The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why Obscure Destinies?

In 1932 Willa Cather's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., brought out a volume containing three of her longer short stories. The book was called Obscure Destinies, which I chose for the title of this blog because I have always loved the imagery the phrase evokes in my mind. The grim truth is that most of us are obscure people, and our destinies are ephemeral and worthy of little note. Or at least they are by the standards of the world, and therein lay Cather's genius--the depiction of common, obscure people in a way that is anything but common.

Willa Sibert Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, during the closing days of the Great American Frontier. Many of her books deal with the Swedish, Bohemian, and German immigrants who settled the Central Plains. Much is readily available online about her, so I will not labor the issue with needless repetition. Of her novels, my favorites are O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and A Lost Lady.

Cather was aloof, forbidding, and distant---a very private person, one who brings to mind Florence King's description of another iron-willed woman: "She did not suffer fools gladly, but was always glad to see fools suffer." One critic called her a "Doom-struck Episcopalian." That description may have been apt seventy years ago, but I doubt that most of today's happy-clappy Episcopalians could even define the word "doom."

Cather died in 1947 having never married, and it is widely assumed that she was a lesbian. On that assumption, both gay and straight feminists have criticized her severely for not coming out and thereby doing her part for the distaff sisterhood. Gloria Steinem was one of her posthumous critics on this matter, and it would have been fun to see that gibbering ninny confront Cather in the flesh. She would have had all the effect of a Nerf Ball crashing into a granite cliff. As for myself, I will honor Cather's privacy and make no speculations as to her sexuality. In the first place, it is none of my business, and in the second, its influence on her writing was minimal.

Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One Of Ours, which was the story of a young Nebraska farmer who joined the American Expeditionary Force and was killed in the First World War. Her writing was praised by such luminaries as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, the latter of whom went so far as to say that his Nobel Prize should have gone to her. Beginning about 1900, she wrote numerous short stories and twelve novels, the last of which was published in 1940. With the coming of the New Deal and the general leftward drift of American politics in the thirties, Cather, a political conservative, wrote little that pleased the "socially conscious" critics of the decade, and she was taken to task for not doing more to improve the lot of the common people she wrote about. While it would not be entirely accurate to say that she died with her career in eclipse, her popularity was waning by the late 1940s. She was a person whose heart belonged to an earlier age, and she made no apologies about her obvious distaste for the modern world, particularly Hollywood. But in the decades since her death, her stock has risen steadily until she is now seen as one of our greatest novelists, one who is ranked by many critics as the equal of Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway.

Though violence and tragedy often haunt Cather's best works, there is something fundamentally decent about all her writing---decent in a way I can't quite put my finger on. I do know that she could do more with simple language to conjure up vivid imagery in the mind of her reader than just about any modern American writer with the possible exception of Hemingway. If you haven't read her, please do yourself a favor and buy a couple of her books.


Note: The purpose of this blog (insofar as it has a purpose) will be to discuss literature---particularly English language literature---and its relationship to we the obscure---what it means to us as a common denominator of our humanity.


  1. I'd tried to post a comment but think I blew it, so here I go again - WELCOME to the Blogosphere, Milton! May you have many comments, many followers and may the discussions be lively and informative. Thank you for a wonderful snapshot of this great author, one of the few female authors who legitimately stands toe-to-toe with the great male writers (though I feel that Eudora Welty should be right there beside her - perhaps you will post on her in the future). I look forward to many lively discussions on your blog about this, my favorite subject, and perhaps you will also be moved to post from time to time about the state of the literary world, today (certain to be an inflammatory topic, no?). I am sure to enjoy your take on things. It is nice to find a place where strong sentiments and opinions are welcome. (As I am heartily wearing of unceasing adoration which is all too often the norm.)

  2. Thank you, Lise. Yes, we will get to Welty, but I'm going to make Terry come up with something good on Flannery O'Connor first. Glad to have you aboard.

  3. I think your choice of subject matter for this blog will find fertile ground in the hearts of readers who like good literature. I am especially glad that you started with Willa Cather. My grandmother spent a few years in Willa Cather's country, making a home in a dugout. Some of her stories that I first heard as a small child have stuck with me. You can imagine how I felt when I read O Pioneers for the first time and discovered a world that was almost identical to the one my grandmother described. I went on to read My Antonia -- one of the most haunting books I have ever read. Keep this blog going, and keep up the good work in involving us with the best that the literary world has to offer.

  4. Somehow, I feel Willa Cather does not get her due these days. What a wonderful writer. Of course,I adore "My Antonia"....By the way, the local powers-that-be in my hometown have just banned "Native Son" as required reading in our high school calling it vulgar. Also, the town library is getting rid of it's collection of classic literature (Faulkner, Hemmingway,Conrad, London etc.)since no one checks these books out anymore..Tragic ...Keep up the good work Milton...R.D. in Oklahoma

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