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From Cather Studies Volume 10

"One Knows It Too Well to Know It Well": Willa Cather, A. E. Housman, and A Shropshire Lad

They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, The lads that will die in their glory and never be old. —A. E. Housman, Poem 23, A Shropshire Lad
Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places. —Alice Munro, "Face"

My title is taken from a line in Cather's "A Chance Meeting," an essay she first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1933. It offers Cather's account of her happenstance meeting with Madame Franklin Grout, Flaubert's niece, during the summer of 1930 at a hotel where both were staying in Aix-les-Bains. Grout was the person to whom Flaubert's Lettres à sa Nièce Caroline were addressed. Among other things Cather there recounts a moment while the two women were discussing Flaubert's works when the older woman inquired, "I suppose you care most for Madame Bovary?" Paraphrasing her reply, Cather writes: "One can hardly discuss that book; it is a fact in history. One knows it too well to know it well" (17). This phrasing aptly catches the certain sort of deep relation I wish to address here: the ongoing imaginative connection between a receptive reader and a special book; such a connection defines a reciprocation that, seen through the prism of available evidence, has left clear traces throughout that reader's life. And since the reader I am analyzing is Willa Cather—a reader who also was a writer—echoes of that relation, its presences and influences, are to be found in the texts she herself produced. This process requires a conscious combining of biographical, critical, and textual evidence.

To begin shaping relevant contexts, some characterization of the young Willa Cather is appropriate. Joan Acocella offers this sharp description of the young girl in Red Cloud: "She was one of those genius children—a show-off, an explosion, a pest" (7). That was so throughout her adolescence, and it remained accurate, insofar as her ambitions went, through her twenties and into her thirties. While it is judicious to adapt such a characterization to progressively more complex contexts as Cather grew older and made her way, this phrasing nevertheless captures the informed persistence, the drive to succeed, that the young Cather evinced from Lincoln in the 1890s when she was at the university on to Pittsburgh (1896-1906) and then to New York (after 1906). In fact, the daunting knowledge of and commitment to art she displayed in her early years in Lincoln and then in Pittsburgh, the assertiveness, the apparent self-confidence, the massed output of her reviews and columns, the very notion, to cite but one instance, of The Player Letters as a volume (this was the book she worked on in which she addressed letters to individual actors and told them how to act)—all of this is breathtaking, both in its audacity and in its accomplishment. And this is just what Cather did as she made her way toward becoming the artist she sought to be. But at the same time throughout these years there are also indications of self-doubt and of uncertainty.


Along with Madame Bovary, another book Cather long saw as a "fact in history," one that she also knew "too well to know it well," was A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896). She discovered it early and first discussed it in an October 1897 column in the Home Monthly, where she became the first editor to republish a poem from A Shropshire Lad in an American magazine (Poem 39: "'Tis time, I think by Wenlock town"). Cather was writing then on the occasion of the publication of the second edition of Housman's book (Housman, Collected Poems (cp) 63; Cather, World and the Parish (W&P) 1: 357-58). She returned to it again in 1900 in a piece in the Lincoln Courier—one that William M. Curtin called "virtually a Housman sampler" (W&P 2: 708). When Ethelbert Nevin died only in his late thirties in February 1901, a devastated Cather quoted a stanza from A Shropshire Lad as epigraph to the artist's obituary she wrote for the Nebraska State Journal (W&P 2: 637-42). When she traveled to Europe for the first time in 1902, Cather went almost immediately to Housman's Shropshire and from there wrote to Dorothy Canfield (later Fisher) a long and effusive letter, asserting that she "never ran such a gauntlet of experiences" (6 July 1902). Along with another friend, Isabelle McClung, Cather saw his places there but found no trace of the poet himself. Undeterred, fired by her enthusiasm for Housman's verse, Cather got herself immediately afterward to the poet's lodgings in Highgate and actually met the man, along with Canfield and McClung. Housman was not what Cather had expected: he did not recognize her as a kindred spirit, and he was not willing to talk about his poetry, although he did give her a manuscript copy of "his last poem, 'The Olive'" (Cather to Viola Roseboro', 25 June 1903, Thirty Housman Letters 6-7). Dorothy Canfield saved their social encounter by conversing with him about her ongoing PhD research, a subject the shy and erudite Housman warmed to. But sitting there in Housman's grimy rooms, Cather felt herself a bumpkin, was frustrated by the way things had come off, and after they had left burst into tears as they were on their way back to their hotel (see Brown, Willa Cather 105-9; O'Brien 250-51; Woodress 158-59).[1] For Cather, and as Alice Munro wrote in her story "Face," this visit to Housman in Highgate was a place "where something happened" (164).

