Collected Stories by Willa Cather is perhaps the best collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time. The choices made by the publisher are brilliant, inviting the reader to see a progression in the author’s writing style, themes, and more. I’ve had this book since at least 1999 and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner.
The first few stories from The Troll Garden are good but not remarkable. They are nice but not as powerful as her later works. The collection concludes with an essay that puts these early stories in a literary context, that Cather’s writing was influenced by Henry James and Edith Wharton. The stories, as a result, are good but they are not necessarily new or interesting.
The next set of stories are culled from Youth and the Bright Medusa and here is where Cather begins to truly find her voice and the themes that she would return to again and again, exploring them from different angles, developing ideas in new ways, even revisiting some of her characters. There is still something both Jamesian and Whartonian about these stories but it is clear that she is beginning to pull away from the influence of other writers.
The rest of the collection comes from her later writings and here is where the stories truly begin to fly. While the earlier stories take place in “high society,” often in the city rather than the pioneering west for which the author is best known. Her novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers are possibly her most famous and some of the themes explored in these novels manifest in these short stories. But there is another theme that begins emerging, one that informed her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. In her maturity, death and regret become more evident throughout the stories.
There is something wonderful about seeing a writer’s personal journey emerging in her stories and Cather reveals so much through the disparate characters that move through the pages of her stories. I am, for lack of a better phrase, blown away. As I said, I wish I had read this book sooner. It’s powerful and some of the stories, like “Scandal,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” “The Old Beauty,” and “The Best Years.” These resonated with me most deeply. I’m eager to pass this book on to my daughter, who is the impetus for my reading his collection. I’ve no doubt she’ll find stories that resonate with her as well and I expect she’ll enjoy it as much as I did.