Back Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case”

Willa Cather (1873–1947)

“After a while he sat down before a blue Rico and lost himself.” Above: Rio San Trovaso, Venice (1903), oil on canvas by Spanish landscape painter Martin Rico y Ortega. (Meadows Museum, Dallas)

One hundred years ago this summer, Willa Cather was in the process of switching publishers, which in turn led to one of the twentieth century’s great story collections.

Cather had been dissatisfied with the way Houghton Mifflin had been marketing her books (or, as she saw it, not marketing them), so she began to consider other options. She met with a young man named Alfred Knopf, who had launched his own firm in 1915 with a national best-selling novel, William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions—a book that had originally been published in England in 1904. When Knopf learned that Houghton Mifflin passed on reissuing Cather’s first book, the story collection The Troll Garden, he offered favorable terms to reprint it himself in a handsome clothbound edition.

Cather readily accepted but, along the way, she and her new publisher agreed instead to publish Youth and the Bright Medusa, a collection of her stories about artists and musicians. The new book included four stories from The Troll Garden and three recent stories, all of which she revised, along with a new story. Unexpectedly, then, Alfred A. Knopf’s Fall 1920 list included a new book by rising star Willa Cather; just as unexpectedly, it would sell nearly 5,000 copies in six months—earning her more than she’d made on first-year sales of My Antonia, her last novel with Houghton Mifflin. Knopf’s success prompted Cather to let him publish her next novel, One of Ours, which would win the Pulitzer Prize, and all her future books.

For our Story of the Week feature, then, we celebrate the centennial of Youth and the Bright Medusa by presenting “Paul’s Case,” one of the book’s selections that had originally appeared in The Troll Garden and that is still, perhaps, her most famous work of short fiction.

Read “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

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