Back Willa Cather, “A Death in the Desert”

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

“Union Pacific Tracks, Depot and Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming,” c. 1908–10, hand-colored photographic postcard printed by Curt Teich & Co. and sold by Barkalow Bros., a cigar and news shop in Cheyenne. “A Death in the Desert” opens and closes in 1893 in the train station, which was built in 1886–87. (Courtesy of The Henry Ford)

Early in her writing career, when Willa Cather was a theater critic and book reviewer for a major Pittsburgh newspaper, she was introduced to a circle of celebrities, including authors, actors, and singers. It was leagues away from her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska—and in letters home she let the folks know it.

She was especially dazzled when she met the young songwriter Ethelbert Nevin; virtually forgotten now, he had become a household name at the beginning of the twentieth century. He and Cather hit if off almost immediately and became fast friends, and after his death his milieu—the world of music and performance—would find its way into Cather’s fiction. Biographers and literary critics have long commented on the apparent similarities between Nevin and several of Cather’s characters, particularly Adriance Hilgarde in “A Death in the Desert.”

While there’s no doubt that the facts of Nevin’s life and career and even some of his characteristics can be found in Cather’s fiction, it would be a mistake to assume that Adriance Hilgarde, who is never physically present in the tale, is Ethelbert Nevin. As Cather scholar Bernice Slote reminds us, “whatever individual parts of the whole mosaic of a story may be taken from recognizable fact, the pattern is composed of imaginative as well as objective reality, recombined as a kaleidoscope makes a new pattern out of bits and pieces.” We present the story, with its sly comments on the capriciousness of celebrity, as our Story of the Week selection.

Read “A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather

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