Friday, October 29, 2010

Song for a Lark

Next up on my reading list is Willa Cather's Song for a Lark. I have been doing a little background research and found a couple of great sources of info on Cather. The Willa Cather Archive has many (if not all) of her works available online, with textual analysis on many of them. 

HL Mencken reviewed, and loved, Willa Cather--though I am still trying to find where his review of Song of the Lark is located. 

Evidently, this piece appeared first in the Chicago News and was reprinted in the Baltimore Sun on June 29, 1921 (a month or so after Sinclair Lewis's praise of Cather).

Blithe Mencken he sat on his Baltimore stoop,
Singing "Willa, git Willa! git Willa!"
The red-headed Lewis joined in with a whoop,
Singing, "Willa, read Willa! read Willa!"
They woke every bird from the Bronx to the Loop
Singing "Willa, git Willa! git Willa!"
So we, willy nilly, got Willa and read
And Willa proved all that the booster birds said.

Penguin Books published this list of Reading Guide Questions for Song of the Lark:
  1. What is Cather's message about beginnings and separations? How do these facets shape the life of an individual? Is Thea's separation from her family and primary environment necessary for promoting her growth as an individual or was she simply destined to be different? Does Cather imply by the later lives of the Moonstone people that severing ties is a positive or negative experience?
  2. Some critics have characterized Thea as indulgent and self-centered. Is this a fair assessment of the character?
  3. Compare the marriages of Dr. Archie and Fred Ottenburg. Is there a common thread between these two men? In what way are they both strivers?
  4. What is the significance of Aunt Tillie in the novel? Why did Cather include this character?
  5. Why is romance so difficult for Thea? Is Cather at all critical about the artist's renouncing of romantic love? What price is paid for Thea's success? Does Thea nurse any regrets?
  6. Does the town's treatment of the "tramp" reflect on their morality or their fear? What does the tramp's spiteful act say about the inherent nature of man?
  7. When Thea refuses Fred's monetary assistance with her trip to Germany, she is obviously hurt by his revelation. She elects to borrow money from Dr. Archie because taking money from Fred would make her feel like she was being "kept." Is this her true motivation or is it an act of retribution against Fred for misleading her?
  8. Discuss the complexities of Dr. Archie's love for Thea. Why does it never blossom to romance when she is old enough and Dr. Archie is free? Does Thea perceive him as too much of a father figure for this ever to occur?
  9. Towards the end of the novel Spanish Johnny reappears, moved to tears by Thea's success. As she leaves the theater he sees her but does not step forward or call to her. He seems to keep his "place." What does this convey about the climate of the country at that time and the characters' own feelings on race, class and propriety?

Textual Note:
Incidentally, there are two very different versions of "Song of the Lark" available. Most editions reprint the 1915 text, since it is in the public domain. This earlier version is far more detailed and, some have argued, overwritten; her British publisher complained that she "told everything about everyone." For the 1932 Autograph Edition, Cather revised the book substantially, cutting it by seven thousand words and streamlining the overall text. Descriptive passages were pared; Thea's and Fred Ottenburg's roles were altered; and style, opinion, and matters of taste were polished and modernized. This version is still under copyright restriction, and I believe it is available only in the Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin) edition. The original version is regarded by many readers and scholars as better (and certainly truer to Cather's original intent); this is the book that Mencken praised for its "sharp bits of observation, sly touches of humor, [and] gestures of that gentle pity which is the fruit of understanding."

1 comment:

Bark Savage said...

H.L Mencken on American Literature is the title of the book containing his essay on Song of the Lark.