Youth and the Bright Medusa
These are the last two stories in the collection.
"The Sculptor's Funeral"
Prophets are not honored in their home towns and, so it seems, it is also true about sculptors. Harvey Merrick, a highly respected award-winning sculptor, has died. His body is brought back from the East to the small town in Kansas where he was born and raised. His coffin is accompanied by Steavens, one of Merrick's students. They are met at the station by a group of townspeople who take the coffin to the Merrick home.
Steavens is shocked by Merrick's family, especially the mother. However, the father utters what must be the understatement of the century: "He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child, and the kindest of 'em all--only we didn't none of us ever understand him."
Later, Steavens joins the townspeople and is dismayed by the way they talk about Merrick. He was a failure, a disappointment to them all, as they jokingly and gleefully and maliciously recounted his life there as a child. He never paid attention to where he was, always daydreaming, he wasted his father's money on book learning, he drank too much, One "mourner" commented, "'Where the old man made his mistake was in sending that boy East to school,' said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone. 'There was when he got his head full of nonsense. What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.'"
Yet, there is one there who speaks up for Merrick and utters his own critique of the town and its inhabitants.
"It's not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he's been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City--upon which town may God have mercy!"
I think Marshall McKann, who appeared in Cather's "The Gold Slipper" would feel comfortable with these people.
"A Death in the Desert"
I found this story, the last in the collection, to be the most complex tale, even though it is far from being the longest. In Cather's "The Diamond Mine," the theme is the exploitation of the successful performer or artist by family, friends, and various parasites, as they selfishly use the performer to gain their own goals, be it psychological, emotional, or financial. This story, "A Death in the Desert," tells the other side of the story, the way that some performers use, abuse, and finally abandon those who aid them as they strove to achieve their goals, be it for the art itself, fame, or financial rewards..
Adriance Hilgarde is a well-known composer and concert performer. Everett is his younger brother who is cursed/blessed by his appearance: he resembles Adriance so closely that he can't go anywhere without being mistaken for him.
While stopping in Cheyenne, Wyoming on a business trip, Everette is mistaken for Adriance by Katharine, who becomes quite upset. The next morning her brother comes to apologize, and it is at this point that Everette recognizes Katharine whom he hasn't seen in many years. He had fallen in love with her when she was Adriance's student. Adriance considered her to be the most talented of his pupils, and shortly afterwards, they left for a concert tour which eventually took them to Europe, and that was the last time he saw her. Now, she was back, suffering from an incurable case of consumption (TB).
Although he has finished the business that brought him to Wyoming, he stays because "No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother's business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde's. It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother's imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten. He made no attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. "
It isn't that Adriance is an evil or malicious person: he is just so absorbed in himself that he never notices the way he uses those around him. When Everett writes him about Katharine, Adriance writes her a letter "full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship" Everett thought that the "letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted."
I wasn't sure until the very end as to who the protagonist was: there are three for which some argument could be made. The first, Everett Hilgarde, is the point-of-view (POV) character, and, most often, the POV is the main character. The second is Katharine Gaylord, and the title refers to her. The third, Adriance Hilgarde, is the link that brings Everett and Katharine together, once in the past and now once again. I would have to go with Adriance, even though he never appears, except through the memory of Everett and Katharine and that one letter.
In one sense, this is a variation of the popular plot referred to frequently as the eternal triangle (aka infernal triangle) in which A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A; only in this situation A loves B, B loves C, and C apparently loves C..
The story leaves some questions open: what does Everett think about his role, going about comforting those injured by his brother? What does he get out of it? Why are people so willing to be used by Adriance, even though they get nothing out of it? Or, do they?
It's a story to come back to again, perhaps after percolating deep down under for a year or so.