The Diamond Mine

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The Diamond Mine

Willa Cather 1916

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

Willa Cather’s short story “The Diamond Mine” was first published in McClure’s magazine in 1916, although it almost was not published at all. The story was a blatant, fictionalized account of the life of Lillian Nordica, an American soprano, and publishers feared a lawsuit. The story was reprinted four years later in the collection Youth and the Bright Medusa, which featured other stories about the lives of artists in the early twentieth century. At the time the story was written, the worldwide popularity of opera singers and other artists was increasing, and many stars, including women, were becoming rich and celebrated. However, as Cather illustrates with her opera singer, Cressida Garnet in “The Diamond Mine,” the money and success can inspire envy and hatred in an artist’s family and friends. This, along with the emotional toil inherent in a publicized art career, can drain a person. Critics have interpreted the story as a reinforcement of Cather’s belief that art should be done for art’s sake, and not for fame or money.

This art theme is prevalent in many of Cather’s other works, including three other stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa: “A Gold Slipper,” “Scandal,” and “Coming, Aphrodite!” In addition, “The Diamond Mine” is often compared to Cather’s novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), which also concerns an opera singer.

Although many critics have praised her stories that deal with artists, Cather is best-known for her stories about life on the Nebraska prairie, including her 1913 novel, O Pioneers! and One of Ours (1922), the latter of which earned the Pulitzer Prize. A current copy of “The Diamond Mine” can be found in Cather’s Collected Stories, published by Vintage Classics in 1992.

Author Biography

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. Her family resided in this state for the first decade of her life, then relocated to Red Cloud, Nebraska. It was not until her family’s move that Cather began attending school regularly. At this time in her life, she showed a keen interest in science and accompanied a local doctor on his house calls, eventually assisting him with his patients. Cather intended to become a physician when she grew up. During this time, she also made some decisive choices about her identity and adopted a masculine appearance and manner. She was also known to sign her name as “William Cather, Jr.,” or “William Cather M.D.”

In addition to her science and medical interests, Cather also displayed a talent for acting and writing. She often wrote plays and recitations to perform for her family’s entertainment. She also acted in amateur theatricals that were performed at the Red Cloud Opera House. Throughout Cather’s life, she would show an interest in all aspects of the arts.

In 1891, Cather began attending the University of Nebraska, where she excelled in language and literature. By her junior year, she took on editorship of the school’s literary journal. It was here that she began publishing some of her own short stories, and by the time she graduated, she had also become a full-time reporter and critic for the Nebraska State Journal. Shortly after graduating, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to become the editor of Home Monthly, a short-lived women’s magazine. She then moved to New York City and took over the managing editorship for McClure’s magazine, where she worked until 1912, and where she increased her literary reputation. Even after she left McClure ‘s, she maintained her relationship with the magazine and continued to publish her stories. In 1916, the magazine printed “The Diamond Mine,” the last story that she published in McClure’s. Four years later, in 1920, Cather included this story in the collection Youth and the Bright Medusa, which highlighted her interest in the arts.

In 1922, Cather received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel One of Ours. Besides her works that dealt with the lives of popular artists, Cather is acknowledged for her prairie tales like O, Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), both of which drew upon her background in rural Nebraska. Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, in New York City.

Plot Summary

The Voyage

“The Diamond Mine” begins when the narrator, Caroline, an old friend of the famous opera singer, Cressida Garnet, recounts the voyage where Cressida announced her fourth marriage, to Jerome Brown. When Cressida makes her first appearance, she displays the characteristic energy and attention to detail that have made her one of the most sought-after opera stars.

Caroline notes the presence of Miss Julia Garnet, Cressida’s fifty-year-old sister, and Cressida’s son, Horace, a bored young man of twenty-two. Caroline sees Miletus Poppas, Cressida’s Greek accompanist, and strikes up a conversation with him. Caroline and Poppas walk over to the deck chairs where Cressida is lounging, and she jumps up to greet Caroline. The two women walk to a different part of the ship, where they talk about her recent engagement to Jerome Brown. Cressida says that with the exception of her son—who Caroline secretly notes can be easily bought—nobody else is supporting the marriage.

Cressida’s Family

Caroline notes Poppas, Miss Julia, and Horace sitting in the deck chairs, and speculates how the latter two would hurt Cressida—the financial and emotional hand that feeds them—if they had the chance. Caroline thinks about the other Garnets in Cressida’s family, and how they try to capitalize on Cressida’s fame by putting on airs in their native Columbus, Ohio. Caroline also notices how their constant notes requesting money from Cressida strain the singer very much, and how their envy for her is so much that they want to be Cressida.

One evening on the voyage, Cressida talks to Caroline in more detail about Jerome Brown. At this point, Caroline briefly remembers Cressida’s first husband, Charley Wilton, an organist who died from tuberculosis. Wilton was Horace’s father and Caroline’s cousin. Cressida says that she’s marrying Brown because she has always been able to count on him, and he has never pushed her, unlike others have. They talk about Cressida’s family, who are jealous that the singer is the only talented one.

Cressida’s First Two Husbands

Caroline remembers meeting Cressida when they were both girls in Ohio, and starts thinking about Cressida’s past husbands, beginning with Wilton, who was her first music teacher. Her second husband, Ransome McChord, did not approve of Cressida’s close friendship with Poppas and forced her to choose between them; she chose Poppas. Their association has been mutually beneficial, as Poppas has helped her to develop her singing skill, while she has made Poppas a rich man in the process. This is a constant worry to the rest of the Garnets, who feel that Poppas is getting money that should be theirs.

Blasius Bouchalka

Caroline notes that it is Cressida’s stability and professionalism that win singing jobs, often over others who are more talented but difficult to deal with. Cressida only strayed from this strength of character once with Blasius Bouchalka. Caroline remembers back to the evening that she and Cressida first met Bouchalka, a Bohemian, when the two women were walking around New York and decided to stop for dinner at a restaurant. Bouchalka, the violinist and director of the restaurant’s orchestra, notices Cressida. He gives the orchestra a new, unusual composition to play and Cressida leaves him a card, thanking him for the wonderful performance.

The next week, Caroline visits Cressida and sees that Bouchalka has sent Cressida some of his music. Cressida invites Bouchalka over the following Sunday to one of her weekly gatherings, where he talks about his life of poverty. He eats some of Cressida’s muffins and cakes, and is surprised to find out that Cressida’s cook is from Bohemia as well. Bouchalka talks to Caroline about his music, but says that the publishers are biased and do not want Bohemian songs. Cressida pulls Bouchalka aside and talks with him at length, until he realizes that he is late for work at the restaurant, and rushes out. Several weeks later, after they have heard nothing from Bouchalka, the two women go back to the restaurant, where they find out that he was fired for being late. The two women are able to track him down, and after this, Cressida starts promoting his work at her concerts and to publishers.

Bouchalka gets sick, and Cressida and Caroline go check on him, finding him in a rundown board-inghouse, where Cressida comforts him. After he gets better, he starts seeing Cressida more frequently. He idolizes the singer, and for the first time in her life, she feels truly appreciated, and starts to want something more than the life of servitude that she has with her family. Cressida and Bouchalka are married later that year, and when they return from their honeymoon and her concerts abroad, Cressida is refreshed. She begins to lighten up a little and become a little more careless, although Caroline notes that this is good for her.

Bouchalka becomes enamored of the rich lifestyle he has married into, and people start to notice that he has lost his wildness and that his domestication has affected his artistic output. He is content to sit in the house, where he eats the various creations from Ruzenka, and puts on weight. He refuses to go on tour with Cressida, and it starts to take its toll on her. In an attempt to spark some life into their marriage, Cressida cancels a rehearsal for her Chicago concert and goes home to surprise Bouchalka. It is a surprise, as she finds him in bed with Ruzenka, the Bohemian chef, who is sent away the next morning.

Bouchalka is not too far behind. When Cressida returns from her Chicago engagement, she stays in a hotel while the divorce papers are drawn up. Meanwhile, Bouchalka goes to see Cressida, miserable. He had been drunk the night he slept with Ruzenka, and he says that he wishes Cressida could forgive him, as he would her if she ever slept with Poppas while on the road. At this point, Caroline cuts him off, and he admits that he knows Cressida would never betray him that way.

Cressida’s Death

Caroline finally remembers Cressida’s last husband, Jerome Brown, who did the most damage to the singer. Brown is a financier who insists on investing Cressida’s money in a number of unsuccessful ventures. Although Cressida tries to inquire about these investments, Brown does not give her any details, and the strain starts to take its toll on the singer, who is distraught when she finds out that she needs to put a mortgage on her house. Cressida had never worried about earning money before, but at this point decides to go to England for a special money-raising tour. She returns on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic but, unlike past voyages, her lodgings on the ship are modest, and located in the lower decks. Caroline notes that Cressida was ill and apparently never left her cabin as the ship was going down.

