In books and articles devoted to Willa Cather's fiction, Ernest Hemingway's name typically appears in connection with just one work—Cather's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel One of Ours, published in 1922. As Cather scholars rarely fail to mention, Hemingway hated this controversial and widely misunderstood text, a reaction he bitingly expressed to Edmund Wilson in a letter dated 25 November 1923. After stating his disappointment over the commercial failure of E. E. Cummings's The Enormous Room, Hemingway lashed out at One of Ours, one of the more successful titles from the previous year, and contemptuously described its "big sale[s]" and hopelessly inflated reputation. Then, in perhaps his most notorious critical witticism (at least among Cather aficionados), Hemingway sarcastically belittled the portrayal of war in One of Ours, especially the battle scene in the penultimate chapter: "Wasn't that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere" (Selected Letters 105).
Cather scholars have never forgiven Hemingway for this blatantly chauvinistic attack, and, as if to keep their readers ever mindful of Hemingway's ignominy, they have included his embarrassing diatribe in most of the book chapters and articles devoted to One of Ours. For example, in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, James Woodress highlights Hemingway's attack within his discussion of male critics who "did not read carefully to see that Cather had no illusions about the war" (326). Book-length studies of Cather by Susan J. Rosowski, Hermione Lee, Joseph Urgo, Guy Reynolds, and Janis Stout also cite Hemingway's remarks. And in articles specifically focused on One of Ours, Hemingway's contemptuous assessment remains a popular source of indignation: it appears, sometimes quoted in full, in nine of the fourteen critical essays published on One of Ours since 1980 (including, I should point out, my own essay devoted to that novel). In short, among admirers of Willa Cather, that "poor woman [who] had to get her war experience somewhere," Hemingway has much to answer for.
Unfortunately, the attention lavished upon Hemingway's attack on One of Ours has only rarely led to deeper, more sustained comparisons of these two major American authors, both of whom arguably produced their best work in the 1920s, and both of whom were profoundly affected by the First World War. Glen A. Love's masterful 1990 essay, "The Professor's House: Cather, Hemingway, and the Chastening of American Prose Style," remains virtually alone in its side-by-side treatment of the two writers; few scholars of American literature have followed its lead. At first sight, the reasons for this scholarly indifference seem obvious. Separated by age and gender, markedly dissimilar life experiences, and (at least on the surface) sharply contrasting artistic sensibilities, Hemingway and Cather never met, never corresponded, and never acknowledged even the slightest technical or thematic kinship. Indeed, neither artist apparently found the other particularly interesting. Michael Reynolds's Hemingway's Reading places only two Cather volumes, along with One of Ours, in Hemingway's library, and there is no evidence that Hemingway read them. As indicated on the publisher's bill, Pauline Pfieffer, Hemingway's second wife, ordered the copy of A Lost Lady that became part the Hemingway family's book collection in the late 1930s, and she may also have been respon-sible for the copy of Shadows on the Rock that remained in the couple's Key West home after Hemingway packed for Cuba in 1940. Moreover, Hemingway's correspondence contains only one other noteworthy reference to a Cather novel. In November 1923, just a few days after blasting One of Ours, Hemingway did some Catherizing of his own when, in a letter to Gertrude Stein, he facetiously referred to the transatlantic liner Antonia, on which he and his family had just booked their passage to Europe, as My Ántonia (Baker 119). Whether Hemingway had read My Ántonia is unclear. And so is the meaning of his joke. Is the title intended as a compliment? An expression of contempt? Or neither—simply an innocent play on words?
