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Reviving the Spirit of Edgar Allan Poe: The Hy“poe”text in Three Stories by Willa Cather

Stéphanie Maerten
p. 259-275


Willa Cather started her career as a short story writer and never abandoned the form. Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on the young Willa Cather is undeniable and several of her stories clearly bear the imprint of the short fiction master. She later disowned her apprenticeship work describing it as “imitative and artificial.” Yet, her early stories contributed to shaping her literary identity. This paper examines several short stories in which the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is palpable. “The Dance at Chevalier’s” and “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900) are stories of revenge and murder; “Consequences” (1916) explores the motif of the double, coupled with a suspicious death. These texts inevitably remind the reader of Poe’s most famous tales. The aim here is to determine in which way hypertextuality—to use Gerard Genette’s terminology—manifests itself. The three “imitative” stories are thus read in relation to their hypotexts, at the thematic, stylistic and structural levels, in order to shed light on Cather’s writing process.

Willa Cather débute sa carrière par l’écriture de nouvelles et n’abandonnera jamais cette forme. L’influence d’Edgar Allan Poe sur la jeune écrivaine est incontestable et plusieurs de ses premiers écrits portent clairement son empreinte. Elle désavouera par la suite ce travail d’apprentissage en le décrivant comme « imitatif et artificiel ». Il contribuera pourtant à façonner son identité littéraire. Cet article examine trois nouvelles dans lesquelles l’esprit d’Edgar Allan Poe est palpable. “The Dance at Chevalier’s” et “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900), abordent les thèmes de la vengeance et du meurtre ; “Consequences” (1916) explore le motif du double, assorti d’une mort suspecte. Ces textes rappellent inévitablement au lecteur les contes les plus célèbres de Poe. Il s’agit donc de déterminer de quelle manière l’hypertextualité – pour reprendre la terminologie de Gérard Genette – s’y manifeste. Les récits « imitatifs » sont ici lus en relation avec leurs hypotextes, aux niveaux thématique, stylistique et structurel, afin d’éclairer le processus d’écriture de Cather.

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1Although she is mainly remembered for her frontier novels, Willa Cather started her career as a short story writer, publishing regularly in magazines and experimenting with all types of fiction. Some of her early stories were influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, a master of the short story, and a key figure of the American Renaissance. In a tribute speech she delivered in 1895, Cather highly praises Poe who revealed the artistic potential of the short story and laid its theoretical foundations; the one, she explains, who “found short story writing a bungling makeshift” and “left it perfect art” (“Edgar Allan Poe” 895). She conscientiously applied his theories in several of her short stories although she later disowned them, describing them as “imitative and artificial” (O’Brien 196). She was still in an experimental phase of her writing and gradually found “her own writing material.” Yet, it cannot be denied that Cather’s apprenticeship work contributed to shaping her literary identity. She eventually became a key figure of what has been coined America’s Little Renaissance of the Twenties, a period, William O’Connor explains, that “was more truly a renaissance than any other period of American history, including the period labeled American Renaissance” (692). Indeed, Cather became a pioneer of modernism whose writings “demonstrated something new evolving from the rich past she had absorbed to perfect her own literary voice” (Middleton 29).

2The purpose of this article is to examine some of Cather’s short stories in which the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is perceptible. “The Dance at Chevalier’s” and “The Affair at Grover Station,” both published in 1900, are stories of revenge and murder, with a ghostly apparition in the second one. The third, “Consequences,” published in 1916, includes a mysterious death and uses the motif of the evil double. The aim is to determine in which way intertextuality—in the broader sense of the term—manifests itself. In Gérard Genette’s terminology, intertextuality is limited to “the actual presence of a text within another” (2). This is the case in Cather’s stories, even though Poe is never directly quoted, nor plagiarized—his presence being mainly felt through allusions. Yet, the large number of these intertextual manifestations, reinforced by thematic similarities, prompts the reader to view Poe’s texts as potential hypotexts. Hypertextuality for Genette refers to “any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary” (5). The stories will thus be read in relation to their poesque hypotexts, at thematic, stylistic and structural levels. By interpreting Poe’s presence as a form of haunting, this article will also attempt to provide greater insight into Cather’s short fiction aesthetics.