Following Cressida’s death, Caroline and Cressida’s lawyer, Henry Gilbert, are named the executors of the singer’s will. Since Brown has invested most of the fortune away, there is not much left to divide. Still, Poppas gets a third of the money, which Jerome Brown and the Garnets contest, unsuccessfully. Caroline notes by the letters from Brown and Cressida’s relatives that none of them realized that the fortune they had enjoyed had come from one woman, instead treating her like a natural diamond mine that would continually provide them with wealth. Caroline further notes how Cressida’s family went through the singer’s house floor by floor, squabbling over who should get the smallest item, and that this squabbling continued long after Cressida’s death. Caroline writes to Poppas, who has retired in Asia, of these horrors.


Blasius Bouchalka

Blasius Bouchalka is Cressida’s third husband, who cheats on her with Cressida’s chef, Ruzenka. A poor Bohemian musician, Cressida is drawn to his wildness when she first sees him in a restaurant leading an orchestra. Bouchalka grew up in a monastery in Bohemia and has been poor for most of his life, eking out a living with his music wherever he can. He has only been in New York for a year when he meets Cressida, with whom he becomes enamored. For her part, Cressida is also interested and helps to nurse him when he is sick. She supports him financially and professionally when he is well.

After Bouchalka and Cressida get married, he starts to become complacent and loses the wildness that drew Cressida to him. He prefers to sit in Cressida’s house, eating all of the luscious Bohemian creations that Ruzenka whips up for him. As a result, he starts to put on weight and loses his motivation to publish his music. In addition, he does not like to travel so Cressida ends up going on most of her tours alone. In the middle of one tour, however, she makes a surprise visit home to see Bouchalka, where she finds him drunk and in bed with Ruzenka. Cressida files for divorce shortly thereafter, although she does provide Bouchalka with a settlement to help him survive. Bouchalka comes to see Carrie, and tells her that it was only a matter of time because he was born to be miserable. After the divorce is final, he leaves to go home to his native Bohemia.

Jerome Brown

Jerome Brown is Cressida Garnet’s fourth and final husband, and the one who ages her the most. At the beginning of the story, Cressida is about to marry Brown, who she says has always been there for support, and who has never asked her for anything. This aspect changes after they are married. Brown, a financier, proceeds to make several bad investments and drains the Garnet fortune. It is because of this that Cressida schedules the fateful money-raising tour in England, where she dies on returning when her ship, the Titanic, sinks. Jerome joins the Garnets in contesting Cressida’s will and squabbles over her possessions.


Caroline is the narrator, and one of Cressida’s few trusted friends. Caroline, or “Carrie,” as Cressida refers to her, tells Cressida’s story mostly through flashback, starting with a voyage just before Cressida’s marriage to Jerome Brown, then discussing all of the singer’s past husbands, and finally coming back to the marriage to Brown. Caroline is distraught to hear about the marriage to Brown, since she has seen how Cressida’s family and even some of her marriages have drained the singer of financial and emotional resources. Caroline met Cressida when they were kids in school in their native Columbus, Ohio. Cressida’s first husband, Charley Wilton, was Caroline’s cousin.

Caroline is one of the few people who tries to warn Cressida about the draining effect that her family is having on the singer. She speculates in her narration that some of the family are so envious of Cressida that they would rejoice over her death and notes that the only person who supports her various marriages is Cressida’s son, Horace, whose affections can be easily bought. During the story, Caroline is the one who is most often with Cressida on her days when she is not singing. Caroline is present at a number of the important events in Cressida’s life, such as when she meets Blasius Bouchalka. The Garnet family is not all that fond of Caroline and are even less fond of her when she is appointed as one of the co-executors of Cressida’s will and defeats the family’s challenge to it.


See Caroline


See Cressida Garnet

Cressida Garnet

Cressida Garnet is a famous concert singer—known for her seemingly inexhaustible energy and professionalism—who spends her entire life providing for others and eventually dies on the Titanic. As a girl in Columbus, Ohio, she befriends Caroline, who narrates Cressida’s story and who is one of Cressida’s only friends. Caroline tries to warn Cressida about her destructively needy family.

Cressida’s first husband, Charley Wilton, is a frail but passionate organist who is also Caroline’s cousin. Wilton dies from tuberculosis after they are married a year, but not before he and Cressida have a son, Horace. None of Cressida’s other three marriages, which compose the bulk of Caroline’s tale, brings her much more comfort. Her second husband, Ransome McChord, cannot tolerate Cressida’s close friendship with Miletus Poppas, her accompanist and confidant, and so Cressida is forced to choose between them. She chooses Poppas, who has also helped to make Cressida into the star she is. Of course, with the huge fees that she pays Poppas, it has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

Cressida’s third marriage, to Blasius Bouchalka, a poor Bohemian musician, starts out well. He is a passionate artist, and she is drawn to his wildness. However, after he realizes he does not have to fight for his food anymore, he becomes complacent and stops creating, choosing instead to sit and eat the food of the Bohemian chef, Ruzenka. After Cressida finds the two in bed, both are sent away.

Cressida’s final marriage, to a financier named Jerome Brown, is the most draining. He gambles away most of her fortune on bad investments, which also drains her emotionally. Although she has never worried about money in the past, she does now, and decides to stage a special money-raising tour in England. However, she chooses to return to the United States on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and does not survive when the ship sinks. After she is dead, Brown and her family fight over her inheritance and try to block her wish to give Poppas a third of her remaining fortune. With the help of Henry Gilbert, another of Cressida’s childhood friends, Caroline is able to defeat this challenge.

Miss Georgie Garnet

Miss Georgie Garnet is one of Cressida’s two sisters, who is aggressive and intrusive; when Cressida dies, she and Julia fight over Cressida’s jewels and gowns.

Horace Garnet

Horace Garnet is Cressida’s only son, from her first marriage to Charley Wilton. Horace is twenty-two, bored, and like all the Garnets, envies his mother’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. As Caroline notes, Horace’s affections can be bought, and as such, he is the only one who supports her last marriage to Jerome Brown. However, he is one of the many Garnets who fights over Cressida’s possessions after she is dead.

Miss Julia Garnet

Miss Julia Garnet is one of Cressida’s two sisters, who does not appreciate the wealth that “Cressy” provides the family; when Cressida dies, she and Julia fight over Cressida’s jewels and gowns.

Henry Gilbert

Henry Gilbert is Cressida’s lawyer and a trusted friend from her youth who acts as co-executor of Cressida’s will, along with Caroline. He successfully fights Jerome Brown and the Garnets when they contest the will.

Ransome McChord

Ransome McChord is Cressida’s second husband, a wealthy businessman who does not approve of her close friendship with Poppas; when he forces Cressida to make a choice, she chooses Poppas.

Miletus Poppas

Miletus Poppas is the Greek accompanist and right-hand man of Cressida Garnet. He has helped transform Cressida into an accomplished artist and, as such, is frequently by her side. This intimate relationship makes Cressida’s second husband, Ransome McChord, jealous, and he forces Cressida to choose between them. She chooses Poppas, who is her confidant in both professional and personal matters. Poppas becomes rich from the retaining fee and percentage of Cressida’s salary that he receives.

This arrangement is a constant concern to the other Garnets, who feel that Poppas is cutting into their money. They also use the fact that Poppas caused the break between McChord and Cressida as a manipulative tool, saying that it has put a stain on the family’s reputation. Still, as much as they dislike the man, they realize that he is an asset to Cressida’s career, and as such have made an uneasy peace with him. Poppas suffers from a facial neuralgia, a type of nervous disorder that flares up in certain damp climates, and he talks in the beginning of the story about moving to the drier climate of Asia when he retires—which he does at the end of the story after Cressida dies.


Ruzenka, whose name means “little Rose,” is Cressida’s Bohemian chef, whom Cressida catches sleeping with her husband, Blasius Bouchalka; Ruzenka is sent away the next morning.

Charley Wilton

Charley Wilton was Cressida’s first music teacher in Columbus, Ohio, her first husband, and the father of Horace. Wilton, who has studied music abroad, is a passionate organist with a weak constitution, which manifests itself in his fatal case of tuberculosis. Out of all of Cressida’s husbands, she loved him the most, but they were only married for a year before he died.


High Art

In many of her works, Cather explored what it meant to be an artist in the twentieth century. In works like “The Diamond Mine,” Cather expresses one of her main views, that “high art,” art that is done for the art’s sake and not for money or fame, was the only type of art that could lead to a happy success. Throughout this story, the author plays with that idea. Cressida Garnet is a rich and famous artist, but she is also miserable. At the beginning of the story, she has “just announced her intention of marrying a fourth time,” since none of her previous marriages have worked out. Cressida is not meant to find love that lasts, because when it comes down to it, most of her relationships are with people who do not love her; they love the idea of her fame or money, or they love having access to these resources.

