The Two Worlds of Willa Cather and Elinor Wylie

By Hively, Evelyn Helmick | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

The Two Worlds of Willa Cather and Elinor Wylie


Hively, Evelyn Helmick, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Willa Cather chose tradition. She also wrote that the world broke in two in 1922 "or thereabouts." (1) The rage for newness, she said in 1921, was one of the things she deplored. (2) Reaching into the time and place of her childhood, she retrieved the familiar subjects and the literary expression for her fiction. Her belief that a writer finds the material for her work before the age of fifteen (sometimes she said twenty) is the reason that she was often identified as a regional or elegiac writer. Like many of the woman writers of the early twentieth century, she was also frequently labeled a traditionalist.

Elinor Wylie fully embraced all that was modern. Her division came not between past and future but between urban and rural. With a father who was solicitor general under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and a husband who was co-founder of the Saturday Review of Literature, she moved in a world very different from Cather's. Her work is clever, fast-paced, and filled with contemporary allusions designed for sophisticated readers. Without apology, she described most of her fiction as improbable and strange. But in one way it often resembles Cather's fiction: it conveys something, she said, that communicates more information than is found on the page of her story. Borrowing from Christopher Morley, she wrote, "The importance of any fable can be gauged by the area of silence it covers." (3) To disguise her facts, she said, she often used allegory and fantasy.

"Two Friends," a representative story by Cather, written in 1931 but tacitly alluding to events that occurred decades earlier, first appeared in the Woman's Home Companion, an Ohio magazine that catered to farmers and homemakers. Its readers were likely to identify with the young narrator who recalls two exceptional men in a small Western town who spend their evenings together and often travel together to the city. Dillon is a banker and store owner, articulate and commanding, especially as he demands that everyone respect the language. Trueman is a cattleman from the East, reticent and worldlier. As the two friends talk, the young narrator sees the surrounding countryside transformed: "Nothing in the world, not snow mountains or blue seas, is so beautiful in moonlight as the soft, dry summer roads in a farming country, where the white dust falls back from the slow wagon-wheel." The spell is broken when Dillon attends a political convention in Chicago and returns with enthusiasm for William Jennings Bryan--a great orator, he tells Trueman, who replies, "Great windbag!" Their argument focuses on language, but it's clear that Trueman objects to Bryan's populist message as well; the rift is complete, and for the narrator a sense of equilibrium in the world has vanished.

"Two Friends" was the best short story she had ever done, Cather wrote to her publisher, comparing it to a Courbet painting--"a sort of romantic realism." Readers of the Woman's Home Companion could find familiar scenes and characters in the traditional story form. But Cather often made skillful use of modernist techniques, and, like Wylie, she demonstrates that what is not on the page, "the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed," determines the quality of the work. (4)

In "Two Friends," the specific relevant facts are not stated, but readers would recognize what was not explicitly expressed; Bryan's speeches, from the 1896 "Cross of Gold" championing the farmer and worker to his 1925 Scopes trial attack on the teaching of evolution. Cather does not take a side in the quarrel between the friends, and even in her own admiration for Bryan she praised mostly the skills of oratory that she had heard when he, as Nebraska congressman, visited her hometown of Red Cloud. …

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