Source File: cat.cs004.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 4

Where is Cather's Quebec?

Anthropological Modernism in Shadows on the Rock

Edith Lewis tells us that Shadows on the Rock grew out of intense experience of place, an overwhelming "flood of memory, recognition, surmise "called up by Cather's visit to the city of Quebec, her "discovery of France on this continent" (151-53). I propose in this essay that we need also to situate this novel— and, indeed, Cather's fiction more generally—in a more abstract location: a place I will call the "anthropological," an imaginative terrain delimited by a crucial development in American intellectual history,the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a new understanding of culture as a category of human experience. In the reading of Shadows on the Rock I offer here, I hope to begin to support with a specific case three larger claims about Cather's work: that her love for place and her interest in the past came to intellectual and artistic fruition as an interest in culture, as that term was being newly understood; that such an understanding of culture—more centrally than gender, psychology, or nostalgia—gives her work its definitive shape; and that we might best understand Cather's distinctive version of modernism by thinking about it as a cultural or intellectual historian might: not as a collection of compositional techniques or ideas about art but as a set of intellectual, moral, and emotional commitments and attitudes that find expression as aesthetic strategies.[1] Here is my path toward that goal: first, a brief account of this new version of anthropology and a listening for its echoes in Cather's fiction; second, an examination of anthropological affinities in Shadows on the Rock; and finally, an exploration of the curious modernity of some of the figures and stories in this ostensibly antiquarian book.


In the first three decades of this century, a group of related ideas that came to be called "cultural relativism" emerged in the work of the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students at Columbia University and became widely influential among American academics and intellectuals.[2] There are two crucial conceptual elements to this new science of anthropology, and together they compose a powerful challenge to Victorian habits of mind. First, the concept of "culture" is broken free from its static and honorific association with the refined arts that signify genteel cultural authority. Rather than representing what "civilized" European nations have and "primitive" people lack, culture refers, more descriptively and objectively, to the interconnected and particular ways distinct communities construct meanings for the individual lives that unfold within them. "Culture," this is to say, becomes an object of study and interest, and to realize that modern American lives, no less than supposedly "primitive" ones, are deeply shaped by distinctive customs is, in Ruth Benedict's phrase, to be "perpetually galvanized into attention" (642). Along with the sense that different cultures—the plural is crucial—comprise distinctive meaning-systems comes a revolutionary claim of their equivalence in value. Thus in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) Boas demonstrates the capacity of putatively savage people to think abstractly, to discriminate aesthetically, and to inhibit impulse, while featuring the irrational customs, prejudices, rituals, and taboos characteristic of genteel Europeans and Americans (Singal 19).[3] Such pointed comparisons helped dismantle the narrative of cultural, class, and racial superiority dear to embattled late-nineteenth century elites—a narrative (so voluble, for instance, in Conrad's Heart of Darkness) that imagines human history as a progress, feebly and belatedly imitated by the lesser races, toward the telos of the civilized European or American. Some of Boas's students, especially, used cultural comparisons to turn the tables altogether, arguing that "primitive" cultures made possible much more satisfying and creative individual lives than did American industrial society, as in Edward Sapir's Dial essay on "genuine" and "spurious" cultures, with its contrasting figures of the "telephone girl" and the American Indian spear fisherman and its analysis of the spiritual hunger characteristic of twentieth-century consumer culture(234).

The work of Boas and his disciples, then, moved in two significant directions. First, in its demonstration that culture, not heredity, most significantly shapes human behavior, it struck the first crucial blow in the scientific counter attack against the pseudoscientific racial theory so powerful at that time. Second—and here is where the illuminating affinity to Cather's fiction lies—it identified "culture" as the central arena of human meaning-making, suggesting new kinds of interest in daily life, more capacious notions of imaginativeness, more pointed criticisms of orthodox American culture.

Several features of this new anthropological work also seem particularly characteristic of Cather's fiction and find their echoes, too, in Shadows on the Rock. First, as Lewis Perry has observed, the work of Boas and his followers is marked by a delight in the particularity and diversity of human meaning-making (321). Thus, for Benedict, human societies, including one's own, become, from the anthropologist's perspective, visible as joint acts of imagination, even the "institutions" of modern culture emerging as "the epic of his own people, written not in rime but in stone and currency and merchant marines and city colleges" (648-49). Second, whether explicitly or implicitly, this kind of work is animated and energized by comparison—but not by canned comparisons that simply demonstrate the presumed superiority of the "civilized." Perry cites Boas's observation that anthropology "opens to us the possibility of judging our own culture objectively" (322); Benedict writes that "What we give up, in accepting [the anthropologist's]view, is a dogged attachment to absolutes; what we gain is a sense of the intriguing variety of possible forms of behavior, and of the social function that is served by these communal patternings. We become culture-conscious" (648).

