The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

January 9, 2010

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.


Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

November 20, 2009

I have much enjoyed Willa Cather’s work and this little novella was no exception. While Alexander’s Bridge is a decidedly minor piece in her oeuvre, Cather’s incredible skill in capturing mood and character is on display. Still, the flaws are real. The story is a little too neat and the climax a bit contrived.

The novella is a deviation from Cather’s other work in that the primary settings are Boston, New York, and London, rather than the American west with which she is so closely associated. There is a western connection, but it is slight. It was pleasing to see her capture imagery besides the plains of Nebraska and other western states. She has an eye for setting and landscape that she puts to good use in this novella, though most of the novel is set indoors.

At the center of the story is Bartley Alexander, a superstar bridge builder in the prime of his career. The novella opens with his former teacher, Professor Lucius Wilson, having just arrived in Boston to visit. Wilson nears the appointed address in time to watch a woman enter:

Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid gait.

Wilson follows the woman into the house to which he was headed. The woman was Mrs. Alexander. Bartley is working late, which suits Wilson fine. He relishes the opportunity to spend time with the elegant Mrs. Alexander.

Mrs. Alexander sat looking into the fire with intent preoccupation, and Wilson studied her half-averted face. He liked the suggestion of stormy possibilities in the proud curve of her lip and nostril. Without that, he reflected, she would be too cold.

Wilson evening is all but spoilt when Bartley does come home. Mrs. Winifred Alexander leaves the men to chat. Bartley is heading off to England shortly to fulfill the demands of his career. Alexander is working on a major bridge in Canada, where he met Mrs. Alexander. The bridge has the greatest span of its type and will be quite a legacy for Bartley. Yet, he is not content.

“After all, life doesn’t offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you’re getting on, and suddenly you discover that you’ve only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry.

Your life keeps going for things you don’t want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don’t care a rap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I’d have been if I hadn’t been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too.”

And this is the crux of the problem. Bartley is a man at the top of his game, but he feels the crush of responsibilities and the dwindling years of life. He longs for his lost youth. He is in a midlife crisis.

Men are not terribly imaginative in dealing with this particular psychological phenomenon. Bartley is a man’s man. He was exceptional in his younger days for his energy and drive. The next afternoon, when Wilson again has Mrs. Alexander alone, he describes Bartley as having “a powerfully equipped nature”.

“And, after all,” said Mrs. Alexander, “that is the thing we all live upon. It is the thing that takes us forward.”

Wilson thought she spoke a little wistfully. “Exactly,” he assented warmly. “It builds bridges into the future, over which the feet of every one of us will go.”

“How interested I am to hear you put it in that way. The bridges into the future — I often say that to myself. Bartley’s bridges always seem to me like that. Have you ever seen his first suspension bridge in Canada, the one he was doing when I first knew him? I hope you will see it sometime. We were married as soon as it was finished, and you will laugh when I tell you that it always has a rather bridal look to me. It is over the wildest river, with mists and clouds always battling about it, and it is as delicate as a cobweb hanging in the sky. It really was a bridge into the future. You have only to look at it and feel that it meant the beginning of a great career.”

In this novella, every image is laden with meaning. Mrs. Alexander’s observation of the bridge’s “bridal look” is no accident. While the novella threatens to devolve into melodrama at times, Cather’s hand is sure. She even manages to put in references to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, evoke Miss Havisham, and otherwise pepper this short work with factual and literary allusions. As her first published novel, Alexander’s Bridge demonstrates great promise.

Still, she improved a great deal from here. Living as we do in this world-wise time, it is easy to see the plot twists coming. Cather foreshadows a bit too much. And, yet, even if not surprising, the story is interesting and well told. Remember too, the term “midlife crisis” was not coined until 1965. If you enjoy Cather’s work, you will probably find this early piece a fascinating look into her development as a writer.

If you have not yet read Cather, I recommend you do. But you should probably start with My Antonia. It is more typical of her mature style, a greater accomplishment, and less predictable than this early work.