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Monday, March 9, 2015

Two versions of the portrait of the artist: Willa Cather's stories

Yesterday read two Willa Cather stories from the early 20th century, two I'd never read before - in fact, I don't think many people read her stories at all: Paul's Case and The Sculptor's Funeral. I don't think it's just me, but these stories seem to pick up on the very same themes that Thomas Mann, whom I'd been reading earlier in the weekend, examined in his early stories, particularly the great Tonio Kroger: the artist as the outsider in society, the misfit, the one living on the margins and observing, always scorned by the popular - but (in some cases, in Kroger's for example) destined to triumph through devotion to art and also to look back with scorn and a smug satisfaction on the dull and conventional lives of those who had rejected the artist in his or her youth. It's obvious why this is a recurrent theme - stories are written by artists (often young artists, near the start of their career) most of whom have shared some version of this experience - but it seems to me that this theme of the outsider artist rising through art above the dross of his society - ran a course from the Romantic poets (and German novelists) for a century, culminating probably with the Joyce-Proust-Mann triad. The convention was turned on its head after that, thanks in large part to Hemingway. In any event, Cather's vision is far darker than Mann's: in Paul's Case the young protagonist growing up in working-class Pittsburgh but dreaming of a life of wit, charm, and luxury - which he's learned of through theater folks (big mistake - that's not the route to luxury) turns out to be a narcissistic little prick who steals thousands of dollars from his employer and heads off to NYC where he blows it all on an expensive hotel suite and then, caught, hurls himself in front of a train. He's not an artist at all but a snob and a fake - despite his desires and pretensions. The Sculptor is truly a fine artist who managed to escape from his small prairie town (as did Cather); the story is about the townsfolk who gather at his funeral and builds toward an oration from the alcoholic town lawyer, who has a way with words, and tells off all of the townsfolk for trying to bring the late sculptor down to their level: the lawyer, too, had tried to escape but returned to the town to earn his living through duplicity. Again, this story turns the convention not on its head but inside out: it's a portrait of the artist as a dead man, as seen from those who knew him in youth and never took measure of his potential greatness.

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