The writer who most visibly influenced Cather at the beginning of her career was Henry James. She imitated James in a number of her short stories. She herself repudiated her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, as a misguided attempt to write of sophisticated English society in the manner of Henry James and Edith Wharton. But the resemblances between society in Alexander's Bridge and society as depicted by James and Wharton are superficial; the heart of Cather's first novel—the portrayal of the inner conflict within the mind of the protagonist—shows the most important lesson that Cather learned from James: how to unify a novel by centering the narrative in the mind of a single character, whom James called the center of consciousness. Usually the unifying character is an observer of other characters, making the subject of many of both James's and Cather's novels the impressions of the observers. In showing what the observers make of "the reflected field of life" (James's phrase), James and Cather develop many of the same themes and techniques to engage the imagination of the reader and to invite their participation in the text. Although James and Cather took very different directions in moving away from the traditional Victorian novel, they expressed and shared allied critical principles and held to the highest aesthetic standards of the novelist's art.
Willa Cather's early knowledge and admiration of Henry James are well documented. As an editor and reviewer in Pittsburgh in the 1890s, she enthusiastically reviewed The Other House (1896) and In the Cage (1898) when they were published. She extolled James as "a great master," "that mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives" (World and the Parish [W&P] 1: 275). For her it was to his credit that "his touch . . . true and perfect, delicate, yet unerring, [was] scarcely broad enough to catch the eye of the crowd" (W&P 2: 551-52). She lavished praise on the stories in The Lesson of the Master and Terminations: "[I]n these two little volumes of short stories he who will may find out something of what it means to be really an artist. The framework is perfect and the polish is absolutely without flaw. They are sometimes a little hard, always calculating and dispassionate, but they are perfect" (W&P 1: 275). She quotes from a review by James published in 1883 in the Atlantic Monthly and twice paraphrases from an essay in James's French Poets and Novelists, republished in 1883—evidence that she was a faithful reader of James early in her career. She considered The Tragic Muse "the only theatrical novel that has a particle of the spirit of the stage in it" (W&P 1: 288). Her description of James's actress, Miriam Rooth, suggests the struggles of Cather's Thea Kronborg. In Cather's words James's actress "beats and beats upon those brazen doors that guard the unapproachable until one fine morning she beats them down and comes into her kingdom, the kingdom of unborn beauty that is to live through her" (W&P 1: 289).
Cather so admired James's stories that she imitated them in her own book of stories, The Troll Garden (1905). She justified the practice in an interview in 1921. After she had published My Ántonia to great acclaim, she said, "When I left the University of Nebraska after graduating and went to New York, I wanted to write after the best style of Henry James—the foremost mind that ever applied itself to literature in America. I was dazzled. I was trying to work in a sophisticated medium and write about highly developed people whom I knew only superficially" (Bohlke 37). Four years later, in another interview, she defended young writers' imitation of the great masters as "a perfectly right form of education": "All students imitate, and I began by imitating Henry James. He was the most interesting writer at that time, and I strove laboriously to pattern after him" (Bohlke 76). She scorned what she considered the benighted views of Mary Elizabeth Sherwood, a popular society journalist of the time, who attributed the popularity of James's novels to "their attractive houses, pretty women, and general atmosphere of what is most delightful. These make him the popular favorite in the home of the luxurious" (qtd. in W&P 2: 543). These fatuous remarks moved Cather to satire: "What Maisie Knew, for instance, is full of the 'general atmosphere of what is most delightful!' If it is indeed upon 'attractive houses' that Mr. James must base his claims to immortality, the author of The Tragic Muse and The Princess Casamassima had better study without delay the Ladies' Home Journal's 'Interior of a Hundred Homes' and thus make his calling and election sure" (W&P 2: 543). But Cather's attempt to imitate James led her to place aristocratic characters in luxurious houses in fashionable London settings in situations reminiscent of James's stories.
Here is the beginning of "The Marriage of Phaedra" from The Troll Garden: "The sequence of events was such that MacMaster did not make his pilgrimage to Hugh Treffinger's studio until three years after that painter's death" (Collected Short Fiction [csf] 219). The title refers to Treffinger's unfinished painting, which MacMaster finds so compelling, he decides to write a biography of the painter and to interview his widow, Lady Ellen. The story is filled with Jamesian types: the loyal Cockney servant; the cold artist's aristocratic widow, unsympathetic to her husband's art, like the wife of Mark Ambient in "The Author of Beltraffio." MacMaster (as his name suggests) is like James's admiring student acolytes—sometimes a young writer ("The Death of the Lion," "The Figure in the Carpet," "The Lesson of the Master"), sometimes a doctor ("The Middle Years")—who worship the master, who often lives in seclusion to escape the clamor of an uncomprehending public. Sharon O'Brien considers "James's presence more insistent in Cather's stories published in 1907 ['The Willing Muse,' 'Eleanor's House,' 'The Profile,' 'The Namesake'] than in any she wrote previously" (300). This is particularly true of "The Willing Muse," a retelling of The Sacred Fount, about the author of a medieval story, "an exquisite prose idyl" (csf 114), who is drained by his marriage to a popular novelist whose "splendid success" reduces him to a lifeless nonentity. Having drudged for years as his wife's secretary, "he had dried up like a stockfish. . . . [H]e had lived to help lessen the value of all that he held precious, to disprove all that he wanted to believe. . . . His usefulness to the world was over when he had done what he did for Bertha" (csf 123). Willa Cather never met Henry James. But early in 1906 Witter Bynner, Cather's colleague at McClure's, sent James a copy of The Troll Garden. Bynner's letter that followed moved James to explain why, having received The Troll Garden, he had not intended to read it: "[P]romiscuous fiction has become abhorrent to me, and I find it the hardest thing in the world to read almost any new novel. Any is hard enough, but the hardest from the innocent hands of young females, young American females perhaps above all. . . . I will then (in spite of these professions) do my best for Miss Cather" (Letters 4: 395). There is no evidence that James ever commented on The Troll Garden or even read it. But Cather managed to extract satisfaction from his dismissive letter, declaring herself pleased with James's reply. She found "a bracing moral stimulant" in James's condemnation of "promiscuous fiction" but confessed that the idea of James reading her work made her feel like a patient awaiting, after a thorough physical examination, the doctor's verdict (O'Brien 309).
