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From Cather Studies Volume 10

Contamination, Modernity, Health, and Art in Edith Wharton and Willa Cather

In a 1920 issue of the magazine Primary Education a teacher named Florence A. Powell describes the lesson in personal health that she used in her own classroom. She instructed her students to draw and cut out a train. "What do we need to become strong?" Powell asked her class. The body needs what a train engine needs, she told them—food, air, and water. The children then were to label the train's three Pullman cars "Pure Food," "Pure Air," and "Pure Water." Each student's train should end with an "observation car . . . named, 'Health'" (Powell 347).

Florence Powell's primary school lesson plan elegantly summarizes key points of early twentieth-century health advice. The biggest public health concern in America in this era was contagious disease. Despite a dramatic population increase in urban centers, early twentieth-century American cities relied on sanitation systems and methods that had already proven inadequate in the nineteenth century. With burgeoning urban populations American cities in the early twentieth century became concentration points where disease was readily able to pass from one person to another. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, typhoid—before the advent of antibiotic use in the early 1940s these contagious illnesses ravaged the American population. Since infectious diseases were spread, variously, by contaminated air, water, and food, the early twentieth-century public health reformers, or "sanitarians," focused their attention on municipal measures to reduce such contamination. They worked to improve ventilation in public buildings, to make food production safer and more hygienic, and to control the safety of the public water supply. Reformers also devoted their efforts to educating private citizens about measures they could take to protect their own health (sleeping with open windows, eating wholesome food, and boiling or home-filtering dubious water). Through municipal regulations strengthened by private efforts, people were to keep themselves healthy by attention to Pure Air, Pure Food, and Pure Water.

Within a period of two years two major American writers of the early twentieth century, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, wrote novels in which impure water plays an important metaphorical role. In each, I argue, dirty water comes to represent the threat posed by modernity to art and culture. Wharton uses the notion of Pure Water with bitter irony in The Custom of the Country (1913), as politicians and businessmen wield the rhetoric of purity and public health for their own dirty ends. Wharton's use of the motif of sullied water in this novel is laden with her fear that modernity is intrinsically at odds with beauty, art, and culture. Issues of sullied air, food, and water have a much greater presence in Cather's fiction and are also linked with concerns about art and modernity. But in Cather the danger posed by modernity to art is physical rather than moral. Cather's fiction associates robust physical health with artistic greatness, and her adulation of the vitality of the artist has an amoral quality. Cather's concern is not with ethics but with the way the modern era endangers the artist by threatening her physical health. By attending to Cather's preoccupation with impure air, food, and water, we can see her concerns about the ill effects of the modern era. In Cather's fiction, I contend, modernity, though necessary for art, at the same time imperils the body of the artist and thus art itself.[1]

In representing the problem of dirty water in their fiction, both Edith Wharton and Willa Cather were engaging with an all-too-literal reality of modern American life: inadequate, outdated water purification and delivery systems. Typhoid, dysentery, and cholera were all known by the late nineteenth century to be diseases spread through dirty water. By the 1880s scientists had isolated the typhoid bacillus and demonstrated that it was found in water contaminated by human waste (Prescott 274). Yet despite this awareness typhoid rates were very high at the turn of the century. Typhoid didn't invariably cause death, so it drew less public attention than, say, tuberculosis, but even when it wasn't a mortal illness, it was a severe and debilitating one, "often leaving in its wake life-long disabilities" (Adams 145). It was easy for the public water supplies of densely populated cities to become contaminated with typhoid. Some cities, such as Cleveland and Chicago, drew water from the same lakes into which they released sewage, while others, such as Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia, drew water from rivers—the same rivers into which cities upstream drained waste.

All major American cities were affected and were struggling to find solutions to this problem, but in 1905, as Samuel Hopkins Adams reported in an article in McClure's, Pittsburgh, where Willa Cather was then living, was the worst American city for waterborne disease. In 1905 Pittsburgh had the whopping rate of 124 to144 deaths from typhoid per 100,000 people each year. Adams compares Pittsburgh with Dresden, a German city that also drew its water from a river contaminated with sewage yet employed better filtration methods. As a result the annual death rate in Dresden from typhoid was 4 per 100,000—one thirty-sixth the rate in Pittsburgh. "Whence the disparity?" Adams asks. "The German city, being situated on a huge natural sewer, purifies the water it draws from that sewer; the American city . . . gulps down the sewage just as it comes" (34). Adams writes in the sensationalistic McClure's muckraking style—but in saying that Americans drank sewage, he was, unfortunately, stating the simple truth.