The record of Cather's responses to Hemingway is similarly inconclusive. In 1932 she praised Death in the Afternoon, the only Hemingway title she is known to have read, when recommending the book in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan (Stout, Calendar 169). Yet Cather's perceptions of Hemingway's work, and the currents in American culture with which it had become identified, were not always so transparent. A more ambiguous response to Hemingway appears in one of her letters to Ferris Greenslet, her former editor at Houghton Mifflin. Approached in 1936 by the English artist Stephen Tennant to help place a volume of erotic drawings with a reputable American publisher, a task she knew to be hopeless, Cather turned to Greenslet for assistance in explaining to Tennant the mysteries of American morality. As Woodress paraphrases, "She found it hard to explain why Americans were indecent in some things and drew the line at others. She thought Americans wanted Hemingway and the four-letter words but without any perfume" (467). Hardly an advocate of verisimilitude carried to the point of crudity, Cather perhaps intended this passing reference to Hemingway as something of a jab. Or perhaps not. Although "four-letter words" never appear in her own work (much to the detriment of One of Ours, where a good dose of profanity might have improved the novel's implausible rendering of soldier's speech), Cather was not a prude. Nor did she advocate the kind of reactionary censorship to which Hemingway fell victim in 1929, when authorities in Boston intercepted and impounded the serialized version of A Farewell to Arms contained in Scribner's. Like Hemingway's scattered references to Cather, Cather's remarks on the younger writer simply do not add up to a consistent attitude or judgment.
Thus, for critics interested primarily in literary influences or the interplay of artistic personalities, the Hemingway-Cather connection—or rather disconnection—has little to recommend it and seems to lead nowhere. However, for scholars seeking to understand the impact of World War I on American literature of the 1920s, there is, I contend, a great deal to gain by considering these two writers together. Although Hemingway may have loathed One of Ours, by 1925 Cather's vision of the war to end all wars had essentially come to resemble his own: by suggesting that four years of unprecedented carnage and destruction had hopelessly fractured modern history and crippled the means by which traditional narratives interpreted the past, Cather's novel The Professor's House uncannily dealt with many of the same themes as Hemingway's short-story collection In Our Time, published the same year. Moreover, as Love has demonstrated, by the mid-1920s Hemingway and Cather were in general agreement (though perhaps without knowing so) regarding the aesthetics of serious fiction: both produced narratives rich in suggestive nuances and implied meanings (while maintaining an appearance of directness and transparency that separated their work from that of high modernists such as Joyce or Woolf); both experimented with the intentional removal of important information from the text—what Susan Beegel has called, in regard to Hemingway, a "craft of omission." Indeed, Hemingway's famous description of his writing as an iceberg with nine-tenths of the meaning concealed below the surface, invisible to all but the most astute reader, sounds curiously like Cather's emphasis, established in her 1923 essay "The Novel Démeublé," on the crucial importance of "the thing not named." Thus, if we set aside Hemingway's infamous critique of One of Ours and look beyond the profound experiential and temperamental differences that separate these writers, the two emerge as fellow modernists who reached many of the same conclusions about World War I and whose methods of storytelling proceeded from similar assumptions about the nature of their craft. As I will demonstrate through a comparison of two of their finest works of the 1920s, these two literary icons are hardly antithetical in either their choice of subject or their technique.
Hemingway's In Our Time and Cather's The Professor's House stand out from other literary responses to World War I through, among other things, the subtlety with which they evoke the conflict as a central subject. Shared aesthetic values—articulated first by Cather, then by Hemingway—account for this subtlety. In "The Novel Démeublé" (composed, ironically enough, while she worked on One of Ours, a book that many readers regard as unnecessarily lengthy or "over-furnished"), Cather expressed impatience with the "mere verisimilitude" (40) achieved by authors, such as Sinclair Lewis, who cluttered their texts with lengthy descriptions of physical settings and cultural milieus. "High quality" in fiction, she insisted, stems less from what an author states than from what is left unsaid—from "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (41). In other words, the fictional world that mattered most to Cather was not the one that a writer builds, block by block, through the actual content of the narrative, but the one that a reader creates by engaging with the text, by responding to the work's "mood" or "emotional aura," as opposed to the mere things it describes, and then actively filling in what an author has omitted or only obliquely suggested (41).
