In her fictions and elsewhere in her life Cather frequently invoked the landscapes and themes of the American “Western”: the Protean, multimedia genre, rooted in the fantastic inscription of European desires on the American continent and people, which achieved its most self-conscious and finished form in almost exactly the period of Cather’s writing career, from Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 to the midcentury films of John Ford and others. The popular Western of the early twentieth century was a quintessentially modern project, made possible by emergent transportation technologies and large-scale commodity tourism, and by the advent of film, radio, and eventually television. All of these dramatically expanded the reach of and audiences for a new kind of exotic regionalism, one suited to a new age. Moreover, the Western’s pastoral individualism (and its mysterious, ambivalent relation to American indigenes, or “ancient people,” as Cather called them in The Song of the Lark) made it a broadly available site for the expression of vague antimodern anxieties. As an avid tourist, a self-conscious regionalist, a hard-headed commercial writer, and (eventually) a cultural conservative, Cather explored the Western in all these functions.
The Western doesn’t begin with Wister; its antecedents stretch back past Twain and Cooper, perhaps as far as Cabeza de Vaca. But its modern form seems to many of its fans almost the personal invention of Zane Grey, the prolific New York dentistturned-author who wrote about sixty cowboy romances between 1910 and his death in 1939. It is the mirroring of Cather’s and Grey’s careers that concerns me here. At first glance and in their best-known personae, they are almost polar opposites: she an aesthetic minimalist and a representative of beleaguered high culture and good taste, he a popular (and spectacularly successful) purveyor of florid sentimentality. Cather, in her rare public comments on the Zane Grey phenomenon, was scornful. In a May 1925 talk at Bowdoin College, for instance, she observed testily that Grey’s work had displaced Longfellow’s Golden Legend on booksellers’ shelves, and went on to link him to all that was wrong with a modern mass-produced literature responding to debased public demand. Grey’s art, she suggested to her audience, was the chief manifestation of a three-pronged menace to culture itself: the modern popular novel, modern cinema, and the nascent radio show (Bohlke 155). (Grey was by 1925 not only a hugely best-selling novelist but also a major player in Hollywood. Radio and comic strip adaptations of his work were still in the future.) And that autumn she told Fanny Butcher of the Chicago Tribune, speaking of the newly published Professor’s House, that “I could have written [“Tom Outland’s Story”] like a Zane Grey novel, but I would have died of boredom doing it” (O’Connor 238).
Her highbrow disdain is only part of the story, however. Cather appears to have enjoyed the West in its showier popular representations, from the dime novel Life of Jesse James that Jim Burden brings to Nebraska, and from whose pages appears to step the picturesque cowboy Otto Fuchs, scars, high-heeled boots, and all (My Ántonia 4), to her interest in the Rin Tin Tin movie phenomenon of the late 1920s, the high point of which was her meeting the canine celebrity himself on a train crossing New Mexico (Jewell and Stout 0832, 0875). She apparently even had a soft spot for the cultural menace Grey himself, and probably read at least some of his work: only a month after her interview with Butcher, she admitted privately to her friend Harriet Whicher that she had spent a delightful summer roaming in the Southwest and “living like a Zane Grey character” (Jewell and Stout 0797). Most interestingly, while Cather certainly found Grey’s style deplorable and his popularity evidence of the public’s bad taste, she understood, as her comment to Butcher makes clear, that she herself might also be a sort of cowboy writer: no Zane Grey, but a co-habitant of his chosen landscapes and motifs, telling similar stories of idealistic cowpunchers, mysterious mesas, and lost cultures, but telling them differently. In fact, she had at a critical moment in her early career seriously intended a fulllength novel of the Southwest (“The Blue Mesa,” abandoned in 1916 in favor of My Ántonia, as I describe below). Through the late 1920s the romanticized far West made frequent appearances in her work, twice as entire “Western” stories within stories, “The Ancient People” in The Song of the Lark and “Tom Outland’s Story” in The Professor’s House. In the remainder of this essay I explore Grey’s and Cather’s apparently improbable meeting in the literary West, arguing first that both appropriated that landscape’s emerging mythologies to historical and personal purposes that they shared with a host of early-twentieth-century Americans. More specifically, I suggest that through the conventions of the Western they identified and explored a problem with love and sexuality, to which they responded very differently.
