Places: The Song of the Lark

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1915

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedMoonstone

Moonstone. Song of the Lark, TheFictional town set in the sand hills of Colorado, closely modeled on Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa Cather spent her late elementary school and high school years. Her parents lived in this town for the rest of their lives, providing her with numerous opportunities to revisit and refresh her memory about the people and places that appear continuously in her fiction.

Thea Kronborg, the central character in The Song of the Lark, starts her artistic journey in Moonstone as the daughter of a Scandinavian Methodist minister. She is somewhat inhibited by her family’s small-town religious values and the routine nineteenth century expectations of women. Although Cather herself was frustrated by similar small-town conventions, she recognized that key persons in Red Cloud had helped her in her education and her eventual success as a writer, and she created similar characters in Moonstone to provide Thea with recognition of her unusual personality and talents. These include Professor Wunsch, a wandering and dissolute musician who teaches Thea to play the piano; Dr. Archie, a lifelong friend and mentor, who provides wisdom, insight, and fatherly concern; and Ray Kennedy, a brakeman on the railroad, who bequeaths Thea enough money to allow her to go to Chicago to study music.

Even her father and mother recognize her talent and do not prevent her from doing formal study far away in a big city. Her participation in the church choir, in local talent shows, and in the somewhat questionable festivities of Moonstone’s Mexican town provide opportunities to display her musical talent and for town recognition as a promising musician. By age fifteen, she has quit high school to become the main piano teacher in the small town but is frustrated by what appears to be a future clouded by frontier cultural limitations.

*Chicago

*Chicago. The largest city in the Midwest, where Thea pursues her musical education in the 1890’s, at the same time that Chicago itself is experiencing a renaissance in the arts. Thea’s Chicago piano teacher, Andor Harsanyi, soon recognizes that Thea’s real future is in singing and arranges for another mentor, Madison Bowers, to give her vocal lessons. Thea’s artist self is also awakened by hearing the Chicago Symphony perform and by visiting the Chicago Art Institute, where she sees the painting by French artist Jules Breton (1827-1906) of a young peasant girl’s awakening to the possibilities of life. The title of Breton’s painting, The Song of the Lark, provides the title of both the novel and its second section. In Chicago, Thea begins to have success as a singer and meets the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, who is drawn to Thea both as an artist and as a woman.

Panther Canyon

Panther Canyon. Arizona ranch of the Ottenburgs, a wealthy family of brewers, to which Fred Ottenburg sends Thea to recuperate when he realizes that overwork has put her on the verge of a breakdown. There, she is revitalized by a summer in the hot sun and dry air. Based on Walnut Canyon in north-central Arizona, Panther Canyon is the site of Native American cliff dwellings that become an important inspiration to Thea’s continued maturation as an artist. Among houses carved out of the cliffs, Thea realizes the true nature of art and renews her commitment to live the life of an artist. However, it is also here that she falls openly in love with the married Fred and starts an affair that complicates her artistic life.

*New York City

*New York City. Artistic center of American culture to which Dr. Archie comes and agrees to provide money for Thea to go abroad to Germany and study with the best teachers in order to become a successful operatic artist. Although Fred Ottenburg has enough money easily to subsidize Thea, she cannot accept his support because she believes it would come with obligations with which a true artist cannot coexist. Dr. Archie, she feels, can provide funds without such ties. It is also in New York City, when, after ten years, Thea returns from her musical study and successes in Europe, that Andor Harsanyi, Dr. Archie, and Fred Ottenburg hear Thea triumph over fatigue and hoarseness, winning over audiences and critics alike.

BibliographyGiannone, Richard. “The Lyric Artist.” In Critical Essays on Willa Cather, edited by John J. Murphy. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Guides the reader through The Song of the Lark with short, well-chosen quotations and unifying interpretation. The chapter is preceded by an interesting, anonymous New Republic review published in 1915.Middleton, Jo Ann. Willa Cather’s Modernism: A Study of Style and Technique. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Middleton’s discussion of Cather’s deceptively simple style uses The Song of the Lark repeatedly as an example. Careful indexing allows the reader to locate these references.Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Gives a good sense of how The Song of the Lark fits into Cather’s canon. Rosowski devotes much of one chapter to the novel.Schwind, Jean. “Fine and Folk Art in The Song of the Lark.” In Cather Studies. Vol. 1, edited by Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Investigates the artistic forces at work in the novel. Focuses on the meaning of the title and importance of the epilogue.Thomas, Susie. Willa Cather. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Devotes much of chapter 2 to her analysis of The Song of the Lark as the most overtly Wagnerian of all of Cather’s novels. This excellent reference volume is accessible.
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