Hemingway offered no such manifesto; even his oft-cited description of his work as an iceberg is fairly brief and lacks the theoretical complexity of Cather's arguments. However, when Hemingway looked back on his early career decades later in A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he recounted the development of his craft along lines strikingly similar to Cather's. Consider, for example, the process of unfurnishing that Hemingway describes in his account of writing "Out of Season," one of the stories in In Our Time. In paradoxical language reminiscent of "The Novel Démeublé," Hemingway explained that he had removed the "real end" of the story—in which Peduzzi, the drunken fishing guide, commits suicide—based on the "new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted [it] and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more thanthey understood" (75). Make people feel something more than they understood—here Hemingway sounds very much like Cather by describing, in his own way, the elevation of an "emotional aura" above "mere verisimilitude." At the same time, his remarkable reference to the absent suicide as the "real ending" places the artistic truth of his story beyond the actual words on the page. What is "real" and important in "Out of Season," or any other Hemingway work for that matter, exists only as a kind of phantom signature or shadowy trace—in other words, as "the thing not named."
Hemingway's and Cather's aesthetics of absence and indirection play out on a grand scale in In Our Time and The Professor's House, where each writer establishes the overwhelming and terrifying significance of the Great War by, paradoxically, refusing to address that significance head-on. In both texts, the horror of a global conflagration that claimed eight million lives (and prepared the way for a global pandemic that claimed twenty-one million more) is simply a given. By moving the war out of direct sight—into the lower mass of the iceberg, if you will, or into the shadowy subtext implied by Cather's phrase "the thing not named"—these works imply that the defining event of early-twentieth-century history is too monstrous, too nihilistic in its implications, to be faced directly.
In In Our Time, Hemingway locates the experience of war at the very center of his age, an age characterized by discord and inhumanity. Yet with the exception of a few brief, vivid glimpses of the front line—these include the snapshot images of German soldiers "potted" while climbing over a barricade at Mons, drunken French soldiers on their way to another bloodbath, and Nick Adams lying critically wounded somewhere on the Italian front—the war enters the text primarily through its effects. We do not see the battles that blasted the protagonist of "Soldier's Home" out of "God's kingdom," out of the cultural frame where he once contentedly posed among a phalanx of fraternity brothers. By the same token, the traumatic events that prompt Nick Adams to seek refuge in the rituals of fishing and backpacking remain, apart from that quick glimpse of the Italian front, submerged within the text. In short, although the neomasculine "Papa" might not appreciate a description of his work drawn from an essay by a "poor woman" who lacked direct war experience, Cather's musings on "the thing not named" in "The Novel Démeublé" fit the dynamics of Hemingway's text with surprising accuracy: for much of In Our Time, World War I is indeed "felt upon the page without being named there"; it is "an overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it" (41). Only upon a second or third reading does the war's often nearly invisible ubiquity begin to stand out. Throughout the volume, scattered details foreshadow or echo the cataclysm—the "old ruin" that Nick and Majorie row past in "The End of Something"; the threadbare "military coat" that Peduzzi, apparently a down-and-out veteran of the Italian theater, wears in "Out of Season"; the ominous "war monument" that faces the couple's hotel room in "Cat in the Rain"; the Argonne Forest-like stretch of burnt timber that Nick crosses in "Big Two-Hearted River." Even the titles of stories set in prewar Michigan seem ominously, if indirectly, anticipatory of Nick Adams's war experience: "Indian Camp" (emphasis mine), "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," "The Battler." Camps, endings, blows, and battles— World War I reaches into virtually every corner of Hemingway's text, albeit in an often ghostly and half-perceptible fashion.
