For many years, scholars have regarded My Mortal Enemy as somewhat of an enigma. Written in only a few months during the early spring of 1925 and published both serially and in book form in 1926, Cather's shortest novel was sandwiched in between The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). While the subject matter of these latter two works can be traced to Cather's experience of and growing interest in the desert Southwest, My Mortal Enemy seemingly has nothing to do with these subjects or her Nebraska roots; it appears to have come out of nowhere, baffling those who have tried to fit this rather anomalous work into a logical progression of Cather's artistic development. The question of what prompted Cather to write such a novel at this point in her career, for example, has still not been answered definitively. One commonly held hypothesis was first voiced by Marcus Klein, who in his 1961 introduction to the novel wrote that for Cather, "The story of Myra Henshawe must have been [the product of] a personal crisis" (xxiv). Klein, though, acknowledged that he could not prove his theory, "because there is available no record other than the novel" (xxiv-xxv). Emmy Stark Zitter has recently argued that in My Mortal Enemy and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) Cather "exercises the autobiographical impulse by melding details of her own life into her fiction" (297), but, like Klein, she is unable to name which "details" of her life Cather drew on in writing My Mortal Enemy.
As hinted in the above statements by Klein and Zitter, much of the general uncertainty about the meaning of My Mortal Enemy can be traced to the absence of a persuasive theory as to who the real-life models for the novel's characters were and what Cather's relationship to them was. Cather herself wrote in a 1940 letter that, in James Woodress's paraphrase, "she had known Myra's real-life model very well, and the portrait drawn in the story was much as she remembered her"; Cather also added that the woman had died fifteen years before My Mortal Enemy was published, and that many relatives of this model later wrote to her to say that they recognized the "real" Myra from her depiction in the novel (Woodress, Literary Life 380). Given such hints and Cather's penchant for drawing on her experiences in Nebraska for characters, settings, and plots, it is quite understandable that scholars have thus looked to Red Cloud and Lincoln for possible sources of the people and events depicted in My Mortal Enemy. In 1986 Mildred Bennett argued, citing unreliable evidence, that the character of Myra Henshawe "may have been Myra Tyndale . . . wife of Troilus Tyndale" ("Who Was Myra Henshawe?" 19), people whom Cather had once known years before in Lincoln. This hypothesis, however, is based solely on a conjecture made by Mrs. Walter Trent, granddaughter of the Westermanns from Lincoln. Thus, in his 1987 biography of Cather, Woodress was forced to conclude: "Of all Cather's works, My Mortal Enemy has the most obscure provenance," adding that "the prototype for Myra Henshawe in this work has never been identified" (Literary Life 380).
In light of the evidence presented in this article, though, I believe that Cather intended her comments about the model for Myra Henshawe to serve as red herrings that would protect her relationship with the couple who were the prototypes for the Henshawes, both of whom were still alive in 1925. Mark Madigan has recently demonstrated how Cather in 1905 had to hold off publishing "The Profile" because of fears that the main character might recognize herself and commit suicide, and twenty years later Cather would have been well aware of how her portrayal of the Henshawes might have affected both the real-life wife (who died in 1929) and husband (who died in 1949) if they had recognized themselves. It is my contention that the Henshawes were modeled after people Cather knew not in Nebraska but rather in New York: S. S. and Hattie McClure. Myra's uncle, John Driscoll, was modeled after Hattie's father, Professor Albert Hurd. The prototype for Aunt Lydia, too, can also be named: Louise Williston, who first introduced S. S. McClure to Hattie and who subsequently served as secret intermediary during their courtship.
Possibly most important, identifying the Henshawes as the McClures allows us to more conclusively identify Cather herself with Nellie Birdseye. Nellie and Cather, both Midwestern onlookers and recorders, experienced four distinct stages in their relationships with the Henshawes and the McClures (especially with S. S.), respectively: idealization, disillusionment, pity, and understanding. In turn, the striking similarity of Cather's and Nellie's evolving relationships with these couples prompts a reassessment of the novel's meaning and its place in Cather's career and life. My Mortal Enemy, I believe, was an extended attempt by Cather to deal with certain aspects of her own past and to move on in a world stripped of romantic illusion, taking the people and places who inhabited it for what they really were rather than for what she had idealized them as. Cather's "mortal enemy" was not so much S. S. McClure himself but rather what he represented: an idol from her past. To progress artistically and personally, Cather needed to fully understand and come to terms with the "real" McClure; My Mortal Enemy is the product of that process.
What inspired Cather to write about S. S. McClure and his wife Hattie in the spring of 1925? The answer can be found in a photograph that many Cather scholars are undoubtedly familiar with (fig. 1). In it former McClure's Magazine staffers Cather, Ida Tarbell, and Will Irwin are seated on a bench in Washington Square Park in New York City on a fall day in 1924, laughing and smiling as they look at S. S. McClure, their former boss from over a decade earlier. McClure, in 1924 the figurehead editor of a greatly diminished McClure's Magazine, might have called these former staffers together simply for lunch, but the copy of the new McClure's sticking out of his jacket pocket in another photo taken that day (fig. 2) indicates his more likely motive: he wanted to enlist their help in saving his current venture (Tarbell eventually did contribute a series of articles on the head of United States Steel, Judge E. H. Gary). Undoubtedly they reminisced about the past and, at least briefly, could laugh about it. The second photograph, though, taken just minutes before or after the other, indicates that the reunion had its less convivial moments: all four stand, stiffly, with dour looks on their faces. The frowns are certainly not surprising, since all four persons present possessed many painful memories of their working relationships with each other.
In fact, as recently as the spring or summer of 1924, Cather had been urged by S. S. McClure to convince author George Brooks to write a series of stories for the magazine. Instead, remembering how working for McClure could take an author down paths he or she never intended, Cather invited Brooks to tea at her apartment and "on that occasion she all but made him swear he would never attempt such a series" (Lyon 398). Both Tarbell and Irwin would later write autobiographies (in 1939 and 1942, respectively) in which they would laud McClure's editorial genius and commend him for his charming personality. Cather never wrote an autobiography, but I believe that this reunion in Washington Square Park brought up Cather's many contradictory feelings about the past and S. S. McClure himself, which she only a few months later began writing about in My Mortal Enemy.
