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"Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady."

In The Song of the Lark, railroad man Ray Kennedy is busy making his caboose presentable for a visit from his prospective fiancee and potential mother-in-law.
It was properly the brakeman's business to keep the car clean, but when Ray got back to the depot, Giddy was nowhere to be found. Muttering that all his brakemen seemed to consider him "easy," Ray went down to his car alone. He built a fire in the stove and put water on to heat while he got into his overalls and jumper. Then he set to work with a scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap and "cleaner." He scrubbed the floor and seats, blacked the stove, put clean sheets on the bunks, and then began to demolish Giddy's picture gallery. Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed "a taste for the nude in art," and Giddy was no exception. Ray took down half a dozen girls in tights and ballet skirts,—premiums for cigarette coupons,—and some racy calendars advertising saloons and sporting clubs, which had cost Giddy both time and trouble; he even removed Giddy's particular pet, a naked girl lying on a couch with her knee carelessly poised in the air. Underneath the picture was printed the title, "The Odalisque." Giddy was under the happy delusion that this title meant something wicked,—there was a wicked look about the consonants,—but Ray, of course, had looked it up, and Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady. If "odalisque" had been what Ray called an objectionable word, he would have thrown the picture out in the first place. Ray even took down a picture of Mrs. Langtry in evening dress, because it was entitled the "Jersey Lily," and because there was a small head of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in one corner. Albert Edward's conduct was a popular subject of discussion among railroad men in those days, and as Ray pulled the tacks out of this lithograph he felt more indignant with the English than ever. He deposited all these pictures under the mattress of Giddy's bunk, and stood admiring his clean car in the lamplight; the walls now exhibited only a wheatfield, advertising agricultural implements, a map of Colorado, and some pictures of race-horses and hunting-dogs.
This book is somewhat sluggish in pace and I'm not enjoying it as much as the more concise O Pioneers!, but occasional passages like these keep me reading. Cather packs so much into that paragraph - Ray's fastidiousness, Giddy's bawdy taste in art, the humorous misunderstanding over "odalisque", the Irish animosity toward the English - and presents it delightfully well.

October 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink


And how she packs the whole "brakemen" and "railroadmen" subculture into those lines. She certainly seemed to know her subject, and she knew so many subjects.

Posted by: Paul at Oct 27, 2015 4:43:29 AM

(Yes, I also had to look up odalisque, which Webster's defines as "a female slave" or "a concubine in a harem." Which now has me confused - if Ray doesn't consider "concubine" to represent something objectionable or unsavory, then maybe he isn't as pure at heart as this passage would suggest. Or maybe he's reading a much different dictionary than mine.)

Posted by: Pete at Oct 27, 2015 9:45:21 AM