A Wagner Matinee
A Wagner Matinee
First published in Everybody's Magazine in 1904, Willa Cather's "A Wagner Matinee" was written early in the author's career and provides a preview of the tone and style that would later become hallmarks of Cather's fiction. In this short story, Cather explores with stark realism the physically and emotionally damaging effects of pioneer life in rural Nebraska. The story is narrated by Clark, who hosts his Aunt Georgiana when she comes to Boston after leaving her Nebraskan homestead for the first time in many years. Just as "A Wagner Matinee" features a male character's point of view, Cather's later works similarly employ male characters from whose points of view the stories are told. Perhaps most notably, Cather uses this approach in her well-known novel My Ántonia (1918), a work that is set in rural Nebraska. Her first book-length exploration of the frontier setting was the highly acclaimed O Pioneers! (1913).
While "A Wagner Matinee" is set in Boston, it is a frontier story at its core, in its focus on Aunt Georgiana and her transformation from a music teacher in Boston to a woman worn and wounded in both body and spirit after decades on a Nebraskan homestead. The story traces the emotional response of Aunt Georgiana to a concert of the music of the German composer Richard Wagner, a concert that Aunt Georgiana attends with her nephew. Clark's observations of his aunt's behavior and appearance are interspersed with recollections of the harsh years of
his own youth, which he spent with Georgiana on her farm. Georgiana's tearful reaction to Wagner's music suggests a longing for her former, perhaps fuller life in the city.
"A Wagner Matinee" is available in The Troll Garden, a short story collection by Willa Cather. Originally published in 1905, this collection is available in a 1983 volume edited by James Woodress and published by the University of Nebraska Press. Cather revised the story slightly between its magazine publication in 1904 and its appearance in The Troll Garden in 1905; for example, she eliminated some of the harsher details about Georgiana's appearance in the later version, changing a description of her figure as misshapen to one of her being stooped in posture. An online version of the 1904 Everybody's Magazine printing of "A Wagner Matinee" is available at the Willa Cather Archive, sponsored by the University of Nebraska.
Born in 1873 near Winchester, Virginia, Willa Cather was the first of seven children born to Charles F. Cather and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. The family moved to Nebraska in 1883 to join Charles Cather's brother and parents, who had already established a ranch on the plains. After a challenging year on the homestead that they had struggled to establish, the Cathers opted to sell their land and settle themselves in the town of Red Cloud. Cather would move again several years later, to begin her college preparatory studies in 1890 in Lincoln, followed by four years at the University of Nebraska. Upon graduation in 1895, she returned home to Red Cloud for a year before departing for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to begin a job as a magazine editor in 1896. Cather soon landed a job as a newspaper editor and drama reviewer for the Daily Leader, a position she held for several years before turning to teaching, first at Pittsburgh's Central High School and later at Allegheny High School.
Cather's first volume of poetry, April Twilights, was published in 1903. In 1904, her short story "A Wagner Matinee" appeared in Everybody's Magazine. The following year Cather included the story in her collection of short stories The Troll Garden. Shortly after, in 1906, Cather moved to New York City to accept a position on the editorial staff of McClure's magazine. In 1908, she moved into an apartment with Edith Lewis, who would become her lifelong companion. After leaving the magazine in 1912, Cather began writing and publishing in earnest. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, appeared in 1912, and it was soon followed by the two highly acclaimed novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). While she focused on writing novels, producing twelve in the course of her career, Cather also published several volumes of short stories and essays. Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was published in 1940. Cather died in her New York City home from a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.
Cather's "A Wagner Matinee" opens with the narrator, Clark, receiving a letter from Nebraska, which the reader soon learns is from Clark's Uncle Howard. The letter informs Clark that his Aunt Georgiana will be visiting him in Boston when she comes to attend to the estate of a deceased relative. Uncle Howard's letter asks Clark to meet Georgiana at the station and aid her in whatever way is necessary during her stay in Boston. Upon reading his uncle's letter, Clark recalls details of his youth spent on his aunt and uncle's farm in Nebraska. He remembers playing Aunt Georgiana's piano with fingers sore and raw from husking corn.
At the train station, Clark experiences some challenges in collecting Georgiana. Not only is she the last of the passengers to disembark, but she is covered with soot and dust from her journey. Clark's landlady, Mrs. Springer, settles Georgiana into her quarters for the evening upon her arrival in Clark's home, and Clark does not see his aunt again until the following morning. Reflecting on Georgiana's haggard appearance, Clark notes how much the woman has changed since she worked as a music teacher in Boston some three decades ago. The reader learns from Clark's recollections that Aunt Georgiana had fallen in love with a young man from the country, wed him, and followed him to the Nebraskan frontier. Clark mentally enumerates the facts of Georgiana and Howard's primitive existence and the tolls his aunt's hard life has exacted on her appearance. He realizes also how much he owes his aunt, as she sacrificed much of her time to teach him. She would, he recalls, help him with Latin verb conjugations and listen to him read Shakespeare after she had tucked six children into bed.
On the day following Georgiana's arrival, Clark takes her to a concert given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which would be performing the works of the German composer Richard Wagner. Clark wonders whether Georgiana will, after her years of hardship and deprivation, be able to enjoy or appreciate the music. She seems reluctant to be out in the city and distracted by tasks left undone back home in Nebraska. As the musicians are seated in the concert hall, Clark studies his aunt's reaction closely, noting that she seems to stir with anticipation and finally begins to become tuned in to her surroundings. The concert begins, and Aunt Georgiana grasps Clark's sleeve; he thinks that these first strains of music are breaking thirty years of silence inflicted upon his aunt by the Nebraskan plains. Images of Georgiana's bleak homestead appear in Clark's mind. Wondering what his aunt is gleaning from the music, he recalls what a good pianist she had once been and remembers the breadth of her musical education.
During the intermission, Clark questions his aunt about one of the songs they heard, and she informs him that she has actually heard it before, as sung by a German immigrant back in Red Willow County. Aunt and nephew briefly discuss the music and its structure. During the second half of the concert, Aunt Georgiana weeps repeatedly. Again Clark wonders how much of the music's complexities his aunt can comprehend, how much of her ability to process the music has been dissolved through the hard labor and isolation she has endured for so many years.
The concert concludes, and the spectators depart the concert hall, yet Clark and his aunt remain behind. When Clark addresses Aunt Georgiana, who has made no move to leave, she bursts into tears, telling him that she does not wish to leave. Clark interprets his aunt's response as an indication not simply of her unwillingness to leave the music behind but also of her extreme reluctance to return to the harshness of her life in Nebraska.
- "A Wagner Matinee" is included in the Audio Bookshelf's 1997 cassette recording titled Willa Cather: Stories, read by Melissa Hughes.
- Sponsored by the Public Media Foundation at Northeastern University's College of Arts and Sciences, the "Scribbling Women" Web site at http://www.scribblingwomen.org/wcwagner.htm maintains a 2007 audio recording of a play version of "A Wagner Matinee." The story was dramatized by Sara Baker and directed by Martin Jenkins.
Georgiana Carpenter is the wife of Howard Carpenter and the maternal aunt of the narrator, Clark. From the beginning, the reader is offered a startling physical portrait of Georgiana, whom Clark initially describes as "pathetic and grotesque" in her appearance. Filthy from her travels, Georgiana seems disoriented and fatigued, and Clark comments that only after a little while does she seem to recognize him. Commenting on her meeting of and subsequent marriage to Howard, Clark states that at thirty, Georgiana had been "angular" and "spectacled." Apparently unable to comprehend his aunt's ability to live the kind of life Howard took her to in Nebraska, Clark remarks that, having measured off their homestead, the couple proceeded to build "a dugout in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions." From then on, through Clark, Georgiana is continually presented as a reduced version of her former self, a foreign oddity. He regards her in the same way that explorers are viewed when they return to civilization with missing limbs. He observes that the wind and alkaline water have yellowed her skin so that it is like that of a "Mongolian's." Her teeth are false and do not fit well in her mouth, and her posture is stooped, her chest sunken.
At the same time, Clark remembers warmly the way Georgiana tutored him when he lived with her as a youth. She was knowledgeable not only in music but in Latin, mythology, and Shakespeare as well. When Clark struggled with difficult piano pieces, she implored him to not love music too much, because if it were ever to be taken from him, as it was from her, the sacrifice might seem too great. Georgiana does indeed seem to resist her response to the music when Clark takes her to the concert; she attempts to not "love it so well," as she had once cautioned her nephew. She seems saddened by listening to the second half of the program, and Clark wonders about her ability to comprehend the structure of the music. Nevertheless, she appears to ascertain enough about the music to feel moved by it, for she weeps during much of the second half of the concert. Georgiana does not rise to leave when the music finishes, instead sobbing to Clark that she does want to go.
