Willa Cather is a key figure in American literature. Be it O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, or The Song of the Lark, her novels have earned a favored place on the bookshelves of many readers, and her short stories — which include “A Wagner Matinee”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, and “Paul’s Case” — are often anthologized. In 1922, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours.
I’ve personally been especially interested in her tales of Czech immigrants on the plains, works such as “Peter,” My Ántonia, or Neighbor Rosicky. Those characters remind me of my Czech roots, even though my forebears settled in Chicago, not Nebraska. And in my Vera Van Slyke chronicles, there’s a recurring character named Eric “Rick” Bergson, who moves to Chicago from Nebraska and who seems to have stepped straight out of Cather’s novel about Swedish newcomers on the plains, O Pioneers!
Willa Sibert Cather (1873-1947)
I re-read My Ántonia in graduate school. I remember trying to determine what Cather was teaching readers when the title Czech immigrant runs off with Larry Donovan — and comes back with an illegitimate child and no husband. Ántonia Shimerda then finds happiness with another Czech immigrant, Anton Cuzak. My first conclusion was that Cather was suggesting it’s best for people to stick to their own kind: Czechs should marry Czechs instead of mixing with, say, Americans presumably of Irish descent.
But more research opened up an alternative interpretation. The notion that immigrants should preserve their ethnic distinctiveness was being bandied about in the early 1900s beside far louder calls that immigrants abandon their cultural backgrounds to assimilate into the dominant, Anglo-American culture. Cultural pluralism — celebrating our nation’s cultural diversity — wouldn’t really take a firm hold until the second half of the century, but Cather can easily be seen as an early advocate of it in her decision to have Ántonia become a successful American by marrying Anton Cuzak and starting a family that stays true to its ethnic roots. I liked that way of understanding the novel much better than the “stick to your own kind” approach.
Recently, though, I read one of Cather’s early short stories. It’s called “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900). I had a very mixed reaction to it. First, I was delighted to find out that Cather not only dabbled in murder mystery — she also dabbled in occult detection! I’d known the author only for her works of realism, but since discovering this story, I’ve learned that at least two of Cather’s other stories have a ghostly quality to them: “The Fear that Walks by Noonday” (1895) and “Consequences” (1915). She liked to tell a spooky story on occasion, it seems.
“The Affair at Grover Station” features a character named “Terrapin” Rodgers, who becomes an amateur detective while confirming that a fellow railroad employee was the victim of murder. Though the investigation proper doesn’t start until well into the story, Rodgers is assigned by his dispatcher to find out why a station agent has gone missing. He surveys the station. He then questions the missing agent’s landlady. He questions a little girl who’d seen him with a stranger whose “eyes snapped like he was mad, and she was afraid of him.” Rodgers next finds blood on the pillow where in the agent slept. All very detective-y.
But the crucial clue in the case comes not from the tangible world. No, the “smoking gun” comes in the form of the victim’s apparition, who manages to use chalk to scratch the designation of the train car where his body could be found. And after the body is found on that very train car, Rodgers notices chalk on the corpse’s hands! A pretty good, old-fashioned ghost story, that.
In fact, it’s very much a spin on the traditional story of a wronged spirit who returns to extract justice and who counts on a living person to both accept the reality of the supernatural and to unravel the ghost’s cryptic message. As such, “Terrapin” Rodgers has taken his place as a novice-detective on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.
Unfortunately, “The Affair at Grover Station” also has a prime suspect who makes this story very much a part of the Yellow Peril movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. That suspect is a man named Freymark. Cather is far from subtle at signaling him to be the criminal. She has Rodgers say of Freymark:
He was a wiry, sallow, unwholesome looking man, slight and meagerly built, and he looked as though he had been dried through and through by the blistering heat of the tropics. His movements were as lithe and agile as those of a cat, and invested with a certain unusual, stealthy grace.
“A Skeleton in His Closet,” from a 1912 issue of Puck
We learn that Freymark’s father was French and his mother Chinese. Though this makes him bi-racial, of course, we later read that “he was of a race without conscience or sensibilities.” Freymark’s criminal nature is attributed to his Chinese heritage. Though such bigotry was widespread in the U.S., I was sorry to see it in Cather, especially given that Mark Twain, Bret Harte, even Ambrose Bierce were writing stories that — while perhaps not directly sympathetic to Chinese immigrants — were certainly critical of the racism aimed against them. Cather, it seems, could paint immigrants from, say, Sweden or Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) as admirable additions to the national landscape. But, in this story, a half-Chinese immigrant is portrayed as inherently evil.
Needless to say, this is not one of my favorite Cather stories. My hunt for early occult detectives has yielded many surprises, and the fact that Cather is now among the many authors who explored this cross-genre of fiction is certainly intriguing. The fact that it’s made me yet again reassess my appreciation of Cather, though, is disheartening.
NOTE: Shortly after posting this, I found Julia H. Lee’s very insightful essay “The Chinaman’s Crime: Race, Memory, and the Railroad.” With far greater depth than I’ve done here, Lee discusses the nuances of the racial portrait presented in “The Affair at Grover Station.”