How to Write a Poesque Article1

  • 1 The term “article,” in Poe’s time, also commonly referred to short stories rather than just non-fi (...)

3By imitating the artists she most admired, Cather was learning to write—a common practice that she considered to be both a “natural mistake” (Willa Cather in Person 12) and “a perfectly right form of education” (76). If she eventually repudiated her early works, she showed tolerance toward young writers who imitate their models: “The girl or the boy of 24 or 25 is not strong enough to digest experiences in raw, therefore they take them predigested from the things they read” (12). The metaphor she uses is reminiscent of the concept of “innutrition” used to define the poetic principle of imitation of the writers from La Pléiade, which does not consist in slavishly copying a model but in feeding on it in order to assimilate it. Among the masters Cather drew inspiration from is Edgar Allan Poe. Proof of this is her tribute speech in which she praises the “master of pure prose” (“Edgar Allan Poe” 895) and laments the hardships he endured, which forced him to sell some of his stories for a few dollars. She finds his tales all the more remarkable as they were “merely experiments, thrown off when his day’s work as a journalist was over” (898). The young Cather, who was just starting out as a journalist, and was “in need of an income” (Lee ix), embarked on publishing “commercially opportunistic writings” (x) and found in Poe a role model. Poe was perfectly aware of the necessity to give the readers what they expected. As David S. Reynolds explains,

Poe was a great borrower, and he had an eye on the popular market. On one level, his terror tales were clearly designed to cater to a public increasingly enamored of horror and sensationalism. Writing in the era of crime-filled penny papers and mass-produced pamphlets novels, he was well aware of the demands of the sensation-loving public. (93-94)

  • 2 There is limited work on the connections between Cather and Poe. Mention should thus be made of Th (...)

4In his satirical short story “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” Poe discloses the strategies authors often resort to in order to meet the requirements of the British magazine. The protagonist, Psyche Zenobia, is given advice on how to compose an article that could bring her literary fame and money. She is told to carefully choose a subject and to consider the tone of the narration before giving the text “an air of erudition” (342) and “evidence of extensive general reading” (342). In this story, Poe uses irony at his own expense since he relies on such elements in his own fiction. Without going so far as to follow the advice given to Psyche Zenobia in Poe’s how-to story, Cather nonetheless wrote several sensationalistic stories that “show[ed] a consciousness of popular demand” (Lee xi) and whose plots were inspired by Poe.2 Merrill Maguire Skaggs demonstrates in “Poe’s Shadow on Alexander Bridge,” that Cather’s first novel—serialized in McClure’s Magazine in 1912—is inspired in particular by “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “Cather, then, appears to have taken her theme from Poe (a hero and a house divided cannot stand), her central conflict from Poe (unresolved impulses in opposite directions), her key phrases or visual images from Poe (including the zigzag crack), and her technique of using doublings from Poe” (373).

5In “The Dance at Chevalier’s” and “The Affair at Grover Station,” two stories published in 1900 in a short-lived paper called The Library, the themes addressed by Cather unquestionably evoke Poe’s work. However, neither is a rewriting of one of Poe’s tales in particular. They both tell the story of an evil character who, unable to win the favor of a beautiful woman whose heart is already taken, plans the murder of his romantic rival. As Richard Wilbur points out, love triangle plots regularly appear in Poe’s stories, in which a woman’s love or honor is a pretext for rivalry between two men, one of whom shows elevated feelings while the other is a despicable character (“William Wilson,” “The Duke of the Omelette,” “The Assignation,” “Hop Frog,” etc.) (138). Murderous revenge is also reminiscent of “The Cask of Amontillado” or “Hop Frog.” The festive context in Cather’s stories (the dance organized by Jean Chevalier and the Governor’s inaugural ball in “The Affair at Grover Station”) also echoes some of Poe’s tales: death strikes during Prince Prospero’s masked ball; Montresor commits his crime during the carnival season; Hop Frog sets up his murderous joke during a masquerade and it is also during a masquerade that William Wilson murders his rival. The festivity, Reynolds explains, “highlights by way of contrast [the] terrifying climax” (555).

