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From Cather Studies Volume 1

Insulated Isolation

Willa Cather's Room with a View

He carried a country of his own in his mind, and was able to unfold it like a tent in any wilderness. —Willa Cather, "Old Mrs. Harris"

James Woodress reports that Willa Cather wrote Book II ("The Hired Girls") of My Ántonia—a portrait drawn from her early memories in Red Cloud, Nebraska-in a tent pitched in an open meadow outside of Jaffrey, New Hampshire. To refresh herself after each writing session, she took long sojourns on Mount Monadnock and through the surrounding countryside (286). This pattern, creating a private, sheltered space that opens on an expansive view of the world, recurs not only in each stage of Cather's life but also in the lives of the characters she creates. Cather's living and working spaces in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, far from her childhood home, served as a re-creation of her Nebraska "parish" transplanted into the world. A parish (from the Greek root meaning a sojourning) is a place of spiritual and practical order in which a person is nourished and from which a person can securely move into the world.

Because as a writer Willa Cather felt the importance of place, she created characters who become part of their place, who feel a sense of insulated isolation in their place. She creates for them personal sanctuaries that strengthen their spirits and enable them to better cope with their world. The characters learn to establish their own sanctuaries by transplanting their parishes into the world, an echo of Cather's own experience. That this sanctuary may be either a small room or an expansive space seems at first to be contradictory; if, however, no matter what its form, the sanctuary is based on something solid-as the wise man's house is built upon a rock in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24)—the space feeds the spirit. There the character feels "not on the earth, yet of it" ("Old Mrs. Harris" 155) largely because of the physical structure of the space. More often than not, however, Cather combines the small room and the expansive space by creating a room with a view. This sacred space, with its insulated view of the world, nourishes the characters, as a parish should, strengthening them for their sojourn in the world.

Although Cather is highly critical of the pettiness she finds in the parish-for example, lambasting church socials "at which all loyal Christians are expected to devour frozen cornstarch for the glory of God" (World and Parish 116-18), and creating such remarkably despicable characters as Wick Cutter (My Ántonia) or the sanctimonious Enid Royce (One of Ours)—she was nourished in her Nebraska parish. Her own small attic room in Red Cloud with the window view of the expansive world was the crucible for her art. The open Nebraska prairie inspired her "new song in it that blue air which had never been sung before" (Song 220). Her discovery of the Anasazi ruins and the pueblo-dwelling Indians integrated for her the openness of wide spaces with the shelter of the room with a view.

Woodress reports that Cather frequently wrote in tents or small attic rooms and that if the space was right, the work came easily. The windowed third-floor study at the McClung house, perched high on Murray Hill Avenue in Pittsburgh, provided a view down a garden and over trees and surrounding roofs into open, airy space (140-41). This is where some of her first stories and the first 28,000 words of The Song of the Lark were written (255). Number 5 Bank Street in Manhattan provided a similar structure: its large windows and southern exposure on the second floor filled the rooms with light and air while sheltering Cather from the city. At the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, she stayed in two rooms on the top floor with a view of open pastures and Mount Monadnock (286). In 1922 Cather discovered Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, which was to serve her quest for solitude for the rest of her life. It was there, in a cottage perched high on the cliffs, that she reworked "Tom Outland's Story" (323) and two years later worked on The Professor's House (355). Cather was drawn to these kinds of spaces even during brief visits to other parts of the country. Death Comes for the Archbishop, started in Jaffrey, was continued in the Southwest in Mary Austin's study, which Woodress describes as a "large open library with a big window [Cather] could look out of and a cooling breeze" that blew in as she wrote (394). In each new world Cather needed to re-create the parish, the small room with an expansive view, to nourish her art.

Cather's strong sense of place, personal and fictional, has inspired varied critical responses. Many critics see isolation and alienation as the center of the issue.[1] Others have focused more specifically on physical space and its relation to the fiction.[2] Most studies, however, do not account for the feeling of sanctuary these spaces create. Judith Fryer ("Cather's Felicitous Space") comes close when she discusses the power of place as deriving from the contrast between intimacy and vastness-Gaston Bachelard's ideas of felicitous space-as does Susan Rosowski in her explanation of Godfrey St. Peter's isolation.[3] It is my feeling that the spaces Cather creates, both for herself and for her characters, are simply duplicates of the insulated room with a view from her Nebraska parish, and that each one provides a sanctuary. A sampling of such spaces in her works and observation of how they simplify the world/parish dichotomy will show not only that the more solid the base upon which the space is built, the more beneficial it is to the character, but also that the spaces move beyond felicitous to become sacred sanctuaries.