The pattern of moral judgment implicit here—a refraining from a stereotyped form of judgment so as to see, followed by a use of that comparison to make visible and to interrogate the conditions of one's own life in culture—seems to me exactly that distinctively and characteristically produced by Cather's fiction, which might also be said—as I will try to demonstrate below—to aim, through a recasting of the novel's characteristic forms of behavior, at the creation of a "culture-conscious" reader. I plan to use this account of the new anthropology heuristically, arguing for an illuminating affinity of thought between its conceptual principles and the interests and commitments of Cather's fiction rather than a literal influence. My point is not that she was a thoroughgoing cultural relativist but that her work is animated by—and can best be understood through—the kind of perspectives the new science made available. Still, there is every reason to believe that anyone as actively engaged in New York intellectual life as Cather was during the early decades of this century would have encountered the new perspective I have been describing. As some of my citations have already indicated, Boas's ideas made their way swiftly and forcefully into the intellectual culture of the time, especially through the efforts of several of Boas's students who made the new anthropological perspective, with its witty lampooning of customary cultural hierarchies, available in widely read magazines and who wrote strikingly popular "crossover" books, like Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928).[4] Despite Elizabeth Sergeant's claim that Cather did "very little reading" in anthropology, her experience of growing up in Nebraska, with its striking mix of ethnic communities, might be said to have furnished a rich field for the kind of pointed cultural comparisons that delighted Boas's students. She might have been alerted to Boas's work when, during her editorship, McClure's published an extensive account (with a portrait of the scientist) of his studies of immigrant skull sizes, an important early attack on theories of racial determinism. Perhaps an informal interest in the imaginative life of distinctive communities was heightened or made self-conscious by following her friend Louise Pound's work on Nebraska folklore and folk music.[5]

Still, what matters to this essay is the way an "anthropological" perspective may have shaped Cather's work as a writer, so the crucial testimony to Cather's possession of this kind of interest in culture and its making will need to be found in the work itself. Although Shadows on the Rock will serve as my central case, one might discern some striking anthropological affinities in Cather's writing generally. Consider, for instance, the "comparative" shape of so much of Cather's fiction. I am thinking here of the tendency, beginning with the early novels, to create occasions for cultural comparison—as in the attention to the Mexican celebrations in The Song of the Lark and the "Catholic fair" of O Pioneers! Or, with more thematic centrality: the contrast between the immigrant-sponsored culture of storytelling and the played-out Victorianism of Black Hawk in My Ántonia, and the interjection of Tom Outland and his story of the discovery of Anasazi culture into the refined life of The Professor's House. (I would suggest that, with Death Comes to the Archbishop and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, as with Shadows on the Rock, the comparisons do not cease but become implicit, the whole novel given over to the comparative case and history's archive functioning as a kind of field work for Cather).[6]

The strongest "extramural" evidence for the affinity I am suggesting probably comes from two pieces of nonfictional writing. Passages of either piece might well have been extracted from one of the popular anthropological essays I have been citing. The first is Cather's extraordinary essay on Nebraska for The Nation (1923), in which, turning the cultural tables, she contrasts the "cosmopolitanism" of the immigrant prairie towns with the "pale proprieties, the insincere, conventional optimism of our [American]art and thought" and laments, in a manner reminiscent of Sapir's criticisms of modern American life, the substitution of a culture of buying for a culture of making (237-38).

The second piece will take us all but into the text of Shadows on the the Rock itself. I am referring to Cather's well-known letter to Wilbur Cross thanking him for an acute review of her book. One hears in the following passages, as in Benedict's writing, an emphasis on culture as an act of imagination, a making: "To me the rock of Quebec is not only a stronghold on which many strange figures have for a little time cast a shadow in the sun; it is the curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite." Or, a little further on: "An orderly little French household that went on trying to live decently, just as ants begin to rebuild when you kick their house down, interests me more than Indian raids or the wild life in the forests. . . . And really, a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages. Those people brought a kind of French culture there and somehow kept it alive on that rock." (On Writing 16). One sees demonstrated here that Cather adopts an anthropological view of meaning, in which objects are indeed symbolic of cultural values (the "salad dressing"), but not by symbolizing something other than themselves. One witnesses Cather putting careful cultural observation to its characteristically Boasian uses—the criticism, via comparison, of a complacent present, and the celebration of daily life as an act of creation.[7]


I arrive, at last, at the text proper of Shadows on the Rock and at the central question my essay raises. Does this account of the""anthropological" quality of Cather's imaginative enterprise help us see Shadows on the Rock differently and more clearly? What kind of book does this become, as we foreground its interest in culture? Exploring as it does the apparently homogenous culture of seventeenth-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock might seem an unlikely candidate for the demonstration of Cather's anthropological interests or for a new description of her modernism. Its very unlikeliness, of course, makes it a good test for the claims I have been forecasting, and I must now ask how well the set of issues and interests I have been calling anthropological—a focus on the culture of a community and on distinctive cultural locations within a community; an emphasis on the process through which things and experiences become meaningful; a sense that character is defined or determined not psychologically but through a complex negotiation between person and cultural system—"fit" the actual contours of the work?