The visit with McClure and the others would almost certainly have brought back a flood of memories for Cather, especially of her earlier relationship with him. When she first met McClure in 1903, Cather was a young Midwesterner eager to make it in the East. McClure promised to start publishing Cather's fiction himself and help her place various stories with other publishers, and three years later he brought her to New York to work on his magazine; suddenly, Cather had the entrée to Eastern literary culture that she had been seeking ever since she was a young girl. Sharon O'Brien argues, however, that McClure's "help" came with a price: "a mentor who wants to plan the smallest details of his protegee's career can be an oppressive father who may not grant his daughter a separate identity; similarly, a daughter who imagines going to the stake for a fatherly leader [Cather once wrote that if McClure were a religious leader people would go to the stake for him] is displaying a disturbingly self-destructive allegiance" (289). James Woodress concurs that "Next to her father and brothers he was the most important man in her life," and adds, "Her devotion to McClure . . . was a hindrance to her career, for he kept her editing his magazine long after she should have been channeling all her creative energies into writing fiction" (Literary Life 171-72).
Yet, while it is commonly recognized that Cather sometimes felt artistically stifled by her editorial work for McClure's and wanted out, it is also important to recognize that for six years she kept in place. In part this was because her position as managing editor made her one of the more powerful women in New York magazine publishing at the time; in addition, McClure provided solid financial support and time off when her ill health required it. Her unwillingness to leave McClure also stemmed in part, however, from her own doubts about her writing ability and from McClure's comments that echoed such doubts. As Cather wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett in November 1908 about McClure, he "tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories. . . . I sometimes, indeed very often, think that he is right" (Cather to Jewett, 18 November , qtd. in Donovan 44). Eventually, prompted by Sarah Orne Jewett's advice that to do her own best work she needed to break away from the journalistic world of McClure's, Cather began in the fall of 1911 to leave it behind in order to pursue her own writing.
But while Cather could leave the magazine relatively easily, she found it much more difficult to break from McClure himself. In early June 1912, as McClure was losing control of his magazine in a financial and editorial reorganization, he wrote to Cather asking for help; Cather, from Lamy, New Mexico, expressed her indignation at the shabby treatment he was receiving and pledged to aid him in whatever way she could (letter to McClure, 12 June 1912). Cather honored her pledge in January 1913 when she began working with McClure on his autobiography, a project that he valued highly for the possible income and prestige it could generate for him. McClure, though, was not the only one to benefit from this experience. Many critics have noted that as Cather wrote down what McClure told her about his life and then constructed his autobiography, she learned to narrate from a male point of view, a skill she employed in My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor's House (1925). Deborah Lindsay Williams has recently argued, too, that Cather's position as "ghostwriter" on this project taught her that "invisibility, or apparent invisibility . . . [can be] a mode of power—power over access to secret knowledge and the power to escape definition and categorization" (29). In addition, this experience provided Cather with valuable material for use in future fictions. Robert Thacker notes how McClure-like figures showed up later in "Ardessa" (1918) and "Her Boss" (1919) and concludes that "as she listened to McClure tell this story, Willa Cather made it her own and made it, too, part of the stories of the numerous characters who were to spring from her fecund imagination" (Thacker, Introduction xiii), including Thea Kronborg, Jim Burden, and Godfrey St. Peter. In fact, Thacker's recent linkage of the latter character to McClure, and Cather's narrative technique in The Professor's House to Cather's methods writing McClure's autobiography (" 'It's Through Myself'" 133-37), suggest that My Mortal Enemy is more closely linked to the novel that immediately preceded it than has been previously recognized; both works reflect Cather's interest in understanding complex men such as McClure.
McClure publicly acknowledged Cather's help with his autobiography, including as a headnote to the serialized version that began in October 1913, "I wish to express my indebtedness to Miss Willa Sibert Cather for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of these memoirs" ("My Autobiography" 33), and in a foreword to the book, published in 1914, "I am indebted to the cooperation of Miss Willa Sibert Cather for the very existence of this book" (My Autobiography v). For obvious reasons, though, Cather did not reciprocate by revealing how the experience of ghostwriting McClure's autobiography helped her construct My Mortal Enemy twelve years later.
Even before starting work on McClure's autobiography, Cather certainly had had ample opportunity to know a great deal about McClure. After all, between 1906 and 1911 she was managing editor of McClure's Magazine and worked closely with her boss. But as Cather listened to McClure dictate his story in the winter and spring of 1913, writing it down in longhand the next day and having her secretary subsequently type up these notes (Thacker, Introduction x), Cather was afforded even greater access to the details of McClure's life. One of the most prominent strands of this autobiography, significantly, is McClure's dramatic, passionate, and romantic courtship of his future wife, Harriet (Hattie) Hurd. Given the importance of this story to McClure's self-conception (and knowing that McClure would not shy away from sharing private matters), it is not at all unlikely, too, that during this time McClure would also have given Cather access to the numerous letters that passed between him and Hattie over the years and which they had saved; these would have given Cather an even greater understanding of their relationship.
In 1913, Cather thus helped McClure produce for his autobiography, intended for public consumption, a version of the great, dramatic love story involving he and his wife that he had told innumerable times to other staffers and anyone else who would listen. After the autobiography was published, Cather pursued her own writing and developed new friendships. Yet, between 1913 and her meeting with McClure in the fall of 1924, Cather did keep in touch with both S. S. and Hattie McClure (there are many letters extant between the two women, and Cather in her letters to S. S. always asked him to give her best to Hattie). What prompted Cather to write about the McClures in early 1925, though, was learning about McClure's pathetic position during her 1924 meeting with him. Possessing detailed knowledge both of the McClures' courtship and their current situation, Cather commenced her novel about the lies, contradictions, and disappointments involved in such a seemingly passionate love affair, and the disillusionment of one who wants so very much to believe in it. The numerous parallels between the stories of the Henshawes and the McClures make identification of these persons as Cather's models unmistakable; furthermore, the evolution of Nellie's relationship with the Henshawes is closely mirrored by Cather's relationship with the McClures, and with S. S. McClure in particular.
Oswald and Myra Henshawe first fall in love in Parthia, a small town in southern Illinois. When Myra's rich uncle and guardian John Driscoll finds out that his beloved, pampered, and well-educated niece is being courted by Oswald, "he forbade him the house" (My Mortal Enemy 538). Driscoll, a devout Catholic, dislikes Oswald not only because he comes from a lower social class but also because he dislikes Oswald's father, who is an "Ulster Protestant" (538), a faith presumably shared by his son. To circumvent the uncle's interdiction, Nellie's Aunt Lydia helps them meet secretly at her parents' home. Eventually, "Driscoll so persecuted the boy that he felt there was no chance for him in Parthia. He roused himself and went to New York. He stayed there two years without coming home, sending his letters to Myra through" Aunt Lydia (538). Once Oswald is sufficiently established to afford marriage, "He wrote to John Driscoll, telling him his resources and prospects, and asked him for his niece's hand. It was then that Driscoll had it out with Myra" (538). Driscoll tells Nellie that "If she married young Henshawe, he would cut her off without a penny" (538) and her inheritance would go to the Catholic Church. He also advises her, "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money. . . . A poor man stinks, and God hates him" (538).
