A decade or so ago the Library of America put out a flyer advertising its Cather and James editions with her and his portraits side by side on its cover. I felt that Cather would have been delighted to share space with "the Master." Of course, to feel so one must swim, as it were, against a certain feminist current articulated in Sharon O'Brien's Cather biography—that Cather "dispensed with male-defined [Jamesian] artistic methods when [in Alexander's Bridge] she sent Bartley and his shoddy bridge crashing into the St. Lawrence" (425) and that in O Pioneers! she "exorcised" dependence on James (297), as if he were a diabolical agent—in order to avoid concluding that Cather chucked James and settled comfortably into "local color." O'Brien's legitimate argument is that Sarah Orne Jewett helped Cather junk the awkwardly inferior Jamesian imitations she was writing in the early 1900s: "Striving to duplicate James' style, setting, and subject, Cather . . . failed to create a distinctive literary voice" (301), and Jewett helped her find it. In O Pioneers! Cather managed to focus from a sophisticated vantage point on material familiar to her; as she explained to Carrie Miner, "I hit the home pasture and found I was Yance Sorgeson and not Henry James" (Bennett 200-201). However, independence once achieved, she could, as O'Brien perceptively concludes, "assimilate[ ] James' influence . . . [and] accommodate his techniques for her own purposes" (310).
E. K. Brown notes in the introduction to his Cather biography that "in her later years [Cather] would say that much as James had meant to her at one time, she knew that she would never reread his more complicated fictions" (ix-x). I sympathize with this; they are torturous if beautiful mountains to climb, and single ascents sometimes suffice. But Brown concludes his biography on quite a different note: "Her fiction became a kind of symbolism, with the depths and suggestions that belong to symbolist art, and with the devotion to a music of style and structure for which the great literary symbolists strove, Pater and [George] Moore and the later James" (340). That Cather was absorbed in James during his late phase, particularly in one of his novels cited in this comparison, is evident in a fragmented and undated (c. 15 January 1906) letter among the Witter Bynner letters in the Houghton Library. She confides to an unidentified female recipient that she had read through The Golden Bowl the previous winter, during a personal crisis, and that she "must try . . . again" because, although she "got" Maggie and Charlotte, the Prince "escaped me utterly." Unlike Jewett, whose work, O'Brien acknowledges, was "less intimidating . . . to contemplate than Henry James' numerous and lengthy novels" (350), Cather became a big writer herself as her career developed, one limited neither to her childhood locale nor to "local color" fiction. As such she deserves to share billing with Henry James; however, what are the implications of bringing Cather and James together? In technique and subject they are kindred spirits, as I will argue here, by considering first what I call "picture" in their work, then their handling of consciousness, and, finally and briefly, their common subjects, themes, attitudes.
What first attracted me to Cather's fiction were its pictorial qualities, from the expansive landscapes in O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop to the intimate glimpses of individual characters: stout Mrs. Bergson "roam[ing] the . . . banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey" (O Pioneers! 33-34); Marian Forrester fleeing a bull, "scudding along the edge of the marshes like a hare, beside herself with laughter, and stubbornly clinging to the crimson parasol that had made all the trouble" (Lost Lady 11); Grandfather Burden, hatless in a snowstorm and viewed "through the black fingers of [his wife's] glove," leading the final prayer at Mr. Shimerda's burial (My Ántonia 113). Glancing through Cather texts resembles strolling through a museum with a world-class collection. It is as if Cather were following James's prescription in "The Art of Fiction" that the novelist "competes with his brother the painter in his attempt to render the look of things . . . that conveys their meaning, to catch the colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle" (377).