"Paul's Case" shows clear distinctions between the world and the parish. Paul believes that Cordelia Street, his parish, is ugly, while the larger world holds endless promises of beauty. When he looks down Cordelia Street, he feels "waters close over his head" but is refreshed after hearing a German soloist "that world shine upon her" (123, 121). When he returns home, he finds he cannot face the view from the bottom of the stairs of his father's hairy legs sticking out of his nightshirt, nor can he sleep in his windowless room (where John Calvin's picture one the wall is hardly a substitute for a breath of fresh air). His flight is inevitable.

Paul creates a sanctuary at the Waldorf by humanizing the hotel rooms with his own personal marks-fresh violets on the table and his newly purchased Tiffany silver. He sits in the turret window watching the swirling snow and feels that he has "thrown down the gauntlet to the thing in the corner," which is his sense of perpetual dread. His view of the snow insulates and isolates him from the memories of Cordelia Street. That evening Paul sits by a window again, this time in the dining room, where he feels "not in the least abashed or lonely" in his isolation. All he wants is the right "to look on." The sacred nature of Paul's space, in which he has placed violets and silver much as one adorns an altar with flowers and a chalice, is further emphasized when Cather states that "nobody questioned the purple [an ecclesiastic color]; he had only to wear it passively" (131, 133).

Paul creates, briefly, an upper room—a room with a view—at the Waldorf. He creates his own personal parish in direct contrast to the one created for him, which is overseen by John Calvin (123). Paul's sacred space has order and spirit and beauty. From this protected parish, and the turret window through which he views the world, all things seem possible. But his insulation is ruined when "all the world [becomes] Cordelia Street" (136) upon the imminent return of his father.

Paul's sojourn on earth ends, but not before he realizes the "vastness of what he had left undone" (138). What Paul, unlike many of Cather's later characters, was unable to do was to create a real, permanent, and ordered room with a view from which the harshness of both the native parish and the larger world could be safely seen. When her characters create an insulated isolation—their own sacred space—they find the spiritual nourishment necessary for coping with "the homilies by which the world is run" (137). Paul's turret window is structurally similar to the windows in Cather's later works: it is above the ground; it offers an open view from a place of comfort. But Paul's room is built on deception, not something solid. His sanctuary does not last because Paul is not, "after all, one of those fortunate beings born to the purple" (135). His attempt to create the sacred space, the space he was not born to, fails because it is not based on the rock of truth.

The Song of the Lark provides a transition of sorts from Paul's failed sanctuary to a lasting space that nourishes the spirit. Like Paul, Thea Kronborg is a dissatisfied young person who is frustrated by the trivialities in her environment. Cather is caustic in her portraits of Thea's "natural enemies." Mrs. Livery Johnson, a "big, florid, powdered woman, a fierce W.C.T.U. worker," is so "tightly corseted [that] she could scarcely control her breathing" (59-60). Lily Fischer, "the most stuck up doll in the world," is "the angel-child of the Baptists." She is pink and perfect, except for "a little pursed-up mouth, and narrow, pointed teeth, like a squirrel's" (60, 62). When Lily sings "Rock of Ages" at the Christmas Eve recital and then receives greater accolades in the town paper, the Gleam, than Thea does, no one is surprised. As Cather observes, "The Baptists had everything their own way" (63). Thea's retreat to her attic room is as inevitable as Paul's to the Waldorf. The difference is that Thea's sanctuary is built on something true.

Because Thea Kronborg's fictional attic room so closely duplicates Willa Cather's historical one, the fiction provides particular insight into Cather's childhood sanctuary. Descriptions suggest the duality of an oxymoron, for Thea's room provides safe freedom and enclosed space. It contains only "one window, but it was an open one and went to the floor"; and though it was designed to protect by serving as a barrier, Thea always keeps it open, even in winter and against her mother's advice. She needs the insulated isolation her room provides because "the clamor about the world outside the room] drown[s] the voice within herself." Her room enables her to "live a double life," not only because it provides sanctuary from the confusion of the Krongborg household but also because it provides a view of the world that reaches beyond local pettiness (56-58). Like Cather, Thea realizes early in her life that "there was something about her that was different" (79) and that it needs to be nourished if it is to grow. Her open-windowed, attic room feeds her spirit.

Usually, Thea's bed faces the window so that as she lies there she can watch the mundane activities of the world outside her sanctuary (222). On some summer nights, however, when she is particularly torn between the desire to leave Moonstone and the security of staying, she "drag[s] her mattress beside her low window" where "life rush[es] in upon her" (140). Thea feels she is outgrowing her parish and that it is time to leave the people of Moonstone for the larger world. She realizes that "nothing she would ever do in the world would seem important to them, and nothing they would ever do would seem important to her" (240), so she leaves her sanctuary because "its services were over; its time was done" (238).

Thea's initial sojourn out of the parish into the world is a failure, so after two years she travels to the land of the Ancient People. No doubt she remembers Ray Kennedy's saying that "when you sit in the sun and let your heels hang out of the doorway that drops a thousand feet, ideas come to you" (118). This is another version of a room with a view, but this one is built on even more solid ground than Thea's attic room. When she first arrives in the Southwest, she feels "completely released from the enslaving desire to get on in the world" (296). She is ready to discover her own personal parish in Panther Canyon.

The structure of Panther Canyon meets the basic requirements of the sanctuary room. It is insulated and isolated from the world. It is filled with light, its small, spare, high rooms totally sheltered on three sides and totally open on the fourth to "the river of blue air." The rooms are not just set on a solid foundation; they are actually "rock rooms" small enough for Thea to touch the roof as she had in her attic sanctuary. Upon moving into one of these rooms, Thea, like Paul, immediately humanizes it, but in stark contrast to Paul's Tiffany silver and purchased violets, she lines the room with Navajo blankets. From this sacred space, this "nest in a high cliff, full of sun," she will find her true voice and her true self (298).

During the initial stage of Thea's sojourn in Panther Canyon she rests, observes, and finds those things in life "which seemed destined for her." She becomes an integral part of the sacred space, letting it nourish her body and spirit. She feels initially "how easy it would be to dream one's life out in some cleft in the world" where one is free to live a life of pure sensation. She is touched by the evidence of the human mark in the dwellings-the pottery fragments, the intelligent arrangement of the rooms-and translates her impressions into the missing element in her art. Her walk down the path to the stream and her bath itself have "a ceremonial gravity"; "the atmosphere of canyon [is] ritualistic" (301, 304).

What Thea has learned, which "has almost nothing to do with words" (299), is that the world she aspires to, the world of art in the theater, is shallow when compared to the more solid world of the Cliff Dwellers. She takes this knowledge with her when she returns to the world of art, and it helps her find success. She knows now "that under the human world there is a geologic world . . . which [is] indifferent to man" (313), and this helps her keep perspective. When Thea needs to be refreshed after particularly draining performances, she re-creates in her hotel room the ritual bath of Panther Canyon and travels mentally back to her attic room in Moonstone (472-73). She brings her personal parish, the sanctuaries that nourish the spirit, into her new world. Because these spaces are set on the firm rock of the geologic world, they enable Thea to sojourn successfully in the world.

Cather's own crisis as an artist, which occurred in 1922, coincides with a renewed focus on the importance of the sacred space, the room with a view. Woodress tells us that after 1922, Cather wrote from her small cottage on Grand Manan Island. Although much different in climate from the Southwest, this isolated and insulated space high above the world, perched on a cliff shelf on the island, resembles Thea's and Tom Outland's shelters in the Cliff Dwellers' ruins.

The room with a view is central to The Professor's House, much of which was written on Grand Manan. As Cather recalled in 1938, "I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things . . . until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour" ("On The Professor's House" 31-32). At first it might that St. Peter's room fails to nourish him because of his apparent suffering. His personal parish, the attic room "where he could get isolation, insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life" (26), is literally life threatening unless the window is left open. His sacred space provides room to think in an airless world when it is open to the blue air and memories of the Blue Mesa (52). When it is closed, however, it is dangerous. Not only should the room be insulated and isolated from the world; more important, it must have an open and expansive view.