Typhoid was a chronic problem in American cities, yet it was the periodic epidemics that most drew the public attention. One such typhoid epidemic occurred in Ithaca, New York, in 1903. In this small city of 15,500 residents, during the five-month course of the epidemic, 1,350 people contracted the disease. Public health reformers had been warning for years that Ithaca needed better water filtration and better municipal control of waste disposal. Some households in Ithaca drew their water from private wells and others from the public water supply. Investigation after the fact found that 30 percent of the city's private wells were contaminated by neighboring cesspools and privies. And the municipal water supply was directly drawn from rivers into which creeks drained, filtered only by a screening method that removed foreign objects. The screens removed sticks and rocks and any solid floating garbage. But on the banks of the creeks feeding into the river investigators found manure piles, animal carcasses, cattle pens, pigsties, and outhouses. Nothing filtered out such contamination. Raw sewage from some parts of Ithaca, it turned out, was also pumped directly into creeks from which other parts of the city drew their water. Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to typhoid, and Cornell University students were hit exceptionally hard by the Ithaca epidemic of 1903. Two hundred and ninety-one of the 2,200 students, or 13 percent of the student body, contracted typhoid—and twentynine of the ill students died (Prescott 273).

It is no wonder then that questions about the purity of water were very much on the public mind in the early years of the twentieth century. Edith Wharton and Willa Cather had also both personally suffered through serious cases of typhoid. Wharton nearly died in childhood of typhoid (Sweeney 57n). Willa Cather contracted typhoid in her senior year in college. In 1895 she went to Chicago for a week to hear opera. She returned suffering from typhoid pneumonia (that is, typhoid complicated with pneumonialike symptoms), and she was in bed for weeks, under the care of her mother, struggling to survive (Woodress 103).[2]

Typhoid is a fierce and deadly antagonist in the fiction of both Wharton and Cather, and both writers were clearly aware of the association between typhoid and contaminated water. Typhoid is mentioned in several of Edith Wharton's novels and stories, but it is most important in The Custom of the Country. Wharton uses the idea of "Pure Water" as a vehicle through which to condemn dirty business and dirty politics—and in general the moral condition of the modern world. The world in which such methods have become predominant is represented as antithetical to a traditional, honorable place in which art can exist, Ralph Marvell's dreamy green spaces.

Abner Spragg, father of Undine Spragg, the novel's antiheroine, has begun his rise in the world through what Wharton terms his "Pure Water Move." Two of his three children died in a typhoid epidemic that ravaged the small town of Apex, and Spragg, according to his wife's account, "vowed on his children's graves that no Apex child should ever again drink poisoned water" (Wharton 49). But in reading between the lines of Mrs. Spragg's naïve account of her husband's subsequent meteoric rise in business, it is evident that Abner Spragg has turned the typhoid epidemic to his own significant financial advantage. Spragg has taken advantage of his ruined father-in-law by strategically buying some of his land on the cheap and has subsequently become involved in discreditable dealings to convince a private water company to repurchase that land at dramatically inflated prices to use as a site for a new water reservoir for Apex. Later in the novel Spragg is bribed to supply information about the doings of one of his partners in the Pure Water maneuver—discreditable information, clearly, as that information then undermines his crony's political career. Rolliver has, Wharton writes, "seen [Spragg] through the muddiest reaches of the Pure Water Move" (136)—but Spragg makes those muddy reaches murkier still by betraying his confederate.