  • 3 “According to Cather’s retrospective account, the year 1911—when she wrote Alexander’s Bridge—was (...)

6The intrusion of the supernatural is another element that creates a poesque atmosphere: the apparition of the ghost of the victim in “The Affair” seems to have been inspired by Poe’s gothic fiction and the presence of a haunting double in “Consequences” cannot fail to evoke the doppelgänger motif in William Wilson. Yet, these common themes do not prove that Cather was trying to imitate Poe. She was also influenced by other writers, especially Henry James, from whom she admits to having drawn inspiration at the beginning of her career.3 If “Consequences” is undoubtedly reminiscent of “William Wilson,” it has often been compared to James’s “The Jolly Corner.”

7The influence of both Poe and James on Cather’s work is often palpable and it can be difficult to determine which of the two she is imitating when she, for instance, deals with the theme of revenge, resorts to the fantastic or uses convoluted sentences. Poe’s influence on James must also be taken into consideration. Henry James, who expressed his disregard for Poe, notably in an article on Baudelaire, was nonetheless influenced by his work: Burton Pollin presents “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an inspiration for “The Ghostly Rental” (233) and considers Poe’s traces as “frequent and obvious” in “The Sacred Fount” (234) and in The Golden Bowl (237). Quoting Robert Regan, Pollin also remarks that “In ‘The Jolly Corner’ and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ we recognize a familiar forbidding ambience, the ambience of Poe’s tales of horror. In James’s tales, just as in ‘William Wilson’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ we confront ghostly figures who are the objectified, projectified compulsions of the ‘real’ characters” (241). James and Poe thus represent two sources of inspiration that intertwine and complement each other, affirming the palimpsestic nature of Cather’s texts and the difficulty she experiences, early in her career, in creating a distinctive literary voice.

8Imitation for Cather also represented, as O’Brien points out, “a means of disguise and defense” (198); she was concealing her insecurities, believing that she “lack[ed] the originality and the power to be a really original literary talent” (308). She was also hiding her femininity that she perceived as a handicap in a literary world dominated by men and she “equated art with masculinity” (4). She first hid her identity literally in her teenage years by dressing up like a boy and calling herself William Cather, and later published several articles and stories under male pseudonyms. “The Dance at Chevalier’s” was officially written by Henry Nicklemann, a journalist of German origins who not only gave her more credibility to write a sensationalistic story but allowed her to discuss sensitive matters such as race and minorities, thanks to his foreign opinions.

9It is the same Henry Nicklemann who signed “When I Knew Stephen Crane,” a fictionalized interview of the artist which enabled Cather to criticize newspaper work. The Stephen Crane she depicts has much in common with Edgar Allan Poe; he is described as “almost the cartoon of the starving artist” who “took up newspaper work only when his situation became desperate” (Downs 82). It is thus disguised as a male reporter that Willa allows herself to give her opinion and shows herself credible to the readers. As Catherine Downs explains, “when she wrote her Stephen Crane column, ‘women’ and ‘serious artist’ remained oxymoronic: a nice woman like Willa Cather should not have been praising the author of Maggie, A Girl of the Streets; a woman like Cather should not have sought payment for her art” (83).

  • 4 Harry Burns also appears in “The Affair at Grover Station,” as “a reporter on the London Times” an (...)

10A young journalist, Harry Burns, another of Cather’s doubles, appears as a fictional character this time in “The Dance at Chevalier’s” and allows her to develop a reflection on journalism. Harry observes everything that takes place around him and takes notes: “It was his business to be interested in people, and practice had made his eyes quick to pick out a man from whom unusual things might be expected” (547). He takes part in conversation and participates in the ball, while always on the lookout for an event that could be the subject of a sensationalistic article.4 The presence of these masculine doubles behind which Cather hides—the reporters she impersonates or the authors whose themes she takes up or whose style she imitates—will eventually fade away as Cather develops her own literary identity and succeeds in providing “proof that ‘woman’ and ‘artist’ could be compatible identities” (O’Brien 163).