Like James, Cather uses visual art as a paradigm for her own art, as any number of essays in Willa Cather on Writing will confirm. The compositional style of the Archbishop, she claims, owes to Puvis de Chavannes's St. Genevieve murals (9); the structure of The Professor's House is modeled after Dutch paintings (31). To illustrate simplification in fiction, she uses Millet's process of making hundreds of sketches before painting "the spirit of them all into one picture, 'The Sower'" (102); in pleading for personal response to life rather than "general truth and general emotion," she compares "Leonardo's treatment of daylight, and Velasquez'": "Each man painted what he got out of light—what it did to him" (124). In addition Cather echoes James's argument against conventional concepts of adventure as a pictorial source. To James "for a Bostonian nymph to reject an English duke is an adventure only less stirring . . . than for an English duke to be rejected by a Bostonian nymph. I see dramas within dramas in that, and innumerable points of view. A psychological reason is . . . an object adorably pictorial; to catch the tint of its complexion . . . might inspire one to Titianesque efforts" ("Art of Fiction" 382). Cather's argument is much the same in choosing the "unpromising" material of O Pioneers! (Willa Cather on Writing 94), in admiring the "curious smallness" of detail in Stephen Crane's war sketches (72), in her focus on the "daily life" of her missionaries in New Mexico (7), and in her preference in Shadows on the Rock for the apothecary's fireside rather than military glory and her insistence that "a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages" (16).
Clearly, then, both novelists were influenced by painting, and in James's case by those French Impressionists and postImpressionists who were his contemporaries. They were Cather's as well, in that their lives overlapped with hers. Charles R. Anderson makes the point that while "it cannot be proved" that "Renoir, Manet, Monet, and the rest" "were conscious influences" in James's case, they are "at the very least . . . illuminating analogies that emphasize the pictorial effects he intended" (277). The same argument can be made for Cather. What is particularly interesting, however, is that for James, according to Anderson, the techniques of these painters were filtered through his association with Daudet, Maupassant, and Loti, close friends of these painters. Indeed, it is likely that James met Renoir during visits to Daudet (281). Young Cather wrote so admiringly of all three French writers that they, no doubt, along with James, became filters for the pictorial qualities of her own art. Of course, Cather hobnobbed with painters as well, as Merrill Skaggs points out in her essay on Cather's visits to the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, Connecticut, where the American disciples of the French Impressionists congregated and painted. Skaggs lists, among others, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Theodore Robinson, and John Twachtman (43).
Such familiarity influenced not only what and how both novelists described but also the pictorial awareness of their characters. Painterly impressionistic scenes are so prevalent in both that they get overlooked by the "many people" James complains of "who read novels as an exercise in skipping" ("Art of Fiction" 373). Here are two examples that probably go unnoticed in discussions among readers bent on searching for "meaning." In the first, from James's The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether lingers in the Tuileries before settling down in the Luxembourg to read the letters from Mrs. Newsome that have followed him to Paris: The prompt Paris [spring] morning struck its cheerful notes—in a soft breeze and sprinkled smell, in the light flit, over the garden-floor, of bareheaded girls with the buckled strap of oblong boxes, in the type of ancient thrifty persons basking betimes where terrace-walls were warm, in the blue-frocked, brass-labelled officialism of humble rakers and scrapers, in the deep references of a straight-pacing priest or the sharp ones of a white-gaitered red-legged soldier. . . . [H]is drift . . . floated him . . . as far as the Luxembourg. . . . [H]ere at last he found his nook, and there on a penny chair from which terraces, alleys, vistas, fountains, little trees in green tubs, little women in white caps and shrill little girls at play all sunnily "composed" together, he passed an hour in which the cup of his impressions seemed truly to overflow. (111-12) In a similarly painterly scene in Cather's "The Diamond Mine" the narrator strolls with Cressida Garnet in Central Park: "The snow had been falling thickly all the night before, and all day, until about four o'clock. Then the air grew warmer and the sky cleared. Overhead it was a soft, rainy blue, and to the west a smoky gold. All around the horizon everything became misty and silvery; even the big, brutal buildings looked like pale violet water-colours on a silver ground. Under the elm trees along the Mall the air was purple as wisterias. The sheep-field, toward Broadway, was smooth and white, with a thin gold wash over it" (89). In both descriptions color, contrast, and movement are concomitant with the subjects' moods. Strether is tasting the renewal of youth and freedom, distancing him from the restricting directions coming out of Massachusetts. Cressida is experiencing a breather from her exhausting routine. "I won't go indoors this evening for anyone," she declares. "Not while the sky is like that. Now we will go back to the laurel wood. They are so black, over the snow, that I could cry for joy. I don't know when I've felt so care-free as I feel tonight" (101-2).