Consider first the local "texture" of the novel. Shadows on the Rock is the reverse of "démeublé": it is a book full of things and of the practices of everyday life. But the things and behaviors described in Shadows on the Rock, like the salad dressing of Cather's letter to Cross, are there not as the props of a materialistic realism but as the instrumentsof meaning, the media of cultural identity. Quotidian objects and the routines of their use are typically presented as the receptacles or transmitters of meaning or as artifacts that carry with them the history of their accruing significance. I am thinking here of Auclair's dinner, "the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman" (17); of Cécile's silver cup, with her name engraved upon it, which Jacques, with an understanding made acute by his own poverty, treasures as a sign of a fully secured place in the community. The duties of the "ménage" and the arrangement of their "salon" are felt by Cécile's mother, as she teaches them to her daughter, as a form of expression, carrying "a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries" and articulating "all the little shades of feeling that make the common fine"(25). Late in the novel, when their return to France has been averted,Cécile feels that the objects in the same room—which had spoken "Frenchness" to her mother but have come to speak Canadian to her—have had their very existence, their capacity to carry meaning, restored with the preservation of the context that made those meanings possible: "A little more color had come back into the carpet and the curtains. . . . everything in the house, the furniture, the china shepherd boy, the casseroles in the kitchen, knew . . . that the world was not going to be destroyed this winter" (252).[8]

In Shadows on the Rock, this is to say, Cather has performed the novel's most basic work—that of representing a world—in a way we might call anthropological, aiming not simply at the imaginative accuracy of the realist or the historical novelist but drawing our attention to the meaning-life of objects, to the way they function within the field of meanings that this particular community composes. As its alertness to the cultural life of objects begins to indicate, the "form" of Shadows on the Rock—the stance toward experience enacted by the range of compositional choices Cather has made—is permeated, in ways both apparent and deep, by the anthropological perspective. Such a perspective seems also to determine which kinds of events make their way into the book in the first place. Late in book 3 of the novel Cécile gets a cold. For an interlude of several pages, we find out how her father treats the illness (a mustard bath for her feet and sassafras tea), what they chat about, what goes through her mind as she rests (characteristically, her mind turns toward cultural geography, as she imagines first the "merciless forest," then the town itself with its "layers and layers of shelter, with this one flickering, shadowy room at the core"[157-58]). Cécile isn't very sick: she doesn't die, or nearly die, or experience a fever-powered epiphany. What is of interest here—and what, by implication, defines or constitutes the interesting—is dailiness itself, the specific and intensely local practices that make up everyday life. One of the central pleasures of this text—and certainly the chief labor of its composition—is the delightfully specific simulation of daily life in Quebec.[9] Cécile's cold, this is to say, is not important for the effects it produces but for the opportunity for observation it presents.

Immediately following this episode, we witness one of the text's most powerful moments, Blinker's tormented confession that he was one of the king's torturers. Unlike the account of Cécile's cold, this episode is intensely dramatic. Its content is horrifying, and it yields a significant ending, Blinker's cure and transfiguration through confession: "Auclair watched with amazement the twisted face he saw every day . . . now become altogether strange; it brought to his mind terrible weather-worn stone faces on the churches at home" (162-63). The two episodes, Cécile's cold and Blinker's self-revelation, are hardly equivalent in impact, but what seems characteristic of the book is their juxtaposition, with its implication that both events are significant and that they need not be ranked or measured against one another.

A similarly capacious sense of the meaningful governs a juxtaposition of moments earlier in the novel. In book 2, the narrator celebrates the imaginativeness that makes the Ursulines immune to the vicissitudes of emigration: "They were still in their accustomed place in the world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world), and they had the same well-ordered universe about them" (97). A few pages later Cécile experiences an epiphany while sledding: "A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her"(104). Here, too, the juxtaposition draws our attention to the distinctive ways meaning is shaped in a particular place by particular kinds of people. The nuns in the convent and the child with the sled possess equal authority and intensity as meaning-makers.

