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From Cather Studies Volume 1

Willa Cather and the Russians

James Woodress has observed that Willa Cather's art is a unique combination of New World experience and Old World reading, that it joins to the raw materials of pioneer Nebraska the cultural and literary traditions of Europe (47). Bernice Slote and others have for a long time recognized that Cather found in French writers—Mérimée, Flaubert, and Daudet—models for the kind of writing she wanted to do, forms and techniques for fiction that would allow her to transform her humble and often raw subject matter into high art (Cather, Kingdom 37). In her occasional writings the author herself repeatedly acknowledged this debt. But in her essays and letters one comes across numerous references to another literary tradition, that of the Russians, and to such names as Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. When Cather gave examples of high quality in fiction, she invariably cited Turgenev or Tolstoy or both. The Russian authors of the nineteenth century exerted a powerful influence on Willa Cather's imagination and this essay examines that influence in matters of setting and characterization, style and moral vision. Willa Cather was concerned throughout her career with that question Tolstoy raised so dramatically: "What is art?"


Cather's early journalism of the 1890s contains several references to the Russian writers, particularly Tolstoy and Turgenev. She first read translations of Tolstoy as a schoolgirl in Red Cloud and discovered Turgenev when she went on to the university. From the outset she felt that Tolstoy "possessed all the great secrets of art . . . an inimitable craft and power unlimited" (Kingdom 378). Her early articles lament Tolstoy's social pamphlets but praise Anna Karenina as "the greatest book ever written to instruct [society]" (World and Parish 48, 291-92). In discussing the way a novelist uses local color, she writes that "the greatest artists, like Turgenev, have always used it with an almost niggardly care" (World and Parish 278). Certainly from an early period she held up both Toistoy and Turgenev as standards by which to measure greatness in what she called "the kingdom of art."

We know that Cather continued to read the Russians from Elizabeth Moorhead's recollection that in 1905 Cather and her close friend Isabelle McClung "devoured the novels of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Balzac and Flaubert" and that Cather was "deeply impressed by the great Russian realists" (50). And many years later, in an article based on a 1931 interview, Louise Bogan reported that Cather admired "the power and breadth of the Russians even more than the delicacy and form of the French." Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy, Cather told her, are "of the first rank" (132).

In a letter to a Mr. Miller in 1924, Cather says that the greatest writers of fiction in modern times were Tolstoy and Turgenev, their methods absolutely opposite but both of the highest order. She admired Turgenev's finish, Tolstoy's power. But it is in a letter to H. L. Mencken about O Pioneers! that we get the fullest account of the influence on her of the Russians, specifically Tolstoy. When she was fourteen, she tells Mencken, she came upon four of Tolstoy's novels—Anna Karenina, The Cossacks, Ivan Ilyich, and The Kreutzer Sonata—and for the next three years read them over and over again. She says the experience so strongly colored the way she saw her own world in America that she eventually turned to a long apprenticeship with Henry James and Edith Wharton to get over it. Yet in writing O Pioneers! she wonders if she has really recovered from the Russian influence.

The letter to Mencken is immensely suggestive; it indicates a path of development in the apprentice years and allows us to discuss echoes from the Russians in Cather's work with some assurance that they are actually there. Her very first published pieces-"Peter," "Lou, the Prophet," "The Clemency of the Court," "On the Divide"-are sketches of European peasants struggling to make a new life on the American plains. Cather's account of these misfits in Nebraska is informed by a knowledge of peasant life in the Old World-that life of subservience, superstition, and mistreatment-which she gained from her reading. "Peter" and "The Clemency of the Court" are both about eastern Europeans: Peter, a first treatment of Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia, is a Bohemian; Serge Povolitchky in "Clemency" is a Russian.