The term "Pure Water" is thus rendered highly ironic in The Custom of the Country. Wharton invokes the idea of Pure Water to satirize and condemn dirty business enmeshed with dirty politics and to criticize the changing social structure of modern America. Her novel indicates that it is this sort of dirty business that enables the meteoric rise of the corrupt middle class and the lamentable decline of the old New York social elite. In an informative article Gerard Sweeney convincingly demonstrates that Wharton drew aspects of Spragg's "Pure Water" business dealings from ultimately unsuccessful efforts made by a distant cousin of her husband's to sell water from reservoirs on land he owned in New Jersey in order to supply the city of Philadelphia. Yet it is noteworthy, I think, that in her novel Wharton transfers this effort from an old-moneyed millionaire to a rising member of the middle class. Wharton represents corruption in business as a manifestation of the modern business values of the vulgar and dishonorable nouveaux riches, as represented by Undine's father, Abner Spragg, and by Undine's first husband, Elmer Moffatt. Nor is Undine herself exempt from condemnation. Both men are desperate to rise in business, as Wharton represents it, because of the insatiable desires of women like Undine. Undine's very name—which her innocent husband, Ralph Marvell, associates with sea nymphs—derives not from water in its natural state but from polluted water, from a "hair waver" her father marketed the week she was born. Her watery, undulant name hints at her association with the ethical impurity of the "Pure Water" move that began her father's fortunes. Together Undine, moral corruption, and the rising middle class threaten the old, traditional values and the space for art and imagination so precious to Ralph Marvell. For Wharton in this novel dirty water, dirty business, dirty morality, and dirty politics—to her all characteristics of modernity—loom as forces threatening what Ralph holds most dear, endangering tradition, endangering art.

If in Wharton's novel an ethical impurity linked, ironically, with the attempt to provide "Pure Water" evokes the threats posed by modernity to culture, in Cather's fiction the danger is represented as both more literal and more dire. Willa Cather's fiction reveals an ongoing concern with the dangers posed to the body of the artist by sullied air, food, and water. This pollution is sometimes associated with a narrow provincialism in her novels, but it is more often linked with modernity and urban life, which her fiction represents as at once necessary and dangerous to the artist. The Song of the Lark is the novel that most directly engages with Cather's public health concerns, celebrating and even sanctifying Thea's glorious artist's body, yet at the same time persistently reminding us of the threats posed to Thea's body by the conditions of urban life—and thus of the threat modern, urban life poses to art itself.

While Cather's public health concerns are powerfully conveyed in The Song of the Lark by the imagery of pure and contaminated water, reformist anxieties about food and air also figure in the novel as they do in her fiction more generally. The need for "Pure Food" was very much on the minds of early twentiethcentury sanitarians. Cather's fiction shows an ongoing preoccupation with the concerns of the Pure Food movement and with the subject of clean and dirty food.[3] Unwholesome, unhygienic food in Cather's fiction is often associated with distance from a traditional, agricultural way of life. Cather writes of dirty food with a disgust that reveals her moral outrage at those who prepare and offer it. In "Neighbour Rosicky" (1932) Cather alludes to the adulteration and contamination of urban food when she has Rosicky think about "treacherous people in cities who live by grinding or cheating or poisoning their fellow-man" (256). Many Americans at the turn of the century were suspicious about the cleanliness of newly available, commercially canned food. In both Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915) and her One of Ours (1922) salmon in tin cans makes an appearance as an inferior food prepared by women who are negligent in tending to their husbands and households. In One of Ours Cather moves from a scene in which Claude sits alone in Enid's kitchen eating cold, tinned salmon to a joyful scene in his friend Leonard's kitchen where his wife, Susie, is preparing a traditional wholesome meal of food fresh from the farm. The Song of the Lark associates inferior food with modern, urbanized life and with sloppy cooks, cooks who are almost criminally negligent in their lack of caring and their slovenliness. Living in mediocre boardinghouses as a music student in Chicago, Thea is given "poor food for body and mind" (148). She eats better only during the brief period in which she is able to live in a traditional German household, with a traditional German cook, Mrs. Lorch. She seems perennially hungry while in Chicago and desperately in need of the pure, healthy food with which Fred Ottenburg intermittently supplies her, food essential to the robust body and to the production of art. The act of feeding the body (especially the body of the artist) has a sanctity in Cather's fiction that can even attain to an artistic status of its own. In New York Fred Ottenburg delights in feeding the ravenous Thea at a fine restaurant after her emergency substitute performance as Sieglinde: "It's beautiful to see you eat!" he gasps (383). But there is no permanent solution in this novel to the problem of impure food in modern, urban environments. Even wealth and success offer no foolproof solution. The conditions of modern life, as represented through dirtied food, imperil Thea's art even when she is at the apex of her artistic career. Toward the novel's end Thea is threatened again by unwholesome food. At the apartment hotel in New York, before a crucial performance, she is sent up a "very poor" dinner, rejects it, and orders another, which is even worse than the first—she is disgusted to find a burnt match under her milk toast (403). Impure food, a vector for deadly, crippling disease, imperils Thea, threatening her health and vitality, threatening the art she produces with her body.