The conflict Hemingway obliquely signifies throughout his collection of stories and vignettes plays a similarly central—and similarly phantomlike—role in The Professor's House, especially in the novel's complex treatment of historical epistemology. In his influential essay "The Professor's House and the Issues of History," David Stouck confines the significance of the Great War in Cather's narrative primarily to Outland's tragic metamorphosis from a romantic archaeologist who interprets humanity as part of nature to an industrial researcher who seeks domination, via technological "progress," over his environment. For Stouck, Outland's death on the western front, a gaseous inferno created through the very science that Outland venerates, is a fitting end for a young man who forsakes the mesa, with its fusion of people and place, for a vacuous modernity bent on separating the two: "When Tom takes his place in the modern world he becomes a scientist; he develops a theory of space that leads to the invention of the Outland engine. Then he is killed in a war that is the product of modern technology and dubious morality" (209).
Yet the conflict that destroys St. Peter's star student figures in a great deal more of the novel than Stouck's reading suggests. For example, the paucity of references to St. Peter's post-1915 scholarship—to anything, in fact, beyond his hobbylike editing of the Outland archaeological journal, a book that no one seems likely to read (or even publish)—implies that St. Peter's commitment to historical research has died, along with his protégé, in the trenches of Flanders. In this way, Cather registers, albeit indirectly, the sense of disenchantment and lassitude felt by many European and North American historians in the wake of a conflict whose immense scale, pervasive irrationality, and sheer monstrousness appeared to defy an orderly reconstruction. Moreover, through the mutual hostility that she establishes between St. Peter and his archrival, Horace Langtry, Cather addresses an intellectual fissure, one widened by four years of unthinkable slaughter, whose destabilizing effects reached into many American history departments in the early twentieth century—namely, the growing division between historians who aspired, as St. Peter does, to recover the truth about the past and those, such as Langtry, who viewed history as an infinite set of arbitrary constructs. Although Langtry's willingness to accept a report on Tom Sawyer as historical research on the Missouri Compromise is consistent with his shameless pandering to students, his academic shenanigans also point to a theoretical posture at odds with St. Peter's more traditional sense of his calling. By flippantly equating the version of truth offered by works of fiction with that provided through a historian's painstaking, albeit subjective, examination of verifiable sources, Langtry is essentially deconstructing his own discipline. As Peter Novick observes in his study of the "objectivity question" and American history departments, antifoundational notions of history appeared on American campuses well before 1914; however, the vast cultural and epistemological upheaval connected with World War I was critical to their proliferation. In short, then, the war does far more in Cather's text than kill off St. Peter's protégé. A historical conundrum, seemingly defying explanation or reconstruction, the war haunts St. Peter both personally and professionally, undermining his passion for research while reinforcing the postmodern trends within his discipline.
The one passage in The Professor's House where St. Peter's thoughts turn directly to the war signals the conflict's importance on several additional levels. While musing over his lost opportunity to visit Paris in Outland's company, a scheme interrupted by the German invasion of Belgium, the professor visualizes the Delacroix monument in the Luxembourg Gardens and offers a terse but shattering assessment of how the war to end all wars has, in actuality, all but ended Western civilization: "He had wanted . . . to stand with [Outland] before the monument to Delacroix and watch the sun gleam on the bronze figures—Time, bearing away the youth who was struggling to snatch his palm—or was it to lay a palm? Not that it mattered. It might have mattered to Tom, had not chance, in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (261). In just a few brief phrases, Cather's world-weary protagonist consigns to oblivion an entire generation ("all youth"), Western notions of honor and courage (suggested by "palms"), and any sense of stability or authority within the discipline of history ("Time itself"). Moreover, he attributes the origins of this "catastrophe" not to historical forces that can be understood in terms of cause and effect, but to random "chance." As this chilling passage intimates, the Great War has left the professor's cultured view of the past, and of the civilization to which he contributes through his scholarly writings, as shattered and barren as the shell-churned battlefields of the western front.