The Tell-Tale Ghosts

11Looking for similarities between Cather’s stories and Poe’s raises two major issues: exhaustiveness and intentionality. It would indeed be tedious to list all the allusions and references, given the palimpsestic quality of the hypertexts. Also, the nature of the relationships with their hypotexts ranges from the use of a particular word to the evocation of a peculiar atmosphere. Moreover, the task has become daunting since the emergence of the concept of intertextuality in the second half of the twentieth century: “the writer,” according to Roland Barthes, “can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original” (246). As Genette puts it, “[t]here is no literary work that does not evoke (to some extent and according to how it is read) some other literary work, and in that sense all works are hypertextual” (9). It is equally impossible to affirm that these hypertextual references are the result of Cather’s intention. They are first and foremost the prerogative of the reader, the only one, according to Barthes, capable of “hold[ing] gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted” (148). Such instances of intertextuality could also be considered as the ghostly voices of past texts that haunt Cather’s writing and that only an informed reader can perceive. She lets Poe’s ghost invade her text in an attempt to appropriate it so that “the inner harmony and kinship of words” (“Edgar Allan Poe” 896) he demonstrates reflect on her own prose. Yet, by making the voice of “the mighty master of the organ of language” (897) heard, she gradually realizes that “[she] had been singing a song that did not lie in [her] own voice” (Mahoney 100).

  • 5 For instance in “The Raven”: “Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” (943 (...)

12Echoes of Poe’s writings abound in “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” described by Marilyn Arnold as “a slight piece, probably entertaining enough if told aloud, but rather thin and almost juvenile” (26). The story can be considered as the most imitative of the three under study. In “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” a perfidious little Mexican, the Signor, rejected by the beautiful Severine Chevalier, plans the murder of his rival Denis. He blackmails Severine into kissing him during the dance organized by Jean Chevalier. He then offers Denis poisoned whiskey and Denis dies having witnessed the Signor give Severine a long kiss, convinced that his beloved has betrayed him. The story presents several allusions to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” first at a thematic level—since death occurs in a festive context, interrupting the revelry—but also in terms of lexical and syntactic choices. The opening sentence of Cather’s story, “It was a dance that was a dance, that dance” (547), is one example: the redundancy here is due to repetition but also to the dislocation of the subject which is emphasized at the end of the utterance, a device Poe uses in “The Masque of the Red Death,” as in this sentence: “It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade” (269). Repetitions proliferate in “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” whether they appear in the form of epizeuxes (“Long, long he held her, God knows how long” [554]), diacopes (“And now for the dance, which was a dance” [550]) or polyptotons (“He danced hard and drank hard and made love the hardest of all” [552]). Such repetitions are a common stylistic feature in Poe’s poetry5 and tales.

  • 6 “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film (...)

13The reappearance of a word, Brett Zimmerman explains, can give the sentence an “incantatory quality” as in the following example from “The Oval Portrait”: “Long—long I read—and devoutly, devotedly I gazed” (210). It can also suggest the obsession of a monomaniac narrator, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (279).6 However, Cather seems to use such repetitions for the sole purpose of creating emphasis and adding emotion to her stories. “The Masque of the Red Death” also comes to mind when reading the second sentence of “The Dance at Chevalier’s”: “But first as to what happened in the afternoon” (547) recalls Poe’s narrator as he addresses the reader: “But first, let me tell you of the rooms in which it was held” (269). Parallels between the two stories can also be found elsewhere. When Denis, who has just been poisoned, enters the ballroom and collapses under the eyes of the participants, “A sharp cry of alarm rang from the end of the room” (555), recalling Prince Prospero’s “sharp cry” as he faces the “mummer” dressed as the red death (273). While Denis’s face is “drawn in horrible agony, his blue eyes . . . distended and shot with blood” (555), Poe’s intruder is described as “dabbled in blood—and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror” (272). Given the numerous similarities between “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” whether thematic, structural or lexical, Poe’s story can undoubtedly be considered as a potential hypotext for Cather’s.