Her last marriage gives Cressida “the worst” of her husbands. Jerome Brown, a financier who uses Cressida’s money to make a number of bad investments and forces the opera singer to grow “rapidly older.” In the end, this marriage is fatal, as Cressida tries to fix her husband’s financial woes by doing a special concert. Cather places Cressida on the Titanic, where she is one of the many casualties. “She had been ill,” says the narrator, and when the ship went down she apparently “never left her cabin.” The strain of trying to pursue a career as a world-renowned opera singer has been increased by the extra strain that her husband puts on Cressida’s finances and vitality. In the end, Cather suggests that an artist must pursue art for its own sake, or else face a potentially tragic end.


Until the strain of trying to undo Jerome Brown’s mistakes saps her strength, Cressida is known as somebody with “a seemingly exhaustless vitality,” which, along with her “certain ‘squareness’ of

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the life of a modern celebrity whom you admire or have admired in the past, and compare this person’s experiences with those of Cressida Garnet from the story. Imagine that Cressida has the opportunity to travel to our time, to spend a day observing modern culture. Assume the identity of your modern-day celebrity and write a time-traveling letter to Cressida, apprising her of how the roles and lifestyles of celebrities have changed in the last century.
  • Pick a field—artistic or otherwise—in which you would like to be “celebrated.” Research what it takes to become famous in this field and read several interviews with representative celebrities. Use your findings to craft your own hypothetical interview for a major newspaper or magazine, in which the interviewer details your various successes and prompts you to tell his or her readers how you got there.
  • In the early twentieth century, opera stars like Lillian Nordica, the real-life inspiration for Cressida Garnet, achieved international fame. Research the status of opera today, then read a modern opera of your choosing. Write a three-page paper discussing what the opera is about, how it fits into modern opera, and what you like or dislike about opera in general.
  • In the story, Cressida extols the virtues of advertising, which was a relatively new field at the time. Research the types of advertising that were used in the 1900s or 1910s. Choose one representative medium and style and use them to create an advertisement for a modern-day product or service.
  • In an attempt to save money, Cressida books a modest room on the Titanic, even though she has traveled in style on all of her other journeys. Research the Titanic’s layout and design and discuss what it meant to travel “in style” on the maiden voyage, including a description of the accommodations, the types of food, and any other amenities that upper-class passengers received.
  • Cressida has many ill-fated marriages in the story. Based on the character’s gender and social status, research social and cultural trends of the time and discuss how society would have viewed this aspect of her life. Using your findings, write a short obituary for Cressida—focusing on her marriages and any other aspects you feel are relevant.

character as well as of mind,” gives her higher than normal earning powers. As the narrator notes, it is Cressida’s vitality that gives her the strength to be the ultimate professional, and which has led to her success. “Managers chose her over the heads of singers much more gifted, because she was so sane, so conscientious, and above all, because she was so sure.”

Her vitality is something that no other members of her family have. When Cressida is talking with her son, Horace, “about his losses at bridge,” and “begging him to keep away from the cardroom,” he responds by letting her know that he is bored and there is nothing else to do. Cressida, who has so much vitality that she is never bored, tries to motivate her son: “If I were twenty-two, and a boy, with some one to back me—” Her son does not want to hear it, however, because, as he tells her, “Oh, I’ve not your energy, Mother dear. We make no secret of that.” The “we” refers to Cressida’s family, which is one of the biggest drains on her vitality.

Family Relations

Cressida’s success has not come easily, even though she does have a lot of spirit. “Everything but her driving power Cressida had to get from the outside,” says the narrator, when describing how the singer started her career. She has had to work hard to make it in a tough industry, and she has received very little support from her family in the process. In fact, all of the family members expect Cressida to support them. As Cressida notes, they “feel that I carried off the family success, just as I might have carried off the family silver.” Because of this view, the whole family depends on Cressida. In fact, when the narrator first introduces two of Cressida’s family members, she calls them “two of the factors in Cressida’s destiny.”

The family depends on Cressida for both money and vitality. For the money, the family is constantly requesting that Cressida send them funds. As a result, she has to devote some of her energies to sending letters addressing these requests. As the narrator notes, “Such letters they were! The writing of a tired, over-driven woman; promising money, sending money herewith, asking for an acknowledgment of the draft sent last month, etc.” The family bombards her with these requests because, as the narrator notes after Cressida’s death, “It never seemed to occur to them that this golden stream, whether it rushed or whether it trickled, came out of the industry, out of the mortal body of a woman.”

The family is also dependent upon Cressida for their own vitality. “They were waiting, in constrained immobility, for Cressida to descend and reanimate them,—will them to do or to be something,” says the narrator, of some of the family members on the ship. The narrator tries to get Cressida to see that her family is a drain, at one point, citing that Cressida’s depression on one voyage might be from her sister, Julia, instead of the “sea air,” as Cressida assumes. To this, Cressida responds, “But it was Julia’s turn. I can’t come alone, and they’ve grown to expect it. They haven’t, either of them, much else to expect.”

And yet, even though the family has come to depend upon Cressida as a lifeline for both money and energy, they also hate Cressida for having the qualities and success they do not, and may secretly wish for her downfall. As the narrator notes, “If they could have their will, what would they do with the generous, credulous creature who nourished them, I wondered? How deep a humiliation would each egotism exact?” The narrator notes that they would not try to harm her physically, but that if they were somehow giving access to “the fire at which she warmed herself. . . which kept her going” they would most likely stamp it out, “with the whole Garnet pack behind them to make extinction sure.”



When a reader picks up Cather’s story, he or she might expect that it is about an actual diamond mine. However, as the narrator illustrates, the title is a metaphor, a figure of speech that is used to represent something else. This metaphor is explained a few paragraphs into the story, when the narrator overhears someone say of the opera singer, “That woman’s a diamond mine.” The narrator, who is “an old friend of Cressida Garnet,” is “sorry to hear that mining operations were to be begun again.” When the narrator says this, she further explains what the metaphor means, illustrating that in the mind of the public and Cressida’s own family, the opera singer is not a woman. Instead, she is an object, which can and will be “mined,” stripping away Cressida’s energy, money, and ultimately her life itself. This is not the only metaphor used to describe the opera singer. When the narrator is talking about Poppas, she says that he was the only one of the group “who understood the sources of her fortune,” a fact that Cressida’s family knows, so consequently, he is the only one who is able “to proclaim sanctuary for the goose that laid the golden eggs.”


“The Diamond Mine” is a little confusing, because it does not follow a straight chronological pattern. The story starts out on a ship, when the narrator notes, “I first became aware that Cressida Garnet was on board when I saw young men with cameras going up to the boat deck.” This opening immediately gives the setting of the story, or so the reader believes. But after the first paragraph, the narrator jumps back to “a few days before, when I was lunching with some friends at Sherry’s.” The narrator refers to this lunch so that she can get the “diamond mine” reference in there that she has overheard, but then she wanders in her thoughts about Jerome Brown. In the next paragraph, she says, “I had been away from New York and had not seen Cressida for a year; now I paused on the gangplank.” The “now” and “gangplank” put the action back on the boat, but the style that the narrator has used thus far, jumping back and forth in time within a few paragraphs, mimics the pattern she uses to narrate the rest of the tale.

However, as the narrator gets into the main portion of the story, when she is talking about each of Cressida’s husbands in turn, the tale takes on a roughly chronological pattern. Even so, the jumpiness that the narrator uses in the beginning part of the tale has served an important function—it helps to underscore for the reader the manic pace of Cressida’s life in the high-pressured and high-profile world of opera music. If the narrator were to go simply from beginning to end, the story would not have as much narrative tension. Also, disorienting the reader a little in the beginning helps to hide the surprise at the end of the story, when Cressida goes down on the Titanic.

At this point, the narrator has been discussing Cressida’s fourth husband, Jerome Brown, and how his bad business deals have forced Cressida to do a special concert in England, “where she could always raise money from a faithful public.” As the narrator continues, the reader does not suspect what is about to happen because the story is still roughly chronological, and the reader has gotten used to the pattern by now. The next line, however, catapults the story into the future: “When she sailed, her friends knew that her husband’s affairs were in a bad way; but we did not know how bad until after Cressida’s death.” One minute, Cressida is preparing for her journey, then suddenly, the narrative is looking back “after her death.” The next line clarifies what happened. “Cressida Garnet, as all the world knows, was lost on the Titanic.” The narrator once again springs a time change on the reader, but this time, it is the ultimate payoff.


