Portraits in Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark”

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, she grew up in Nebraska, but she lived most of her adult life in New York City, and she died in 1947. She’s often considered a mid-Western realist, but that description really doesn’t begin to describe her writing. Her style is mostly rather understated; her use of language rarely calls attention to itself. As a stylist she has been a big influence on me; I have tried to achieve her seemingly effortless clarity, and I’ve come to realize how hard it is to write clearly. She is also an excellent composer of plots, where her technique is more evident. She is very good at descriptions and what I call world-building. Recently I reread The Song of the Lark, and I thought I would write a few posts about it.

The Song of the Lark was Cather’s third novel, published in 1915, after Alexander’s Bridge and O Pioneers! and before My Antonia. It’s not her best book, in my opinion—I would rank One of Ours and Lucy Gayheart and A Lost Lady ahead of it—but as I reread it I find more and more to admire. In a previous post I discussed her description of Dr. Archie’s office, right at the beginning of the novel, and in later posts I will have more to say about her descriptions of places, but in this post I will talk about her little digressive portraits.

The Song of the Lark tells the story of Thea Kronborg, from her early childhood in a small town in Colorado to her maturity as an opera star. She is always at the center of the story, but there are also many secondary and tertiary characters as well. By my count there are more than sixty characters named in the story.

Most writers don’t spend a lot of time talking about their secondary and tertiary characters, who often enough are in the story just to move the props around, as it were. Cather, however, seems to have imagined many of her secondary and tertiary characters in detail, and from time to time she stops the story to provide a little portrait of one of these characters. There are at least a dozen of these little portraits, and some of them are quite brilliant as character studies. It’s hard to give any adequate sense of these; the shortest is at least a half a page and the longer ones are a couple of pages. When I quote a passage I will have to leave out most of what Cather has written, but I will indicate the number of sentences omitted.

I begin with the last of these little portraits, the portrait of Oliver Landry. He is introduced very late in the novel, in Book VI; his portrait (in the Oxford World’s Classics edition) comes on page 376 out of 415. Landry met Thea in Germany when they were both students, and now he is back in New York, where Thea is performing. He is never an important character in the story, but Cather clearly has imagined a whole story for him, and she throws it in. This begins as Landry is having tea with Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s love interest in the story. I will quote the paragraph that introduces the portrait, then some selection from the portrait, and finally the sentence following the portrait.

“The ‘Ring of the Niebelungs’ was to be given at the Metropolitan on four successive Friday afternoons. After the first of these performances, Fred Ottenburg went home with Landry for tea. Landry was one of the few public entertainers who own real estate in New York. He lived in a little three-story brick house on Jane Street, in Greenwich Village, which had been left to him by the same aunt who paid for his musical education.

“Landry was born, and spent the first fifteen years of his life, on a rocky Connecticut farm not far from Cos Cob. His father was an ignorant, violent man, a bungling farmer and a brutal husband. [Five sentences] When he was fifteen Oliver ran away and went to live with his Catholic aunt, on Jane Street, whom his mother was never allowed to visit. [One sentence]

“Landry had an affection for the house on Jane Street, where he had first learned what cleanliness and order and courtesy were. [Three sentences]

“At first Landry bought books, then rugs, drawings, china. He had a beautiful collection of old French and Spanish fans. He kept them in an escritoire he had bought from Spain, but there were always a few of them lying about in his sitting room.

“While Landry and his guest were waiting for the tea to be brought, Ottenburg took up one of these fans from the marble mantel-shelf and opened it in the firelight. […]” (pp. 376–77)

Landry appears only a few times in the story, but evidently Cather thinks it worthwhile to include a page about Landry’s childhood, his father, his aunt, his collections. During this portrait, the clock that measures story time is briefly stopped. The entrance into and the exit out of the digression are marked as a Ring by the repetition of the word “tea”—when the digression begins, Landy and Ottenburg have gone to Landry’s house to have tea, and as it ends they are waiting for the tea to be served. Almost all the portraits in the novel are similarly marked as a Ring by some verbal or semantic repetition.

One of the most impressive of these digressions is the portrait of Dr. Archie’s wife, which comes early in the novel (pp. 32–34). Dr. Archie is the first character mentioned in the novel, and he remains one of the most important secondary characters until the end; his wife appears only briefly. In this passage, Thea’s mother tells her to go to Dr. Archie’s house to pick strawberries, but Thea doesn’t want to go because she doesn’t like Mrs. Archie. Thor is Thea’s younger brother, who is born right at the beginning of the story; this episode must be a couple of years later. The whole passage is too long to quote in full here, but I will try to give the flavour of it at least.

“After dinner Thea took a basket, put Thor on his baby-buggy, and set out for Dr. Archie’s house at the other end of town. As soon as she came within sight of the house, she slackened her pace. She approached it very slowly, stopping often to pick dandelions and sand-peas for Thor to crush up in his fist.