14References of an intertextual nature to other tales by Poe can be found in “The Dance.” The scene in which the Signor cheats at cards and is humiliated by Denis in front of the other players (“‘Stop pulling cards out of your sleeve, you confounded Mexican cheat!’” [548]) and then swears to take revenge (“‘I’ll kill you for this. . . . Wait and see how I will kill you’” [548]) is very reminiscent of Poe’s narrator William Wilson, unmasked in the same way by his doppelgänger, the other William Wilson (“‘Please to examine, at your leisure, the inner lining of the cuff of his left sleeve’” [638]) who later threatens to kill his rival (“‘Follow me, or I stab you where you stand’” [640]). Another instance of intertextuality is palpable in the way the Signor, who is aware of Denis’s penchant for alcohol, coaxes him into drinking poisoned whiskey. It recalls the way Montresor lures his rival Fortunato so that the latter is “sucked to doom by his overriding interest in liquor” (98). In contrast to Poe’s first-person narrator whose speech betrays the “inner destructive consequences” (Gargano 827) of a crime committed fifty years earlier, Cather’s villain rides away as fast as his horse would carry him without showing any sign of remorse. Even though Cather does not address the psychological dimension of the act of revenge in “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” the Signor shares Montresor’s wish to make the victim aware of the identity of his assailant: “‘A wrong is unredressed,’” Montresor explains, “‘when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong’” (274).

15“The Affair at Grover Station” is a less imitative story and no particular hypotext emerges from its reading, although intertextual references to Poe’s tales abound. The story is another love triangle in which the evil Freymark, jealous of Miss Masterson’s affection for a railroad man, Larry O’Toole, and humiliated by her decision to go to the governor’s ball with him, shoots his rival and hides his body in a box car before going to the ball. In search of O’Toole, the narrator finds himself in front of his ghost and the latter indicates the location of his dead body by writing a clue on a chalkboard. As is the case in “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” a tragic event interrupts the ball, recalling “The Masque of the Red Death.” This time, it is the victim’s dog that creates some confusion among the revelers when it appears, wounded and bleeding, “all foam in the mouth” (345), causing the music to stop. The reference is even more obvious here with the presence of a clock which, as in Poe’s tale, acts as a reminder of mortality. Cather’s text reads: “It was not until near the end of the dance that the clock of destiny sounded the first stroke of the tragedy” (345).

  • 7 As Susan Rosowski puts it, “The narrative frame of the ordinary world encloses within it a ghost t (...)
  • 8 It can also be found in “MS Found in a Bottle” (118) or in the introductory note to The Narrative (...)

16“The Affair at Grover Station” is assuredly a more accomplished story than “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” both in terms of structure and characterization. It is a frame narrative: the victim’s friend, Terrapin Rodgers, tells the narrator—an old acquaintance he met by chance—his “grewsome tale” (340) on a train.7 Terrapin Rodgers, the unreliable first-person narrator of the embedded story, who needs to “unburden [his] mind” warns his confidant: “‘I could tell you something about it, but the question is how much you’d believe, and whether you could restrain yourself from reporting it to the Society for Psychical Research’” (340). The situation is reminiscent of Poe’s numerous unreliable characters. The same device is used for instance in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” when the sailor reveals details about the killings: “I will tell you all I know about this affair;—but I do not expect you to believe one half I say—I would be a fool indeed if I did” (165).8

