The above words are not what most people would be glad to hear on any occasion. To hear them, as Claude Wheeler does, after asking a man’s permission to court his daughter, must be even more devastating. What is strange is that Mr. Royce, whose daughter Enid is a long-time friend of Claude’s and has tended Claude on his sick-bed, doesn’t seem opposed to the marriage for his daughter’s sake. If anything, he seems to be warning Claude that Enid won’t make him happy, that Enid is a poor choice of a wife (for Claude, at least), and the fellow seems sincere. Maybe this tells me more about the Royce’s relationship than it does about our author’s attitudes, but it still seems a strange conversation for Cather to offer us.
Generally, I’m enjoying the book a lot. Claude’s struggles as a farmer (and his difficulties relating to his family, as well as his trouble figuring out who to court and how to court them) are interesting, occasionally amusing, and seem to endear him more and more to me even as they reveal his deepest flaws. The background of all this is how much the world is changing—the mill runs on a gas engine now, not water power. Claude reflects at length on the strangeness of the farmer’s world, in which truly excellent produce and livestock are sold, and the money is used to buy cheap, flimsy, unreliable bits of machinery and furniture. A horse, he notes, will last you three times as long as an automobile: we might be down to “twice as long” now (with the exception of my father’s ancient green van) but it’s still an interesting idea. Claude’s family and friends are an interesting group, especially the housekeeper, Mahailey, who chatters in some indescribable brogue and bustles about the house during a snowstorm wearing a specially hideous coat and hat she saves for “calamitous occasions”. Even Enid, who’s become suddenly a major character in the story, is a more complicated creature than simply the attractive girl next door. I am fairly certain Claude’s dreams of romance are doomed (this section of the novel, Book II, is entitled “Enid”…I’m thinking that the last book would bear her name if a successful courtship was likely), but I’ll admit I can’t figure out why. If Enid turns Claude down after the way she’s behaved towards him, I’ll certainly understand his shock. It’s funny, though–by page 150, you’d think I could tell you what this novel is “about” but I can’t say I’m certain yet. It’s about more than Claude Wheeler learning to love the right girl, or learning that farming is pretty hard after all, or learning that the academic life is the life for him. More than that, I cannot say.
What I will say again is that Cather is a good writer, and this book is a good read. It does not sparkle with the same wit and humor that Edith Wharton has at her fingertips, but there is a quality to this society and these characters that is undeniably appealing without being excessively cheery. There are real tensions–the society’s reactions to Ernest’s atheism (and the suspicion that Claude shares his skepticism), or perhaps the awkward and often unpleasant behavior of Bayliss, Claude’s older brother. None of it surges over into melodrama, though–in many ways, I feel I’m reading the sort of book about Nebraska that Tarkington wanted to write about Indiana. A wide, sweeping view of the community in which the characters live, casting an eye somewhat critically on the “progress” that is changing the world. A focus on a young person who does not quite understand themselves for who they are, and who, for good or bad, feels a sense of detachment from the family and friends who surround them. I wish Booth had read some of Cather’s work and taken it more to heart.
So, both to illustrate the style of Cather (to contrast it with the excerpts I gave of Wharton’s work) and to share a little moment I enjoyed, here’s a snippet from one of the chapters on the snowstorm:
“He rose and went to look out, but the west windows were so plastered with snow that they were opaque. Even from the one on the south he could see nothing for a moment; then Mahailey must have carried her lamp to the kitchen window beneath, for all at once a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass. Claude struck the frozen window-frame with his fist, lifted the lower sash, and thrusting out his head tried to look abroad into the engulfed night. There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity. The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end. A faint purity, like a fragrance almost too fine for human senses, exhaled from them as they clustered about his head and shoulders.”