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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Willa Cather in Space

Exile, Vagrancy, and Knowing

The argument that follows identifies and briefly explores in Willa Cather’s work two quite different and evidently opposed kinds of human movement, the purposeful and the wandering. The first is well known, the self-conscious subject matter (as pioneering, or pilgrimage, or return) of some of her most famous fiction; the second is, appropriately enough, less clearly defined and intended, and its form, origins, and implications concern me most here. Instances of the operation and interrelationship of the two kinds of movement are widespread across Cather’s entire career, in her own travels as well as in those of her characters, but my discussion will return frequently and finally to The Professor’s House, and to the notoriously ambivalent presentation there of Louie Marsellus—a lovable/ hateful chameleon who will shortly pass through the argument in his most attractive guise. Cather’s ambivalence in this case— an unsettled mix of scorn, envy, and delight—has to do with Louie’s exuberant refusal of the novel’s dominant mode of motion, St. Peter’s inexorable transit toward death. It suggests the attraction of another, very different path, that of the vagrant: less portentously compelling, but still insisting on Cather’s attention, and on ours.


I will begin by reiterating the extraordinary centrality to Cather’s writing of geographical mobility itself, the ubiquity of journeying that her readers have frequently noted. Joseph Urgo has convincingly identified and analyzed that mobility, which he calls “migration,” as both the core issue in her work and the “great fact of [America’s] national existence” (49). Cather and her characters are always on the move, Urgo argues, as participants in the great political/imperial drama of American mythic history, and this simple observation has cascading consequences for narration, character, and meaning in her fiction. Urgo’s historical framing of traveling in terms of national mythologies is a powerful analytical tool. Still, my own reading experience of Cather tells me that not all movements are categorically similar in her life or work, and I want to offer a qualification: it may be useful roughly to posit and distinguish two kinds of movement, each with its associated psychology, politics, and epistemology. I will designate these movements (which occur and are measured in both space and time) as “exile” and “vagrancy.” Their embodied historical and fictional types, I suggest, are the pioneer and the tourist; and while Urgo has insisted correctly that we remember that Cather was, “in both literal and figurative terms, an American pioneer” (35), I want also to recall here at the outset that she was equally literally and figuratively an accomplished American tourist.

This is common knowledge, of course. Cather delighted in recreational travel, leaving a now well-documented trail of nearly fifty years of holiday itineraries, from Wyoming camping trips to weekend excursions in New England to whole months of adventures in the southwestern deserts or of European grand touring. In her fiction she frequently wrote about tourists and evoked their transitory world of hotels, trains, liners, and “sights.” Nonetheless, when I (and, I think, most readers) think of people in motion in Cather’s work I most frequently imagine some larger purpose, more noble and dramatic, than the middle-class pleasures of the tour: I usually call to mind the tragic or triumphant figure of migrant or immigrant, the pioneer, the exile finding or founding home. For from O Pioneers! on, Cather repeatedly and movingly explored the drama of exile in narratives that made their way between an old home lost and a new home perhaps to be found. These narratives’ familiar topoi—the markers of their longing and anticipation—include the “old country” and the Ancient People, treasured memorabilia and transportable household gods, and the lost and recovered garden. Their orientation is generally nostalgic, toward “the precious, the incommunicable past” (My Ántonia), but it can also be forwardlooking and nostalgic simultaneously, as in the conclusions of O Pioneers! or Shadows on the Rock.

Most important for my purposes here, Cather’s stories of exile share a common teleology and epistemology. They locate authoritative authenticity and “meaning” (a “meaning” often absent in the diminished present) in a lost strong past or an inscrutable but promised future: in A Lost Lady just beyond a ritual toast to “Happy Days,” in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House beneath the traces of vanished cliff dwellers, in Death Comes for the Archbishop or Shadows on the Rock in the silence after the cryptic oracular thoughts of the dying. Behind this formulation of the exile’s condition lies the great Christian narrative of alienating loss and ultimate redemption, explicitly in some of the novels. In all cases, those inhabiting the space of exile are pulled steadily by powerful centrifugal and centripetal forces toward “home,” a home of origin or of end: homeland or frontier, paradise lost or recovered garden, womb or tomb.