17In “The Affair at Grover Station,” Cather also describes the narrator’s investigation to find the victim and the way he uses his observation skills in a way reminiscent of Poe’s detective Dupin: “I went back to the office and took the big station lamp upstairs to make a more careful examination of Larry’s sleeping room. The suit of clothes that he usually wore at his work was hanging on the wall. . . . His dress suit was missing, so there was no doubt that he had dressed for the party” (348). The rest of the paragraph describes in great detail the contents of the room and the deductions made by the narrator. Yet, the latter does not possess the deductive powers for which Dupin is known; he only finds his friend thanks to the intervention of the ghost. The intrusion of the supernatural is another element that creates a poesque atmosphere: Larry O’Toole’s ghost, with his “chalky white” face, his eyes “colorless as jellies, dull as lead and staring straight before him” (350), calls to mind, in a rather caricatural and ludicrous way, the apparitions of Berenice or Rowena in Poe’s stories.

18The ghost that appears in Cather’s “Consequences” is much more credible. Elsa Nettels describes the story as “one more mature tale of the supernatural” (200). In this story, a young man, Kier Cavenaugh, a rentier with a dissolute life, is stalked by a sinister old man who seems to know every detail of his life. The reader soon realizes that this man is an older version of Cavenaugh himself, an alter ego embodying his conscience. Cavenaugh’s friend, Eastman, the narrator of the story, only catches glimpses of the old man and never sees him clearly. Eastman advises his friend to leave New York but the night before his departure, Cavenaugh’s evil double visits him and the young man commits suicide. Several critics have commented on the similarities between “Consequences” and Poe’s “William Wilson” (Woodress 275, Arnold 100) and Nettels analyses the two stories at length in her essay “Poe’s Example and Cather’s ‘Consequences.’” As she explains, both William Wilson and Cavenaugh “live for their pleasure on drink and sex” and both “suffer the torment of knowing themselves relentlessly pursued by a figure they can neither control nor escape” (202). Nettels draws a parallel with another of Poe’s tales, “The Man of the Crowd.” She notes the similarities between the description of the crowded streets of New York in Cather’s story and the agitation of London’s streets in Poe’s. As she points out, “[r]ecollection of Poe’s scene imparts to Eastman’s vision a sense of the loneliness and anonymity that drives Poe’s observer into the crowd to pursue the extraordinary figure of a ‘decrepit old man’” wandering in London’s streets “who could be the prototype of the old man ‘in shabby old clothes’ who haunts Cavenaugh” (204). Another parallel could be made with Poe. The long and rather theoretical conversation between Eastman and Cavenaugh, described by David Stoucke as a “lengthy debate . . . as to whether or not suicides are explicable,” and which, according to him, considerably weakens the story (77), recalls the theoretical developments encountered in “The Imp of the Perverse” or in “The Premature Burial” and which find their practical application at the end of the stories.

19Although Nettels considers that Cavenaugh’s suicide can easily be explained, she finds the end of “Consequences” inconclusive. The similarities she notes between Cavanaugh and Eastman allow the reader to see the two men as doubles, and to wonder what will become of Eastman: “Will Eastman, after the death of Cavenaugh, be shadowed by the figure of his future self . . . ? Will Eastman himself become the subject of a story of a mysterious suicide . . . ?” (206). It is this inconclusiveness that “distinguish[es] the story from most characteristic tales by Poe”—including “William Wilson”—which “typically reach a conclusion in the completion of an action” (207). This difference aside, Cather’s tale of the supernatural undoubtedly adopts Poe’s literary precepts: she succeeds—to use Charles May’s words in his analysis of “William Wilson”—in “blur[ring] the line between external reality and psychological projections” (97) in a seemingly straightforward story. Although Cather continued to explore doubleness and the duality of self throughout her career, none of her subsequent stories contains such a puzzling portrayal of doubles.