Howard Carpenter is the husband of Georgiana and the uncle of Clark. He sends Clark a letter informing him that Georgiana will be coming to Boston to attend to the estate of a bachelor relative who has died. Howard requests in his letter that Clark meet Georgiana at the train station and assist her in whatever way he can. Clark notes that, "characteristically," Howard put off writing the letter for so long that Clark would have missed his aunt entirely if he had been away from home for the day. Clark additionally reveals a little of Howard's character as the story progresses, describing him as having been "the most idle and shiftless of all the village lads" in one of the mountain towns to which Georgiana had gone to teach music. The reader is additionally informed that Howard was twenty-one when he met the thirty-year-old Georgiana, whom he followed back to Boston when she returned. The pair eloped, and Howard took his new bride to the frontier in Nebraska. According to Clark, Georgiana's friends and family were critical of her decision to wed Howard, whom Clark points out "of course" had no financial security to offer Georgiana.
Clark is the narrator of "A Wagner Matinee." The reader does not learn his last name, only that he is the nephew of Georgiana, his maternal aunt, and her husband Howard Carpenter. Clark does not reveal much about himself directly throughout the course of the story. His reflections pertain primarily to his aunt, although he does comment about the years he spent on Georgiana and Howard's Nebraskan homestead. Much of what the reader knows about Clark's character is gleaned from his views about his aunt. He seems to revere her for the sacrifices she has made and is, at the same time, somewhat repulsed by the woman into which she has degenerated. Pity and revulsion are the first emotions that rise up when he recalls her appearance, and reading her name in his uncle's letter dredges up in Clark powerful memories from his youth when he was a shy, "gangling farmer-boy," with hands "cracked and sore from the corn husking." He recalls practicing musical scales on Georgiana's organ with his painful fingers.
After seeing his aunt disembark from the train and escorting her home, Clark's response to her is again a combination of positive and negative feelings. He remarks upon her disfigured appearance just prior to discussing the respect he has for her. Clark then, in a somewhat condescending tone, describes the absurdity of Georgiana's attraction to Howard when the couple first met and remarks that "of course" Howard was penniless when the pair left for Nebraska.
Clark's continued fascination with the flaws in his aunt's physical appearance is revealed when he describes her drab clothing, sallow skin, and poor posture. These exterior flaws Clark juxtaposes with the "reverential affection" he possesses for Georgiana. He fondly recalls all she taught him despite her personal fatigue and suffering, admitting how much he owes her.
During the course of the Wagner concert, to which Clark takes his aunt in an effort to entertain her with the music that so inspired her life years ago, Clark's attitude is a mixture of pity and concern. He wonders on more than one occasion if she is able to understand the intricacies of the music's structure and composition. He worries that perhaps he should have left her memories undisturbed, so as to have let her remain in what he perceives to be a numbed state. When at the end of the concert Georgiana sobs and blurts that she does not want to go, Clark claims to understand her despair. For her, he states, just beyond the door of the concert hall lies the rough frontier life that she has temporarily left behind. Having tasted her former life once again, Georgiana is desperate to forestall her return to Nebraska, Clark assumes.
Mrs. Springer is the landlady at the boarding house where Clark, the narrator of the story, lives. She shows Georgiana to her room, and Clark observes the consideration Mrs. Springer shows Georgiana by hiding any surprise she might have had at Georgiana's bedraggled appearance.
Although "A Wagner Matinee" is set in Boston, the story is at its core about life on the western frontier. In particular, the harshness of frontier living is contrasted with the pleasantness of urban society in the Northeast. Through the observations of her narrator, Clark, Cather takes pains to demonstrate the brutal effects of frontier living on the former Boston music teacher, Georgiana. Her appearance is regarded as horrifying and alien. Whereas Georgiana was once an ordinary, if "angular" woman of thirty, after thirty years on the prairie she is now viewed as "grotesque," her figure "stooped," her skin sallow in pallor and leathery in texture. Clark attributes these developments to Georgiana's isolation from civilization, to the monotony of her daily routine, and to the intense physical suffering resulting from the labor necessary to make one's living on a Nebraskan homestead. Clark did not return unscathed from his own youthful years spent on his aunt and uncle's homestead, during which he was "riding herd" for his uncle. The mere mention of his aunt's name conjures in him potent memories of husking corn until his hands were red, raw, and cracked. Clark recalls that his aunt's duties included cooking breakfast at six o'clock in the morning and working until midnight, long after she had put six children to bed.
Once she has arrived in Boston, Georgiana remains distracted by the chores awaiting her back home—by the calf who needs special care, or by the food in the cellar that needs to be eaten before it spoils. All of these details, from Clark's recollections of his youth to Georgiana's current itemization of pending chores and concerns, serve to emphasize the all-consuming nature of frontier life. Through Clark's characterization of his aunt's appearance and preoccupations, Cather underscores the notion that life on the Nebraskan prairie is devouring Georgiana spiritually and mentally. Clark is quite convinced that his aunt can no longer appreciate or comprehend the elements of the music she used to love so passionately. He views her as having been numbed into some sort of stupor by her harsh life, and he even wonders whether it would have been best to send her back home "without waking her." The story closes with a fresh reminder of the toll frontier life has taken on Georgiana. Sobbing, she pleads to her nephew as the concert ends, "I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!" That she is crying and that she repeats the sentiment serve to indicate that she is not merely reluctant to leave the music hall because she has enjoyed the program so much. Rather, the reader is intended to take her reaction, as Clark does, as an indictment of frontier life. Clark suggests that for Georgiana, the act of leaving the concert hall will be a symbolic one, whereby she will again turn her back on who she once was, to return once more to a lonely life devoid of civilized pleasures and comforts.
The theme of regret in "A Wagner Matinee" is voiced through Clark, who contrasts his notions of who his aunt used to be with who she has become after thirty years of frontier living. He cannot help but see her as irreversibly diminished by her experiences. Personally, he appears to pity her, while he projects the notion of regret onto her. This is indicated in several ways. As Clark and his aunt listen to what Clark describes as "Siegfried's funeral march," he intuits from the "trembling of her face" that Georgiana is responding to the death of hopes and dreams that the music conveys. The music explores the extinguishing of hope, and Clark assumes that if his aunt is able to respond to anything in the composition, it will be to this theme in particular. As Clark extrapolates from his aunt's reluctance to leave the concert hall that she fervently wishes to avoid returning to her life in Nebraska, it is suggested that Georgiana regrets ever having gone to Nebraska at all. The reader views Georgiana's likely regret through the filter of Clark's observations. His personal experience of life on the frontier adds weight to his interpretation. Clark is not simply guessing how taxing the work of maintaining a homestead is; he experienced it firsthand and was an eye witness
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- "A Wagner Matinee" deals in part with the hardships of homestead life, but Cather tells the story from the point of view of Clark, whose time on his aunt's homestead was rather limited. Research what homestead life on the Nebraskan frontier was like during the late 1800s and write a short story from Georgiana's point of view. What is her typical day like? Does she regret having left the comforts of civilized society? What types of activities did homesteaders partake in for entertainment? What might Georgiana have enjoyed about her life as a homesteader?
- Nebraskan farmers often faced harsh conditions, such as droughts, that hampered their abilities to produce the crops that they sold for profit and with which they fed their families. Research the types of food crops that Nebraskan frontier farmers produced and the types of family meals that would have been prepared from such crops. Was the diet fruit and vegetable based? What kinds of meat products did the farmers produce? Which grains thrived? Prepare a typical recipe, such as a bread made from wheat and cornmeal, and share the food with your class.
- In Cather's story, Clark and his aunt visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra to listen to a concert featuring the music of the German composer Richard Wagner. Research the music of Wagner and its impact on classical music in the late 1800s and early 1900s. How popular was Wagner's music in Europe and in America? For which musical form is Wagner best known? Write a report based on your findings. Consider playing a recording ofWagner's compositions, perhaps one of those mentioned in Cather's story, for your class.
- The settlement of the American frontier, which expanded the borders of the United States and provided the nation with valuable natural resources, led to the death or displacement of countless Native Americans from many tribes. Research the short- and long-term effects of the passage of such acts as the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Homestead Act (1862) on Native American communities. How many individuals were relocated? How many were killed? What did the federal government gain by passing such acts? How did Native Americans and homesteaders react to one another? Could or did they coexist? Write an argumentative/persuasive paper, supported by facts, that demonstrates your opinion on the federal government's treatment of Native Americans during this time period.
to the toll it took on Georgiana. Seeing her again after so many years reinforces his understanding of the burden of such a hard life, and it is no great leap of Clark's imagination to assume that his quiet, uncomplaining aunt feels at least some regret over her decision to leave her city life as a music instructor to follow a man to the frontier.
