Willa Cather – A Review of Her Book “My Mortal Enemy”

This is a review of “My Mortal Enemy” by Willa Cather.  I’m posting the review here because it is too long for a normal Amazon review.

“An Enemy of Mortals”

Willa Cather was a genius.  So let me start by apologizing, because me commenting on what she might have been trying to communicate is kind of like a connoisseur of fine food trying to describe the intents of a master chef.  I’m going to miss many things, but for those of you who like to discuss such things, here we go:

There’s a memorable scene in The Dead Poet’s Society where the professor (Robin Williams’ character), after reading the introduction to his course’s anthology of poetry textbook, instructs the students to tear the entire Introduction out of the book and throw it away.  If you did the same with the Introduction to this edition of the book written in 1961 by Marcus Klein from Barnard College, you’d probably be well served.  Sometimes I think Introductions were created to give readers ideas to disagree with – and that is certainly the case with Mr. Klein’s introduction.  He had no clue how wrong his conclusions were about Willa Cather.  He is imperceptive and unknowledgable about Willa Cather’s writings.  I apologize for taking such a strong stance against the Introduction written by someone who was not approved by the author, but someone needs to object to this publisher and let them know a better introduction should be included in such a fine book.

Natural questions a person might have when considering whether to read this book are:  What kind of work of fiction is this?  Does it fit into a major category of fiction?  Who is the “mortal enemy” referred to in the title?  I’ll address those questions in this review.

If you have not read Willa Cather before, here are some distinguishing characteristics of her fiction.  She does not write from an “all knowing” narrative perspective.  In works like My Antonia and this novella, she chooses a young person who is coming of age.  We learn early not to trust the narrator’s perspective as accurate or even always socially intelligent.  We try to piece together “the truth” between what the other characters are saying and doing, and the narrator’s selection and characterization of those events.  And more so than most books, while the stories are around one person’s perspective, the narrating character is often not the focus of the story.  For example, in My Antonia, many of the town inhabitants, including Antonia, Lena Lingard, the Tuckers, and others are some of the most dynamic plot drivers.  And similarly, ‘My Moral Enemy’ is not primarily focused on the events of the narrator’s life, but rather on Myra and Oswald Henshawe and the development of their lifelong relationship.

‘My Mortal Enemy’ is not a classic romance, tragedy, or melodrama.  It is a narrative view, from a fallible, secondary character’s perspective.  Some people might be put off by the title, incorrectly inferring:  “Why would I want to read a book about someone ruminating over their interactions with their mortal enemy?”  I can understand that apprehension.  But hopefully, if you can make it to the end of this review – you may understand both why the above inference is partly inaccurate, and where it is accurate, there are plenty of worthwhile and thoughful cognitive twists to make this introspective novel a thrilling read.

Most writing is autobiographical, and I believe this is particularly true of Willa Cather’s writings.  It is hard for any writer to write from beyond what they know.  Sometimes I think writers write to record the regular dialogue of the characters that inhabit their head.  And if characters are often sub-personalities of the author’s diverse personalities, then reading this book may give uncommonly complex insight into Willa Cather’s inner dialogues.

Willa Cather’s novels are not interested in contorting themselves to surprise the reader.  Yes, they have surprises, but they are the surprises of real life and not clever formulaic “twists” to energize or shock the reader.  Willa Cather understood heartache.  She understood neverending losses, romantic and otherwise.  Her life had its full share of unrequited loves.  She understands how psyches react when faced with insurmountable walls of separation and loves lost.  She does not shy away from rough and real life.  There are two key suicides in ‘My Antonia,’ and another mentioned in ‘My Mortal Enemy.’  She thought it important to discuss suicide when writing her novels, novels focused on social questions.  She also thought it was very important to discuss varying degrees and manifestations of mental illnesses.  She was also writing about sexual abuse (Mr. Tucker & Antonia) long before most novelists.

And that leads to “My Mortal Enemy” – a novel focused on the social observations of a young person, watching a close family friend’s slow cognitive journey into almost invisible and hard to describe forms of mental dysfunction.

I love this book.  I read through it like a thrilling page-turner.  I couldn’t wait to get to the end, and was not disappointed when I got there.  It is brilliant, sarcastic, and wise.  It shows us, if we have the eyes to perceive, the seemingly benign steps a mind takes into horrific dysfunction.

I love Cather’s characterization of Oswald.  Cather’s rare portrayal of him as a smart and compassionate man, dealing with a spouse who does not see her own self-inflicted demises, is a rare act of literary kindness from one gender to the other.  After reading her characterization of Oswald, Cather cannot be characterized as a man-hater.  He is so lovingly drawn, in the incessant presence of Myra’s berating.

It is hard for an author to write a character more interesting than the author.  All of Cather’s characters are interesting – so I would have loved to have met her.  Reading this novel, I sometimes think of the conversations between Myra and Nellie (the narrator) as conversations between a younger generation and an older generation.  But Myra does not represent “older and wiser.”  She just represents “older.”  Many people don’t get smarter as they get older or after they get married, and Myra is one of those people (and it appears Avril Lavigne is one also, at least for the moment, but that’s a whole nother story).  Myra is not stupid.  But she is also not smart enough to see where she is misguided.  And she is also so tunnel-visioned and bull-headed that she will not concede where she might be wrong.  And if we’re going to peg her with an Achilles’ Heel - an inability and general unwillingness to change – has to be near the top of the list of the reasons for most of her follies.