When an author employs a fluid framework for a story, in which the narrative frequently jumps around in time, passages that foreshadow or hint at the future are often not noticed by the reader’s consciousness. For example, in the first part of the story, the narrator is talking to Cressida on a ship, but as she talks to her, the narrator gives a lot of background detail for the reader, going back in time to talk about other events, when necessary.

After the narrator has finished telling the reader about Cressida’s first marriage and giving background on Poppas and his role in the singer’s career, the narrator brings the action back to the present, when she says, “It was of Bouchalka that we talked upon that last voyage I ever made with Cressida Garnet, and not of Jerome Brown.” The story has started off on the ship, discussing the upcoming marriage to Jerome Brown. Now, as the two women talk, the narrator lets the reader know that she is about to jump into the past again to talk about Blasius Bouchalka, Cressida’s third and most recent husband. However, the narrator also slips in the phrase “last voyage.” These two words have a very ominous sound to them, and indeed, they do foreshadow the fact that Cressida is going to die. But this message gets buried somewhat, when the narrator suddenly starts talking about Cressida’s marriage to Bouchalka.

Historical Context

Music in the Early Twentieth Century

In the first decade of the twentieth century in the United States, music was an expanding industry. Popular music came in many different forms, including ballads, ragtime, the blues, and show tunes, and Americans from all walks of life experienced it. Companies producing sheet music, instruments, phonographs, and other types of musical accessories found a huge demand for their products. Classical music was also finding an audience with Americans, due to the increasing number of symphony orchestras nationwide and the growth of the recording industry. At the same time, popular singers, like Lillian Nordica, were becoming international stars as a result of their performances.

Lillian Nordica

As James Woodress noted in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, “The Diamond Mine” “is based on the life of Lillian Nordica, whose last husband, George Young, is very thinly disguised in the story as the unscrupulous, mercenary character Jerome Brown.” Everybody knew this fact, and Young threatened to sue, but “never followed through,” as Woodress noted. Like Cressida Garnet in the story, Lillian Nordica, was known both for her strong voice and her engaging performances. Nordica studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and also in Milan. Nordica spent an extended time—from 1895 to 1909-—singing at the Metropolitan Opera, just as Cressida spent several years there. The Metropolitan Opera Association was the leading opera company in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the company’s “Golden Age.” While Nordica died after her 1913 farewell tour, from complications of pneumonia, in the story, Cressida dies when the Titanic goes down in 1912.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1910s: The music industry continues to grow, as an increasing number of Americans buy record players and listen to recorded music from their favorite musical stars.

    Today: The music recording and publishing industry is threatened by the new MP3 file format, which stores music in a digital form. MP3 files can be downloaded from the Internet and played on various types of players. The Recording Industry Association of America, a music industry trade group, tries unsuccessfully to ban the use of some MP3 players.

  • 1910s: The lives of American celebrities like Lillian Nordica become increasingly more in the spotlight. Some stars appreciate the free publicity, as it helps to boost their star power.

    Today: Many public figures feel harrassed by paparazzi, a group of reporters who try to get pictures of celebrities by following them around everywhere. Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the world’s biggest celebrities, is killed in a car crash on August 31, 1997. One of the alleged causes of the accident is the paparazzi—who apparently chased Princess Diana’s car on motorbikes in an attempt to get some pictures.

  • 1910s: The luxury liner Titanic hits an iceberg on its maiden voyage, causing it to sink into the ocean a little more than two hours later, taking 1,500 people with it.

    Today: Frequently millions of dollars are spent on the production of a motion picture, including the cost of research, set design and construction, and special effects. At the time of release, James Cameron’s internationally successful film Titanic (1997) is the most expensive film ever made, with a cost of approximately $200 million. It incorporates the latest information about how the ship actually sank. The film uses the excavation of the ship as a narrative framework for telling the tragic, fictional tale of Rose, an aristocratic woman about to be married, and Jack, a poor artist with whom she falls in love.


The largest ship of its time, the Titanic was 882.5 feet long and 92.5 feet wide with a total carrying capacity of 46,329 tons. The Titanic’s maiden voyage departed from England on April 10, 1912, and was scheduled to arrive in New York. Cather’s choice to place Cressida on the Titanic is historically believable, since many famous and prominent people from Europe, Britain, and the United States were on board for the maiden voyage.

Just a few minutes before midnight on April 14, the ship struck a partially submerged iceberg in the North Atlantic waters. Immediately after the incident, the Titanic began broadcasting distress signals. After a short period of time, crewmen of the ship also begin firing rockets in hopes of attracting the attention of any nearby ships for assistance. However, the closest ship, the Californian, did not receive the distress signals. The next closest ship, the Carpathia, did catch Titanic’s distress signal but was fifty-six miles away. It took over three hours for the ship to reach the Titanic and give assistance. By the time the Carpathia reached the sinking ship, it had become too late for many. Around 1,500, of the more than 2,000 passengers and ship personnel, died. Due to the hype of the ship itself, its maiden voyage, and the notable passengers on board, the disaster received worldwide attention, and remains one of the most famous disasters in the twentieth century.

Critical Overview

Cather’s story, “The Diamond Mine,” almost did not see publication. In his book, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, published in 1987, James Woodress noted that the author’s agent “had a little trouble selling it.” H. L. Mencken, one of the influential figures in American letters at the time, had considered the story for publication in his collection, The Smart Set, but “he was afraid that the story, which is based on the career of Lillian Nordica, American soprano, would open him to a libel suit,” Woodress said. Other publishers had the same concern. The story was eventually published in McClure’s magazine in 1916, where, Woodress noted, it was “her last appearance in the magazine she once had edited.”

However, many critics did not review the story until 1920 when it was reprinted in Cather’s story collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa. At this point, reviewers generally favored the collection, starting with Mencken himself, who said that “one finds in every line of her writing a sure-footed and civilized culture; it gives her an odd air of foreignness, particularly when she discusses music, which is often.” The overwhelming majority of critics have followed Mencken’s lead in discussing the artistic theme of the story. In the same year, Blanche Colton Williams noted that “the tales are the work of an artist sensitive to the rhythm of prose; significantly . . . they are about musicians.”

The New York Times Book Review noted of “The Diamond Mine” specifically, that with her “word portraits,” Cather has the ability to “bottle up in a paragraph the essence of a character.” In fact, one of the few negative reviews from 1920 was that of Orlo Williams, who reviewed Youth and the Bright Medusa in Athenaeum, and noted that “her longest story, ‘The Diamond Mine,’ is a truly fine idea, but quite inadequately carried out.” Orlo Williams was not the only one who commented on the story’s length. Blanche Colton Williams called the story, “a condensed novel.”

In the next two years, 1921 and 1922, critics continued to praise both Youth and the Bright Medusa and “The Diamond Mine.” Sinclair Lewis called the collection a “golden book,” while Francis Hackett of the New Republic noted how, in the story, “the ironies of the artistic temperament are scrutinized ... in Blasius Bouchelka, Cressida’s wild-eyed husband who becomes tame and fat in prosperity.” Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in the Yale Review, focused on Cressida Garnet’s plight of being the successful sister who is envied and hated by the family, and noted that this was a relatively new topic, “since the woman successful and prosperous by her own efforts is rather new to the world.” She also remarked that this subject is “full of pathos” and that the story “is deeply pathetic from the beginning to the end.”

Since the 1920s, both the collection and the short story have stood the test of time, with mainly positive reviews. However, in 1951, in his The Modern Novel in America, 1900–1950, Frederick J. Hoffman stated that the story collection “has cost Miss Cather too much effort to summon her people from the void,” and that “they appear less like human beings ... than like pale unfeatured silhouettes.” This is by far the minority viewpoint, since most critics in the last half of the twentieth century loved the collection and the short story. In her 1970 essay, “Reflections on Willa Cather,” Katherine Ann Porter noted that both of Cather’s short story collections “live still with morning freshness in my memory,” while Woodress called it “an excellent work.”

The art theme is still present in modern criticism about both the book and the story. As R. M. Robertson noted in 1990 in his essay in Criticism, “This book, like all her books, comes out in favor of high Art as the best means of countering the money-grubbing and the pointless taylorism that rules the modern world Willa Cather saw.” In 2000, Janis P. Stout, in her book, Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, discussed the “woman artist’s relation to her family and the emotionally draining nature of her work.” Stout considered “the bitterness with which the issue is presented” in the story, and wondered “to what extent [Cather] felt herself estranged from or even used by her own family.” Stout also noted Cressida’s hard work and determination in “The Diamond Mine,” and said that “it is a powerful statement of what is entailed by a sense of artistic vocation.”


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Cressida Garnet’s inability to have a successful marriage in Cather’s story.

