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Coming, Aphrodite!

Willa Cather

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page



  Coming, Aphrodite!

  The Diamond Mine

  A Gold Slipper


  Paul’s Case

  A Wagner Matinée

  The Sculptor’s Funeral

  “A Death in the Desert”



  The Profile

  The Enchanted Bluff

  The Joy of Nelly Deane

  Behind the Singer Tower


  Old Mrs. Harris



  WILLA CATHER was born in December 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, the eldest child of Charles and Mary Cather, both descendants of established Virginian families. Her childhood was reportedly happy and well-ordered, and is remembered in her late novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In 1883, the Cathers moved to Webster County, Nebraska, joining members of the family who had settled there earlier. This crucial move, dislocating and dramatic, introduced Cather to a landscape and to ways of life she would memorialize in her famous prairie novels O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady. In the small town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather was a notably energetic, intelligent, and outspoken child, while, as her novels show, the town often seemed to her repressive. In Lincoln, Nebraska, where she attended the state university, she began her journalistic career, writing numerous reviews for the local newspapers, and she published her earliest stories. Here, too, she formulated her idealistic and romantic ideals about art, and her literary ambitions. Those ambitions had to wait for their fulfillment while she earned a living in Pittsburgh as journalist and teacher, and then as editor for McClure’s magazine in New York. With the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913, Cather became the dedicated writer of her own dreams, in time achieving recognition for her prairie novels, and for rare and unique works like Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, and Shadows on the Rock. She led an ordered life, writing stories, novels, and critical essays; traveling regularly; and maintaining valued friends, among them neighbors from her childhood, as well as famous writers and musicians. She was honored for her writings, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours, a novel about a soldier in World War I. She died at her home in New York in 1947.

  MARGARET ANNE O’CONNOR teaches American literature, women’s studies, and film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work on Cather includes editing a special issue of Women’s Studies devoted to her work and compiling a guide to Cather letters available in libraries across the country. She has been a Senior Fulbright lecturer in Freiburg, Germany, where she taught the first European graduate-level seminar devoted solely to the work of Cather.

  CYNTHIA GRIFFIN WOLFF received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University. She has taught at Boston University, Queens College, Manhattanville College, and The University of Massachusetts at Amherst; currently, she holds the Class of 1922 Chair of Humanities at MIT. She has written three books: Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth-Century Puritan Character; A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton; and Emily Dickinson. She has edited more than a dozen books, and has written monographs and several dozen essays—most recently examinations of mid-nineteenth-century slave and abolitionist narratives.

  Currently, she is engaged in the research for a literary biography of Willa Cather.


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

  London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

  Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,

  Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

  Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

  Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  This selection published in Penguin Books 1999

  Introduction copyright © Cynthia Griffin Wolff, 1999 Notes copyright © Margaret Anne O’Connor, 1999

  All rights reserved

  Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint “Old Mrs. Harris”

  from Obscure Destinies by Willa Cather. Copyright 1932 by Alfred A. Knopf,

  Inc. Knopf, Inc.


  Cather, Willa, 1873-1947.

  Coming, Aphrodite! and other stories / Willa Cather ; edited by

  Margaret Anne O’Connor; with an introduction by Cynthia

  Griffin Wolff.

  p. cm.—(Penguin twentieth-century classics)

  eISBN : 978-1-101-49843-9


  FOR YEARS, Willa Cather and her work have been obscured by a cloud of misconceptions and oversimplifications. Often regarded as essentially uncomplicated, Cather’s narratives are both sophisticated and intricate, comparable in many ways to the work of Faulkner (who occasionally appropriated both her insights and her literary strategies). Her novels and short stories are filled with subtle allusions, double meanings, sly (even bawdy) humor, dry irony, and sometimes bitter social satire. The structure of these narratives, always designed with great care and more complex than they appear, is often tantalizingly enigmatic. Cather subverted certainty and renounced reliable resolutions in her major works, eliminating the comfortable closures that had become conventional; thus her readers are often frustrated when they attempt to evaluate fictional characters or to assess the problems they have been invited to consider. Art best imitates life, Willa Cather seems to argue, when it refuses to provide perfect, happy endings or confident conclusions.

  To some extent, the misperception of Cather as a simple, readily accessible author has been reinforced by popular notions of her personality and life. Because she wrote four important novels that were set in Nebraska, Cather has become intrinsically associated with that state; many readers have assumed that she was born on the Great Prairies, even that she spent most of her life there, and they have integrated her personality into a composed, positive stereotype of sturdy Midwestern farm life in America. Moreover, the usual photographs do little to dispel this stereotype: they show a substantial, reliable-looking woman who might be a favorite high school teacher or someone’s “Aunt Willa.” Little wonder, then, that generations of readers have missed the genius of her work and the complexity of her life.