Cather's style in "A Wagner Matinee" is characterized by the realism with which she describes the events of the story and the narrator's recollections of Nebraska. Cather does not make many generalizations or exaggerations during her narrative, nor are any aspects of the characters' lives idealized. Rather, the author exploits the details of harsh frontier life to make accessible and apparent to the reader the pain and suffering Georgiana lives with on a daily basis. Additionally, Clark's observations, while arguably condescending in tone at times, do come across as precise assessments of Georgiana's current debilitated condition. The details he chooses to convey are both stark and suggestive of Georgiana's suffering, as when Clark itemizes, for example, the deficiencies in Georgiana's physical appearance. As the story concludes, Clark comments on the dishcloths hanging on the "crook-backed ash seedlings" to dry, and the "gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door." Such specific details recall Clark's earlier description of his aunt's own crooked, thin posture and also serve to imply the ever-present chores that await Georgiana back home.
Cather elected to tell this story in the first person, but from Clark's point of view rather than from Georgiana's. This allows the reader to glean not only information about Georgiana and her life but also Clark's opinion of it. Given that Clark provides a firsthand account of his own experiences on the frontier, of his aunt's life there, and of her response to her current visit to Boston, the reader must determine the extent to which Clark's opinion of his aunt's life is a biased one. Cather's usage of the first person for this story allows the reader only Clark's viewpoint, and the actual dialogue between Clark and Georgiana is quite limited, so she has very little opportunity to express her own opinions. When she does voice her thoughts, they seem to support Clark's notions about the suffering she has endured as well as about her reluctance to return to frontier life. The extent to which Clark's ideas regarding the Nebraskan frontier reflect the author's own views is a subject of critical discussion. As Clark is the point-of-view character, and as his experiences mirror Cather's own in some ways, it has been suggested that the author uses Clark to express her personal opinions regarding frontier living and the sacrifices it requires.
The Politics of Homesteading
In Cather's "A Wagner Matinee," the narrator reflects on the series of events that led his aunt to the Nebraskan frontier, and he notes that Georgiana has lived on her homestead there for roughly thirty years. Clark also mentions the way his aunt and her husband measured off their eighty-acre parcel of land: by counting the revolutions of the wheel of their covered wagon. Through the usage of such details, Cather underscores the ways in which the fictional Georgiana and her husband Howard represent the many would-be homesteaders who were drawn westward following the 1862 passage of the Homestead Act. This act, passed by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln, gave up to 160 acres of "public" land to any head of household who had lived on the land and farmed it for five years. The availability of land offered for little financial cost appealed to poor Americans and European immigrants seeking new lives. The so-called public land, however, was available due to the federal government's reversal of prior agreements with Native American tribes. In 1854, several years before the Homestead Act enticed new settlers to western regions of the country, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. This act reopened vast tracts of land for settlement, land that had previously been vouchsafed for independent Native American nations. Other territories throughout the West that had been protected by agreements between Native Americans and the federal government were similarly opened for settlement.
American Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
When Cather published "A Wagner Matinee" in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt was serving as president. He had served under William McKinley as vice president and succeeded to the presidency after McKinley's assassination in 1901. A naturalist, an outdoorsman, and an explorer, Roosevelt wrote books on the American frontier, outdoor life, and natural history. In addition to his efforts to steer the United States into the arena of world politics, to break up monopolies in business, and to ensure the creation of the Panama Canal, Roosevelt was known for his efforts in the area of conservation. A love of the American frontier was instilled in Roosevelt during the late 1800s. Following the death of his first wife, he set off to roam the Dakota Territory, eventually establishing his own ranch. Such experiences influenced his causes after he became president.
With the power his office bestowed, Roosevelt advocated the efficient use of the nation's natural resources. He was responsible for the creation of numerous national forests as well as federal bird reservations, national game preserves, and national parks. Roosevelt was moved to protect at least some of what was once the great American frontier from oversettlement, but he was aware that land that could actually be called "frontier" in the truest, wildest, unsettled sense of the word was becoming quite rare. In fact, following the U.S. census taken in 1890, many believed that the frontier was "closed," that there was no longer a clear demarcation between settled and unsettled territory. Life in newly settled territories was harsh and uncivilized in many aspects, but the land was being developed by increasingly large numbers of homesteaders. Such acts of settlement—the building of homes, the cultivation of farms—were becoming common enough by the close of the nineteenth century that Roosevelt and others began to look to the rest of the world (since America's own frontier had disappeared) for places with the potential to be influenced by the type of American ideals that had "tamed" the wilderness.
Although the German composer Richard Wagner, to whom Cather refers in "A Wagner Matinee," died in 1883, his orchestral pieces and operas were still being enjoyed by many Americans in the early twentieth century, the time Cather's story was published. Wagner was known for exploring the limits of the traditional boundaries of musical performance in terms of musical forms, instruments and performers used, and the utilization of performance spaces. Performances of classical music by European and American composers were heard by audiences in the orchestral halls of cities recognized as the cultural centers of America at that time. Such cities included Boston and New York. American composers of classical music were influenced by and studied with European composers, but they would soon begin to establish a reputation for having their own unique style and sound.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Late 1800s and early 1900s: Land in America's central region and in the West that had previously been designated as frontier is becoming increasingly populated after years of homesteaders being enticed to settle on public land. These parcels of land are made available for purchase at low cost after five years of habitation and development. Population densities remain heaviest along the East Coast of the United States.
Today: Virtually no land is seen as frontier any longer in the United States, as has been the case since the years after Alaska gained statehood, along with Hawaii, in 1959. Population density remains heaviest in the eastern half of the country, with the exception of select regions along the West Coast and in southwestern portions of the United States.
- Late 1800s and early 1900s: America's land and natural resources are becoming jeopardized by increased settlement. The longtime outdoorsman, naturalist, and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt addresses this issue in his writings and in the political arena, particularly after he becomes president in 1901. Roosevelt protects America's natural resources through the creation of numerous national forests, wildlife preserves and reservations, and national parks.
Today: The conservation of America's natural resources is threatened by the efforts of some businesses and politicians to exploit protected public land in order to draw on potential oil reserves, particularly in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
- Late 1800s and early 1900s: Women are just gaining regular employment in occupations other than those related to domestic chores. With the industrialization of America, factories offer a variety of new opportunities to women, although the cost on their health from long hours, hard labor, and dangerous conditions is high. Other women with access to higher education are able to seek employment as nurses, as writers (like Cather), or in the field of education (like Cather's character Georgiana). Most female workers earn substantially less than their male counterparts.
Today: Women make up a large percentage of the educators and health-care professionals in the United States but are also employed in virtually every field imaginable. Despite the advancements made in the range of opportunities for employment for women, a wage discrepancy between men and women remains.
- Late 1800s and early 1900s: Boston, the setting of Cather's "A Wagner Matinee," is a city known for its culture. It is a thriving venue that supports writers, artists, and musicians. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which plays a prominent role in Cather's story, is established in 1881.
Today: Boston maintains its historic reputation as one of America's premier cultural cities, attracting lovers of music, theater, art, and dance. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is world renowned.
Despite the fact that "A Wagner Matinee" is one of Cather's earliest works of fiction of any length, the work is generally agreed to be a well-constructed story. In it, many critics find intimations of Cather's later, more accomplished style as well as early treatments of themes that Cather continued to explore throughout her many published works of fiction. The literary scholar James Woodress, in his introduction to the 1983 edition of The Troll Garden, states that "A Wagner Matinee" is "an excellent story, lean and compact." Woodress observes that Cather uses the same point of view—that of a young man—to great effect in her later novel My Ántonia. Other critics have focused instead on Cather's employment of autobiographical details in "A Wagner Matinee." David Daiches, in his 1951 book Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, finds that Cather's usage of details drawn from her own life is subtle. Daiches notes that with a few such observations, Cather is able to contrast the isolation of the Nebraskan farm with the cultural sophistication of Boston. While Daiches contends that the structure of the story "is simple and the point rather obvious," he nevertheless identifies in the work the development of Cather's original style and emotional tone.
Another critical approach to "A Wagner Matinee" explores the story's characterization. Often critics focus on the character of Georgiana, the subject of the narrator's thoughts and the embodiment of the suffering wrought by frontier life. Susan J. Rosowski, in the 1986 volume The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, concentrates instead on Clark, Georgiana's nephew. Rosowski studies Clark's own transformation in the story, arguing that Clark changes from a cold observer to an empathetic friend. Marilyn Arnold, in an essay in Willa Cather, edited by Harold Bloom and published in 1985, finds that Clark's assessment of and behavior toward his aunt is consistently loving, respectful, and warm. Clark's harsh descriptions of his aunt, for example, are "mellowed by his loving regard for her."
Although "A Wagner Matinee" is often found to be among the best stories in the volume in which it was published in 1905, The Troll Garden, it is often slighted when compared with Cather's later fiction. Some scholars assert that Cather's style became richer and more effective over time, claiming that her later works create deeper emotional responses in the reader or that her realistic style grew to be more precise and subtle. Rosowski maintains, rather, regarding The Troll Garden, that "Cather's technique in these stories is often quite good." She argues, though, that what the stories lack is the conviction in the reassuring powers of artistic creation that her later works possess.