At the same time, Cather's reference to the war nearly sweeping away "Time itself" seems closely tied to the growing sense of temporal dislocation that we see in St. Peter. How Cather's historian lives within time is a central concern in the novel. For most of his fifty-two years, St. Peter has moved through life in a predominantly linear and straightforwardly sequential fashion. The "Kansas boy" becomes a sophisticated and cosmopolitan adult. From an apparently contented bachelorhood, St. Peter slips into an equally contented marriage, then fatherhood. His career follows an orderly progression as well. Although a professional student of the past, he has existed largely in the present and the future, absorbed in his writing and research, in production as opposed to retrospection. One volume of his magnum opus follows upon another—almost, one might say, like clockwork.
By the opening of The Professor's House, however, St. Peter's internal clock has, if you will, begun to run backwards—a psychological phenomenon intimately tied up with the death of Tom Outland and, by extension, the "great catastrophe" in which he is destroyed. This backward thrust in St. Peter's consciousness begins, innocently enough, with his unwillingness to relinquish his uncomfortable and, it turns out, all-but-lethally-unventilated study. By the end of the novel, however, the implications of the professor's retreat into the past have become more sinister: disengaged from his wife and daughters, who live voraciously in the present, he slips backwards into his preadolescent, "primitive" self, then drifts toward the extinction of all consciousness, coming dangerously close to joining his lost student in the outland of the dead. Fittingly, St. Peter's near suicide at the end of the novel, the culmination of his psychological and temporal retreat from the postwar age, evokes World War I in a manner similar to Hemingway's oblique methods in In Our Time. Stupefied by "gas," a word whose connotations in the context of World War I require little comment, St. Peter becomes half conscious of the storm that rages outside his attic room—of the "the wind increasing in violence" and "things banging and slamming about" (276, emphasis mine). At the moment in the narrative when St. Peter comes closest to death, Cather uses imagery redolent of combat and bombardment to establish further World War I as "the thing not named."
The notoriously broken-backed design of The Professor's House, with its disconcertingly expansive account of "Tom Outland's Story" and staccato-like conclusion, works hand in hand with half-obscured textual details in conveying the violent impact of the war on St. Peter's psyche, an impact analogous to that of the "black" thunderhead that slams into his Victorian foursquare in the scene mentioned above (276). Indeed, it seems hardly coincidental that Cather reserves her most radical departure from conventional novelistic form for a book that focuses on a professional historian, a character who is—or at leastwas—a craftsman of linear plot lines. Mirroring the protagonist's paralyzing indifference to the present, to the postwar, to life without his star student, the narrative plunges us backwards into "Tom Outland's Story"—into the comparatively romantic and promise-filled setting of the American Southwest years before Father Duchene whisks Outland off to Flanders Fields. In other words, the novel's disjointed form, its jarring shift from Hamilton in the early 1920s to New Mexico in the early 1910s and then back again, reflects the way that the Great War has, like a bayonet blade, sliced time into two irrevocably sundered phases—the pre- and the postwar. As much a victim of the conflict as his protégé, whose death St. Peter sometimes regards with envy, Cather's historian lives in a temporal universe that has indeed broken in two. And, to add to the professor's personal and professional disorientation, the event located at the point of breakage between the prewar and the postwar defies historical understanding or recovery; a black hole into which "Time itself" has collapsed, along with "all youth" and "all plumes," the horrors of 1914 to 1918 stand as the ultimate vacuum in a text filled with wastes and nullities.