Despite their obvious differences, Willa Cather and Zane Grey had much in common. Almost the same age, they were midwesterners who came to New York with big literary dreams shortly after the turn of the century. They were passionate, ambitious self-fashioners: in constructing their public faces, both altered names and ages. Each broke from obscurity to fame following holidays in the Grand Canyon/Four Corners region (Grey between 1907 and 1913, Cather in 1912 and 1914–16), during the national surge of southwestern tourism set in motion by the expansion of the rail lines across New Mexico and Arizona, west-flowing tide that popularized a set of readily reproducible landscapes and emblems: trackless deserts, hidden canyons, sturdy cowboys, hot-blooded Mexicans, taciturn Indians, and so on. Both were struggling to become self-supporting writers, and they reported in letters and journals that these vacations were personally transforming; the subsequent energizing of their careers bears this judgment out. In the 1910s they wrote the emerging iconic West into their novels, while they themselves inhabited the different world of literary New York, where their work was reviewed, kindly or unkindly, by the same reviewers (in Grey’s case, mostly unkindly). Finally, and most important for my purposes here, Grey and Cather shared a profound nostalgia for authentic or uncorrupted experience and feeling, which for each hardened after World War I into social conservatism, a mistrust of the modern world’s practices. Cather regretfully contemplated, in her well-known words, a “world broke[n] in two” (Not Under Forty v), while Grey distrusted a “new order of things . . . a vastly different America” (Code of the West 81). Their discomfort with the present was nothing very unusual, but expressed a broader cultural movement that historian T. J. Jackson Lears identified a generation ago as “antimodernism,” a countercurrent of protest against the rational but soul-starving efficiencies of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century progressive bourgeois American culture. Antimodernism significantly shaped Cather’s and Grey’s encounters with the West: for both of them, as for middle-class Americans generally, the West’s newly minted emblems, popularized in the service of rail-based domestic tourism, came to have therapeutic antimodern value, suggesting as they did strong, accessible (but exotic) alternatives to the debilitations of modernity.
I will approach both authors’ antimodern uses of the West through one of these emblems, the abandoned Anasazi cliff dwellings of the Four Corners region, which both visited and wrote into their centrally important fictions of the mid-1910s. Grey encountered ancient pictographs and burial sites near the Grand Canyon on his first dude ranch expedition of 1907, and he traveled to the more remote cliff cities across the Painted Desert at Betatakin and Keet Seel four years later; these became the setting for the escape and romance of Bern Venters and the “Masked Rider” Bess in his first best-seller, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Cather first saw cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon outside Flagstaff in 1912, and made them the site of Thea Kronborg’s creative revitalization and romance with Fred Ottenburg in The Song of the Lark (1915); she returned with Edith Lewis in 1915 to the well-known excavations at Mesa Verde, which became the subject matter and setting of “Tom Outland’s Story” of The Professor’s House (published in 1925, but probably begun in 1916). Cather and Grey were not unusual in their interest in these distinctively western sites: the cliff dwellings were ubiquitous in popular American consciousness from the 1890s through the 1920s, vigorously marketed by boosters and advertisers as picturesque destinations competitive with the ruins of old Europe and the Near East. “We have a Sphinx of our own in the West,” effused the travel writer Agnes Laut in 1913, “and stone lions older than the columns of Phrygia, and kings’ palaces of 700 and 1000 rooms” (x). Cather well understood the commercial and iconic values of the cliff dwellings by the early summer of 1915, when she proposed to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, that he use them in his marketing campaign for The Song of the Lark, noting that all the people who usually vacationed in Europe—even her friend the singer Geraldine Farrar—were heading to the Southwest to visit the cliff dwellers (Cather to Greenslet, [July 1915]). She was right: not only she and Grey, but many thousands of others undertook the cliff-dwelling pilgrimage before and after the turn of the century. They included scores of literary-minded visitors (including writers of tour guides) from Charles Fletcher Lummis to Teddy Roosevelt, who like Grey and Cather created in their writings about such encounters a pervasive, stylized narrative of modern America’s experience of its mythic past, a narrative that served a particular antimodern purpose.