"The Clemency of the Court" (Collected Short Fiction 515-22) is a particularly good example of Cather's early blending of her Nebraska experience with her reading. It tells of a simple Russian immigrant, raised to be a farmhand, who one day puts a hatchet through his employer's head because the latter has killed his dog. Serge dies in prison, dreaming that he will be rescued by his "great mother, the State." L. Brent Bohlke has shown that an incident at the Lincoln Penitentiary in 1893 probably suggested the story to Cather (134-44), and he has found literary sources as well: Turgenev's story "Mumu" is about a simple serf's great love for his dog, which he must eventually drown. Mildred Bennett has pointed to a possible source also in Turgenev's "Old Portraits," in which a mistreated serf splits open his master's skull with an axe (33). I suggest the influence of yet another Russian story on the basis of Cather's own testimony. In a column for the Lasso, a literary magazine that Cather helped edit during her first year at the state university, there is praise for Tolstoy's "Polikushka" (Kingdom 377), the story of a wretched peasant whose death is viewed as one small and pathetic instance in a vast system of social injustice. Polikushka believes in the beneficence of his mistress, who in turn represents the power of the state. Like Serge, he dies at the end of a rope without understanding what has happened to him. Cather's satirical purpose is identical with Tolstoy's. She points out in "Clemency," and in "Peter" as well, that a man who is not productive in society is of no consequence and will be allowed to die.

Cather's story is inconsequential compared to Tolstoy's, however, because it lacks the great background canvas of Russian life, the drama of noblemen, merchants, and serfs from which Polikushka's commonplace fate ultimately derives its significance. Cather apparently realized that her work was romantically derivative and could be only limited in scope, and so turned to American writers, specifically James and Wharton, for models. Indeed a large number of the stories that followed-"The Prodigies," "The Namesake," "The Willing Muse," "The Profile," psychological studies of artists and of sophisticated men and women-have been labeled Jamesian for their psychological content, their feeling for social nuance, and their qualities of formal design. But Cather came to see this path as equally false. With the composition of "The Bohemian Girl" (1912) and O Pioneers! (1913) she returned to her native Nebraska for materials and to her favorite Russian authors for inspiration, but instead of in irony and satire she found it in epic and pastoral, modes that fit the celebration of a land and its people.

O Pioneers! provides specific instances of the Slavic influence on Cather's writing. There is first the epigraph from the 1834 epic Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz: "Those fields, coloured by various grains!"[1] The title of the novel is from Whitman, signaling his epic vision of the New World, but the epigraph evokes the Old World and literary epic. Cather used it perhaps to suggest the continuity between the Old World and the New, but I think she used it also to indicate an aesthetic approach to a similar subject: that is, youthful romance, rural labors, the role of the church, nostalgia for an old civilization, and the love of one's country. Cather in no sense imitates Mickiewicz (no political theme parallels his lament for Lithuania), but her allusion to the epic poem nonetheless evokes a courteous way of life lived close to the land and a rendering of that life as art. The year after O Pioneers! was published, Cather wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant (10 Aug. 1914) that the people and places she knew in Nebraska continued to be for her like scenes in War and Peace, always more dramatic and interesting than anything she could have invented. Like Mickiewicz she saw the setting of her early life as the material of art.

Discernible Slavic influence in O Pioneers! extends beyond the epic panorama of farmers and fields to touch some of the characters. One of Cather's favorite books was Turgenev's Sportsman's Notebook, which contains a characterization so startlingly close to one of Cather's that it recalls the tradition of literary borrowings as practiced by Chaucer or Shakespeare. Turgenev's Kasyan "from the Beautiful Lands" (116-36) and Cather's Crazy Ivar, apart from different nationalities (Kasyan, of course, being Russian and Ivar Scandinavian), are strikingly similar: both are physically stunted, reclusive, and viewed as simple-minded; both make their living by working cures; both are known as holy men; and both try to protect wild birds from the hunter's gun. Here clearly was a model for Cather, and in this case she followed it closely. She had perhaps observed a strange man like this while growing up in Red Cloud, but she went to Turgenev for a method of rendering that character in fiction.

