Born a few miles north of Winchester, Virginia, Willa Cather relocated with her family to a farm on the prairie north of Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was nine years old. After eighteen months, Cather’s father sold the farm and moved to town, and Red Cloud became her home until she left for college at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
“The Sentimentality of William Tavener” (1900), one of her earliest pieces, is her only work set in both Virginia and Nebraska. In the story, an argument between two parents over whether their sons can take a day off from work on their Nebraska farm is resolved when the couple unexpectedly realize that they both went to a particular circus near their former home in Virginia. James Woodress, in his 1987 biography of Cather, notes something else about the story that is “rare in Cather’s fiction—a tender moment of conjugal affection.”
We present “William Tavener” as our Story of the Week selection. Some scholars have suggested that Cather based it on a “family story,” but in our introduction we explain how that seems unlikely. Instead, the importance of the circus and carnivals in American life permeates the literature of the period; Cather need not have looked far for inspiration for her story.