Even with her disappointment when meeting the man, Cather's enthusiasm for Housman did not flag. Returned to Pittsburgh, she detailed the visit to Viola Roseboro' as she was working her way into McClure's magazine after she had been beckoned to New York by S. S. McClure in May 1903 (Cather to Roseboro', 14 June [1903]). She connected over Housman then too with the magazine's young poetry editor, Witter Bynner, who, for his part, began a longstanding correspondence with Housman and republished—at the rate of one about every four months or so—some fourteen poems from A Shropshire Lad between December 1903 and September 1908 (Haber vii).[2] These poems appeared in McClure's while Cather was actively seeking both publication for her stories there and a place on the McClure's staff; they continued to appear for over two years after her appointment to that staff in early 1906.[3] Given Cather's enthusiasm and her growing connection with the McClure's staff after her first visit in May 1903, it is probably not coincidental that the first Housman poem to appear in McClure's (Poem 52 as "Song": "Far in a western brookland") was the same one that Cather quoted complete in her 1900 Courier column (Housman, cp 78; Cather, W&P 2: 707). And after she had connected with Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather quoted Housman's "The Olive" from memory, telling the older woman that Housman gave her a copy of it himself, when she wrote her from Italy in 1908 (10 May 1908).

Over the years the visit to Housman became a small but legendary fact in her history—it was retold, by Cather as well as by others; she details it to Roseboro' in her letters at Harvard. She told Ford Madox Ford about it herself during a visit he made to the McClure's offices, and he in turn spoofed and inaccurately recounted it in his Return to Yesterday (1932); claiming that Cather was the president of the Shropshire Lad Club of Pittsburgh, Ford writes that the club "subscribed . . . for a solid gold laurel wreath and deputed Miss Cather and Miss McClung to carry it to the poet and explain suitably why it was sent" (330). After that account appeared, to Cather's consternation, she twice wrote to Cyril Clemens discouraging him from referring to the visit in his work and denying having led any group of women to see Housman—an inaccuracy of her own (11 December 1936; 30 January 1937). Recalling the incident herself in late 1944 in reply to an inquiring scholar, Cather wrote that when she visited Housman she "was young and foolish and thought that if one admired a writer very much one had a perfect right to ring his doorbell." In the same letter she asserted that "[s]ome day I intend to write a careful and accurate account of that visit." Apparently she began doing so, since among her very last letters in April 1947 was one to Dorothy Canfield Fisher asking her for her recollections of their visit (Cather to Weber, 12 December 1944; Weber; Cather to Canfield Fisher, 17 April 1947). Fisher sent them, and Cather read them just before she died (Fisher, Keeping Fires 260-62).

For her part, and while she was helping E. K. Brown with his biography after Cather's death, Fisher wrote him that "I've had a pleasant little note from Edith Lewis, saying that when you passed through New York, you read her my account of that long-ago visit [presumably the same account she sent to Cather] to A. E. Houseman [sic]. Apparently it satisfied her." Then, moving past the facts of the visit itself, Fisher turns to wondering about its importance to Cather. She continues, asking, "Have you any idea why she and Willa seemed to find something so important in that casual (for it certainly was that) encounter? I've never understood why" (29 October 1949). Brown initially replied, "Why she cared so much to correct F. M. Ford's version of the visit to Housman I cannot tell. Miss Lewis cares so much simply because Miss Cather did, I feel sure. But it is very odd what people care about" (12 November 1949). His more considered answer is in the biography: "Yet it had undeniably been an emotional experience. The poet Willa Cather imagined in the work seemed, perhaps, difficult to reconcile with the poet she met that day in the flesh" (Brown, Willa Cather 109).

