148 Charles Street is a truly interesting piece of historical fiction that covers periods in the lives of Willa Cather and Elizabeth “Elsie” Sergeant. It is less a day to day description of their long friendship and more a study of how they influenced one another, despite their significantly different world views and life choices. While an editor at McClure’s Magazine, Willa met Elsie, when she submitted her first piece to be published, “Toilers of the Tenement.” The story opens in 1908, as Elsie and Willa are walking to 148 Charles Street in Boston, home to a widow, Annie Fields and the the writer, Sarah Orne Jewett. Over much of the mid to late 1800s, the Fields entertained the most renowned writers of their time, Charles Dickens, Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow… But in 1908, they are already historic.
While Charles Street has always had some storefronts, it is increasingly becoming more commercial, as a dormitory for nurses is being erected and houses are being torn down for more commercial structures. If Fields and Jewett are the past, Cather is still drawn to their era and Elsie represents the new idealistic muckraker, progressive, politically aware, concerned less for art for arts sake and more for the human condition and how her writing can impact it. Cather is in love with beauty and words and what she can create– often touching on the human condition, but not to make a point so much as to tell a story. In their passing conversation, Willa mentions the beauty of New Mexico and her love for it and suggests that Elsie should go there.
And then it is 1922 and we are in New Mexico where Elsie is renovating an old Mexican adobe hut, becomes involved in Native American issues, re-injures a foot she seriously injured in France when she reported on WWI from the frontlines, and corresponds along the way with Willa. Daugherty nicely creates a feeling of the community Elsie formed there and the work she did. She brings in Elsie’s friendship with Carl Jung who is drawn to visit because of some things she has shared with him about a particular Native American Chief’s telling her of his dreams/visions/world view. Elsie is in New Mexico, when she receives a copy of Willa’s new book, “One of Ours”, a story of an ordinary man who dies in France during the war, based on Willa’s cousin. Elsie is distraught and perhaps feels betrayed over Willa’s romanticizing the war. Although the novel won a Pulitzer, it was subject to quite a bit of criticism for appearing to glorify war. Again, the women’s different world views and temperaments are exposed, yet they remain in touch.
Next, the story focuses on a period in Willa’s life in 1940. She and her long time “roommate” Edith Lewis have lived for several years in a rather dark apartment and it fits her current mood. She has an excruciatingly painful condition in her writing wrist and the chapter opens with Elsie sending her a cane, having heard Willa injured her leg. Right off, Willa is annoyed at Elsie’s getting things wrong and her, too long for Willa, narrative about the New Mexico priest who gave Elsie the cane. They have been out of touch since Elsie suggested that Willa no longer exuded her enthusiasm for life and that conversations with her had become hard. Almost immediately, Edith leaves for five weeks in Europe and we are taken through a period of Cather’s life where she is even more restless, cantankerous and judgmental than usual and yet we are drawn to her and want her to be a less miserable person.
Among the people Willa judges is Elsie, who now lives in a small cottage up the Hudson river because her finances do not stretch to living in the city. She essentially assumes the worst of Elsie when she writes, that she knowingly writes things just to irritate Willa or to complain of her impecunious circumstances and she simply does not understand why Elsie will not write novels as she does. And then, after an encounter, where she is reminded of a character in one of her own novels, Willa has an epiphany about Elsie and their relationship that brings resolution.
In the end, it is again 1908 and we return to Willa and Elsie at 148 Charles Street, and as they leave the house, realizing they have looked back on a piece of history, continuing a discussion that highlights their differences. I love the summing up of their friendship, already, when they embrace, “without the slightest understanding of each other.”
Daugherty’s writing is entertaining and the choice she made about how to structure this novel into three discrete and far apart times in their lives worked well to illustrate this friendship. I got so engaged, I found myself researching the two characters before I’d finished the book. That, for me is a sign of a great piece of historical fiction, this need to know more. While Daugherty admits to taking license with the facts and timeframes, it is fair to say she achieved her intention of capturing the spirit of these two women of their time.