This is undeniably compelling stuff, compelling exactly because of its evocation of master narratives of nation, religion, and individual psychology. But what about those whose courses are steered not solely by the fixed star of “home,” whose destinations are deliberately temporary, who wander by choice—and by virtue of social and economic status? I am thinking, of course, of The Professor’s House and bon vivant Louie Marsellus jaunting across France, bingeing on good food, souvenirs, culture, and a general surfeit of “so many pleasant things to do” (269). Meanwhile, back in Hamilton, Godfrey St. Peter, having recovered his “original, unmodified” self (263), his personal “Truth [with a capital “T”] under all truths” (265), darkly considers his final home, the waiting grave: For thee a house was built Ere thou was born; For thee a mould was made Ere thou of woman camest. “But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth [again with a capital ‘T’]” (272). Like St. Peter, I am transfixed and sometimes chilled to the bone by death’s “eternal solitude,” by the bleak sadness of mortality. But frankly, all things considered, I’d rather be in Paris with Louie and the ladies. And at some level I am reasonably certain that Cather would too.

I will suggest later that St. Peter’s occasional admiration (an admiration that verges on envy) for Louie’s generosity, for his magnificent magnanimity, has an important connection to his barely willed decision to live rather than die at the novel’s end. But first I want briefly to explore in a little more detail the tourist’s way of knowing the world, which seems to me entirely different from—and, as Louie’s example suggests, considerably more playful than—that of the pioneer, the very structure of whose journey invokes finally the terrors and joys of eschatology, of last things and absolute truths. As the pioneer drives relentlessly “homeward,” the tourist wanders at will, finding or creating meanings scattered serendipitously in impermanent situations and uncommitted relations—indeed, as Cather titled a well-known essay about her 1930 trip to Aix-les-Bains, in “chance meetings” of all sorts.


Can we find an articulated theory, a manifesto of tourism-as-meaning-making, at any moment of Cather’s career? I want briefly to revisit an early encounter and famous scene of literary instruction: Sarah Orne Jewett’s detailed mentoring letter to Cather of mid-December 1908. I am interested here mainly in the specific spatial language that Jewett adopted to prescribe the way of art for the younger writer: I want you to be surer of your backgrounds,—you have your Nebraska life,—a child’s Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call the “Bohemia” of newspaper and magazine-office life. These are uncommon equipment, but you don’t see them yet quite enough from the outside,—you stand right in the middle of each of them when you write, without having the standpoint of the looker-on who takes them each in their relation to letters, to the world. Your good schooling and your knowledge of “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it, have helped you, but these you wish and need to deepen and enrich still more. You must find a quiet place near the best companions (not those who admire and wonder at everything one does, but those who know the good things with delight!). (Letters 248–49) The advice is practical, reflecting Jewett’s own highly successful formula for writing a particular kind of regionalism. Get outside your “backgrounds,” she enjoins, meaning both your origins and the backdrops for your sketches: they are enviably impressive “equipment” for a writer, likely to prove at least as serviceable as Jewett’s own Maine villagers, but learn to see them and write about them “from the outside.” Your “quiet place” of creativity (which later in the letter she calls “your own quiet centre”) lies not in the lived landscapes of Nebraska, Virginia, or Manhattan, but floating somewhere else, in a vague and aloof space, alongside a few “best companions” of refined education and good taste. Cather’s success as an artist, then, will depend on her ability to write the scenes of her own life, not as a native or exile, dwelling in or recalling her home, but as a cultivated, detached “looker-on,” an erudite collector of cultural experiences —in fact, as something much like an upper-middle-class American tourist of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Jewett’s literary practice had capitalized both on her hybrid identity (at once a native of rural Maine and a classically literate Bostonian intellectual) and, as Richard Brodhead has argued, on the post–Civil War formation of an affluent American social elite with aligned thirsts for upscale tourist experiences and high culture (123–32).[1] This is the class that Jewett called, in her 1893 preface to Deephaven, the “reflex current that set countryward in summer,” and for which, an inveterate sightseer herself, she provided a highbrow tour of a particularly satisfying “native” American mythic geography. Her language must have resonated for Cather, also a dedicated tourist whose own hybridity (displaced Virginian/sturdy Nebraska pioneer/intellectual New York career woman) was already supporting the remarkable diversity—its critics have said uncertainty—of subject matter and style in her early stories.

