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Red Cloud, Nebraska M I L D R E D R. B E N N E T T Willa Cather’s Bodies for Ghosts Willa Cather was the type of writer who, as she says, “has a brain like Limbo, full of ghosts, for which he has always tried to find bodies. . . . All the lovely emotions that one has had some day appear with bodies. .. .” (Interview by Flora Merrill, New York World, April 19, 1925.) A study of Miss Cathcr's writings will show that she continually introduced characters, then refashioned them in later stories until they appear full-grown and complete. Her first character, Peter, from the story “Peter,” 1892,1appears in another version “Peter Sadclack, Father of Anton,” 1900,2and then as Mr. Shimerda in M y Antonia.'1 In the earliest version of “Peter” (there were two in 1892) the main character, a lazy, weak, old drunkard, worries because his son insists that he cut wood on the Sabbath, although the weather is too cold and the old man wants to go to mass. But the real difficulty is that the son plans to sell the old man’s violin, which represents all Peter’s dreams and ambi­ tions. He has played the violin in the theatre in Prague and all his best memories arc of that time. Rather than live without the violin, which he can no longer play because of weakness of the arms, he breaks the violin and shoots himself, knowing his son will not pay for masses for his soul. Before his father’s funeral the son goes into town and sells the bow. The story ends with the comment: “Antonc was very thrifty and a better man than his father had been.”1 In the 1900 version, the son’s attitude to the father is the same. He can get fifty dollars for the violin and he mocks his father’s weakness 1WilIa Cather, Collected Short Fiction, rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 541-54S. Hereafter referred to as GSF. -“The Library’' I (July 21, 1900), p. 5. ::Willa Gather, M y Antonia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), p. 22. 4CSF, p. 543. 40 Western American Literature and inability to use the violin any more. But in the second version there is no mention of cutting wood on the Sabbath nor of the cold. When this charactcr reappears in My Antonia, more than twenty years later, he is no longer a lazy drunkard, but a sensitive man, pre­ maturely old and unable to face life in a raw, disordered world. Mr. Shimcrda’s feeling about religion shows in the scene before the Burdens’ Christmas tree: “Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the tree, his head sunk forward.” ' His natural refinement shows in the way he takes care of his meagre wardrobe and the careful way he prepares for his suicide. The son’s attitude is summed up in “he was often . . . contemptuous toward his father.”'5 The sense of cold is brought to the reader by the fact that the men have to dig out the grave with axes and that the body is frozen fast in blood. In My Antonia the religious son pays for masses for his father’s soul. The mother in the 1900 version was careless and indolent; in My Antonia she determines the coursc of the family’s ambition. She works hand in hand with her son Ambrosch. Willa Cathcr had heard the story of Mr. Sadilck’s suicide (he was a real person) when she first camc to Nebraska, and later she said that if she were to write anything, she would have to write of that. It took more than twenty years to find the right body for the emotion she felt about the man’s fate. Another figure shows up first in Lou of “Lou, the Prophet,” 1892.7 First, he appears as a starved, lonely man who because of hardship caused by lack of rain, and lack of human companionship, loses his grip on reality and believes that God is coming to destroy the earth. He appears as a minor charactcr in “On the Divide,” 1896 ;s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 39-52
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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