Big Loves: Michael Copperman on Willa Cather’s Five Stories

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Willa Cather’s Five Stories, is a short, strange, beautiful collection of her short fiction that spans the course of her literary career. The first story in the collection, “The Enchanted Bluff,” is written in first person. It uses retrospection powerfully and overtly; the story concerns a river and a group of boys who grow up in a small town, how they are all taken with a story of a blue mesa and a city ensconced in it, hovering above clouds, where an ancient people once lived. They will go on to be dulled by adult lives. They never live up to their promises to travel to the mesa, though the fellow most taken with it still says he will. The story is about the pull of mystery, the magic of this imagined city of an extinct people, how the very existence of it enlarged these boys’ dreams, and too how time and circumstances dulled them and kept them from seeking the mesa. It ends like this:

“Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has grown stooped and gray from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between us we revived the romance of the lone red rock and the extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.”

That end takes on such a size as a result of the retrospection; and though there is a sadness in how clear it is they will never go, there is a sort of hope, too, in how the story has been passed on, how now it has taken the imagination of Tip’s son. I have found that though Cather’s work is fiction, it instructs me most deeply in the craft of reflection, and its importance in writing memoir—for what is the real function of memoir but to make sense of the past from the vantage of the present, enlarge it in terms of the clarifying force of the years that have come between, when small memories take on size and importance, and what was immediate has receded?

willacather5storiesThe second “story” I had already read: it is the discrete, odd chapter “Tom Outland’s Story,” which forms the center of the novel The Professor’s House, a book I read when I was an undergraduate and did not understand. I would then have recognized mostly the grace and rhythm of the prose, and certainly, I noticed how the chapter seemed to stand alone, as if Cather had wanted to construct an entire narrative around one perfect and discrete and self-contained story, as if the entire story of the Professor was pulled toward the mystery of Tom Outland’s story. Tom Outland’s story is that of a young man and his friend Roddy who happen on the Blue Mesa and go into the city to explore. To Tom Outland the mesa is perfect, sacred, and his friend Roddy, believing he is doing right, sells the artifacts they unearthed when Tom is unable to get anyone in Washington to fund their exploration. Like the first narrator, Tom is looking back both on his time at the mesa, and at what has been lost: the mesa, his youth and innocence, and by his own choice, his friendship with Roddy. For in his anger at Roddy’s having sold the artifacts without consulting him, Tom tells Roddy to leave and is never able to find him again, even though Roddy meant the money for Tom to support his education. The story ends hauntingly:

“Now that I was back on the railroad, I thought I couldn’t fail to find him. I went out to Winslow and to Williams, and I questioned the railroad men. We advertised for him in every possible way, and had all the Santa Fe operatives and the police and the Catholic missionaries on the watch for him, and offered a thousand dollars reward for whoever found him. But it all came to nothing. Father Duchene and our friends down there are still looking. But the older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I’ll be called to account when I least expect it.

In the Spring, just a year after I quarreled with Roddy, I landed here and walked into your garden, and the rest you know.”

I think about that line—“Anyone who requites faith and friendship…will have to pay for it”—for I once nearly lost a best friend, neither of us able to forgive, though the first error was mine in turning my back on her. Close friendships can be difficult to sustain—they are as essential and intimate as any romance. But I do not feel I am exempt from Cather’s observation about the price of a friend’s loss: we may get only so many people who care for us deeply and can understand us fully, and so cannot afford to betray those loyalties without suffering the loss of something essential to ourselves.

What most interests me about these two stories, the only two in the collection written in first person, are how the stories echo back on one another, the Blue Mesa as figure, and the Blue Mesa as lost paradise, a pure but only temporary mecca. The stories overlap, reflect and refract, just as Tom Outland’s story itself ends by returning to the Professor’s story in a way that changes and enlarges that narrative. The Professor, as I remember it, becomes obsessed with what Tom Outland has told him, the Blue Mesa and the life Tom Outland had and the loss of Roddy’s friendship haunting his own days, but also enlivening his dreams.

In all of Cather’s first-person, the power and size of the narration is accomplished not by lyric—and she has considerable lyric talent—but by retrospection of the sort Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby, moving through time to show us not just what has become, but the full measure of what we have been shown.

In a less generous writer’s hands, retrospection can ruin and overburden; it is a dangerous tool. Cather uses it with precision and heart.

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon for the last decade.  His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. University Press of Mississippi published his memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, Teacher, in September 2016.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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