Saturday, June 8, 2019

“A Death in the Desert”

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

“Union Pacific Tracks, Depot and Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming,” c. 1908–10, hand-colored photographic postcard printed by Curt Teich & Co. and sold by Barkalow Bros., a cigar and news shop in Cheyenne. Cather’s story opens and closes in 1893 in the train station, which was built in 1886–87. Image courtesy of The Henry Ford.
During her second year in Pittsburgh, in 1897, twenty-three-year-old Willa Cather took a job working at the telegraph desk of The Pittsburg Leader, one of the city’s several newspapers. She also wrote theater reviews and within a month she began a “Books and Magazines” column. “I have met some very interesting people this year,” she boasted in a letter sent to a friend back in Nebraska. She name-dropped the novelists Anthony Hope (of Prisoner of Zenda fame) and F. Marion Crawford (“a terrible snob”), the actor William H. Crane, and the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, among others.

One new acquaintance, though, was “prince and king of them all.” Only thirty-five years old, Ethelbert Nevin was one of the most famous American composers of his time, as well as a member of the family that owned and managed the Leader. He was known for such songs as “Narcissus” and “The Rosary”; the sheet music for the latter sold over two and a half million copies. Shortly before he died he composed the music for “Mighty Lak’ a Rose,” which was a favorite among Tin Pan Alley singers. Although not well known today, his songs were performed and recorded by such vocalists as Geraldine Farrar, Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Nina Simone, and his image appeared on a 1940 U.S. postage stamp in the “Famous Americans” series.

Cather was starstruck. “He went shopping with me this afternoon and carried my bundles and got me a bunch of violets as big as a young moon,” she told her friend. “He is about the most loveable man I have ever met,” she said in a later letter before admitting, “you'll think I am a matinee girl sure enough.” Two days after Nevin was hauling her sundries Cather attended his homecoming concert and sent back to the Lincoln Courier in Nebraska an article that combined a review of the concert with a profile and interview of the artist. By the end of year Cather had become a good friend of both Nevin and his wife.

Cather described Nevin even more intimately in a profile for the November 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal:
The man is both retiring and uncertain, and it would take a globe-trotter to keep track of his whereabouts. When he is not in Paris, or Venice, or Berlin, or New York, he is usually to be found at "Vineacre," the family mansion, at Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, a little village on the banks of the Ohio. . . .

Temperamentally Mr. Nevin is much the same blending of the blithe and the triste that gives his music its peculiar quality, now exultantly gay, now sunk in melancholy, as whimsical and capricious as April weather. . . . He is not in any sense a recluse, and though crowds annoy him and social functions exhaust him he is peculiarly dependent upon the society of his friends, and can work best in the company of his wife and children.
She noted in passing that “he is often ill,” mostly from overwork and lack of sleep (she left unmentioned his occasional bouts of heavy drinking). Nevertheless, his friends and family were shocked when he died in New Haven after a brief, unspecified illness barely four months after Cather’s article appeared

Cather was devastated. “I know that I shall never feel that youthful and genuine enthusiasm for any one or for anyone’s work again,” she wrote in a letter to his widow, “and I feel as though my own youth had died with the man who, even when I did not know him, meant so very much to it.” Some of the phrases and metaphors Cather used in the letter would appear in at least two poems inspired by Nevin’s death, and his life and career would also provide the inspiration for the character of Adriance Hilgarde in the 1903 story “‘A Death in the Desert.’”

Cather may have written the story too soon; she later criticized it for being too obviously the work of a young writer and particularly for its flabbiness and sentimentality. When “‘A Death in the Desert’” first appeared in Scribner’s, it was 10,000 words long; two years later she cut a thousand words before including it in her collection The Troll Garden. She cut it even further, to 7,100 words, for the final version in her 1920 collection Youth and the Bright Medusa. “I cannot imagine an exercise which would be of more use to a young writer,” wrote the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher in a review, than to “compare it line by line with the original version.” Cather showed the touch of a master who could “smooth away crudeness without rooting out the life.” For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present that third, pared-down version of Cather’s story.

Notes: The story’s title is from a Robert Browning poem concerning the death of John the Apostle in the desert near Ephesus. The Exposition at Chicago refers to the World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, held in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. Camille is the doomed, consumptive heroine of La Dame aux Camélias, written as both a novel and a play by Alexandre Dumas fil. A statue of the Greek goddess Diana stood atop the tower of Madison Square Garden from 1892 to 1925. Das Rheingold is one of the four operas that make up Richard Wagners Ring cycle. The “thing Keats called Hell” refers to a statement in his preface to Endymion that there “is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object.” The line “and in the book we read no more that night,” from Dante’s Inferno, is Francesca da Rimini’s description of the beginning of her adulterous affair. The three-line excerpt at the bottom of page 527 is Brutus’s farewell to Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, spoken shortly before his suicide and Cassius’s death. “Her Gott . . . lieber Freund” translates as “Lord God . . . dear friend.”

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Everett Hilgarde was conscious that the man in the seat across the aisle was looking at him intently. . . . 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.