  Surprisingly, Cather’s life began not in Nebraska, nor even the Midwest, but in the little village of Back Creek, just a few miles northwest of Winchester, Virginia, a city that had suffered unusual hardship and pain throughout the Civil War. While it is true that by the time Willa Cather was born (on December 7, 1873), the Civil War had been over for almost ten years, bitter memories of this conflict were still very much alive. There had been three major “Battles of Winchester”; the town had changed hands more than seventy times during the war; when the strife was finally over, more than two hundred buildings in Winchester had been destroyed, and most of them were not restored even by the 1890s. Most humiliating of all, this proud Virginia town was forced to submit to an occupation government of Union soldiers until the spring of 1870. Thus the region that Cather would have called “home” did not forget the Civil War for many, many decades; and because Willa Cather was born so soon after the Union government had been withdrawn, the atm
osphere of her childhood was indelibly colored by the aftermath of war.

  Resentment against Union sympathizers was tenacious. Those who had refused to fight for the Confederacy were held in contempt; and if their choice seemed the result of cowardice, violence might erupt. Thus the emotional turbulence of conflict lingered; sometimes, it festered; occasionally, it became brutal. The deep valley of Back Creek, hard by the West Virginia border, may have been even more bitter and more resistant to reconciliation than its cosmopolitan neighbour, Winchester. Stripped bare by the war, thinly settled afterwards, and profoundly impoverished, it was certainly a more violent place than Winchester: for if there were prosperous, well-educated gentleman-farmers like Willa’s grandfather, William Cather, in Back Creek, there were also unlettered, hard-drinking hill families whose notions of “negotiation” and “justice” could be executed in surprisingly primitive ways. For example, memoirs of this little region report murders with an easy, informal, matter-of-fact tone: murder was just one of the things that happened in Back Creek—as unremarkable as hunting squirrels or trapping rabbits.

  The Cathers had a hired girl named Margie Anderson, a simple, uneducated woman who had come from a hill family on nearby Timber Ridge. Whenever Margie went home to see her mother, she would take Willa along, and Mrs. Anderson would tell stories to the little girl. Mary Ann Anderson knew the contorted history of the hills—tales of families with their complex, often turbulent relationships, and tales of The War—and she told them in the soft cadences of western Virginia. Her daughter, Margie, continued with the Charles Cather family as a much valued hired girl, and she even went with them when they moved to Nebraska; Willa Cather had a lifelong love for Margie, and she continued to treasure the tales of Margie’s mother; in 1896 (a grown-up young woman of twenty-two), Willa Cather visited Mrs. Anderson yet one more time to hear her engrossing tales of “real people.” Years later, a famous author, Willa Cather would trace the roots of her storytelling to this humble beginning. Addressing a conference at the Bread Loaf School of English in 1922, she told her students that she had learned to tell stories from an illiterate Virginia hill woman: a woman who understood the life of the mountains and who remembered the folk phrases that no one had recorded or even could write down—a woman who knew all the local family secrets and used a regional language that was the product of many generations.

  Today, even with a state highway cutting through, Timber Ridge and Back Creek are filled with nature’s enchantment; during Willa Cather’s childhood, they must have seemed a rustic paradise. But if they seemed an attractive paradise, they could be a dangerous one as well. Not all of Mary Ann Anderson’s stories were happy or serene.

  Cather’s educated and refined parents seem somewhat out of place in postwar Back Creek. Although their home, Willow Shade, was a farmhouse and not a plantation, nonetheless it was an extraordinarily elegant farmhouse—brick in a valley of clapboard houses, spacious and graceful and finished with tasteful architectural details. Everything about Willow Shade bespoke money and success, and just the possession of such a house might make a man the object of his neighbors’ envy. Willa Cather’s parents, Charles and Virginia Cather, were fourth-generation Virginians, members of a highly revered “aristocracy.” Moreover, before the Civil War, ancestors from both sides had served in the Virginia Legislature.

  Together, they even represented both Virginian attitudes toward the recent Civil War, and these separate loyalties persisted throughout their lives: mother, Virginia Boak Cather, had come from a distinguished Confederate family; father, Charles Cather, belonged to a family whose members were outspoken Union sympathizers. “Blue against gray” continued in the Cather household even after the war, and spirited debates formed an intrinsic part of Willa Cather’s girlhood. Even the family’s move to Nebraska was to some extent influenced by the post-Civil War currents of hostility and conflict.

