As readers of her fiction have long recognized, Will Cather's mature narrative style is highly juxtapositional. The technique that she first used when she combined two separately conceived stories—"Alexandra" and "The White Mulberry Tree"—to form O Pioneers! is elaborated and refined in most of her best later novels. In a 1921 interview published in Bookman, Cather explained that she deliberately set out to develop a new, minimalistic style in O Pioneers! because the Jamesian prose of Alexander's Bridge was unsuitable for her new subject—the stark Nebraska plains. She claims that she began to evolve this new style by deciding "not to 'write' at all . . . [but] to make things and people tell their own story simply by juxtaposition" (Carroll 216).
In later novels Cather continued the experiment by juxtaposing increasingly diverse and numerous "things and people" within the space of her texts. In Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, for example, the two-part structure of O Pioneers! has become a complex mosaic of juxtapositions. The hedonistic Fray Baltazar, the vain Isabella Olivares, and the wife beating cowboy Buck Scales (Archbishop), and the seemingly unrelated stories of self-entombed Jeanne Le Ber, ambitious Bishop St. Vallier, and emotionally disturbed Blinker (Shadows) are just a few of the relatively independent narrative units that tell Cather's stories of Santa Fe and Quebec "simply by juxtaposition."
Cather's best critics have not only examined how her methods of spatial design contribute to the meaning of particular novels and stories but also explored the of this recurrent juxtapositional patterning. Eudora Welty, for example sees a biographical basis. Reflecting that "personal history may turn into a fictional pattern" of unconscious that behind the sharply disjunctive scenes of Cather's fiction lies the abrupt personal transition or shift in scene that Cather frequently recalled as the most traumatic event of her life: her move from Virginia to Nebraska at the age of nine. According to Welty, the westward migration of the Cather family was a transition between two wholly different landscapes and life styles that provided the nucleus for Cather's "distinctive fictional pattern": the way Cather designs her novels "by bringing widely separated lives, times [and] experiences together—pouring them side by side or one within the other"—is rooted in the bringing together of two radically different worlds during the crucial years of her childhood (47-48).
Welty's theory of a link between Cather's pioneer background and her technique of juxtaposition is important because it points to an aspect of Cather's work that has been critically neglected: the prominence of western folk art in her fiction. Cather's debt to the compositional forms of European painters has long been recognized because it is the subject of her own best-known critical statements: the letter to Commonweal that explains Death Comes for the Archbishop as an attempt to capture in prose the effect, of Puvis de Chavannes's murals, and the essay pointing to Dutch genre painting as the source of her unusual narrative structure in The Professor's House (On Writing 9, 31). Yet in emphasizing these fine-art sources, we have failed to give proper attention the folk arts that Cather identifies in The Song of the Lark as a shaping force of her fiction. This semi-autobiographical novel (although Thea is a singer rather than a writer, she shares Cather's western childhood, her passion for the southwestern desert, her somewhat abrasive personality) constitutes Cather's earliest and most detailed investigation into the origins of her own art. In it she fittingly explores the sources of her juxtapositional methods through a central narrative juxtaposition: fine and folk arts combine in this novel to suggest the dual sources of Cather's pictorial art.
Fear of redundancy was certainly one reason Cather initially refused to provide Houghton Mifflin with a preface for the publisher's 1932 reissue of The Song of the Lark. For if prefaces usually function as Cather supposes in a letter to her editor, Ferris Greenslet, by providing "clues" about authorial intention or purpose in a particular work, then The Song of the Lark had already been somewhat backhandedly prefaced in its own conclusion (Letters 206). The story of Thea Kronborg ends with a note in which Cather departs from third-person narration and speaks directly in her authorial voice. With an explicitness that is particularly striking in light of her usual practice of guiding readers indirectly through the subtleties of her prose rather than by direct intrusion, Cather explains the scope and purpose of the novel: "Here we must leave Thea Kronborg. From this time on the story of her life is the story of her achievement. The growth of an artist is an intellectual and spiritual development which can scarcely be followed in a personal narrative. This story attempts to deal only with the simple and concrete beginnings which color and accent an artist's work, and to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor" (479-80).