Despite this warning, Myra forsakes great wealth for romantic love and secretly elopes with Oswald. Aunt Lydia and some other friends take her to a neighboring town, where she and Oswald are married by the "civil authority" (539); Myra tells Nellie, "I went before a justice of the peace, and married without gloves, so to speak" (572). Afterwards the couple leaves on the Chicago express train, never to return to Parthia until after John Driscoll's death. For their leading roles in this drama, Oswald and Myra Henshawe become romantic, nearly mythological figures to the residents of Parthia and to Nellie Birdseye in particular. Nellie recounts that Myra Henshawe "and her runaway marriage were the theme of the most interesting, indeed the only interesting, stories that were told in our family, on holidays or at family dinners" (533). For Nellie, the Driscoll house and grounds became almost a shrine to romantic love; as a teenager she enjoys walking by the place and thinking of it "as being under a spell, like the Sleeping Beauty's palace; it had been in a trance, or lain in its flowers like a beautiful corpse, ever since the winter night when Love went out of the gates and gave the dare to Fate" (540).
Compare the Henshawes' story, then, to the romance of Hattie and S. S. McClure. McClure was an Irish immigrant and "Ulster Protestant" who came to America in 1866 and eventually enrolled in 1874 as a preparatory student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Due to his poverty, McClure during his first month at Knox lived in a vacant dormitory room and subsisted on bread, soda crackers, and grapes. In 1876 he met Harriet (Hattie) Hurd, a fellow student and daughter of Albert Hurd, a professor at the college (see figures 3, 4, and 5). (Oswald's inscription of the volume of Heine love poetry that he gives to Myra is, significantly, dated 1876 [My Mortal Enemy 570].) The person who introduced them, Louise Williston, was an older woman who had been the object of Sam McClure's crush but who had hoped to distract him with Hattie, three years older than he, who she believed could act as "a kind of wise & distant second cousin or aunt" (Williston to Hattie, 12 November 1876). The great social and educational gulf between them, Williston presumed, would preclude any romantic involvement. After all, Hattie lived in one of the finest houses in Galesburg, described in detail by a French visitor in 1894 as being surrounded by a fence—just as the Driscoll place was enclosed by an iron fence—and furnished in luxurious good taste (Bentzon 887). S. S., on the other hand, at the time lived in a cheap boarding house across town. Hattie, who was beautiful and extremely accomplished (she was valedictorian of her class and spoke French and German, just as Myra did), represented her parents' beliefs in what young women could achieve with higher education; it is thus not surprising that she was sought after by numerous young men of high social status. Yet, to the dismay of her parents, family, and friends, she was transfixed by the young man who literally came from the other side of the tracks.
Learning of the relationship, Hattie's father vehemently expressed his desire that she not have contact with McClure. This led Louise Williston to act as intermediary during Hattie's senior year, letting Sam and Hattie meet at her house and passing letters between them. The strong passion of their attraction is quite evident in these letters. In May 1877, for example, Sam wrote to Hattie, "My darling, God only knows how wildly and terribly I love you. My love is a living agony that scarce can find expression" (19 May 1877). Hattie, recognizing that her feelings for Sam were inappropriate—at least according to all social conventions and to her parents and friends—tried on numerous occasions to deny her love for Sam and break off their unofficial engagement, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. "Every time I tried it," she wrote to him later in May, "it almost took my life" (29 May 1877). She adds in this same letter, "My heart aches to see you. I feel that I must make you know how I love you and that I will always be true to you." Years later in My Autobiography, in words dictated by McClure yet shaped by Cather, McClure recalled, in a gross understatement, "Professor Hurd and his wife naturally looked with disfavor upon their daughter's attachment for a rough country boy who had already a reputation for being visionary and unstable, and who had certainly no very encouraging prospects" (88). In fact, in August 1877 Professor Hurd, a clear prototype of John Driscoll, spelled out to his daughter in no uncertain terms his expectations for her, leaving no doubt at all that Sam McClure didn't even come close to measuring up. Underlining those words he felt deserved emphasis, Hurd told his daughter she should marry "a man who can support you. . . . Love and poverty in your case would give you a very wretched life" (26 August 1877). In words that the older Myra Henshawe might have thought to herself, Louise Williston also at the time warned Hattie about the dangers of making an impulsive, romantic decision: "[I]t is a fearful awakening to a woman when at thirty or any other age, she probes the fact, with her mature consciousness, that she does not love the soul to whom she is mated as it is possible for her to love" (Williston to Hattie, 25 February 1877).
After his daughter's graduation from Knox in June 1880, Albert Hurd made Hattie break off her unofficial engagement to McClure, would not let McClure see Hattie at her house, and then sent her away to a French Protestant school in Berthier-en- Haut, Quebec. Before leaving, Hattie wrote to McClure, "you mustn't write to me or expect to hear from me as long as I am dependent on my father. If I should bring his displeasure on me it would kill me" (5 July 1877). For the next two years, Sam and Hattie were kept separate, just as Oswald and Myra were. Yet McClure never gave up his pursuit of Hattie. During those years he continued, doggedly, to send her letters and await any reply. After graduating from Knox in 1882, McClure tracked Hattie down in upstate New York but was sent away without much encouragement. As McClure recalled in his autobiography, during this time, "My feeling for her became a despairing obsession" (96).
Then, like Oswald Henshawe, McClure established himself in the East, becoming the editor of a Boston bicycling magazine and earning just enough to support a wife. Unbeknownst to Albert Hurd, McClure at this time also reestablished relations with Hattie, who was teaching at Abbot Academy in nearby Andover. Sam again professed his love and pressed his case; the result was that in the spring of 1883 he and Hattie set a wedding date of 4 September 1883. In My Mortal Enemy, Oswald wrote to Myra's uncle Driscoll to ask for his niece's hand in marriage, but in the McClures' case it was Hattie who wrote to her father to announce the wedding plans. In reply, Hattie received the following: "Last summer I gave you my opinion of McClure. . . . His personal appearance, his bearing, & his address are not pleasing to me; I think him conceited, impertinent, meddlesome, &c., &c., and, of course, would not choose him for your husband. I regard it as a misfortune that you ever made his acquaintance" (qtd. in Lyon 42). Hattie was thus forewarned: marriage to S. S. McClure would result in strained relations with and distance from her parents. (No mention is made in My Mortal Enemy of how Oswald's parents reacted to his relationship with Myra; McClure's father was dead, but his mother strongly opposed the match with Hattie, a fact he did not reveal in My Autobiography.)