What might be called the "protocol" of Shadows on the Rock—its way of deciding which experiences enter its borders—comes, as the novel unfolds, to define a stance toward experience: it invites us to witness free-standing instances of meaning's emergence, rather than to discern episodes sculpting themselves toward the telos that will reveal their full import. The untendentious organizational principle I have been instancing here governs the book as a whole, and Cather might be said, paradoxically, to have taken great care to invent a book that seems unplanned. Like an anthropologist's account of her fieldwork, the book follows the trajectory of a single year, measured as the colonists measure it: not by the calendar but by the departure, return, and departure of the supply ships for France. The book begins and ends with the Auclairs, but our attention is primarily focused through Cécile and her father, not on them. Their family life, that is, provides the vantage point from which we watch the communal life of Quebec unfold; we are interested in them, but our interest in them becomes our way into the life of the town, just as an anthropologist might arrange to live with a particular family in hopes of immersing herself in communal life. Tellingly, the events that complete the Auclair story—Euclide's acceptance of life in Canada, Cécile's marriage—are exiled to an "epilogue," as though to mark them as not the center of the book's attention. Yet the book's policy of selection is not simply random; rather, its notice, like that of the practiced cultural observer, is particularly drawn to moments where this culture's values and meanings are expressed or transmitted. Hence, as I have already suggested, the attention devoted to the quasi-ritualistic practices of everyday life; hence the prominence of storytelling; hence the alertness to occasions for surprising cultural comparisons, as when continental France, not the Huron villages, provides the book's most striking instances of savagery (the child abuse implicit in Blinker's rearing as a torturer and Captain Pondaven's life as a cabin boy; the accidental consumption of a caretaker's daughter by the king's carp).

I am arguing, then, that Shadows on the Rock is interested in experience in the way the new anthropology was interested in experience and that Cather composes and organizes her representation of that experience in ways that have distinct affinities with the concepts and strategies of this new "science of custom." Like its deployment of events, the book's presentation of character seems governed more by the interests of the cultural analyst than by those of the traditional novelist. What we find out about people in the book is not the full drama of their consciousnesses, not the intensity of their psychological conflicts. What we see, quite consistently, is their cultural location, their way of making meaning. Thus we know little about how Auclair felt about his wife—but a good deal about his stance toward experience and the shape of his world; his imaginative geography, where the presence of the forest is felt as an animate otherness surrounding the fragile town; his interesting combination of rationalist skepticism and feudal loyalty, expressed in his curiosity about whether behavior is determined by "blood" or more unpredictably given by circumstance. Thus the book's portrayal of Count Frontenac emphasizes the production of his cultural presence: "His carriage was his unconscious idea of himself,— it was an armour he put on when he took off his night-cap in the morning, and he wore it all day, at early mass, at his desk, on the march, at the Council, at his dinner-table. Even his enemies relied upon his strength"(239). Espousals of belief or value are consistently juxtaposed to a different character's articulation of a countering skepticism, as though to suggest that, even in a culture so apparently unified as seventeenth-century Quebec, meaning is in process, composed of competing and changing perspectives. Thus the account of the miraculous appearance of the angels to Jeanne Le Ber is answered by Pierre Charron's demystifying narrative of her descent into obsession, while Father Saint-Cyr's tribute to the devotion of the missionaries provokes Auclair to wonder about the waste of human talent occasioned by such "misplaced heroism" (155). In turn, Auclair's expression of deep loyalty to his patron occasions a more sophisticated response—"a smile in which there was both contempt and kindness" 242)—in Count Frontenac himself.

Another formal feature of the text—the narrator that Cather calls forth to present this material—seems similarly designed to express the values and perspectives I have been calling anthropological. The most notable feature of this narrative voice is its reticence, which one senses as the presence of a coherent set of "refrainings." Mostly the voice operates as an ideally positioned observer, witnessing events and transposing conversations but refraining from commentary and explanation and making no claim to the kind of full access to consciousness possessed by, say, the Jamesian narrator. It is placed in this community but is not of it. Cather's narrator might thus be said to enact the unbiased attentiveness that is the anthropologist's goal, but this voice is not simply neutral or photographic. Rather, its attention is drawn, as I have suggested above, to moments at which the community's ongoing work of constructing its meaning can be observed, and when it is lured toward commentary the subject is consistently the creation of significance—as when the narrator notes that on All Souls' Day Cécile "was not sorrowful, though she supposed she was" (94), implying that it is the imaginative intensity of the day, not its doctrine, that has captured her attention. And the beliefs of the characters are simply stated,never explained away or demystified. Like a good anthropologist, this is to say, the narrator is more interested in the making of values than their validity; she does not pretend to be in the possession of a superior understanding of or a more direct access to the truth. Indeed, the narrator from time to time simply becomes a conduit for the communal perspective, taking over for Cécile the telling of the story of Catherine de Saint-Augustin (40-41), leaving—curiously—untranslated the life of Saint Edmond that Cécile reads to Jacques, giving voice to the sentiments of the town in a tribute to the ships that bring supplies from France (207-09).[10]

