“The inexplicable presence of the thing not named…” – Cather on her style

In 1922 Willa Cather wrote an essay in which she discussed her writing style – or, rather, the aesthetic that lay behind it.  The essay is important as it begins to define one of the major features of 20th century prose – and how it differs from that of the previous century.  It’s also significant, I think, that the essay predates Hemingway’s earliest publications – because, as I will discuss elsewhere, I find an astonishing similarity in the “prose aesthetic” (in its simplest form, the writing style) of these two authors – in every other way so different, and, indeed, in Hemingway’s case, so antagonistic.
Below I attach a downloadable PDF file of Cather’s entire essay.  It only runs two pages, but I’ve edited the piece down to an even shorter version – less than a page – to encourage everyone to take a look.

Here some teasers from the Willa Cather’s essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” [with its furniture taken away] (1922)

There is a popular superstition that “realism” asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects, in explaining mechanical processes . . . and in minutely and unsparingly describing physical sensations. But is not realism . . . an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme? . . .  If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism.


[In praise of what Hawthorne leaves out of The Scarlett Letter] . . .The material investiture of the story is presented as if unconsciously by the reserved, fastidious hand of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department-store window-dresser. As I remember it, in the twilight melancholy of that book, in its consistent mood, one can scarcely ever see the actual surroundings of the people; one feels them, rather, in the dusk.

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

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