Facing Literary Doubles

20Poe’s presence in Cather’s early texts can be interpreted as a haunting voice from the past that prevents her from making her own voice heard. It may be this cumbersome past that is represented by the Signor, the Mexican villain from “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” and Freymark, the despicable murderer of Chinese descent from “The Affair at Grover Station.” They both inspire fear and resentment because of their origins, but they are also to some extent linked to the past. The deceitful Signor kills his rival Denis by poisoning him using knowledge he acquired from “an old, withered Negro from the gold coast of Guinea” (553). The composition of the poison is close to that of a magic potion with its dried and boiled lizards and seems to come straight out of an ancient book of witchcraft. The link with the past is even more obvious in “The Affair at Grover Station”: Freymark has the “yellow wrinkled hands” (342) of a “centenarian” (343) and belongs to “a race that was already old when Jacob tended the flocks of Laban upon the hills of Padan-Aram, a race that was in his mort clothes before Europe’s swaddling clothes were made” (343). In both cases, the past insinuates itself into the plot, infecting the text and preventing the love story from taking shape by eliminating the character who had already written his future with his loved one. The two villains disappear after committing their crime, leaving open the threat of a possible return. Freymark, by quoting two lines from a poem by Alfred de Musset exhorting Miss Masterson to remember him, with a “thrust” of his “impudent red lips” (344), seems to issue a threat: that of haunting the memory of his interlocutor. A parallel can be made with the ghost texts from the past that inevitably leave traces on Cather’s palimpsestic stories, while also preserving the possibility of perpetual rewritings.

  • 9 Parallels with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and with Hans Christian Andersen’s “ (...)

21In “Consequences,” the disturbing presence of the old man, the protagonist’s double, materializes even more the presence of the literary ghost by adding a reflexive dimension to the text. Just like “William Wilson,” the story deals with the need to get rid of another self whose presence the protagonist can no longer bear. William Wilson kills his double and consequently kills himself; Cavenaugh apparently commits suicide but the reader can also imagine, as Lynch and Lynch suggest, that he instead killed his alter ego and “by doing so, he eliminates his own future and thus takes his own life” (37). The double in “Consequences” could be conceived as a reflection on the imitative process, on the literary double that haunts the text. By recalling “William Wilson,” or James’s “The Jolly Corner,”9 the story is part of what Derrida calls a “hauntology.” Inter/hyper-textuality, or the presence of other texts from the past, is a form of haunting that also manifests itself more literally in “Consequences” with the figure of the ghostly double pursuing Cavenaugh. Haunting, Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès and Gérald Préher explain, is linked to repetition; it is “a form of return to the past, or rather, a return of the past in the present that orients the present towards future repetitions” (14). Cather’s protagonist chooses to put an end to this troublesome presence that keeps haunting him by taking his own life. The way the old man tries to get into Cavenaugh’s apartment by any means, through doors and windows, could be interpreted metatextually as the insidious way in which Cather’s literary doubles repeatedly enter her “house of fiction,” to borrow James’s metaphor.

22There are actually two ghostly doubles in “Consequences”: a specter from the past and a ghost from the future. The former is Cavenaugh’s twin brother who died at 16 and represents the enthusiasm of youth and a promising future that Cavenaugh has lost. The fact that the ominous old man systematically turns the portrait of the missing brother to the wall during his visits could be read as a message to Cavenaugh: clinging to the past might keep him from fulfilling his potential. This is also reminiscent of Cather’s alter ego, William Cather, “her own twin brother,” whom she impersonated so that she “would have a better chance of accomplishing childhood ambitions shaped by the hero’s plot” (O’Brien 93). The second specter, the ghost from the future, is the old gentleman, Cavenaugh’s despicable and shabby-looking future self who “knows him like a book” (150) and throws a bad light on everything he did. His aim is to open Cavenaugh’s eyes to the futility of his present actions and to prompt him to take control of his life. Read in its context—Cather had just resigned from McClures magazine and had not yet written the successful novel she was expecting—the story can illustrate the “recognition of the difficulties in making significant changes as one matures and the unquestionable need to do so if one wishes to thrive” (Lynch 39). “Consequences” can thus be read as a cautionary tale that might apply to Cather herself. A few years before, she had written a letter to her friend Sarah Orne Jewett in which she confided her doubts about her writing career and the necessity to “declare her independence from her literary father[s]” (O’Brien 310). She followed Jewett’s advice to “turn to her own country” and eventually managed to chase away these ghosts even though they continued to haunt her by interfering at times in her novels.