Dominic is a novelist and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Dominic examines Cather's characterization of Clark and Georgiana in "A Wagner Matinee," arguing that through Clark's often negative assessments of his aunt, Cather expresses her own views regarding the painful realities of frontier life as well as her opinions regarding the virtues and pleasures of life in a cultured society.
Through Clark, the narrator of "A Wagner Matinee," Cather offers the reader a cool and somewhat distant assessment of the character of Georgiana; all the reader is able to ascertain about Georgiana is captured through the filter of Clark's observations. Yet through Clark's observations of, comments about, and attitude toward Georgiana, his own character is revealed. Cather employs a youthful male character, one who appears perfectly at home and content with life in the city, to present a portrait of an elderly female character, one who, having transplanted herself from an eastern city, has resided on the western frontier for three decades. By presenting Georgiana in this manner, as a contrast to Clark and to the culture that seems vital to his character, Cather challenges the reader to uncover Clark's biases and perhaps the author's own as well. Ultimately, Cather's characterization of Georgiana and Clark suggests the author's bias in favor of the American East and its culture and sophistication over the raw and unruly American West.
Upon discovering that his aunt will soon be visiting him in Boston, Clark begins to reminisce about his aunt and the Nebraskan homestead where she lives and where he himself spent some time as a youth. Clark does not withhold his judgments of Nebraska, his aunt, or her choices in life. Her physical appearance is recollected in the most pejorative of terms, and upon seeing his aunt, Clark does not soften the adjectives he uses to describe her. In memory she is "pathetic and grotesque," and at first sight at the train station he comments on her disheveled appearance, covered as she is in soot and the grime of travel. The 1904 version of the story, in contrast with the 1905 version, compares Georgiana's appearance when getting off the train to that of a burned body. In recalling how Georgiana came to reside in Nebraska, Clark recounts the meeting between Georgiana and Howard. She was an "angular, spectacled woman of thirty," a teacher of music employed by the Boston Conservatory, he explains. Her soon-to-be husband, Howard, was a young "country boy" possessing an "extravagant" attraction for Georgiana. The pair eloped after Howard followed Georgiana back to Boston, and Clark is certain that his aunt sought to escape "the reproaches of her family and the criticisms of her friends" by accompanying Howard to the Nebraskan frontier. In these recollections, Clark's disapproval and condescension is plain, and he continues to view his aunt in this light for the remainder of her stay in Boston. Her choice to leave in the first place clearly left Clark feeling slightly disgusted, and this negativity was compounded by his disapproval of the man Georgiana married, the couple's destination, and the fact that Howard was in fact poor.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- O Pioneers!, Cather's second novel, published in 1913, is considered her first great work and is acknowledged by many to be her masterpiece. In it she treats themes that would remain integral to her work throughout her career, particularly the challenges and suffering attendant to frontier living. The work is available in a 2007 Echo Library edition.
- Cather's My Ántonia, first published in 1918 and available in a 1995 edition by Mariner Books, explores the lives of an immigrant family, including a young girl named Ántonia, who have settled in rural Nebraska in the late 1800s. The beauty of the land is contrasted with the hardships endured by the family, and the beauty and pain are further juxtaposed with the opportunities offered back east.
- A portion of the nineteenth-century English poet Christina Rossetti's poem "Goblin Market" was selected by Cather to introduce her volume of short stories The Troll Garden, in which "A Wagner Matinee" appears. A poem that explores a variety of subversive temptations, "Goblin Market" was published in 1862 and is available in a 1994 edition by Dover Publications.
- Frederick Jackson Turner's influential 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" discusses the way the frontier shaped America's history and identity. The essay is available in the volume Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," and Other Essays, edited by John Mack Faragher and published by Yale University Press in 1999.
- Theodore Roosevelt was inspired in his conservationist efforts as president by his life on the frontier, which he describes in Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. In this volume, Roosevelt extols the virtues of frontier life and portrays the challenges of such a life as well. The book was originally published in 1885 and is available in a 2004 edition by Pavilion Press.
Following Clark's discussion of Georgiana's marriage and departure for Nebraska, he provides an almost clinical assessment of her appearance. Her skin is yellow and leathery; she wears false teeth; her posture is poor. Clark claims that as a youth, he possessed a "reverential affection" for Georgiana. Yet his memories of his youth with her indicate that the suffering she endured from the back-breaking, unending physical labor as well as from the isolation from her former society are tainted by his understanding that she willingly sacrificed the society and culture she had once held so dear. Clark states that "she had the consolations of religion and, to her at least, her martyrdom was not wholly sordid." The implication here, emphasized by the phrase "to her at least," is that while to Georgiana the sacrifices that she has made for things she believes in are not contemptible, to Clark, the sacrifices Georgiana made are indeed contemptible or ignoble in some way. Clark then conveys an anecdote in which Georgiana expresses her fear that if he loves music too well, it will be taken from him, and that this is the worst type of sacrifice one can make—losing something that one loves so dearly. Georgiana appears to feel that there is some reason for her suffering, in that she seems to feel her martyrdom was not "sordid." Yet this comment is almost immediately followed by Georgiana's prayer that Clark's sacrifice will not be having to give up something he loves so well as music. The juxtaposition of these two anecdotes underscores Clark's general disapproval of his aunt's outlook: he appears discomforted by the fact that she alternately seems to take responsibility for her choices and then appears to feel that she was the victim of circumstances, that sacrifices have been inflicted upon her.
The views Clark possesses fuel an attitude that borders on scornful, or at least pitying, as when he describes taking his aunt about the city. To his eyes, she appears to be sleepwalking, unable to understand that she now has returned to the city where she had lived when she was much younger, "the place longed for hungrily half a lifetime." After mentioning the way Georgiana had confided with him years ago about a musical performance she enjoyed in Paris, Clark begins to doubt his aunt's ability to enjoy the Wagner program to which he is planning on taking her. He hopes even that her taste for such music has died, maintaining that it would be merciful if she had forgotten entirely the things that used to give her pleasure. Presumably, Clark believes that hearing the musical performance might make Georgiana long for her past life, or for aspects of it that are no longer available to her.
At the concert hall, Clark describes the beautiful finery that all the women in attendance are wearing. He has previously noted Georgiana's own dull, ill-fitting black clothing. Clark's pleasure in the lovely women dressed properly for the concert is obvious; he describes the colors as those one might find in a sun-drenched painting by an impressionist. To Georgiana, meanwhile, he ascribes no ability whatsoever to appreciate the scene before her. The lavishly dressed women, Clark states, were viewed by Georgiana "as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette." While Clark appreciates the beauty of the clothes and compares the women's fashions to a scene from a work of art, he believes that Georgiana is only able to see the women in such outfits as blotches of color. Similarly, Clark recalls the transformation he felt within himself upon viewing the musicians at the concert hall for the first time after returning from Georgiana's homestead: he was dazzled by the details of the musicians' garments, the shapes of their instruments, the light playing on the cellos, the first strokes and strains of orchestra. Such an account of Clark's fully articulated memories of a deeply felt response is contrasted with the "little stir of anticipation" Georgiana demonstrates upon seeing the musicians enter the concert hall. While Clark does identify this small response in his aunt, his own ability to respond to his rich surroundings and to be intensely moved by the music is clearly given more weight by Cather within the text.
Georgiana's response to the music is muted. She clutches Clark's sleeve, she weeps quietly, she mentions having heard one of the songs before. Clark wonders about her ability to comprehend themusic's structure, yet we know that in the past she was a music instructor; it had been her job not only to understand the formal structure of such pieces of music but also to enable others to appreciate it as well. When at the end of the concert Georgiana expresses her unwillingness to leave, Clark presumes to understand her feelings. He imagines that for her, departure from the music hall posits her squarely back on the homestead, with all the isolation and suffering it represents to her. Indeed, very little of what Georgiana has said or done contradicts Clark's assumptions.
Thus, Cather appears to encourage her readers to share Clark's views about his aunt. The fact that life on the western frontier has in so many ways debilitated Georgiana is a central thrust of the story. Cather grew up on the Nebraskan frontier, only to go on to college and later move back east, where she supported herself through various jobs and eventually through her writing. In portraying Clark and Georgiana as she has, Cather appears to be accomplishing a variety of ends. Georgiana, while perhaps a sympathetic figure in that she seems to have been motivated in her choices by love—love of Howard, love of Clark—nevertheless is depicted as diminished by her choice to leave Boston, her career, and her life as an independent woman employed in a field that she loved. Her path is the opposite of the one Cather chose for herself. Clark, on the other hand, appears to serve as a mouthpiece, to a certain degree, for Cather's views on frontier life and the apparent superiority of city living. Frontier homesteading has deprived Georgiana of many things—her vitality, her youth, and her ability to appreciate art and culture. Clark, however, thrives in a city environment and is deeply appreciative of most things his senses perceive, from the color of a woman's dress to the sounds of a Wagner matinee. Cather's characterization of the two main characters is wrought primarily through the details Clark fixates on throughout the course of the story. Through Clark and his assessment of Georgiana, Cather paints a largely negative picture of the western frontier and a glowing portrait of the eastern American city. As Philip Gerber observes in his critical biography Willa Cather (1995), in "A Wagner Matinee" Cather "comes as close as she ever did to rejecting the West."