Willa Cather's fiction, especially The Song of the Lark, also repeatedly alludes to the problem of dirty, enclosed, diseaseridden air. Sanitarians in the early twentieth century were very much concerned with ventilation. They encouraged architectural advances in ventilation in public spaces, such as streetcars and public buildings, in an effort to combat airborne contagious disease. Private citizens were also urged to adopt individual practices to increase their exposure to fresh air, such as sleeping next to open windows or on rooftops and balconies, even in the depths of winter in bitterly cold climates. In schools and in other public relations campaigns Americans were advised of the health advantages of "Pure Air." In Cather's fiction provincial, outdated beliefs about health and hygiene, sometimes suggestive of other forms of provincial narrow-mindedness, are often associated with stuffy enclosed air. But so are the poor living conditions of urban life, life in the very cities that young Thea must inhabit to grow and develop as a musician. Sullied, enclosed air occurs repeatedly in Cather's fiction. Cecile Auclair in Shadows on the Rock is dismayed when she learns that she must sleep, in midsummer, in a filthy room with its window closed to keep out mosquitoes. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Sapphira's granddaughters are treated, when ill with diphtheria, by a country doctor who shows his lethal ignorance by keeping the windows of the sickroom tightly closed. By way of contrast Lucy Gayheart has been brought up sleeping in rooms with closed windows, but in Chicago she learns about music and art and also "how a sleeping room should be kept." She learns to clean her bedroom daily and always to sleep with an open window, even in the middle of winter, even during a snowstorm.

In The Song of the Lark fresh air, breathing, and ventilation are of tremendous importance.[4] Thea is threatened with inadequate and sullied air at several points in the novel, and the health of her lungs, crucial to a singer in particular, is under attack. The novel opens with Thea ill, as a child, from pneumonia. Her father, preoccupied with the impending birth of his seventh child, has neglected to fetch a doctor for her, but Dr. Archie, attending the birth, notices Thea's illness and tends to her. His first act is to go to the windows, despite the breast-high mounds of snow outside, and open one. This is for Thea's sake, not just to ventilate the room for the sake of the rest of the family. The most advanced treatment for pneumonia, in 1915, when the novel was published, involved exposing the body to cold, fresh air. "Nothing between the nose and the North Pole," wrote one physician of his radical new treatment method in 1906, and ten years later hospitals treated pneumonia patients in outdoor, rooftop wards (Northrup 217; Ritchie 45).[5]

As the novel goes on, Thea is, even more alarmingly, closed into a tightly sealed-up prayer meeting room and later a railroad car overnight in close proximity with coughing, ill adolescent girls. The girls are all slowly dying from tuberculosis—the most pernicious and highly contagious of airborne diseases. Cather uses the closed-in air in Moonstone to suggest the dangers that provincial religious and cultural narrowness pose to Thea. The danger is at once figurative and alarmingly literal. But Thea has an intuitive sense that closed-in air is dangerous. Although Thea's mother wants her to sleep with closed windows in winter, Thea is fortunate enough to have the more enlightened Dr. Archie around to explain that Thea's desire to sleep with her window open should be respected—that a girl who sings needs plenty of fresh air and that the cold will harden her chest.

Yet impure air also threatens Thea when she moves into urban environments as she struggles to become an artist. This later enclosed, stifling air suggests that modern, urban life is also dangerous to the artist, also a threat to the existence of art. When Thea begins studying with Bowers, she must leave the good German boardinghouse because the commute by subway takes an hour and a half, and, Cather writes, "the bad air in the cars, at the end of a long day's work, fatigued her greatly and was bad for her voice" (225). Later, in an attempt to minimize her exposure to this bad air, Thea ends up in other unhealthy environments. She lives in a series of damp, dark, and dirty boardinghouses, where she also gets poor food—and ends up miserably ill with tonsillitis that makes her feel "unclean and disgusting" (256). Fred helps her recuperate with pure food and pure air—by feeding her at good Chicago restaurants and then supplying her with fresh air, simple wholesome food, sunlight, and the opportunity for vigorous exercise at Panther Canyon.