Cather later repudiated her early stories and her attempt in them and in Alexander's Bridge to portray fashionable English society as depicted by James and Edith Wharton. But her affinity with James extends to her later works, different as they are from his in style and setting. They share a number of important themes, such as the ill-fated marriage or aborted relationship dramatized in the portrayal of a familiar character—the middle-aged man who seeks to regain lost youth through a profound relationship with a person or generation younger than himself. Lambert Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors, is James's prime example of the older man—Strether is fifty-five—seeking youth in his relation with other characters. Always the observer, Strether is burdened by a sense of lost opportunities but graced with a responsive imagination and openness to new impressions. In performing his mission—to rescue a young man, Chad Newsome, from what his family back home in Woollett, Massachusetts, believes to be an entanglement with a disreputable woman in Paris—Strether enjoys "a little supersensual hour, a kind of vicarious joy, in that freedom of another" (Complete Notebooks 558; original emphasis).
Unlike Strether, who feels he has accomplished little in his life, Cather's characters who mourn their lost youth have achieved outstanding success in their professional lives: Bartley Alexander (Alexander's Bridge) is a world-famous engineer and bridge builder; Godfrey St. Peter (The Professor's House) is a celebrated historian; Clement Sebastian (Lucy Gayheart) is a renowned singer on the international stage. But all feel jaded and depressed in middle age. All could have spoken the words James copied in one of his notebooks, said by someone in defending a young man accused of being selfish: "He doesn't love himself; he loves his youth . . . the most beautiful words in the language—Youth!" (Complete Notebooks 76; original emphasis).
Both James and Cather were drawn to the artist as a subject for fiction, although most of Cather's characters, unlike James's, are performers—usually musicians, mainly singers, although pianists and violinists are important too. Most of James's artists are either writers or painters. As the triumph of the artist connects The Tragic Muse (James's major novel about a performer) to Cather's The Song of the Lark, so the power of and reverence for the dead in the lives of the living connects James's "Altar of the Dead" and The Wings of the Dove to The Professor's House, where Tom Outland is omnipresent years after his death.
Finally, in her review of In the Cage Cather appreciated the power James placed in the imagination—how profoundly it affects his characters' desires and decisions. Describing James's protagonist, Cather writes, "[O]ut of all the patrons of the telegraph cage, the girl inside selects a man and a woman for the chief characters of an emotional drama and there, in the conflicting odors of bacon and dried herring, she constructs her romance," a romance that becomes "precious to her . . . that came to mean more to her than the realities of her life, became, indeed, its chief reality" (W&P 2: 554). These words could well describe the experience of several of Cather's characters. When the relationship with a beloved person is a character's "chief reality," the outcome is likely to be disillusionment, such as Niel Herbert suffers when Marian Forrester betrays his ideal of her, or a profound sense of loss, such as that which nearly destroys the will to live of St. Peter and Lucy Gayheart, whose beloved persons, Tom Outland and Sebastian, are lost in death. When the "chief reality" of a character does not depend on the fate of another person, the dream can be fulfilled, as in The Tragic Muse, O Pioneers!, and The Song of the Lark.
Through the imagination of one character substance and form are fused, and the novel is unified. James's most important lesson for Cather, I think, was the value of centering narration in the mind of one character, what James called the center of consciousness, a mirror or reflector, a register of impressions. In her review of In the Cage Cather perceived that the key to James's method was to make his subject what he termed "the reflected field of life," or life reflected by what characters make of their situation (James, Art of the Novel 65). She recognized that the "question" raised by In the Cage is what the telegrams the unnamed telegraphist sends for her fashionable society clients "mean to her, how they will affect her" (W&P 2: 551).
Beginning with Alexander's Bridge, Cather unified most of her novels by making one character's perceptions and observations—the "reflected field of life"—the subject of the novel. But what is best known about Alexander's Bridge is Cather's comment on it in her often quoted essay "My First Novels [There Were Two]." Her attempt to imitate James and Wharton resulted, she wrote, in "what painters call a studio picture. It was the result of meeting some interesting people in London. . . . [A]t that time I found the new more exciting than the familiar. The impressions I tried to communicate on paper were genuine, but they were very shallow" (On Writing 91-92). But the heart of that novel lies not in the "Jamesian" scenes of fashionable London parties, but in the inner conflict Bartley Alexander wrestles with: his attraction to the young Irish actress, Hilda Burgoyne, and his reluctance to act to destroy his marriage and professional life.
Bartley Alexander, at forty-three, would seem to have everything—professional success and acclaim; a beautiful, intelligent wife; a well-ordered home in Boston; a secure social position; physical strength and health; a powerful and handsome presence: "he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look" (10). But he feels oppressed as he confronts "this dead calm of middle life. . . . It was like being buried alive" (37). He complains to a former teacher, Lucius Wilson, who functions as a Jamesian confidant, "Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about" (13). After listening to Alexander, Wilson "thought that beneath his vigorous color he detected the dulling weariness of on-coming middle age" (16).
Early in the novel Alexander is drawn to Hilda Burgoyne, whom he had known years before. Seeing her in a play in London, he feels "a kind of rapid excitement . . . tingling through him" (27). He was never in love with her, but he loves his memories of their young days in London together. She recalls to him "some one vastly dearer to him than she had been—his own young self" (39), which he feels to be "fading and dying" (38). For him youth is energy, the "full consciousness of self," "the only thing of absolute value" (38).