This concluding statement emphatically defines the novel as a study of artistic sources, focusing on the "simple and concrete beginnings" of creative achievement. Through the portrait of Thea Kronborg Cather addresses the question of the "concrete beginnings" or sources of her own mature art.
In answering this complex question, The Song of the Lark gives special weight to an ending that returns us to the beginning of the novel. Cather's final statement of purpose is significantly inconclusive because the end she so decisively announces ("Here we must leave Thea Kronborg") is not the end of the novel; it is an important critical preface like those she describes in her letter to Greenslet—an introduction that overtly directs our reading—because this "closing" paragraph introduces a crucial final section. After drawing the curtains on the scene of Thea's success with the Metropolitan Opera, Cather adds the Epilogue, which takes us back to Thea's hometown in Moonstone, Colorado. Prefaced by the authorial note stating that the central subject of the book is the question of artistic "beginnings," the Epilogue is effectively presented as the novel's final answer to that question.
Dramatically anticlimactic though it is, the Epilogue to Song of the Lark is thus critically important because Cather presents it as the final key to an understanding of her own artistic sources and influences. In general, it confirms what Thea tells her friend Dr. Archie toward the end of the novel proper. Insisting that her professional training in Chicago, New York, and Europe only developed and refined her homegrown talents, Thea stresses the early roots of her artistry. Moonstone, Colorado—the "provincial world of utter ignorance" that she has struggled to escape for all of her adult life—has ironically provided "the essentials, the foundation" of her later triumphs (Preface vi; Song 460).
More specifically, the Epilogue answers the question concerning the "concrete beginnings" of Thea's (and Cather's) art with the portrait of a particular citizen of Moonstone, Tillie Kronborg. Introduced at the opening of the novel as one of her niece's first and most fervent admirers, Thea's Aunt Tillie is a minor character who virtually disappears from the story after Thea leaves home at the end of Part I. The effect, then, is startling when Tillie, suddenly reappears to command the foreground of the Epilogue. From the dramatic climax of Thea's performance in Wagner's Walküre at the end of the novel proper, the scene shifts to a Methodist "ice-cream sociable" in Moonstone, where center stage is held by an aging but still girlishly "flighty" and flirtatious Tillie "surrounded by a crowd of boys." Crowned by a product of her millinery art, an elaborate "lace garden hat with pink rosebuds" that advertises the shop where she makes and sells ladies' hats, Tillie is presented not only as Thea's greatest hometown fan but as an artist in her own right (484).
The Epilogue, dominated by this portrait of an artist who works with bright fabrics and cloth flowers, concludes the book not with the fine arts that figure so prominently in its title (Song of the Lark is the painting by Jules Breton that Thea admires at the Chicago Art Institute) and its subject (the genesis of a classical opera singer) but with the common folk arts of the West. The colorful compositions featured in the Epilogue—the floral arrangements on Tillie's hats and in the vases of her kitchen and parlor—are not museum pieces but domestic decorations. There is a shift from fine to folk art in music as well. The last song we hear in the novel is far from operatic; on the morning after the church sociable, Tillie is awakened by a neighbor boy singing "Casey Jones" as he plays outside her window (487). This use of folk song lends authority to an earlier comment made by Thea's friend Horace Langtry, that Thea's conception of Wagner is "like folk-music": between the notes of her classical music he hears echoes of the "homely" hymns ("Come, Ye Disconsolate," "The Ninety and Nine") that Thea once sang at her father's prayer meetings and of the folk ballads (Spanish Johnny's "El Parreno," Joe Giddy's "Katie Casey") that she learned from Moonstone's Mexicans and railroad men (449). Cather's final portrait of Tillie vividly illustrates Langtry's reflections about Thea's "folk-music" by suggesting that the art of her novel (both the vocal art of her heroine and the corresponding art of her narrative method) is radically linked to the folk traditions that Tillie embodies. In effect, the world of fine art evoked by Cather's title is counterbalanced by her identification of her narrative art with the home crafts that express and civilize the "parish" of her fiction.
