Posts Tagged ‘Willa Cather’

‘My Mortal Enemy’ by Willa Cather – A Young Woman’s Disillusionment


‘My Mortal Enemy’ by Willa Cather (1926) – 85 pages

‘My Mortal Enemy’ is a short novella about a 15 year old girl Nellie Birdseye who idolizes a woman who grew up in her neighborhood, but who by the time the girl turns 25 has become quite disillusioned with the woman.

The idolized woman, Myra Henshawe, was from one of the most prominent well-to-do families in her town. However Myra as a teenager met a guy named Oswald of whom her father disapproved. Myra eloped with Oswald, and they ran off to New York. When Myra’s father found out, he wrote Myra out of his will and left her nothing.

Willa Cather

The story of Myra and her elopement has now become part of the town’s folklore, and young Nellie is captivated by the story. She is excited when her Aunt Liddy decides to take Nellie along to visit Myra and her husband in New York City. By this time Oswald and Myra are living the high life in New York City. Oswald is a prominent businessman, and the couple are part of the cultural elite of the city. Myra takes Nellie out to concerts and theatrical performances. Nellie is enamored of the couple.

However 10 years later Nellie is struggling to make a living after college, and she moves into a decrepit apartment building and is surprised to find the couple Oswald and Myra living there.

That’s enough about the plot. There is an entirely fascinating article about the real life couple that Willa Cather based this novella on. Willa Cather was an editor for the McClure’s Magazine during her career, and the speculation is that S. S, McClure and his wife Hattie were the models for Oswald and Myra.

SS McClure

Time spent reading any of Willa Cather’s fiction is time well spent, including reading ‘My Mortal Enemy’. However the novella is somewhat sketchy and some of the behavior and reactions are somewhat inexplicable. This could very well be because Cather was trying to protect the identities of the McClures who were still alive when Cather published it.

If you are new to reading Willa Cather, I would definitely recommend reading ‘My Antonia’, ‘A Lost Lady’, ‘The Professor’s House’, or ‘O Pioneers!’ before ‘My Mortal Enemy’.


Grade:    B



Willa Cather – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century

With this article, I am starting a new feature on those fiction writers in the 20th century who are my personal favorites.  These fiction writers have entertained and intrigued me both at the sentence level as well as at the story or novel level.  Since these are my favorites, I have usually read a number of books by them which is the case with Willa Cather.  However there may be special cases where only one book gets an author in. Although I am starting with a United States writer, I will be including writers from various parts of the world. You may disagree with some of my choices, especially those writers I choose to leave out.

So here goes.


Willa Cather

Born: December 7, 1873    Died: April 24, 1947

I am starting with Willa Cather because up until recently Cather had been consistently underrated as a fiction writer with guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald who couldn’t hold a candle to Cather getting the acclaim.  The English writer A. S. Byatt has gone a long way to ensuring that Willa Cather gets her due in the literary world.

Those of us who appreciate Cather’s work are passionate about it.

Willa Cather spent most of her childhood in Nebraska which is the setting for several of her finest novels.  She spent most of her adult life in New York City although she had a summer house on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada which was the only house she ever owned.

She never married nor had any children which must have been a boon to her fiction writing career.  She frequently dressed like a man.  That’s fine, I don’t care; it is her fiction that fascinates me.

There is a tendency to view a writer’s work as piling success upon success up until the end of their life.  However, I have found that many a writer’s strongest work happens relatively early in his or her career.  That is certainly the case with Cather with her best works being written between 1913 and 1927.  As with the very best fiction, Cather makes her characters come alive for me, and I am moved by much of her work.

Interesting Fact:  She has a prairie, Cather Prairie, near her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska named after her.

Fiction by Willa Cather that I strongly recommend: The Prairie Trilogy which includes ‘O Pioneers’, ‘The Song of the Lark’, and ‘My Antonia’.  Don’t be afraid to read these three novels out of order since each is a standalone story. Also ‘A Lost Lady’ and ‘The Professor’s House’; also ‘Obscure Destinies’ which is a wonderful collection of three of her very best stories.

Quotes about Willa Cather:  “No American novelist was more purely an artist.”- J. Donald Adams

“No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” – H. L. Mencken

“She has been steadily admired by stylists. Alice Munro learned from her; Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Wallace Stevens praised her perceptively. She learned from Virgil, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Henry James. She wrote 12 novels and some remarkable long and short stories.” – A. S. Byatt

A Quote from Willa Cather:The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.” 


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