This is the second installment of a series on the work of Willa Cather and the concept of Neighborliness and what it means to live in genuine human community. The first installment is Willa Cather’s Art of Neighborliness.
Sometimes lessons come in negatives. That is, the teacher shows precisely what we ought not to do in order to inspire us to do the right thing. Many tragedies take this strategy, and so did Jesus in many of his parables. Of course, these often display right behavior as well, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan shows us how we ought to behave, while the priest and Levite reveal the selfishness of our own hearts.
In The Song of the Lark (1915), Willa Cather provides an example of this struggle. The book tells the story of Thea Kronborg, the fourth and middle child of a Swedish Methodist minister in Moonstone, a fictional town on the plains of Colorado. At the novel’s opening, Thea is eleven years old, a bit of a misfit, but precocious. She spends much of time carrying her youngest brother, Thor, around town in a wagon and visiting many of her adult friends. Her early skill in piano leads to a career in opera, and as she spends more time traveling the country and the world, her ties to Moonstone wane. Whereas Alexandra Bergson, the heroine of O! Pioneers, was dedicated and tied to her land, Thea is bound to the art of music. The Song of the Lark is very much an internal novel—focused on the artistic development and relational life of Thea (“life rushes from within, not from without”).
Moonstone, a paradigmatic small town, cultivates many of the virtues of neighborliness: community events, intimate knowledge of other’s concerns and loves, a group responsibility toward those in need. However, one notable event leads to tragic consequences when Moonstone fails to be neighborly.
One hot July, just after Thea’s fifteenth birthday, “a particularly disgusting sort of tramp came into Moonstone in an empty boxcar.” Thea sees the man coming up into town from the train depot with a cloth bundle under one arm and a wooden box in the other. “He had a thin, hungry face covered with black hair…There was a terrible odour about him, too.” A stranger in any small town will likely garner some attention, but this poor man both unwittingly attracts it and seems to seek it out.
After a few days, Thea hears that the man had “camped” in an abandoned shack on the edge of town “and was trying to give a miserable sort of show there.” Some boys went to investigate, and he told them that he had once traveled with a circus. The bundle he carried with him contained a clown suit, and the box held six rattlesnakes. On Saturday, as she returns home from the butcher, she sees a crowd gathered outside a saloon watching the man, dressed in his clown suit, playing the accordion, face painted white, “sweat trickling through the paint and washing it away—and his eyes were feverish.” “After a considerable crowd had gathered, the tramp exhibited his box of snakes, announced that he would now pass the hat, and that when the onlookers had contributed the sum of one dollar, he would eat ‘one of these living reptiles.’” For this, the saloon-keeper quickly called the marshal and the man was jailed.
For the crime of “giving a show without a license,” he is detained for twenty-four hours and then released—without a bath and without aid, for “the law made no provision to grubstake vagrants.” Apparently attempting to catch a ride on the freight train out of town, he hides in a boxcar but is discovered and put out. This was the end of his series of disgust, detainments, and dismissals. He is not seen again—all that remains is the vulgar word he chalks on the standpipe water tower.
A week later, people notice a bad smell and taste in the city water. Eventually, as “Mayors reason slowly,” it is determined that the standpipe is the location of the foul water. “The tramp had got even with Moonstone.” He climbed into the standpipe—clothes, bundle, and all—to die. Though the city council passed a new ordinance, the damage was done: “The fever had already broken out, and several adults and half a dozen children died of [typhoid].”
This whole situation weighs heavily on Thea. She is distracted from her piano practice by thoughts of this man, how she responded to him, how he was treated by the town, and his own final vindictiveness. She finds a reasonable conversation partner in Dr. Archie, her friend and the town physician:
It seems to me, Doctor Archie, that the whole town’s to blame. I’m to blame, myself. I know he saw me hold my nose when he went by. Father’s to blame. If he believes the Bible, he ought to have gone to the calaboose and cleaned that man up and taken care of him. That’s what I don’t understand; do people believe the Bible, or don’t they?
Though she doesn’t mention it specifically, it is as if everyone in town—Thea and her minister father included—are the priest and Levite who refuse to aid the man eventually helped by the Good Samaritan. She understands the typhoid outbreak as a sort of judgment, the consequence of a town that failed to extend neighborliness to someone in great need.
But it was not only after this final outcome that a sense of regret came over Thea. When she first saw him come into town from the train depot, he passed her house and she covered her nose in response to his smell. “A moment later she was sorry, for she knew that he had noticed it. He looked away and shuffled a little faster.” It is not simply that she does nothing to help him, but she also does something she believes makes things worse for him—adding to his embarrassment and sense of rejection. This reaction haunts her for weeks and leads to her conversation with Dr. Archie, which eases her conscience.
On that day he first passed by the Kronborg house, the man looked over the fence into the yard where Thea was sitting in a hammock. “She hoped he would not stop at their gate, for her mother never turned anyone away, and this was the dirtiest and most utterly wretched-looking tramp she had ever seen.” Her saintly mother could have been the Good Samaritan to help the poor man, but to Thea’s eventual shame, she wishes against this. Clearly, few, if any, in town were so inclined.
The chapter in which this scene occurs begins with Thea’s older sister having a conversion experience: “Anna professed religion with, as Mrs. Kronborg said, ‘a good deal of fluster.’” This fluster, it is clear, is more the disdainful religiosity of the priest and Levite than the loving of neighbor espoused by Christ in the parable. Anna takes on an air of superiority and separateness that is annoying to the rest of her household and seemingly unbeneficial to anyone else. When the occasion presents itself to show Christian charity, Anna and all of Moonstone fail. May Cather’s lesson spur us on to neighborliness these hundred years later.
Timothy Chapman worked in youth ministry in St. Louis before moving to Nebraska where he writes and studies theology and culture.