Further, in a sketch titled "Khor and Kalinych" (3-17), the description of the little peasant Khor, with his house full of big strong sons, reminds one of the Cuzak family in My Ántonia. Led by a favorite son, the narrator spends the night in Khor's barn, unable to sleep for a time but perfectly happy in the company of this vigorous peasant family. When Cather conceived the closing scenes of My Ántonia, though she was not likely to have actually slept in the barn of the Pavelkas (prototypes for the Cuzaks), she may well have remembered the scene from Turgenev's masterpiece and felt its appropriateness to her narrative at that point. His "Bezhin Meadow" (94-115) also seems to have been immensely suggestive to Cather. This sketch describes a night the narrator spends with a group of boys who sit around a fire telling tales of adventure and ghost stories. Cather's "Enchanted Bluff" follows the same structure and evokes the same mood, the youthful imagination warmed by a campfire and the moonlight and the future. In both her story and Turgenev's, an epilogue reveals that the dreams of boys invariably fade or are cut short by death.


These examples of sources point to something more important—the great influence Turgenev had on Cather's style.[2] Critics have made this connection before: Edmund Wilson in 1922 wrote that Cather followed the manner of Turgenev, not depicting her characters' emotions directly but telling us how they behave and letting their "inner blaze of glory or grief shine through the simple recital" (26). Turgenev's method was to select details that described a character's appearance and actions without trying to explain them. A writer, he said, "must be a psychologist-but a secret one; he must know and feel the roots of phenomena, but only present the phenomena themselves-in bloom or in decline" (Letters 111). And in a piece of drama criticism he argued that a writer must have complete knowledge of a character so as to avoid overloading the work with unnecessary detail, concentrating only on what is characteristic and typical (Letters 143).

Here we have an impressionist aesthetic that anticipates Cather's: what Turgenev refers to as secret knowledge, Cather calls "the thing not named." In her essay "The Novel Démeublé" she writes that "whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there-that, one might say, is created" (On Writing 41). For both writers, there is the absolute importance of selection and simplification; for both, art is the fusing of the physical world of setting and actions with the emotional reality of the characters. In "The Novel Démeublé" Cather gives the example of Tolstoy as achieving this end: "the clothes, the dishes, the haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author's mind, as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves" (39-40). The same essay holds up Gogol's rigorous selectivity as an aesthetic ideal.

What synthesizes all the elements of a narrative for these writers is the establishment of a prevailing mood. Turgenev frequently accomplished it by means of an introductory frame. For example, in A King Lear of the Steppes an unnamed speaker in a separate prefatory sequence introduces the narrator and the occasion of the story: "Six of us were assembled one winter evening at the house of an old comrade of university days" (231). The preface also introduces the subject of Shakespeare's character types, their vivid truth and timelessness, thus preparing for the universality of the character and story to follow. Cather explained in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant in 1919 that the brief introduction to My Ántonia was a device like that employed by the French and Russian authors to color their narrative with a certain mood or personal feeling. Turgenev's First Love undoubtedly gave her a specific model, for here an unnamed narrator reports that the central character of the story, asked to describe his first experience of falling in love, chooses to put down on paper his memories of the woman he loved-"I will write down all that I remember in a note-book"-and the preface goes on to announce that "this is what his note-book contained" (4-5). Similarly, in the introduction to My Ántonia Jim Burden says, "I've been writing down what I remember about Ántonia," and Cather's unnamed narrator (in the first edition) announces, "The following narrative is Jim's manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me" (xiv).

The mood and moral character of the narrator in Turgenev's Sportsman's Notebook is conveyed through the careful selection and arrangement of detail in a way that Cather would have found instructive. The narrator, a member of the Russian gentry, is a man reluctant to pass judgment on the countryside he travels through or the peasants he talks with in the village taverns. The emotion he feels in response to the Russian landscape and its people is communicated by a phrase or an adjective, never by a direct statement. The emotion is too complex to be explained, for it is compounded of both intense pleasure and a feeling of loss. This was the double mood Cather experienced when she returned to her Nebraska prairie, and many of the scenes in her fiction seem to echo Turgenev's sketches directly.