Yet this mostly restrained narrative voice does occasionally break into strikingly lyric or "literary" expressiveness. But what provokes the leap into a different figurative register (what seems, that is, to govern the book's deployment of its energies of figuration) is the celebration of the making of culture itself. Thus the narrator completes the admiring description of the nuns' powerfully composed imaginative universe with an allusion to The Aeneid ("Inferretque deos Latio" [Shadows 98]), as though to pay tribute to their achievement as preservers of meaning, and with the following prophecy about the meaning-life of Quebec: "Its history will shine with bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as in life itself, where the great matters are often as worthless as astronomical distances, and the trifles dear as the heart's blood" (98). The miracle of Jeanne Le Ber is said to bring pleasure "as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families whom she did not know some living beauty, a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit"; in the same passage "the people" are said to receive miracles not as evidence or proof but as "the actual flowering of desire" (136-37). Cécile's emerging experience of cultural identity, which is rendered in her relation to landscape, calls forth from the narrator a style we might call the anthropological sublime. At the end of an afternoon of sledding, witnessing the early evening sky ("the western sky . . . was now throbbing with fiery vapors, like rapids of clouds"), Cécile feels with new force her identity as a Canadian: "A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this.... On a foreign shore. . . , would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one's own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coining up from the deep sea" (103-04).[11] In ways both subtle and apparent, then, Cather has made her narrator enact the kinds of attentiveness, interests, attitudes, and enthusiasms that arise from construing "culture" as one's central object of interest.

My essential claim will now be clear. In Shadows on the Rock—and, I would suggest, throughout her fiction—Cather has recast the novel in the image of anthropology. I do not know, of course, whether Cather actually derived this repertoire of interests and representational strategies from the new anthropology or whether she discovered it independently. But in any case, I think that the "anthropological" affinities of Shadows on the Rock, as we think still more about them, help us to see something crucial about Cather's enterprise: that this set of interests and compositional tactics amounts to a reconception of the nature of meaning. The making of a culture is discovered as a new kind of subject for the novelist, and just as Boasian anthropology brought with it freedom from the hierarchies of Victorian culture, so Cather's invention of the anthropological novel delivers freedom, both formal and thematic, from the habits of Victorian fiction. The freedom I have in mind might be thought of as an escape from allegory. The juxtaposed episodes I began with, Cécile's cold and Blinker's confession, occur in book 3 of the novel, "The Long Winter." That book, as one reexamines it, turns out to have a distinct thematic shape. It begins with the full onset of the Quebec winter and ends with the return of the Auclairs' swallow, the harbinger of spring. Moreover, this book is full of illnesses—Bishop Saint-Vallier's psychological unsoundness; Antoine Frichette's rupture; Noel Chabanel's nearly ceaseless vomiting—which giveway to Blinker's cure and Cécile's convalescence. Its crucial feature,though, is that these allegorical materials do not become an allegory: they do not indicate, finally, a "deeper" level of meaning to which actual experience conforms or refers. Rather, the meanings of these episodes remain independent, resisting the pressure toward allegory suggested by their thematic affinity: they may reveal moral truths, but they do not compose a narrative of moral truth. Even the muted, character-based allegories of realist fiction—maturation, character development, the emergence of nameable wisdom—capture little of the book's energy and interest. The subject of Shadows on the Rock is not the revelation of Meaning but the making of meanings, and the book is best understood not as a nostalgic evocation of a lost stability of meaning but as a modernist meditation upon its construction.[12]


I have been arguing that in Shadows on the Rock Cather has recast the novels so that it might make culture its central subject, most strikingly by substituting a collection of culturally revealing "moments" for the overarching "plot" that has traditionally governed the novel.[13] Yet this book is not without its prominent narratives. I want now to look closely at two such stories for the light each sheds on the enterprise of Shadows on the Rock—to ask how thinking through what each of these episodes is "about" might help us understand more fully what Cather's novel is up to.