Tillie's significance is confirmed by the appearance of similar domestic artists in Cather's later fiction. Most notably, Tillie anticipates two important minor characters who dominate the endings of their respective novels as Tillie commands the Epilogue to The Song of the Lark. In One of Ours (1921) Mahailey is a woman who has faithfully served as the Wheeler family's housekeeper since Claude Wheeler's birth. In The Professor's House (1925) Augusta, "seasoned and sound and . . . solid," is a seamstress who has shared Godfrey St. Peter's study for more than twenty years. All three women are uneducated and rather simpleminded but instinctively "wise and farseeing" (One of Ours 21; Song 66); all are single women who serve a family without ever having raised one of their own; and all have suffered similarly hard lives. The most important trait that unites these fictional characters, however, is their common talent: Tillie, Mahailey, and Augusta are all presented as skillful domestic artisans.
The artistic mastery that distinguishes these minor characters in Cather's fiction becomes increasingly apparent and thematically significant. Barely hinted at in the Epilogue to The Song of the Lark, craftwork prominently reappears as the, central image of the opening scene of The Professor's House: the storage chest/box-couch in St. Peter's attic study. Tillie's millinery arts are paralleled in this later novel by Augusta's dressmaking skills, and the box-couch that serves to store both Augusta's sewing patterns and St. Peter's literary manuscripts serves a third purpose as an emblem of Augusta's significance in the novel. When St. Peter opens its hinged top, the chest presents a framed still life of two contrasting but equal and inseparable arts: "At one end . . . were piles of notebooks and bundles of manuscript tied up in square packages with mason's cord. At the other end were many little rolls of patterns, cut out of newspapers and tied with bits of ribbon, gingham, silk, georgette. . . . In the middle of the box, patterns and manuscripts interpenetrated" (Professor's House 22).
In the same way that the Epilogue to The Song of the Lark locates the "concrete beginnings" of that novel's art in Tillie Kronborg, the box-couch suggests that the literary composition of The Professor's House is essentially related to Augusta and her art of composing in silk and ribbon. The connection between fully patterned needlework and the patterns in Cather's fiction is strengthened by Cather's earlier portraits of Grandma Lee in O Pioneers! and Mahailey in One of Ours. Cather was working on One of Ours at the time of her 1921 Bookman interview (Carroll), and her comments about telling stories "simply by juxtaposition" were immediately inspired by a discussion of this new novel. In One of Ours Cather reinforces the point she made almost a cade earlier in the central section of O Pioneers! and repeated in the Epilogue to The Song of the Lark: that her art is significantly indebted to female folk culture.
The two heroines of O Pioneers! meet alone together only once in the entire novel, when Mrs. Lee sends them up to her attic to hunt for some crochet patterns (195-98). That old Mrs. Lee and her patterns are responsible for "composing" this central scene where Alexandra Bergson and Marie Shabata are most directly juxtaposed suggests the same vital connection between narrative form and domestic art that Cather elaborates in The Song of the Lark and One of Ours. Like Tillie Kronborg, modeling one of her hats and listening to "Casey Jones," Mahailey is firmly identified with folk art both in music and in decorative art. She comes on the scene singing the chorus to her favorite ballad ("And they laid Jesse James in his grave"); she is further distinguished by a visual art that Cather presents as a prototype for her own new kind of writing: One of Ours pointedly exhibits Mahailey's patchwork quilts of traditional "log-cabin," "laurel leaf," and "blazing star" patterns as a paradigm for the indigenous art of "designing" rather than "writing" novels that Cather devised to depict "a part of the world that was without a literature" (Carroll 214). The graphic art of Mahailey's homemade quilts—unlike the pastoral conventions of the landscapes that Claude Wheeler admires in his art books—provides Cather with an aesthetic model for a world of two-dimensional flatness: immense checkerboard fields of wheat and corn; sharply outlined, isolated figures of houses, trees, and windmills (Schwind 69-70).