Even though Sam and Hattie did not elope, as Oswald and Myra did, their romance certainly became the stuff of small-town legend. According to Peter Lyon, who was not only McClure's chief biographer but also his grandson and thus privy to confidential family history, when Hattie returned to Galesburg to make wedding preparations in June 1883, "from the day she got home her family was sullen and bitter; all over the town her affairs had set malicious tongues to clacking" (Lyon 43). And just as the Henshawes were married outside the auspices of the Catholic Church, the McClures were married at the Hurd home, not at the Congregational Church to which the Hurds belonged. During the ceremony, "Outside in . . . [the Hurds'] yard, a considerable company of curious gathered to peer through the windows and the wintry party that followed it" (Lyon 45). In 1964 a writer for a Galesburg newspaper could still recount with zeal how "the story of this Knox romance was first told us by the mother who was on the scene when the affair was on every Galesburg tongue" ("S. S. McClure Success"). In a curious convolution of actual events, the mother supposedly had told this reporter "that Harriet, refused permission to marry the young man whom her father believed to be an upstart, eloped with him by climbing out her bedroom window" ("S. S. McClure Success"). Fervently desiring to believe in the power of love, the bride's own mother and the townspeople thus had greatly embellished a romantic tale. Cather, recognizing this desire in others—and herself—would later portray such legend making in My Mortal Enemy.
As far as can be determined, Albert Hurd never financially disowned his daughter. However, for having broken the "faith" with her father she was, to some extent, emotionally disinherited by him. Numerous letters between Hattie and her sister and mother in later years indicate not only her father's distance from Hattie but also that she was always on the defensive, feeling as if she had to justify her choice of husband and path in life. Hattie also suffered from her father's negative opinion of her husband: until Hurd died in 1906, he only grudgingly allowed S. S. McClure to stay in his house when visiting and publicly stated that he never approved of him.
After giving the details of the romance between Hattie and S. S. McClure, the author of the newspaper article in which Mrs. Hurd's faulty reminiscences were recounted asks, rhetorically, "And did their romance endure forever?" His answer is quite cryptic: "Well, not without some costly interruption" ("S. S. McClure Success"). In a similar vein, Nellie Birdseye, her voice brimming with hope and innocence, asks Aunt Lydia about the Henshawes, who sacrificed money for romance: "But they've been happy, anyhow?" (539). Although Nellie had already been somewhat surprised at Myra's "short, plump" (533) appearance and "could not help feeling a little disappointed" (540) when she first met Myra in Parthia, she had still gotten her hopes up from her initial meeting with the Henshawes, during which she believed she saw a long-married, still-loving couple (535). Thus, Aunt Lydia's reply—"Happy? Oh, yes! As happy as most people" (539)—deflates many of Nellie's dreams about the Henshawes. She comments, "That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (539).
The Henshawes soon regain their status as idols in Nellie's eyes, though, when she and her Aunt Lydia later travel to New York to visit them. Nellie believes that the Henshawes' apartment on Madison Square is the epitome of taste and elegance, and the couple's glamour for Nellie is further enhanced by their association with numerous artists and famous people such as Madame Modjeska. Nellie believes that such a lifestyle, combined with the Henshawes' supposed great love for one another, should suffice to make them extremely happy.
Yet Nellie soon sees the faults in the Henshawes' marriage. She finds out, for instance, that Myra wants much more than Oswald can give her with his limited income. Nellie observes with some surprise that Myra "was wishing for a carriage—with stables and a house and servants, and all that went with a carriage!" (552). Myra's disenchantment with her life is also evident when she whispers to Nellie, "[I]t's very nasty, being poor!" (552). In addition, Nellie discovers that Oswald is receiving cufflinks as a gift from a younger woman—probably someone with whom he is having an affair—and that he wants Nellie and Aunt Lydia to help him lie about them. Myra immediately sees through the ruse and cuts Oswald to the quick with a comment about the cufflinks. At first Nellie approves of the way Myra deals with Oswald's deception and probable infidelity, commenting, "I thought him properly served then" (550). In the same breath, however, Nellie indicates her deeper understanding of Oswald, which came much later and allowed her to sympathize with him. Learning after this incident how cruel and harsh Myra could be beneath her charming exterior, Nellie comments, "often since I have wondered at his gentle heart" (550).
When Nellie a few days later walks in on the Henshawes' argument over a key that Myra had found in Oswald's things, they are completely knocked off the pedestal upon which Nellie had placed them. Oswald lies to Myra about what the key unlocks, and the malicious distrust each has for one another is palpable. Nellie states, "I stood bewildered. This delightful room had seemed to me a place where light-heartedness and charming manners lived. . . . And now everything was in ruins" (556). The Henshawes, cosmopolitan idols of Myra's Midwestern innocence, had now tumbled to the floor and broken in pieces. As Nellie and her Aunt Lydia leave town, the latter expresses her anger at Myra, exclaiming, "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics . . . I've done with them. A man never is justified [in having an affair], but if ever a man was . . ." (558). Nellie, significantly, does not respond, implying tacit approval of her aunt's sentiments, and, once again, sympathy for Oswald's position.
Similar to Nellie, Willa Cather probably began idealizing the McClures from the time she first went to New York to visit the of- fices of McClure's Magazine in May 1903. This year, incidentally, is just one year before Nellie Birdseye's visit in 1904 (Murphy, "Complex Past" 70), and the magazine's offices at East Twentythird Street were just a few blocks east of Madison Square and the Henshawes' fictional residence. After their meeting, S. S. McClure invited Cather to visit at "The Homestead," his large house in Ardsley-on-Hudson, Westchester County. Given McClure's personality, by this time he had already probably told Cather the official version of his long, arduous courtship, which might have made the McClures' life appear even more perfect. Upon arrival, though, Cather's romantic image would have been somewhat de- flated when she met Hattie McClure, who, like Myra, was a rather short, plump woman (see fig. 6). Possibly counterbalancing her disappointment, however, was Cather's discovery that the Mc- Clures had as a houseguest none other than Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson; like the Henshawes, the McClures associated with famous, artistic people. Cather must have realized even then that she had begun to penetrate the ranks of the Eastern publishing and artistic world, which she viewed as the most glamorous available to her at the time. James Woodress writes that when Cather left after her one-day visit with McClure, "she was in a state of delirious excitement, his captive for life" (Literary Life 171).
