Monday, March 19, 2012

The Song of the Lark: Thoughts and Comments

How's everyone doing with this novel? I haven't heard from many people about whether they're reading this one or not. I was happy to re-read it, but must say it was a challenge to get through at times.

My Thoughts
I fell in love with The Song of the Lark the first time I read it about twenty years ago. I was in my twenties and read it for a graduate seminar. As a budding feminist, I was captivated by the depiction of a young girl who has talent and passion and who pursues her dreams into adulthood, eventually achieving great success in her field. She didn't give it all up to get married or die tragically young. I admired how Cather slowed the action down to detail the influences in Thea's younger life, her hard work, and the sacrifices that she made for her art. My favorite part of the book remains Part IV: The Ancient People. I think it's one of the most beautiful and unusual pieces in American literature and I've often re-read that section just for the pleasure of it.

With this reading I was blown away by the character of the tramp. It's not that he commits suicide by drowning himself in the well and contaminating the town water supply with typhoid that captured my imagination, but the fact that he performs as a clown. As someone who used my high school math classes back in the early 80s as time to read the latest Stephen King novel, I can't believe I didn't pick up on the utter creepiness of the tramp as clown in my earlier reading. From the first scene where Thea watches him walk into town and can smell him from the safety of her porch, it's pretty unsettling. You know he's a bad omen. But then Thea catches his smell and covers her nose with her handkerchief: "A moment later she was sorry, for she knew that he had noticed it." The tramps notices her disgust, looks away, "and shuffled a little faster" past her house. In a horror novel, Thea would have been a marked woman. A few days later Thea sees him performing in front of one of the saloons: "his bony body grotesquely attired in a clown's suit, his face shaved and painted white,--the sweat trickling through the paint and washing it away,--and his eyes wild and feverish."  Part of me feels compassion for the man, but I also hear horror music screeching in the background. Cather so gracefully creates a powerful, yet subtle aura of horror with this character. It makes me wish she would have tried her hand at the ghost story.
More interested than ever to see this.

Overall, however, I admit that it was hard for me to get through The Song of the Lark this time. Part of the problem was I started reading it in ebook format and that was just not a good fit for me with this novel. Once I switched over to a hard copy the reading went a bit better, but the book still wore me out at times. I'm still pondering whether that's due to the variety of literary styles and imagery Cather used or whether it boils down to the fact that I no longer admire the myth or archetype of the Great Artist who gives up their humanity for their art.

One of the big discussions that I recall from the seminar where I first encountered Thea, was whether or not Thea is selfish, and whether we'd even ask such a question if the story were about a man. From my twenty-something perspective, I did not think Thea was selfish. I thought her drive and self-discipline was admirable. I was excited by her commitment to her passion and figured her mom understood why Thea did not come home to visit when she was on her deathbed. And it's not like she's begging Dr. Archie and Ottenburg to flutter about like they do. With this reading I saw the older Thea not so much as selfish, but as heartless and cold.

In her preface to the Autograph Edition in 1937 Cather wrote that she was portraying one type of artist, the type whose "personal life becomes paler as the imaginative life becomes richer." I was relieved to read this because it means that perhaps there are healthier and happier ways to be an artist. One doesn't have to end up a washed-up alcoholic like Wunsch, or be driven periodically insane by one's passion like Spanish Johnny, or live in emotional isolation like Thea. Or--shudder--end up completely mad like the clown.

Questions to Ponder
  • Is Thea simply dedicated or selfish? Or worse, a narcissist?
  • Is Thea racist?
  • Other than Thea's mother, why is it only men who see her talent and potential?
  • Do women have to give up love and friendship in order to pursue their dreams?

Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about reading The Song of the Lark, even if it's just a sentence. Also, has anyone seen the PBS film version and care to share your thoughts about it?

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

4 comments:

  1. The Song of the Lark is my lone reread for the challenge. I decided to "reread" it by listening to an audio book version, narrated by Barbara Caruso.

    This book used to be high atop my coming-of-age novel hit list. Sadly, it didn't impress me as much this time. (It can be hard to recapture the thrill of childhood favorites. I recently revisited The Secret Garden and was also somewhat disappointed.) However, I still loved Cather's descriptions of railways, the desert, and early Chicago.

    I also felt that the male "love interests" in the book were rather leech-like. Especially Dr. Archie and Fred with their failed marriages and loads of free time to moon about Thea. Meanwhile, Thea changes so radically when she goes from rags to riches. She does seem to embody the worst prima donna stereotypes. Maybe her imperious behavior is meant to illustrate the high price of success?

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    1. And her embodiment of those stereotypes seems so surprising especially after her experience in Panther Canyon. I'm somewhat fixated on My Antonia now, especially considering that Cather called Anna Pavelka, her model for Antonia, one of the truest artists she'd ever known.

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  2. I also loved The Song of the Lark the first time I read it. But like Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, I considered it burdensome the second time I read it. The third time I picked it up to review for this challenge, I skimmed pages and skipped whole swaths. It’s a long book, especially compared to O Pioneers! and My Antonia. I suggest it’s too long, too overwritten. It’s a novel that requires you to cinch up your belt and plow through, rather than savor like a prairie sunset.

    That said, it’s still a wonderful story about the blossoming of an artist. It’s so biographical in its depiction of an artist coming to terms with her talent that you could substitute the name Willa Cather for Thea Kronborg, writer for singer and Red Cloud for Moonstone.

    Like you, my favorite section was Part IV The Ancient People. Beyond the lovely descriptions, it was a seismic transitional period for Thea. Her days among the ruins gave her a place “where she was out of the stream of meaningless activity and undirected effort.” Today we would call that recharging our batteries.

    The solitude enabled her to realize that her “voice was, first of all, vitality; a lightness in the body and a driving power in the blood” and brought about her decision to dedicate all to her singing.

    Willa Cather’s trip to the American Southwest, and specifically Walnut Canyon National Monument (the real-life Panther Canyon), caused a turning point in her life as an artist. She had completed Alexander’s Bridge, a novel that she found unsatisfying. Upon her return from the Southwest, she rededicated her life to writing and turned from copying the popular styles of the day to writing about what she knew best – her life on the prairie.

    This is what I found most significant about Song of the Lark. It beautifully depicted the transformation of an artist from someone who was destined to be only average and forgotten to one who bloomed into greatness.

    One final point about Song of the Lark: Willa Cather populated her work with descriptions of moonlight. I’m sure someone could find “hidden meanings” in their descriptions, but I don’t try to. I simply like to stop, pause for a moment and enjoy the scene. As the reading challenge continues through the year, I encourage you to look for her moonlight descriptions. Here’s a quote from The Song of the Lark: “The moonlight was so bright that one could see every glance and smile, and the flash of their teeth. The moonflowers over Mrs. Tellamantez’s door were wide open and of an unearthly white. The moon itself looked like a great pale flower in the sky.”

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  3. Beautiful passage, Mike. I'll keep an eye out for moon descriptions.

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