In his 1990 essay, “Disinterring the ‘Scandal’ of Willa Cather: Youth and the Bright Medusa,” in Criticism, R. M. Robertson noted that Cather’s short story collection, “like all her books, comes out in favor of high Art as the best means of countering the money-grubbing ... that rules the modern world Willa Cather saw.” To Cather, art should be practiced for art’s sake alone, not for money or fame. In stories where the author did depict rich and successful artists, events rarely turn out well.

In the case of “The Diamond Mine,” Cressida Garnet, a successful opera singer, dies on the Titanic. Up until her death, Cressida’s life is not much more rosy. Her family is totally dependent upon her for both money and vitality. The situation is not much better in Cressida’s many marriages, where her status as a successful artist, and the sacrifices she must make to maintain this status, get in the way of her attempts to have a happy marriage. In the end, it is Cressida’s attempts to pursue both marriage and art that lead to her ill-fated demise in “The Diamond Mine.”

Cressida Garnet has some real bad luck when it comes to her marriages. Her first marriage, to Charley Wilton, ends badly when he dies from tuberculosis. Sadly, the “one beautifully happy year” they had together before he died is one of the only happy years she had in any of her four marriages. As James Woodress noted of Cather’s fiction in 1987 in his Willa Cather: A Literary Life, “happy marriages in her fiction are rare.” In the particular case of “The Diamond Mine,” Woodress says the author makes it clear that “marriage and art do not mix.” This is a fact that Cressida unfortunately never learns. In fact, she fails to realize that the reason she was happy with Charley Wilton during their year of marriage was because she had yet to achieve her success as an artist. When Cressida remembers their year together and says how happy she was, she qualifies it by saying, “though we were poor.” She believes that she was happy with Charley in spite of being poor, but as her later marriages show, she was happy because of being poor—and because she was not a successful artist.

Cressida’s second marriage is to Ransome McChord, “the foreign representative of the great McChord Harvester Company.” Not much is mentioned about this husband, other than the fact that he “had so persistently objected to Poppas that she was eventually forced to choose between them.” Cressida of course chooses Poppas, who has been her accompanist and assistant for a long time. Cressida recognizes that her current fame is “largely the work of Miletus Poppas,” who had helped her to “work her

problem out,” when she was a fledgling, untrained singer. “Poppas was indispensable to her,” says the narrator. He is the one who “knew all the simple things that were so desperately hard for Cressida,” and as such is “necessary to her career.” In her book, Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, Janis P. Stout noted “the hard work and determination with which Cressida pursues her career,” saying that “it is a powerful statement of what is entailed by a sense of artistic vocation.” This drive is so strong in Cressida that when her husband Ransome forces her to choose, she chooses Poppas, who is inextricably linked to her art.

Her third husband, Blasius Bouchalka, has no problem with Poppas. In fact, at first glance, the marriage between Bouchalka and Cressida seems a perfect match. Both are artists, and both are passionate. When Cressida and the narrator first meet Bouchalka, the narrator notes that “his manner was excited and dramatic,” and that he had “wild black eyes.” This vibrant artist seems to be the perfect man for Cressida, who herself has “a seemingly exhaustless vitality.”

Indeed, when the two start getting to know each other, Cressida uses her influence to help Bouchalka

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History, written by Leo Braudy and published by Vintage Books in 1997, examines the long and multi-faceted history of fame. From Alexander the Great to Marilyn Monroe, Braudy’s survey explores the relationship between celebrities and their audiences, discusses how and why certain people became famous, and examines how the lives of past celebrities have shaped our own current expectations of what it means to be in the limelight.
  • Cather’s The Song of the Lark was first published in 1915, a year before she published “The Diamond Mine.” The novel concerns Thea Kronberg, a woman with exceptional musical talent, who was born into poverty in a small town in Nebraska. Thea is unable to achieve her freedom until the man who loves her and desperately wants to marry her sets her free to pursue a career as an opera singer. A reprint edition was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1983.
  • Cather’s writing style was influenced heavily by Henry James. James, who was one of America’s greatest writers (although he eventually became a citizen of England), died the same year that Cather published “The Diamond Mine.” James’s novel The American, originally published in 1877, concerns the story of Christopher Newman—a self-made American millionaire who finds a bride in Europe but is treated horribly by the woman’s parents, who reject him because of his non-aristocratic background. Newman is given an opportunity to get his revenge, and he must decide whether or not to take it. A reprint edition of the novel, The American: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, was published by W. W. Norton & Company in 1981.
  • Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America, written by Robert P. Morgan and published by W. W. Norton & Company in 1991 as part of the Norton Introduction to Music History series, gives an overview of classical music throughout the majority of the twentieth century. The book is divided into three chronological periods for discussing the various composers and movements during the century.
  • Fred Plotkin’s Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, is a good primer for anybody interested in learning more about opera. Plotkin, a performance manager for the Metropolitan Opera, walks beginners through the history of opera, how operas are produced, and how to attend an opera without looking like a novice. He also studies all of this background knowledge in context by examining eleven different operas in detail. The book was published by Hyperion in 1994.
  • The Way to Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Song, 1866–1910 is a representative sampling of popular songs in the United States during the period of time from after the Civil War until the early twentieth century. This book was written by Nicholas E. Tawa and published by Schirmer Books in 1990.
  • The Story of the Titanic As Told by Its Survivors is a collection of some of the first-published accounts of the tragedy, as told in first-person form. It accurately portrays the social thinking and behavior of the time period and contains photographs and illustrations that evoke the era. Edited by Jack Winocour, the book was published by Dover Publications in 1960.

get ahead. As the narrator says, she sang Bouchalka’s music at the Metropolitan Opera, “she got him a position with the Symphony Orchestra .. . aroused the interest of a publisher in his work, and introduced him to people who were helpful to him.” Bouchalka is profoundly grateful for these kindnesses, unlike Cressida’s family, who do not appreciate the ways she helps them out. Says the narrator, “she had always liked to make people happy, and he was the first one who had accepted her bounty without sourness.”

The association with Bouchalka eventually leads to marriage. “She was married in June and sailed immediately with her husband,” says the narrator, also noting that “Poppas was to join them in Vienna in August, when she would begin to work again.” This is an unusually large break for Cressida, who is so committed to her art and has such a good work ethic that she often has jobs lined up year-round, and is sometimes “on the road for several weeks” before she can come home. It is this professionalism that has given her such a good reputation in her field. “Managers chose her over the heads of singers much more gifted, because she was so sane, so conscientious, and above all, because she was so sure,” says the narrator.

At first glance, the honeymoon appears to do Cressida some good because when they return, she seems to have found a happy medium. “She attacked her work at once with more vigor and more ease; did not drive herself so relentlessly.” However, the relationship between Cressida and Bouchalka starts to sour almost immediately. He has been a starving artist his whole life, and when he marries into Cressida’s money and comfort, his passion to create is dimmed. Unlike Cressida, who has the strong drive to perform her art even though she is already rich and does not need to, Bouchalka is no longer interested. “During the second winter people began to say that Bouchalka was becoming too thoroughly domesticated,” says the narrator.

As Francis Hackett of the New Republic noted in 1921 in this story, “the ironies of the artistic temperament are scrutinized ... in Blasius Bouchalka, Cressida’s wild-eyed husband who becomes tame and fat in prosperity.” During their third year of marriage, Bouchalka has gotten so comfortable with the rich lifestyle that he never wants to leave home, even to accompany Cressida on her many tours. Although Cressida is distressed that Bouchalka has gotten like this, and misses his “old fire,” she still tries to save the marriage, and decides to

“Her whole life, Cressida has given preference to her art, at the expense of the relationships with different husbands. Unfortunately, her attempts to pursue both a happy marriage and a career in the arts lead to her downfall.”

surprise him one night by skipping a rehearsal so they can spend the evening together, a decision that the narrator notes is “against her custom, one might say against her principles.” Cressida’s work ethic for her art is so strong that she never misses rehearsals. As the narrator notes later, when she and Cressida are thinking back to her relationship with Bouchelka, “she became almost another woman, but not quite. Her ‘principles,’ or his lack of them, drove those two apart in the end.”

On her “surprise” visit, Cressida finds Bouchelka in bed with her cook, and ends the marriage. Bouchalka tries to appeal to Cressida, but it is no use. As the narrator says, “it was, on the whole, easier for Cressida to be firm than to be yielding, and she knew herself too well to attempt a readjustment.” The same tough professionalism that remains crucial to her success as an opera singer, cannot be turned off, even if it might help save her marriage. “She had never made shabby compromises, and it was too late for her to begin,” says the narrator.

Cressida’s fourth and last husband, Jerome Brown, is “the worst of Cressida’s husbands.” Unlike McChord or Bouchalka, who asked Cressida for things she could not do—firing Poppas and going against her principles, respectively—Brown asks her for money, something that she has already been giving her whole life to other family—but it is too much. Unfortunately, “he was the most rapacious of the men with whom she had to do,” and the kind of money that Brown mines from Cressida ends up depleting her fortune.

