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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Cather, Freudianism, and Freud

This essay does not argue for or particularly examine Willa Cather's cultural iconicity. It grew from my personal conviction of the immense significance of Cather's writing, and from my old but unexamined habit of linking her mentally with another writer—Freud—whose status is indeed unquestioned. I wanted here simply to bring together more or less systematically two of the great figures in my own "family romance," two strong voices that have echoed in my thinking for more than twenty years.

To many readers (and certainly to Cather herself) they seem an unlikely pair. Yet they have much in common: children of the provinces who came to see themselves as speaking for high culture itself; professional late bloomers who served long, arduous apprenticeships; in their personal lives aloof, in what Freud called "splendid isolation"; meticulous self-fashioners; lovers of classical antiquity and things archaeological, and of European literature from Virgil through Shakespeare to Anatole France. Each described the collapse of his or her world and lived on past it, sometimes bitter but not defeated, into wise or cynical age. Each was until the end an unrepentant iconoclast: Freud's Virgilian epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900—"Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo," which I translate loosely as "If I can't move heaven, then I'll raise hell"—has always struck me as somehow appropriate to Cather, young or old.

When I first read Cather in 1981, as I will describe below, I immediately and without much thought placed her in my own very small canon of literary icons, and it was hard for me to understand why she was even then still for critics often a minor, regional figure. In what follows, reassured by the compelling arguments of others in this volume, I simply take her iconicity—her inexhaustible cultural suggestiveness—for granted, as I take Freud's.


It is easy to follow the threads of relationship between Willa Cather and Sigmund Freud: there are almost none. I believe that Freud's name appears exactly once in Cather's published and unpublished writings, in a famous 1936 counterattack on young literary critics incapable of appreciating Sarah Orne Jewett's prose: "Imagine a young man, or woman, born in New York City, educated at a New York university, violently inoculated with Freud, hurried into journalism, knowing no more about New England country people (or country folk anywhere) than he has caught from motor trips or observed from summer hotels: what is there for him in The Country of the Pointed Firs?" (Not Under Forty 92-93). In a subsequent letter to ZoË Akins she identified her targets as NYU graduates with foreign-sounding names publishing essays about sex-starved New England lady authors (Woodress 474; Stout, Calendar 206). I do not know the specific writers who incensed Cather, but they sound like practitioners of criticism-as-diagnosis, an approach pretty common in the enthusiastic youth of literary psychoanalysis, and one encouraged by Freud himself, who saw art (like most behavior) mainly as sublimated expression of the artist's frustrated sexual desires.

Beyond this public outburst (more noted now for its nativism—the young critic is of "German, Jewish, Scandinavian" descent—than for its critique of psychoanalysis) we hear little, even off the record, about Cather's awareness of the strong currents of "Freudianism" that surged in American intellectual culture in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant describes a 1921 dismissal of Freud's work as one instance of Cather's growing rigidity and conservatism: "She was truly skeptical about the post-war world. Take this Viennese Freud: why was everybody reading him? Tolstoy knew as much about psychology—with no isms attached—as any fiction writer needed. I didn't agree. Freud was here: I had to try to read him, because I lived in today's world. But Willa . . . looked backward with regret" (173-74). Sergeant also tells a strange story of the late 1920s (probably the spring of 1929), of a depressed Willa Cather toying with entering Jungian analysis to address "the enigma of life and death" that hovered over her, unhappily poised as she was between the death of her father and her mother's illness (247-49). Predictably, she chose against analysis.

These fragments indicate that Cather was well aware of Freudianism and the American psychoanalytic movement: and of course she must have been, as an intellectual and a woman of letters living right at the movement's ground zero, Greenwich Village in the 1910s. Her biographers usually insist that her Bank Street apartment was a calm backwater in the tempest of freethinking that made the Village legendary—"Willa had never, of course, been involved with the vagaries of Greenwich Village in the pre-war days," says Sergeant (211). James Woodress is a little less sure of her isolation, calling her "an observer rather than a participant in the yeasty ferment in Greenwich Village in the years before World War I" and suggesting that, while no evidence links her to radical thinkers like Max Eastman, John Reed, or Margaret Sanger, she certainly did know Floyd Dell and Carl Van Vechten, and "may have attended Mabel Dodge Luhan's famous salon on occasion, as everyone in Greenwich Village" did (236). (Woodress later guesses, I think properly, that "Cather must have met [Luhan] in New York . . . when she was Mabel Dodge, a rich patron of the arts" [363].) And Janis Stout calls "puzzling" Cather's apparently deliberate blind eye to the bohemian or avant-garde aspects of her community (Writer 128).

