I read My Mortal Enemy for Willa Cather Week, hosted by Heavenali. My edition includes a 1961 introduction by Marcus Klein, and it almost stopped me from reading the novella. It was all about doom, bitterness, and disillusionment; I never thought I would see Willa Cather and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land mentioned in the same sentence. But I read on and while the story baffled me a bit, I certainly found the style I so enjoy in Cather’s writing.
The novella describes the life of Myra and Oswald Henshawe. As a young woman, Myra decided to break with her wealthy great uncle in order to marry Oswald. The elopement is the stuff of legend in the small town Myra grew up in, providing ample fodder for gossip even years after the actual event. But it soon becomes clear that all is not well, because when the narrator, Nellie Birdseye, asks her aunt if the Henshawes are happy, the answer is:
“Happy? Oh, yes! As happy as most people.”
The answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people. (p. 14)
Nellie meets the Henshawes when she is 15, and initially, she is intimidated by Myra’s demeanor. But when she visits the couple over Christmas and New Year’s, her intimidation gives way to admiration. Nellie is in awe of Myra’s wit and her ability to make each person she talks to feel special. But Nellie also overhears one of the couple’s arguments, which shines a negative light on both Myra and Oswald.
Ten years later, the Henshawes have fallen on hard times and Myra is terminally ill. Nellie runs into them at a run-down boarding house, where Oswald provides for Myra as best he can, while at the same time enjoying the “respectful admiration” of a young woman. Cather takes care not take sides in her portrayal of the Henshawes, and it is up to the reader to decide who or what gives the novella its title.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story. To me, it seemed more like a recording of events, and it was unlike any of Cather’s novels I have read so far. The main characters are the Henshawes, yet most interesting is Nellie’s changing view of them. I couldn’t figure out what point Cather was making, if she was trying to make one at all. After a bit of Internet research, I came across an interesting article in the Willa Cather Archives. The author, Charles Johanningsmeier, argues that in My Mortal Enemy, Cather is working through her relationship with the publisher S. S. McClure and his wife Hattie. Cather wrote for The McClure’s Magazine and greatly admired S. S., even ghost-writing his autobiography. So Cather must have felt somewhat disillusioned when learning about McClure’s affairs with younger women and his mismanagement of both the magazine and his personal affairs.
Regarding the novella as Cather’s attempt to work through her propensity to idealize the past (viewing the Henshawes’ elopement as romantic) and to reconcile it with the present (the Henshawes regret their youthful indiscretion) in order to be able to move on (Nellie accepts that neither Oswald nor Myra are perfect) makes sense to me. But while the writing is wonderful, in my opinion, this novella comes nowhere near My Ántonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop.