First published in Woman’s Home Companion in 1932 and included as one of three stories in the collection Obscure Destinies (1932), “Two Friends” has the structure and tone of a memoir. The story’s narrator is an adult looking back on a three-year period of her youth during the 1890s, when two prosperous men in her small Kansas town—Mr. Dillon, a cattleman from Buffalo, and Mr. Trueman, an Irish banker and owner of the town’s general store—dominated her imagination. The narrative is almost entirely third-person description as the narrator recalls evenings passed at the general store when she witnessed, more than participated in, the friendship of two intelligent, principled, successful men. The story is one of the best examples of Willa Cather’s treatment of memory: The narrator recreates a child’s state of consciousness while rendering resonant details, such as the timbre of voices and the shape of people’s hands, that give memory its lasting power.
Readers interested in gender issues in Cather’s fiction will notice the adolescent girl’s choice of men instead of women for heroes, behavior reflecting Cather’s own development at a young age. Venus crossing the Moon and the Chicago Democratic convention at which William Jennings Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech provide the thematic structure, suggesting the power of single events in human and cosmic history to influence people’s lives. The men’s friendship— rare, like the eclipse they witness—ends abruptly when Mr. Dillon attends the Chicago convention and becomes a passionate advocate of Bryan’s campaign. Mr. Trueman retains his Republican convictions.
The story has affinities with American Romanticism: The friendship’s end is the narrator’s fall from grace, precipitating the collapse of innocent belief in truths that should be but are not permanent. As do Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Ernest Hemingway’s early short stories, “Two Friends” describes the rhythmic routine of small-town life in America through the eyes of a restless, perceptive young person destined to leave. In the tradition of American Realism, Cather positions universal human concerns in the context of American history.
Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather’s Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984. Cather, Willa. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915–1929. Edited by Bernice Slote. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.