He continues to see Hilda because he needs her for "the intense excitement, the increasing expectancy of youth" (72). He tells her as much: "You've got my young self here with you. It's through him that I've come to wish for you all and all the time" (79). He knows he will be ruined if he leaves his wife. His life with her gives him "everything but energy, the energy of youth which must register itself and cut its name before it passes" (104). Alexander feels within himself a second self "fighting for his life at the cost of mine" (93). The second self is driven by the "energy of youth," which he cannot conquer. He writes a letter to his wife, which he cannot bring himself to mail. His torment of indecision is finally ended when the bridge in Canada he has designed collapses from the strain on its structure and he dies in the river.
James hardly ever portrayed the mind in the throes of such inner struggle. The typical action of his fiction is a character's growing awareness of a situation or person culminating in a decision of some kind—if decision is not too strong a word for the ending of The Ambassadors, for Strether's feeling after his awakening that he must return to Woollett, must refuse Maria Gostrey's offer to share her life with his, having resolved "[n]ot, out of the whole affair, to have got anything for myself" (2: 326). And, except for The Princess Casamassima, James did not resolve an inner conflict by death, like Bartley's death by drowning. James preferred the open ending, as in The Portrait of a Lady, What Maisie Knew, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, leaving the reader to wonder what the characters will do after the action of the "inner drama" has ended.
Cather favored more decisive, informative endings. Readers of Shadows on the Rock know that Cecile Auclair marries Pierre Charron and bears four sons; readers of The Song of the Lark know that Thea Kronborg reaches the pinnacle of her career as a great Wagnerian singer and in the revised edition (1937) marries Fred Ottenburg. Death ends the lives of Lucy Gayheart and Clement Sebastian (in Lucy Gayheart), Marian Forrester (in A Lost Lady), Myra Henshawe (in My Mortal Enemy), and Claude Wheeler (in One of Ours).
The most open-ended novel of Cather's is The Professor's House, perhaps the most Jamesian of her novels in tone and atmosphere. All takes place within St. Peter's mind; he is the center of consciousness and also the register or reflector of all the characters. The momentous arrival of Tom Outland, who brought to St. Peter a "kind of second youth" (258), is dramatized as a memory, as are all the scenes involving Outland. This is appropriate because memories of Tom, after all these years, still fill St. Peter's mind. For St. Peter the past is time present, until book 3, when the beginning of a new semester drives him to think of his obligations as a teacher in the present. The autumn season in fact and in his life is now his reality: "When the maple leaves along the street began to turn yellow and waxy, and were soft to the touch,—like the skin on old faces,—he said: 'That is true; it is time'" (266).
After his near death by asphyxiation caused by a broken stove in his old study, where symbolically it is death to remain, St. Peter is no longer tempted to let himself die. He prepares to face a future "without delight" (282); he will meet his family returning from a European vacation. Life will go on, as for most of James's characters. But will it be as bleak as St. Peter imagines? How will he greet his family? Will he live with them in the new house? Will the arrival of a first grandchild give him pleasure? These are questions Cather feels no need to answer. The action of the inner drama has been completed. As Strether in The Ambassadors has chosen to live in Woollett without Chad and Madame de Vionnet, so St. Peter has been granted release from futile longings for the past. St. Peter, like Strether, faces and accepts the reality of loss.
Cather had long ceased trying to imitate Henry James, but The Professor's House is filled with "the sense of Europe," the origins of which James traced in Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), which Cather read a few weeks after it was published in England. St. Peter creates a French garden at his midwestern home and recalls with fond nostalgia his student days in Paris, as James remembers "the intensity of a fond apprehension of Paris" that issued in a memory of the rue de la Paix seen from a hotel balcony "through the soft summer night" (Notes of a Son 159). Then a few days later a carriage journey gives James an unforgettable image of a field and a peasant woman "in a black bodice, a white shirt and a red petticoat engaged in some sort of field labour" (161). The details of this image, clear after more than fifty years, give him in "an ecstatic vision" of "'Europe,' sublime synthesis, expressed and guaranteed to me—as if by a mystic gage" (161).
St. Peter does not describe a comparable moment in such terms, but his memory of an encounter is suffused with the essence of Paris for him. His memory reconstructs a scene of an empty street like a painting: "The sky was of such an intense silvery grey that all the grey stone buildings along the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue Soufflot came out in that silver shine stronger than in sunlight. The shop windows were shut; on the bleak ascent to the Pantheon there was not a spot of colour, nothing but wet, shiny, quicksilvery grey, accented by black crevices and weather-worn bosses white as wood-ash" (101). Into this scene of grays and blacks comes a "weary, anxious"-looking couple pushing a mud-spattered cart "full of pink dahlias, all exactly the same colour" (101). St. Peter is so charmed by the beautiful color of the flowers that he buys a bouquet, wonders whom he should offer it to, and then sees a procession of students of a charity school, attended by four nuns in black bonnets. He offers the bouquet to the one girl who meets his eye and smiles, but one of the nuns "flapped up like a black crow and shut the girl's pretty face from him. She would have to pay for that smile, he was afraid" (103).
Had St. Peter followed James and written a preface on the origins of his eight-volume prize-winning history on the early Spanish explorers, he would have described a voyage on a summer day when everything seemed to feed the plan of the work that was forming in [his] mind; the skipper, the old Catalan second mate, the sea itself. One day stood out above the others. All day long they were skirting the south coast of Spain; from the rose of dawn to the gold of sunset the ranges of the Sierra Nevadas towered on their right, snow peak after snow peak. . . . St. Peter lay looking up at them from a little boat riding low in the purple water, and the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through. (105) His plan requires writing a different kind of history, and like James he suffers unfriendly criticism for breaking with convention. "Nobody saw that he was trying to do something quite different—they merely thought he was trying to do the usual thing, and had not succeeded very well. They recommended to him the more even and genial style of John Fiske" (33). Unlike St. Peter—and Cather—James won no prizes and suffered keenly the relative failure of the New York Edition of twenty-four volumes, on which he labored for years.