Indeed, there are instances where protagonists might be said to live within picture frames. I am thinking here of The Ambassadors and The Professor's House, Cather's most Jamesian novel. In the penultimate book of the James work Strether has all but chucked his engagement to Mrs. Newsome in order to defend her son Chad's involvement with the Comtesse de Vionnet. Convincing himself he has done all he could to square all parties— Chad, the Countess, and Chad's relatives—Strether seeks relief in the rural suburbs of Paris. He had never quite gotten out of the city; "he had hitherto looked" at the "cool special green" of its environs "only through the little oblong window of the picture frame. It had been as yet . . . a land of fancy for him—the background of fiction, the medium of art" (452). He wants to find a scene that will remind him of a little painting by the French landscapist Emile-Claude Lambinet he had seen years before on sale in Boston but was too poor to buy. When his train pulls up at the perfect spot, he gets off: "The oblong gilt frame disposed its enclosing lines; the poplars and willows, the reeds and the river . . . fell into composition . . . ; the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish; the village on the left was white and the church on the right was grey; it was all there, in short—it was what he wanted. . . . Moreover he was freely walking about in it" (453). The scene is made picture-perfect by the appearance on the river of a boat containing a man and a woman holding a pink parasol—Anderson identifies the scene as based on Monet's La Seine à Vétheuil (273). However, this framed idyll of peace and liberation is quickly shattered as the boat approaches to reveal the painterly figures as Chad and the Countess and the reality of their embarrassment at being discovered, even as they lie that their excursion was merely for the day and return with Strether to Paris. That night he is forced to admit "the deep, deep truth of the intimacy revealed" (468). His whole hypothesis of their virtuous attachment, the basis of his defense of them and alienation from Mrs. Newsome, collapses. As Anderson puts it, "They [the picturesque couple in the boat] 'correct' his romantic vision" (275).
To introduce similarities between Strether's experiences and those of Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor's House, I take a brief painterly excursion myself. In a review of the 2010 exhibit "Miró: The Dutch Interiors" at the Metropolitan Museum, Karen Rosenberg notes Miró's discovery of the Dutch old masters during a 1928 visit to the Netherlands, especially of the disorderly genre scenes of Hendrik Martensz Sorgh and Jan Steen, and Miró's decision to make his own versions by transposing figures from them, some "more or less intact; others undergo[ing] an unnerving 'metamorphosis.' . . . Each [version] has its own personality, one that doesn't have much to do with its source" (28). In the analogy I am attempting, Cather's text has much to do with James's, although the similar material is reversed. The idea of walking around in a picture is suggested near the middle of the first book of The Professor's House, when St. Peter sees framed through a French window his wife and son-in-law Louie Marsellus bending over a casket of jewels in a drawing room full of autumn flowers "selected and placed" as if "brought into painting" (75). The casket, the necklace, the little lacquer table and brass tea-kettle duplicate a Dutch interior that reverses the initial plein air effect of the Lambinet and of what Cather would achieve in "Tom Outland's Story." At the moment Louie kisses Lillian's hand, "St. Peter swung in over the window rail. 'That is always the cue for the husband to enter, isn't it?'" he asks (76). It is also a cue for his subsequent review of his wife's inconsistencies and his disappointing conclusion that "[s]he was less intelligent and more sensible than he had thought her" (79).