I suspect, in fact, that Cather knew the Village's famous left pretty well—well enough to satirize it accurately in her 1918 portrait of Genevieve Whitney Burden, Jim Burden's wife in My Ántonia's foreword, who "gave one of her town houses for a Suffrage headquarters, produced one of her own plays at the Princess Theater, was arrested for picketing during a garment makers' strike, etc. . . . [and who] finds it worth while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters of advanced ideas and mediocre ability" (x-xi). This composite portrait draws on several of the Village's politically and artistically emancipated women. But Mrs. Burden most strikingly resembles Mabel Dodge Luhan herself, the irrepressible grande dame of 23 Fifth Avenue from 1912 to 1915, and a figure of some importance in the spread of Freudian ideas in the intellectual life of Manhattan in the 1910s. Estranged from her midwestern architect husband, Edwin Dodge, Luhan embarked on a brief bright career as a patroness of the modern, one that led her to assemble in her drawing room, in her words, "Socialists, Trade Unionists, Anarchists, Suffragists, Poets, Relations, Lawyers, Murderers, 'Old Friends,' Psychoanalysts, iwws, Single Taxers, Birth Controlists, Newspapermen, Artists, Modern Artists, Clubwomen, Woman's-place-is-in-the-home Women, Clergymen, and just plain men. . . . It was not dogs or glass I collected now, it was people, Important People" (Movers 83-84). Luhan wrote about Gertrude Stein and the new art of the Armory Show; she militated for the unemployed; she arranged a meeting between Isadora Duncan and the mayor of New York to discuss education for the poor; she was John Reed's lover and (by her own account) his muse for the 1913 IWW Paterson Strike Pageant in Madison Square Garden. It is hard to imagine that Cather did not have this energetic woman in her mind when she created Genevieve Whitney Burden. And it is also not very surprising that the portrait of Mrs. Burden almost disappeared from the revised My Ántonia of 1926, when Luhan had become Cather's close southwestern friend and correspondent—and her hostess in Taos for two weeks in the summer of 1925.

Among Cather's documented Greenwich Village acquaintances, both Carl Van Vechten and Floyd Dell dabbled in and wrote about Freudian psychoanalysis (as did almost all of the Greenwich Village Bohemians, who usually saw a direct link between sexual and political freedoms, between repression and oppression). Dell in particular (like Cather a young midwestern transplant to New York) underwent analysis in 1917 with the Village doctor Samuel Tannenbaum, crediting the treatment not only with improving his sex life but also with unleashing his artistic talents.[1] He went on to a reasonably successful career as a writer of sentimental fiction and a popular writer and speaker on topics of mental hygiene (Hale 2: 65-66).

Luhan interests me particularly, in spite of the difficulties involved in identifying her as one of Cather's links to the Freudianism of the 1910s. More than twenty warm letters to her from Cather survive (all from the mid-1920s and later), and the two women seem unlikely friends. Larger than life and a serial marrier, Luhan was one of American Freudianism's most energetic, extravagant purveyors, the visible importer of a trendy new European sexology. In 1916, seeking relief in her spectacularly tangled emotional life, she entered therapy with the eclectic, prescriptive analyst Smith Jelliffe; later she consulted A. A. Brill himself, the Austrian Jewish immigrant who translated Freud into English and headed the American psychoanalytic movement. At Brill's urging, she became in 1917 a syndicated advice columnist for Hearst, dispensing (among other things) brief Freudian, Nietzschean, or vaguely Marxian "cures" to the masses, generally advertising salvific personal freedom and health achieved through the willed lifting of societal repressions, or the liberation of stifled libidinal energies (see Rudnick 129-42; Luhan Movers 507-10).

