Even though I had read three books by Willa Cather and only one of them took place in Nebraska, it is hard to shake the expectation of her reputation. So when I began Song of the Lark, not really knowing what it was about, and found myself in the high desert of Colorado in the fictional town of Moonstone, I was a bit disoriented. But Cather is such an expert that she quickly got me turned round the right way and before I had finished five pages I was so caught up in the story it could have been set on top of Mount Everest and it would not have mattered.
Song of the Lark takes its title from a painting of the same name by Jules Breton. But of course the book is not about the painting. The book is about Thea Kronborg, a lark searching for her song. The story begins with Dr. Archie treating eleven-year-old Thea for severe pneumonia. Her father is the local preacher and her mother has just had a baby and no one had been paying attention to just how sick Thea was. She is so ill, she almost dies.
From the beginning Cather sets up two threads that run through the book, Thea in peril and Thea is different. The second thread is set up along with the first as we get this bit with Dr. Archie practicing a bit of phrenology while caring for sick Thea:
No, he couldn’t say that it was different from any other child’s head, though he believed that there was something very different about her. He looked intently at her wide, flushed face, freckled nose, fierce little mouth, and her delicate, tender chin—the one soft touch in her hard little Scandinavian face, as if some fairy godmother had caressed her there and left a cryptic promise. Her brows were usually drawn together defiantly, but never when she was with Dr. Archie. Her affection for him was prettier than most of the things that went to make up the doctor’s life in Moonstone.
Thea is different, we learn, because she has talent, ambition, intelligence, charisma. She is also beautiful and kind. She knows she is different:
She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different. But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. She thought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself. The something came and went, she never knew how.
But she never gives herself airs or thinks herself better than others. And always, nearly until the end, there is a sense that something could go terribly wrong and her difference will be all for naught.
Song of the Lark turns out to be a portrait of the artist as a young midwestern girl:
The growth of an artist is an intellectual and spiritual development which can scarcely be followed in a personal narrative. This story attempts to deal only with the simple and concrete beginnings which color and accent an artist’s work, and to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor.
I couldn’t help but compare Joyce and Cather as I went along. And while I really like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I loved Cather’s story more. Curiously, Joyce and Cather both published their novels at pretty much the same time. Cather’s was 1915, and Joyce serialized his in the magazine The Egoist from 1914-1915. While Joyce’s story is full of literary pyrotechnics, Cather’s style is no less beautiful. She may be straightforward but she invokes a sense of place as deep and textured as Joyce’s Dublin. In fact, no matter where in the world Thea is, she always has Moonstone with her because it is her foundation and it is part of what makes her an artist and the reader feels it too because Cather has allowed us to inhabit that small town as well.
Cather is also an expert at picking particular details to create a character. Take, for instance, Spanish Johnny and his wife, Mrs. Tellamantez:
Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with Johnny, and everybody liked him. His popularity would have been unusual for a white man, for a Mexican it was unprecedented. His talents were his undoing. He had a high, uncertain tenor voice, and he played the mandolin with exceptional skill. Periodically he went crazy. There was no other way to explain his behavior. He was a clever workman, and, when he worked, as regular and faithful as a burro.
Public sentiment was lenient toward Johnny, but everybody was disgusted with Mrs. Tellamantez for putting up with him. She ought to discipline him, people said; she ought to leave him; she had no self-respect. In short, Mrs. Tellamantez got all the blame.
Don’t you feel like you know so much about Johnny and his wife; what of kind of people they are, what sort of relationship they have, what their standing in the small town is? If you went to Moonstone, you would know who they were before you had even been introduced.
When it comes to describing the despair, the hope, the dreams, the work, the whole process of becoming an artist, Cather does that just as well as Joyce does too, maybe even better:
There were hours, too, of great exaltation; when she was at her best and became a part of what she was doing and ceased to exist in any other sense. There were other times when she was so shattered by ideas that she could do nothing worth while; when they trampled over her like an army and she felt as if she were bleeding to death under them. She sometimes came home from a late lesson so exhausted that she could eat no supper. If she tried to eat, she was ill afterward. She used to throw herself upon the bed and lie there in the dark, not thinking, not feeling, but evaporating.
Such perfect choices, “great exaltation,” “shattered by ideas,” “trampled over,” and best of all, “evaporating.”
Where Joyce presents Stephen Dedalus aspiring to become an artist by himself, Cather makes clear that one does not become an artist without help. Thea is helped by many people and sometimes hindered, but while the talent and ambition and hard work belong to Thea, she could not become an artist without aid. As Fred Ottenburg, friend, patron and love interest tells Thea late in the book:
‘But I’m nearly forty years old, and I’ve served my turn. You’ve done what I hoped for you, what I was honestly willing to lose you for—then. I’m older now, and I think I was an ass. I wouldn’t do it again if I had the chance, not much! But I’m not sorry. It takes a great many people to make one—BRUNNHILDE.’
Indeed, the people who helped make Thea Brunhilde are many and begins with her own mother. To Thea’s credit, she knows she didn’t make it on her own and is grateful for all she has received, even down to the love and faith she got from her rather silly Aunt Tillie, a woman who was Thea’s groupie before Thea left Moonstone.
I so very much loved Song of the Lark. It was one of those rare books I did not want to end and one I will definitely read again. I already liked Cather quite a lot, but now I think if someone asks me to make of list of favorite authors, she will be among the top ten.