Friday, December 6, 2013

A Gold Slipper

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

Undated photograph of the opera singer
 Mary Garden in the role of Marguerite
(Faust). Garden is considered one of the
likely models for Kitty Ayrshire in
“A Gold Slipper.” Courtesy of  
Andrea’s cantabile-subito.
Previous Story of the Week selections (“The Garden Lodge,” “A Wagner Matinée”) introduced readers to Willa Cather’s fascination with—and adoration of—artists, particularly singers. Her novel The Song of the Lark (1915) presents a famous opera diva as its protagonist, and four of the seven short stories Cather published between 1916 and 1920 feature (as Hermione Lee summarizes their heroines in a recent study) “American opera singers struggling against their ‘natural enemies’ in a philistine, envious, interfering world.”

But there is another type of character that recurs in Cather’s fiction: the staid American businessman. Lee describes these entrepreneurs and administrators as “hardheaded but capable of passion and weakness” and as representing half of the divide between “the native and the European, the commercial and the artistic, romance and realism.” In the story “A Gold Slipper” these two worlds, of art and of business, clash when Cather sets an audacious opera star against a conservative business executive.

After Cather submitted “A Gold Slipper” for publication, she apparently had second thoughts; in November 1916 she wrote to her agent and asked him to get the manuscript back from the editors at Harper’s so she could make a number of revisions. As it happened, she was too late; the magazine had already set the story for the January issue. Disappointed, she minimizes “A Gold Slipper” in a letter to her sister but is grateful for the considerable sum the magazine paid for it:
I have a trifling little story in Harper’s Monthly this month. It might amuse you if you happen on it. It is so bad that I got $450 for it. I quite needed the money. The ‘high cost of living’ makes our expenses here about a third more than they were last year. It takes 25¢ worth of apples to make one pie, and chickens are 42¢ a pound.
Cather did revise the story for her 1920 collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa—and that is the version presented here. In his biography of Cather, James Woodress writes that far from being “a trifling little story,” it is “actually a very good tale. . . . [It] scores some neat points for open-mindedness, risk-taking, and willingness to try things new.”

Notes: The story’s male protagonist hails from Sewickley, a borough outside of Pittsburgh. Established in 1715, the Opéra-Comique was (and still is) a Parisian opera company.

*   *   *
Marshall McKann followed his wife and her friend Mrs. Post down the aisle and up the steps to the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall with an ill-concealed feeling of grievance. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.