Thursday, October 9, 2014

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

Willa Cather, c1912
Willa Cather was a fine writer, with a special take on what it was like to grow up in a small town on the plains among descendants of immigrant homesteaders. The Song of the Lark tells of a young woman, Thea Kronborg, with a talent for music, who as the daughter of a minister finds friendship and approval not among her peers but among older men: a railway brakeman, the town doctor, and a piano teacher. They coach her through childhood and into adulthood, encouraging her to develop her musical abilities.

Plot. Cather follows her heroine to Chicago to study with a pianist, who discovers that she has an even greater talent for singing. Eventually, she goes to Germany to train as an operatic singer, and by novel’s end, she has been cast in roles that have her drawing enthusiastic audiences at the Met in New York.

Along the way, she is befriended by the son of a millionaire brewer, who would marry her if he did not already have a wife—estranged but not willing to divorce him. He welcomes Thea to a ranch in Arizona, where she is inspired by abandoned cliff dwellings built into the walls of a nearby canyon.

Cather's childhood home, Red Cloud, Nebraska
Themes. Cather, who grew up in Nebraska, left her home state after a university education. Settling first in Pittsburgh and then in New York, she developed as an editor and writer. One suspects that she draws on her experience as a social outlier from a provincial backwater to inform the transformation her central character undergoes as she adapts to urban life and finds a place among artists as gifted as herself.

Cather describes in precise detail the family life into which Thea Kronborg is born. There is the upper room she retreats to in a house she shares with six siblings, as well as the larger social milieu that attempts, though seldom successfully, to contain and restrain her. Of an independent mind, she easily befriends and values those of different social status, including the community of Mexicans who live on the outskirts of her little Colorado town.

As a teenager she must deal with the small mindedness and petty rivalries of the locals. Even her sister is critical of her for the way her freethinking behavior generates gossip. Determined to be self reliant as an adult, Thea takes on piano students and expects with more training to support herself as a piano teacher. It takes encouragement from the men in her life to set higher goals that will eventually find her on the world’s stage, far from the provincial confinement that in time would choke within her the artistic gifts she has been granted.

Jules Breton, The Song of the Lark
A shock comes midway in the novel as one of her truest and most trusted friends is killed in a train crash. The life insurance he has left her makes possible a winter of professional music training in Chicago. Living there in near poverty, she is coaxed to open herself to the arts, and a painting she discovers in the Art Institute inspires her to a higher calling. The painting by Jules Breton, The Song of the Lark (1884) provides the novel with its title.

Romance. Compared to other novels of the day, The Song of the Lark puts little stock in the character enhancing benefits bestowed by romance. The men in Thea’s life are older than she by many years, or they are already married. What binds her to them are not romantic feelings but the warmth of friendship and shared experiences, often appreciation of the beauties of nature, such as the nearby sand hills or the dramatic, colorful canyons of Arizona.

Friendship entails the sharing of ideas, a degree of intellectual intimacy that values a search for truth and authenticity. Thea also understands that surrendering to romance compromises her dreams of fully developing her talent and becoming an operatic singer of repute.

The Art Institute, Chicago, 1900
Storytelling style. At 489 pages, The Song of the Lark was a big, fat novel when it was published, and remains so. A modern-day reader will find a pattern of plot development similar in structure to biography, as we learn of the early years of someone who has become well known in the world for their accomplishments. Family, social environment, geography are all factors in the drawing of that portrait. And Cather is particularly good at rendering these in her precise prose style. 

At one point, early in the novel, she remarks that a good storyteller should be observant, truthful, and kindly, and she is all of these. Here she describes a minister of small ambitions who auditions Thea for his church choir:

The Reverend Larsen was not an insincere man. He merely spent his life resting and playing, to make up for the time his forebears had wasted grubbing the earth. He was simple-hearted and kind; he enjoyed his candy and his children and his sacred cantatas. He could work energetically at almost any form of play.

In the novel’s later chapters, Cather shows an uncommon interest in describing and defining the personality traits that go into the makeup of a fine artiste. We find characters in long dialogues devoted to the subject.

Metropolitan Opera, c1900
Opinions expressed often come across as subjectively impressionistic, illuminating perhaps only if the reader is an opera lover and likely to have puzzled over the same questions of greatness among performers who have risen to fame in this rarefied art form. It is believed, it should be noted, that Thea Kronberg was modeled on the character and life story of Wagnerian soprano, Olive Fremstad (1871–1951), who was at the height of her career in the 1910s.

Willa Cather (1873–1947) was a Virginian by birth and lived from the age of nine in little Red Cloud, Nebraska. Her life on the Great Plains became the source of some of her best fiction, including O Pioneers! (1913) and My √Āntonia (1918). The Troll Garden (1905) was a collection of stories written during her years living and working in Pittsburgh.

Cather joined the editorial staff of McClure’s in 1906, which published many of her poems and stories in the following years. Of her several novels, A Lost Lady (1923) reached the screen twice, as a silent film in 1924 and again as a sound film in 1934, with Barbara Stanwyck. After Cather’s death, several titles were adapted for TV, including O Pioneers! (1992) starring Jessica Lange, My Antonia (1995), and The Song of the Lark (2001).

The Song of the Lark is currently available in print, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Andy Adams’ Campfire Tales (1956)


  1. I have read MY ANTONIA and THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE but not this. Must remedy it.

  2. My wife, a Cather scholar, awakened an interest in me, and I've read several Cather novels. I especially cherished Death Comes for the Archbishop. As you note, her novels tend to follow a life and its dilemmas.

    1. DEATH COMES TO THE ARCHBISHOP is my favorite, as well. I have read it twice or more.

  3. I've never been disappointed by Willa Cather's work and first read her after watching the Jessica Lange film.

  4. All us Nebraska boys have read some Willa Cather but I have not read this one. Red Cloud is just a couple of hours west of my hometown and I was always going to stop at the Cather house, but never have. Maybe next time I travel east I will give it a look. Wonderful writer.

    1. From the description of the Kronborg house in this novel, she seems to have modeled it after her home in Red Cloud. Her room would have been under the roof over the front porch as we can see it in the photo above.

  5. Read some Cather in college but not in a long time.

  6. Read My Antonia and I think I read O Pioneers! It's awful not to remember every book one has read. And I'm not certain if I've seen the TV movies, but I probably did, except for Song of the Lark. In fact, Ron, I'm wondering why you read this particular book of Cather's, unless you've read all her others, and this was the last one unread.

    1. The title always stuck with me, and it was one of hers I hadn't read yet.