Cather would have soon been disavowed of any such idealization of the McClures, however, when she came back to New York in April 1906 to work at McClure's Magazine. After all, this was only weeks before McClure's leading staff members walked out on the "Chief" on May 10 to protest not only his harebrained business schemes, but also his increasingly outrageous behavior with young women; Cather could not have avoided hearing detailed discussions about both of these subjects.
Everyone who knew McClure recognized that he was completely inept regarding money matters. On the surface, McClure's Magazine appeared to be extremely successful. At the time Cather joined its staff in 1906, it enjoyed an extremely high circulation and carried more advertising than almost all the other major monthlies. However, because of overextension and debt, it was running at a loss (Wilson 191). On a personal level, similar to the Henshawes, who were profligate in their spending, the McClures spent far more than they had and were always deeply in debt despite their apparently prosperous lifestyle. McClure, reared in near poverty, liked to play Lord Bountiful, financing European tours for his family and friends and paying for his and his wife's visits to expensive spas for their health. Cather, despite being in charge of the editorial end of the magazine, was well aware of the magazine's financial troubles. As former McClure's Magazine business manager Curtis Brady remembered, on one occasion in 1908 when he and McClure were heatedly discussing a particular financial issue, "Willa Cather was there, as white as a sheet" (Brady to Lyon, 24 April 1957). Early on, too, Cather would have learned that the McClures' magnificent home that she had visited in 1903 was, in fact, only rented.
Potentially more disturbing to Cather's image of McClure was his proclivity toward dalliances with young women. When Cather came to the magazine in 1906, McClure had for a few years been carrying on an affair with a young female poet named Florence Wilkinson, who had seventeen poems published in McClure's Magazine between 1900 and 1904. During an ocean crossing in June 1903, McClure gave Hattie an extravagant marquise ring of twenty-one stones for the twentieth anniversary of their engagement, but during the same trip McClure was evidently carrying on with Wilkinson, who was in their traveling party along with Ida Tarbell(see fig. 7). It was also common knowledge that Wilkinson was not the first to fall prey to McClure (Lyon 261). The staff worried that if word of McClure's affairs leaked out it would compromise the integrity of the magazine, a fear exacerbated by the fact that one day in 1905 Hattie McClure brought to the office a package entitled, "The Shame of S. S. McClure, Illustrated by Letters and Original Documents," sent to her by one Edith Wherry, who was probably MissWilkinson's competitor for S. S. McClure's affections (Lyon 277).
Ida Tarbell in particular was angered at what she saw happening, not only because she worried about the magazine's fate but also because she cared for Hattie McClure. Behind the scenes Tarbell wrote to various staffers and to Hattie herself to try and devise a scheme to put a stop to McClure's philandering. To John S. Phillips, McClure's college friend and business partner, she wrote, "'He's a Mormon, an uncivilized, unmoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums'" (qtd. in Lyon 261). In the year after the disastrous European trip, numerous magazine staffers wrote to Hattie to advise her on how to handle the situation (see Tarbell to Hattie, 12 July 1904; Mary Bisland to Hattie, 22 June 1904; John Phillips to Hattie, 29 June 1904). In July 1904 Tarbell advised Hattie, "Nothing but good can come from your exercising your rights with him," so "You must take the upper hand for Mr. McClure's sake as well as your own" by helping him to "learn to control his whims and desires" (12 July 1904). Like Oswald, then, McClure enjoyed the company of young women, probably for the ways in which they made him feel young and vital; the key question, though, was how their wives and those who loved these men would respond to knowledge about the affairs. Cather, in My Mortal Enemy and in her life, had to deal with the question: How should someone respond to the revelation that romantic love is not always enough to keep both parties committed to a relationship?
Cather has Myra Henshawe react by displacing her romantic dreams onto young people for whom she played matchmaker, and by becoming extremely distrustful of her husband, trying to wound and control him with bitter and sarcastic verbal thrusts. Hattie, on the other hand, appears to have taken a less confrontational approach. Some parties mistook Hattie's reaction for an unwillingness to deal with the truth. Mary Bisland of the McClure's London office wrote to Tarbell on 7 July 1904 that Hattie had "'lived all her life in a world of illusion, has shunned the truth & does not realize in the least the [physical] needs of her husband, who like nearly all men of his gifts is more or less of a sensualist, & is going to gratify that side of his nature at all costs'" (qtd. in Lyon 263). Tarbell, too, in early June 1905 wrote to John Phillips, "'Of course Mrs. McClure is stone blind and deaf and dumb. She makes me wild'" (qtd. in Lyon 275). Nothing, though, could have been further from the truth; Hattie was fully aware of her husband's philandering. She had learned from an 1893 dispute with him, though, that frontal expressions of her distrust were ineffective, merely eliciting from him angry denials and profuse expressions of his undying love for her (see S. S. McClure to Hattie, 11 and 12 January 1893).
It is also possible that what precluded an open break in the relationship was the way Hattie almost idolized her husband (her letters to him throughout her life express her deep, almost spiritual feelings for him). In addition, there is some evidence that she herself felt unworthy of S. S. In 1893 she speculated about the reasons he sought out the attention of other women and wrote to him, "I have very much regretted lately that I am not different for your sake—younger, handsomer, stronger, more brilliant and interesting, and more self-assured" (12 January 1893). Such idolatry and insecurity could have made her wish to disbelieve the facts right in front of her.
Another perspective on the situation, though, was offered many years later by Curtis Brady, who remembered Hattie as "a little bossy" and believed this might have helped push Mc- Clure into his philandering (Brady to Lyon, 5 June 1957). Such a comment distantly echoes Aunt Lydia's comment that "A man never is justified [in having an affair], but if ever a man was . . ." It might also reflect the feelings of some of those staffers who, like Cather, remained loyal to McClure. Eugene Englund has argued that Myra deserves a good deal of the blame for her marriage's sorry state (126), and the same might be said for Hattie. If Hattie had felt in some way responsible for her husband's womanizing, it is possible that her guilt would have led her to avoid confronting him.
