Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cather's "Two Friends": Street in Moonlight

Some readers of fiction have no patience with description of place, and skip ahead to the action, the point where the plot resumes, speeding along on its smooth tracks. For them, finely written description is superfluous. Not for me: I linger. Cather's description of a street scene in "Two Friends" may be a chance excrescence thrown off by the plot, like a spandrel, the space created when an arch is erected. (Stephen Jay Gould in his brilliant essay on the spandrel explains why some biological events seem to have no use. They are by productions of a successful adaptation, like the seemingly useless spandrel. The arch is necessary; it must be there for support; the spandrel is not, but artists find a decorative use for the empty space.)

Yet Cather's story would flatten out and gray without its rich description. Each night the friends sit talking in a matrix that reveals the pleasure of their friendship:

"One could distinguish their features, the stripes on their shirts, the flash of Mr. Dillon's diamond; but their shadows made two dark masses on the white sidewalk. The brick wall behind them, faded almost pink by the burning of successive summers, took on a carnelian hue at night. Across the street, which was merely a dusty road, lay an open space, with a few stunted box-elder trees, where the farmers left their wagons and teams when they came to town. Beyond this space stood a row of frail wooden buildings, due to be pulled down any day; tilted, crazy with outside stairs going up to rickety second-storey porches that sagged in the middle. They had once been white but were now grey, with faded blue doors along the wavy upper porches. These abandoned buildings, an eyesore by day, melted together into a curious pile in the moonlight, came an immaterial structure of velvet-white and glossy blackness, with here and there a faint smear of blue door, or a tilted patch of sage-green that had once been a shutter.

The road . . . in front of the sidewalk where I sat and played jacks, would be ankle-deep in dust, and seemed to drink up the moonlight . . ."

The failure of Trueman and Dillon's friendship drains the moonlight from Cather's story, and the loss registers more strongly because once they had sat and talked in a place "flooded by the rich indolence of a full moon, or a half-moon set in uncertain blue."


  1. I have to admit that I pushed myself to read all the detail in your post because I am one of the people who skip all the landscape. I read it because you thought it was important and because I'm trying to think about how to add more pungent details in a long piece I'm working on. Is it because I'm a photographer that I skip the written descriptions? I doubt it since primarily respond to photographs of people.
    Thanks, Mim

  2. I'm glad Cather's moonlit street has helped, Melissa.