James's little oblong landscape corresponds to the square window in Professor St. Peter's study, "the sole opening for light and air" (16), a frame for the "blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of [the Professor's] childhood. . . . The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut . . . , and it ran through the days . . . not a thing thought about, but a part of consciousness itself" (30-31). Like the Lambinet for Strether the window initially frames liberation, linked to both Blue Mesa and the Dutch old masters, as Cather herself makes clear. Tom's story duplicates the windows in the warmly furnished rooms in paintings, "the square window" opening to "let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa" (Willa Cather on Writing 31-32). As Cather's epigraph indicates, Tom's story becomes, like Tom's bracelet gift to Rosamond, "[a] turquoise set in dull silver" (106), a story that the Professor recalls after his wife and the Marselluses sail for France and that he himself participated in when he went down with Tom to Blue Mesa and "climbed the ladder of spliced pinetrees to the Cliff City, and up to the Eagle's Nest," where "they took Tom's diary from the stone cupboard" (259-60). But Tom's death, family disappointments, and the decline of his university have made "everything around" the Professor "insupportable" (148-49). During the crisis in the last book the window of escape blows shut on his gas-filled study, and he considers passive suicide. Although he is rescued by the seamstress Augusta, that window seems to remain shut for St. Peter; Augusta fails to mention it specifically: "I ran up and opened the two windows at the head of the stairs." She subsequently adds that after turning off the gas she "opened everything up" (278), yet St. Peter is forced to let go of his liberating fantasy of youth and freedom. As in Strether's case life's realities cannot be easily and successfully escaped via such tidily framed worlds.
Related to picture is the civilized consciousnesses typical of the narrators and filter characters of both novelists, who are able to enrich their situations through references to the culture, arts, history, and myths of Europe, the Americas, and beyond, able to make analogies, to think in metaphors objectifying their states of mind, to decipher the importance of slight gestures and express them in a language usually reserved for physical adventure. Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl clearly illustrates such a consciousness. A wealthy American tycoon turned art collector, a widower living in London and about to marry off his daughter, his only child, Verver aches for the "impersonal whiteness" of detachment lying beyond the "concentric zones" of the "many-coloured human appeal" he feels obliged to satisfy (130). In one "sudden hour that had transformed his life" Verver realized that "he had in him the spirit of the connoisseur" and remembered Keats's sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which "consorted so with [his] consciousness of the way in which at a given moment he [like Cortez] had stared at his Pacific. . . . His 'peak in Darien'" being his perception "that a world was left him to conquer" (139).
Adam's acquisitive nature has led him to collect people as well as art, at first an Italian prince for his daughter, Maggie, to marry. However, his intimacy with Maggie is qualified by the inclusion of Prince Amerigo: "[T]heir decent little old-time union . . . had resembled . . . some pleasant public square . . . into which a great Palladian church . . . had suddenly been dropped" (135). Yet because Amerigo seems so "beguilingly . . . yielding," Verver exclaims, "You're round, my boy. . . . Say you had been formed . . . in a lot of little pyramidal lozenges like that wonderful side of the Ducal Palace in Venice—so lovely in a building, but so damnable, for rubbing against, in a man" (137). Because Maggie's time with her husband leaves her father's foreground empty, making Verver vulnerable to the "many-coloured human appeal," she proposes her father's marriage to Charlotte Stant, her school friend and, unbeknownst to her, Amerigo's former lover.
The consequences of this proposal merely revive the intimacy of the former lovers and of father and daughter until it dawns upon Maggie that she must silently manipulate these relationships to save her marriage and her father's reputation as a seer among connoisseurs. She triumphs near the end during a half hour tête-à-tête with Adam, figured by the narrator and presumably by the principals as a voyage in a boat struggling to cross the bar and arrive at a solution to a problem always felt but never named. Maggie and her father have "to beat against the wind. . . . His eyes met her own suggestively" (507). She gets him to propose returning to America with Charlotte, leaving Maggie, Amerigo, and their young son in London. By blaming herself for being a spoiled daughter, she gets her father to do her bidding: "[S]he had made him do it all for her and had lighted the way to it without naming her husband" (512). James's accomplishment is phenomenal. He objectifies situations through his characters' ability to make analogies, think in metaphors, and use the furniture of consciousness—history, architecture, fine arts, poetry— to depict their own situations and, through such ornamentation, leave so much to be felt without being named. Indeed, execution, that by which we "measure" the artist ("Art of Fiction" 374), becomes the subject in this instance: wherever the guilt lies, whether solely with the adulterous spouses or shared with the possessive father and daughter, their marriages are salvaged because unfaithfulness is never articulated.