But again, at the novel's end, even when Thea is at the peak of her artistic triumph, she is threatened by this vector for disease, by the conditions of living in urban modernity. Except for one walk with Fred in Central Park in the snow, we see Thea only in highly enclosed spaces: the opera house, restaurants, and her apartment hotel, where she is closed in behind two sets of blinds. Thea's life feels sadly, and even alarmingly, airless as the novel comes to a close. Just before her triumphal performance she fights insomnia by going back in imagination to her childhood room. The memory is full of drafts and fresh air. She remembers her "windy loft" and her "glacial room" (391), hears in memory "the wind rushing and banging down the village street" (391). In bed in her apartment house in the depths of winter she also feels, for once, an actual breath of fresh air. Evidently, despite the two sets of window shades, Thea still sleeps with the window open, for, Cather writes, "a cold, dry breeze was coming in from the window, thank goodness!" (391). Imagining and breathing the outside air, Thea sleeps deeply for ten hours, then wakes to deliver her triumphal performance. But the recurrent, airless environments in the novel's final section suggest that like provincial life urban modernity can also be inimical both to health and to the creation of great art.

Impure water, the third vector for disease, also looms as an ominous threat to Thea in The Song of the Lark, and it is in this Cather novel that sullied water receives the most extensive attention and figurative use. The major incident involving sullied water occurs in Moonstone. Moonstone has moved into the modern era by creating a municipal water system, a grid supplying water from a common source to many of the houses in town. Thea and her family turn out to be protected because they have a more traditional way of obtaining water from an individual well.

A typhoid epidemic occurs in Moonstone when Thea is an adolescent. It begins when a filthy, feverish tramp shuffles into town and is received inhospitably by the townspeople, including Thea herself. Thea, sitting in a hammock in her front yard, sees the tramp sniffing the scent of cooking food. Repulsed by his disgusting smell, she puts her handkerchief to her nose, later to feel shame when she realizes that he is starving and that, seeing her, he moves on without stopping at her house and so goes hungry. In other ways as well the town treats him inhospitably. A few days later the feverish tramp dresses up in a filthy clown suit and displays a box of rattlesnakes outside the town saloon, telling the gathering crowd he will eat one alive when the crowd has collectively thrown a dollar into his hat. The tramp, untreated and unbathed, is thrown into jail, his rattlesnakes killed. After a day in jail he is thrown out of town. He attempts to hop a train, is thrown off, and then disappears.

But he has left behind an obscenity, chalked on the waterstorage standpipe for the town, and a few days later the municipal water begins to smell and taste foul. Eventually the townspeople discover that the tramp has, in revenge, drowned himself in the standpipe. The water the people of Moonstone have been drinking has been washing over the tramp's foul hat, shoes, and corpse. His body, which has been decaying in the Moonstone water, has evidently been wracked by typhoid fever. This nasty disease is spread through the municipal water supply to the population of Moonstone, causing much illness and killing several adults and half a dozen children, among them some of Thea's classmates. The "ugly, stupid word" that Cather has the tramp chalk on the standpipe that rises above Moonstone, where the whole town can look up and read it, emphasizes the nature of his revenge—and the substance with which he has deliberately contaminated Moonstone water. Cather avoids repeating the tramp's vulgarity, only telling us, in roundabout euphemism, that it is "the same word, in another tongue, that the French soldier shouted at Waterloo to the English officer who bade the old guard surrender; a comment on life which the defeated, along the hard roads of the world, sometimes bawl at the victorious" (124). The Vicomte de Cambronne, Napoleon's general, has gone down in history for this word. More respectful sources give the general's response, when invited by the British to surrender, as, "la garde meurt mais ne se rend pas" (the guard may die but will not surrender). But in the French popular imagination the Vicomte is famous for having retorted at this moment what is known as "le mot de Cambronne" (the word of Cambronne)—"Merde!" (Mould 53). Merde—shit—this is what the tramp has chalked on the water tower in Moonstone. His message clearly is: you treat me like excrement, and I'll put that typhoid-contaminated excrement into your water supply, and I'll make you suffer as I suffer; I'll make you as unfortunate in life as I am.[6] Lest we forget that typhoid is spread through excrementcontaminated water, Cather has the tramp's final obscenity remind us.