Regardless of whether Cather talked with Dell or Van Vechten of psychoanalysis, or whether her specific friendship with Luhan dates from the 1910s, it seems inevitable that the Freudianism she observed firsthand was the Greenwich Village version that these three (and probably Elsie Sergeant as well) knew and admired: Americanized (and thus highly pragmatic), self-consciously "modern," sexy, rebellious, and highbrow, intertwined in a therapy-hungry public's imagination with other self-help techniques and "mental cures" that drew on sources from occultism to Bergsonian philosophy (with which, as we know, Cather was familiar). It was explicitly politically progressive, and it typically addressed, not the specific crippling ailments of hysteria and obsessive behavior that its European counterpart had taken as object, but more general complaints of unhappiness or personal meaninglessness—the famous angst of privileged modernism. Psychoanalysis offered solace and an anchor in a lonely, bewildering time; it proposed, as Luhan put it, a "new world where I found myself: a world where things fitted into a set of definitions and terms that I had never even dreamt of. It simplified all problems to name them. There was the Electra complex, and the Oedipus complex and there was the Libido with its manifold activities, seeking every chance for outlet, and then all that thing about Power and Money!" (Movers 440). Central to American responses to psychoanalysis was what its historian Nathan Hale calls "the first stage of America's moral revolution, the repeal of reticence that occurred roughly from 1911 to 1917" (1: 475). Voluntary, profuse confession—the therapeutic transformation of symptomatic unhappiness into liberating language—was a fundamental tenet of this Freudianism. "Psychoanalysis was apparently a kind of tattletaling," said a delighted Luhan of her discovery of Jelliffe, "an absorbing game to play with one's self" (Movers 439). "I have a very bad Oedipus complex," she announced to Brill, arriving at their first meeting (Movers 505). In every way, Luhan was an eager analysand, in and out of therapy, determined to confess for herself and everyone else: "The less secrets the better, of my own or anybody else's," she proclaimed at the beginning of her four-volume, sixteen-hundred-page autobiography (entitled Intimate Memories): "Need anyone ever feel ashamed? I doubt it" (Background 10).

Cather herself, as is well known, held some different views. By 1922 she had staked out her own ground (in "The Novel Démeublé")[2] as a champion of classical restraint, control, and suggestion in art, and she extended these values to human relations as well. A few years later, in The Professor's House (1926), she would write of Tom Outland's diary with transparent reference to her own prose style as it reached its maturity: "This plain account was almost beautiful, because of the stupidities it avoided and the things it did not say. If words had cost money, Tom couldn't have used them more sparingly. . . . Yet through this austerity one felt the kindling imagination, the ardour and excitement of the boy, like the vibration in a voice when the speaker strives to conceal his emotion by using only conventional phrases" (262-63). And in the same novel Godfrey St. Peter acknowledges with respectful pleasure the essential opacity and haunting privacy of human psychology, even after a lifetime of conversational "knowledge," as at the opera he considers how little he knows his wife, Lillian: "The heart of another," he finds, "is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own" (95). It is not difficult to see why this reticent minimalist in art and emotion, this admirer of spare Greek theater and critic of "tasteless amplitude" (Not Under Forty 51), had no sympathy at all in the early 1920s (in the conversation about Freud that Sergeant recounts) for Freudianism's narcissistic excesses, in its theory or in its practice. The messy and voluble personal psychology that Cather brushed against in Greenwich Village was just what her own aesthetic was leaving behind. But a more interesting problem than Cather's anti-Freudianism, I think, is how she and the amplitudinous Luhan maintained their long and evidently good friendship. Considering this question will lead back to Freud himself, rather than the American social movement that carried his name.


