The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

I am reading David Mitchell’s novels in order and, while only two books in, I am quite enjoying the experience. I happened across Alexander’s Bridge when looking for books for my Kindle and, as I adore Cather’s writing, I downloaded it. Upon completion, I had read three of her first four novels. Any remaining anti-completionist tendencies on my part were overridden by the fact that The Song of the Lark, the missing piece of my “The Prairie Trilogy” puzzle, is oft touted as Cather’s most autobiographical novel.

The Song of the Lark is delicious. The first half or so of the book is classic prairie Cather. Some say “you can safely skip the last section if you think the book is too long”, but that is going a bit far. It is true, however, that the first and last sections seem almost like different books. But beginnings first.

As the book opens, Thea Kronborg is a small girl in a small town, Moonstone, Colorado. Her father is a minister. She has pneumonia and her mother is giving birth to her brother Thor. Dr. Archie is there to help with the birth and does what he can for Thea as well. He has a special affinity for Thea, an affinity that only grows as she gets older. Other adults, like railroadman Ray Kennedy and Spanish Johnny are also drawn to Thea. She is different, she shines.

Thea has musical talent to go with her youthful charisma. Her early years are spent in competition with another local girl, watching after her baby brother, and enjoying small town life in Colorado. Both the landscape and its inhabitants are beautifully rendered. Cather is at her best and most typical here. She offers both poingancy and humor. With respect to humor, she writes the following while describing Ray Kennedy:

Ray was a freethinker and, inconsistently, believed himself damned for being one.

And:

He had the lamentable American belief that expression is obligatory.

At another point, Thea’s mother is talking with another railroader:

”You fellows grumble too much,” said Mrs. Kronborg as she corked the pickle jar. “Your job has its drawbacks, but it don’t tie you down. Of course, there’s the risk. But I believe a man is watched over and he can’t be hurt on the railroad or anywhere else if it’s intended he shouldn’t be.”

Giddy laughed. “Then the trains must be operated by fellows the Lord has it in for, Mrs. Kronborg. They figured out that a railroad man’s only due to last eleven years, then it’s his turn to be smashed.”

Each of these scenes is carefully chosen by Cather. As in Alexander’s Bridge, Cather carefully foreshadows bigger events only more adroitly. She manages more surprise in this work. But the plot is neither the primary nor the secondary draw. Fighting for equality with Cather’s descriptive prowess are the ideas she presents, her recreation of the birth of an artist.

Underneath the small town striving of the townspeople and Thea’s rival, there are bigger currents. Thea is not simply talented, she is driven. This is where her charisma lies. She wants more out of life, more out of others, but, mostly, more out of herself.

Dr. Archie plays an important role as her advisor and intellectual role model. After a disturbing incident involving a mistreated tramp, Thea confronts Dr. Archie with the town’s hypocrisy. She wants to know:

”Do people believe the Bible or don’t they? If the next life is all that matters and we’re put here to get ready for it, then why do we try to make money or learn things or have a good time. There’s not one person in Moonstone that really lives the way the New Testament says. Does it matter or doesn’t it?”

Dr. Archie gives his worldview, including a respect for “all religions” combined with a recognition that living up to their demands is impossible. In its immediate context, the advice seems almost banal. Crucially, however, his view is both practical and historically optimistic:

“…[W]e have only about 20 able waking years. That’s not long enough to get acquainted with half the fine things that have been done in the world, much less to do anything ourselves. I think we ought to keep the commandments and help other people all we can. But the main thing is to live those 20 splendid years to do all we can and enjoy all we can.”

“…[T]he failures are swept back into the pile and forgotten. They don’t leave any lasting scar on the world and they don’t affect the future. The things that last are the good things, the people who forge ahead and do something. They really count.”

As Thea grows up, the reader soon realizes she has taken that advice to heart and it is advice that matters. She intends to get everything out of her “20 splendid years” that she can. The later portions of the novel focus on Thea’s artistically mature interpretation of this advice. She lives the life of an artist with “older and higher obligations” than those of the citizens of Moonstone.

These later sections are not as easygoing and charming as the earlier sections. As Thea progresses into adulthood, we see less of her and hear more about her, often through Dr. Archie. But, towards the very end, the novel swings around to Thea again. We get to see the driving forces of the artist and views on art that are almost certainly Cather’s own. These final parts of the novel are essential, I think, to what Cather was trying to achieve and to gaining insight into Cather’s artistic vision.

Thea and Dr. Archie sit together as she tries to explain:

“…There are many disappointments in my profession and bitter, bitter contempts.” Her face hardened and looked much older. “If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you there is such a thing as creative hate, a contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”

This passion for excellence, this hardness on herself and others, is what sets Thea apart as especially beautiful. There is a coldness, though, to the beauty.

”You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesn’t matter, then nothing matters.”

And this, I think, is why someone can say that the second part can be skipped. It has little of the warmth of the earlier sections, when Thea is a passionate girl. Even as readers, we are as enthrall to this girl as are so many of the townspeople. As a mature artist, she loses not only relationships that no longer serve, she loses readers who care more for the performance than the artistry. It is not unlike a rocket. The initial launch is spectacular and gripping, the later stages of flight through the atmosphere are even boring by comparison. But in order to reach the moon, those later stages are necessary. The full beauty of the novel is only apparent near the end. Cather’s achievement is remarkable. While My Antonia remains my first Cather love, The Song of the Lark is outstanding.

*This is a review of an audiobook.

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3 Responses to The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

  1. Sarah says:

    If this book ever comes my way I shall certainly snaffle it. And if any encouragement were needed to read it in its entirety then your post would perform that function admirably.

    Your final paragraph is the real clincher for this book. Working out whether the change of pace is misguided on the author’s part or a deliberate ploy is part of the fun. Although that is not to say that I would necessarily see what you see.

    Thanks for an excellent review, Kerry. If I don’t happen across some more Willa Cather soon I may have to consider breaking a strict Amazon embargo…

  2. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you, as always (not least for “snaffle”, I love British English).

    I can certainly appreciate an Amazon embargo, whether for personal or political reasons. But if it is to be broken, you can do worse than Cather.

    I expect you might see more or differently than I see, in fact, I hope it. That’s one reason I read your blog!

  3. […] –  Hungry Like the Wolf […]

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