In doing preparatory work for my hoped-for volume of farm-based short stories, I found myself scanning through some of the nooks and crannies of Willa Cather’s short fiction that I had either never read or not seen in some time. “Neighbor Rosicky,” I believe, has made the cut.
Like a great deal of farm fiction, nothing much seems to happen in this story. Let’s face it. Compared with stories about sea adventures or rampaging zombies–even compared with the tales of marital infidelities–the typical day on the farm is about as exciting as watching wheat grow. How do you find fascination in a world where the avoidance of debt, early rising, and long-term faithfulness are among the highest virtues?
“Neighbor Rosicky,” a story that Cather published in 1930, details the final months of a Bohemian farmer, Anton Rosicky. After immigrating to New York (by way of London), Rosicky eventually makes his way to Nebraska where he becomes a farmer, marries, and raises his several children. With no particularly interesting vices, nothing seems capable to felling this man aside from time, hard work, and heart disease. The story opens with his doctor cautioning him to take life a bit easier, something that Rosicky, with encouragement from the family, does.
With a beginning in the doctor’s office, a reader can guess that where the story will end. Indeed, it does end with the man’s premature death, but then every death is, to the dying, premature. What matters in Rosicky’s world is not the death but the life that precedes it. The hero of this story has not stored up for himself treasure on the earth, like the rich fool of Luke 12. Instead, he has built up treasure in his land and, especially, for his family. Much is made in the story of the fact that the very frugal and industrious Rosicky has not managed to “get ahead” more. Instead, he has known the value of a dollar, not spending foolishly but not afraid to spend.
Rosicky intended to live and to promote life, focusing on the future but also on the present. He worries considerably (and correctly, it seems) about the new and fragile marriage between his son Rudolph and wife Polly, a town-raised “American” girl. He dedicates the family car to the couple so that they can journey to town each week. Comparing the family ethos of Rosicky with that of Claude Wheeler’s father in One of Ours, we can see the power and significance of what this man does.
What brings about Rosicky’s downfall is not a foolish or self-serving action. Instead, his own diligence and love, what has allowed him to achieve so much, precipitates the end. Rosicky, ever watchful, notices thistle seeds blowing into a beloved alfalfa field and sets to work raking out the invasive weeds. Such work, it seems, does not pay off so much this year as in years to come. Rosicky appears determined to maintain the land for his sons.
We are left to receive the story’s import from the doctor, who pauses to linger over the graveyard where Rosicky is buried.
For the first time it struck Doctor Ed that this was really a beautiful graveyard. He thought of city cemeteries; acres of shrubbery and heavy stone, so arranged and lonely and unlike anything in the living world. Cities of the dead, indeed; cities of the forgotten, of the “put away.” But this was open and free, this little square of long grass which the wind for ever stirred. Nothing but the sky overhead, and the many-coloured fields running on until they met that sky. The horses worked here in summer; the neighbours passed on their way to town; and over yonder, in the cornfield, Rosicky’s own cattle would be eating fodder as winter came on. Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky’s life seemed to him complete and beautiful.
Sentimental? Perhaps, but I believe that Cather captures a great deal of truth in that sentiment.