  Willa Cather’s grandfather, William Cather, and his sons George and Charles had played what seemed to their neighbors a dubious—if not despicable—role during the years of battle. Charles Cather and his older brother George had slipped across the nearby border to West Virginia, removing themselves from the Confederacy to escape conscription into the Secessionist army. Nothing but draft dodgers, so a great many of their neighbors thought. During the conflict, William Cather was rumored to be a Union spy; after the war he held an exceptional number of profitable offices under the Government of the Occupation, thereby reaping sizable gains from a sympathetic Union army. At a time when his neighbors had worthless Confederate bills, he was earning good hard Union cash. Small wonder, then, that many thought him little more than a “profiteer.”

  In 1873, Willa’s Uncle George moved out to Nebraska—the first of the family to go. Perhaps he was distressed by the family’s awkward position in the postwar world of Virginia; however, the principal attraction for George Cather was money. Nebraska, along with other sparsely populated Western states, had mounted a campaign to lure settlers: it promised cheap land, fertile soil, and quick prosperity to those who would come and settle with their family. Once in Nebraska, George and his new wife wrote glowing letters back to Virginia, urging the rest of the Cathers to follow. They emphasized the prospect of quick money, to be sure. However, they cited another advantage, and one particularly appealing to Willa’s grandparents, William and Caroline Cather—Nebraska’s unusually crisp, dry, “healthy” air. William and Caroline had lost all of their sons except Charles and George to consumption; and they had two adult daughters at home who were sick with the same disease. They visited George and his wife in 1873; and in 1875 they joined them, leaving Charles and his family to work the sheep farm at Willow Shade.

  Charles and Virginia Cather were reluctant to make the move that had taken the rest of the family to Nebraska: Virginia’s widowed mother lived within easy walking distance; Charles enjoyed the life of a sheep farmer; and unlike William Cather’s family, their own family had no consumption and thus no compelling reason to leave the Back Creek valley. And all were deeply attached to the graceful beauty of Willow Shade.

  However, the valley folk had long memories. Many saw the beauty of Willow Shade as a galling, daily reminder of “draft dodgers” and “war profiteers.” Finally, in a characteristically emphatic way, they expressed their desire to rid themselves of Willow Shade’s owners: they set the home’s immense barn on fire, and it burned to the ground in a colossal conflagration. The message was emphatic and clear. William Cather, at least, grasped it immediately. As soon as he got the news, he wrote from Nebraska observing that Charles had better leave Back Creek before the house caught fire too; and he urgently insisted that they join their kin in the Midwest. So it was that in February of 1883 Charles sold Willow Shade, auctioned off the farm equipment, and took his wife and children to Nebraska. They joined Willa’s grandparents and Uncle George in a brand-new town that had been named with characteristic modesty: Catherton, Nebraska.

  Willa Cather was nine years old when she was thus abruptly uprooted—old enough to have been imprinted with the conflicts and complexities of those Virginia years. Perhaps her deepest realization was that although a conflict is over, it may still be far from resolved: the long shadow of a war that had ended before she had been born taught her this lesson; and the disputes, however good-natured, between her Confederate mother and her Unionist father affirmed it at dinner almost every night. In the fictions, then, her habit of eschewing closure—of denying the reader a “happy ending,” or indeed, often any definitive resolution—is in part a legacy of these early Virginia lessons. Almost as deep is the recognition that violence, often unanticipated and inexplicable violence, is an inescapable part of life. Servants by the kitchen fireplace at Willow Shade and the care-worn hill woman from Timber Ridge told the little girl tales about the kind of violence that was often such a casual part of Back Creek life—violence of the sort that had burned the great barn to the ground. Finally, Willa Cather could not ignore the acquisitive drive that was e
specially apparent in Grandfather and Uncle George. Her own father, whose gentleness she treasured, never had much success in business; but she preferred his amiable nature (with all its deficiencies) to the sort of success that focuses on money and the world of commodities.

  Yet the Virginia heritage also imparted an element of self-esteem to the girl: there was a sense of being “different,” perhaps even “better” than the usual run of folk. Successor to the “first families of Virginia,” Willa Cather had been an aristocrat during her early years. In her later years, this sentiment was translated into a conviction that she was meant to achieve something extraordinary. It gave her great drive and ambition, not for monetary success, but for the something “special” that could be affirmed by some unusual accomplishment. Eventually it both gave her the discipline to become an artist and defined the essence of that vocation. “Artist” was fully as distinguished an inheritance as “Virginian.”

  There had been enough in the last Virginia days to frighten any child; but the prospect of the vast Nebraskan prairies—unmarked by trees, uncultivated by farms, uncivilized by homes, with a merciless, relentless wind—terrified the child even more.

  Cather had two brothers and a sister by the time the family moved to Nebraska (eventually, her mother had three more children), and Willa treasured their company—all the more so because the prairies’ isolation was so frightening. Much later, after she had become a distinguished author, Willa Cather remembered her bleak reaction to the new home.

  The roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality.