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217 WILLA CATHER'S "THE OLD BEAUTY" RECONSIDERED Loretta Wasserman Grand Valley State University As "The Old Beauty" opens, three newspapermen—French, British, American—approach Henry Seabury for information about the celebrated Lady Longstreet, who, they have learned, died the night before at the Hôtel Splendide in Aix-les-Bains. They ask Seabury, the vacationing businessman who has been seen escorting the distinguished old lady about, for "the simple story of her life here," but Seabury, through whose eyes her life is revealed , replies that a "simple" story would be "quite impossible."1 Yet this is how "The Old Beauty" has been read, as a simple character study of Gabrielle Longstreet, an aging Victorian beauty who has survived, complaining , into the world of the early twenties. Further, Gabrielle's irritable attachment to a lost time has been conflated with Cather's own (assumed) nostalgia for the past, here not even the heroic pioneer past but the genteel townhouse world of international society at the end of the century. The result is a story that has pleased few. Its first reader, the editor of the Woman's Home Companion, where Cather sent the story in 1936, said that she did not care for it even as she agreed to print it. (Cather withdrew the manuscript, and it remained unpublished until 1948, the year following her death). Biographers pass over it quickly, and even so sympathetic a critic as Dorothy Van Ghent calls it "the somewhat querulous writing of old age."2 Such a record is daunting. On the other hand, Cather herself thought well of the story.3 It is substantial, almost a novella, and carefully crafted. At sixty-three, Cather was by no means in her dotage when she composed it: she was still to write Sapphira and the Slave Girl (about another stubborn old woman) and stories that compel admiration. Recently two careful critics have given "The Old Beauty" a second look. Arguing first (convincingly ) that Cather's stance toward change and the new is ultimately accepting, Marilyn Arnold then turns the story on its head: Gabrielle, she says, is a figure of satire, a mockery.4 Arnold supports this view by referring to other work that engaged Cather in 1936, the gathering of her literary essays into a book-length collection, published as Nor Under Forty, which includes admiring memoirs of several vigorous aging women: Sarah Orne Jewett, Mrs. James T. Fields (the literary hostess and friend ofJewett), and, especially, Flaubert's niece. Cather had met the redoubtable Madame Grout in 1930 at just such a resort hotel as is her setting for "The Old Beauty." Contrasting Gabrielle with her, Arnold concludes that the portrait of Gabrielle must be meant as ridicule. But the sympathy extended to Gabrielle 218Ñores within the story—by Seabury, by Cherry Beamish, Gabrielle's lively companion , even by the Thompsons, a family of English tourists—makes it difficult to believe that the ambiguous light in which Cather places Gabrielle is the glare of satire.5 In a different vein, David Stouck turns from character to structure, focusing on the mounting tension among juxtaposed scenes. He perceives that "the plot is conceived entirely in terms of symbolic action," and he notes the culminating events that need illumination (the trip to the monastery in the mountains and the near collision with a car driven by two swaggering American women). He concludes, however, that the symbolism of these scenes is finally indecipherable and the story ultimately "personal in an idiosyncratic fashion" and "one of Cather's least satisfying ."fi This is where "The Old Beauty" lies at present, an object of neglect, or, when attended to, curiously resistant to help. Among the essays of Not Under Forty, one was written early in 1936, an appreciation of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, to be exact, of the first two volumes of what would become the complete four-volume Joseph series. Cather had met the Manns through the Knopfs (she seems to have liked writing criticism from a personal angle), but Mann's cosmic view, his play of legend and ideas evolving through time, would have intrigued her in any case. The immense disparity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 217-227
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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