My first story might be called a narrative of belief, an instance of the book's treatment of Catholicism. Throughout the book, it seems to me, Cather is interested in Catholicism not as a believer or as an Anglo-Catholic fellow-traveler but as a cultural observer. She attends, that is, not to its truth (though, like a good anthropologist, she will not question it) but to its operation, for the clerics who are its most intense devotees, as a kind of "mini-culture," a set of strategies for the production of cogent and intense meanings. On a winter evening Father Hector Saint-Cyr tells the story of Noël Chabanel's vow. This least successful of missionaries, unsuited in all respects to the life he has undertaken, conquers his intense desire to return to France by making a vow of perpetual stability in the Huron missions. Father Hector, drawn powerfully to the comforts of domesticity and the pleasures of the library, reveals, to Auclair's intense disappointment, that he has imitated Chabanel's vow. Although this story might be taken as a tribute to the heroic discipline of the missionary priests or simply as a striking historical incident, several features of its presentation send us in a different interpretive direction. First, though Father Hector tells the story with utter sincerity, its elements—particularly the portrayal of Chabanel's struggles—make available quite a different view of his saintliness. Unable to learn the language, feeling no love for the Hurons, and intensely disgusted by their daily life,the fragile Father Chabanel seems to spend much more time vomiting than effecting conversions. The futility of Chabanel's career is only emphasized by Saint-Cyr's curious tribute to his sacrifice ("many gave all, but few had so much to give" [1531), which measures Chabanel's action entirely by what he gave up "to Christ" rather than by what he might he supposed to have given to the Hurons. An ironic view of Chabanel is clearly taken by the Indian converts, who delight in outraging his delicacy. The effect of this double presentation of Chabanel's story—which looks, simultaneously, like a heroic struggle to overcome "savagery" and a savagely masochistic and useless act of self-torment—is not to demystify Chabanel's strange holiness but to emphasize its willed and chosen quality. And during the course of its telling, and especially through his studied imitation of Chabanel's vow, Father Hector emerges not as a straightforward paragon of holiness but as a kind of "meaning specialist," a self-conscious connoisseur, like the Emily Dickinson of the poems about suffering, of the"tremendous gain" in meaning that accrues from the ingenious exercise of the arts of abnegation. It is perhaps no accident that Father Hector was, before his missionary days, a professor of rhetoric, for several of his remarks reveal an astute appreciation of the logic and tactics of meaning enhancement—as in his claim that "Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship" (146); or his suggestion that only the experience of intense hunger can make possible the full enjoyment of dinner with the Auclairs; or in the imitation of the vow itself, which seems an act at once ascetic and aesthetic, calculated to create within himself a state of mind he wishes to possess. When Cather examines expressions of belief, then, what interests her is neither the content of the belief nor its truth value but the imaginative process of its production.[14]

Of the many narratives Shadows on the Rock puts before us, the one with the greatest claim to centrality is that of Cécile's coming of age—a narrative, we might notice, particularly interesting to anthropologists, since it focuses on the way in which a cultural identity is fully achieved or marked.[15] I want to examine what I take to be the crucial episode in Cécile's story, the visit she makes to the Ile d'Orleans with Pierre Charron, together with the effect of that visit upon her when she returns home. Cécile's much-anticipated journey to that intriguing and beautiful place seems to end in disappointment, for she finds herself so sickened by the grubbiness of her hosts that Pierre agrees to take her back to Quebec. This is not a moment that appeals to one's egalitarian sentiments, and Cécile's fastidiousness might seem to imply an endorsement of the very genteel, hierarchical taste that Boas's work takes apart. But this is taste anthropologically understood, as an expression of cultural affiliation: what Cécile experiences—viscerally, like Noël Chabanel—is her distinct cultural "locatedness." And this moment leads, upon her return, to what Susan J. Rosowski rightly calls an "epiphany" (182). As she prepares the evening meal, she feels older, no longer a little girl: "She was accustomed to think that she did all these things so carefully to please her father, and to carry out her mother's wishes. Now she realized that she did them for herself, quite as much. . . . These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special flavor, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life" (198). An epiphany, yes, but I want to add: a distinctly Boasian epiphany, consisting of the extraordinary, "protoanthropological" recognition that we make our culture even as it makes us ourselves. Cécile grows up at this moment, but to come of age in Cather's account is, strikingly, to see—and, by seeing, almost to choose—the cultural affiliation that yields meaning and value. This moment—not the marriage to Pierre Charron, which does not even need to be shown—is the crucial episode in Cécile's life, for by fully becoming a Québecois she has fully become herself. And this episode, in turn, definitively reveals that the crucial subject of Shadows on the Rock—the interest that, in the absence of plot, holds the book together—is precisely that defined by Cécile's revelation: the making, as a work of art is made, of the meanings that constitute a culture, a "climate within a climate."[16]


While I hope to have demonstrated that the communal manufacture of meanings—the essential work of cultures, as Boas understood it—is also the central subject of Shadows on the Rock, I have perhaps not fully described what I take to be the nature of the book's designs upon the present. With its interest in Catholic ritual, in the quaint and lovely customs and artifacts of a long-gone way of life, Shadows on the Rock might well be seen as an instance of what the cultural historian Jackson Lears has described as "anti-modernism," the tendency of embattled late-Victorian elites to criticize but more deeply to seek refuge from an unwelcoming modernity by evoking the richly meaningful life of past cultures. Does this book, I want to ask, look forward and around as well as back? Does it produce the yield of its implicit comparison, teaching us, as Boas suggested his anthropological work might, to see and judge our modern or postmodern lives?