As John J. Murphy demonstrates in his essay "Kindred Spirits: Willa Cather and Henry James" (see this volume, chapter 10), both novelists often rendered their characters' impressions as paintings. St. Peter's memory of a day in Paris, remembered as a picture done in grays, blacks, and white, may be compared with Strether's visual image of the artist's house where he meets Madame de Vionnet. The place itself was a great impression—a small pavilion, clear-faced and sequestered, an effect of polished parquet, of fine white panel and spare sallow gilt, of decoration delicate and rare, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germaine and on the edge of a cluster of gardens attached to old noble houses. Far back from streets and unsuspected by crowds, reached by a long passage and a quiet court, it was as striking to the unprepared mind, he immediately saw, as a treasure dug up; giving him too, more than anything yet, the note of the immeasurable town and sweeping away, as by a last, brave brush, his usual landmarks and terms. (1: 197) Cather did not state the meaning of her characters' pictorial impressions, but she believed with James that "the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist . . . is complete" (James, "Art of Fiction" 378). In Murphy's words, "Like James, Cather uses visual art as a paradigm for her own art" (this volume). She compared "Tom Outland's Story," inserted in The Professor's House, to the "square window" in Dutch paintings of interiors "through which one saw the masts of ships, or a stretch of grey sea" (On Writing 9).
James does not claim any particular work of art as a model for any of his novels, but his prefaces are filled with the vocabulary of the painter: composition, picture, color, canvas, brush, varnish. In his fiction he often refers to elements "composing," as in The Ambassadors, in the Luxembourg Gardens, where "terraces, alleys, vistas, fountains, little trees in green tubs, little women in white caps, and shrill little girls at play all sunnily 'composed' together" (1: 80). The shift to Osmond's villa in Florence in chapter 22 of The Portrait of a Lady introduces us to "a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well" (1: 325).
James E. Miller Jr., in his 1974 essay on Cather and James, makes his most important point in distinguishing between characters as centers of consciousness in novels that focus on "the internal drama of expanding and expanded awareness" (133) and characters as primarily registers and observers of other characters. But perhaps he makes too sharp a distinction between the two kinds of characters and narratives. For the "internal drama" depends on observers, what they register and the meaning they impart to what they observe. As James notes in the preface to The Ambassadors, the novel is limited to Strether's point of view, to his "groping knowledge" of what he hears and sees, but "his very gropings would figure among his most interesting motions" (1: xv).
In distinguishing between characters as centers of consciousness and characters who are primarily spectators (133), Miller does not mention any novel by Henry James, who combined both the "inner drama" of consciousness and the impressions of characters as registers; all Miller's illustrations come from Cather. He singles out My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and My Mortal Enemy as novels to be distinguished from the "drama of consciousness," novels in which Jim Burden, Niel Herbert, and Nellie Birdseye are primarily spectators: "We [are] confined to the limits of their own awareness or to their limited perspective" (133). Miller is certainly right in observing that Ántonia Cuzak, Marian Forrester, and Myra Henshawe depend for their existence as fictional characters on the impressions they make on their observers. But he is too restrictive in claiming that "the stories of the ladies' lives take on meaning only as those lives are filtered through the sensitive consciousness of the reflectors" (134; my emphasis). The observers have their stories too.
Judging by the critical attention given to Jim Burden, the narrator of My Ántonia, one could argue that the story is as much his as hers. Like James's telegraphist, who has a life outside the cage, with her suitor, Mr. Mudge, and her friend, Mrs. Jordan, Jim Burden has a life outside of Ántonia's. A whole chapter is devoted to his experiences at the university and his friendship with his teacher, Gaston Cleric, who gives Jim (and Cather) Vergil's purpose—"to bring the Muse into my country" (299)—and exerts as important an influence on Jim's life as Ántonia does. Before Jim goes to the university he sees Ántonia leave on the train to be married to Larry Donovan, a railroad man, but when Jim returns to Black Hawk he learns from the Widow Steavens about Ántonia's life, how she was abandoned by Donovan before they married and bore and reared her first child alone. After an afternoon with Ántonia he leaves Black Hawk, not to return for twenty years (369).
Cather said in an interview of her intention in A Lost Lady: "I didn't try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory. A character study of Marian Forrester would have been very, very different. . . . Neither is 'Niel' a character study. In fact, he isn't a character at all; he is just a peephole into that world. I am amused when people tell me he is a lovely character, when in reality he is only a point of view" (Bohlke 77). Although the focus of a portrait is on the person represented, the title of the novel, A Lost Lady, puts the emphasis on Niel. To him Marian is lost when he sees her one summer morning in bed with Frank Ellinger and flings the roses he had brought to her into a mud hole: "In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life" (86). She is doubly lost when she sells land to the unscrupulous Ivy Peters and begins an affair with him. When her husband, Captain Forrester, dies, Niel feels that she "was like a ship without a ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind. . . . She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination, her power of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place" (152-53). He cannot forgive her for "not [being] willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; . . . that she preferred life on any terms" (169).
How one regards Niel depends on how one reads this sentence. Cather never indicates directly whether or not she judges Niel adversely or what she thinks of Niel's cutting the telephone wire when Marian Forrester is railing at Frank Ellinger for marrying Constance Ogden. That Cather has Niel wish that Marian Forrester had chosen to "immolate herself," with its connotation of painful sacrifice by fire, may indicate a rejection of Niel's attitude and finally of his "weary contempt for her" (169). Many readers feel that Cather prefers "life on any terms" to immolation in the past.