When Cather mentioned in an early piece of criticism Turgenev's skill in handling local color, she wrote of places in his novels "where you can fairly feel him refraining from assisting himself by sombre Russian landscapes and the threadbare, pathetic Russian peasant" (World and Parish 178). One item of local color in which Turgenev indulges himself, however, is the description of dawn unfolding at midsummer, as seen by his impressionable hunter. His method is to describe the nuances of changing light, the colors and textures in the trees and flowers, the smell of the hayfields-and then to conclude with an image that fuses the natural landscape with the imaginative life of man. For example, the narrator twice describes in a July dawn a landscape he says the Russian people love, with "spreading, grassy water-meadows . . . creeks with banks overgrown with sallow and osier . . . the sort of country into which the heroes of our ancient folklore rode out to shoot white swans and grey duck" (235, 381-82). In Cather's Lost Lady Niel Herbert also experiences the intense joy of anticipation in a July dawn as he walks through the Forrester meadow and marshland; like Turgenev's narrator he views the landscape and the unspoiled morning as a reminder of that world "handed down from the heroic ages" (85). But the purity of the dawn for both is stained by the actions of men: for Turgenev, by the oppression and suffering of human beings in what might have been a paradise; for Cather, by the treachery and coarseness of self-interested men and women quickly turning one of the last unspoiled regions of the earth into a place of easy pleasure and profit.

The Russian steppe and the American prairie are of course central to the imaginative kinship Cather felt for the Russian writers (just as highly cultivated gardens later became part of her special feeling for the French). She made the comparison herself in describing the American prairie: "From east to west, this plain measures five hundred miles; in appearance it resembles the wheatlands of Russia, which fed the continent of Europe for so many years. Like little Russia, it is watered by slow-moving, muddy rivers, which run full in the spring, often cutting into the farm-lands along their banks; but by midsummer they lie low and slumber, their current split by glistening white sandbars half overgrown with scrub willow" (In Person 95).

In the Russians she had a precedent for the artistic treatment of great continental plains-wheat-fields and pastures and meadows, great expanses of sky, the climatic extremes of intense heat in summer, blizzards and iron-hard cold in winter. In fact, she believed that in Russian literature the land itself emerged as greater than any of the characters. In a 1933 piece written for radio broadcast she credits the Russian novelists with breaking away from the formula of romantic love and success and points to new subjects they introduced: The great group of Russian novelists who flashed out in the north like a new constellation at about the middle of the last century, did more for the future than they knew. They had no benumbing literary tradition behind them. They had a glorious language, new to literature, but old in human feeling and wisdom and suffering, and they were themselves men singularly direct and powerful, with sympathies as wide as humanity. They were all very big men, physically (of rugged health, with the exception of Dostoevsky) and had no need to be continually defending their virility in print. Horse racing and dog racing and hunting are always the best of Tolstoy. In Gogol, Turgenev, Lermentov, the earth speaks louder than the people. (In Person 170)

That last observation, "the earth speaks louder than the people," is central to an understanding of the Russian influence on Cather. It was her purpose as well to write about the country and the people she loved so dearly. As she points out in the essay "My First Novels," O Pioneers! has no hero; it is "a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards-set in Nebraska" (On Writing 94). And in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant (undated) she wrote that the country insisted on being the Hero and she did not interfere; the story came out of the long grasses like Dvořák's New World Symphony.[3]

Certainly some of the finest writing in Willa Cather's fiction is in the description of the prairie, and such characters as Alexandra Bergson and Ántonia achieve their heroic stature from their relation to that landscape. Ántonia on her farm becomes an earth mother, a corn goddess. And although Alexandra tames the wild land ("the Genius of the Divide," that great free spirit of the land, we are told, bent lower than ever before to a human will), nonetheless, it will receive Alexandra back into its bosom again: "We come and go," she says, "but the land is always here" (Pioneers 308).

