On Becoming Neighbor Rosicky: Willa Cather, William James, and the Constructs of Well-Being

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 207. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,628 words

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[(essay date 2013) In the following essay, Kephart draws on the theories of philosopher and psychologist William James to read “Neighbour Rosicky” as a tale of a man’s pursuit of well-being and happiness, here figured in terms of the title character’s journey from soul-sickness to inner peace by means of a mix of heightened consciousness, experiential learning, and reflection.]

Among the most anthologized and best loved of Willa Cather’s short fiction, “Neighbor Rosicky”, first published in 1930, returns to the Nebraska prairie of O Pioneers! (1912), the novel Cather considered her first real success.1 In this gently measured story, Czech farmer Anton Rosicky’s primary concern is the welfare of his family. He fears that his oldest son, Rudolph, will abandon the farming life for the city, thus also abandoning the values Rosicky has tried to instill in his children, and that Rudolph’s wife Polly, an American girl raised in the town, will similarly be unwilling to settle into prairie life; he reflects what Cather lamented in a 1921 interview: “All the farmer’s sons and daughters seem to want to get into the professions where they think they may find a soft place. ‘I’m sure not going to work the way the old man did,’ seems to be the slogan of the day.”2 Rosicky’s apprehension stems from his own experience with city life, where he could find no soft place, and it is made all the more urgent because, as Cather tells us in the ironic first sentence, he has a heart condition from which we know he will die. With a plot of little action and mostly reflection, consisting primarily of Rosicky’s thoughts and narratives as he retells and relives the difficult life events that have brought him to this place and time, Cather directs our focus to the way the good-hearted Rosicky holds his son and daughter-in-law in the embrace of family and farm.

A simply beautiful and slow-paced narrative of sympathy, contentment, and affirmation, “Neighbor Rosicky” reads like a sequel to Cather’s novel My Antonia (1918) and contains a poignant reminiscence of Cather’s father.3 At the time she wrote and published “Rosicky”, first serialized in 1930 and then collected in Obscure Destinies in 1932, her father had died and her aging mother was failing, the impact of which “turned her mind to family and friends [and the Nebraska] of her youth.”4 Lest we fear treading too close to the edge of intentional fallacy, we recall other fiction that brought Cather a comparable sense of comfort. In a letter about Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), she explains, “Writing this book … was like a happy vacation from life, a return to childhood, to early memories.”5 Concurrent with “Neighbor Rosicky”, Shadows on the Rock (1931) brought similar consolation, Cather’s mother having died just before the novel was published; Cather later recalls that “she would always be grateful to Shadows on the Rock for carrying her over a hard stretch of her life.”6 In this light, certainly...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420118930