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on "A Wagner Matinee," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Janis P. Stout
In the following excerpt, Stout tracks Cather's writing career and the events surrounding the publishing of The Troll Garden, pointing out that "A Wagner Matinee" brought on "a storm of public protest."
… The figure of the female leader had appeared full-blown, of course, a full decade before "Macon Prairie" in O Pioneers!, the novel in which Cather said (in an inscription in the copy she sent Carrie Miner) that she "hit the home pasture."
It is often said that until she did hit that home pasture she had been writing poor imitations of Henry James. But she did not begin her overtly Jamesian period until perhaps a decade after she began to publish stories. Her period of most obvious influence by James was 1903 to 1912, the year of Alexander's Bridge. Her very first stories, "Peter" and "Lou, the Prophet," drew on Nebraska materials, as did several others written during the 1890s. In those early works, however, she was not yet ready to write with assurance. Until O Pioneers! or perhaps "The Bohemian Girl," written in late 1911 when she was revising Alexander's Bridge, everything she wrote was, as she inscribed Carrie Miner's book, "half real and half an imitation." She was, after all, just learning to manage narrative, dialogue, and the challenge of igniting emotional power, and she could be forgiven the excesses of emotional coloring or the biblical intonations by which she tried to approximate Old World speech. Like her poems, her apprentice stories bounce about among styles and subjects so much that they are difficult to discuss in any coherent way. But until about 1903, when S. S. McClure took an interest in her, and later when she began editorial work atMcClure's and became more sharply aware of both literary fashion and the ways in which fiction got itself published, that variability did not tend toward a Jamesian mode.
Thirteen of the stories before Troll Garden are set on the prairies. Even so, not all are the "home pasture." "The Clemency of the Court" (1893) was based on newspaper reports of prison atrocities, and "The Affair at Grover Station" (1990) used knowledge of railroading gleaned from her brother Douglass, then working as a Burlington agent in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The home pasture is not just a matter of setting, but of attitude and language as well. Yet characteristic ways of thinking, such as attention to the power of the unstated and the dignity of reticence, appear even in some of the most amateurish and artificial of them. For all its clumsy exoticism, for example, "A Tale of the White Pyramid" (1892) develops motifs of secrecy and concealment that would recur throughout Cather's creative life (O'Brien, Emerging 199-200). "The Sentimentality of William Tavener" (1900) demonstrates the power of emotions held in reserve. "The Count of Crow's Nest" (1896), laborious and uneven but a story in which a manuscript reader for Cosmopolitan showed an encouraging interest, elevates both the value of "the indefinite" in "the domain of pure art" and the dignity of conducting oneself with reserve—a principle Cather would later carry to the point of a kind of habitual secrecy.
Several of the early stories demonstrate the speciousness of rigid gender roles and give favorable treatment to characters who undermine conventions. The vigorous heroine of "Tommy the Unsentimental" (1896), a girl with a boy's name, a face "like a clever wholesome boy's," "the lank figure of an active half grown lad," and a "peculiarly unfeminine mind that could not escape meeting and acknowledging a logical conclusion," prevents a run on a bank by riding some twenty-five miles uphill on her "wheel." A set of "old speculators and men of business" undermines gender roles by "rather tak[ing] her mother's place." In "The Sentimentality of William Tavernor" Hester can "talk in prayer meeting as fluently as a man" and shows that it "takes a strong woman to make any sort of success of living in the West." The stalwart Margie of "A Resurrection" (1897) has eyes "serious and frank like a man's" (426), and another Margie, in "The Treasure of Far Island" (1902), has "preserved that strength of arm and freedom of limb that had made her so fine a playfellow" (278). In "The Professor's Commencement" (1902), a revelation of Cather's own fear that her "best tools [will] have rusted" if she spends her life teaching high school, the professor has hands "white as a girl's" while his sister is "the more alert and masculine character of the two" but also his "protecting angel." At the end, after he has again forgotten the memorized lines he meant to speak, the professor confesses with shame that he "was not made to shine, for they put a woman's heart in me," but it is clear that we are not to accept that pronouncement at surface value. Even if the professor has not lived up to his own expectations, he has shone, for his colleagues see him, only half facetiously, as a Horatius who has "kept the bridge these thirty years." Like others of the early stories, "The Professor's Commencement" is not well resolved, but even so one wonders why critics have found the professor's love for literature "almost unnatural" (Meyering 204, summarizing Joan Wylie Hall, 142-50) and Cather's acceptance of his "emasculation" (a term that betrays the conventionalism of the critic's own definitions) a "dangerous" sign (Thurin 115).
The artist figures in these stories are vaguely androgynous. Given the common stereotype, of course, the yearning for beauty can itself be seen as a kind of feminizing touch, and since Cather certainly identifies with the characters who have that yearning, we can assume that she also identifies with their evasion of conventional notions of gender. In most of the stories before 1906 she centered her narrative attention on male protagonists or masculine activities, even football (in "The Fear That Walks by Noonday," written at the suggestion of Dorothy Canfield), though not literally the sea or battle. In several ("The Count of Crow's Nest," "The Treasure of Far Island," "A Night at Greenway Court"), she views events from a male perspective, a practice that Sarah Orne Jewett would label "a masquerade" (246). Again we see Cather moving between genders, reluctant to be typecast by conventions.
Contrary to the deep love for the Nebraska soil that would characterize O Pioneers!—long taken as the definitive expression of Cather's own feelings—several of the early stories convey a sense of deadness, harshness, or hostility in the prairie environment. Lou, the Prophet, in an 1892 story, is essentially driven insane by prairie drought. The "scorching dusty winds" in "On the Divide" (1896) "seem to dry up the blood in men's veins as they do the sap in the corn leaves," so that it "causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his own windmill tower, and most of the Poles after they have become too careless and discouraged to shave themselves keep their razors to cut their throats with." Her tone here may be grimly humorous, but the prevalence of suicide in her fiction of Nebraska is evidence that she was basically serious. When she speaks of the "awful loneliness" of the Divide, a country "as flat and gray and as naked as the sea," one hears an implicit contrast with the green hills and settled social relationships of Back Creek, Virginia. In "El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional," where Kansas is surely (as Woodress indicates of "The Sculptor's Funeral") another name for Nebraska, a man from Virginia thinks "it would have been better for us if we'd never left it" (Woodress, introduction to TG xxi). In "A Resurrection" (1897) the town of Brownville, which Cather wrote about directly and dismally in an 1894 Journal article, is a place "without aim or purpose." Although she would sometimes insist that Nebraska was the only place she could live and be happy (while she continued to live elsewhere), it appears in these stories as a place to be escaped. The narrator of "The Joy of Nelly Deane" (1911) recalls hearing the "faraway world … calling to us," as it called to Cather.
Naturally, Cather offended people in the state by writing in this way. A storm of public protest was evoked by "A Wagner Matinée" (1904), which shows Nebraska not merely as flat, empty, and harsh but as a trashed wasteland that shatters the spirit of the sensitive. Aunt Georgiana, a close portrait of Cather's own Aunt Franc, seems worn out and positively starved for beauty. Taken to an afternoon concert during a visit to Boston, she is overcome by the music, begins to cry, and pleads at the end, if the male narrator is right, not to go back to the "tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door." Cather told Dorothy Canfield that she had been barraged with angry letters and that her family felt disgraced. When her old mentor Will Owen Jones rebuked her in print she replied that she had not had the slightest intention of disparaging the state.
By aligning the harshness of prairie life with its effect on a person of artistic sensibility, as she does with devastating force in "A Wagner Matinée" and "The Sculptor's Funeral" as well as such early stories as "Peter" and "Eric Hermannson's Soul," she sharpens the opposition of East (or Europe) and West running through much of her fiction and poetry and links it to the opposition between art and a philistine world. This dual opposition is customarily seen as the central structuring theme of The Troll Garden. Hermione Lee, for example, points to an opposition between "mid-western philistinism" and the world of art as the principle of the whole.
Many critics have located that pervasive opposition in the two epigraphs to the volume. The first (with ellipses as shown here) is from Charles Kingley's introduction to The Roman and the Teuton:
A fairy palace, with a fairy garden; … inside the trolls dwell, … working at their magic forges, making and making always things rare and strange.