Yet Hattie's more significant motivation for remaining married to her adulterous husband, forgiving him, and attempting to reform him can be traced to her religious beliefs. She believed S. S. was her cross to bear, sent by God as a test of her devotion. In one letter to him she wrote that he might think of her "as exercising a noble vocation in relation to you. God has given me to you as your guardian angel." She then told him: [L]ove of my heart, I know of [sic] long time now, that it is not the natural thing for you to take such a long journey in solitude. I know that when a man is known to desire a female companion and to entertain her generously, he can always have one. But God has not given your personal attractions or your power thro [sic] money to have them used in degrading indulgences, or in buying the personal honor of women, corrupting their consciences and staining their reputations. Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation. Take care of these very things, that you may tender your account to your Lord with joy and not with grief. (1 September 1904) She continues: "In quietness and confidence is my strength. Say, rather, that I am proving my faith by my works; for God bids me speak thus." After citing numerous biblical passages, Hattie exhorts her husband: "Oh, precious, weary one! Oh, that He may indeed love and sustain, and cheer and enlighten you through me, the one he has chosen and ordained for this dear task!" This letter represents the most explicit statement Hattie made to S. S. on this matter; in general, Hattie used indirect methods to restrain S. S., putting into practice what Deborah LindsayWilliams argues Cather learned in writing McClure's autobiography: that "invisibility, or apparent invisibility . . . [can be] a mode of power" (29). Such a strategy evoked Ida Tarbell's admiration: "You are able to command him in a degree which amazes me. . . . You are able to be so kind with your firmness" (12 July 1904). Hattie, unlike Myra, clearly achieved some type of inner peace and effective methods of dealing with her "fallen" husband and the dashing of her romantic illusions.
Cather, too, like Myra and Nellie with Oswald, had to make a decision as to how to react to knowledge of McClure's romantic escapades. At least according to Edith Lewis, she apparently tried to overlook them. Lewis writes that "To the end of her stay at McClure's, Willa Cather's relationship with Mr. McClure was without a cloud" (70), adding, "[S]he understood and truly admired him; his faults never blinded her to his great qualities" (71). Further evidence of Cather's desire to believe in McClure's integrity is seen in the way she refused for some time to view as credible the stories circulating about McClure's affairs with young women. After the breakup of the McClure's staff in 1906, Cather remained ever loyal, dismissing rumors about the Chief's affairs, seeing him as a kindly man. As Elizabeth Sergeant recalls, "it was clear that she regarded the 'walk-out' as disloyal to McClure" (39). Possibly the strongest indication of Cather's willingness to accept McClure, warts and all, was her complicity in reproducing for McClure's autobiography his version of his courtship and marriage. However, I believe that despite this show of public loyalty, Cather privately could not have avoided being somewhat disillusioned by what she had learned of her boss and father figure.
Ten years after she last sees the Henshawes in New York, Nellie encounters them again, this time in an unnamed city on the West Coast. There she is moved to pity the Henshawes for their pathetic situation. Even before Nellie discovers that the man who lives in the apartment next to hers is Oswald Henshawe, she pities him: "an old man, a gentleman, living in this shabby, comfortless place, cleaning his neckties of a Sunday morning and humming to himself . . . it depressed me unreasonably" (559). Nellie soon learns that Oswald had lost his high-status position with the railroad during its "reorganization" (560), and ever since that time they had lived what Woodress calls "a modern, rootless existence" (Literary Life 380), "wandering about among the cities of the Pacific coast" (My Mortal Enemy 560). Money is tight, for Oswald is currently working in "a humble position, poorly paid, with the city traction company" (565). At least initially, Nellie believes Oswald is poor in spirit as well as in pocket: "not more than sixty, but he looked much older. He had the tired, tired face of one who has utterly lost hope" (561).
In contrast, despite her confinement to a wheelchair, Myra at first appears to Nellie to have retained her indomitable spirit. Nellie observes, "I was delighted. She was . . . she was herself, Myra Henshawe! I hadn't expected anything so good . . . she looked much less changed than Oswald" (561). As Nellie comes to know her better, however, she realizes that Myra has changed a great deal. For one thing, Myra now, more than ever, greatly regrets having married Oswald and traded money for love. Frustrated at not possessing the financial means to insulate herself from the noisy upstairs neighbors, Myra tells Nellie, "Oh, that's the cruelty of being poor; it leaves you at the mercy of such pigs! Money is a protection, a cloak; it can buy one quiet, and some sort of dignity" (564). A short time later Myra blames financial poverty for the failure of her marriage, telling Oswald, "We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away" (567).
Nellie, a romantic herself through much of the novel, is sobered by Myra's additional comment to her, "People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were. . . . A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can't forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that's it. . . . In age we lose everything, even the power to love" (574). Myra now spends her days looking to the past, both rescripting it and examining it in an attempt to understand how she ended up in her current state. Oswald fondly remembers the days when they were happy and in love, but Myra will not allow him this, telling him (in front of Nellie): "We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world" (567). Myra a short time later says to Nellie about Oswald, in a disparaging tone, "He's a sentimentalist, always was; he can look back on the best of those days when we were young and loved each other, and make himself believe it was all like that. It wasn't. I was always a grasping, worldly woman; I was never satisfied" (573). In a final, chilling comment on her marriage, Myra plaintively asks herself, with Nellie overhearing, "Why must I die like this, alone with My Mortal Enemy?" (577).
Living without her health, her husband's love, or enough money to provide comfort, Myra turns to the Catholic religion that she had walked away from when she left her uncle so many years before. She accepts frequent visits from Father Fay and clings to her crucifix, at one point revealing why she takes great solace in religion: "Religion is different from everything else; because in religion seeking is finding" (576). Thus, in contrast to her own life, it is an arena free from potential disappointment. Myra's planned death is a highly spiritual one: they find her body "wrapped in her blankets, leaning against the cedar trunk, facing the sea. . . . the ebony crucifix was in her hands" (579).
Meanwhile Oswald, during Myra's final illness, is buoyed by the attentions of a young, eighteen-year-old female reporter who has "respectful admiration" for him (569). Nellie "could see that he got great refreshment from her. Her questions woke pleasant trains of recollection, and her straightforward affection was dear to him" (575). Furthermore, as Nellie observes, "her admiration was undoubtedly a help to him. It was very pretty and naïve. Perhaps that was one of the things that kept him up to the mark in his dress and manner. Among people he never looked apologetic or crushed" (569).
After Myra's death, Oswald moves on, this time to Alaska, where, he tells Nellie, a steamship company has a place for him. He explains, "I have always wanted to go, and now there is nothing to hold me" (580). Clearly, Oswald is ready to continue his restless journey. He contradicts Myra's version of events by encouraging Nellie to do as he does: "Remember her [Myra] as she was when you were with us on Madison Square, when she was herself, and we were happy. Yes, happier than it falls to the lot of most mortals to be" (580).
Michael Murphy has criticized Oswald for the way he "tries to avoid the present," arguing that "Cather uses him to embody the pathetic lure of the idealized past, and Myra to shatter his illusions" ("Mortal Affirmation" 47). Emmy Stark Zitter, too, faults Oswald for tenaciously hanging on to a "romantic male view of life" (296), arguing that "Nellie seems to accept Myra Henshawe's view that her husband Oswald's romanticized version of life and youth and love . . . is actually deceitful and dangerous to the potential female author" (296). Susan Rosowski has further argued that "The most chilling testimony of the trap provided by the romantic myth is Oswald's denial of his wife's human, and therefore, temporal reality," specifically her illness (147).