While Cather wrote nothing as long and dense as The Golden Bowl, her fiction is chock-full of such "Jamesian" aesthetic tactics. Consider how in The Professor's House Cather deals with the mental and emotional condition of Godfrey St. Peter after his trying discussion with Dr. Crane about the legality of Crane's claims to Outland's patent: "The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him. . . . [E]verything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that: a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings or revolution" (148-49). The objectification of the Professor's situation silently borrows from Whitman, as James borrows from Tennyson in the crossing-the-bar scene. Immediately after, St. Peter despairingly references Shakespeare: "If Outland were here to-night, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men" (149).
Cather most resembles James in her mature fiction, and her most Jamesian consciousnesses are those of mature men and women who dominate the later fiction. Perhaps Jean Marie Latour in the Archbishop has the richest consciousness, which as death approaches he sits in the midst of, "none of his former states of mind . . . lost or outgrown" (305). And what a legacy of states they are, from his confusion among the conical red sand hills and junipers to his return to Santa Fe to die near his cathedral, "like a boat come back to harbour, lying under its own seawall" (285). His is a consciousness abounding in analogies and metaphors: Benito's angoras are associated with "the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb" (32); the spring at Hidden Water beside which arrowheads, corroded medals, and a Spanish sword hilt had been found recalls well heads in France, "where the Roman settlers had set up the image of a river goddess, and later the Christian priests had planted a cross" (33); the mesa plain surrounding Acoma is given Genesisian dimension, appears "of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if . . . the Creator had desisted, gone away. . . . The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape . . . [, and t]he great tables of granite . . . [had] attendant clouds, which were part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave" (99100). Raphael and Titian, he remembers, had made costumes for the Virgin (269), and he shares with his seminarians Pascal's maxim "that Man was lost and saved in a garden" (279).
Similarly, Euclide Auclair in Shadows on the Rock is able to envision life within a broad cultural context. After Blinker reveals the guilt he suffers from having been a prison torturer in France and his conviction that this has caused his jaw to ulcerate, the outcast's face strangely alters, reminding Auclair of the "terrible weather-worn stone faces on the churches at home,— figures of the tormented in scenes of the Last Judgment" (189), like those above the central portal of nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. When comforting his daughter, Cecile, who has overheard the poor man's lament, Auclair explains that Blinker "was one of the unfortunate of this world" and quotes Virgil: "You remember, when Queen Dido offers Aeneas hospitality, she says: Having known misery, I have learned to pity the miserable. Our poor [Blinker] is like Queen Dido" (189-90). In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Henry Colbert seeks relief from his carnality and lingering guilt about slavery by wearing thin the pages of his Bible and Bunyan's The Holy War, in which Carnal-sense had been imprisoned but escaped to haunt "'honest men's houses at nights.' In this book he found consolation. An honest man, who had suffered much, was speaking to him of things about which he could not unbosom himself to anyone" (210). The title character in "Old Mrs. Harris" also seeks comfort in the Bible and Bunyan and is capable of objectifying her situation in a sophisticated metaphor: old women like herself "were tied to the chariot of young life, and had to go where it went, because they were needed" (82).
What is creative about Cather's adaptations of James's aesthetic practices are their comparative universality and clarity. The "Jamesian" consciousness is extended geographically and socially by Cather. She was intrigued that the biography of Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe included both dimensions. In his statue and in photographs she detected something "well-bred and distinguished"; yet what she "felt curious about was the daily life of such a man in a crude frontier society" (Willa Cather on Writing 7). Similarly, "Old Mrs. Harris" illustrates an effort to get out of the drawing room and into the workaday world, an effort Cather articulates in her essay on her first novels the year she wrote this story: "The drawing-room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people. . . . Henry James and Mrs. Wharton were our most interesting novelists, and most of the younger writers followed their manner, without having their qualifications. O Pioneers! interested me . . . because it had to do with a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours. . . . [It] was not only about Nebraska farmers; the farmers were Swedes!" (Willa Cather on Writing 93-94). To be honest, even Swedes and other immigrant farmers could be smart and clever, and Cather gives many of them "Jamesian" consciousnesses; Anglicizes some, like Carl Lindstrum; and plants Anglos like Jim Burden in their midst to enrich our estimate of them through sophisticated references to lofty culture.
