Friday, November 3, 2017

The Namesake

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

“Despite the dullness of the light, we instantly recognized the boy of Hartwell's ‘Color Sergeant,’” 1907, painting by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960) as an illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine. Image courtesy of the Willa Cather Archive.
For most of her life Willa Sibert Cather claimed she was named for William Seibert Boak, her mother’s revered brother who died at Manassas fighting for the Confederacy. She even wrote a poem dedicated to him, “The Namesake: To W.S.B., of the Thirty-Third Virginia,” and included it in her first book, the 1903 poetry collection April Twilights, which she paid to have published.
. . . He was twenty to a day
When he got his jacket gray—
He was barely twenty-one
When they found him by his gun. . . .

Proud it is I am to know
In my veins there still must flow,
There to burn and bite alway,
That proud blood you threw away;
And I'll be winner at the game
Enough for two who bore the name.
Cather’s story of the origin of her name, however, appears to be part fantasy, part misremembered family history. She was born Wilella Cather—not in honor of her uncle but in memory of an aunt who had died of diphtheria. For much of her childhood she was called Willie but around the time her family moved from Virginia to Nebraska she began telling friends she had been named Willa Love Cather after both her dead uncle and the Dr. Love who attended her birth. During her college years she altered the spelling of her middle name to Lova, and not until 1897—when she was twenty-four years old—did she change it to Sibert. Muddying the waters even further is that there was no male relative in the family’s past with the initials “W.S.B.” As Cather scholar Ann Romines reveals, the long-dead uncle's name “was actually James William Boak, as his military records and tombstone confirm. (Another Confederate uncle was Jacob Seibert Boak, but he survived the war.)”

In 1907 Cather transformed the dead soldier-uncle of her poem into an inspiration for a story. She had been living in Pittsburgh for the previous ten years and had spent the summer of 1902 in France. And so the story version of “The Namesake” features an American expatriate living in Paris who experiences an artistic epiphany when he returns home to Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Cather changes the allegiance of the “namesake” uncle: identified as a Confederate soldier in the poem (“he got his jacket gray”), he is now a staunch Unionist.

Several critics have also noticed a transitional melding of literary influences in “The Namesake,” from the labored ornateness of Cather’s early fiction to the earthy realism of her more famous works. The framing story, set in a Paris studio, sedulously evokes the style and themes of Henry James’s fiction; “even the protagonist’s name, Lyon Hartwell, smacks of the Master,” remarks Steven Trout in an article on Cather’s war fiction. Yet the story-within-the-story set in the New World—and particularly the battle scene—will remind readers both of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and of Cather’s more mature work. “Our brief glimpse of patriotic gore,” writes Trout about this section, “belongs in the same category as the tramp’s bizarre suicide in My √Āntonia, Ivy Peter’s psychotic and sadistic blinding of the woodpecker in A Lost Lady, and the parenthetical tale in Shadows on the Rock of the little girl devoured by carp at Fontainebleau. The scene of the solder’s demise is shocking because, like these other examples, it seems to come out of nowhere.”

Cather eventually regretted her decision to publish her book of poetry, much of it outmoded in style and subject. In 1908 she paid to destroy the remaining copies and in 1923, when she reissued April Twilights, she removed over a dozen selections—including the poem dedicated to W.S.B.—and heavily revised the rest. Similarly, she never reprinted the story version of “The Namesake” after its appearance in the March 1907 issue of McClure’s. And, finally, in 1920 she jettisoned her middle name altogether and was known simply as Willa Cather—although her stationery retained the middle initial. Thus, for the last three decades of her life, the memory of her beloved Confederate uncle all but disappeared from both her writing and her name.

Notes: On page 53 are mentions of the queens of France, referring to the statues of queens and illustrious women that line the terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Quarter, shorthand for the Latin Quarter, the university section of Paris on the left bank of the Seine. Perroquets (page 54) are parrots. The Destinies (page 62), also known as the Fates, are three goddesses in later Greek mythology who watch over human lives. Gare Saint-Lazare (page 63) is one of the six large railway terminals in Paris.

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Seven of us, students, sat one evening in Hartwell's studio on the Boulevard St. Michel. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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