The two thousand miles that separate Manhattan from Taos probably helped Cather and Luhan to get along. But there was something else the women had in common, a fundamental romanticism neither trendy nor classical, but descending from Rousseau and, more immediately, from Wordsworth and Blake: they believed explicitly in childhood, both as a source of aesthetic or creative energy and as a kind of irretrievable mythic homeland, sometimes glimpsed as empowering fragments behind the dull screen of quotidian adulthood. Thus Cather would frequently publicly couch her artistic method as a process of recollection ("Life began when I stopped admiring and started remembering," she told Sergeant [117]), or she would after forty years describe her encounter at the age of nine with the Nebraska prairie as the "passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life" (Woodress 36). When Luhan asked Cather's opinion of draft manuscripts of Intimate Memories, Cather responded that the early parts were the best, because they drew on early memories—the memories of a child with "the artist's eye that adults lose" (Stout, Calendar 281). (Her judgment was apt: despite an occasional awkwardly self-conscious overlay of psychoanalytic theory, as in the strange chapter entitled simply "The Breast," Luhan's fragments of childhood and adolescence are at their best as opaquely haunting as Cather's own.) Luhan in turn began Intimate Memories with an epigraph that paraphrased Plotinus evoking memory's creative force—"Memory is not a certain repository of impressions but a power of the soul exciting itself in such a way as to possess that which it had not"—and followed it at once with a complaint that sounds Cather-esque (or St. Peter-esque) in its nostalgia: that in the modern world "there are fewer taboos, fewer fears, and less unhappiness. But there is a corresponding lack of savor and of charm. It almost seems as though to lose the glamour and the intensity that form a large part of the dark ages is too great a price to pay for understanding better how to live. . . . [M]y childhood had a wild, sweet, enthralling zestfulness that seems to be missing from the lives of my grandchildren . . . their present seems to me dim and leveled down to a consciousness that has no high moments such as I knew" (Background, n.p.). In short, the friends shared—although in very different ways—a conviction of the glamour and pain of the remembered personal past. In adult life Cather quietly produced great art; Luhan flamboyantly produced herself, in a series of generous but transient passions. Each did so, I think, in a complicated and aware response to passionate childhood's generative pressure, surging up against the structures of diminished adult experience.

I arrive now at Freud himself: not the sexologist or even the therapist, but Freud the artificer of memory, for whom thought drove always relentlessly backward, trying to remember its way out of adulthood's or modernity's crippling repetitions of confusion and guilt. I will not here elaborate much of Freud's theory other than to note that at its center (a constantly receding, ultimately unachievable center) stands the obscured figure of the desiring child, learning life's lessons of loss; and that misunderstood memories of that child and those lessons haunt our adult lives. Thus "therapy," the "Freudian method," was at first a reasonably straightforward process of psychological archaeology, of recollecting in order to reconstruct life as sensible narrative. (For various reasons, but primarily because of the mythic quality of formative origins themselves, this straightforward model did not exactly work, leading Freud increasingly to confront the specter of "interminable analysis"—but its inconclusive endlessness seems to me the mark of his thought's genuine modernity.) In a simple sense, then, it was not modernist Freudianism but Freud himself that offered the common ground on which Cather and Luhan could meet: or rather it was the specifically antimodern zeitgeist of nostalgia that he best personified and articulated, and which urged him and other modern writers from Proust to Cather to Nabokov to valorize memory. I doubt that Cather ever read Freud (although she must have read a good deal about him and his ideas), and it seems to me possible that Luhan may not have either: but all three, I think, labored at the same project.

Let me continue in more immediate anecdotal terms. I came to Cather's work in the early 1980s, at the end of a period of quite intense scholarly immersion in psychoanalytic thought and its relation to literary interpretation. My first Cather novel was The Professor's House, and I felt at once that I had come upon a writer who had both access to the great unconscious world that Freud had disclosed—the kingdom of the irrational, the infantile, the prelinguistic—and the power to summon its presence on the page. As I read the rest of her works I encountered at every turn the strange forms and phrasings that Freud found in dreams (his "royal road to the unconscious") or in the rituals of his patients. There were inexplicable alterations of narrative's logical structures, like Tom Outland's ghostly voice intruding into the narrative of The Professor's House itself, or the repetitions of A Lost Lady (whose love story repeats itself for Niel as more-than-Marxian history: first as tragedy, then perhaps as farce—and finally unendingly as desire). There were also unsettling eruptions of suggestive but mute or opaque images and legends into the reasonable historical world: a plow against the sun, suicidal tramps, a doomed bridal party, shards of pottery, a turquoise set in dull silver, a giant baby-eating snake.