As for clarity, it was never Cather's intention to squeeze a psychological incident for all it might be worth. There is a passage at the end of the first book of Sapphira that contains the essence of a Jamesian situation. Henry and Sapphira have been discussing a replacement for Nancy to take care of Henry's quarters while she accompanies Sapphira on her Easter visit to Winchester. Underlying their small talk are Sapphira's suspicions about Henry and Nancy and also his awareness of these and of his own vulnerability. As Sapphira looks out toward the mill after he departs, "it occurred to her that when they were talking about Bluebell [as the replacement], both she and Henry had been thinking all the while about Nancy. How much, she wondered, did each wish to conceal from the other?" (55). James would comment, "I see dramas within dramas in that, and innumerable points of views," while Cather merely "touch[es] and pass[es] on," as was her method in the Archbishop (Willa Cather on Writing 9). Whether she was capable of embroidering this incident in the Jamesian manner is a legitimate question, as is whether she would have wanted to. She most likely would have agreed with Edith Wharton that the Jamesian novel in its later phase seemed "more and more severed from that thick nourishing human air in which we all live and move. The characters . . . seem isolated in a Crookes tube for our inspection" (190). But such criticism seems unfair, since reader involvement rather than inspection seems to have been James's intent. Laboring through sometimes tortuous sentences is the price one pays for unique absorption in a complex created world. Cather's own maxim offers a solution to these different approaches: "To note an artist's limitations [or in this case amplitude] is but to define his differences" (Willa Cather on Writing 54).
I have tried to respect James's dictum that "[w]e must grant the artist his subject," that "our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it" ("Art of Fiction" 378). But subjects and themes are essential factors when comparing writers, and I do hope some younger scholar will take up the subject of subject in this comparison. It is superficial to generalize James's as a juxtaposition of American innocence and European experience, or Cather's as pioneering on a sequence of frontiers. A deeper concern associates the two writers: the corrupting power of money, primarily American, and the alternatives offered in art/religion—categories I prefer to link here with a virgule. The Golden Bowl depicts the corrupting power of American wealth, as does James's unfinished The Ivory Tower, although neither plumbs the depths like The Wings of the Dove. Cather is significantly occupied with the money factor from A Lost Lady through My Mortal Enemy.
The completed fragment of The Ivory Tower and the notes appended to it represent a response to James's final visit to America in 1904-5, a denunciation of the world of New York and Newport wealth, a world described by Leon Edel as "so gross and devoid of the humane that [James] had fled back to England never to return" (Master 504). The Ivory Tower opens as two old millionaires, Gaw and Betterman, former business partners and now guilt-ridden but unforgiving enemies, are dying. In a perverse experiment Betterman leaves his "most monstrous fortune" (146) to his nephew Graham Fielder, an innocent raised in England, because the young man knows nothing about money and hates the hustle of the market. Fielder also receives a memento from the Gaw estate, an objet d'art, an ivory tower, representing his own values, "distinguished retirement" (109) from both his inheritance and American commerce. He immediately becomes defenseless prey for fortune-seeking lovers (who recall the lovers in The Wings of the Dove), who steal his money. In Wings the fortune is American and the plotters English, but Tower is all American, and its thrust can be summed up in Fielder's comment, "You seem all here so hideously rich" (154).