When she has to “put a mortgage on the Tenth Street house,” Cressida begins to panic and out of desperation, decides to plan a “winter concert tour” in England, where “she could always raise money from a faithful public.” Up until this point in her successful career, Cressida says she has “never cared about money, except to make people happy with it, and it has been the curse of my life. It has spoiled all of my relations with people.”

Although she has been able to place her art first in the past, even above her marriages, the situation with Brown will not be solved by divorce alone. For the first time in a long time since Cressida first began singing, she has to work for the money to pay Brown’s debts, and the strain of this causes Cressida to grow “rapidly older.” The narrator notes that, when Cressida got on the Titanic, “she had been ill.” When the ship goes down, the narrator hears that “apparently she never left her cabin.”

Her whole life, Cressida has given preference to her art at the expense of the relationships with different husbands. Unfortunately, her attempts to pursue both a happy marriage and a career in the arts lead to her downfall. Her “seemingly exhaustless vitality” has been depleted and in the end, she goes down in her symbolic death on the Titanic, as Cather’s lesson to others who would try to mix marriage and art.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on “The Diamond Mine,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Philip Gerber

In the following essay excerpt, Gerber offers a brief overview of “The Diamond Mine,” focusing on the conflict between an artist’s personal and professional lives.

All of the four new stories collected in Youth and the Bright Medusa concern the problems of professional musicians—singers—and as a group they develop the theme of the artist as celebrity, the relationship to society resulting from the pressure of popular fame, and the personal cost to the artist exacted by a life devoted to pleasing one’s “public.” It was a theme that was gaining currency swiftly in Cather’s life, as her books became ever more widely sold and openly praised, making demands on her privacy she had not wholly anticipated. It was also a major strand of the new popular culture that was making headway in American society generally, where the notion of celebrity was taking hold with a firm, powerful, and even dictatorial grip.

Two stories best serve to illustrate this strand of Cather’s interest as expressed fictionally in Youth and the Bright Medusa. “Coming, Aphrodite!” contrasts a pair of artists, first glimpsed during the passionate heat of their youth and then observed during their middle years. Don Hedger is a painter toiling in the avant-garde who insists upon following his own star, declining to produce the same thing over and over, no matter how profitable. Eden Bower is a singer whose ambition for a musical career includes the desire to live well in a big city, to be admired by many men, and to achieve the satisfaction of her every material want. Eden urges Don to paint the types of pictures that conform to popular taste; later, after he has become financially successful, there will be time to paint pictures to please himself. “You know very well there’s only one kind of success that’s real,” Eden says, meaning that measured by dollars.

Following a momentary blaze of romance, doomed by the differences in their characters and sense of values, these two aspirants go their separate ways, to be seen again 18 years later, when both have “succeeded.” Don Hedger, the more resolute, has forced the world to recognize his “very modern” canvases; he has not compromised. Eden Bower’s name blazes in electric lights above the Lexington Opera House, where she is opening—again—with the Puccini opera she does so well that she rarely dares attempt anything else. She gives the same performance always; her audience can count on its not being different. They get what they expect, what they want, what they pay for. While Don Hedger at 40 is “decidedly an influence” in the painting world, his name on the lips of every young person aspiring to excellence, Eden Bower has acquired a huge popular following—and a face that, Cather says, is “hard and settled, like a plaster cast.”

“The Diamond Mine” defines another price the artist may be forced to pay if she responds unduly to the claims people make on her personal life. Cressida Garnet has risen to the top ranks of American opera singers after a long struggle, aided by her determination and physical vitality. All thoughts are on perfecting her art. Unlike Eden Bower, Cressida does not feel the need for possessions. But as she matures she finds herself weighted down nevertheless, not by things but by people. One day, at age 42, Cressida wakes up to the realization that her need to have people around her and close to her has victimized her. The emotional freight she carries has been imposed by a series of rapacious husbands and a pack of bilious siblings who regard her somewhat as a natural source, a vein of ore—a “diamond mine”—open for free-wheeling exploitation. It dawns on Cressida at last: the truth that her personal relationships somehow, despite her hopes, have always involved dollars.

During the 1920s, and later, Cather, fully occupied with her succession of novels, had comparatively little time to spare for short fiction. From time to time, however, she did try her hand at the short story, and with varying degrees of success. In 1925 and 1929, Cather published two longish stories, both inspired by her years in Pittsburgh. The first, “Uncle Valentine,” stems from her feeling for the young composer Ethelbert Nevin, who died at the age of 37 while she was living there, and whom she felt to be the outstanding composer of his generation. The second story, “Double Birthday,” evokes memories of Judge Samuel McClung and Isabelle and the George Seibel home where Cather spent so many enjoyable Christmas holidays. Both stories are finely crafted and evocative of Pittsburgh at the turn of the century, but neither furnishes truly serious competitions for Cather’s best work.

Source: Philip Gerber, “Cather’s Shorter Fiction: 1892–1948,” in Willa Cather, Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 75–87.

Sheryl L. Meyering

In the following essay excerpt, Meyering explores themes “The Diamond Mine” shares with other stories by Cather, most notably “A Gold Slipper” and “Scandal.”

For her second collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa (Knopf, 1920), Cather reprinted four of the stories from the earlier collection The Troll Garden: “Paul’s Case,” “A Wagner Matinee,” “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and “A Death in the Desert.” To these were added four newer works, “Coming, Aphrodite!” “A Gold Slipper,” “Scandal,” and “The Diamond Mine,” the earliest of the four. The title of the collection suggests the theme that binds all eight stories together. As she had done for The Troll Garden, Cather chose a classical image for Youth and the Bright Medusa as a way of tying the stories together thematically. (For a complete explanation of the thematic relationship of the Troll Garden stories to the epigraphs Cather chose for them, see the section “Relationship to Other Cather Works” for the chapters “A Death in the Desert” and “A Wagner Matinee.”) What the image has in common with the epigraphs of The Troll Garden is the notion of “life’s incompatibility with art. . . The chief difference between the two books is that the incompatibility of life and art is not in 1920 suggested in terms of an opposition between the dangerous sophistication of the metropolis and provincial naivete.” Instead, Cather articulates the contrasts between the vibrant energy of youth and the regrets and often the pessimism of age: “Age—not necessarily old age—is a kind of petrifaction in itself even when death does not immediately supervene.” The Medusa myth is also used “to explain the hypnotic attraction of the arts for youth,” but instead of focusing on the legend itself—about a grotesque monster who is nevertheless also mesmerizingly beautiful—Cather concentrates on the Medusa tale in its “beginning when the Gorgon was a beautiful young woman devoted to and associated with the earth goddesses... In the myth itself lay expression of the conflict Cather observed in the post-war society. The matriarchy had fallen to a masculine possessor, and the demise of beauty was imminent.” Thus, all the stories in the collection are related in that they illustrate this view in one way or another. According to Ryder, “The Diamond Mine” is particularly close to “Scandal” and “A Gold Slipper” because in all three stories Cather places a male enemy in a woman’s way.

Arnold explains the title of the collection as an expression of the conviction that “anyone who looked upon the Medusa, the Gorgon, would be turned to stone. Anyone who pursues art will become its captive.” Woodress maintains much the same thing, but Stouck believes that by Medusa Cather means only commercial success. Sometimes the artist is victorious, but at other times, he or she is “at the Medusa’s mercy, a victim of the financial bonanza that success brings.”

Giannone recognizes the correspondences between the four stories reprinted from The Troll Garden and the other four in Youth and the Bright Medusa, which were published after The Song of the Lark: “In both groups the artist confronts possible misunderstanding by the public, exploitation in personal affairs, professional failure, and the inevitability of death. The stories from The Troll Garden stress defeat or death.” To some extent the newer stories contain the same element of pessimism, but the agony is somewhat relieved by “the artists’ resignation to pain and impermanence. The earlier stories vent outrage and bitterness; the later ones express courage, assurance, and forgiveness” (1968,

“Brown says that in ‘The Diamond Mine,’ . . . Cather shifted the focus ... to ‘the kind of relationships artists have with those who are not artists but are brought into contact with them.’”

100). Brown says that in “The Diamond Mine,” “A Gold Slipper,” and “Scandal,” Cather shifted the focus from “the greatness, growth, or decline of a talent” to “the kind of relationships artists have with those who are not artists but are brought into contact with them.”

