My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather — Two Opposing Reviews
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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather is a novella by this eminent American author, published in 1926. Cather sketches a character study of a woman and a life not particularly well-lived. In this slim work, the story of an ill-considered marriage unfolds. My Mortal Enemy is considered a minor work by Cather, and there has been debate as to whether it has stood the test of time.
Unlike the nearly universal praise for her major works —My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop , and O Pioneers! among others, My Mortal Enemy has been received with praise as well as met with disappointment.
In a later edition, this question was posed: “Has the author tried to undo A Lost Lady? There is a definite mark of similarity between the two books, but one feels that she has not come up to her earlier mark, though she has done so admirably.”
This being said, most anything by Willa Cather is worth reading. Even her lesser efforts are on a par with the finest of other authors (notably, male authors) who are still read and studied. It’s always fascinating to see how classic works were received when they were first came out. Following are two reviews from 1926, when the work was first published, stating opposing views.
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You might also enjoy: A 1918 Review of My Antonia
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This reviewer likes My Mortal Enemy’s brevity
From The Ithaca Journal, December 31, 1926: Anyone who overlooks Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy is cheating themselves. It is to be classed among the truly fine literature of this year.
A small book it is, with not a word to spare, and consumes not more than two hours in the most thorough-going reading. Its space proportions are scarcely more than those of a magazine short story, but its literary proportions are greater than almost any novel of the year.
Willa Cather is a recognized artist. If she were not so recognized previously, this novelette would give her the stamp. Almost any hack writer can sit down and tap off a story of voluminous proportions, but it takes a Willa Cather to compress what most would make into a lengthy tome. Subtract or add a word and you would spoil the effect.
My Mortal Enemy is a poignant character study of an extraordinary woman she is the woman of commanding personality and unaccountable moods, of impulsive action and acquisitive intelligence. She lives and she dies, and Willa Cather knew her, in her imagination.
A cumulative series of incidents, on the surface seemingly trivial build up the powerful climax. Every one of them is essential to the portrait. My mortal enemy suggests the most desirable prospect for the novel of the future. Why must novels be often so inordinately longer than the material within them warrants, padded out with all manner of unnecessary incident and comment by the author?
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See also: 7 Later Novels by Willa Cather
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This reviewer finds the story fragmentary
From The Cincinnati Enquirer, November 6, 1926: When Willa Cather wrote My Antonia she put herself in the way of a challenge. Since the richness and glow of Antonia burst upon her public she probably has been one of the for most victims of self-comparison. Most of these — justly, all of them — have been unfavorable.
Willa Cather has run a descending scale. Each succeeding book — A Lost Lady, One of Ours, The Professor’s House — has been more noticeably inferior. Inferior, that is, to the magnificent My Antonia.
My Mortal Enemy is the latest and the least of them all. In size it is nothing more than a fairly long short story; in effect, it is hardly more than a suggestion, without roundness and without body. It is scarcely even a skeleton. Selection and compression are great virtues in a literary artist, but like the virtue of renunciation, they can be carried too far.
Myra Driscoll, the subject of My Mortal Enemy, carried renunciation beyond the power of her temperament to survive the loss. She was reared in luxury, was denied nothing, and in colloquial expression, spoiled. After all, her wealthy uncle did deny her one thing — the love of Oswald Henshaw. The uncle told her that she could marry Henshaw or inherit her fortune, but not both.
She chose Henshaw and eloped with him; never thereafter did she forgive her husband for the loss he had caused her.
The story is told by one Nellie Birdseye, who is quite extraneous to the story and has no real business in it. The author employed the same method in My Antonia and A Lost Lady, but in those cases, the interpreters bore an actual relationship to the characters and their doings. Not so Nellie.
She tells us of two periods in the life the Henshaws. The first narrative, with a recapitulation of earlier affairs, comes when the pair have been married twenty years. They had been deeply in love, at Henshaw’s income could not keep Myra, who was used to luxury, at all content. Myra wanted to make a show; the thought another woman possessed advantages beyond her own aroused her violent nature.
She was also extremely generous, as a poseur is generous, for she was very vain. She would give away anything that she had — and then demand that her husband replace it. Therefore, they were always in straitened circumstances.
There’s a lapse of ten years and Nellie Birdseye again takes up the interpretation of the Henshaws. They are in the West; also, they are in poverty. Myra is broken in health and in spirit. She hates her husband and all the circumstances of her life. Except for her regrets and her husband she is alone. Yet before her death, she turns upon him and accuses him of having ruined her life.
“Why,” she asks him — and she is still the selfish poseur that she has been throughout her life — “must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”
The question is not answered, and the book is put aside with the feeling that Myra is not at all realized. Her character, like her story, is fragmentary. She is presented without the significant incident that at times has made Willa Cather’s work so vital. Though the reader is told that Myra is generous and imaginative, she is made to do nothing to prove these qualities. One loses sympathy with her, and that is fatal.
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