The view from the sheltered space, the parish, is the key to spiritual nourishment in The Professor's House. To be fed spiritually, Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland must not just exist in the small upper room, the sheltered space. They must have a view that replenishes the soul. The view creates unconscious mental pictures when the eyes are "merely open wide," pictures that are drawn upon when the world's dreariness closes in. St. Peter and Outland discover a series of views that work like the view of the lake St. Peter treasures: "It was like an open door that nobody could shut" (30). First, St. Peter sits in comfort at the Blackstone, watching a raging snow storm through the windows toward the, lake (like Paul's first view from the Waldorf) and prepares himself for a series of lectures (92). He remembers that the design of his book "unfolded in the air above him" as he lay in a small boat "riding low in the purple water" (106) while gazing up at the towering Sierra Nevadas. He ponders Euripedes, who lived in a cave by the sea as an old man because to him, as to St. Peter, "houses had become insupportable" (156). From his attic window he sees the physics building where Tom Outland had worked and, as a result of this view, relives his experience of the Blue Mesa and his friendship with Tom. After recounting Tom's story, St. Peter rediscovers his childhood self while lying "on his sand spit by the lake for hours and watch[ing] the seven motionless pines drink up the sun" (263). From this same sheltered view of his pine trees "appliquéd against the blue water," St. Peter envisions Notre Dame and Tom Outland's country with its "long, rugged, untamed vistas" (270). It is in the vistas of Tom Outland's country most of all that Cather so eloquently shows the power of the room with a view. Outland's country is even more solid to St. Peter than Notre Dame itself, so he escapes to the attic to write Tom Outland's story.

The central conflict between Tom Outland and Roddy Blake stems from Roddy's worldliness (187). The Mesa is home to runaways—wild cattle and wild men (190)—but Tom realizes from the beginning, as Roddy does not, the sacredness of the Mesa. Tom's first view of the cliff dwellings is "through a veil of snow" a thousand feet above him (201), an echo of Paul's Waldorf snowstorm and St. Peter's at the Blackstone. The thing that man cliff dwellings "splendid" and "delightful" is that they hang "like a bird's nest in the cliff, looking off into the box canyon below, and beyond into the wide valley . . . facing an ocean of clear air" (213). These rooms with their view nourish Tom's spirit. When he leaves for Washington to share his sacred space with the world, he has no idea that Roddy will sell it so cheaply.

Having discovered that the World Expo is more important to the Washington bureaucrats, who live a "miserable sort of departmental life," than the preservation of the sacred space of the Cliff Dwellers, Tom returns to the Mesa anxious to "live a free life and breathe free air" again (233, 236). His sojourn in the world has made him wiser but has not prepared him for the shock of Roddy's decision to sell the relics. In his pain and disillusionment he realizes how important his sanctuary, his personal parish, has become and that only there could he have "that glorious feeling . . . of being on the mesa, in a world above a world." Tom tries to explain to Roddy that the Mesa is their only inheritance, but Roddy says he "had to make [his] way in the world" (242-243). After their final parting, Tom retreats to the Mesa, knowing that his spirit needs replenishing and that his personal parish will renew him.

It is significant that Tom's renewal takes place while he is viewing the Mesa as he had when he first discovered it: he lies down "on a solitary rock that was like an island in the bottom of the valley, and look[s] up" at Cliff City. Tom becomes whole because this is the first time he sees the Mesa as a whole. He understands for the first time what the Latin poets meant when they wrote of "filial piety," because that is the way he feels. He is strengthened by his renewal, and after spending the rest of the summer in his personal parish, he leaves to make "something new in the world" (250-51, 261).

When Godfrey St. Peter lies down on his sand spit and rediscovers his childhood self, he mimics Tom's night lying below the cliff dwelling and recreates Tom's moment of filial piety. St. Peter is glad that Tom escaped the trap of worldly success. Tom's world, unlike St. Peter's, is not "tight and airless" (150). When St. Peter reaches his moment of crisis in the gas-filled attic room, he knows that "the thing to do" is to "get up and open the window" (276). Tom Outland has shown St. Peter that the personal parish, if it is to nourish the spirit, must not be limited to an elevated three-sided shelter with a view; it must be open and airy. Augusta finds St. Peter on the floor, evidence that he has made the attempt to open his room. After St. Peter's "absence from the world," he sees Augusta, his rescuer, as "seasoned and sound and on the solid earth" (279, 281). Like the rock of Thea Kronborg's Panther Canyon and Tom Outland's Blue Mesa, the more solid the base of the personal parish, the more beneficial it is to the character. Augusta and the room with the view provide St. Peter with the insulated isolation he needs for his sojourn in the world. He is ready to return to the world, perhaps not as nobly as Tom Outland but with a clear understanding of his fundamental self.