The second comes from Christina Rossetti's "The Goblin Market":
We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
The two epigraphs set up, in Brown's words (113-14), a conflict between artists (the "industrious" trolls) and the enemies of art (the goblins). But even if we accept that art is the central theme, its import is by no means so simple. Neither goblins nor trolls, after all, are figures that usually evoke trust, and the trolls of Kingsley's parable are in fact considerably more sinister than Cather's elided quotation would indicate. When the ellipses are restored, we see that Kingsley labeled them "evil" and their garden a "fair foul place," that is, a place reminiscent of Klingsor's garden in Parsifal, a story whose importance for Cather would be manifest in One of Ours. Klingsor's garden is mentioned, in fact, in "The Garden Lodge," where it denotes the artistic workshop, so to speak, the world of opera productions and concerts, in contrast to the "quiet nature" behind the walls of a real garden. It is alluded to, as well, in "The Marriage of Phaedra," where the walls of a garden have glass embedded in the top. Another problem with interpreting the epigraphs so rigidly is that both trolls and goblins produce, or at least possess, things "rare and strange." And if we read Kingsley's parable in full we see that the trolls' "rare and strange" products entice the "forest children" to corruption as surely as the fruits of the goblin men entrap Rossetti's Laura in an incessant hunger for more.
The epigraphs, then, as well as the stories themselves, show art as being dangerous. Yet its absence, in "The Sculptor's Funeral" and "A Wagner Matinée," is a kind of death. What The Troll Garden proposes is not a clear alternative in which one choice (art) is good and the other (a philistine existence) is not, but a duality expressing great personal ambivalence—as Cather's dualities generally do. That ambivalence is compounded not only when one story is compared with another, but when other pairs of dualities—East/West (or as Rosowski defines it, prairie/garden), male/female—are layered onto the opposition of art and philistinism.
The volume opens with "Flavia and Her Artists," an unmistakably Jamesian story about a woman who feeds upon art, and ends with two stories about sensitive souls who hunger for art, "A Wagner Matinée" and "Paul's Case." In only one of the seven stories, "The Sculptor's Funeral," is the contrast between art and small-town philistinism clearly drawn. In the others, human values do not follow such a dichotomy. The sequence moves back and forth between East (New York, Boston, London) and West (Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska). A linkage of the East with art or a specious appetite for art is established at the outset by the fact that Flavia has insisted on moving from a house on Prairie Avenue in Chicago to the Hudson Valley to establish her temple to art, which proves instead to be a temple to artificiality. The opposite, the West's artistic void, appears in the benighted narrowness of the Kansas town in "The Sculptor's Funeral," the sense of exile of the dying singer in "A Death in the Desert," the littered and barren Nebraska home where Aunt Georgiana longs for the musical joy of her Boston youth in "A Wagner Matinée." The sequence also moves back and forth between focus on male and on female characters, as well as focus through male and female observers. As O'Brien points out (275-80), a subtext of concern about "gender and vocation" runs throughout. Vocation, in the sense of career, was still Cather's great problem, inseparably tied to both her sense of the artist's vocation (literally, calling) and her misgivings about the marketplace for art. But it is not so clear as O'Brien claims that she develops a theme of male suppression of female creativity.
Flavia, in the first story, is one of the consumers in the artistic marketplace; indeed, she is a consumer in the predatory sense, the celebrities she attracts to her country-house salon being her "prey." A woman of no aesthetic or intellectual discernment, she is responsive only to whether a given celebrity's stock is rising. From the artist's point of view, then, to be boosted by publicity is to make oneself vulnerable to a predator like Flavia—again, evidence of Cather's concern for privacy. But if the desire for art can become a feeding frenzy, the opposite, an indifference to art, is even more deadening—as shown in the contrasting "The Sculptor's Funeral." Illustrating the artfulness of Cather's structuring of the volume, "The Sculptor's Funeral," second in order, is counterbalanced by "A Wagner Matinée," also about deprivation, second to the end, while "Paul's Case," where an appetite for the trappings of glamour that surround the world of the arts again lapses into an orgy of effete consumption, comes last, balancing "Flavia and Her Artists." Paul is more poignant than Flavia because of his youth, but his hunger for art has an equal speciousness. It is really a hunger for lifestyle.
In the three central stories of the volume the interplay of artistic creation and artistic consumption is more complex, though the stories may be less successful. In "The Garden Lodge," Caroline, the central character, has been reared in a household in which she and her mother were virtual servants of the husband-father, a composer and sometime piano teacher, while both parents carried on "a sort of mystic worship of things distant, intangible, and unattainable" that rendered them personally ineffectual. Caroline herself has narrowly escaped enslavement to the paternal task-master, not by suppressing her creativity, as O'Brien asserts, but rather by rebelling against his plan to make her a concert pianist. When she "came into the control of herself," she broke off her training for the concert hall and chose to build a career as an accompanist and teacher, further defying her father by refusing to have her pupils study his compositions. Since she is already well established in this career when she marries, the choice that O'Brien attributes to her of an "orderly controlled marriage rather than an artistic career" (275) is actually never posed. The conventionally feminine role of accompanist does not so much frustrate her creativity as afford her the satisfaction of doing something well and making her own way, just as a woman journalist might who successfully "accompanied" male publishers and editors-in-chief. Indeed, two other good accompanists in Troll Garden are male—only one of the many ways in which Cather undermines conventions of gender in these stories. One is the "lovable" Everett Hilgard, in "A Death in the Desert"; the other is Flavia's apparently inartistic businessman husband.
It is generally acknowledged that the husband in "Flavia and Her Artists" was modeled on Flavia Canfield's husband, Dorothy's father, but he is not presented as being only the husband of a foolish wife, as commentary on the story usually insists. It is he rather than Flavia who is sought out for conversation by the truest artist in the group of guests, and it is he who is sensitive to the feelings of the narrator, Imogen Willard (a name borrowed from Cather's Pittsburgh friends May and Mary Willard). Cather did feel that Dorothy's mother dragged her about to museums without consideration of her feelings and seems to have preferred Dorothy's father, Professor Canfield. It is the apparent philistine, then, rather than the supposed lover of art, who becomes "magnificent" at the end of the story, by defending Flavia in a way she does not even understand. The figure of Imogen, the Jamesian ficelle, is a sketch of Dorothy herself, who had recently completed a doctorate in Romance languages at Columbia after conducting research at the Sorbonne. Imogen "had shown rather marked capacity in certain esoteric lines of scholarship, and had decided to specialize in a well-sounding branch of philology at the Ecole des Chartes." But her scholarship is regarded with mild amusement (she is "brim full of dates and formulae and other positivisms"), and the third story in the volume, "The Garden Lodge," makes gratuitous reference to "withered women who had taken doctorate degrees." One wonders whether these barbs were added as revenge for Dorothy's interference with "The Profile" and whether she was offended. Her interference was actually beneficial to the volume, however, since the substitution of "Flavia and Her Artists" provided its strongest structuring element.
All but one of the artists in "Flavia" are boring egoists who hang about and flatter Flavia because they need a place to stay or plan to expose her foolishness in (presumably well-paid) print. Similarly, the artist in "The Garden Lodge," an opera singer named d'Esquerré, is a … parasitic egoist. In "A Death in the Desert" the artist is so utterly preoccupied with self that he uses his twin brother for errands and can be kind only when it costs little effort, and one gathers that his sponsoring of the career of his former pupil, now dying in the cultural desert of Wyoming, involved some element of … vampirism that drained her of her vitality. She is actually dying of tuberculosis—perhaps a pun on "consumption," since she is both consumed by her obsession with Adriance and eager to consume news of the New York art scene. Such is the insatiability of her hunger—like Laura's for the enticing fruits in "Goblin Market"—that she takes no interest in the actual life remaining to her, but only in the life she might have had. The life of the artist has unfitted her for any other. Similarly, when Caroline falls under the spell of d'Esquerré in "The Garden Lodge," she can think of nothing else and wishes to maintain the cottage as a shrine to his creativity …. In resisting that urge, she opts for a dry kind of existence, but a balanced one in which she can remain a free agent, within the limits of her marriage. The conclusion seems to indicate that for a woman, at least, there are no perfect answers, but she has steered as satisfying a course as circumstances allowed. For a school-teacher trying to write fiction in her spare time, that was probably a reassuring conclusion.
In posing such unlikable artist figures as Adriance Hilgard, d'Esquerré, the backbiting Roux in "Flavia and Her Artists," and the overweening Hugh Treffinger of "The Marriage of Phaedra" (a story bearing the marks of James's "The Real Thing"), Cather was continuing to ponder an issue on which she had touched in her newspaper columns, the connection between private character and artistic performance, the mystery of whether art can be genuine when it emerges from personal shallowness. The question of genuineness, both in the artistic creation itself and in what Slote refers to as "the real desire versus the false," is recurrent. Also recurrent and familiar to us from Cather's newspaper columns is a motif of gender-role fluidity. Some of these blurrings of gender boundaries—the women who speak in baritone voices in "Flavia and Her Artists" and "The Marriage of Phaedra," the diminutive Italian tenor with red lips, Paul's sybaritic unmanliness, the curious suggestion that Flavia's exploits might have "unmanned" her—are faintly disturbing, but others are accepted or affirmed. An actress who looks like a boy and is called Jimmy is one of the few likable characters of "Flavia"; in "The Sculptor's Funeral" the old father is feminized by his tenderness for his "gentle" son while the mother only feigns the conventionalized woman's role. The attentive reader is being asked to question assumptions about male and female….