If Mahailey's quilting squares anticipate the image of Augusta's dress patterns in The Professor's House, they also retrospectively illuminate the pictorial arts that inform The Song of the Lark. A letter to Ferris Greenslet reveals that Cather regretted naming this novel after the Breton painting (Letters 7). After the book was first published in 1915, Cather did what she could, short of changing the title, to remedy her "mistake." She not only asked Houghton Mifflin to stop using a reproduction of the painting as a cover illustration but deemphasized the title's significance as much as possible in her 1932 preface: The title of the book is unfortunate; many readers take it for granted that the "lark song" refers to the vocal accomplishment of the heroine, which is altogether a mistake. . . . The book was named for a rather second-rate French painting in the Chicago Art Institute; a picture in which a little peasant girl, on her way to work in the fields at early morning, stops and looks up to listen to a lark. The title was meant to suggest a young girl's awakening to something beautiful. I wanted to call the story "Artist's Youth," but my publisher discouraged me, wisely enough. (Preface v-vi)
In warning readers against taking the "song of the lark" as a straightforward reference to her heroine's voice, Cather hints that the title is more subtle and complex. The meaning of Cather's reference to Breton's "second-rate" painting is clearly established in Part II of the novel. During her first year as a music student in Chicago, Thea finally ventures inside the Art Institute only when she is shamed into it by her landlady's daughter. Shocked to learn that Thea has lived in the city for over four months without visiting the Institute, Mrs. Anderson warns that Thea's ignorance of the "old masters" imperils the education she has left home to acquire. Rhapsodizing about the museum's collection of European paintings, Mrs. Anderson particularly recommends the Corots and other Barbizon landscapes (195).
When Thea dutifully goes to the art gallery, however, she is guided by her own rather uninformed taste rather than by Mrs. Anderson's advice. She not only prefers the cast room and its plaster reproductions of antique and Renaissance statuary but, when she does go into the picture galleries, is primarily drawn to anecdotal narrative paintings that remind her of Moonstone. She most admires The Pasha's Grief (a hunting scene by Gérôme that reminds her of her brothers); Song of the Lark (in which the peasant girl stands in a "flat country" resembling Thea's prairie); and a "picture of some boys bringing in a newborn calf on a litter, the cow walking beside it and licking it." We are told by the narrator that Thea neither likes nor dislikes the Corot landscape hanging beside the cow painting because "she never saw it" (197).
In short, the scene to which Cather's title alludes confirms Thea's ignorance of fine art. Cather's earlier comments on Breton's painting in a review published in 1901 reinforce her later assessment of the work as "second-rate" in a way that illuminates the dramatic irony of this scene. As Susan Rosowski has pointed out, Cather suggests in this review that Breton—while unquestionably the inferior artist—more powerfully moves midwestern "farmer boys" than does Millet. Cather writes: It is not unlikely that the Chicago Art Institute, with its splendid casts and pictures, has done more for the people of the Middle West than any of the city's great industries. Every farmer boy who goes into the city on a freight train with his father's cattle and every young merchant who goes into the city to order his stock, takes a look at the pictures. There are thousands of people all over the prairies who have seen their first and only good pictures there. They elect their favorites and go back year after year. . .. You will find hundreds of merchants and farmer boys all over Nebraska and Kansas and Iowa who remember Jules Breton's beautiful "Song of the Lark." ("Chicago Art Institute" 842-43)
Thus, far from marking her acquisition of city sophistication and knowledge of the fine arts, Thea's "boundless satisfaction" with the Breton (197) reaffirms her prairie roots.