Yet in fact, Cather, instead of forcing the reader to choose either Myra's or Oswald's way of dealing with the past and present, creates an approach that synthesizes their personal strategies. After all, the reader must recognize that Myra, the supposedly "present-minded" one of the pair, is crippled by her fixation on the past (hence the wheelchair) and is thus incapable of either enjoying the present or moving forward into the future. In the end Nellie comes to grudgingly admit that there is something admirable in Oswald's ways of dealing with the past: remember it as you wish, but don't dwell on it or let it weigh you down. He possesses what Nellie terms "indestructible constancy . . . almost indestructible youth" (580), which will allow him to carry on despite the burden of past mistakes. When he realizes that the romantic myth of complete fulfillment in one other person is just that, a myth, he "fell"—but does not stay down. He is reconciled with his past, which enables him to fully function in the present—fully cognizant of his wife's illness—and make plans for the future. Mildred Bennett has posited that Oswald at the end of the novel "has only the past. He has no present or future with Myra" ("Myra's Marriage" 18). However, just because Oswald has only the past with Myra, the object of his youthful idolization, this does not mean he has no present or future at all; at the very end he actually feels liberated from the past (Myra) and leaves for Alaska. Nellie even goes so far as to defend Oswald's right to his relationship with the past. After Myra remembers the painful nights she had spent waiting for Oswald's letters to come so many years before and makes disparaging remarks about the past, Nellie "murmured" (573): "Then I wonder why you are sometimes so hard on him now" (573). In response, Myra curtly asks her not to visit her any more.
Cather does not portray Oswald's departure as wholly worthy of celebration, however. After all, there is no sense that his new position in Alaska represents the fulfillment of any dream; it is simply another place to go. At the same time, Cather, through Nellie, recognizes the danger of being too much like Myra, for as she says, "Violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves. . . . against themselves and all their idolatries" (577). I believe Cather, too, wished to formulate a relationship with the past that did not take such a violent turn. What she sought was a peaceful reconciliation with her romanticization of the past that would allow her to embrace the reality of the present and future.
When Cather saw McClure in Washington Square Park in 1924 and heard about his situation, she must have pitied him much as Nellie did the Henshawes on the West Coast. By 1924, the McClures' life was a shambles. Various reorganizations of McClure's Magazine had left S. S. in a greatly diminished position; at this time, "S. S. was merely the desk editor: [Moody] Gates made all editorial decisions, large and small, and no one took care of business and advertising except to watch over and growl at every dollar S. S. spent" (Lyon 394). This job afforded the McClures barely enough to live on. In 1921 McClure had written to Hattie, "Unless I can get a new magazine business . . . all the rest of my life will be spent in a hand-to-mouth struggle, with what money I earn going through a sieve" (qtd. in Lyon 390), and this is precisely what happened. In a poignant, handwritten note at the bottom of a typed letter to his wife in November 1924, McClure wrote: "Go easy on money!" (13 November 1924).
Furthermore, the McClures had no place they could call a home. S. S. had spent a restless life dedicated to keeping on the move, going from city to city and country to country in search of fresh ideas and new opportunities. Unfortunately, in his old age he had ended up with no real home at all. During the early 1920s, Hattie was living with her sister in a small cottage in Brookfield Center, Connecticut, taking in a boarder to make ends meet; in October 1924 she had only fifty dollars in the bank (see Hattie to S. S. McClure, 22 October 1924). McClure himself lived at the Majestic Hotel on West Seventy-second Street in New York City and spent most of his days at the Union League Club. The pathos of their situation is evident in a letter S. S. wrote to Hattie in 1924: "'I am so ashamed & sorry that I havent [sic] a home for you!'" (qtd. in Lyon 400). The situation was so bleak that around this time S. S. contemplated suicide, telling his wife, "I would rather die than to go on in this hopeless fashion," adding, "I tell you I have got to the point of breaking. I wake up in the night in despair. I don't wonder at what my brother Robert [who committed suicide] did" (letter, 28 July 1924). Significantly, just around the time Cather was meeting McClure in Washington Square Park, the McClures resolved that to save expenses, Hattie would move in with him at the Majestic Hotel (fig. 8). After the quiet and serenity of a country cottage, Hattie probably, like Myra did, found herself greatly bothered by the noises of a city apartment building.
Another similarity with Myra is that Hattie in 1924 was in very poor health. For years she had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and, like Myra, frequently needed a wheelchair to move around (fig. 9). Hattie would not die until 1929, but judging by her letters, she became quite devoted in her later years to Congregationalism, the religion of her youth. This is especially evident in a letter she wrote to S. S. just a few months before her death (and thus of course unknown to Cather when she wrote My Mortal Enemy): "Many powerful friends have prayed with me for you. Our Father says to you, 'Son, thou art ever with me, all that I have is thine. Your Heavenly Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him'" (qtd. in "Impressive Services for Mrs. M'Clure"). Her return to the church is also shown by her funeral being held in Galesburg at the Central Congregational Church. However, the religious schism between the couple continued even after death; due probably to her husband's intervention, a Presbyterian minister presided over the funeral ("Impressive Services").
Like Oswald, S. S. McClure, up until his death in 1949, greatly enjoyed his memories of the happier, glory years of the past, as seen in various newspaper and radio interviews. He, too, was undoubtedly buoyed by attention from reporters and the credit he often received for having "invented" the newspaper syndicate and having been a pioneer of cheap magazines. And, like Oswald, McClure especially enjoyed the admiration of—and requests for advice from—young women. Willa Cather had been one of those women many years before, and his later meetings with her always had a positive effect on him. Edith Lewis remembers that when McClure had worked with Cather he "found in her something which heightened his pleasure in his magazine—which gave him back his old youthful excitement and pride in being an editor, and made him feel that the game was worth while" (71). Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant also observed, many years later, that "Their Midwest voices harmonized, their seething inner forces supplemented each other. There was an inspirational quality about the dynamic unspoiled assistant that kept the older editor afloat on his sea of discovery" (39). Even on his deathbed, when he learned that a biography of Cather was being planned, he envisioned a much younger Cather and offered to help, saying to Lewis, "'She was wonderful—a wonderful girl!'" (qtd. in Lewis 73).