“It was his wife’s custom, as soon as Dr. Archie left the house in the morning, to shut all the doors and windows to keep the dust out, and to pull down the shades to keep the sun from fading the carpets. She thought, too, that neighbors were less likely to drop in if the house was closed up. She was one of those people who are stingy without motive or reason, even when they can gain nothing by it. [Five sentences] She felt no interest in food herself, and she hated to prepare it. She liked nothing better than to have Dr. Archie go to Denver for a few days—he often went chiefly because he was hungry—and to be left alone to eat canned salmon and to keep the house shut up from morning until night.

“Mrs. Archie would not have a servant because, she said, “they ate too much and broke too much”; she even said they knew too much. She used to tell her neighbors that if there were no men, there would be no housework. When Mrs. Archie was first married, she had always been in a panic for fear she would have children. Now that her apprehensions on that score had grown paler, she was almost as much afraid of having dust in the house as she had once been of having children in it. [Seven sentences]

“Mrs. Archie, as Mrs. Kronborg said, ‘liked to gad.’ She liked to have her house clean, empty, dark, locked, and to be out of it—anywhere. [Three sentences]

“Mrs. Archie had been Mrs. Archie for only six years, and when she was Belle White she was one of the “pretty” girls in Lansing, Michigan. She had then a train of suitors. [Three sentences] Archie was considered the most promising young man ‘in the young crowd,’ so Belle selected hm. She let him see, made him fully aware, that she had selected him, and Archie was the sort of boy who could not withstand such enlightenment. Belle’s family were sorry for him. [Three sentences] Anyhow, they consoled themselves, they had got Belle off their hands.

“More than that, Belle seemed to have got herself off her hands. [Five sentences] Within a few years she looked as small and mean as she was.

“Thor’s chariot crept along. Thea approached the house unwillingly.” (pp. 32–33)

The portrait itself goes far beyond anything needed by the story. If it were left out I think no one would feel its absence, and I can imagine a strict editor wielding the scissors. It’s quite wonderful in itself, however, and if I were the editor I’d leave it in. I think Cather enjoyed writing it and I certainly enjoy reading it.

This portrait, like the portrait of Landry, is marked by a Ring. Most of the portraits are similarly marked. Near the beginning of the book, Dr. Archie goes back to Thea’s house to check on his patients, and he finds Mrs. Kronborg “sitting up in bed darning stockings”; then comes the portrait of Mrs. Kronborg; then the ring is closed: “Mrs. Kronborg was reflecting that the laundry was a week behind, and deciding what she had better do about it. The arrival of a new baby meant a revision of her entire domestic schedule, and as she drove her needle along she had been working out new sleeping arrangements and cleaning days.”

A little later (pp. 23–26) we find a pair of portraits. Thea goes to take a piano lesson with Professor Wunsch, who lives with Mr. and Mrs. Kohler. The Ring begins “Thea had to walk more than a mile to reach the Kohler’s house”; then there is a portrait of the Kohlers; then “Thea was reflecting as she walked along that had it not been for Professor Wunsch she might have lived on for years in Moonstone without ever knowing the Kohlers”; then a portrait of Professor Wunsch; and then, “As Thea approached the house she peeped between the pink sprays of the tamarisk hedge and saw the Professor and Mrs. Wunsch in the garden, spading and raking.” Thus the structure is Ring Words, First Portrait, Ring Words, Second Portrait, Ring Words. I could continue with the rest, but the point, I think, is clear: Cather likes including digressive portraits of her characters, even relatively minor characters, and she has a standard technique for entering and leaving these digressions.

In my next post I will talk about the meaning and function of these portaits.

2 thoughts on “Portraits in Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark”

  1. Looking forward to your analysis. I’m chasing something similar from a different angle, drawing on a variety of my obsessions (ekphrasis, enargeia, phantasia, reception, rhetoric, description … you know).

    I’m presently reading an essay on vividness in facial description, mostly interested the effects and affects of vividness and what makes it work.

    Your description of the ‘ring’ structure of these little descriptive digressions outside of story time called to mind Woolf’s short story, “Slater’s Pins Have No Points.” The story is an intriguing impressionist ‘moment’. And it has provided much fodder for discussions of narrated time in contrast with narrative time.

    More to follow after further thought. At the dealer for pre-trip service.


  2. Hi Randy, thanks for the comment. Fascinating, as always. I fear that I’m using a misleading term when I call these digressions “portraits”—they certainly have a visual aspect, but they are more narrative than visual. They are more like miniature biographies, I suppose. I don’t know the Woolf story; I will look it up. I’ve written fairly extensively on Rings—for instance in “Debating Rhetorical Narratology”. I have a chapter on Rings in my current project. The more I look for them the more I find them. My impression is that they haven’t been given sufficient attention as a widespread device. Have a good trip!


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