A Wagner Matinée and A Pair of Silk Stockings

We’ve been busy with the change to a new semester. Two-thirds of my students are wrapping up the research paper process, while the other one-third are starting. It’s been a bit hectic.

When I was in college, I took a class in Southern Literature under the direction of James Kibler. Much of the literature we studied, post-Civil War at any rate, was based in Realism and Regionalism. I decided that I really liked it a lot, so I took a course the next quarter in American Realism and Naturalism. I did not love much of the literature we studied, but in retrospect, given the trajectory of my teaching career, it was the single most valuable English course I took. I have been primarily a teacher of American literature since the beginning of my teaching career. It is during the antebellum time period when Realism, Regionalism, and Naturalism developed, that American literature really took on a distinctive flavor — it became different from European literature. Over time, it has become possibly one of my favorite time periods to teach.

Students usually enjoy the works written by writers such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce — much more so than they do some of the earlier American writers, anyway. Of course, student interest in the topic always makes it more fun for me, too. After all, I have already read all this stuff… several times. It is experiencing it again through their eyes that makes it fun.

One of my favorite stories to teach within this unit is Willa Cather’s short story “A Wagner Matinée.” If you haven’t ever read it, you might want to take some time to check it out. Alternatively, you can listen to a radioplay version at Scribbling Women, but you may need to register (it’s free). In the story, a young man named Clark hosts his Aunt Georgiana from Nebraska. Much of the story centers around Clark’s fond recollections of Aunt Georgiana’s love for music. When he was a child, his aunt taught him Latin and Shakespeare. Clark moved to Boston. Aunt Georgiana comes to visit because of some legal business with a will, and Clark decides to take his aunt, who taught music before she eloped with Clark’s uncle to the wilds of Nebraska, to a matinée of Wagner music. Aunt Georgiana completely loses herself in the enjoyment of the music. In the end, Aunt Georgiana, faced with going back to Nebraska and leaving such music behind — this time for good — tells Clark poignantly, “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”

I pair this story with Kate Chopin’s short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” In this story, Little Mrs. Sommers (as Chopin describes her) has found herself in possession of an extra $15. She goes shopping, thinking to spend the money on her family. Instead, she finds her hand resting on a pair of silk stockings, on sale at $1.98 down from $2.50. Chopin evokes the Garden of Eden: “[S]he went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things — with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.” After that, temptation runs away with Mrs. Sommers. She purchases the stockings, then decides she needs new shoes. She winds up spending the whole $15 on luxuries.

I think the stories have very similar heroines. They speak to what women were (and, in many cases, are) expected to give up for their husbands and children. Sometimes students judge Mrs. Sommers harshly — they think she should have spent the money on her children as she planned. I think they have trouble relating to Aunt Georgiana. Today, even in the wilds of Nebraska, one can listen to Wagner at any time with a CD player or mp3 player. They have trouble understanding how cut off Aunt Georgiana is from all the cultured things she loves, especially music. This matinée will most likely be the last time Aunt Georgiana gets to hear music that she doesn’t perform on her own parlor organ.

I just finished these stories with one of my classes (and I am getting ready to do them with another class). I thought I had my opening activity for “A Pair of Silk Stockings” on my work computer, and I didn’t, so I didn’t do it (which is sad, because it really gets students in the frame of mind to make judgments about Mrs. Sommers’ spending). The activity centers around five fictional people who each receive a windfall of $100. They spend the money in various ways — either selfishly or selflessly. Students rate the five spenders based on how well they used the extra money and a class discussion ensues. After that, students read “A Pair of Silk Stockings.’ You can download this activity in rich text format by clicking this link.

My students concluded that it was OK for Mrs. Sommers to treat herself to one glorious day with the extra money. By the way, I always suggest students take the story home and read it with their mothers so they can have a discussion about it. However, these students concluded it might have been better for Aunt Georgiana to have missed the concert. They felt it was too painful for her to have for just a short time only to have it snatched away again.

As I taught “A Wagner Matinée” this time, I felt it — the students weren’t into it. I stopped in various sections and played some of the Wagner pieces mentioned in the story. I also told them about Wagner’s background and music — I have an “in” because my husband is an operatic heldentenor, so I’ve learned a little bit more about Wagner. However, it should be easy for anyone who wants to try this with his/her own students to learn more about Wagner and find a CD with the pieces in the story on it. The students drifted when I played the music. I thought it was all pretty much a wash until one student raised his hand and commented that he thought the pace of the story seemed to match the music — if I played a piece of music mentioned in the story, then turned it down and continued to read as the music played in the background, the story seemed to rise and swell to the music. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it was an interesting observation, and it was worth it to me if he was the only one that was into it. One student enjoying it and making connections made it worth it. Of course, it’s nice when they all do, but I’m realistic enough to know that’s pretty rare, and often not because of anything I did or didn’t do.

3 thoughts on “A Wagner Matinée and A Pair of Silk Stockings”

  1. If only… I could probably do this type of reading with my (8th grade) students, but I think the conversation would veer more toward the "why are we doing this" or "Am I supposed to really believe the author meant this?" vein. Congrats to you.

  2. Hmmm. My kids didn't much care for Jonathan Edwards either. And interest does indeed seem easier to find once we get to more "American" writing. You're doing some neat things, Dana (not that you didn't already know that).

  3. I enjoyed your review and decided to read the stories. They were and interesting glimpse into an usual moment in those women's lives. Thanks!

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