The Quiet Farmers
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American realism, which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, can be divided into several literary movements united by a single feature – the events and people described are put in completely true-to-life settings and presented without any artistic embellishment in order just to show readers how it really is or was. Another feature of this genre is a close connection with actual historical and social conditions. Bright representatives of American realism are Arna Bontemps and Willa Cather. Their short stories “A Summer Tragedy” and “Neighbor Rosicky” may be subjects of a compare and contrast analysis, for being written within one genre, they differ in terms of literary movements.
The division of American realism is clearly traced when these stories are concerned. Bibliographical critical approach helps delimit the features characterizing the stories as belonging to certain subgenres. Willa Cather, whose childhood passed in Nebraska, was naturally closer to this environment which found a broad reflection in her works. A bibliographical approach to literary critics gives grounds for assessing “Neighbor Rosicky” as “based on real events”. Social and psychological experience of the author herself, who spent some childhood years on a farm in Webster County, was rendered in her works. This author belongs to the movement of regionalism within American realism. Regionalism is based on depicting events in close connection to the geographic setting of the story. It was easy for Willa Cather to gather material for “Neighbor Rosicky”, as the frontier land where she lived presented multiple examples of immigrants from Europe who tried to settle their lives in the new country. The Rosiskys are of Czech descent, and it explains their peculiar pronunciation enhanced by the influence of speech characteristic of this part of America. Such words as “dat”, “widder”, “fedder”, and “chust” are graphons copying the way these people really talk. Besides, the characters of the story use a lot of colloquial speech. Their everyday life, flowing in hard work on the farm, their mundane troubles and worries connected with crop, their only way to earn their living, descriptions of scenery typical of the places, and true fascination with nature (“sleeping fields and bright stars and the noble darkness”) contribute to adherence to the subgenre. As a result, all genre characteristics are present in “Neighbor Rosicky”, which gives reasons to list the story among other works of regionalism.
As for Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps, he is one of the representatives of the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from college in California, young Bontemps moved to New York, and this may be asserted as a crucial change in his life, for it enabled the poet to contribute to the literary and cultural movement which was in bloom at that time. Describing the premises of Harlem Renaissance, the Academy of American Poets maintains that it was initiated by, “African Americans who migrated to the industrial North from the economically depressed and agrarian South… and found new opportunities, both economic and artistic.” Being more acknowledged for his poetic works, Bontemps cannot be underestimated as a prose writer. One of significant contributions to the literary movement he belonged to is the book The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, Edited, With a Memoir published in 1972, which contains some elements of journalism and autobiography. His short story “A Summer Tragedy”, which later was included in a compilation titled The Old South (1973), clearly belongs to the realistic tradition in American literature. It is no wonder this frank and serious story won the Opportunity Short Story Prize for the author. Thus, consistent adherence to the Harlem Renaissance and African-American culture makes Arna Bontemps a bright representative of this movement.
Despite belonging to different movements within American realism, “A Summer Tragedy” and “Neighbor Rosicky” have a range of common features. Both stories explore difficult destinies of farmers, who spend their whole life in hard work to make their living. That is why “vanities” do not mean so much “after thirty or forty years of simple life” (Bontemps). There is only one angle presented in “A Summer Tragedy”, and the length of “Neighbor Rosicky” enables the story to give another perspective, which is comparing country and town lives: Rosicky is concerned that his town-descent daughter-in-law “is gettin’ lonely some”. With regard to the dynamics of the plot, the short story by Arna Bontemps can be considered more dynamic, as the reader is hold in tense anticipation of what turns out to be the tragic climax at the very end of the story. “Neighbor Rosicky” is also a tragedy, though of a delayed character, for the symptoms of a heart disease of the protagonist mentioned at the beginning do not come to light for a long time. This feature makes Cather’s story less dynamic, yet the happiness of the family described in it (“generous and warm-hearted and affectionate”, according to the town doctor) makes the quiet death of the head of the family unexpected and unbelievable, despite all the premises. The Rosickys with their six young and healthy children come in contrast with the already unfolded tragedy of the Pattons. The short size of “A Summer Tragedy” enabled Bontemps to avoid telling about the life of the elderly couple prior to the moment described and the way they lost “five grown children within two years”, which contributed to the tense and frightening atmosphere of the narrative. The tragedies in both stories unfold after flashbacks of happy life, “gay young crowds” for Jeff Patton and “trying fortune in another part of the world” for old Rosiky.
“A Summer Tragedy” by Willa Cather and “Neighbor Rosicky” by Arna Bontemps belong to American realism, though a detailed classification supported by a range of genre-identifying elements characterizes them as works belonging to regionalism and the Harlem Renaissance respectively. Cather describes a very locally specific community based on her childhood memories, and in the same way, it is easy to reveal the story of elderly African-American farmers for Bontemps. The climaxes of both stories are deaths of the protagonists, but “A Summer Tragedy” is characterized by a more dynamic and tense narrative.