Cather also peopled her land with a folk, like the Russian peasantry. In "The Bohemian Girl" and in O Pioneers! we see the people at their labors and at play together, sharing those joys and sorrows that are communal. There is the barn-raising supper and dance in "The Bohemian Girl," with rows of guests seated about the barn and tables laden with food prepared by the heroic old women. In O Pioneers! the activities of the whole community are recorded in the French church fair, the grain harvesting, the mourning of the people for Amédée Chevalier, and the great confirmation service. The picture of forty French boys riding across the prairie to meet the bishop is like a scene out of a Tolstoy novel. In this stylized presentation of a land and its people, Cather's Nebraska experiences and her reading (surely of the Russians) fuse as the dynamic elements in her art.


While she was writing O Pioneers! Cather was reading Chekhov. She told Elizabeth Sergeant in a letter of December 1912 how very much she admired his work and urged her to read The Cherry Orchard. Although the mood of this play with its picture of an artistocratic world in decline is wholly different from that of the novel she was working on, it anticipates another aspect of Cather's sensibility that would emerge more clearly in My Ántonia (1918) and especially in A Lost Lady (1923)-a melancholy regret for a golden past that the protagonist has lost and that may never have existed. What Cather would have strongly responded to in Chekhov's play is the powerful feeling the family has for its debt-ridden estate, especially as symbolized by the ancient and renowned cherry orchard. (Cather in fact used a similar motif in Lucy Gayheart: the young pianist, home to recover from the loss of her lover, battles with her sister not to cut down the old apple orchard.)

For Willa Cather the definition of a man or woman is always inextricably bound up with the landscape in which he or she lives. Two of her strongest characters, Alexandra and Ántonia, even though they are pioneers and immigrants, exist wholly in connection to the land they cultivate, are deeply rooted there. Other strong figures, such as Thea Kronborg (Song) and Godfrey St. Peter (Professor's House) recognize the importance of grounding themselves, as it were: Thea's vision of the meaning of art comes in the canyon when she surrenders herself to the elements (earth, sun, water, sky); St. Peter goes alone to the lake where he was a boy, to escape the meaningless and artificial social world of his family.

Another figure that recurs in Cather's fiction is a character weaker, less certain of purpose or direction, cut off from that relationship to place but haunted by a desire to be reconnected. I think of Carl Linstrum in O Pioneers!, Jim Burden in My Ántonia, and to some extent Niel Herbert in A Lost Lady. There broods over these characters an unmistakable feeling of pathos and loss. They respond sensitively to complex human situations, but more urgently they seek to recover, in the very movement of nature's seasons, a sense of man's lost relationship to himself. Both the healthy peasant and the alienated man were new characters in American fiction at the beginning of the century, but Cather would have been familiar with the latter in its long descent through Russian literary history.

When Turgenev published Diary of a Superfluous Man, he created a paradigm for such a character. His "superfluous man" was an individual who, though economically privileged, can find no meaningful place in work or society, one who becomes involved in hopeless romantic infatuations and succumbs to a condition of passive self-pity. Although the type is sometimes said to have originated in Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, it flourished in Russian literature, appearing in all the major writers' works (see Mirsky). Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1831) is perhaps the Russian prototype: this detached, sophisticated young man's unhappy cynicism and ultimate regrets play off against the affirmation of rural values and nature. In Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Times (1840), Pechorin believes in nothing and is heartless toward others, but we sympathize with him because he is aware of his own nature and desperately wants to believe in something. This nihilism is even more pronounced in the character of Bazarov in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862). Both his failure (his refusal even) to allow his love for Anna Odintsova to be meaningful, fulfilling, and his death are enacted against a pastoral background: the student's return to the country of his childhood, the innocent old parents, and finally the life and future-affirming romance and marriage of Arkady, Bazarov's close friend and disciple. The superfluous man of Turgenev's Diary is an exaggerated, almost caricaturized version of this figure, wholly despairing and at the point of death. Here too there is estrangement from home and failure in romantic love, but counterpointing death is the renewal of the seasons: as Chulkaturin lies dying, he records that "the air filled with the smell of plowed earth" (75). All these characters, including the wandering narrator of Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches, are lost, deracinated; they cannot locate themselves in any landscape or create a home.

