by a flood of trivial, vulgar nagging that poured over me and never stopped.” (page 13). He claims that because of the disposition of his wife, he was not able to compose music during the time that he was with her – so he ran off with another woman. While I do not condone infidelity, I can easily relate to Valentine’s desire to escape an oppressive situation. As an artist, all that he experienced affected the music that he wrote. With such a negative influence in his life, he did not feel that he was able to produce pieces of art that he could be proud of. Leaving his wife was just the first stage in his plan to reclaim his profession. The more important step he took was returning home to the place he loved. The narrator explains it thusly, “During the year he was with us he wrote all of the thirty-odd songs by which helives. Some artists profit by exile. He was one of those who do not.” (page 31). As I learned from Valentine’s story, an artist must first take care of himself if he wishes to create beautiful works of art. The less happy message within Uncle Valentine is that we ought to think hard about decisions before acting them out. If Valentine had not married Janet Oglethorpe, a woman who was an ill match for him all along, he would have saved himself a good deal of trouble and his eventual demise. In the end, he realized that he would always be connected by some unseen tie to the domineering woman he had once called his wife. This comprehension took its toll on its bearer. Everything we do will have far reaching – if sometimes unnoticed – affects on our lives. After Valentine fully understood the consequences of his foolish decisions, he wrote one final song: “the most beautiful and heart-breaking of all his songs…” (page 37) but he died an unhappy man. Accidents, tragedies, and regretted decisions can be turned into beautiful art. But is the price worth paying if we have the choice?
A much different character is presented in Willa Cather’s Ardessa. The title character works as a public relations manager for O’Mally, the owner of an up and coming magazine in New York City. She views herself as an indispensable asset to the operation. Yet despite her certainty, creeping doubts enter her mind: “What if O’Mally should die, and she were thrust out into the world to work in competition with the brazen competent women she saw about her everywhere?” (page 109). You see, while Ardessa views herself as essential to the company, she admits in a roundabout way that she possesses very few skills that could secure her employment. She states that the current position she holds is a “pearl among jobs,” (page 109) in that she is not required to exert herself too much to please her employer. This story served as a wakeup call for me. It reminds me that I would be excruciatingly miserable working at a job I do not find completely fascinating and satisfying. Ardessa’s tale also encourages me to focus on my studies and to hone my skills every chance I get so that I can be marketable and do not have to pass my days fretting about being able to secure a job in the future. Instead of wasting my time worrying, I should be taking action toimprove my circumstances. Ardessa is not the happiest of stories, but it contains valuable tidbits of wisdom, nonetheless.
Similar to Uncle Valentine, Willa Cather’s Coming, Eden Bower! follows a young artist through the struggles of inspiration and creation. The artist in question is a painter, Don Hedger. He scrapes by, earning enough money to rent a small apartment for himself and his dog, keep himself fed adequately, and buy modest clothing; and he holds an interesting view of what it means to be successful. As in his own words: “My dear, I have the most expensive luxury in the world…for I work to please nobody but myself.” (page 170). These words ease my anxiety about my future career. What does it matter if I haven’t the money to buy the latest and greatest cars or to eat at fancy restaurants on a regular basis? If I am allowed to create masterpieces of words, I should be satisfied, for that is the thing I truly love. Don Hedger, this painter who is unsuccessful in other’s eyes, has found the key to contentment. He creates to please himself and to do his creative faculties justice – not to impress the public. He claims that the “public only wants what has been done over and over.” (page 170). He refuses to sell-out and produce art that he considers second-rate, even if that second-rate work would earn him lavish amounts of money and fame to boot. Hedger chooses an impoverished existence because he believes that he holds within himself the ability to give life and breath to “an unborn art the world was waiting for…” (page 171). This desire to create something totally new compels him to pay more attention to his heart than to his wallet. In the end, this sort of living may leave you poor in monetary values, but it will certainly leave you exquisitely rich in joy and fulfillment, just ask Don Hedger.
All of Willa Cather’s stories have a unique lesson to teach the reader. The themes of success and contentment are present in Uncle Valentine, Ardessa, and Coming, Eden Bower!. Each of these stories taught me valuable lessons that I will carry with me as I head off to college and, eventually, onto a career. Uncle Valentine urged me to consider carefully the actions I choose to take and to weigh the consequences ahead of time. Ardessa had a sad lesson to teach: possessing a comfortable job does not alwaysguarantee happiness or success. In fact, if a job is too easy, perhaps it is time to find something more challenging or exciting. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Coming, Eden Bower! loaned me a new definition of success. Success can’t always be accurately measured in money. Don Hedger had the right idea when he chose to bypass fame in order to pursue his true passion: creating art unlike anything the world had ever seen. I am freshly inspired to begin creating art with words, thanks to Ms. Willa Cather.