It will be no surprise that I think that the answer is yes—in part because the very emphasis on the making of meaning that I have been tracking implicitly locates us as participants in a particular culture with its own limitations and possibilities: we measure and evaluate the trajectory of our lives, perhaps, as we witness Cécile discover the trajectory of her own. But I think we might derive a fuller answer from Cécile herself. It is one of the tenets of Boas's anthropology that culture—though not without complexity or the possibility for change—determines behavior by defining its meaning; it is, I suppose, one of the tenets of intellectual modernism that no culture can any longer produce the authority or meaning sufficient to command our unselfconscious affiliation to it. To see the determinedness of other cultures, then, is potentially and paradoxically to evade the determinism of one's own. Cécile cuts a curious figure in criticism of Shadows on the Rock, appearing there, for instance, both as a "prig" and as the secularized avatar of the Blessed Virgin.[17] Here is my Cécile: in the realization I have described, that moment where she, in effect, chooses her affiliation to her city's culture because she sees so clearly that culture is a making—and in the implication that emerges from the moment of Cécile's anthropological epiphany, that one might choose badly or well, that one's life will be made by the cultural affiliation one discovers or invents—Cécile emerges not as la petite vierge but as une petite moderniste, consciously choosing—and thus in part making, and making for the delight it affords her—the narrative of her cultural location.

I close with a glimpse of Cécile in action: Mother Juschereau has just retold the story of Marie the sinner's miraculous appearance to Mother Catherine, and she is about to deliver the requisite moral when she is interrupted by Cécile: "N'expliquez pas, cere Mere, je vous supplie!"And as she looks into her young listener's face, Mother Juschereau sees something that leads her to abandon, once again, her hopes of Cécile's vocation: "admiration and rapture she found in the girl's face, but it was not the rapture of self-abnegation. It was something very different,—almost the glow of worldly pleasure" (39-40).