But Cather's greatest interest and admiration would have been evoked by Tolstoy's handling of this type in two of her favorite works, The Cossacks (1863) and Anna Karenina (1875-77). The Cossacks is the story of a restless young aristocrat, Dimitri Olenin, who is wholly disenchanted with civilization and "returns to nature" by serving with the army in the remote Caucasian mountains. Here he lives with and comes to know the Cossack peoples whom he admires for their simplicity, healthy happiness, and high animal spirits. The Cossacks are similar to Cather's Bohemian immigrants. A young village woman, Marienka, has Ántonia's vigorous beauty: she is proud of the strong muscles in her arms from her farm labors, but Olenin also admires her natural beauty and gracefulness. A group of young Cossack women are much like Cather's "hired girls"; they have the same attractiveness, generosity, and the same easy ways with men. They give a party for Olenin and one of his aristocratic comrades, drink wine with honeycomb, feed the young men spice cake, and kiss them freely. Olenin, who has no family, feels that "in [the] Cossack village was his home, his family, his happiness, and that he never had lived and never would live so happily anywhere else" (259). But though Olenin loves Marienka, the great gulf of class and race eventually intervenes, and Olenin finally leaves the village; he finds a place neither there nor in Moscow society.

The dilemma of the superfluous man is dramatized most meaningfully in the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. For Levi the problem of a purposeful life focuses in the questions of fait and work. How can one best live well, he asks himself repeatedly: "If I don't accept the replies offered by Christianity to the question my life presents, what solutions do I accept?" Tolstoy says that Levin cannot philosophically find anything resembling an answer. Haunted by the questions of life's meaning and worth, he turns to the problem of the land and agriculture, attracted to the life of the peasant: "Levin had often admired that kind of life, had often envied the folk who lived it . . . it struck him that it depended on himself to change his wearisome, idle, and artificial personal life for that pure, delightful life of common toil" (251). Accordingly, he labors in the fields with his peasants. But he has neither the physical strength nor the philosophical resolve to continue this life. His status as a superfluous man, however, is to a degree resolved (and here he differs from the type) by his love for Kitty Scherbatsky, whom he marries. Cather may have thought Anna Karenina the greatest novel ever written because it united her favorite themes: man in relation to society and civilization, and man in relation to the land.

Cather's superfluous men experience the same dilemma as their Russian counterparts. Carl Linstrum in O Pioneers! loves the Nebraska country where he has spent his youth, but he is physically no farmer; he becomes an engraver in New York and eventually a wandering prospector in Alaska. He describes himself as a type: "In the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. . . . We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres" (123). In middle age Carl ends his rootless, itinerant existence by returning to Nebraska and to marriage with Alexandra.

Jim Burden makes only a temporary return at the end of his story. Although he is a successful lawyer for a major western railway, the Introduction outlines reasons to view him in company with Carl: Jim too is restlessly crossing the country; his marriage is an empty formality; he has no children to give his work and future a special purpose. Although he is economically and socially privileged, he finds his greatest happiness on Ántonia's farm, as Turgenev's sportsman does with Khor's family or Olenin with the Cossacks. For the Russian heroes and for Cather's, the return to the land is a return to the self and that elusive promise of happiness.

The landscapes in Cather's fictions are always, I think, to some extent determined by this search-for a people and a culture rooted in place. The peasant immigrants in her early fiction bespeak that relationship, yet a melancholy attaches to these figures because they have been uprooted from their homelands. As she grew increasingly disenchanted with American life in the 1910s, Cather looked to the oldest cultures of North America to locate this lost world where a people lived in a relationship to place that was autochthonous, aboriginal. In The Professor's House she finds it in the Anasazi, the ancient pueblo Indians, but they have long been extinct. Only in the cultures of the Navajo, Hopi, and Mexican Indians described in Death Comes for the Archbishop can she celebrate a continuous, living tradition of people and place that is immemorial; for both the author and her priests it is the source of great happiness. Cather also turned to Quebec, in Shadows on the Rock, exactly because a way of life-language and religion bound to the land-had not changed there for three hundred years. The emotional quest of Cather's rootless, superfluous men was also a measure of the failure of her contemporary society, evidenced most dramatically in One of Ours, where the protagonist prefers death in France-a timeless Old World culture-to life in twentieth-century America.


