In 2009 we drove to Willa Cather’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, population 1,020. I am a Cather enthusiast, and if you’re living in the Midwest, why not visit Red Cloud? We decided to drive all day and spend a few hours there.
As we drove down the highway through wheat fields and prairie, we saw some very rough towns. But Red Cloud is different, tiny but groomed. Many of the buildings have been restored, among them the Opera House, now the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation, and the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, which was founded and built in 1889 by Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska and the model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady. We visited her childhood home, a small house with 14-ft. ceilings that made it seem spacious, which has some of the original furnishings, described in Song of the Lark and “Old Mrs. Harris.” We saw Cather’s desk in her tiny room in the attic.
When I read Cather’s books, I always see Red Cloud now. But somehow I never read her short stories or novellas.
Kevin Neilson at his brilliant blog, Interpolations, inspired me to read Cather’s novella, My Mortal Enemy. Kevin writes, “Published in 1926, Willa Cather’s slim 85-page novella, My Mortal Enemy, packs some serious heat. We’re talking Rim Fire at Yosemite heat. The title alone hints at passionate depths.”
Kevin beautifully captures the tone of Cather’s writing and explores the meaning of the phrase “my mortal enemy.”
I love this novella. It is one of Cather’s masterpieces. The narrator, Nellie Birdseye, tells the story of Myra Henshawe, a cultured, charming woman who many years ago eloped from Illinois to New York with Oswald Henshawe, a Harvard graduate. Myra’s uncle, her guardian, forbade the marriage and threatened to disinherit her. He left his money to the Catholic church.
When Myra returns to visit her friends in Illinois, she is not what 15-year-old Nellie expected: she is middle-aged and plump, charming but rather intimidating.
Nellie assumes Myra and Oswald are very happy. Her Aunt Lydia tells her,
Happy? Oh, yes! As happy as most people.”
The answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people.
Marriage is difficult. Marriage is unhappy. Cather has described marriages before, and I cannot think of one happy one. When Nellie and Aunt Lydia visit New York, Myra and Oswald are charming at first: they introduce them to people in the arts and go to the theater.
But the Henshawes also have friendships with younger people. Myra has a young man friend whom she advises not to give opals to the woman he wants to marry: opals are unlucky. Oswald has a young woman friend who gives him beautiful topaz cuff buttons. Different jewels.
One assumes that Myra advises the young man because he is attractive; one assumes Oswald is acting on his attraction. Oddly, it is Oswald who wins Aunt Lydia’s sympathy when he asks her to pretend to give the cuff buttons to him on Christmas so Myra is not upset by the young woman’s gift. Aunt Lydia is very sympathetic to Oswald, and one assumes she envies Myra.
But when Myra makes a scene, Nellie is also dismayed: Myra has found out about the young woman’s gift of topaz buttons, and discovered a key that Oswald will not account for.
Ten years later, when Nellie meets the Henshawes again in a western town, they have lost their money and Myra is dying. Myra is still charming and fascinating, but the rooming house is badly-built; the noisy neighbors upset her.
And she refers to Oswald as her mortal enemy.
“Oh, if youth only knew!” She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. “It’s been the ruin of us both. We’ve destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We’ve thrown our lives away.”
Again, Oswald has a young woman friend, and Nellie approves: Oswald charms women.
Cather often uses the viewpoint of a young narrator to tell a story: think My Antonia and A Lost Lady. Nellie’s quiet account of difficult, fascinating Myra is affectionate but ambivalent. Myra is so passionate that we (in a way) understand why Oswald is her mortal enemy. Myra is deeply flawed, but also brave.
What a great book.