Jewett’s advice to Cather was thus the advice of one experienced leisure traveler to another. I mean this literally. In important ways the two women’s relationship was structured around and punctuated by the pleasurable visit. They met in Boston in early 1908, while Cather was using her McClure’s assignment, as Woodress puts it, to see “for the first time the literary and historic landmarks of Boston she had read about all her life and [to travel] through the mountains and towns of rural New England” (195)—and to gather “backgrounds” for her work to come. Jewett, of course, was one of those “literary and historic landmarks,” as were Annie Fields’s homes in Boston and Manchester-by-the-Sea, where Cather visited the two women in the spring and late summer of 1908, and as was Jewett’s home in Maine, which Cather visited that autumn.

What did the two women talk about during these encounters? Great art and artists, clearly, as Cather told it much later in “148 Charles Street”—but equally clearly they shared travel stories: of Jewett’s and Fields’s four European tours between 1882 and 1900; of Cather’s 1902 trip with Isabelle McClung; and certainly of the April-to-August Italian tour that Cather and McClung made that year, interrupting the developing conversation between the veteran and novice writers—a tour from which Cather returned to Manchester-by-the-Sea “bringing word of the places [Jewett and Fields] most loved and about which they had often written me, entreating, nay commanding me to visit them” (“148 Charles Street” 65). In a November letter Jewett praised Cather’s new story “On the Gull’s Road,” which put to good use the “background” of a Mediterranean voyage. In her long, revealing response to Jewett’s December letter (quoted above), Cather compared her frustration at McClure’s to that of a rail traveler who sees the stations as they pass but cannot get off the train to know them better (19 December 1908). She went on to insist that she would need an extended holiday—at least six months—to really think about her art, even though, as she put it, her pen would never travel very fast, even over smooth roads. And in the same letter she praised Jewett’s “Martha’s Lady,” an 1897 story that sentimentally juxtaposed a plain New England homebody with a glamorous, globe-trotting sophisticate. In short, Jewett and Cather’s shared language in their correspondence was overwhelmingly the language of late nineteenthand early twentieth-century tourism. Seen in this light, Jewett’s best-known advice to Cather —“one must know the world so well before one can know the parish”—must have been, among other things, a literal exhortation to leisure travel: see all that you can before coming home.


What then does the tourist’s perspective bring to Cather’s fiction? Jewett’s letter’s most radical implication is that value and meaning, far from inhering in places themselves, are constructed and conferred by the engaged “looker-on who takes them each in their relation to letters, to the world.” In other words, sights acquire significance insofar as they are assimilated to the cultural experience of their observer—and, as that large experience is always in flux (as the observer “deepens and enriches” her cultural knowledge), so is the meaning of any of its constituent moments. “Meaning” is constructed and situational, not absolute: a distinctly modernor even postmodern-sounding formula—and one whose consequences are liberating.[2] Standing a little outside the demanding binaries of exile and homecoming, loss and redemption, the tourist can cheerfully disregard St. Peter’s ponderous “Truth”; she can celebrate the frivolous, the factitious, the colorful surfaces of things; and she can blur the very boundaries between the authentic and the artificial, the originary and its representations. Consider the frequent aestheticism of Cather’s 1902 European dispatches to the Nebraska State Journal, where (for example) a sudden Mediterranean thunderstorm leads her back to the stagy artifices of midwestern traveling theater: “I had seen just such a storm as that before somewhere, but where? Finally it burst upon me and I remembered well enough. It was on the stage of the Funke theatre, when Mr. James O’Neill used to be sewn up in a sack and flung by the supers from the Château d’If into the Mediterranean. This was exactly such a harmless, spectacular storm; a stage storm, a mere fit of Mediterranean temper that explodes in a stiletto flash, and then melts away into smiles and tears” (“Country” 941). I stress here not only the transformation of landscape into literary or dramatic gesture—a common tactic in all of Cather’s writing— but the high-spirited irreverence with which that transformation is accomplished: the Mediterranean is not only the point of origin for Western culture itself (as she insisted to her sister by postcard in the summer of 1908 [Jewell and Stout no. 1855]), it also seems enjoyable in a less worshipful way as “mere” spectacle, or as overdone, even gaudy, melodrama.