In this essay I want to examine the implications of Fisher's question to Brown about the incident's importance to Cather. Its importance should be seen in two ways. Biographically, Cather's visit to Housman's Shropshire and her determination to feel a relation between his poems and that place, to capture its sights and feelings for herself, are telling in a writer who was herself ultimately so connected to her own places. Similarly, the visit to Housman she orchestrated reveals her determination to pursue the professional career she imagined for herself, seeing him as a potential kindred spirit, perhaps a mentor. Thus the ways Cather saw Housman and his book are very much a part of Cather's self-creation in the late 1890s and early 1900s. But more than the biographical, indicative though it is, there are also the various ways A Shropshire Lad is present throughout Cather's entire oeuvre. Key images from Housman reappear and are central to the stories Cather writes—indeed, it is reasonable to see A Shropshire Lad as an essential presence in her writing. For her it truly was a book she knew too well to know well, such are its echoes throughout her work. As Cather readily conceded to Viola Roseboro', Housman's influence is palpable in her own poems in her first book, April Twilights (1903). Yet the greater significance of Housman's book is a longstanding influence on Cather's prose throughout the body of her work.

In fact, its presence and effects are evident in much the same way as Cather's hearing S. S. McClure tell his story to her in 1913 so that she could write "his" My Autobiography (1914) (Thacker, "It's Through Myself"). That is, as Elsa Nettels has demonstrated, Cather's discovery and championing of Housman had a telling effect on her entire trajectory as an artist. This was something seen most explicitly in her first book, certainly, but it also echoes throughout her work in the retrospective cast of most of her fiction. As Janis P. Stout has argued compellingly, "[T]he writing of poetry provided Cather a vehicle for her prolonged engagement with the nature of art and the artist and the social function of the artist's work" ("Willa Cather's Poetry" 160). Housman's art in A Shropshire Lad is an echoing presence throughout Cather's work. Such commonalities are less a matter of influence than they are of aesthetic continuity—Cather knew A Shropshire Lad too well, too significantly, to say explicitly. When she visited Housman at Highgate in 1902, something happened there that affected Cather deeply and that sharpened her already well-defined but still-growing aesthetic, both immediately and ultimately. The rendering of human experience Cather found in Housman's poems corresponds to her own sense of being—to her own sense of what she was striving for in her art, to her own sense of what literature is for and what it should do.


As already seen, Cather's longtime friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a key presence in understanding the Housman connection. Although the two women had a significant falling out over Cather's desire to include "The Profile" (1907) in The Troll Garden (1905), one that led to a long period of estrangement, theirs was a connection that began when Cather was in Lincoln for college in the early 1890s and extended until her death in 1947 (Madigan). The 1902 visit to Housman, their parallel careers as writers (both used Paul Reynolds as an agent, for instance, and in letters there are comments about each writer's audience), Fisher's assistance with the composition of and review of One of Ours (1922), and Fisher's significant 1933 profile of Cather (which the latter saw prior to publication)—all are key moments in Cather's biography. Such points of connection, and especially the archival evidence of their relationship, lend a great deal of resonance to critical moments in Cather's life and career (Fisher, "Willa Cather"). Once Cather had died and Edith Lewis and Alfred A. Knopf needed to respond to demands for a life, E. K. Brown began the authorized biography with their endorsement and assistance. As part of that work he made contact with Fisher and arranged to visit her in Vermont; the two hit it off and then began a correspondence touching on many things but that was chiefly about Cather. When, in the midst of the work on the biography, Brown died of cancer in April 1951, Fisher played a key role advising Brown's widow, Margaret, and, once the latter had come to terms with Knopf regarding the status of Brown's unfinished book, she also similarly aided Leon Edel, who completed the biography (see Thacker, "'Critic'").

