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Willa Cather's 100-year-old minimalism

February 20, 2009 |  8:02 am

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In Willa Cather's "The Sculptor's Funeral," a train pulls up to a snowy Kansas town, carrying a coffin. The story is up now at Harper Perennial's site Fifty-Two Stories, which, as you might guess, will be posting a story a week all year long. So far, they've posted pieces by Mary Gaitskill, Louise Erdrich, Tom Piazza and Tony O'Neill, all contemporary authors with books from the publisher. Cather's story will be in their April collection "The Bohemian Girl: Stories." Originally published in 1905, the story can also be found elsewhere on the Internet, but the Fifty-Two Stories version is laid out well (and you can digg it).

The short story has evolved somewhat since 1905. Cather's has a classic setup: A stranger comes to town, in this case, with the coffin. It's nominally the stranger's outsider perspective that allows us to the see the bitter, unpleasant place the sculptor came from. Which is all good, until Cather has one righteous character explain exactly how to perceive the nasty townspeople. To my 2009-biased reading, it sounds preachy.

But Cather was writing more than 100 years ago and engaging with writing with a different set of traditions. The Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has recently posted a 1922 piece she wrote for the New Republic, in which she complains of the novel as being "over-furnished." She was frustrated that "the importance of material objects and their vivid presentation have been so stressed, that we take it for granted whoever can observe, and can write the English language, can write a novel." Cather was after something more ephemeral.

If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art. ... Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there -- that, it seems to me, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

After reading the minimalists that came later in the 20th century, a story like Cather's "The Sculptor's Funeral" seems like it is naming pretty much everything. But it's interesting to look back and see where she was deliberately leaving blank spaces, creating an "inexplicable presence" in the quiet form of the sculptor, whose imaginative art was lost on the place he called home.   

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jack Delano via the Library of Congress on Flickr

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