And translating these images (through the laborious technique of creating context that Freud called "free association," and which literary critics just call "close reading") led back frequently enough into deep pasts—the dark forests of the Old Country, or the canyon of the Ancient People, or the Cliff City, or others—where shadowy ancestral or parental figures moved, larger than life. There one could glimpse the psychoanalytic world of infantile fantasies, the child's desires and fears, in (for example) the recurrent figure of the orphan, or the several versions of what Freud called "the family romance," a fantasy in which real parents are replaced by noble ones—"the noblest and strongest of men and . . . the dearest and loveliest of women" ("Family Romances" 241)—as in A Lost Lady.

Often these figures were fearsome. As many readers have noted, Cather's landscape of childhood is by no means free of shadows: the story before the official "beginning of the story," in A Lost Lady as elsewhere, is more often than not one of failure, betrayal, and loss. And this is wholly consonant with Freud's essentially tragic vision of childhood as a state of unrequitable filial desire "doomed to extinction because its wishes are incompatible with reality," which "comes to an end in the most dis-tressing circumstances and to the accompaniment of the most painful feelings" ("Pleasure Principle" 20). Perhaps in this state little Jim Burden, orphaned and lapsing out among his pumpkins, has some kinship with the less-well-known prairie newcomer Edward of "The Best Years," the "pale boy" who wets his pants with anxiety and homesickness, trying to "speak up for his State" before his girl-teacher Lesley Ferguesson (Old Beauty and Others 83).[3]

But most important, not only did Cather's work seem to me to exemplify the various processes and contents of psychic representation postulated by Freudian psychoanalysis, it also appeared to be aware of this in itself. In other words, Cather wrote as if she knew the Freudian precepts without having read them. She clearly understood the expression of "meaning" as a difficult, allusive process, or as an oblique passageway between disparate strata of experience: thus her fiction and nonfiction return in their descriptions of signification itself to self-conscious tropes of disjunction, displacement, and distortion in which a narrative can be, for example, like a window opening from an overcrowded room onto a gray sea, or a plow can become a "picture writing on the sun," or an unimaginably old voice can tell an incomprehensible tale through a briefly unstoppered fissure in the rock.

Cather simply assumed the presence and agency of the human unconscious in daily life, no matter how much the Freudian terminology repelled her. Her exchange with Sergeant over the desirability of entering analysis derailed and ended in an odd argument about dramatic technique, in which Willa hotly stated that every play that amounted to anything contained secret reactions, inner feelings that diverged from what was actually being said and done by a protagonist on the stage. That could be expressed by action, by facial expression, by tone—it did not need to be inserted in spoken dialogue. . . . Here she disappeared under water, and I knew she was no subject for psychoanalysis. (Sergeant 249) What was wrong was not the psychological theory itself, the positing of a divided psyche expressing itself indirectly through oblique signs; any good artist understood that. What was wrong was the bad artistry that robbed this process of its compelling mystery by making it too overt, too mechanical: a clinical specimen.

In her most famous pronouncements on art, Cather acknowledged in terms explicitly psychoanalytic the centrality of repetition and the insistence of the unconscious to her own creativity. She reported that Jewett had told her that "the thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper—whether little or great, it belongs to Literature" (Not Under Forty 76); but that thing clearly also belonged to Freud's psychoanalysis, where, he said, "a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken" ("Analysis of a Phobia" 122). That "thing" is the speechless desire at the foundation of the unconscious, the child's desire, unrepresentable but unforgotten: the "thing not named" (Not Under Forty 50) (and unnamable, because it is prior to the alienating deflections of speech), or perhaps more simply "the precious, the incommunicable past" (My Ántonia 419).


