The Song of the Lark (1915) by Willa Cather
Willa and I go way back. We are buddies, compadres, BFFFFFFs, or whatever. We understand each other.
And that is why I dragged the poor woman all through high school and college and grad school, writing about her short stories and novels and essays until she was about ready to slap me silly. But she understands me and why I love her work.
Like many Cather readers, I started with her novel of immigrant life, My Ántonia (1918), and then moved on to the bleaker O, Pioneers! (1913). In each case, I was drawn into the world she was painting without even knowing how fast I was moving until I was halfway through. Cather's prose is patient, methodical, melodious at times, and quite hypnotic. But I'm also drawn to her subjects: opera singers and musicians, lonely and frustrated artists, individuals searching for companionship in an isolating world.
I had spent a year analyzing her long short story "Coming, Aphrodite!" (1920) (originally called "Coming, Eden Bower!") for my college thesis and found much to admire in her exploration of art (whether music or the visual arts) as an indelible part of a person's psyche, almost as a genetic inheritance that cannot be separated from the individual who manifests it. Specifically, Cather is interested in how female artists in the early twentieth century could fully express and develop their gifts in an art world dominated by men.
Cather explores this in more depth in The Song of the Lark through Thea Kronborg, a talented pianist who is soon discovered to have a brilliant voice. Her ascent to the top of the opera world comes at the cost of abandoning her old life and self- that of a minister's daughter from a small town in Colorado, with parents and siblings who have never understood her. Cather spends much of the novel detailing and analyzing Thea's intellectual and emotional development until we feel like her own mother watching her leave the nest of Moonstone for the world of Chicago and beyond. When Thea reaches the pinnacle of her career at the end of the novel, we congratulate her, knowing that we were with her all the way. Thea's determination to achieve the full realization of her talents, despite doubt and failure and despair, is ennobling, particularly because Thea never boasts or flaunts her gift. Even writing about this novel for my dissertation's conclusion didn't spoil my love for Cather.
And now, three years later, I am reading Cather again- this time it's her World War I novel One of Ours (1922), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Like Song, this novel refuses to jump right into the action, the story that we think we are looking for. No- we must be patient and understand Claude Wheeler before the war even appears on the horizon. Only then can we accompany him to Europe.