In much the same way as Cather's novel, Hemingway's In Our Time moves through space and time with alarming abruptness and relegates the Great War (at least explicitly) to a series of terse and cryptic vignettes that, much like St. Peter's equally terse and cryptic reference to the "great catastrophe," underscore the conflict's terrifying resistance to nineteenth-century rationalist conceptions of historical logic or causality. If The Professor's House is about a historian traumatized by the Great War, then Hemingway's book reads like the kind of demented antinarrative that such a historian might write. Indeed, the text seems metaphorically shell shocked. Here the epistemological center of St. Peter's prewar world, within which the professor confidently produced one linear and rational work of historical exegesis after another, truly no longer holds. Perceptual anarchy has been unleashed within the text, a point that quickly becomes clear when we contrast Hemingway's title, with its calm assurance of a definable subject, with the cubist jumble that follows. The volume is called In Our Time, but what exactly, we might ask, isour time? At every turn, the text problematizes its self-declared subject. For example, among the first five Nick Adams stories, which seem to follow a linear chronological order, Hemingway intersperses vignettes inexplicably narrated by Europeans and set amid the battles of the western and Italian fronts, events still distant from Nick's early adventures in Upper Michigan. Whose time, we wonder, is the focus here? And which time—the prewar or the wartime—is the narrative's chief concern?
In the second half of the book, from "Soldier's Home" onward, this scrambling of chronology seems largely absent. Violent shifts in voice and place still occur, but the vignettes, which deal mostly with bullfighting, now appear to be contemporaneous with the short stories they introduce (almost as if Hemingway wished to be inconsistent even in his use of inconsistency). Nevertheless, while generations of Hemingway scholars have posited one formalist interpretation of In Our Time after another, each attempting to tie the book's disparate elements into a cohesive artistic whole, the volume remains defiantly uninterpretable, a seeming mishmash of fragmentary microtexts that never quite form into a coherent mosaic. This is, it seems to me, precisely the point that Hemingway ultimately makes about our time: a universe that accommodates the horrors of a world war simply no longer makes sense; thus, its representation in a conventional narrative form is, at least according to the most avant-garde and openly modernist of Hemingway's works, an impossibility. Far from offering a lucid artistic vision of early-twentieth-century history, Hemingway's text demonstrates that in the aftermath of "the great catastrophe," events are no longer recoverable as part of a coherent, linear progression. World War I, brief glimpses of which rip through Hemingway's text like shrapnel, has blown "Time itself" to pieces.
My main argument has been quite simply that The Professor's House and In Our Time, both of which appeared in 1925, share a number of salient features. In both books, direct discussion of the Great War is relegated to mere snippets of text—that is, St. Peter's sentence-long rumination on "the great catastrophe," a passage that many first-time readers of The Professor's House may miss entirely, and the five snapshot-like sketches of combat, each containing approximately one hundred words, that Hemingway scatters parenthetically amid Nick Adams's prewar experiences in Michigan. At the same time, however, the world-shattering significance of the war seeps outward from these terse passages and, in a fashion at once palpable and vaporous, extends its phantomlike reach to the violent imagery, fragmentary structure, and overall sense of temporal dislocation that characterize both works. What larger conclusions, then, can we draw from this admittedly unorthodox pairing of writers? What do the similarities between The Professor's House and In Our Time offer us in terms of a new interpretive platform from which to explore one of Cather's most intensely analyzed works? And how much further does the artistic kinship between "Papa" and the "poor woman" extend?
Thorough and detailed answers to these questions fall beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, I will offer, by way of conclusion, a tentative road map for the rich interpretive territory—or, if you prefer, "the last good country"—that a more extended comparison of these two writers could open for us. To begin with, the notion that Cather, who was forty-five years old in 1918, shared little in common with members of the so-called lost generation, a notion reinforced by the abundance of scholarship focused on Cather and Edith Wharton (as opposed to, say, Cather and Djuna Barnes or John Dos Passos), requires revision in the light of the thematic and structural similarities that link The Professor's House and In Our Time. Like her professor, Cather did feel increasingly distant from Americans who came of age in the 1910s or 1920s. Indeed, her attitude in this regard hardened. In 1936 she famously claimed to welcome only readers who were "not under forty." However, if I am correct in interpreting The Professor's House as a modernist response to war that enacts the same epistemological breakdown dramatized in Hemingway's short-story collection, then a host of opportunities for additional comparative analysis come into view. When approached as a work of World War I literature, The Professor's House suddenly resembles not only Hemingway's In Our Time but also Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, with its similarly parenthetical treatment of "the great catastrophe," and John Dos Passos's 1919, whose medley of first- and third-person narratives, combined with capsule biographies of American leaders and snippets of newspaper headlines and popular song lyrics, carries to a high-modernist extreme Cather's own experiment with the juxtaposition of disparate blocks of text. Cather sought out relatively few members of the lost generation, and despite her occasional forays into public lecturing (at Bread Loaf and elsewhere) and numerous acts of kindness to younger writers, she did not relish the role of mentor. For the most part, she left the cultivation of new talent to others—to Sherwood Anderson, who helped launch Hemingway's career (as well as Faulkner's), and to Gertrude Stein. Yet as demonstrated in The Professor's House, Cather's artistic vision of World War I was as dark and bitter, and as defiantly modernist, as anything recorded in the works of writers twenty to thirty years her junior. The work of situating her 1925 novel among the canonical texts of the Great War, a task likely to yield further insights into the nature of Cather's modernism, still awaits us.