The trap set in The Wings of the Dove by Kate Croy and her acquiescent lover, Merton Densher, for Milly Theale, an American heiress with a fatal disease, is not fully articulated until the novel's penultimate book, long after the reader knows what it is, which adds to its horror. Kate, who masterminds it because her wealthy aunt will disinherit her if she marries the penniless Densher, sets him up to inherit Milly's fortune and then cruelly has him mouth what he's involved in. "Don't think . . . I'll do all the work for you. If you want things named you must name them," she declares. As the dreadful reality stares him in the face, he responds with a series of questions: "Since she's to die I'm to marry her? . . . So that when her death has taken place I shall in the natural course have money? I'm to propose it then— marriage—on the spot?" Kate's answer: "You must act as you like and as you can." His final question is a demand: "You'll come?"—come to his bed to seal their plot (394-95). Their success is foiled by both Densher's falling in love with Milly's spiritual goodness and his guilt when their plot is revealed by a rival swindler and Milly turns her face to the wall to die. Although she leaves her fortune to Densher, he cannot bring himself to accept it. As Frederick Crews explains, "Significantly, the means to salvation is a sum of money—the very principle of corruption in Densher's world. Money redeems Densher from the influence of money" (77-78).
To approximate such materialism in Cather we might begin with "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," in which she details the detrimental effects of money on Nebraska society, education, and the arts, and A Lost Lady, her fictional counterpart of this essay. Niel Herbert's "fever of impatience to be gone" (160), to return to Boston, echoes James's 1905 flight back to England, and Cather's two subsequent novels offer a counterpart to James's later phase. In My Mortal Enemy John Driscoll is a provincial version of Gaw and Betterman, depriving his niece Myra of her inheritance because she refuses to do his bidding. She never shakes his corrupting influence; like him she is obsessed with money, detesting those better off than herself and inheriting his twisted religious views. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," he tells her. "A poor man stinks, and God hates him" (13). When she is poverty stricken and sick, she regrets alienating Driscoll. "[I]f he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon," she tells Nellie. "I can feel his savagery strengthen in me" (67). In spite of the comfort she seeks in the arts and religion, Myra seems to lack understanding of either. Cather's distancing her death, as James does Milly's, creates space for a similar miracle, although readers are left nothing but ambiguity.
The corrupting effects of American business and wealth are a major theme in The Professor's House and contribute to Godfrey St. Peter's despair. He has watched Tom Outland's scientific research turned into "chemicals and dollars and cents" (130) by his businessman son-in-law, Louie, and this has reduced science in his view to a market commodity and source of ostentatious display, like Louie's "Outland," a midwestern imitation of Newport's imitation mansions. Money has caused dissension in the St. Peter family, revealed the grasping nature of colleagues, and compromised the university. This is not the whole story, but a major component contributing to the insupportable sadness increasingly defining the Professor's world. The escape he reluctantly embraces is articulated early on to his students. It's a Jamesian one, combining art and religion, neither of which St. Peter has committed to nor seems to understand. The cathedral he fantasizes, where "every man and woman . . . was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God" convincing them of "the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives" (68), has many parallels in James.
In The Tragic Muse, for example, Nicholas Dormer is torn between portrait painting and a political career sponsored by a wealthy widow to whom he is engaged. One night in Paris during a ramble with a friend, he happens upon Notre Dame, the cathedral St. Peter would like to see again, "standing there like the Rock of Ages" (Professor's House 270). Ruminating on a life dedicated to what he refers to as "the fine," Nick exclaims that the cathedral embodies it: "Notre Dame is truth; Notre Dame is charm; on Notre Dame the distracted mind can rest." James adds, "[T]he vast cathedral face. . . . greeted Nick Dormer . . . with a kindness the long centuries had done nothing to dim." Nick reveals to his friend that "you can rear a great structure of many things," that the great poets build them out of words. He lingers near the great pile "in joy, in soothing content, as if it had been the temple of a faith so dear to him that there was peace and security in its precinct" (118-19). For Cather readers there's an echo here: "Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had" (Professor's House 69). As Edel comments, Nick winds up "a fool in the public eye who casts away the gains of the marketplace for some cherished ideal, . . . some creative urge that he cannot explain to anyone else" (Middle Years 258). We are not this sure about Godfrey St. Peter. He casts away a lot, but his gains seem not quite understandable to him.