The story that modern America read into the empty cliff dwellings, formulated repeatedly as a meditation on their vanished inhabitants, most often involved peacefulness, domesticity, and love. As early as 1892 Frederic Chapin identified the lost Mesa Verdeans as “a great population, a people well advanced in many arts . . . a race who loved peace rather than war” (182). Teddy Roosevelt echoed this language after a 1913 trip to Betatakin, where he envisioned an “industrious race of advanced culture and peaceful ideals” (44), as did Cather herself in “Tom Outland’s Story,” in Father Duchene’s speculative descriptive of the Blue Mesa’s vanished Indians, “a superior people” who “in an orderly and secure life . . . developed considerably the arts of peace” (Professor’s House 219). In their perceived orderly tranquillity, the cliff dwellers offered an appealing image of “natural” sociopolitical man and a healing counterpart to the wellk-nown chaos of modern American urban life. Moreover, their domesticity—the homely artifacts and implements of private life exposed for tourist eyes (as if, as many commented, their users had just departed)—reminded viewers of the fundamental constructive energies of desire that hold culture together. Contemplation of domestic detail led Charles Francis Saunders to muse sentimentally in a 1918 guidebook to the ruins of the Southwest that “men never lose a supreme interest in men; stronger than all is the yearning of the human heart for other human hearts” (169). In The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg’s extended meditation on potsherds in Panther Canyon discovers an originary desire for beauty: “they had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else—even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past!” (305). For Grey in Riders of the Purple Sage, the cliff dwellers’ pottery becomes the literal agent of social repair, as his runaway lovers-to-be Bern and Bess set up housekeeping in Surprise Valley with crockery borrowed from a nearby cliff city (129), in a first step toward mending the novel’s various broken families and communities.
In fact, we may read the lure of the cliff dwelling and the West, for modern American culture generally and in the works of Grey and Cather, as a special case of what Lears calls the anti-modern “turn toward a premodern unconscious” (166), a therapeutic regression from a state of enervated “neurasthenia” (47) toward elemental yearnings and desires, the primal erotic bedrock of human society and the human condition. The cliff dwelling (and the entire mythologized western landscape) was not only a corrective alternative to an alienating, dysfunctional society, but it was also the potential site of individual erotic rehabilitation, a place of “natural” or “authentic” love. Thus Grey in his first western fiction, The Heritage of the Desert (1910), wrote of a city-weary, sickly easterner, John Hare, who undergoes a kind of libidinal correction in the Southwest, recovering health and vital identity in an erotic liaison with the alluring Spanish-Navajo maiden Mescal. Cather told a similar, though less picturesque, story five years later in The Song of the Lark, in which Thea trades her Chicago depression (a classically described “neurasthenia”) for the bright vitality of Panther Canyon and Fred’s love. Cather had, in fact, already rehearsed a version of this plot with herself as heroine (a version whose exoticism brings it closer to Grey’s story of Mescal than to Thea’s affair with Fred) in her private 1912 letters from Arizona to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, in which she presented the overwhelming and romantic figure of her admirer Julio, the beautiful Mexican-Indian singer, as an implicit agent of her own personal revitalization (Jewell and Stout 0228, 0229, 0236; Sergeant 80–82). Grey, who in his journals even more overtly fantasized his own western travels as sexual encounters (Pauly 96–98), would repeat this formula (whereby an effete easterner is restored to erotic health by a western encounter) more subtly in the wildly successful Riders of the Purple Sage: hero Bern is also an obscurely depressed drifter from Illinois, “a lonely outcast . . . sick in mind” (123), until he finds redemption with Bess. Grey would employ the same plot with minor variations in a half-dozen or more of his novels of the 1910s and 1920s: Desert Gold, Light of the Western Stars, The Rainbow Trail, The Call of the Canyon, Code of the West, The Vanishing American, and others. In short, for both Grey and Cather, the West was a place of unfettered “natural” passion, of a “real” love that, like the harmonious communities of the cliff dwellers, might provide a corrective to modern relationships’ corrosive confusion. Surely it is no accident that both Cather’s Thea and Fred and Grey’s Bern and Bess discover their love in a cave during a thunderstorm (Song 322–27; Riders 184–89). In these Virgilian moments, a natural tumult out of doors mirrors a human passion only barely contained within (“a storm of real love,” Bern muses, discovering his passion for Bess ): Eros is represented in the very moment of its domestication, literally beneath the authenticating signs of the “ancient people.”
But in exploring the fundamental nature of desire, both authors also uncovered its dark side, a core of pain and violence that repelled even as it drew them. “Down here at the beginning,” Thea concludes her meditation on potsherds and original desire in Panther Canyon, “that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight” (Song 305). For Grey, the pastoral domesticities of familial and sexual love— like Bern and Bess’s housekeeping in Surprise Valley—were often inseparable from extraordinary pain (significantly, Bern must shoot Bess, nearly killing her, in order to bring her into the paradisal valley and erotic health). Grey repeatedly caricatures authentic love in terrifying images of masculine brutality, rape, and incest. In Riders of the Purple Sage he gathers these images around the Mormon elders, polygamy, and violated child brides, culminating in Bern’s fantasy of Bess’s past, held as a sexual prisoner in her outlaw father’s remote cabin. This cabin—the demonic counterpart of the couple’s cave of love—reappears in various guises throughout Grey’s work as a place of unspeakable sexual violence done to young women: in the Mormon town of Stonebridge (a harem colony of “sealed wives”) in Purple Sage’s sequel, The Rainbow Trail; at the Death Valley camp in Wanderer of the Wasteland, where the effete maniac Virey methodically stones his wife, Magdalena, to death; as the storied cave of the giant outlaw Gulden in The Border Legion, where he may or may not have eaten a young girl. A different version of the demonic cabin appears in the apparently good-natured romance Code of the West: Cal Thurman holds his kidnapped and forcibly married bride, Georgiana, captive in a cabin until she unlearns her modern eastern notions of women’s freedoms. Perhaps the strangest of these related images is the “Strong-Arm Club” of 1922’s The Day of the Beast, Grey’s overwrought nonwestern novel of social criticism, in which men maintain a clubhouse for illegal drinking, heavy petting, and the occasional rape of teenage girls.
Cather is less repetitively extravagant but equally anxious in exploring desire’s bleaker faces. Unless desire can be held at arm’s length—as Thea and Fred do with each other—or mastered through framing ironies, love—and particularly heterosexual, marital, and reproductive love—also abuses and kills. To contextualize Thea’s skittishness about marriage one need only consider the long parade of spectacularly bad marriages across Cather’s novels, many ending fatally: the Alexanders of Alexander’s Bridge, the Shabatas of O Pioneers!, the dancing Swedes whose story Thea tells, the Russian bridal party and the Cutters of My Ántonia. Other marital relations are haunted by infidelity, madness, or merely the stifling ennui experienced by Godfrey St. Peter, who dreams idly of “Medea’s way” out of the trap of Eros. And although Cather makes the Southwest the site of Thea’s erotic redemption, the cave of love in Panther Canyon reflects darkly in her other southwestern fiction: in “Tom Outland’s Story” in the tomb of the putatively unfaithful and murdered Mother Eve; in Buck Scales’s murderous family cabin on the lonely road to Mora in Death Come for the Archbishop (where, as for Grey in Wanderer of the Wasteland, another curiously named Magdalena suffers horrendous masculine violence); or in the weirdly sexualized, unspeakable horror of that novel’s “Stone Lips” episode. Whatever threatens Latour in the ancient cave—hints of the fetid womb, rumors of phallic snakes, the specter of infanticide—is also authentically primal, as primal as anything in Panther Canyon, and “the oldest voices of the earth” speak there (Death 130), sexual and fearful. Cather developed these unsettling places’ meanings most explicitly in 1920’s “Coming, Aphrodite!,” in Don Hedger’s unlikely prelude to the seduction of Eden Bower, his telling of the story of the “Queen’s House,” a grotesque but apparently sexually energizing tale of rape, castration, serial infidelity, and murder. Not coincidentally, Cather claimed to have learned this story of the passionate Southwest, which so brutally intrudes into the careful civilities of Washington Square, from the exotic Julio, her partner in exotic southwestern romance in 1912 (Sergeant 81).
The sources of desire’s inextricably intertwined strands of love and aggression, delight and pain, are not my focus here. Psychoanalysis, which focuses on crossed or self-canceling desire, suggests a number of speculative approaches to desire’s sources— personal, political, even biological. Acknowledgment of love’s core ambivalence is hardly unusual in literary history or in popular culture, however, and antimodernism, in its typical movement backward toward stronger, more authentic times, sensations, and emotions, encountered some fearful demons as well. Lears suggests that those antimodernists who saw only desire’s happy face in the healing journey toward premodern eroticism “trivialized unconscious mental and emotional life by denying its darker dimensions of aggression, rage, and conflict” (166– 67). Neither Cather nor Grey could ignore the “darker dimensions,” and perhaps for Grey his novels’ concerns spilled over into his personal life (or vice versa), in his string of teenage mistresses and his private career as a pornographic photographer (Pauly 10). More important for my argument here are Grey’s and Cather’s different literary responses to the West and to the simultaneously therapeutic and threatening passions that they first located there in the 1910s. Simply put, despite their common attraction to the West, Cather did not become a writer of popular western romances, and Grey did. This distinction may not be as self-evident as it sounds. In the summer of 1916—the fourth summer of her first round of trips to the Southwest— Cather wrote to Greenslet about her literal compulsion to write a southwestern novel: she felt forced to write it, she told him; it would eventually write itself, and until then she begged him to publish no one else’s (Cather to Greenslet, 30 June 1916). She tentatively called it “The Blue Mesa” and described the unwritten work as filled with passionate desires and hatreds (Cather to Greenslet, 22 August 1916). Most scholars understand “The Blue Mesa” as the prototype of “Tom Outland’s Story,” begun but set aside in late 1916 in favor of My Ántonia, but Cather’s extravagant description suggests that she at first envisioned a narrative very different from Tom Outland’s disciplined, poised “story of youthful defeat” (Professor’s House 176): in fact, “The Blue Mesa” sounds something like a romance, even a Zane Grey romance. The work she envisioned in the summer of 1916, despite her conviction of its compulsive inevitability, remains (as she intimated to Fanny Butcher) the Zane Grey romance that she never wrote, and her letters to Greenslet point along a literary path—Zane Grey’s path—that she was even then already abandoning.
How may we understand their divergence and its significance? I have argued that for both writers the Southwest—the cowboy West—held out a promise of picturesque and restorative romance, behind which adult heterosexuality disclosed itself as a lethal trap. This intolerable dilemma informed their non-western fictions as well, but a West newly mythologized and eroticized by antimodern longing made the paradoxes of desire particularly vivid. Grey’s response to this discovery (of love’s ambivalence) was to send himself and his protagonists compulsively into that trap again and again, for the remainder of his career. One result was a torrent of superheated, often inexplicably intense language. In Jane Tompkins’s description of Grey’s prose, “reading him was like being caught in a waterfall or a flood . . . at the mercy of a natural force” (157). Another result was structural repetition of plots, characters, and landscapes: Grey told and retold a few simple stories of desire, authenticity, and danger. Like Cather’s unwritten “Blue Mesa” story, they were filled with passionate desire and hatred, usually driven by dimly understood forces of doom, such as Wansfell’s senseless crisscrossing of the Mojave in Wanderer of the Wasteland, although almost any Grey novel provides good examples. All of his books unselfconsciously represent a quest for “truth” in love, and all are haunted by the monsters that love awakens, the cruelties that it inflicts. Such a driven repetitiveness of subject and form is “compulsive” in exactly the psychoanalytic sense: in Freud’s words, “a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest” (122). Moreover, Grey’s compulsion made possible his success as a novelist: having gropingly found a formula for a good story, even a great story, by 1912, he never let it go. I am tempted to say that the unresolved, unresolvable riddle of the desire that brutalizes its objects never let him go either.
Not so with Cather. Like Grey, she experienced an overwhelming, anti-rational power in the Southwest, and like him she associated it consistently with Eros and sexual desire. Moreover, her June 1916 letter to Greenslet about her plan to write “The Blue Mesa” suggests that she, too, sensed something irresistible, compulsive, in her relation to the Southwest and its stories. Her career’s arc, however, was anything but repetitive. Despite Carl Linstrum’s famous remark in O Pioneers! that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before” (119), Cather found in art precisely a way out of biological experience’s repetitions. She made the refusal of repetition central to her formal practice, and commented on it frequently herself in private and public assessments of her work. She insisted on each work’s in-tentional uniqueness, chiding those who would see A Lost Lady as another My Ántonia (Jewell and Stout 0824) or Shadows on the Rock as another Death Comes for the Archbishop (Jewell and Stout 1089), who would ask that Claude Wheeler visualize his world like Jim Burden (Jewell and Stout 0859), or who would judge any of her novels by the conventions of its predecessors. As she wrote a little ruefully to E. K. Brown in the last year of her life, she had probably disappointed some readers by her changefulness, but she had always “kept working and trying to learn” (Jewell and Stout 1741).
In short, while Grey’s work was sustained by the intensity of his blind, repeated struggle with a love that was always wrong, Cather’s work drew power from the perpetual newness of writing, its ability to encounter directly and explore the unresolvables of human experience and then leave them behind. Again in classical psychoanalytic terms, this is exactly the difference between “repeating” and “remembering,” or between submitting to compulsion and consciously mastering it, the difference between, finally, the symptom and its cure. Cather’s specific techniques for mastery were the complex and playful framing devices, the paradoxes, doublings, and structural ironies (“the magic of contradictions,” in Niel Herbert’s phrase in A Lost Lady), that marked her work and allowed her to examine passion intimately while holding it at a safe distance. The dominant trope for such mastery was departure and new beginning, both in her novels, whose characters with few exceptions are always moving on despite nostalgia’s backwards lure, and perhaps in her own life’s similar form, as a succession of unrepeatable experiences and places. She could not go back to places once she had written about them, she told an admirer in a letter of 1943 (Jewell and Stout 1622), as if the act of writing itself made compulsive return unnecessary.
The impassioned, vital Southwest exemplified in Grey’s writings seems to have been one of the places that Cather found hardest to write out of her system—I suspect because this version of the Southwest was so closely tied to dreams of love and sexuality both cultural and personal, dreams harder than most to confront and master. After writing “The Ancient People” she returned to the Southwest in 1915 and 1916. Over the following decade, “The Blue Mesa” transformed itself slowly in her imagination into the coolly framed “Tom Outland’s Story” of 1925 (we may recall again Cather’s comment that, had “Tom Outland’s Story” been a simple repetition of Grey’s cowboy plots, she would have “died of boredom”). As I have suggested, the Southwest resurfaced also as a troubling set of allusions in 1920 in “Coming, Aphrodite!,” another “story of youthful defeat.” Like The Professor’s House, the short story self-consciously bids farewell to youth, to sexual passion, and to the picturesque, romantic West itself, represented as a passing moment in a young artist’s career (Don Hedger’s New Mexico phase, a style approved by Frederic Remington but “something [Hedger] didn’t wish to carry further,—simply the old thing over again and got nowhere” ). Even after The Professor’s House (which is, among other things, a perfectly clear and conscious good-bye to cowboys), Cather still was not done with the Southwest. She visited again in 1925 and 1926 to prepare for Death Comes for the Archbishop, a novel that reframes and sanctifies the land, transforming her cowboys into missionary priests and the “happy family” of misfits into the Holy Family. If such a transformation did not entirely lay to rest the ghosts that inhabited the cave of love, it pacified them enough to allow her to move forward, unencumbered and open-eyed.
In placing Grey and Cather side by side and holding up for comparison their responses to the riddle of the passionate desire that wounds even as it vitalizes in the forms of Grey’s repetitions and Cather’s innovations, I do not mean to suggest Cather enjoyed a “sanity” or psychic health that Grey failed to achieve. Instead, I have invoked some broad concepts of psychoanalysis, particularly as they involve repetition, as a useful exploratory metaphor rather than as an instrument of individual diagnosis. In fact, although I find the personal life stories of both authors compelling, I am most interested in how they and their work participated in the largest cultural dreams of the early twentieth century: ponderous, nostalgic dreams of authenticity, vitality, and significance (dreams which, as Lears argues, often served the interests of the very modern condition that they sought to escape). In this respect Cather’s and Grey’s engagement with the West as a setting for the exploration of salvific love reflected, not a personal experience, but a cultural one, and the continuing popularity of “the Western” and its familiar pleasures through the rest of the twentieth century suggests something of that experience’s energy.
Nor do I want to claim for Cather’s work superiority to Grey’s based on an aesthetic standard that values experiment and invention over formulaic repetition. Grey and Cather were simply different kinds of authors and thinkers, able to achieve effects of great power through very different means. The intensity or very “compulsive” quality of Grey’s work, its over-the-top failure to deal with the monsters it summons, sets it apart from the pragmatically formulaic work of most of his imitative successors in the history of the Western. Nevertheless, Cather’s work, particularly after 1915, is lighter in its touch than Grey’s, more playfully willing to assume emotional positions temporarily, explore them, and then move on. This is not to say that Cather lacked depth or powerful emotional commitments—what we know of her life points entirely in the opposite direction. Rather, her famous reserve was perhaps the mark, not of repression or denial of the imagined realm of love’s passionate excess that snared Grey so thoroughly, but rather of her deep familiarity with that place, and of her respect for its finally unfathomable mysteries. To put it differently: perhaps Cather, unlike more naive antimodern modernists (such as Grey, and perhaps some other, more highbrow modernist masters of repetition and the return), recognized at the core of experience a wound, erotic or otherwise, that simply could not be healed, in a mythic western landscape or elsewhere. This recognition, far from binding her to compulsive returns, freed her to imagine the other world of clear-eyed adulthood where love is still a possible, if temporary and imperfect, performance, and where there are new variants of old stories to be told. In this other world, for instance, Godfrey St. Peter, in Chicago at the opera, looks with wonderment at his wife, Lillian, recalling Turgenev and observing simply, with “a smile not altogether sad,” that “the heart of another is a dark forest, always” (Professor’s House 95).