Arnold groups the story with others in which Cather depicts a talented woman who sacrifices everything for her art. Such a woman was first portrayed in “Nanette: An Aside,” but she reappears in “A Gold Slipper,” “Scandal,” “Coming, Aphrodite!,” and The Song of the Lark (l984, 106). Cather’s view that marriage and art are utterly incompatible is also evident here, as it is in many other works—“Nanette: An Aside,” “A Singer’s Romance,” and even “Paul’s Case,” where “the actresses whom Paul admired ... were typically supporting shiftless husbands.” Woodress’s interpretation is similar: sometimes the heroine does not marry, but usually she does, and she suffers for it. Cather’s opinion on this subject was so strong that in one of her short stories, “Uncle Valentine,” she borrows details from the marriage of her musician friend Ethelbert Nevin—a perfectly happy union—and turns it into a destructive and sad fictional one. (For a discussion of Cather’s friendship with Nevin, see the “Circumstances of Composition, Sources, and Influences” section for the chapter ‘“A Death in the Desert.’”)

“The Diamond Mine” shares a few more minor elements with other stories as well. For example, like “Scandal” it contains a portrait of a Jew that, in Robinson’s opinion, “can only be described as an outburst of anti-Semitism.” Field says that both “The Diamond Mine” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” “strike the note of the tragic humor in the Every Day.” Bloom and Bloom see similarities between this story and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” in the isolation endured by the fictional artists.

Interpretations and Criticisms

This story is seen by some critics as an indication of Cather’s maturing views of the artist in society. Brown notes that in “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (1905), Cather made clear her opinion that if an artist’s friends and family failed or refused to understand him or her, the result was catastrophic to the artist, but by the time she published “The Diamond Mine” eleven years later, Cather had come to realize her mistake. Having watched artists of many kinds, she came to see that the artist was not as fragile as she had thought: genuine artistic talent survives even when powerful forces are arrayed against it. Thus, although Cather’s “tone is ironical and melancholy, [it is] not in the least cynical,” and the absence of cynicism may be the result of Cather’s having outgrown her need to compare the artist’s life with the nonartist’s life.

Ryder would not agree that Cather’s view of the artist became optimistic. On the contrary, by 1920 “Cather had come to believe that even the most resolute women of artistic sensibilities would find their dreams thwarted by a mercantile, masculine society.” Although they were attracted by the “allure of beauty” as much as the female artists before them were, “the pursuit of the ideal” would transform them into Gorgons, and they would “lose an essential humanity in their efforts to repulse new Poseidons, new possessors of mother earth.”

The character of Cressida Garnet has elicited various comments from Cather specialists. Arnold maintains that Cressida is not quite the blameless victim she appears to be at first glance. She is, in fact, to some extent guilty of corrupting her family by allowing them to use her. Her portrayal as the innocent victim of exploitation indicates that the narrator herself is “as blind to the singer’s faults as Cressida’s family is to her virtues.” Ryder says that Cressida’s struggle for recognition and her failed attempts at successful marriage have made her bitter. The artist herself is aware of this hardness, realizing that “her plight is Medusa’s—an inability to share herself with other people.” Wasserman asserts that in order to understand Cressida, the reader must take a serious look at her Svengali, Miletus Poppas. When he sends Carrie a German verse, the content of which suggests his selfless sacrifice to Cressida, “the fairy-tale substructure of this story emerges. Poppas is the hidden gnome with the secret, the Rumpelstiltskin who can help the poor man’s daughter spin the raw material of straw into the gold of art. He is Cressida’s submerged self, in charge (bizarrely) of her very memories.” Given his positive role in the story, the reader must necessarily question Cather’s motives for making Poppas a Jew and for using stereotypical notions in her portrait of him. She may be evoking “ancientness [and] timeless endurance” by making Poppas appear as ‘ “old as Jewry,’” or perhaps she is using the fact that he is a Greek Jew to link the “twin roots of Western myth, the classical and the Hebraic.” Her description of him may also be seen as anti-Semitic, “a view that obscures her many hints that Poppas represents the deep psychic levels that must be plumbed—mined, rather—before the diamond of art can be achieved.”

Some critics give this story shrift, viewing it as one of Cather’s poorer efforts. Stouck says that despite the “genuine pathos” of Cressida’s search for love, the story is “curiously flat,” since the “narrator never enters into the story’s imaginative design.” Thurin says the story’s “burlesque” ending is jarring; it does not fit with the rest of the tale. Williams considers the story a good idea that fails in the telling. Cather has enough material in this piece for a novel, but she falls very far short of having written it.

Source: Sheryl L. Meyering, ‘“The Diamond Mine,’” in A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather, G. K. Hall and Co., 1994, pp. 67–72.

Loretta Wasserman

In the following essay excerpt, Wasserman explores whether Cather’s works contain anti-Semitic overtones and specifically examines Cather’s choice of a Jewish character (Poppas) as “the image of the intuitive self” in “The Diamond Mine.”

The question of whether Willa Cather’s writings betray an underlying anti-Semitism is not new. James Schroeter developed the accusation at some length in the mid-1960s, and Bernard Baum and John H. Randall III had made it explicit somewhat earlier. They conclude that indeed Cather was anti-Semitic in that she slipped into dismissive stereotype—a characteristic she shared with other early modernists, Schroeter adds—stereotypes of the “poolroom” variety that identify Jewishness with “commercial exploitation, secularization, and destruction of traditional values.” His list of the writers who casually label a character “the Jew” or picture the Jew as outsider and spoiler includes stellar members of Cather’s generation (Anderson, Dreiser) and of the generation succeeding (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Elliot, Pound).

However, Cather is an especially painful case, because she alone had dignified immigrant Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians in her fiction, making them, indeed, her heroes and heroines. Such a defiance of literary decorum appears now so mild as to be invisible, but at the time it was a daring position. Hence, for Schroeter, it is doubly disappointing to find that Cather’s sympathetic imagination faltered when she confronted the most recent immigrants, the Polish and Russian Jews who arrived in this country in such numbers in the 1890s and early 1900s.

In the thirty-some years since Randall and Schroeter were writing, two developments have necessitated another look at Cather’s treatment of Jews. First, the wheel of critical attention in general has taken a decided turn. Attitudes toward race, class, and gender are not dismissed as awkward blemishes but are perceived as deeply significant clues both to dominating cultural thought patterns and to individual habits of mind. Texts are combed to note what is mentioned only tangentially, or what is not said at all. Such clues are nowhere more powerfully operative than in signaling how a people in a culture thought about those it blocked from full participation—the “others” who are kept silent, left out, or domesticated. To cite a much-repeated example, Jane Austen can be said to have legitimized West Indian colonialism when in Mansfield Park she makes a plantation the source of Sir Thomas’s wealth. A more pertinent example is Cather’s implied approval of Tom Outland’s efforts to interest the Smithsonian in his Anasazi artifacts, with no expressed regard for Indian ancestral rights, thus legitimizing the gathering of Indian pottery into a museum as a pious act of preservation. In sum, the new rigor in cultural criticism asks to be more alert concerning attitudes toward racial or other minorities and to treat such attitudes more seriously.

While this scrutiny is largely directed at the ideological prevalent at a past time, it also highlights the observational power and moral sensitivity of the author. Despite a prevailing assumption that

“The dynamics of ‘The Diamond Mine,’ then, point away from any anti-Semitic meaning—again, in fact, as in ‘Behind the Singer Tower,’ what is highlighted is prejudice that blinds. . . .”

the writer as person is never free from a cultural context, we continue, paradoxically, to seek textual evidence that the writer as writer it prescient, however waveringly or unconsciously, about matters that we, in a later time, regard as foundational.

Second, during the past thirty years, critical opinion about Cather has taken a dramatic turn, a 180-degree swing. In the sixties she was a minor writer—interesting, but limited by her backward-looking fixation on the pioneer past. This view was shared by Randall, Schroeter, Leon Edel, even E. K. Brown, Cather’s first “official” biographer. Today, a wealth of criticism has shown her to be an artist of sophistication and subtlety, both of method and of theme. A corollary of this new view is a new interest in Cather herself. The hearty, plain-speaking Westerner, a product of Populist midwestern small towns, as Randall describes her, has receded, her place taken by a bookish, self-conscious artist; this new perspective prompts us to question how aware she was of the culture she inhabited. It is no longer sufficient to point out that she describes some Jews as physically ugly (which she does) or as commercially successful (which she also does); in narrative context such portraits may be subverting the very stereotype represented, as Chaucer explodes antifeminism through the Wife of Bath...

Jews who figure in stories Cather wrote shortly after The Song of the Lark—Miletus Poppas in “The Diamond Mine” (1915) and Siegmund Stein in “Scandal” (1916)—are central to any discussion of Cather’s anti-Semitism. Like Lichtenstein, they appear compounded of unpleasant traits (though they do not resemble each other), but unlike Lichtenstein, they are not humorous walk-ons. To confront these portraits is to confront the story in which each appears.

After finishing The song of the Lark, Cather had more to say about opera singers. What fascinated her was the difference between performing artists, who must please and charm the public, and artists such as herself—writers or painters—who work in private, or even anonymously.