In 1902 Cather was an exuberant young woman with a taste for fun and an extraordinary appetite for cultural experiences of all kinds. As she grew older she adopted increasingly restrained, focused, and even reverent personae. Her writing famously darkened and simplified, as did her pronouncements about it. But I want to suggest that what I have called here the “tourist perspective,” the vagrant impulse toward experience for its own sake, and toward play for the sake of play, persisted in her work, where it frequently made itself known through the figures of literal tourists. I will not begin here to catalog these figures, who are often complex (e.g., Claude Wheeler and Jean Latour seem to me in different ways at once vagrants and exiles, tourists and pilgrims). Instead I will return briefly to irrepressible Louie Marsellus, planning the French vacation that sounds very like another Marsellus “orgy of acquisition,” a transatlantic raid whose booty will include not only good food, clothing, and “things for the house” at bargain prices (to be smuggled in through Mexico) but also “fashionable life” at Biarritz and, finally, high culture itself: a calendar of lunches with literary celebrities, “savants and men of letters” (155), to be arranged by St. Peter with Lillian and Rosamond as bait. Louie’s frank understanding of culture as consumable may seem scathingly ironic; it may tempt readers high-mindedly to condemn his crass trophy-hunting as a kind of betrayal of Art (with a capital “A”). But the situation is not that simple. Louie is, in fact, planning just the kind of itinerary that Cather herself had enjoyed periodically since 1902 (most recently in 1923, just before writing the frame narrative of The Professor’s House), and to some of her favorite French places: Paris, Marseilles, Aix-les-Bains. The Marsellus fictional holiday will mirror high points of Cather’s own tourist career, and perhaps it will even correct a few of her small disappointments. Louie’s celebrity lunches, after all, are just ambitious European expansions of Cather’s teas with Jewett and Fields. They differ from her 1902 star-struck stalking of Housman in England or her unsatisfying 1913 Boston visit to Amy Lowell mainly in their imagined social success, and they prefigure her triumphantly described encounter with Flaubert’s niece at Aix-les-Bains in 1930.[3] In Aix also, Louie will shop for a “gorgeous [Chinese] dressing gown” (269) for St. Peter, while Cather had in reality spent weeks there in 1923 feeling poorly, undergoing hydrotherapy for rheumatism and neuritis. In truth, a good deal of the happy, aggressive traveler that Willa Cather was (and wanted to be) appears in Louie Marsellus.


I will close with a suggestion—no more than a speculative analogy, but again one with broad implications. More than once as I have worked at these ideas it has occurred to me that the movement of vagrancy protests and tugs against the directional pressure of the movement of exile: a detour from that inevitable arcing homeward, a distraction from the reality of endings happy or unhappy. “Wait,” says the tourist: “I have more to see yet, more journeys to begin, more pleasures to be had; I’m not ready yet to go home.” Such a tugging is presumably exactly why, for example, Jean Latour’s projects-in-exile of building a cathedral in the wilderness, restoring the lost Garden, and preparing for his own death are narrated as what David Stouck has properly identified as “travel writing, the oldest form of narrative indigenous to North America” (“Cather’s Archbishop” 3); the Archbishop is moving forward and laterally at once, toward consummation but also out toward the myriad distracting pleasures of the tour.