My purpose in this essay has been to indicate some fundamental similarities of thought—indeed, of specifically psychological and aesthetic thought—that connect Willa Cather and Sigmund Freud, often by way of the volatile figure of Mabel Dodge Luhan. But what I have said, while plausible enough, may seem to evade one large point of Cather's anti-Freudianism, her critique of the Freudians' reduction of literature to sexuality gone awry, to "an epidemic of 'suppressed desire' plays and novels" (Not Under Forty 93).[4] After all, Freud did indeed suggest that frustrated sexuality lay somewhere essential among the tangled roots of a great range of human behaviors, including artistic creativity. He did build a personality theory around improbable-sounding ideas of incestuous infantile desire and anxieties over genital mutilation, and the result has been a hundred years of easily caricatured (and thus easily dismissed) critical and psychological reductionism, like Luhan's. Moreover, Freud's own theory (not just the American Freudianism represented by Luhan) was clearly limited: in its understanding of gender, for example, where it treated as normative the experience of the little boy, or in its usual blindness to its own historical circumstances: middle class, European, urban.

But to point out the shortcomings of Freudian theory, or to object to the crudities of reductive interpretation to which it can lead, and often has led—"stupidities," Cather would have called them—is not to deny its evocative power. Nor do I want to sanitize or deny its sexual content. In the culture wars that have been fought over psychoanalysis for more than a century, that content remains the source of much quick and anxious critical condemnation of Freud's thought, as if it were improper, wrongheaded even, to consider critically that as a species we may be heavily motivated by sexual desire (the drive toward satisfaction in love, to put it in terms that extend more readily into the pregenital)— or that that desire's form may be laid down for us, consequentially but not unalterably, in childhood, among the crossed loves of our parents, caretakers, and siblings. Cather, who was both intelligent and honest, saw nothing improper in either of these propositions: at all points in her career her art pulses explicitly with sexual longing, chronicles its disguises and strange transformations (sometimes transcendent, sometimes destructively perverse), memorializes its defeats.

I am not even willing to discard as useful tools the much-lampooned sexual symbols of Freudian interpretation. I want rather to recognize them as important unofficial coinage in the discursive currency of Freud's historical culture, which was also Cather's, and by and large our own: a culture of Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, of castrated or castrating father-gods and annihilating women, where political power literally passed precariously through the male reproductive organ. (We now call this culture patriarchy.) For example—a well-known example—I do not think it at all far-fetched to invoke the Freudian paradigm of castration (as Sharon O'Brien and others have done) in thinking about Cather's famous concern with bodily mutilation, with severed and maimed hands. Woodress tracks this concern through images from several early stories and in One of Ours, Shadows on the Rock, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and the final Avignon fragment, and links it to a traumatic event described by Lewis, in which a neighboring "half-witted boy" threatened to cut off the five-year-old Willa Cather's hand (Woodress 27). We cannot assess the historical reality of this event, but its psychological importance seems undeniable.

For Freud, the severing of a hand, like oedipal blinding or the knocking out of teeth, inevitably stood in for castration in the fantasies and dreams of his patients, typically reflecting unconscious but not forgotten threats from parents or caretakers, threats intended to subdue inappropriate sexual behaviors like masturbation or attempted seduction. Does the theme of the severed hand then point us to a "primal scene" (perhaps masked by the fiction of the neighboring boy) in which a very small but irrepressible Willa Cather was threatened with castration by Charles or Jenny Cather? A repressed, unspeakable scene that haunted her for the rest of her career? Frankly, this seems unlikely, and it is probably such theatrically personalized Freudian reading—not so much wrong as wholly unconvincing (and unnecessary)—that makes much Freudianism seem simply strange to its readers.

For castration is not local or personal, but rather cultural, and in a sense foundational to the power relations of patriarchy. Its image, or the softer mutilations that recall it, is the historical emblem of the struggle of fathers and sons, authority and rebellion, from Kronos and Zeus to Oedipus to Stephen Dedalus's fear of blinding. Cather knew this discourse well, and not only in the classics—witness, for example, her love of Howard Pyle's medieval children's fantasy Otto of the Silver Hand, whose child protagonist's hand is severed by a brutal surrogate father in order that he be reconciled with his real father, and which she praised as embodying "the precious message of romance" (Woodress 51). I am suggesting, then, that for a probably incalculable number of reasons—reasons that blur the boundaries of personal and cultural, inner and outer—her own hand, the writer's hand, became for Willa Cather early the valorized organ of mastery and potency, a symbol of the cultural power—a masculine power—that she desired and acquired. As O'Brien puts it, "the hand which holds the pen is the literal agent of creation" (384). And that organ makes its anxious appearances in all phases of her work: beleaguered, mutilated, under threat, associated with failures of masculine intention, authority, or desire. With a particularly moving and terrible irony, age attacked Cather's hand above all else, forcing her into an orthopedic brace for much of the 1940s as her art's flow diminished.