In 1944 Willa Cather wrote her penultimate story, "Before Breakfast," in which she painted an accurate picture of the Grand Manan cabin sanctuary, perched high on a cliff, that had served her so well. In this sketch Henry Grenfell retreats from his worldly success to the order and "glorious loneliness" of his room with a view (159). One morning, when the sanctuary of his cabin fails to restore his spirit, as it has done for years, he goes out to the cliff two hundred feet above the sea and sits down on a rock. He is reassured because the "rock itself, since it rested on the bottom of the ocean, must be very ancient" (161). He comes away from that view from the solid rock believing nothing has changed. After seeing a young girl swim in the icy water—a poignant reminder of lost youth—he returns to the cabin and to his world, replenished. Although he recognizes that "plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age" (166), he is ready to go on. His sanctuary is still beneficial.

Perhaps Willa Cather returned in this story to the imagery of the room with a view, the personal parish that enables the person to cope with the world, as solace from her own feeling of the harshness of age and change. Her readers relate to her works, in part, because we identify with this need for sanctuary. "From the Tree House," Ned Ryerson's response to a visit to Cather's Nebraska after losing his sight, recounts his memories of a childhood family cabin retreat, not unlike Cather's Grand Manan cabin, and a treehouse he and his brother built as their "own small place of refuge" (361). Ryerson remembers the view from that treehouse, one Sunday afternoon, of an approaching car from the city that brought news of his uncle's suicide, and of his mother's strength in this and other uncertainties of life. Refuges do not, as Ryerson says, "lead us away from intimacy or away from a consciousness of death or loneliness," but they do help us find endurance (368). Ryerson could find solace in the physical rooms and the expansive views in Cather's fiction. Her sheltered spaces-the rooms with a view-offer a solid sanctuary.


 1. Slote discusses the divided self as a cause of alienation. Arnold explores the experience of the outside world and the need for a quiet center in the inner world; she sees in the fiction a reflection of Cather's personal life-long struggle. (Go back.)
 2. Welty connects the physical world with the physical form of the art. Both Edel and Grumbach see relationships between the physical structure of rooms in The Professor's House and the psychology of the author; Edel considers the structure as personal symbol, Grumbach as veiled symbolic exploration of sexual choice outside of societal norms. (Go back.)
 3. In her Felicitous Space, Fryer more fully develops Bachelard's ideas of the intimate immensity of space by applying the concepts to Cather, Wharton, and turn-of-the-century culture as they relate to space and the female imagination. Rosowski also turns to Bachelard to explain Godfrey St. Peter's isolated reveries, during which, she asserts, he becomes "the author of his own solitude" (137). In these spaces, the person finds a personal center. (Go back.)


Arnold, Marilyn. "Cather's Last Three Stories: A Testament of Life and Endurance." Great Plains Quarterly 4 (1984): 238-44.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.
Cather, Willa. "Before Breakfast." The Old Beauty and Others. 1948. New York: Vintage-Random, 1976.
——. "Old Mrs. Harris." Obscure Destinies. 1932. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974.
——. "On The Professor's House." On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949. 30-32.
——. "Paul's Case." The Troll Garden. 1905. New York: NAL, 1971.
——. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage-Random, 1973.
——. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1978.
——. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
Edel, Leon. "A Cave of One's Own." Stuff of Sleep and Dreams: Experiments in Literary Psychology. New York: Harper, 1982. 216-40.
Fryer, Judith. "Cather's Felicitous Space." Prairie Schooner 55 (Spring/Summer 1981): 185-98.
——. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
Grumbach, Doris. "A Study of the Small Room in The Professor's House." Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 11.3 (1984): 327-45.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1986.
Ryerson, Ned. "From the Tree House." Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 11.3 (1984): 359-68.
Slote, Bernice. Introduction. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929. Lincoln: U of Nebraska 1973. ix-xxx.
Welty, Eudora. "The House of Willa Cather." The Art of Willa Cather. Ed. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1974. 3-20. 259.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.