I’m going to segue for a moment and make some criticisms of the introduction.  The job of a book introduction is not to try to summarize all the author’s other works in a sentence or two. In fact, while we’re at it, let’s all agree to never try to summarize a book in a sentence.  Next, Cather was not stuck in the past, as this introduction implies.  ‘My Mortal Enemy’ is a very modern novel, even by today’s comparisons.  It’s a novel focused on those who live, who observe, and who remain able to make dissimilar character choices for themselves.  Cather adores the modern city and uses her most romantic descriptions in both ‘My Antonia’ and ‘My Mortal Enemy’ for accounts of walking through modern cities and taking in it’s theatrical arts.  Her books are love letters to future small town girls who feel trapped in the confines of their small social structures, giving them genuine hope of beautiful modern worlds that exist in metropolitan areas.  Next, Cather was not anti-individual.  Next, Cather didn’t uphold personal sacrifice, greatness, and heroism above all other considerations – her narrators are fairly moderate and temperate characters, trying to make sense of the world rather than trying to be heroic examples.  Next, Cather was an idealist. Maybe she didn’t have Marcus Klein’s ideals or what he thought were idealic ideals, but she certainly wanted to promote certain ideas and ideals.  She laid people before her readers with honesty, warts and all – hoping realistic portrayals would allow certain ideals to naturally rise above more dominating cultural assumptions.  Next, her characters were not all dying in the absence of new frontiers.  Her characters are challenged by trying to thrive under constantly changing and modernizing frontiers.  Next, ‘My Mortal Enemy’ is not “the least likable” of her novels.  I love it.  It’s just smarter than Marcus Klein.  Anyway, read the introduction, and as with all things – disagree and form your own opinions.

In some ways, Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ can be thought of a young person’s recollection and observations of what happens to first love and first loves.  ‘My Mortal Enemy’ can be thought of as a young person’s discovery of how some people so easily make so many enemies.  Some people are good at drawing many lovers to them.  Others, like Myra and her father, are exceptional at creating enemies – even of the people closest to them.  And the novel examines the social constructs and personality traits that easily create enemies.

Who is the “My” referring to – in the title “My Mortal Enemy?”  I think it can be read as several people.  It could be a general “My,” representing anyone.  It could also specifically refer to Willa Cather, Nellie (the narrator), or Myra.  Her name is “My”ra.  And twice, at key plot places in the book (p. 78 and the final sentence), Myra says, “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”  From Myra’s perspective, she perceives Oswald to be her mortal enemy.  I believe the title is intended to be interpreted in possibly all the above ways.  And I believe the final question in the book is intended to have at least a double meaning.

So who is the “mortal enemy?”  It could be most easily interpreted as Oswald.  But it could also be interpeted as Myra’s father who disowned and disinherited her.  But neither is my interpretation.  I think Cather was smarter than either of those singular interpretations.  This book was not intended to be some melodrama, or a whodunnit, where the protagonist whispers the killer’s name in her dying breath.  No, this is a book examining larger social and cultural rules and the real and damaging consequences of those boundaries.

Cather’s lead characters are not known for their ability to adapt.  Neither Antonia nor Myra are able to really see what has held them back their whole lives.  They are both brilliant, individual personalities and beauties.  And it is not accurate to suggest Cather is like Thomas Hardy, and is simply composing plots where no matter how hard the female leads try, fate seems to batter them down into their pre-ordained destinies.

No, Cather has more intelligent and modern perspectives.  Cather wants to show the joys that are crushed by the combination of dominant social rules AND the women who follow them without questioning.  Sometimes older generations, as they get older, think they have everything figured out.  Myra is an example of this type of person.  And Cather uses her as an example of an intelligent person who is also a fool, a fool who thinks all her enemies are the people around her, when tragically, her greatest enemy is her own thoughts, definitions, boundaries, and treatments of others.

Myra’s mortal enemy is Myra.

As the book nears the end, Myra turns increasingly insentive and hostile toward Nellie, Oswald, and everyone else.  She only shows mercy to her dead fatherly guardian, who never adopted her.  I suspect if he was alive, she would not say any yielding words to him either.  But even her positive words toward him are cruel to everyone else living.  She suggests he is worthy of mercy while all those who have cared for her daily for years are not worth her understanding, mercy, love or compassion. 

The book implies that Oswald may have had a brief affair with someone else.  But whether he did or not, is not Cather’s great concern.  Cather wants to stress that Myra’s suspicion of Oswald’s sexual or amorous feelings towards anyone else is a basis for her hatred of him.  Myra relies on her assumption that if Oswald ever loved another person after they married, then in Myra’s moral reasoning, Oswald should be her enemy.  

Oswald is a charming, hard working, and loving man, who gave her years of love and compassion, doing work he hated, to give her many ornate things he never wanted.  Nevertheless, under her moral reasonings, he is discarded and exiled from her affections.  Myra takes extraordinary efforts to abandon him in the end so she can die alone.

Cather wants people to consider everything and to think for themselves.  She wants people to look at the weight of these characters’ actions over their entire lifetimes and measure those against individual, exclusive moral standards.  Cather shows us the fruit of Myra’s and her father’s (John’s) hatreds and mistreatment of those close to them.  Cather shows us what happens when people require their loves to only love and follow them exclusively. 

According to several biographical accounts, Cather lived most of her adult life in love with a person who was married to another.  Her writings often focus on related universal social concerns.  If Cather had a mortal enemy, it may have been the societal constructs that excluded her from the woman she loved, excluded the kind of love she felt the strongest (for another woman), and persuaded so many to feel righteous in hating anyone like her.  Cather fought this “mortal enemy” the best way her era would allow – by writing compassionate and illustrative fiction about the social consequences of overly simple rules for incredibly complex human relations.

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