Niel is not introspective. He never questions his own feelings— never thinks that he might be jealous of Ivy Peters when Marian Forrester turns to him, and not to Niel, when she and the Captain are struggling to keep afloat financially. But he is sensitive to all the tones in Marian Forrester's voice and all the nuances in the situations he observes. He is present in almost every scene, and when a scene is presented that Niel cannot witness—when Marian Forrester and Frank Ellinger have their secret tryst one winter afternoon—an observer, "one of the Blum boys" (Adolph), is hidden close by to witness Marian as she waits alone in the sleigh until Ellinger emerges from the snowy woods (66).
Of the three novels, My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and My Mortal Enemy, that Miller groups together, My Mortal Enemy best fits Cather's description of A Lost Lady as a portrait, not a character study. Myra Henshawe is more complex than Ántonia Cuzak or Marian Forrester and has evoked more contradictory responses from readers than the other two. And Nellie Birdseye is more straightforwardly a point of view than either Jim Burden or Niel Herbert. However, Nellie is more than simply a point of view who never changes. Since she looks back on a time when she was only fifteen and later on a time when she is ten years older, the reader assumes that her point of view has changed in the course of time.
Her role in the novel changes, as Hermione Lee notes: Nellie in the first two episodes is a "silent witness" (217) of both Myra and Oswald Henshawe. In the final segment she is the confidante of both Henshawes as they speak more fully of their feelings. Susan Rosowski sees a development in Nellie in the structure of the novel—in the succession of the meetings of Nellie with the Henshawes, each of them beginning with a "sentimental idea" and ending when the reality destroys the sentimental illusion of the Henshawes as "timeless lovers" (146). Nellie has grown up believing in the romantic legend, into which "all of Myra's friends were drawn" (My Mortal Enemy 14), of the romantic elopement and Myra's defiance of her father's threat to disinherit her "of two-thirds of his property" (15). Nellie's belief that "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (17) collapses as soon as she meets "the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her. I could not help feeling a little disappointed" (19). Thus Nellie, unlike Oswald, accepts the falsity of the romantic legend.
Nellie's unalluring name, Birdseye, has been taken to suggest a limited vision, prompting some readers to emphasize how little Nellie sees (although, as Barbara Orton recently pointed out to me, in fact most birds' vision is highly acute). One reviewer, who found Nellie "colorless," wrote that she lacks an "intimate knowledge of Myra's life" (qtd. in O'Connor 302). Another reviewer gave Nellie only a rare "moment of penetration" (qtd. in O'Connor 299). Merrill Skaggs likewise stresses Nellie's limited vision (99-100), as do those who see Nellie as an unreliable narrator—limited and immature, "too myopic to . . . understand Myra's enigmatic figure" (Carruth 20)—whose name "should be taken to suggest undiscriminating flatness of vision rather than comprehensiveness" (Giannone 172).
But as a character whose main role is to be a reflector of other characters and to record what they say, Nellie is as sensitive as Niel Herbert, no more blind than he is, although she has a less active part in the action to be observed. She sees enough to realize the subject of the novel as Cather defined it in a letter to Fanny Butcher (27 October 1926) praising her review in the Chicago Tribune (23 October 1926). As Janis Stout paraphrases the letter, "She is probably the only person who has perfectly understood the book. Meant to be showing the basic attraction/repulsion of being in a marriage. The Henshawses are intense lovers" (Stout 127; letter no. 857). In the words of Fanny Butcher's review My Mortal Enemy "has the whole of two lives in it . . . as life is lived in marriage"; the book captures "the great subcurrental rhythms of love and hatred" (qtd. in O'Connor 287).
In the first scene Nellie perceives the difference between the Henshawes in how she responds to each. She is more at ease in Oswald's presence because she is not afraid of him. She observes the difference in their eyes: "Her deep-set flashing grey eyes seemed to be taking me in altogether—estimating me. . . . I felt quite overpowered by her—and stupid, hopelessly clumsy and stupid. . . . I could not meet the playful curiosity of her eyes at all" (6). Her feelings of relief when Oswald returns are quite different. "I liked to watch his face with its outstanding bones and his languid, friendly eyes" (10). "His eyes . . . were dark and soft, curious in shape—exactly like half moons" (6). Even in the first scene Nellie feels the attraction and repulsion between the Henshawes when she senses that "his presence gave [his wife] a lively personal pleasure" (8). Then she observes the first of Myra's putdowns of Oswald and feels the mingled "amusement, incredulity, and bitterness" when he protests, rather feebly, at her giving his new shirts to the janitor's son.
Nellie feels the "basic attraction" between Myra and Oswald most strongly in her feeling for their New York apartment: "I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, highceilinged rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. . . . Everything in their little apartment seemed to me absolutely individual and unique, even the dinner service, the thick grey plates and the soup tureen painted with birds and big, bright flowers—I was sure there were no others like them in the world" (26-27). Then the enchanted place becomes poisonous when she interrupts a quarrel between the Henshawes over a key ring: "[N]ow everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating room. . . . Everything about me seemed evil" (51).
Nellie has less emotional investment than Niel does in those she observes. She does not speculate about the woman who gives Oswald the topaz cuff links or what door is opened by the key that precipitates the quarrel. The revulsion that the marriage breeds devours Myra Henshawe in the final scenes. Nellie makes no judgment as she listens to Oswald, who tells her, "Sometimes she has locked me out for days together" (76), and clings to his memory of "the long time we were happy. That was reality as much as this" (75). Cather leaves it to the reader to conclude that Oswald is the submissive victim of a desire on Myra's part to make him suffer from the poverty that places her at the mercy of the noise of their vulgar neighbors. Nellie does not need to analyze the contradictions of the Henshawes' marriage. She has only to listen as Myra soliloquizes: "People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were . . . A man and a woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can't forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that's it" (88; ellipsis in the original).
