Shortly after graduating from college, I read Willa Cather (1873-1947) for the first time. It was O Pioneers!, one of her more famous novels, and although she wrote with technical mastery, I wondered what the fuss was about. To me, it read like Little House on the Prairie for adults. A few years later I started The Professor’s House, and this one seemed too much absorbed in the mid-life crisis of an old fart I did not much care about.
A couple of Cather short stories appear in an anthology of American literature I’ve been dipping into lately. “Neighbor Rosicky” cannot exactly be called a character study. It is a portrait. The old farmer lives modestly with wife and sons. As his health begins to fail, the story examines the trajectory his life has taken. Thinking of my point of view at age 22, that is probably all I would have taken away from the piece. Callow youth!
Aside from the literary merit of her fluid, rhythmic sentences and paragraphs–a stylistic grace I did actually appreciate years ago–Cather purposefully reveals a story where, at first glance, not much story seems likely. We expect Farmer Rosicky’s life history to be uneventful, because his current circumstances and simple family routines lack punch. Then Cather starts peeling away the layers of his past, and the present takes on the shadings of that lifetime of experience, work, adversity, change, aspiration. How differently we understand the man at the story’s end.
Finding hidden depths in the humdrum, Cather makes a strong case for a reader to cast off superficial or hasty assumptions. Her calm narrative stream, which at another point in my reading life seemed unnecessarily flat, now looks more like steadiness of vision, peacefulness, confidence. My willingness, as an older reader, to turn the pages more slowly may partly explain my newfound appreciation for Cather. I am satisfied to go at a different pace, to adapt to her methods, instead of insisting that her style match my expectations.
Cather received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours, a World War I novel. After reading several historical novels about the period, I am curious about how she presented the subject so soon after the war’s end. To be read.
"Neighbor Rosicky" was published in Cather's 1932 collection, Obscure Destinies.