Willa Cather Short Story Project
The Willa Cather story for May was “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” This was a deviation from the schedule (a chronological list of Cather’s early works) because this is a bit of a rework of last months story, “A Son of the Celestial.”
Without getting too far into the plot weeds, “A Son of the Celestial” is more of a two-person story focused on how Ponter and Yang change each other and relate to their communities. “The Conversion of Sum Loo” widens the scope, somewhat, while being even moreso about Sum Chin and his wife, Sum Loo. The Ponter character is taken up by Girrard, a young man who is torn between the priesthood and art. The Sums are a fairly successful Chinese immigrant couple, though Sum Loo is much younger than her husband, and more open to the Christian influences in her community. Sum Chin is very concerned about the well-being of his son, possibly his only chance for securing a legacy and making sure that there is a next generation to take care of him and his wife. He does not object to his wife having the baby baptized; the more Gods favoring his child, the better, right? The conclusion of this story was quite the gut-punch.
The two stories were published seven years apart and Cather’s craft has absolutely improved in that time. “A Son of the Celestial” is not much more than a sketch, where “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a more well-rounded story.
Interested in reading along? Short Fiction of Willa Cather, Phase II
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles
During my second semester as an English major (being my fifth semester as a college student), I took a course called “Stories and the Human Experience.” At the time I worried that it was kind of a useless class because it didn’t fulfill any specific English requirement and I would easily end up having enough non-English department elective credits without it considering the amount of now superfluous math and science I had already taken. (The war between STEM and the humanities has always been strong in me.) But it ended up being a great course. The two sections were taught by different instructors with slightly different syllabi. We’d join up every couple of weeks to jam on what we’d all been reading. (It occurs to me now that my advisor might have been really working to fill the class since it was the first time is was offered and they needed two sections.) I remember that we read King Lear, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a novel I found slightly traumatic), and selections from Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (There were other things on the syllabus, but I don’t remember them. It’s been a while.)
I decided a few years ago that I wanted to revisit Coles and the concepts he presented. On the surface, Coles argues a point that does come up time and again in the STEM vs. humanities debate: stories teach empathy. They present characters who model behaviors both good and bad. They potentially offer insight into characters similar and different from ourselves. Coles presents what the scientific world would call anecdotal evidence. The most compelling portion of the books is reading stories of his students (mostly medical students, but also a few in fields like law and business) who have read a novel or short story and strongly identified with characters and plot situations. These stories have made them think about the morality of their behavior in new ways.
What left me a little cold was the actual talk of morality. Some of the points of view struck me as pretentious and privileged. This might be my own prejudice, but I can’t shake the feeling that Coles and his students (all Harvardians) find people less fortunate than themselves to be, well, unfortunates. Or maybe it’s because all these people are discussing problems that maybe wouldn’t be problems if they were worrying about making the rent. The irony of reading a book about stories and empathy, but not being super empathetic to the people presented in the narrative, is not lost on me.