Sunday, June 11, 2017

Willa Cather: Youth and the Bright Medusa, Pt. 3

Willa Cather
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 Hilgardeis 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. 


  1. The Sculptor's Funeral sounds intriguing. Sometimes people transcend their roots. Sometimes people just think that they do. I tend to like it when such things are explored in fiction.

    A Death in the Desert also sounds intriguing.

    1. Brian,

      Yes, intriguing is a good word. Both go beyond the usual and the expected theme of the trials and tribulations of young and innovative artists. It is about the effect of those artists on others.

      Henry James in an intro once wrote that stories should not be about an event but upon the effects on that event on others. For example, a story should not focus on the death of a person but upon the effect of that death on others.

      It's like throwing a pebble into a pond. The splash caused by the pebble lasts but a few seconds, but the ripples resulting from that go on far beyond the immediate area of the impact of that pebble.

  2. after reading this and the last post, i rather get the idea that WC is very good at seeing different types of personalities and describing them in an effective way... i admire that quality a lot and must look further into her work... tx for the intro...
    i really like the pebble in the pond analogy: my father use to use that as a metaphor for how the universe worked...

  3. Mudpuddle,

    I think you will enjoy her works, and don't forget her _Death Comes for the Archbishop_. It is my favorite.

    James went on to say that the task of the good writer was to know when to stop writing about those ripples, for they actually go on forever.