Cather articulated her profound admiration for the Russians in interviews and occasional writings-book reviews, essays, letters. We also learn from the testimony of her friends how much the Russian authors meant to her. For example, Yehudi Menuhin recalled for Bernice Slote in 1973 that the author gave him a copy of Nikolai Nekrasov's Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia?, a long satiric poem that portrays the suffering of the peasantry with great sympathy (Slote and Faulkner, Art of Willa Cather 250). Nekrasov (1821-78) edited the Contemporary, the literary magazine founded by Pushkin, and he published works by Turgenev and Tolstoy.

But what about direct references to Russian literature in Cather's fiction itself? There is a very important one in the short story "A Gold Slipper," in Youth and the Bright Medusa, placed there as part of what Bernice Slote called "the secret web" in Cather's writing ("Secret Web" 1-19). In this story, which juxtaposes the values of art with those of the commercial and business worlds, Kitty Ayrshire teases an elderly businessman about his conservative opinions by referring him to Tolstoy's book What Is Art? She recounts Tolstoy's argument that humankind for a long time existed only to gratify its appetites, but then miraculously a divine ideal was disclosed that gave men and women a new craving, at odds with their physical appetites; happiness resides in the creative pursuit of that ideal, glimpsed and felt in great art (142-43). Because "A Gold Slipper" remains a minor piece in Cather's canon, readers have not explored that allusion, but I believe that Tolstoy's vision of art was a compatible and reassuring point of reference for Cather (she would have been happy to be called a "crank" like Tolstoy)[4] and that some of her ideas in both her criticism and fiction can be referred to Tolstoy for their fuller meaning.

A central premise in Tolstoy's book, and one that runs throughout Cather's critical commentary, is that art is not simply the creation of beauty or the manifestation of ideas but the expression of feeling. Tolstoy writes: "To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced, and having called it up by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, images, expressed in words, to so convey this feeling that others experience the same feeling-in this consists the action of art" (74). "That others experience the same feeling": for Tolstoy the great power of art lies in its capacity through shared emotion to annihilate the differences between people. He writes that "it is in this liberation of the personality from its separateness from other people, from its own loneliness, in this merging of the personality in others, that the chief attractive power and distinctive character of art lies" (215-16). Cather says something similar when she talks about art and the gift of sympathy; she refers repeatedly in letters to the importance of getting the emotion right. In an interview in 1925 she asserted that emotion is bigger than style and that there is very little that is new and valuable for the artist in ideas (In Person 79). Both Tolstoy and Cather believed that art which requires a great deal of education is false art, based on artifice and cleverness rather than feeling.

For Cather, it was essential to an artist's success to strip away all superficial detail. A work of art lives on through time to the extent that the artist gives expression to human emotions that are universal and timeless. In "The Novel Démeublé" she says of Balzac's fiction that "the things by which he still lives, the types of greed and avarice and ambition and vanity and lost innocence of heart . . . are as vital today as they were then. But their material surroundings, upon which he expended such labour and pains . . . the eye glides over them" (On Writing 38-39). Tolstoy had made the same argument in What Is Art? Compared to old stories like that of Joseph and his brethren or that of Potiphar's wife, many of Pushkin's stories or Dickens's Pickwick Papers are overwhelmed, he argues, by abundant and superfluous details, scarcely intelligible to people living outside the surroundings the author describes: "Take away the details from the best novels of our times," says Tolstoy, "and what will remain?" (242). Likewise, for Cather, the story of a banker who is unfaithful to his wife and ruins himself trying to gratify his mistress cannot be reinforced by an exposition on the banking system and stock exchange; she concedes ironically that if the story is thin, such things might help, but she wonders if they really have a place in imaginative art (On Writing 37-38).