Seen in this light, of course, the two movements inevitably recall the component energies of Freud’s famous and most mythically ambitious hypothesis, the struggle (its conclusion always known beforehand) between death instincts and sexual instincts—between the individual organism’s drive toward final quiescence and its desire for complication and rejuvenation along the way: “It is as though the life of the organism moved with a vacillating rhythm. One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey” (Freud 40–41).[4] If the exile’s final homecoming is always death, as for the Professor, then the counter-impulse to vagrancy is literally life-saving, or at least life-prolonging. I do not here want to insist on too close or literal a fit between Freud’s theorized instinctual machinery (a machinery upon whose material or biological basis he resolutely insisted) and the two types of movement in Cather that I have been discussing. I want even less to suggest a biographical reading of Cather’s individual case, as though her personal experiences left traces in her work of the battle between Eros and Thanatos with which Freud concluded Civilization and Its Discontents. That battle, after all, was hardly discovered by psychoanalysis in the twentieth century, but it had deep roots in the classical tradition that both Cather and Freud admired. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Freud’s formulation of the human condition quite strikingly illuminates the moment of crisis in The Professor’s House that I have been considering: the poised juxtaposition of Godfrey St. Peter’s lonely slide toward death with Louie’s affectionate, flamboyant fertility.

Such a dualism was always present in Cather’s thinking, and it made itself known forcefully in her later work, where she frequently directly invoked the figure of the tourist. Perhaps the interplay of life and death, vagrancy and exile, is most explicit in the 1936 story “The Old Beauty,” a last fictional visit to Aix-lesBains, where various travelers gather, many apparently to mourn better days and the passing of old Europe. The Thompson family, for instance, the nostalgic admirers of Gabrielle Longstreet (the “old beauty” herself), “were from Devonshire, home-staying people, not tourists. (The daughters had never been on the Continent before.) They had come to visit their son’s grave in one of the war cemeteries in the north of France. The father brought them down to Aix to cheer them up a little. (He and his wife had come there on their honeymoon, long ago.)” (11). “Not tourists,” but pilgrims or memorialists. But against these morose travelers (and against the alienated, exiled Gabrielle Longstreet herself) Cather juxtaposes plump, good-humored Cherry Beamish, a retired music-hall star and pragmatist with a lively interest in “whatever the day produced: the countryside, the weather, the number of cakes she permitted herself for tea” (45). As many others have done, I read a great deal of sympathy for Cherry’s perspective in “The Old Beauty,” and heavy irony in Cather’s portrayal of Gabrielle Longstreet’s (and Seabury’s) scorn for young people and conventional tourists. Gabrielle is herself quintessentially a bad tourist, the dour antithesis of the Willa Cather who sent her nieces and nephews playful postcards—such as one from Paris showing “where Quasimodo threw the wicked priest off the parapet” of Notre Dame (Jewell 46). On her day outing to the Grande Chartreuse, rather than explore the monastery with Seabury and Cherry Beamish, Gabrielle evidently spends a full two hours in the courtyard peering with the aid of a pocket mirror into a black well, “a faintly contemptuous smile on her face” (64); presumably she is looking for Truth with a capital “T,” St. Peter’s Truth—which she indeed finds, in short order. Given this unorthodox sightseeing technique (the opposite of sightseeing, really), and given Seabury’s apparent obliviousness to its weirdness, it is hard to take at face value the story’s condemnation of the bobbed-haired, dirty-knickered, cigarette-smoking American tourists “Marge and Jim,” whose car nearly collides with Gabrielle’s on the homeward trip. They appear, after all, rather like Jazz Age versions of the free-spirited Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung of twenty years earlier, and they pass out of the story frivolously chattering but alive and still traveling, while Gabrielle returns alone to her room and dies.

