Monday, May 15, 2017
Willa Cather: YOUTH AND THE BRIGHT MEDUSA, Pt. 1
Youth and the Bright Medusa
The title is a bit deceptive, for it isn't just about youth. The eight short stories feature artists, or those who are closely connected in some way to artists, in several of the arts. The stories begin with those who are just beginning their careers in the arts while subsequent tales are of older artists until the end when the last couple of tales feature death, either of the artist or of someone closely connected to an artist.
The two artists in this tale are Eden Bower and Don Hedger. They are early in their careers, she a singer and he a painter, and they live on the same floor in an old apartment house. Nature does as expected when two young and unattached people live next door. However, all does not go smoothly for they have differing ideas and goals in mind. As a singer, she courts her audience and, seeks to please them by giving them what they want. She assumes that Don feels the same way and arranges appointments with a very popular painter and also an art broker who has been very successful in marketing the work of other artists. His reaction is not what she expected.
"'I know exactly what it's like,' he said impatiently. 'A very good department-store conception of a studio. It's one of the show places.'
'Well, it's gorgeous, and he said I could bring you to see him. The boys tell me he's awfully kind about giving people a lift, and you might get something out of it.'
Hedger started up and pushed his canvas out of the way. 'What could I possibly get from Burton Ives? He's almost the worst painter in the world; the stupidest, I mean.'"
Hedger then explains: "'. . . I work to please nobody but myself.'
'You mean you cold make money and don't'? That you don't try to get a public?'
'Exactly. A public only wants what has been done over and over. I'm painting for painters,--who haven't been born.'"
Two different worlds. . .
"The Diamond Mine"
The diamond mine of the title is not a place, but a person. The narrator of the tale tells us--
"Only a few days before, when I was lunching with some friends at Sherry's, I had seen Jerome Brown come in with several younger men, looking so pleased and prosperous that I exclaimed upon it.
'His affairs,' some one explained, 'are looking up. He's going to marry Cressida Garnet. Nobody believed it at first, but since she confirms it he's getting all sorts of credit. That woman's a damned diamond mine.'"
And Jerome Brown is not the only one who sees her that way. Unfortunately her family agrees: "The truth was that all the Garnets, and particularly her two sisters, were consumed by an habitual, bilious, unenterprising envy of Cressy."
And now after Cressy had struggled for twenty years to achieve her preeminent position among singers ". . . they expected Cressida to make them equal sharers in the finer rewards of her struggle."
And, Cressida hadn't any better luck with her four husbands, either.
"A Gold Slipper"
"Marshall McKann followed his wife and her friend Mrs. Post down the aisle and up the steps to the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall with an ill-concealed feeling of grievance. Heaven knew he never went to concerts, and to be mounted upon the stage in this fashion, as if he were a 'highbrow' from Sewickley, or some unfortunate with a musical wife, was ludicrous. A man went to concerts when he was courting, while he was a junior partner. When he became a person of substance he stopped this sort of nonsense."
This "sort of nonsense" happened to be a recital by Kitty Ayrshire. Since all tickets had been sold, McKann had decided the concert was off and made reservations on the train for New York City. Unfortunately for him, his wife's friend, a devoted admirer of Kitty Ayrshire, had found some available tickets on stage. He was trapped, but he would still have time, if there were no encores, to make his train.
As he was so close to her on stage, Kitty Ayrshire noticed he was unhappy and once caught him "yawning behind his hand." She soon realized there was little she could do to please him.
As it turned out, there was only one encore because she also had to be in New York that night. Of course, coincidences do happen in the real world, so it was inevitable that McKann discovered that he had to share a state-room with Kitty Ayrshire.
It was a strangest journey McKann had ever taken, for Kitty Ayrshire had noticed his displeasure during her performance and she wanted to know just what made him unhappy. The ensuing conversation reveals that the McKanns of the world are insensitive to anything that goes beyond the practical and the profitable. All the arts, including singing, happen to be just so much nonsense, a waste of time. Since he has no appreciation for the "fluffy-ruffles people" and what they do, he assumes that those who claim to appreciate the arts, music for example, really know nothing about music and only claim to enjoy it because "it's the proper thing to do." But, he is a "hard-headed business man" and has no interest in such nonsense. And he maintained his opinion throughout their conversation.
But, he may not be as hard-headed as he thinks he is.
This story and "A Gold Slipper" are a bit unusual, for they both feature Kitty Ayrshire. The other six have no characters in common.
Kitty has a protege, one whose career she is attempting to promote. One day he comes to her and says he has a chance to perform at a house party for a rich businessman, but only if she will agree to accompany him. As it is an excellent opportunity to become known among the wealthy in NY, Kitty agrees, even though she normally does not perform at private parties. When she arrives, she finds that the people treat her very familiarly, as if they are all well acquainted with her, though she knows none of them. As the performance and the evening progress, she begins to feel trapped, and she wonders if she even will be allowed to leave. Finally, almost panic-stricken, she runs from the house and the strangely-acting company.
It is only some time later, that a friend tells her of a story from several years ago, that supposedly involved the business man and her.
This story is more about the way fans or admirers seem to believe they own in some way a performer or a celebrity. Because of this sense of ownership, they feel they can use a performer or celebrity to enhance their own stature and position among others, even to the extent of stealing their identities. They have no concern about the effect their behavior will have on their victims.
To be continued . . .