The story of Cressida Garnet, the singer in “The Diamond Mine,” is structured around her four marriages, but the narrator, Carrie, a friend from childhood, also describes her career, which Cressida pursued with undaunted energy through disappointments in her personal life. Carrie notes, however, that Cressida’s success was owing to the voice coaching she received in Germany from Poppas, who thereafter became her accompanist—omnipresent, to the annoyance of family and husbands. Carrie is aware that Poppas is essential to Cressida’s career. While she has vocal talent and ambition, she lacks musical intelligence. Poppas supplies “intuitions, discrimination, imagination, a whole twilight world of intentions and shadowy beginnings which were dark to Cressida.” At the same time, Carrie finds Poppas, a Greek Jew, unsavory. There seems to be something demonic in his grayish skin, waxed moustache, and “alarming, deep-set eyes,—very close together... and always gleaming with something like defeated fury.” “He was vulture of the vulture race, and he had the beak of one.”

Only at the end of the story does Carrie, looking back, see Poppas’s full worth. After Cressida’s death on the Titanic, Poppas has retired to the Middle East, his “sainte Asie,” for his health. From there he sends Carrie a letter that ends with four lines of verse from the closing scene of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. In this scene the Rhine maidens sing of the mysterious meaning of the gold: “Traulich und Treu / ist’s nur in der Tiefe” (Loyalty, or comfort, and truth are found only in the depth). Finally, Carrie sees the totality of Poppas’s devotion to Cressida, to her art, to the whole of art, and she writes the story we have read.

The tone of “The Diamond Mine” is reportorial; in fact, events surrounding Cressida’s fourth husband so closely follow events of the life and death of the singer Nordica that publishers feared libel action. The figure of Poppas, however, edges toward allegory; he is the artist’s deepest level of self, essential but not decipherable.

Why did Cather choose a Jew as the image of the intuitive self? It is a romantic—rather, Gothic—portrait. (It perhaps owes something to the mesmerizing voice coach, Svengali, in the novel Trilby, which is mentioned in the story.) When Carrie sees Poppas and others waiting at the White Star Line for news of Titanic survivors, she thinks he looks “old as Jewry”—ageless, timeless. Poppas might be an Old Testament Jew, returning to the Holy Land (his “sainte Asie”). By making him also Greek, Cather may have been trying to suggest the twin roots of Western art and aspiration. She had written, after listening to Zangwill, “The Hebrews, indeed, felt the beauty of holiness, but the Greeks felt the holiness of beauty.”

The dynamics of “The Diamond Mine,” then, point away from any anti-Semitic meaning—again, in fact, as in “Behind the Singer Tower,” what is highlighted is prejudice that blinds...

It is unlikely that we can glean significant new insights about endemic anti-Semitism in the first decades of the century from Cather’s fictional Jews, many and varied though they are. Possibly the sheer intensity of hatred on the part of cultural leaders (Fred Hallet, Pierce Tevis) is revealing. Though there is nothing here to equal the brutal, mindless tormenting of Robert Cohn (The Sun Also Rises), there is a surreal physicality in the way Hallet describes Merryweather and Tevis describes Stein, and in Kitty’s sense of suffocation by Stein’s guests, that brings home to us the visceral impact of this particular prejudice. An interesting dynamic also appears. Hallet’s case against Merryweather is climaxed by his outrage at Merryweather’s sufferance (“When you had him, he always crawled”), and Johnson is annoyed at Zablowski’s patience with Hallet’s teasing (“Why don’t you ever hit back?”). The comparison to Cohn’s persecutors is again apt—they become increasingly maddened by his endurance of abuse. It is significant, I think, that in The Professor’s House Cather again dramatizes this forbearance (Marsellus excuses his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, Scott, who has secretly blackballed Marsellus’s admission to a club), but this time patient forgiveness (Christian, we might say) is admired. The Professor says, “Louie, you are magnanimous and magnificent!”

Of more particular interest is whether Cather should continue to be seen as harboring an anti-Semitic streak. Those commentators who base their answer on the incidence of “positive role models” in her fiction must say yes. The moral absolutists, too, who find any expressed consciousness of otherness evidence of racism or elitism, will find many instances of distancing, if only in the epithets Jew, Jewess, Hebrew. The rest of us must read and ponder. We can at least agree that Cather was aware of Jews as a presence in American life and, more than any other writer of her time, chose to register that presence in fiction. Zablowski, the Nathenmeyers, Poppas, Stein, Becky Tietelbaum, Marsellus, the Rosens—just to list these figures, vivid and memorable—must be convincing. She witnessed, and put in her fiction, the anti-Semitic prejudices of the dominant culture. In her way, she combatted this bias, but hers was not the direct way of the social protest novel, and, clearly, she did not make it an overriding concern. She put the needs of the work first.

We can say of Cather as a writer, as Henry James said of Hawthorne, that she “is perpetually looking for images which shall place themselves in picturesque correspondence with the spiritual facts with which [she] is concerned.” I think Poppas and Stein, and possibly the dark man of “The Old Beauty,” were created for reasons of “picturesque correspondence,” never mind that they may also have confirmed pervasive prejudices. At the same time, one of the “spiritual facts” dearest to Cather was the worth of art and learning, and the Nathanmeyers and the Rosens can be numbered among the many images by which she sought to dramatize her faith.

Source: Loretta Wasserman, “Cather’s Semitism,” in Cather Studies, Vol. 2, 1993, pp. 1–2.


Fisher, Dorothy Canfield, “Among New Books: Some Books of Short Stories,” in Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Margaret Anne O’Connor, Cambridge University Press, pp. 110–11, originally published in Yale Review, Vol. 10, April 1921, pp. 670–71.

Hackett, Francis, “Miss Cather’s Short Stories,” in Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Margaret Anne O’Connor, Cambridge University Press, pp. 105–107, originally published in New Republic, Vol. 25, January 19, 1921, pp. 233–34.

Hoffman, Frederick J., The Modern Novel in America, 1900–1950, Gateway Editions, Ltd., 1951, pp. 39–40.

“Latest Works of Fiction: Miss Cather’s Stories,” in Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Margaret Anne O’Connor, Cambridge University Press, p. 101, originally published in New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1920, p. 24.

Lewis, Sinclair, “A Hamlet of the Plains,” in The Man from Main Street: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904–1950, edited by Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Cane, Random House, 1953, pp. 170–74, originally published in the New York Post, September 22, 1922.

Mencken, H. L., “Four Reviews: Youth and the Bright Medusa,” in Willa Cather and Her Critics, edited by James Schroeter, Cornell University Press, 1967, pp. 9–10, originally published as a Review of Youth and the Bright Medusa, in The Smart Set, Vol. LXIII, No. 4, December 1920.

Porter, Katherine Anne, “Critical Reflections on Willa Cather,” in Critical Essays on Willa Cather, edited by John J. Murphy, G. K. Hall & Co., 1984, p. 36.

Robertson, R. M., “Disinterring the ‘Scandal’ of Willa Cather: Youth and the Bright Medusa,” in Criticism, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Fall 1990, p. 489.

Stout, Janis P., Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 130–31.

Williams, Blanche Colton, “A New Book of Stories,” in Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Margaret Anne O’Connor, Cambridge University Press, pp. 100–101, originally published in Bookman, Vol. 52, October 1920, pp. 169–70.

Williams, Orlo, Review of Youth and the Bright Medusa, in Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Margaret Anne O’Connor, Cambridge University Press, p. 104–105, originally published in Athenaeum, No. 4731, December 31, 1920, p. 890.

Woodress, James, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, University of Nebraska Press, 1987, pp. 87, 127, 278–80.

Further Reading

Acocella, Joan Ross, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, Vintage Books, 2002.

This book is a controversial argument in favor of Willa Cather and her work. Acocella criticizes previous reviews of other critics—who sometimes focused on Cather’s personal life and not her works themselves—and discusses how these undeserved reviews helped to obscure Cather’s works.

Fiedler, Johanna, Molto Agitato: The Mayhem behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera, Doubleday, 2001.

Fiedler, a press representative at the Metropolitan Opera, “the Met,” for fifteen years, gives a thorough history of this massive musical enterprise. The book examines the Opera house from its inception in 1883 until today and discusses both the day-to-day dealings and the behind-the-scenes anecdotes from this famous American institution.

Gerber, Philip L., Willa Cather, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

This is an overview of Willa Cather’s literary career. Her early, middle, and final stage novels are covered, as well as her contributions to short fiction and a collection of past and present biographies and criticism about this author.

Wasserman, Loretta, Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1991.

This chronological study of Cather’s short stories traces the themes and philosophies that she developed throughout her career, and it explores her contributions to early American modernism.

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The Diamond Mine

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