So too does a more thorough exploration of the thematic affinities shared by Cather and Hemingway—affinities that extend, I believe, well beyond the two works we have considered. As a creator of memorably unconventional male characters, many of whom are tormented (or simply destroyed) by their culture's definition of manliness, Cather would have had little sympathy for the neomasculine Hemingway code hero, whose toughness, superhuman alcoholic capacity, and laconic speech all stand in direct antithesis to the sensitivity, sensual restraint, and verbal yearning of Jim Burden, Claude Wheeler, and Tom Outland. Yet the existential void—or vacuum—that Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry face, while wearing their protective masculine armor, is not so far removed from the dark reality that often breaks through the surface of Cather's deceptively sunlit fiction—a reality of death and inevitable decline, of chaos and oblivion.
Indeed, Cather's work is filled with moments when a fathomless abyss of Hemingway-esque nada suddenly opens up within the narrative. One such moment, for example, occurs in Death Comes for the Archbishop when Latour presses his ear to the floor of Jacinto's mysterious cavern and, in a rare instance of fear, senses an unnameable horror that exists beyond the understanding of his Christian faith. "It is terrible," he tells his guide (218). By the same token, in Shadows on the Rock, Cécile's disastrous visit to the island reveals, as Susan J. Rosowski observes, a degree of darkness and disorder in her world that she has never before suspected (Rosowski 218). The experience sends Cécile running back to her clean, well-lighted place on the rock. And then there is the moment in Sapphira and the Slave Girl when Sapphira's orderly universe, with its seemingly indestructible foundation of racial prestige and power, is suddenly knocked out of kilter: momentarily filled with paranoid anxieties, Sapphira sees her dwelling as a "shattered, treacherous house," as part of "a dream of disaster" (106-7).
Of course, Cather's characters respond to this ever-threatening nada in a quite different fashion from Hemingway's. While Jake Barnes, a lapsed Catholic, braces himself against cosmic meaning-lessness by wearing a stiff upper lip and ordering another drink, Latour vows never to enter a cavern again. Through an assertion of will—part courage, part denial—he chooses to remain within the structures of his faith. Similarly, Cécile finds refuge from the outer horror of the Canadian wilderness not in alcohol or sex (the primary sanctuaries offered Hemingway's young women) but in the meticulous rituals of fine French housekeeping. And Sapphira, whose imperious nature is both admirable and frightening, staves off her "dream of disaster" by seizing a tangible symbol of her aggressively asserted identity—the "clapper bell" with which she summons slaves. Nevertheless, although Cather's characters make different choices than Hemingway's, within texts that often accommodate spirituality and affirmation, both writers periodically acknowledge the same existential dilemma: how to live in a world without absolute meaning, a world broken in two. Further comparison of these two literary icons promises to open new pathways into Cather's textual universe, a place perhaps not so distant from Upper Michigan, wartime Italy, or the Caribbean waters plied by the fisherman Santiago.