 1. Since this essay first found form as a paper at the Quebec Seminar, two books have been published that valuably discuss affinities between Cather's fiction and the "anthropological" perspective I will be describing here. Guy Reynolds notes the "relativism" that informs Cather's treatment of Catholicism and the Lidian cultures of the Southwest and links her views to early anthropological work on that region and to an emergent "primitivism" in American intellectual culture more largely (Context 155-64). Joseph Urgo's admirable discussion of Shadows on the Rock in Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration (97-111) proposes that a view of individual cultures as temporary and relative acts of meaning-making attends Cather's larger interest in and exemplification of an American "migratory consciousness" and animates her depiction of Quebec. My essay might be distinguished from their work by its interest in form: in the specific ways anthropological ideas and practices seem to shape Cather's way of writing. (Go back.)
 2. My account of the significance of this moment in American intellectual history derives from Daniel Joseph Singal's extremely useful essay, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism" 18-19, and from Perry 319-23. (Go back.)
 3. On the emergence of this concept of "cultures" and the significance of the plural form as a marker of the change, see Stocking, chap. 9. For a more recent discussion of this history, chastened by a sense of the tendency of such intercultural exchanges to leave hierarchies mutedly intact, see Clifford 230-36. (Go back.)
 4. On the dissemination of Boas's ideas, see Perry 322-23. (Go back.)
 5. Anthropology and folklore emerged as allied disciplines. Boas was a founder of the American Folklore Society and edited the Journal of American Folk-Lore from 1908 to 1923. Pound published extensively on Nebraska and American folklore and song forms (see the bibliography in Selected Writings of Louise Pound 349-61); for a useful discussion of Cather's intellectual relation to Pound, see Reynolds, "Louise Pound." Sergeant's comment, along with her view of Cather as resistant to modern intellectual trends, may be found in Willa Cather: A Memoir (163-65, cited in Harrell). As readers of My Ántonia will recall, Cather seems to have retained, at least at that point in her life, some interest in the relation between skull shape and ethnicity; see the descriptions of Blind d'Arnault and Ántonia's son Leo. (Go back.)
 6. One might think here of Boas's use of historical cultures as evidence in his dismantling of a race-based notion of cultural development. On the implicitly comparative force of Cather's historicism, see Reynolds, Context 68-72; on storytelling as a "culture" in My Ántonia, see Millington. (Go back.)
 7. For a much more skeptical view of the effect of the "culture concept,"as disseminated in fiction, on twentieth-century American society and politics (especially its conceptualization of race) and for a valuably complex account of Cather's relation to this idea of culture, see Michaels. (Go back.)
 8. Passages like this should not be seen as mere francophilia. Even as the narrator renders Mme. Auclair's feelings about domestic order, Cather's phrasing subtly emphasizes the local and variable—which is to say the culturally determined—quality of taste: "life would go on almost unchanged with its dear (and, to her, beautiful) objects" (25). The text's treatment of objects and daily life has been beautifully described by Susan J. Rosowski (179-82); for a valuable discussion of the transmission and significance of domestic ritual in the book, see Romines 152-62. (Go back.)
 9. See Edith Lewis's description of Cather at work (127), which emphasizes her capacity to inhabit the place and moment she was writing about. (Go back.)
 10. The narrator that, in my experience, most resembles the voice in Shadows on the Rock is the one created by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, another work interested in rendering the local life of a distinct community on its own terms—and with reasons of its own for being suspicious of the all-knowing stance of the traditional narrator of Victorian fiction. (Go back.)
 11. On occasion a character, too, will describe the work of culture-making in one of these celebratory figures, as in Father Hector's epic-scale comparison of Quebec to the nesting of sea birds on certain "naked islands" in the gulf of the Saint Lawrence: "This headland was scarcely more than that; a crag where for some reason human beings built themselves nests in the rock, and held fast" (225-26). Note the similarity to Cather's letter to Cross. (Go back.)
 12. This anti-allegorical aspect of Shadows on the Rock—its disinclination to award any particular ontological status to the seasonal theme—might be usefully compared to another work influenced by anthropology, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In that work vegetation myths seem to express a distinct yearning for an underlying stability of meaning, and Eliot's poem, for all its formal daring, looks considerably more nostalgic than Cather's ostensibly antiquarian novel. Cather criticism has, I think, too often sought out in Cather's fiction the "covert" or overarching allegory—whether thematic or biographical—that makes sense of a particular work or even of her career as a writer, rather than accepting its thrilling and characteristic disinterest in allegorical conceptions of experience. This sense that a jettisoning of the allegorical defines Cather's modernism is what distinguishes my view of the book from Joseph Urgo's equally antinostalgic account of Cather's project. For both of us, Shadows on the Rock is best understood as a case study of meaning-making within a particularly situated community. For Urgo, however, Cather's portrayal of Quebec operates on behalf of her career-shaping interest in "migratory culture," and her depiction of the book's various meaning-makers carries with it an implicit judgment: she endorses those characters who respond to change creatively and shows the self-entrapment or futility of failing to do so. For me, the depiction of meaning-making is, in and for itself, the book's goal. The book's "anthropological" method allows Cather to substitute "interest" for themes and judgments, and its reward for writer and reader alike is the discovery of new work for the novel to do: the new repertoire of responses, alertnesses, and pleasures I have been describing. (Go back.)
 13. Ann Romines makes a similar point about the book's disinterest in "plot" as usually conceived; she sees the book's "non-progressive" quality as expressing its interest in "ritualized female life" (161). (Go back.)
 14. Compare Urgo's suggestion that the novel makes clear "that it is the function of belief, not the ideas themselves, that is rock like, structural; the forms of the sacred pass over human experience like shadows" (110). (Go back.)
 15. The book's other sustained narratives also have a notably anthropological tenor: on a grand scale, the hook records an important shift in the structure of this small society, as Pierre Charron—self-made, entrepreneurial, secular, Canadian—replaces both Count Frontenac and Bishop Laval as the central figure of authority. (Go back.)
 16. Urgo makes a closely related point in his discussion of this episode,noting that such experiences of "emigration and colonization" have convinced Cécile that life is a constructed phenomenon and that she, like all her fellows, is responsible for the quality of life produced"(110). Notice, too, that the rest of Cécile's story records the turning away of a threat to this achievement—the "de-culturation" that would attend a return to France, which Cécile imagines as the erasure of the meaning of things, of memory, of selfhood. Compare Romines's observation that the "true plot" of the book is "not Cécile's courtship but her discovery of her love for housekeeping—and then her attempts to defend her housekeeping against forces that would shatter it" (161). (Go back.)

 17. See Woodress 430 and Rosowski 184-87. (Go back.)


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