Innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish, from Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

notunderfortyWilla Cather is hardly a neglected writer, but even in the work some of the best-known writers, there are little gems that have been rattled off into a dusty corner by the thumping feet of their magna opera. This comes from an essay on Katherine Mansfield in Not Under Forty (1936), which was the last book Cather published.

I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.

One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another–secret and passionate and intense–which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.


Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936