Her thoughts here strongly echo those of Tolstoy. Using the example of music, he writes: "In consequence of the poverty of the subject matter, the feelings, the melodies of modern musicians are startlingly insubstantial. And, then, in order to strengthen the impression, produced by the insubstantial melody, modern musicians crowd into every insignificant melody complicated modulations" (What Is Art? 142). Perhaps he would have appreciated Cather's observation that in his novels the material furnishings-the descriptions of clothes, food, houses, and so on-are always part of the emotions of the people. Certainly he would have agreed with the final reflection in "The Novel Démeublé" that the artist should "leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little," like "the stage of a Greek theatre, or . . . that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended" (42-43).

When she links art to religion, Cather approaches the heart of Tolstoy's poetics. Genuine art, he argued, expresses the religious consciousness of one's age. In Western civilization, he states, the Christian ideal of love of one's fellow man remains paramount. Two kinds of feelings unite all people: simple feelings such as joy, gaiety, and tenderness, and that great Christian feeling which flows from the "consciousness of the brotherhood of mankind" (233-34). Among the artists Tolstoy singles out as achieving that goal are Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, and, interestingly, two French painters who interested Cather: Jean Millet and Jules Breton (who painted Song of the Lark). Tolstoy rejected science for its own sake, the laboratory without humanist application. He argued that "true science consists in finding out what we should and should not believe, in finding out how the associated life of human beings should and should not be established" (292). Much of Godfrey St. Peter's thinking in The Professor's House reflects these thoughts: St. Peter tells his students that science has made man comfortable and given him a number of ingenious toys but hasn't solved the real problems of human existence. Echoing Tolstoy directly, he states that art and religion are the same thing in the end and that they have given man the only happiness he has ever had (67-69). Cather, from her earliest student reviews, asserted that "art itself is the highest moral purpose in the world" (Kingdom 378).

Tolstoy's belief that art must be imbued with a religious consciousness and that it promotes feelings shared by all humankind can be seen as informing Cather's later works, especially The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop. In both these books the highest form of art is communal in origin and service. In The Professor's House religious and communal art are the only viable alternatives in a world consumed by ambition and greed; they are a lasting source of happiness because they transcend personal desire. The dressmaker's need to express the emotion of love finds its fullest and most satisfying form in the ritual of the Magnificat. Tom Outland's only pleasure in material objects is in the love he feels for the communal artifacts of the ancient Indians. Similarly, in Death Comes for the Arcbbisbop the religious artifacts of the peoples in the Southwest are held up as the ideal. They are the work and property of a whole people or folk and so transcend the question of private possession and individual ambition; more important, they represent the fundamental emotions of the Christian tradition-the love of Christ, the tenderness of the Virgin, the sorrow of the crucifixion. They fulfill certainly what Tolstoy described as the destiny of art-the translation from reason to feeling of the truth that for their own well-being, people must unite, "substitut[ing] for the kingdom of force, the kingdom of heaven, that is, love, which presents itself . . . as the highest aim of human life" (297).

Perhaps Cather's debt to the Russians can be summed up as a translation. From her reading she took the powerful images of the Russian steppe and peasant folk and recreated them in terms of the felt truth of her own Nebraska experience. The Russian story of the superfluous man, haunted by his lost connection to home and to the earth, she translated into the plight of the restless and rootless young American who watches a virgin land transformed in one generation into an urban, industrial wasteland. And the Russian vision of art connected to the brotherhood of man she located in the work of a people and a church. From the Russians, we might say, she translated for Americans the universals of the human heart.


 1. For a discussion of this epigraph, see Slote, "Secret Web." (Go back.)
 2. Turgenev's influence can be directly felt in the work of other American writers as well, particularly that of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. See, e.g., Wilkinson. (Go back.)
 3. Cather reminded Sergeant that Dvořák had in fact spent several weeks in Nebraska in the early 1880s before composing his great symphony. See also Cather, World and Parish 412-13. (Go back.)
 4. In contemporary literary theory, following the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Cather would be described in negative terms, like Tolstoy, as writing in a monologue, in a voice unified by its own convictions and closed to an opposing point of view. (Go back.)


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