Friday, May 10, 2013

Willa Cather, The Troll Garden (1905)

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was a Virginian by birth, but lucky for the rest of us, she lived from the age of nine in little Red Cloud, Nebraska. And her life there on the Great Plains became the source of some of her best fiction:O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

The Troll Garden was a collection of stories written during her years living and working in Pittsburgh, after taking a degree in English from the University of Nebraska. Three of the stories are related to the West, two of them set in Kansas and Wyoming and the third about a woman from Nebraska on a trip to Boston. They portray the Plains as bruisingly harsh for men and women with certain creative and artistic sensibilities. Themes of repression, self-denial, escape, and entrapment run throughout.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Nebraska
Character. Early westerns typically deal with the making of men who achieve or demonstrate their manhood through tests of their character. Cather’s stories echo that same concern. However, her men exhibit strength of character in gentler ways. No gunning down villains. Still, they are decent men—what the characters in other early westerns would call “white.”

They are armed only with a protective concern for the vulnerable and a contempt for the selfish, small minded, and thoughtless. Jim Laird in “The Sculptor’s Funeral” may be the finest example. He defends the memory of a dead man who acquired fame as an artist. Then he condemns his money-grubbing fellow townsmen for their ill will toward the man and their callous disregard of principle.

There is a sweeter poignancy in a man’s tender regard for a dying woman in “A Death in the Desert.” Everette Hilgare might resent his more famous brother and envy him for the privileges that go with fame, including the adoration he has won from the girl who was Everett’s first love. Still, he chooses generosity and patient kindness instead.

Laramie, Wyoming, 1908

East vs. West. Meanwhile, life on the prairie, far from the centers of culture, is portrayed as soul-crushing. And you wonder that Cather came around to celebrating the lives of the pioneers, as she eventually did. While the gravitational pull in other fiction is westward, almost all her characters in these stories are drifting eastward.

The plains are a troubling presence. They can be portrayed in the stories as calmly death-like, as in “The Sculptor’s Funeral”:

The lamps in the still village were shining from under the low, snow-burdened roofs; and beyond, on every side, the plains reached out into emptiness, peaceful and wide as the soft sky itself, and wrapped in a tangible, white silence.

Or they are stark with menace, as seen through the windows of a train in “A Death in the Desert”:

The grey and yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red boxes of station-houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the blue-grass yards made little green reserves fenced off in that confusing wilderness of sand.

Poverty can exist anywhere, but rural poverty has a grimness all its own. In “The Wagner Matinee,” Cather gives this  description of subsistence living on a homestead:

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 sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house, the four dwarf ash seedlings where the dish-coths were always hung to dry before the kitchen door.

Willa Cather house, Red Cloud, Nebraska
Themes. The stories are not anti-western but anti-romance. Isolation is often celebrated in the early western because it means freedom from social restrictions. The uncivilized frontier feeds the spirit of individualism. And for the hero who bravely confronts the obstacles of villains and raw wilderness, there is a girl at the end who will happily share her life with him and banish any loneliness.

Cather pretty much says bunk to all that. There are wounds inflicted by isolation that leave a lasting mark. There are crimes against the human spirit that no lawman or a posse with a rope can bring to judgment. And love does not show up in the end to heal all wounds. Don’t kid yourself, she seems to be saying. Life at best is largely about damage control.

Women in the stories are generally intelligent, strong, and gifted, but life betrays them. They fall victim to “waste and wear.” Romance, in fact, plays a role in that betrayal. The woman living a wretched life on a Nebraska homestead in “A Wagner Matinee” once gave up all for love, eloping with a handsome younger man of limited means.

Willa Cather, c1912
Wrapping up. Reading these stories alongside contemporary popular fiction set in the West, you see more clearly how the West was romanticized by other writers. Cather would eventually find a romantic turn of her own in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). But here her attitude is colder and less forgiving, and one thinks of Stephen Crane, whose story “The Blue Hotel” (1899) finds a group of travelers in a grimly inhospitable settlement on the Nebraska frontier.

Of the stories in the collection, “A Wagner Matinee” had appeared in Everybody’s Magazine in 1902, and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” was published in McClure’s in 1905. Cather would join the editorial staff of McClure’s in 1906, which published many of her poems and stories in the following years.

The Troll Garden is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and for kindle and the nook. Used copies can be found at AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Don Gibson


  1. Ron - this is really nice work. Reminds me that I need to include the praire and the desert as characters in stories --

    1. Thanks to Hollywood and Zane Grey, the desert is most often associated with the western, but the prairie is a powerful presence in western stories that have been set there. In many ways, it is more alien. There are parts of western Kansas and eastern Colorado that seem almost lunar, like you can practically see the curvature of the earth.

  2. Interesting. I've not been a Willa Cather fan, but your words have drawn me to give her work another look, so getting this selection of short stories on my Kindle.

  3. "A Death in the Desert" sounds familiar, but I don't think I've read the collection. I know I don't own it, so might've seen one of the stories in a collection somewhere back in Nebraska undergrad days. Somebody was always knocking out small press paperbacks. Fine post as always!

    1. Richard, the best known (to me) of the stories is "Paul's Case." If I'd read any of the others before, I did not remember them. It is a fine collection.

    2. Oh yes! I do remember "Paul's Case." In fact, I recall the story, along with some others, led to a lively discussion on the depressing nature of so much "contemporary" lit.

  4. Sounds like a rather charming collection. I'm gonna have to have a look at it. Just got it for free for the Kindle.

    1. It has been a pleasure rediscovering Cather.

  5. In high school in the 1940's, our English teacher introduced the class to O, Pioneers, and we had to read it as an example of fine writing by a woman. It never stuck with me, but Willa Cather did, although I never read any of her short stories.

    1. I think O Pioneers would be a tough go for a high school student.

    2. It must have been, but I can still picture Mrs. Price expounding on Willa Cather.

  6. Sounds like an interesting collection. I've read "My Antonia" and "Death Comes to the Archbishop" From what I remember, the Antonia book is framed by a train ride back west and I wonder if the short story about the trip from the west to Boston has similar setting (Stegner's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" also comes to mind"). Thanks.

  7. A thoughtful, penetrating review of a major American novelist. Thanks for bringing this work to me so lucidly.