Yet while the "old masters" recommended by Mrs. Anderson have little to do with Thea's education as an artist, the repeated emphasis on domestic arts in Cather's fiction—particularly the importance of Mahailey and her pieced quilts in One of Ours—illuminates The Song of the Lark by focusing the reader's attention on a work more important for Thea than those hanging in the Art Institute: the Kohlers' "piece-picture." A "kind of mosaic" made from stitching together thousands of pieces of fabric, the piece-picture is the "thesis" of Fritz Kohler's apprenticeship as a tailor in Magdeburg, Germany. As a final project, the master tailor required his students "to copy in cloth some well-known German painting," and Mr. Kohler ambitiously chose to reproduce the crowded canvas of an immense historical work, Napoleon Retreating from Moscow. Filling an entire wall of the parlor in Moonstone where Thea takes her first music lessons from the Kohlers' boarder, Professor Wunsch, the piece-picture is a conspicuous part of the material or "concrete beginnings" of Thea's own art. Mr. Kohler's "thesis" contributes to her education because its extraordinary craftsmanship and attention to detail first teach her of the patience, skill, and ingenuity that art demands (28-29).
The importance of the piece-picture as an emblem of a new art equally indebted to fine and folk traditions (the "high" art of the original history painting that Mr. Kohler copies and the "low" art of his sewn reproduction) is emphasized by its reappearance at the end of the novel, where we learn that Mrs. Kohler has died and left her husband's "painting" to Thea. Mrs. Kohler's bequest not only identifies Thea as her husband's artistic heir but also underscores the significance of the picture as a legacy of childhood that enriches and informs Thea's mature art. Cather emphasized the significance of Mr. Kohler's piece-picture not only within The Song of the Lark but outside the text as well. In a letter to Helen Seibel she wrote that she had received a letter about Mr. Kohler's "piece-picture" from an American artist in Italy. Cather recalled that she had seen such a picture in the sitting room of a German ladies' tailor when she was a child and had always wanted to have it. It had looked just as she described it in the book. She told Seibel that she had cared about it, and had succeeded in making this reader care.
The piece-picture of Cather's childhood prefigures Mahailey patchwork quilts, Augusta's fabrics and patterns, and the silk roses on Tillie's hats, suggesting that these recurrent images of homecraft are more than incidentally important in Cather's fiction. Building upon the memorable picture of Fritz Kohler "handiwork" in the Epilogue to The Song of the Lark and in subsequent novels, Cather insists that her art—like Thea Kronborg's—is indebted not only to "old masters" imported from Europe but also to the uncelebrated domestic arts of the American frontier.
The juxtapositional structure of Cather's novels has been called "new" or modernist, but her prose is like Robert Frost poetry in at least one respect: she chose an old way to be new. In a recent essay, Phyllis Rose calls Cather "the literary equivalent of an Arp, a Brancusi, [or] a Moore" because the "massive, abstract forms" juxtaposed in her fiction testify to a "modernist urge to simplify" (136-37). The evidence of the fiction itself, however, seems to suggest that her modernist methods of composing are not derived from the Cubist avant-garde but are instead rooted in extremely traditional and woman-centered art forms. The Song of the Lark suggests that it is no accident that Cather habitually spoke of her experiments in narrative "design"; in this novel and in later works that deal less directly with the question of her artistic sources and influences, Cather explicitly relates her narrative techniques to the decorative patterns of "piece-picture" quilts and to Native American arts that influenced quilt design in the nineteenth century.
That Cather—like the most innovative quiltmakers of the West—draws upon the designs of Native American culture is the point of the most clearly autobiographical section of The Song of the Lark. Cather visited the Southwest for the first time in 1912, and her experience of the desert landscape and its native culture is recreated in Part IV of the book, "The Ancient People," in which Thea Kronborg spends the summer on Fred Ottenburg's ranch in northern Arizona. It was to this central section of the novel that Cather alluded in explaining her "unfortunate" title, contending that it was "meant to suggest a young girl's awakening to something beautiful." The jacket illustration that Cather wanted to substitute for the color reproduction of Breton's painting, a black-and-white photograph of Cliff Dweller ruins, would have explained the reference of her title by depicting what the text of the novel makes clear: Thea's artistic "awakening" takes place not in the gallery of "old masters" on Michigan Boulevard but in the villages built by the "Ancient People" in the southwestern desert.
