“Double Birthday” by Willa Cather


(Willa Cather)

Now that I’ve been blogging for a few years, there is a growing list of authors that I hadn’t read (or even heard of, in some cases) before I started blogging that are now among my favorites. Haruki Murakami, William Trevor, John Green and Margaret Atwood are a few examples. Also near the top of the list of these would have to be Willa Cather. Her short story, “The Old Beauty” was my ’gateway drug’ in 2012, and I haven’t looked back. Her novel, “The Professor’s House” which encompasses within its pages the wonderful “Tom Outland’s Story” will, I’m sure, be a lifelong favorite, as will the short story, “The Enchanted Bluff” which was, well, enchanting. Next up will be her novel, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”


But first, I was happily reminded that I had included a story of hers in my 2013 Short Story reading project, “Deal Me In,”  where I prepare for the year by picking fifty-two stories and assigning each to a card in a standard deck of playing cards. I read one a week, and the order is determined by drawing a card from the deck. Generally, each suit has a theme, and hearts was my suit for stories by female authors. This week I drew the ace of hearts and was led to Cather’s story, “Double Birthday.” It’s now one of my favorites for the year thus far.

“Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times – there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unseen.”

With a great introductory paragraph like that, one should not be surprised that this short story – about the Englehardts, an uncle and nephew, both named Albert, separated by a generation, yet sharing the same birthday – would not disappoint. The Englehardt family has effectively squandered its once mighty fortune, making them pitiable to many others, but not themselves. Another character, the upstanding Judge Hammersly, doesn’t see how Albert “can hold his head up” in the face of his changed fortunes.

It’s a story that subtly condemns those who look down upon others who happen to reside in a different class, and yet there is some irony too in that the elder Englehardt, a doctor by trade, also himself unfairly judges a girl – a talented singer who he has “discovered” and clearly loves – for failing to pursue and nurture her talent to the extent he feels that she should. The Englehardts are just the type of people that Cather describes in her opening paragraph.

The Younger Albert is quite aware oh his “fallen” condition and how he is viewed by member of the upper class to which he once belonged, but…

“He believed he had had a more interesting life than most of his friends who owned real estate. He could still amuse himself, and he had lived to the full all the revolutions in art and music that his period covered. He wouldn’t at this moment exchange his life and his memories… for any one of these massive houses and the life of the man who paid the upkeep. If Mephistopheles were to emerge from the rhododendrons and stand behind his shoulder with such an offer, he wouldn’t hesitate. Money? Oh, yes, he would like to have some, but not what went with it.”

Near the end of the 22-page story, the Englehardts enjoy a birthday dinner with the daughter of Judge Hammersly after which the elder tells the younger: “Albert, good wine, good music, beautiful women; that is all there is worth turning the hand over for.”

I liked the story a lot and will admit I have frequently thought as the younger Albert does when contemplating changing places with some of his friends who are better off. Fortunately, our world has produced wonderful writers such as Cather who can so eloquently put these feelings into words for me.

I couldn’t find the text of this story online, but many of Cather’s works (especially e-books) can be purchased relatively cheaply. I own the story as part of a treasured anthology, “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” Are there other fans of Willa Cather out there? What are your favorites among her novels and stories?