‘The Namesake’ by Willa Cather

The Namesake by Willa Cather, 1907

The magic trick:

The retelling of the namesake’s Civil War death

This story begins like some kind of Henry James knockoff, expatriate artists in France talking about important subjects. But then it morphs into an Edith Wharton story-within-a-story, eventually becoming something surprisingly original. The key is the single paragraph retelling of the namesake’s death in the Civil War. It’s remarkably vivid, almost comically so. It’s melodramatic and cliché and possibly a joke. But I think maybe it’s not a joke at all. It’s touching and memorable. It’s both. It’s over the top in its American tragic heroism, beautifully so. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.

The selection:

“The veteran showed me an account of this charge which had been written for the village paper by one of my uncle’s comrades who had seen his part in the engagement. It seems that as his company were running at full speed across the bottom lands toward the fortified hill, a shell burst over them. This comrade, running beside my uncle, saw the colors waver and sink as if falling, and looked to see that the boy’s hand and fore-arm had been torn away by the exploding shrapnel. The boy, he thought, did not realize the extent of his injury, for he laughed, shouted something which his comrade did not catch, caught the flag in his left hand, and ran on up the hill. They went splendidly up over the breastworks, but just as my uncle, his colors flying, reached the top of the embankment, a second shell carried away his left arm at the arm-pit, and he fell over the wall with the flag settling about him.”


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