Cather presents the scene in Panther Canyon as an ironic pendant or companion piece to Moonstone's favorite parlor painting, The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (137). In contrast to Hunt's famous picture of a fallen woman's spiritual regeneration, the "awakening" that Cather depicts in Part IV of The Song of the Lark is aesthetic rather than moral (Nochlin 230-34). Although by Moonstone standards Thea's vacation in the Southwest is decidedly immoral (like the woman in Hunt's painting, she is involved in an extramarital affair), it is Thea's artistic sensibility—rather than her sense of sexual morality—that awakens during the long hours she spends in Panther Canyon.
Thea's awakening does resemble that of Hunt's heroine in one crucial detail: it is inspired by art. Hunts's woman is moved to leap from her lover's lap when memories of childhood innocence are evoked by the song they've been playing together on the piano, "Oft in the Stilly Night"; the bright colors and patterns of Cliff Dweller pottery and Navajo blankets give Thea a new awareness of the "sensuous form" of art. Unlike Hunt's upwardly mobile, conscience-stricken heroine, however, Thea lies languidly in the sun all day and revels in pure "sensation" (300). Among the physical sights, sounds, and smells that go straight into her "subconscious self and [take] root there," nothing affects Thea more profoundly than the potsherds that she discovers in Panther Canyon. The Cliff Dwellers' "beautifully decorated" water jars and painted with "graceful geometric patterns" in contrasting teach her about artistic form. Although she sings very little that summer, the "simple and definite" shapes of the Indian pottery enable her to conceive her own art in a "sharper and clearer" fashion (306).
If the novel dramatizes an artist's "simple and concrete beginnings," the
Moonstone and Panther Canyon parts of this story are decisively joined
by Thea's reflections about the ancient pottery she discovers. She is
moved as much by the knowledge that the "old masters" of Cliff Dweller
art were women as she is by the intrinsic beauty of their jars and
The men provided the food, but water was the care of the women.
The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the
cleverer ones made the vessels to hold it. Their pottery was
their most direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of
the precious element itself. . . . What was any art but an
effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a
moment the shining, elusive element which is life
itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too
strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it
in their jars. (303-04)
The men provided the food, but water was the care of the women. The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the cleverer ones made the vessels to hold it. Their pottery was their most direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of the precious element itself. . . . What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. (303-04)
I suggest that Thea is able to draw an immediate connection between the linear patterns and clean shapes of the Cliff Dweller pottery and a "simple and definite" form for her own art because this "discovery" of aesthetic form is actually a rediscovery. The female potters of the desert are artistic forebears of her Aunt Tillie and the frontier homemakers that Tillie represents. The same impulse evident to Thea in the low-relief carvings and painted designs of the pottery—the desire to bring beautiful order to a harsh wilderness—also informs the domestic arts that civilize Moonstone.
The way in which both the Panther Canyon and Moonstone segments of The Song of the Lark highlight the orderly patterns of domestic art finally suggests that the women of the West are not only the principal subjects of Cather's fiction but also a primary source of her own narrative "design." Cather's well-known comment on Sarah Orne Jewett's artistry—that in the best of Jewett's work "the design is the story, the story is the design"—clearly reflects the central principle of Cather's own kingdom of art ("Miss Jewett" 77-78). In the last analysis, "design is the story" in Cather's fiction because both in form and in content her best novels are inspired by designers like the Navajo women and Aunt Tillie, imaginative and unassuming artists who gave color and shape to life in a wilderness.