Thea evades the danger posed by Moonstone's modernized water system because her family's traditional well remains uncontaminated. But Cather reminds us here of the danger posed by dirty water and by modern, conjoined systems of water delivery. The danger is enacted on the bodies of those around Thea, including some other girls her age, her own classmates who die. Thea's body remains safe, but Cather awakens her readers to this danger. It looms all the more forcibly as Thea soon moves on to Chicago, where no one, presumably, is drinking well water. Chicago, as Samuel Hopkins Adams pointed out in his McClure's article, was a city very much threatened by typhoid, as it drew its water from the same lake into which sewage was drained. Chicago is also of course the city in which Cather contracted her own case of life-threatening typhoid.

When Fred Ottenburg helps Thea escape from the contaminated environment of her urban life in Chicago, a contaminated environment that she must inhabit in order to grow as an artist but in which, paradoxically, her health and therefore her art are threatened by sullying modernity, he takes her back to an ancient, pure, clean space. In Panther Canyon Thea reconnects with a primitive premodern vitality. That vitality arises from clean, open spaces, from pure air, from simple healthy food, and from pure water. Cather celebrates Thea's bodily vitality in these chapters by showing her bathing outside. Thea bathes naked under the open sky, in the "glittering thread of current," "the rapid, restless heart" of the pure canyon stream (273). There, in a much-quoted passage, Thea pauses as a thought flashes through her mind and stands still, thinking, "until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin" (273). In this passage, more than pure air or pure food in Cather's fiction, pure water becomes a metaphor for life and, in turn, becomes metaphorically entangled with art. "The stream and the broken pottery," Thea thinks, "what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? . . . In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath" (273). In The Song of Lark Cather at once shows the perils of contaminated and contaminating modern urban environments to the artist and celebrates the vitality of the healthy artist's body that can resist these perils. Here, revivified by a return to a clean, earthy, premodern space, nourished by pure water as well as pure air and pure food, Thea's body becomes a fit vessel, a vehicle for art.

One facet of the preoccupation with impure air, water, and food in Cather's fiction is her celebration of the healthy, vital body of the artist who is able to exist and thrive and produce art despite these vectors for disease in the modern world. This celebration of the artist's vitality can feel almost amoral, almost heartless.[7] In its adulation of the healthy vital body and its appetites and the art it produces, Cather's fiction is certainly at odds with familiar moral standards, at odds with self-denial and sympathy with the weak and suffering.

In order to demonstrate Thea's physical robustness, Cather's novel surrounds Thea with other weaker, damaged, and in some cases dying bodies. The tramp with typhoid suffers and dies; Thea's classmates who have caught typhoid from him suffer and die. Thea briefly worries over this and talks to Dr. Archie about it, but Dr. Archie encourages her to think about art and the gloriousness of human endeavor. The novel quickly returns to a celebration of the development and growth of the artist, a celebration in which the healthy body, the youthful, strong, vital body, is deeply involved. "There is no work of art so big or so beautiful," the narrator observes a few paragraphs later, "that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation" (127).

Thea has a similar moment of sympathy for those who become ill from impure air when she returns from Chicago, but again the novel quickly shifts its focus from ill bodies to the vigorous healthy ones that will produce great art. Thea meets a consumptive teenage girl on the train home from Chicago and must spend the night sitting in the seat in front of her, kept awake by her cough. Thea is sympathetic briefly to the coughing, dying girl—but her attention and Cather's own quickly pass to Thea's physical strength and her musical ambitions. Cather writes of Thea: She put her hand on her breast and felt how warm it was; and within it there was a full, powerful pulsation. She smiled—though she was ashamed of it—with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless. Nobody could die while he felt like that inside. . . . She was going to have a few things before she died. She realized that there were a great many trains dashing east and west on the face of the continent that night, and that they all carried young people who meant to have things. But the difference was that she was going to get them! That was all. (197) Standing on the observation platform, drawing in the "glorious air," Thea rejoices in her own physical vitality and the sense of her future as an artist—and so does Cather.

