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Posts Tagged ‘Song of the Lark’

 

The Song of the Lark. Willa Cather. originally published in 1915. For this review I used: Early Novels and Stories. Library of America. New York. 1987. pp. 291 – 706.

b7864763c8b7f89da30ba6e7bfb3beb0The Song of the Lark was the middle volume of Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. In many ways, it’s surprising that it should be book-ended between O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. Where those two books were both set in Nebraska and firmly planted in the pioneer farmer tradition, Lark begins in a railroad town on the northeastern Colorado sand plains. And the central character, a prairie girl at heart, is no farmer; she’s an aspiring artist. While the telling of Alexandra Bergson’s and Antonia Swoboda’s stories are spare, straightforward and deeply rooted in the prairie, Thea Kronborg’s story develops much more slowly with many more words, characters, settings and drama. Of course, Kronborg is destined to become a world-famous opera star, so it hardly seems inappropriate to take her to Chicago, New York and Dresden.

Kronborg is also a more complex person, at times amazingly self-centered and ungrateful for the many people who help her along the way. And yet, she grapples throughout the book with questions about what makes an artist and what makes a life. When the reader sees her through this lens, it is easier to accept her seeming self-absorption, perhaps more understandable as a dedication to developing her art, rather than herself. This is a fine distinction I know, and it seemed to me in some places she oversteps. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse of how artists perceive themselves and their “calling.”

To me, this is one of Cather’s finer books, in part because she is using a different style than her trademark spare prose with little expressed emotion. And yet, while we readers may feel we know these characters more deeply than some of her others—making it feel perhaps recognizable as a more standard novelistic style—I still come away with that sense that Cather has remained firmly in control her words, adroitly telling the reader this remarkable story in exactly the way it should be told.

“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, know how difficult it is.”

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A combination of health and heat has greatly limited travel opportunities this year. So I’ve chosen to leave the highway to pursue another route—armchair travel, aka traveling at home.

Whenever I let my reading wander I find myself in places I didn’t know existed. A recent trip to the library got me started along the Oregon Trail. First with Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, his twenty-first century re-creation of an 1800s odyssey along the Trail using old style mules pulling a covered wagon. (See 8/30/15 post). Following that, was a review of the original book titled The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman written in 1849. (See 9/6/15 post.)

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_JewettThese books helped me throw my net a little wider by expanding “the west” that I wander to include the pioneer states of the 1800s, especially Nebraska and Kansas, in their early days as “western” as definitions went. Heck, I may even throw in Missouri, my state of birth, and original jumping off place for those heading out to “see the elephant”, the then unknown American West.

The stories of the prairie, homesteading, success, and failure on the western Great Plains are full of humanity, understatement, and hardship. Who better to take off to “see the elephant” with than one of its earliest champions and one of the very finest of American authors, Willa Cather.

Her gravestone reads:
WILLA CATHER
December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947
THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT
SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK
WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER
COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE.
“. . . that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia

Coming next, reviews of her prairie trilogy: O’ Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

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