Nellie makes no comment on this, but she is moved to be more than a silent observer, to defend Oswald when Myra says, "In age we lose everything; even the power to love" (89). "He hasn't," Nellie suggests. And when Myra accuses Oswald of asking "you to speak for him," Nellie replies vehemently, "Certainly he hasn't, Mrs. Myra! But you are hard on him, you know, and when there are so many hard things, it seems a pity" (89). Predictably, since Nellie has departed from the prescribed role, Myra orders her to leave and not come back—so different from Marian Forrester, who, even when she knows that Niel disapproves of her, urges him to come to dinner with Ivy Peters and some of the other young men. There is a story in Nellie's feeling for Oswald—attachment is too strong a word. But that is a story Cather chose not to tell. Nellie's role is to concentrate on Myra Henshawe and her marriage to Oswald.
In Cather's fiction what characters mean to the person who observes them defines everyone—observers and observed alike. All the characters in A Lost Lady come alive as Niel Herbert sees and feels them: Ivy Peters, Daniel Forrester, Constance Ogden and Frank Ellinger (who marry), and, of course, Marian Forrester. Cather did not share James's aversion to the long first-person narrative as leading to looseness and lack of focus (James, Art of the Novel 321). (The Sacred Fount is his only first-person novel.) Cather cast her observer in the first person in My Ántonia and My Mortal Enemy and began writing A Lost Lady in the first person, although after a few chapters she decided that her subject required the distance of a third-person narrative (Bohlke 77).
James's novels are more "plot-driven" than are most of Cather's novels. But in James's fiction the important plot is inward, in the drama of consciousness of the focal character. The more conventional plot that compels the outer action is usually devised by another character. In The Wings of the Dove it is Kate Croy, not Densher or Milly Theale, who conceives the scheme to gain Milly's inheritance. In The Portrait of a Lady Madame Merle engineers the marriage of Isabel Archer and Osmond. But crucial instances in James's novels are moments of illumination, perception, and recognition of truth about the relationships of others. Most famous is the scene in book 11 of The Ambassadors, framed as a Lambinet painting, when Strether simply by seeing Chad and Madame de Vionnet together in a boat on the river knows that they are lovers. A similarly climactic perception, "which was itself a complete drama," occurs toward the end of The Portrait of a Lady, when Isabel Osmond confronts Madame Merle at Pansy's convent. By a "subtle modulation" in Madame Merle's voice, Isabel realizes that Madame Merle knows that she, Isabel, now knows all that Madame Merle has concealed from her (2: 378).
In Cather's novels memorable scenes are not links in a plot but scenes in which characters witness others, often musicians, performing actions that create deep chords of meaning in both observers and readers. Such scenes are the New Year's Eve party in My Mortal Enemy, when the Polish artist sings the "Casta Diva" aria from Norma, and the scene in One of Ours when Claude hears Gerhardt and his French pianist friend perform a Saint-Saëns violin concerto and feels most keenly his sense of deprivation and exclusion from the world of high culture. The "bitter, suppressed melody" (550) of the violin's entrance in the first movement of the concerto reflects Claude's conflicted feelings of "generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy" (551). Such scenes are well described by Richard Millington in "Willa Cather's American Modernism": "The key moments or events in a Cather text are more likely to be acts of heightened or illuminated witnessing—a scene that etches itself into the mind, the observation of a particular quality of light, the accruing apprehension of a meaning as it is gathered up by an object or a ritual—rather than climactic life events such as the marriage or romance plots dear to traditional fiction" (61).
Different as their circumstances are, the protagonist/observers of both James and Cather are exceptional in their intuitive powers of observation and their capacity for intense feeling. James described his protagonists as "intense perceivers," whose consciousness is capable of "fine intensification and wide engagement" (Art of the Novel 67; original emphasis). At the same time James stressed that characters, to be credible, cannot perceive too much; they must have doubts and questions; there must be gaps in their understanding. James often created these gaps by making his characters outsiders, who see more and less than insiders accustomed to the codes and conventions of their society, as Elizabeth Stevenson notes. She goes on to observe that James's outsiders are sometimes children, like Maisie in What Maisie Knew; sometimes excluded by poverty, like the telegraphist in In the Cage and Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima. Often the outsider is an American in Europe, like Isabel Archer, Milly Theale, and Lambert Strether (Stevenson 53ff.). Cather usually places her characters in the center of their society, but some of her characters are outsiders, too: Jim Burden is separated from Ántonia by class, Niel Herbert and Nellie Birdseye are separated from the women they portray by age, and Bishop Latour is a missionary in a foreign country who dies in exile.
Both James and Cather seek to engage the reader's imagination, and they do so in similar ways, by withholding critical scenes and refusing to specify. For instance, James leaves the reader to imagine the final scene between Densher and Milly Theale (after she has been fatally stricken by learning that Kate and Densher have deceived her). In The Professor's House, by keeping to St. Peter's point of view after Tom Outland enters his life, Cather leaves many questions unanswered. What are Tom's feelings about Rosamond, whose engagement to him is only mentioned in a few sentences? Why does he go at the first opportunity to fight in France, as if he wished to leave Hamilton, and yet choose to remain in Hamilton instead of accepting the fellowship at Johns Hopkins as St. Peter urges him to do? St. Peter perceives that his wife resents his friendship with Tom Outland but does not realize that for her, her sons-in-law were substitutes for an estranged husband. The reader wonders what Tom Outland thinks of his relationship with St. Peter, whether it is connected in any way with his engagement to the daughter.
James not only omits crucial scenes but also refuses to specify, leaving the reader of The Ambassadors to guess what "small, trivial, rather ridiculous object" (60) was manufactured at Woollett and the precise evil of which the ghosts in "The Turn of the Screw" were guilty. As James writes in the preface, "Make [the reader] think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications" (Art of the Novel 176). James also leaves readers of The Wings of the Dove to imagine what dishonorable act has made Kate's father, Lionel Croy, "odious and vile" (1: 67). To Densher's question "What has he done if no one can name it?" Kate replies, "[H]e has done some particular thing. It's known—only, thank God, not to us" (1: 68).
