Tag: US Civil War

Cather, “The Namesake” (1907)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive)

Illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine, 1907, by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960). (Willa Cather Archive). The Library of America used the illustration for its Story of the Week in November 2017.

Between Wharton’s “Coming Home,” Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” and now Cather’s “The Namesake,” we’ve been on a run of patriotic stories on speed, each one about a different war. Cather wrote this one in 1907, well before World War I, well after the Civil War, setting it in a bohemian Paris I don’t think she ever knew, which hints at the superficiality of the setting: too many efforts to point out that “the sycamores were almost bare in the Luxembourg Gardens” and how “wonderful little bonnets nodded at one along the Champs-Elysées. At first you’re not sure whether the story is an elegy to the artist’s life in Europe or a love letter to American courage and longing for the old country (in this case, America). It’s about Lyon Hartwell, an Italy-born American son of a sculptor who left the United States to become in Italy the artist he never could be, before imploring his son to try to make up for his failure. Hartwell becomes a sculptor. The scene in Paris focuses on seven artists who frequently gather at Hartwell’s studio, though this time they’re doing so because Hartwell’s roommate is leaving to return to the United States. There’s melancholy all around. It is the cause of a reminiscence by Hartwell, of his namesake, his uncle who was a pennant bearer during the Civil Wart, and who displayed courage and enthusiasm for the fight in equal parts, bearing the flag even after having one of his arms chopped off by a shell. Hartwell discovers the uncle’s history on a trip to the United States, where he’d gone to care for his grandfather’s invalid sister for two years. In a trunk he discovers the history of his uncle, and in the memory he discovers the power to sculpt him:  “Color Sergeant.”

“It was the portrait of a very handsome lad in uniform, standing beside a charger impossibly rearing. Not only in his radiant countenance and flashing eyes, but in every line of his young body there was an energy, a gallantry, a joy of life, that arrested and challenged one.” The connection between the uncle and his father is chiseled in the work: “”There is a good deal of my father in the face, but it is my father transformed and glorified; his hesitating discontent drowned in a kind of triumph. From my first day in that house, I continually turned to this handsome kinsman of mine, wondering in what terms he had lived and had his hope; what he had found there to look like that, to bound at one, after all those years, so joyously out of the canvas.”

Cather pushes the lyricism to the edge of cliché, a weakness of hers I’ve found in many of her novels. It doesn’t come naturally to her. There’s more of the repertorial than artistic description in those passages. Here she uses Hartwell’s discovery to illuminate the artistic process, a process strangely, a bit distastefully rooted in an exile’s patriotism (the word race connoting something then that may not have been as entirely revolting as its connotation now, but not entirely innocent of revulsion either: it was the age of Spencer and Holmes: “The experience of that night, coming so overwhelmingly to a man so dead, almost rent me in pieces. It was the same feeling that artists know when we, rarely, achieve truth in our work; the feeling of union with some great force, of purpose and security, of being glad that we have lived. For the first time I felt the pull of race and blood and kindred, and felt beating within me things that had not begun with me.”

McClure, March 1907

Edith Wharton, “The Lamp of Psyche” (1895)

edith whartonDelia and Laurence Corbett are a pair of do-nothing rich, part of that “richly upholstered and intellectually barren world,” as James Mac Gregor Burns described Wharton’s frequent characters. They live in Paris. It’s her second marriage. Her first died, much to her pleasure: “Her husband often reminded her of the poodle, and, not having a whip or its moral equivalent to control him with, she had long since resigned herself to seeing him smudge the whiteness of her early illusions.” Her aunt Mary Hayne in Boston is a hyperactive liberal advocate. She falls and gets water on the knee. Her niece decides to go to Boston to be with her–and also to show-off: “She was really very glad to be returning to Boston as Corbett’s wife; her occasional appearances there as Mrs. Benson had been so eminently unsatisfactory to herself and her relatives that she naturally desired to efface them by so triumphal a re-entry.” Mrs. Hayne’s over-activity is a burdensome contrast to Delia’s laziness. ” In its light her own life seemed vacuous, her husband’s aims trivial as the subtleties.” More burdensome is the question her aunt asks Delia: what did your husband do in the Civil War war? Nothing. Why? “I really don’t know,” she said, coldly. “I never asked him.” How could she possibly not? Because she was an indolent northerner who couldn’t give a shit. It would not have happened in the South, or in any northern family affected by the war (in the 99 percent):

But the matter weighs on her heavily enough that it pushes her back to Paris, where she thinks the “torment of the question,” and not knowing Corbett’s own answer, would dissipate. It does not. Corbett himself triggers the confrontation when he comes home with the framed picture of a soldier killed at Chancellorville, picked up in a little shop on Rue Bonaparte. He meant it as a present for his wife. The gesture has all the elegance of the goon who piously cheers the war wounded on display at an NFL game. His wife feigns being touched, but the gesture begs the question, which she poses directly. He answers it astoundingly: “I don;t think I know.” And: “Well — it all happened some time ago,” he answered, still smiling, “and the truth is that I’ve completely forgotten the excellent reasons that I doubtless had at the time for remaining at home.” That home strikes as the loudest Berlioz-like knell of his cowardice. She calls him a coward. The picture drops, breaks its crystal cover. She later apologizes. “Her ideal of him was shivered like the crystal above the miniature of the warrior of Chancellorsville. She had the crystal replaced by a piece of clear glass which (as the jeweller pointed out to her) cost much less and looked equally well; and for the passionate worship which she had paid her husband she substituted a tolerant affection which possessed precisely the same advantages.”

Scribner’s Magazine, October 1895.