Yet, although McClure remembered the past and enjoyed telling about it, like Oswald he did not let it cripple his present or confine him. As Woodress accurately notes, McClure "was always the incurable optimist" ("Pre-eminent Magazine Genius" 191), and he always found things to do, whether it was a new book project, a speaking tour, or investigative travel abroad. Cather was quite familiar with McClure's way of dealing with the past, for Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant noted that a passage in McClure's autobiography in which McClure "abruptly" left behind his past self and "decided to live in the present," with "hardly . . . a farewell look," "might have come out of a novel" by Cather (125). Cather must have sensed in 1924 that if and when Hattie died, S. S. would not fold but would instead carry on. If a steamship company had offered him a position in Alaska, he probably would have taken it.
The most striking difference between the Henshawes and the McClures (besides the fact that the McClures had children), is that Hattie until the end of her life continued to express her love for her husband in their private letters (see, for instance, her letter of 24 June 1924). It is unknown whether she harbored bitterness toward S. S. and regrets about the past decisions that had led to their poverty and rootlessness. But Cather, of course, could not have known the inner life of this couple in 1925 when she began to write My Mortal Enemy; she would have seen only its pathetic exterior and speculated on the basis of what she observed.
What difference, then, does it make in our interpretation of My Mortal Enemy and our understanding of Cather's life and professional development to know the probable real-life models for the Henshawes, Aunt Lydia, John Driscoll, and Nellie Birdseye? Chiefly, I believe, such knowledge serves to confirm and support many previous hypotheses and suppositions about the meaning of this novel and what Cather was going through at this point in her life.
As we have seen, to a great extent Willa Cather's relationship with S. S. McClure and his wife clearly went through the first three stages that Nellie Birdseye went through with the Henshawes: idealization, disillusionment, and pity. But this was not to be Cather's final attitude toward her mentor and friend, S. S. McClure. Susan Rosowski has insightfully argued that Nellie Birdseye in the final section of the novel "moves beyond the simplistic romanticism of her youth and the subsequent, equally simplistic disillusionment of her adolescence to a complex attitude of human understanding" (145). The same was true, I believe, for Cather with McClure. The ways in which Cather portrays Oswald's and Myra's attitudes toward the past supports Michael Murphy's contention that Cather "does not reject the present" but does "reject both that unreal present devoid of a past, and that nostalgic clinging to a past which excludes full acceptance of the present" (81). In a similar way, Cather came to view both Hattie's and S. S. McClure's relationship with the past as worthy of emulation, and I believe she wanted to apply this lesson not only to her relationship with him but also with other idols of her past. In 1925 Cather, like Nellie, wished—and needed—to break free of certain idolatries of her past yet also to reconcile with them and not feel angry about how they had disappointed her; it is this reconciliation that Cather was seeking as she wrote My Mortal Enemy.
Cather could have easily, like Myra, become bitter toward McClure and resentful of the way he had stifled her career, consuming herself with "what ifs" about the past. But Cather clearly did not want to be like Myra, possessing a "violent nature" that, in turning against her idolatries, destroyed herself. Instead, she found a way to reconcile her idol and her past with him with his reality in the present, so that, unlike Myra, she would be able to move forward and not be alone—both physically and mentally—with her memories of him at the end of her life. She, like Nellie, eventually "reach[ed] a perspective of understanding and compassion" (146). Even after she psychologically broke S. S. McClure's spell on her with My Mortal Enemy, she continued to show her affection for him: her 1931 subscription to Ida Tarbell's fund to support him and her public embrace of him on stage in 1944, when she and McClure both received awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, clearly indicate her warm feelings. And if anyone had challenged McClure's right to his own version of the past or criticized him for his affairs with various women, Cather, like Nellie, would undoubtedly have defended him.
Yet Cather would never again be weighed down by McClure's view of her as someone better suited to journalism than to artistic fiction. After writing My Mortal Enemy, Cather came out from under McClure's shadow and could begin to write, as Emmy Stark Zitter has argued, from "a clear-eyed, female perspective" (296). Cather must have taken great pleasure in writing the scene where Nellie, a teacher as Cather had been, negatively responds to Myra's suggestion that she become a journalist: "I hate journalism. I know what I want to do, and I'll work my way out yet" (My Mortal Enemy 562). Cather was thus not what Woodress called her, "his [McClure's] captive for life" (Literary Life 171). Others might have been blinded by their idolization of S. S. McClure and been among those whom Cather envisioned would have gone to the stake for him, but Cather would not be. JamesWoodress once wrote that My Mortal Enemy "seems to have produced a final catharsis" (Willa Cather: Her Life and Art 216) but was unable to describe its true nature; I believe that Cather's actual catharsis in writing this novel was to shake loose from her idolization of S. S. McClure.
Cather, like Nellie, thus found a way to live in a fallen world. Her "knowledge" of the McClures' true relationship was akin to Nellie's realizations about the Henshawes. But instead of portraying a character crippled by her recognition of human, carnal sinfulness and seeing transgressors solely as sinners unworthy of consideration, Cather advocates taking a more understanding and forgiving path. People may "sin," she shows in My Mortal Enemy, but one should never preclude the possibility of redemption. Quite appropriately Myra, who feels herself a sinner, dies, according to Nellie, at Gloucester's cliff after dawn, which Myra had described as "such a forgiving time" (566), when "all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution" (567). This passage implies that people should be judged not just by a few incidents in their lives but in their entirety. S. S. McClure committed adultery, but he was also a brilliant editor and hard-working provider for his family; possibly as a result of this realization, Cather encourages the reader to remember that the philandering Oswald faithfully nurses his wife, even despite her scathing remarks to him. As Oswald says to Myra in front of Nellie, one must not try to revise the past because of how things turned out but instead accept that past and work from there. In reply to Myra's exclamation of "We've thrown our lives away," he says, "You don't mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this" (567). Such a comment echoes Edith Lewis's description of Cather's attitude toward McClure, cited earlier: "[S]he understood and truly admired him; his faults never blinded her to his great qualities" (71). S. S. McClure, like Oswald, frequently reminisced about the happy early years of his marriage with Hattie, but he also recognized the present. He wrote to her in February 1924 about how, forty-seven years before, she had helped him ("a half-famished student") and now, "that student, grown to be an old man of 64 writes you, thanking you for such vital help. . . . Had I not got you, my life would have been an obscure failure" (17 February 1924). Cather could just as easily have written such words to S. S. McClure.
My Mortal Enemy, I believe, does not represent a wholly pessimistic Cather. Instead, it shows her in the process of trying to reconcile what she recognized as the overly romanticized aspects of her past with the reality of her present. This process would afford her the artistic maturity necessary to write her later works and to follow her own dreams, just as Nellie Birdseye is determined to do. At long last, Cather had achieved a healthy relationship with her "mortal enemy," her propensity to overidealize the past. She, like Nellie, was ready to move on.