Cather often escapes the danger of "weak specifications" by the use of the word something. The "something" may refer to a quality of character that the observer cannot name, as in My Mortal Enemy, or the word may lack a referent altogether, leaving the reader to wonder, "What is the something?" In this case the whole meaning of a novel can depend on the way "something" is defined. The prime example appears at the end of The Professor's House when St. Peter realizes after his recovery from near death, "His temporary release from consciousness seemed to have been beneficial. He had let something go—and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished, probably" (282).
David Daiches concludes that "a note of deliberate mystery remains to the end" (107). As Joseph Urgo observes, "What [St. Peter] specifically lets go in this scene exists in a Catherian vacuole" (38). But the need to replace "something" with a definition seems irresistible. Critics read the passage (and the novel) differently, depending on whether they emphasize the "beneficial" effect of the "temporary release" or the loss of "something very precious." Most inclusive is Rosowski's definition of "something very precious" as "the lover . . . the outward-reaching impulse to unite with an object—the impulse that was behind all St. Peter's relationships—with Lillian, with Outland, with his Spanish Adventurers, with nature" (138). For many readers what is most precious and most difficult to let go is the memory of Tom Outland: "He must sacrifice the youthful image Tom represents and let it die" (Skaggs 82). For John Anders "Tom's abiding presence" (102) makes the attic study St. Peter refuses to leave "a beloved space . . . a surrogate for the beloved" (106). According to Paul Comeau, St. Peter sacrifices the "kind of intense emotional relationships he once shared with Lillian and Tom Outland" (226).
For other readers St. Peter has already lost what is most precious—the successful integration of his life as a teacher, scholar, husband, and father: "[T]o him, the most important chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories" like the figures in the Bayeux tapestry (Professor's House 101). What he lets go is the futile, life-denying effort to preserve "the best years of his life" that Lillian had had (Professor's House 281). For instance, William Monroe reads the events of time present in the novel as "a narrative of withdrawal, decline, and ultimately death" (306), from which St. Peter is saved by his "temporary release from consciousness." Leon Edel states that St. Peter "had retreated into a vale of misanthropy and despair," where he lived in "passive dependency" ("Cave" 215). Unlike Henry James's famous story "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903), in which the "something rare and strange" that John Marcher has wondered about and sensed waiting to happen to him is defined at the end (Complete Tales 12: 359) (although some readers speculate what the revelation really is), Cather's novel does not state what the "something" is that St. Peter relinquishes. But most readers agree that the "something very precious" must be given up if St. Peter is to go on living.
Neither James nor Cather wished to impose meaning on the reader. Even single sentences spoken by their characters have generated different interpretations. The last words in The Wings of the Dove, spoken to Densher by Kate Croy after Milly's death—"We shall never be again as we were!"—have produced different readings, as have Myra Henshawe's fateful words, "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" (113). The simplest reading of Kate's last words to Densher is her conclusion, "Her memory's your love. You want no other" (2: 439). Leon Edel rejects this reading: "It has been clear throughout that Densher did not love the sick girl." Far from undergoing a spiritual transformation that Dorothea Krook describes as "a total reorientation of his previous attitudes and beliefs" (225), Edel claims, Densher has always been passive and "drifts in his passivity into a solution comfortable to himself," choosing "to live with a ghost rather than with the strong and living woman" (Master 116-17).
Cather wrote a letter to the novelist Pendleton Hogan, in February 1940, identifying the "mortal enemy" as Oswald Henshawe (Stout 222; letter no. 1469). Most reviewers agreed that the "mortal enemy" is Oswald, but several thought that Myra's nature, her "steely pride," hardened by poverty, is her "mortal enemy" (O'Connor 284, 291). One reviewer claimed that "my mortal enemy" refers not to the husband but to the universality and inevitability of death (O'Connor 288-89). Of recent critics Merrill Skaggs argues that Nellie is in love with Oswald and "[schemes] to be near" him and thus is the "mortal enemy" (109-10). Perhaps the indeterminacy of the word "something" helps account for the widely different interpretations made by readers of certain characters such as St. Peter and Myra Henshawe. The words Nellie is given to convey her impression of Myra Henshawe, evoked by the aria "Casta diva" from the opera Norma, sung at the Henshawes' New Year's Eve party—"a compelling, passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name" (48)—are carefully chosen to support different interpretations of Myra's character.
Nowhere are differences more apparent than in interpretations of Myra's last days, when she "turned from idolatries to the truths of religion" (Rosowski 151). Where some critics see Myra's salvation through suffering, a heroine "linked to [early Christian martyrs] by faith and through anguish" (Middleton, "Why Must I Die" 94), others see a character lacking a Christian spirit of charity and forgiveness, her religious observances a "means of revenge" that are "extravagant and manipulative" (Lee 221-22). Daiches reads the novel as the "study of degeneration of a character" who, "as she grows older . . . grows more jealous and resentful" (102). As seen by Nellie, Myra Henshawe resists definition in terms of either salvation or damnation. In Merrill Skaggs's words she "contains within herself significantly warring contradictions or opposites" (93). Nellie captures the paradoxical nature of the woman who has fascinated her, when she sees her shortly before her death: "[S]he sat crippled but powerful in her brilliant wrappings. She looked strong and broken, generous and tyrannical, a witty and rather wicked old woman" (65).
From the beginning Cather, like James, was drawn to those characters who act upon the imagination and evoke powerful emotions in others, who in turn reveal themselves in their response. In an early Cather story, "The Garden Lodge," the pianist Caroline Noble recognizes that the power of the singer d'Esquerre, whom she accompanies, lies not "in anything he actually was" but in his capacity to be "just anything that one chose to believe or desire. His appeal was . . . to the imagination alone" (csf 193). Neither James nor Cather created characters to be "anything one chose to believe or desire," but the empty spaces and absences in their fiction invite readers to "cooperate in the story that appears in print and the story that exists in the blank spaces . . . to participate in what Emerson calls 'creative reading'" (Middleton, Willa Cather's Modernism 51). Both novelists devised ways to create ambiguity and express ambivalence and ways of refusing to impose meaning on represented experience.