23In the preface to Alexander Bridge, Cather explains that “the young writer must imitate and strive to follow the master he most admires” (942) until he finds his own style. If Cather drew inspiration from Poe, to the point of resorting at times to imitation, it is first and foremost because she was in a phase of experimentation. She was attempting to gain control over literary themes and techniques that she had not yet assimilated. This phase left traces in the novels she wrote later: “She didn’t shy away from writing disturbing tales of violence, murder, and distress in the course of her longer works” (Lynch 38). Expanding the techniques she admired in Poe’s writings, Cather applied them in her novels by blending the gothic elements with her realistic depictions of the frontier world. James Woodress describes Lucy Gayheart as a Gothic romance, with “three deaths by drowning” and a survivor “consumed by remorse”: it contains “the classic elements of the Gothic tale” and recalls Poe’s formative influence on Cather (462). Mr. Shimerda’s suicide, the evil Will Cutter’s attempt to rape Ántonia or the Cutters’ murder-suicide in My Ántonia, as well as the deaths of Emil and Marie, motivated by jealousy, in O Pioneers, all constitute further examples of the intrusion of the Gothic in Cather’s novels. Although she repudiated her poesque short stories, they contributed to shaping her literary style and infusing her novels with touches of Gothicism: they show how Cather, as O’Brien puts it, “allowed unconscious material to enter her house of fiction through the back door” (198).

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---. “Consequences.” 1915. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. Sharon O’Brien. New York: The Library of America, 1992. 133-53. Print.

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---. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Print.

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Downs, M. Catherine. Becoming Modern: Willa Cather’s Journalism. London: Associated UP, 1999. Print.

Fortin-Tournès, Anne-Laure, and Gérald Préher. Introduction. Haunting in Short Fiction. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 70 (Spring 2018): 13-20. Print.

Gargano, James W. “The Question of Poe’s Narrators.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G. R. Thompson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 823-29. Print.

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Lee, Hermione. Introduction. The Short Stories of Willa Cather. By Willa Cather. London: Virago Press, 1989. vii-xviii. Print.

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1 The term “article,” in Poe’s time, also commonly referred to short stories rather than just non-fiction.

2 There is limited work on the connections between Cather and Poe. Mention should thus be made of Thomas Strychacz’s article “A Note on Willa Cather’s use of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in The Professor’s House.

3 “According to Cather’s retrospective account, the year 1911—when she wrote Alexander’s Bridge—was thus the final year of her apprenticeship, during which she was ‘follow[ing] the [master]’ Henry James rather than speaking in her own voice” (O’Brien 381).

4 Harry Burns also appears in “The Affair at Grover Station,” as “a reporter on the London Times” and the victim’s cousin. He provides the narrator with essential information about the murderer’s dubious background (342-43).

5 For instance in “The Raven”: “Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” (943); or in “Annabel Lee”: “But we loved with a love that was more than love” (957).

6 “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (See Zimmerman 279).

7 As Susan Rosowski puts it, “The narrative frame of the ordinary world encloses within it a ghost tale that disproves the ordinary” (209).

8 It can also be found in “MS Found in a Bottle” (118) or in the introductory note to The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (748).

9 Parallels with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shadow” have also been made (Lynch 39).

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Stéphanie Maerten, « Reviving the Spirit of Edgar Allan Poe: The Hy“poe”text in Three Stories by Willa Cather »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 259-275.

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Stéphanie Maerten, « Reviving the Spirit of Edgar Allan Poe: The Hy“poe”text in Three Stories by Willa Cather »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL :

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Stéphanie Maerten

Stéphanie Maerten is an agrégée teacher of English and an independent scholar who lectures at Artois University. She has written articles on Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, and on the short fiction of several women authors such as Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Elizabeth Spencer, and Joyce Carol Oates. She is interested in women studies and in the development of the short story genre.

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