The celebration of health and vigor and art is the dominant impulse of The Song of the Lark. But the novel's attention to the forces that threaten art—among them a contaminated modern urban environment with impure air, impure food, and impure water—means that alongside the celebration of the healthy, vigorous body in The Song of the Lark the novel is surprisingly full of other, shadowy bodies, ill bodies, unfortunate bodies, dying bodies. Their presence both emphasizes Thea's robustness and reveals her bodily precariousness, in an environment that constantly poses dangers to human health. By showing the destruction wreaked by impure air, impure food, and impure water, Cather's novel persistently reminds us of the hazardous conditions surrounding the artist. The Song of the Lark is at once a celebratory and an anxious novel, then, joyfully and almost cruelly affirming the artist's robust physical vitality, while at the same time, in a dark undercurrent, animated by a sense of the threat posed by modernity to the artist's glorious, yet inevitably vulnerable, inevitably mortal body.


 1. The concerns about modernity evident in Wharton and Cather are a further instance of the kind of antimodern sentiment Lears sees as pervasive in the early twentieth He mentions Wharton in passing, but not Cather, and does not explore the public health movements on which this essay focuses. The vitality and athleticism of Cather's artist figure are interestingly consonant with the growing general emphasis on fitness in early twentieth-century American life, as explored in Grover. (Go back.)
 2. Cather must have been interested to note, when writing The Life of Mary Baker Eddy, that Julius Dresser, who claimed that Mary Baker Eddy had taken her system of mental healing from Phineas Quimby without acknowledging him, became a devout disciple of Quimby's when Quimby cured him of typhoid pneumonia through his methods of mental and spiritual healing (Cather and Milmine 78). (Go back.)
 3. For a more detailed account of Cather's fiction and the Pure Food movement see my "Sanitary Piggeries." (Go back.)
 4. For a more detailed account of breathing in Cather's fiction see my "Coughing Girls." (Go back.)
 5. Dr. Archie is at the forefront of medical practice, however, in doing this in 1890, the time at which the novel opens. (Go back.)
 6. It might seem that these issues of sullied water are, at least in the United States, comfortably in the past. But a recent controversy in Connecticut is surprisingly reminiscent of the tramp incident in The Song of the Lark. An unusual, eight-foot-tall fountain shaped like a whale's tail opened in May 2011 in New London as part of the city's attempt to revitalize the waterfront. Water gushes from the tail, and the fountain is placed on an open plaza and designed so that children can play in the open waterfall. But in early June witnesses saw a homeless man who had "soiled" himself washing his clothes in the fountain—which recirculates its Another resident complained of seeing people urinating in the fountain and described it as having rapidly degenerated into an "11 million dollar bathroom" (Berger a19)—and a bathroom in which children play in the sewage. (Go back.)
 7. On the general topic of the representation of healthy as opposed to unhealthy bodies in medical literature of the turn of the century, see Gilman 51-66. (Go back.)


Adams, Samuel Hopkins. "Typhoid: An Unnecessary Evil." McClure's 25 (1905): 145-57. Print.
Berger, Joseph. "Fountain Called 'Jewel' of a Connecticut Waterfront Becomes a Health Concern." New York Times 9 June 2011: a19. Print.
Cather, Willa. Autobiography of S. S. McClure. Intro. Robert Thacker. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.
———. Lucy Gayheart. 1935. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
———. "Neighbor Rosicky." Collected Stories. By Cather. 1920. New York: Vintage, 1992. 231-61. Print.
———. One of Ours. 1922. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
———. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. New York: Vintage, 1975. Print.
———. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
———. The Song of the Lark. 1915. New York: Houghton Mifflin, Print.
Cather, Willa, and Georgine Milmine. The Life of Mary Baker Eddy and the History of Christian Science. Intro. and afterword by David Stouck. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1993. Print.
College of Physicians of Philadelphia. "The History of Vaccines: First Typhoid Inoculation." Web. 13 August 2011.
Gilman, Sander. Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.
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