Of Cather's novels The Song of the Lark is most like a traditional nineteenth-century novel of a character's development, just as James's The Tragic Muse is most like the Victorian novel of character. But neither author wished to continue to write the three-volume Victorian novel, although Cather never called The Song of the Lark, or any of her works, "loose baggy monsters," as James dismissed novels by Thackeray, Tolstoi, and Dumas (Art of the Novel 84). Cather and James took different directions in their move from traditional nineteenth-century fiction—James toward amplification of characters' consciousness of their perceptions, Cather toward simplification, compressing meaning into simple objects like "the necklace of carved amethysts" (113) worn by Myra Henshawe and the "brooms and clouts and brushes" used by Cécile Auclair as precious tools with which "one made not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself" (Shadows 227).
The contrast between James's amplitude and Cather's spareness is obvious in the magnitude of James's criticism—his twelve prefaces, his innumerable reviews, and the volumes of critical essays—compared to Cather's slim volume On Writing, containing almost all she ever wrote on the art of fiction. But the few pages of Cather's most famous and often quoted essay, "The Novel Démeublé," contain most of the principles that James developed at such length. She distinguished among the novel as a work of art, "the novel as a form of amusement" (On Writing 35), and the novel as "a vivid and brilliant form of journalism" (40), as James in "The Art of Fiction" rejected the dictum that the novel should be entertaining or teach a moral lesson, and in The Art of the Novel wrote that the novelist must "repudiate the coarse industries that masquerade in its name" (14). Both Cather and James insisted on the importance of selection and sacrifice of the nonessential to achieve unity. James's statement that the artist, like a miner, must begin with "his tiny nugget [of suggestion], washed free of awkward accretions and hammered into a sacred hardness" (Art of the Novel 120; original emphasis), recalls Cather's expression of the same idea and image: "Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present [the novel] must select the eternal material of art" (40). James makes the same criticism of his contemporaries in "The New Novel" that Cather makes in "The Novel Démeublé." As James criticizes H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and others for discharging into their novels a "great dump of . . . material," as if their minds were like faucets to be turned on to release the contents ("New Novel" 331), so Cather inveighs against the "tasteless amplitude" of her contemporaries whose "realism" "asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects, in explaining mechanical processes, the methods of operating manufacturies and trades, and in minutely and unsparingly describing physical sensations" (37).
James expressed his ideal of selection in the image of a box filled to cracking with "the most magnificent packed and calculated closeness" (Complete Notebooks 497). Cather wanted to throw the unnecessary furniture out of the window, leaving the "room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre" (On Writing 42). But their ideal of selection and unity was the same: in James's words, "the absolute exclusively economic existence and situation of every sentence and every letter" (Complete Notebooks 497).
In many ways, then, Cather and James were kindred spirits. For the sake of their art both ended their associations with New England and New York. James turned east, to live in England; Cather turned west for her subjects, to Nebraska and the plains; but both remained inveterate travelers on the Continent, in France and Italy. They shared an abiding interest in and deep knowledge of French literature. They were both devoted theatergoers all their lives. Although Cather, unlike James, never wrote plays, her fiction shows a dramatic sense for the scene, and like him she often placed characters in audiences in theaters. James and Cather both lived for their art but cherished many friendships and maintained family ties and long correspondences with a chosen few (although James was more sociable than Cather and had a wider social circle, finding his subjects in society in London, Paris, and Rome). Both novelists wrote memorably of marriage and children without knowing the experiences of marriage or of raising children of their own.
From the beginning Cather and James espoused the same aesthetic principles of unity, economy, and selection. They defended experimentation. As James wrote in the 1899 essay "The Future of the Novel," "A community addicted to reflection and fond of ideas will try experiments with the 'story' that will be left untried in a community mainly devoted to travelling and shooting, to pushing trade and playing football" (37). Some twenty years later Cather distinguished between "the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand" and "art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values" (On Writing 103).
Finally, as Murphy observes, both novelists enriched the consciousness of their characters by showing them able "to make analogies, to think in metaphors" drawn from European and American culture—art, architecture, painting, literature, and, for Cather, music. For instance, embedded in St. Peter's mind, to a remarkable degree, are texts inspired by situations in his daily life. He speaks "with deep feeling" to Louie Marsellus (his son-in-law) of a scene from James's The American, "in which a young Frenchman, hurt in a duel, apologizes for the behaviour of his family. I'd like to do something of the sort. I apologize for Rosamond [his daughter] and for Scott [his son-in-law] if he has done such a mean thing [blackballing Louie for a club]" (167). After a painful interview with his friend and colleague, Dr. Crane, St. Peter thinks of Mark Antony's words in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: "My fortunes have corrupted honest men" (149; original emphasis). St. Peter recalls the words of Shakespeare's Roderigo to Desdemona's father, describing Othello—"an extravagant and wheeling stranger" (258)—when St. Peter thinks of the fortune Marsellus made from Tom Outland's invention. The fortune reminds him of a bitter passage from Brahms's Requiem (258). His thought that Tom Outland escaped all the honors and duties of success by his early death in war is probably an allusion to Housman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" (261). St. Peter thinks about Euripides (154) and Medea (124). He recalls reading Lucretius with Tom Outland (173). In reflecting on death, he quotes to himself a poem by Longfellow (272).
One cannot imagine James writing Alexander's Bridge, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and all the novels that followed. Would Cather have written these novels if she had not read Henry James and once imitated him? It is impossible to know. But almost all her characters are connected in some way to the European culture that James represented to her. Alexander, Thea Kronborg, St. Peter, Tom Outland, and Sebastian, like James and Cather, are American-born but are part of the "world" that, as Sarah Orne Jewett told Cather, one must "know so well before one can know the parish."11