Source: Janis P. Stout, "Finding a Voice, Making a Living," in Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 71-104.
Bruce P. Baker
In the following essay, Baker argues that in many of Cather's early short stories, including "A Wagner Matinee," the author portrays Nebraska "as a cultural desert, a setting antagonistic to the inherent artistic needs of the human spirit."
For many years Willa Cather's novels set in Nebraska have been praised for their evocation of the era of the pioneers, a time of splendid heroism and achievement symbolized by the famous plow against the sun in My Ántonia. On the plains of the great Midwest, sturdy and creative men and women joined themselves with the fertile soil and brought forth a kind of new Eden wherein fallen man seemed to be able once again to unite with the raw material of the earth and create something beautiful and enduring. For example, in Cather's rhapsodic tribute to the pioneer spirit in O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson transforms "TheWild Land" in part one into the rich, fruitful fields of part two. It is important to note that Cather does not seem to portray Alexandra's success as merely an Horatio Alger rags-to-riches exemplum. Rather, her triumph is not so much a material as an artistic one; in a very real and significant way, Alexandra is a creator, an artist who has shaped out of often unwieldly material an orderly and beautiful work.
But Cather had not always viewed the Nebraska of her formulative years as a place wherein the artist, be it a Thea Kronberg or an Alexandra Bergson, could work out their destinies of creative artistry. Quite the contrary, for in much of Cather's early written response to the Great Plains, Nebraska is portrayed as a cultural desert, a setting often hostile to those of artistic bent, a place indifferent if not actively hostile to man's creative spirit.
Cather's first published story, "Peter," which appeared in a Boston literary magazine, The Mahogany Tree, on May 31, 1892, portrays exactly that situation: old Peter Sadelack, a sensitive, artistic immigrant to the "dreariest part of southwestern Nebraska" finds himself unable to endure his new life on the plains. The piece is often very explicit; much is said, little is suggested. Cather comments: "[Peter] drank whenever he could get out of [his son] Antone's sight long enough to pawn his hat or coat for whisky. He was a lazy, absent-minded old fellow, who liked to fiddle better than to plow." Peter is desperately homesick for his native Bohemia and particularly for the opportunities he had had there for artistic expression.
Cather uses the symbol of Peter's violin in order to enhance the story's theme and intensify the emotion: that beautiful instrument represents not only his dearest possession but also those values to which Peter has always been dedicated. The first two sentences in the story point up the conflict between father and son and characterize their respective points of view: "‘No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.’ [His son Antone replies,] ‘But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? Thy hand trembles so thou canst scarce hold the bow.’" In a flashback we learn that Peter was once a second violinist in Prague until partial paralysis of his arm brought those days to a close. Then come the last two paragraphs in which Peter "pulled off his old boot, held the gun between his knees with the muzzle against his forehead, and pressed the trigger with his toe."
Before going to the old sod stable, however, Peter had attempted to play his violin for the last time: "His hand shook more than ever before, and at last refused to work the bow at all." Peter's decision is irrevocable, Cather thus suggests rather obviously, for his "life," his playing of the beloved fiddle, is already over. Hence immediately before pulling the trigger, Peter breaks his violin over his knee and comments: "[Anton] shall not sell thee, my fiddle; I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us. We have seen it all together, and we will forget it together."
Peter himself thus personifies the violin in a speech which makes explicit the symbolic function of that instrument: Peter and his violin are one, both are broken, and the music which they have made together is now over. The style of "Peter" is, of course, rather heavy-handed by Cather's later standards, but in this first story Cather not only anticipates the suicide of Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia but also deals symbolically for the first time with a motif which appears in many of her other stories: the plight of the sensitive immigrant in an environment which does not yet value beauty and creativity.
Mildred Bennett calls "Eric Hermannson's Soul," which appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine for April 1900, Cather's "first important story." As the title indicates, this narrative is concerned with Eric Hermannson, "the wildest lad on all the Divide," his "conversion" during a prayer meeting, and his reaction some two years later to the visit to the Divide of beautiful Margaret Elliot. Cather divides the story into three sections, the first dealing with Eric's conversion during a prayer meeting led by Asa Skinner, a "converted train gambler" who is now "servant of God and Free Gospeller." Asa feels that "the Lord had this night a special work for him to do" and directs his "impassioned pleading" to handsome Eric. Section one is at once a remarkable transcription of a frontier revival meeting and an introduction to the central symbol in the story, Eric's violin.
Like the violin of Peter Sadelack, Eric's instrument represents his love of beauty and the importance of music to this passionate, young immigrant who has tried to capture some joy in life in spite of the barrenness of life on the Nebraska plains. The symbolic function of Eric's violin is fully explicated in this first section of the story; Cather again leaves little to the imagination and even less to suggestion. "In the great world beauty comes to men in many guises, and art in a hundred forms, but for Eric there was only his violin. It stood, to him, for all the manifestations of art; it was his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul."
For Asa Skinner and the Free Gospellers, however, the violin is clearly an abomination to the Lord and the symbol of Eric's sinful ways; again Cather explains rather than suggests: "Tonight Eric Hermannson … sat in [the] audience with a fiddle on his knee, just as he had dropped in on his way to play for some dance. The violin is an object of particular abhorrence to the Free Gospellers. Their antagonism to the church organ is bitter enough, but the fiddle they regard as a very incarnation of evil desires, singing forever of worldly pleasures and inseparably associated with all forbidden things."
By the end of section one, however, Cather succeeds in suggesting through these established symbols much more than is merely said. In the final sentence of this section Eric Hermannson is "saved" as he symbolically destroys what has been for him "his only bridge into the kingdom of the soul": "He took his violin by the neck and crushed it to splinters across his knee, and to Asa Skinner the sound was like the shackles of sin broken audibly asunder." Thus Cather suggests through the symbolism of the broken violin and the final simile in this sentence that the "saving" of Eric Hermannson's soul has in fact been a losing of it. The irony is clear: Eric has lost the only thing which helped make life worth while; his "soul" is destroyed at the very moment when Asa Skinner feels that it has been saved. Thus, like the harshness of the Nebraska land and climate itself, the narrow fundamentalist religions of the frontier have further intensified the spiritual and cultural sterility of early life on the plains.
Of all Cather's early stories, perhaps it is in "A Wagner Matinee," one of the seven stories in The Troll Garden (1905), that Cather most dramatically explores the plight of the sensitive and artistic person who finds himself in a restrictive if not oppressive environment. In the first paragraphs Clark, the narrator, awaits the arrival of his Aunt Georgiana, a woman whose early life as a music teacher in Boston had been drastically changed by her elopement with Howard Carpenter and their subsequent life on the Nebraska frontier. After their marriage, the Carpenters had homesteaded, "built a dugout in the red hillside," and struggled for some thirty years in their effort to survive; during that time, Georgiana "had not been further than fifty miles from the homestead." But now she is coming to Boston to attend to the settling of a small estate left her by a bachelor relative, and Clark dreads seeing "what was left of my kinswoman." Her "misshappened figure" and stooped bearing are, it would seem, outward symbols of what Clark refers to as her "martyrdom." He observes that his aunt appears to be in a "semisomnambulant state" and wonders if his plan to take her to the Wagner matinee was ill conceived: "I began to think it would have been best to get her back to Red Willow County without waking her."
But they make their way to the first balcony, and as the orchestra plays the Tannhauser overture, "Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains." As the program proceeds, Cather skillfully juxtaposes Aunt Georgiana's imaginative return to the world of the arts and Clark's return to the prairie on which he has been reared. Clark reminisces: "… I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sundried cattle tracks; their rain-gullied clay banks about the naked house…." The repeated words are "naked" and "black," adjectives which summarize Clark's attitude toward the Nebraska of his youth.
The ultimate questions which this story ask are ones which, no doubt, emerged from Cather's knowledge of life on the plains of Nebraska: what does the frontier do to the innately sensitive, artistic personality? Is it possible for such a person to survive in the nakedness of such an environment? Clark finds his answer: "Soon after the tenor began in ‘Prize Song,’ I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks, and I think, in a moment more, they were in my eyes as well. It never really died, then—the soul that can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again."
As the concert comes to a close, Cather uses an image derived from the plains to suggest Aunt Georgiana's inevitable return to Red Willow County: "the men of the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield." Georgiana's cry expresses her emotion: "‘I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!’" The story closes with Clark's perceptive observation: "I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crookbacked ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door." Aunt Georgiana must return to all this—and to her martyrdom. Thus in the last paragraph of the story, Cather uses setting as symbol in order to convey the sterility and bleakness of the scene. The unforgettable picture of the "unpainted house," the "black pond," the "crookbacked ash seedlings," and finally the "gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door," suggest powerfully the toll which life in Nebraska has taken upon the innately sensitive, artistic person who finds himself there.