This alternate itinerary—a last-minute tour or detour— through Aix-les-Bains brings us at last back to Godfrey St. Peter in Hamilton, like Gabrielle Longstreet alone with disappointment in his own small room at the top of an empty house. He has already recognized impending death explicitly as the ending of a journey: “The feeling that he was near the conclusion of his life was an instinctive conviction, such as we have when we waken in the dark and know at once that it is near morning; or when we are walking across the country and suddenly know that we are near the sea” (269). Why doesn’t St. Peter die? Louie Marsellus is involved here too. As I intimated near the beginning of this essay, perhaps St. Peter defers his death at the last moment, struggling unconsciously toward the door as his attic fills with gas, because in spite of his world-weariness he cannot get past a certain sympathy and respect for Louie’s generous, roving appetites. Perhaps he himself simply is not ready to settle down quite as completely as he had thought. He still has a journey or two to make himself: not, he understands finally, a nostalgic pilgrimage into his past to recover Notre Dame again, or even to revisit Outland’s country in the Southwest, but toward an undefined, anti-nostalgic future, in “a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound” (281). And, given that St. Peter’s relationship with Augusta is the only one of all in the novel that might remotely be described as playful, this may not be as gloomy a future as he—or we—may fear.


 1. Brodhead discusses Jewett’s December letter to Cather in some detail, emphasizing its implicit culture’s “sharp demarcation of the aesthetic sphere and its investment of moral value in ‘high’ art” (172), but only briefly noting its connection to the specific world of leisure travel that it evokes. (Go back.)
 2. Richard Millington has recently made this point in a different way in “Willa Cather’s American Modernism” (54–55). (Go back.)
 3. “Chance meetings” with celebrities punctuate Cather’s life and fiction, including her meeting with Fields and Jewett in 1908 described in “148 Charles Street.” Other instances of celebrity-bagging include her friendship with Ethelbert Nevin in 1898 and her unsatisfying encounters with Housman and Amy Lowell in 1902 and 1913. Her 1930 meeting with Madame Grout, known to us almost entirely through her account in “A Chance Meeting,” was published in 1933 in the Atlantic and three years later in Not Under Forty, where it constitutes a kind of companion piece to “148 Charles Street.” In each of these essays the protagonist/narrator recounts a remembered moment of extraordinary significance in the unexpected intrusion of a great age of literature— in the form of a social encounter with one of its survivors—into the rather diminished present. “A Chance Meeting” is retold in a different way in purely fictional form in “The Old Beauty,” with Cather herself refigured in one guise as the young-old international businessman Seabury, a defender of high feminized culture in the grand tradition. And both Seabury and the conclusion of “A Chance Meeting,” in which Cather receives a fragmentary communication from Madame Grout as her death approaches, recall the narrator and plot of “On the Gull’s Road”—the 1908 McClure’s story that Jewett had admired, in which a young man falls in love with an older woman while traveling. These complicated interconnections suggest the degree to which the pleasures of the tour and the visit circulated throughout all of Cather’s work. (Go back.)
 4. David Stouck employs an essentially non-Freudian language of competing drives (a “death instinct” opposed to “an instinct to possess and dominate”) to describe Godfrey St. Peter, and concludes that the Professor’s survival has to do with his final conscious transcendence of this conflict (Cather’s Imagination 100–103). Elsewhere I also propose the usefulness of a more conventional psychoanalytic terminology with specific reference to the narrative movement of the Archbishop, suggesting, after the model of Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot, that that narrative’s detours constitute an attempted return to origins (“Cather’s Archbishop” 60–65). Here I am using the vocabulary of instinctual conflict in a more specifically Freudian sense than Stouck, but with less literal application to narrative energies than I did previously. (Go back.)


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Cather, Willa. Letter to Sarah Orne Jewett. 19 Dec. 1908. Houghton Library, Harvard U, Cambridge.
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