This analysis may stop here, for my purposes. Like all psychoanalytic examination, it needs to be conducted with much more specificity in the analyses of individual appearances of severed hands or mutilations. I want it simply to begin the illustration of my point: that he ubiquity of culture itself, circulating within and without our individual selves, allows us to use the Freudian symbols intelligently and meaningfully without necessarily falling into the strangeness or apparent absurdity of, in this case, assigning to the five-year-old Willa Cather (of whom we really know almost nothing) a "castration complex" with a single biographical point of traumatic origin in a parental threat.

I will close by reiterating the relation I have proposed for Cather and Freud: not one of influence, clearly, but not one of opposition either, as Cather's few comments on psychoanalysis would suggest. Rather, Willa Cather and Sigmund Freud seem to me oddly similar figures standing not at all comfortably at the gates to modernism: each mistrustful of the present and future, and looking romantically backward to a nobler, stronger past, in childhood or in human history—but each also too honest to accept that past as an unproblematic Golden Age. Although Cather was criticized early for the moral libertinism of "The Bohemian Girl," and Freud to some extent helped unleash the sexual bohemianism of Mabel Dodge Luhan and others, both were essentially, profoundly conservative, valuing the great labor of civilization in taming the unruliness of humankind. Yet each also saw individuals and civilization as finally threatened by the obscuring of their own vital origins. In response, and in different ways, each claimed as his or her own the terrain of half-remembered possibility that Freud called the "unconscious," and that landscape—the place of the bottomless mystery of desire—sustained them, minimally but successfully, deep into the barren modern time that each understood explicitly as a catastrophe, a breaking in two of worlds both personal and global.


 1. Although this is the subject of another inquiry, it is useful to read the stories of Youth and the Bright Medusa (and particularly "Coming, Aphrodite!") against Dell's Love in Greenwich Village (1926). To do so is to see Cather in an unfamiliar context: as one well familiar with the romantic radical tradition of young midwesterners in the Village in the 1910s. (Go back.)
 2. In the New Republic, which, interestingly, was in the 1910s a center for the promulgation of "serious" psychoanalytic theory, mainly conducted by Luhan's good friend the young Walter Lippmann (Hale 2: 60-61). (Go back.)
 3. Readers of Freud will recognize here almost exactly the most famous of Freud's various "primal scenes" from the Wolf-Man case history—and from Freud's own boyhood, according to Ernest Jones (16-17): a tragicomic moment that mixes pride, appeal, rejection, and shame. Although I am deliberately trying to resist biographical literalism, it is interesting to realize that little Edward corrects a small autobiographical evasion in My Ántonia and denial in her own 1915 biographical sketch for Houghton Mifflin: Cather did attend school in her first autumn in Red Cloud, and the Catherton school must have been a school much like Lesley Ferguesson's. (Go back.)
 4. As usual, Luhan is useful in providing a simple caricature of the Freudian position on literary creativity, and applying it to herself: "That I have so many pages to write signifies, solely, that I was unlucky in love" (Movers 263). (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. 1936. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Cather, Willa. The Old Beauty and Others. New York: Knopf, 1948.
Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1926.
Freud, Sigmund. "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year Old Boy." 1909. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 10. London: The Hogarth P, 1955. 1-147.
Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." 1920. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 18. London: The Hogarth P, 1955. 1-64.
Freud, Sigmund. "Family Romances." 1909. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 9. London: The Hogarth P, 1955. 235-41.
Hale, Nathan G., Jr. Freud in America. Vol. 1. Freud and the Americans: The Beginnings of Psychoanalysis in the United States 1876 - 1917. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
Hale, Nathan G., Jr. Freud in America. Vol. 2. The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, 1917 - 1985. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books, 1953.
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O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Rudnick, Lois Palken. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1984.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.
Stout, Janis, ed. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Stout, Janis. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.