Thus Cather's later reputation may well have been based in part on her ability to gain more perspective about the Nebraska of her youth, but in many of her early short stories, and especially in "Peter," in "Eric Hermannson's Soul" and in "A Wagner Matinee," Nebraska is portrayed as a cultural desert, a setting antagonistic to the inherent artistic needs of the human spirit.
Source: Bruce P. Baker, "Nebraska's Cultural Desert: Willa Cather's Early Short Stories," in Midamerica, Vol. 14, 1987, pp. 12-17.
In the following excerpt, Bradford argues that Cather carefully controlled which of her early stories appeared in later collections, including "A Wagner Matinee" but excluding others, suggesting that she was attempting to "contrive and set before us a picture both prettier and simpler than the actuality."
Between 1896 and 1930 Miss Cather published some twenty-five short stories in magazines of national circulation. Most of these were never included in the three collections of her shorter fiction made during her lifetime, and testamentary restrictions prevent reprinting them. In addition, four stories included in The Troll Garden (1905) were dropped from subsequent collections. When this extensive and widely scattered body of work is read and fitted into the sequence of the canonical works, certain new insights into Miss Cather's development as a writer emerge.
Miss Cather's undergraduate stories began appearing in 1892; her posthumous stories appeared in 1948. The material is so extensive and appeared over so long a time that some sort of classification of it is necessary. Her work, both collected and uncollected, for the most part falls into three main groups: stories of pioneers, of artists, and of her particular type of passionate woman. The order among these groups is the order of Miss Cather's developing interests. She wrote about pioneers before she wrote about artists, and about artists before she turned to lost ladies. The arrangement of the groups is unclimactic because the most interesting material comes first, and not all the stories Miss Cather wrote fit into these groups. But the problem is to shed such light as we can on Miss Cather's development as a writer, and a study of these materials in the order of her developing interests seems to do this best….
Miss Edith Lewis has written that Willa Cather believed that every writer should have the right of supervision over his own published work. The world would not, I think, agree, but there can be no doubt that Miss Cather exercised this right extensively and is in fact still exercising it through a series of unprecedented testamentary restrictions. The uncollected stories we have been discussing are not to be reprinted so long as they remain in copyright. We cannot be certain why Miss Cather rejected from her accepted canon so much mature work that she had once been glad to have printed under her name, but no serious student of her art can avoid speculating about the problem.
One's first assumption would be that Miss Cather rejected so much of her short fiction from her collected work on aesthetic grounds alone, including the good stories and excluding the poorer ones. I believe this assumption untenable. While it is true that no stories as good as her best—as good as "Paul's Case" or "Old Mrs. Harris"—have been rejected, there is both competent and interesting fiction among the rejects. Certainly stories such as "The Bohemian Girl" and "Behind the Singer Tower" represent a serious handling at length of material that was at one time more important to Miss Cather than that handled in slight works such as "A Wagner Matinée" or "Scandal," each hardly more than a sketch. No doubt accident was on occasion responsible for the omission of a story from the canon. The two Pittsburgh stories published in the twenties—"Uncle Valentine" and "Double Birthday"—would not have fitted very well into Obscure Destinies (1932) either in tone or subject matter. They may have been put aside for that reason.
A more tenable assumption is that Miss Cather exercised the control over her work which she challenged for the writer to shape its total impact, to form the final impression which she wished it to leave. For instance, if one judged from the canonical work alone, one would assume that Miss Cather was primarily an affirmer of America's pioneer past and a critic of the later America which has replaced it. A reading of the total body of her work will not sustain such an assumption. For twenty years, from 1892 to 1912, she had little good to say of Nebraska. Only two stories, "The Sculptor's Funeral" and "A Wagner Matinée," remain in the canon from the large body of critical work written during those years. This gives the erroneous impression that what had really been a prevailing attitude was more or less incidental. There can be no doubt that the later exploitation of these materials was the more successful, and Miss Cather seems in time to have assumed that her attitude had always been what it eventually came to be.
A perusal of the rejected works shows, too, that Miss Cather explored nearly every mode of popular fiction practiced during the long years of her apprenticeship. This hesitation between the "kitsch" and serious forms of fiction can hardly be paralleled in the careers of other good writers. Up at least through The Song of the Lark, artistic success seems to have been for her a form of worldly success, a way of making money and thereby gaining respect in banks and the better hotels, but especially in Red Cloud, Nebraska. My Ántonia marks the first emergence of a richer concept of success. There is a pleasant irony involved in the fact that Miss Cather became a popular writer when she quit trying to be one, when she no longer consciously tried to adapt her work to public taste.
There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that Miss Cather regretted nearly all her early work. Twenty-one of the twenty-three rejected stories appeared before the publication of My Ántonia. The Library Edition of her works begins with O Pioneers! rather than Alexander's Bridge. The Song of the Lark was provided with a rather apologetic preface which reminds one of the "Preface" to the 1922 edition of Alexander's Bridge. A comparison of texts will show that in this same edition she "unfurnished" the last two sections of The Song of the Lark quite ruthlessly, changing early Cather into late Cather much in the manner that Yeats operated on his early poems. We noted earlier that a retrospective writer will be a long time getting under way. Once Miss Cather had fully achieved her characteristic nostalgic tone in My Ántonia, she seemed to wish to forget—perhaps even to conceal in so far as she could—the many experimental ventures that were stations on the way to it.
It must be admitted that Miss Cather's manipulation of her work, her attempt to establish a canon, has its unattractive side. Her early life, like her early work, was the subject of a good deal of manipulation—her birth date moved forward three years; the events of the decade spent in Pittsburgh were upgraded a good deal. These manipulations are disappointing to us for rather obscure reasons having to do with our ideal impressions of the artist who should have existed behind such candid books as My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Granted that of necessity Miss Cather had to reject the mass of journalistic writing she had done up to the time she left McClure's, which bulks much larger than her total serious work and which is only very indirectly related to it, there is in her treatment of her short fiction further evidence of an effort to contrive and set before us a picture both prettier and simpler than the actuality. And, more important, a picture much less interesting than the actuality.
Source: Curtis Bradford, "Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Stories," in American Literature, Vol. 26, No. 4, January 1955, pp. 537-51.
Arnold, Marilyn, "Two of the Lost," in Willa Cather, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 177-83.
Bennett, Mildred R., Introduction to Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, edited by Virginia Faulkner, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. xiii-xli.
"Biography of Richard Wagner," Web site of the Kennedy Center, http://www.kennedy-center.org,
Cather, Willa, "A Wagner Matinee," in The Troll Garden, edited by James Woodress, University of Nebraska Press, 1983, pp. 94-101.
———, "A Wagner Matinee," in Everybody's Magazine, Vol. 10, March 1904, pp. 325-28, http://libtextcenter.unl.edu/cather/writings/cat.ss011.php (accessed June 19, 2008).
Daiches, David, "The Short Stories," in Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, Cornell University Press, 1951, pp. 141-74.
Gerber, Philip. "Cather's Shorter Fiction, 1892-1948," in Willa Cather, rev. ed., Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 75-87.
Rosowski, Susan J., "The Troll Garden and the Dangers of Art," in The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, pp. 19-31.
Theodore Roosevelt Association Web site, http://theodoreroosevelt.org (accessed on May 8, 2008).
Woodress, James, "Willa Cather," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9, American Novelists, 1910-1945, edited by James J. Martine, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 140-54.
———, Introduction to The Troll Garden, by Willa Cather, edited by James Woodress, University of Nebraska Press, 1983, pp. xi-xxx.
Giannone, Richard, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction, University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Giannone explores Cather's intense interest in and extensive knowledge about music and the theater and discusses the way these factors informed Cather's fiction.
Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher, Frontiers: A Short History of the American West, Yale University Press, 2007.
The authors explore the impacts of events such as the Gold Rush, the purchase of Alaska, and the U.S.-Mexican War on the cultural and socioeconomic development of the American western frontier.
Luebke, Frederick C., Nebraska: An Illustrated History, Bison Books, 2005.
Historian Luebke offers an overview, illuminated by photographs, of the early frontier history of Nebraska, its settlement, and its development.
Magee, Bryan, Aspects of Wagner, Oxford University Press, 1988.
This highly acclaimed book provides an analysis of the music of Richard Wagner. Magee treats some of the controversial aspects of Wagner's life but focuses more intently on the form, structure, and influence of Wagner's music.
Meltzer, Milton, Willa Cather: A Biography, Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.
Acclaimed biographer Meltzer provides a detailed biography of Cather that is geared toward students. Meltzer explores the ways in which Cather's childhood and adolescence on the Nebraskan frontier informed her fiction throughout her lifetime.
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