Writing to Brown just after his visit to her in Vermont during the fall of 1949, Fisher offers an observation that resonates here, both literally and conceptually: I have one more item to send you which may possibly interest you. I have just been reading Steegmuller's Life of Maupassant and noted that Maupassant thought of himself first as a poet and secondly as a fiction writer. He set great store by his early poetry, although apparently the other people didn't notice it so much. This coincides with my noticing a list of 75 books published by women in the last 75 years, selected by Smith College. What was my astonishment to have them select as the only book of Willa's noticed her book of poetry "April Twilight" [sic]. Who do you suppose was responsible for that rather odd choice[?] (23 October 1949)[4] Astonished at this selection or not, Fisher offered Brown critical assessments of her friend that encouraged him to think of Cather's poetry as a key to her accomplishment. More than once she noted Cather's comment that a person's—and especially an artist's—most vivid emotions and images come to them before the age of fifteen. Writing to Brown in mid-1950, Fisher sent him a poetic tribute to Cather by Isabel Kfoury "because it reinforces my feeling about Willa . . . that she is a poet, a real one." She continues: "When I say that, people usually think I mean that her poetry is great poetry. No, I don't think so. I like it, always have greatly liked it, but she gave to verse only some of her earlier years, and partial attention at that. It did not have 'greatness' any more than this verse-tribute to her has. . . . [H]er deepest work, done in her middle years, was in prose, and looked like novels. But I think their great value is in her having a poet's vision of human life and the background to our life" (8 May 1950). Replying to this letter from Lincoln—where he had gone for research— Brown agrees about "the poetic base in Willa Cather's writing" but also says that he has "difficulty in caring much for the verse." That day he had spoken to James Shively about this notion, and he agreed—and Shively said also that Louise Pound "goes so far as to say that the verse is the best part of Willa Cather's writing." Brown knew that Fisher would not subscribe to that idea (1 June 1950).

Even so, as we survey Cather's life and career in 1950 just after her death—just as the question of her status was most acute, just as she was really becoming a cultural icon, just as those who valued her work focused on the massed accomplishments in prose from the 1920s on—Cather's beginnings as a poet were obscured. April Twilights was almost a half a century in the past, itself obscured too by the expurgations (the word Cather used to her editor Ferris Greenslet when he suggested such a volume in 1915) of April Twilights and Other Poems (1923). This edition omitted thirteen of the original poems and replaced them with twelve poems written after the first volume appeared.[5] But as Stout has argued, this confirms that Cather continued to write poetry (sporadically at least) even though, just after the publication of the expurgated April Twilights, she said that she "did not take herself seriously as a poet." Yet, taking up "Thou Art the Pearl" (1900), Stout asserts that Cather "not only could but did invest her love of art and literature with such an ardor" as is found in that poem. Continuing by saying that we "rarely find so ardent a tone in Cather's prose," Stout suggests similar (but not equivalent) moments in The Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Lucy Gayheart, concluding that "primarily such moments were reserved for poetry, and her poetry was primarily reserved for the emotions with which she invested art" ("Willa Cather's Poetry" 169 and passim). Cather made much the same point herself, once writing to the poet Sara Teasdale that "I don't like analytical verse—I like something to flower in a poem, if it's only four lines. To me that's the only excuse for writing verse at all, to let a feeling flower" (10 May [1931]).[6] Thus Cather remained invested in her poetry throughout her career as a writer of fiction, and Housman's influence on that poetry remained salient throughout her works.

When Fisher replied to Brown's letter from Lincoln, she remarked that she "never meant to say that her verse is a very serious contribution to literature" and continued by reminding Brown to "remember"—though as we have seen, this is not correct—that "she wrote all of her verse in her youth. It is a product of her young days. If she had gone on writing poetry as she matured, the story might have been different." Concluding this line of discussion, Fisher writes "that the finest of Willa's qualities as a writer, seem to me to have more poetic quality—the poet's divination and vision—than is usual in novelists" (5 June 1950).[7]

Writing to Brown in what Edel characterized as a "memorandumletter" (ten pages, single-spaced) about the young Cather, Fisher drew upon her knowledge of Cather both in Lincoln and then in Pittsburgh. Keen to define Pittsburgh as a place of culture and art for Brown, Fisher writes that people there "all felt her to be gifted, liked her eager zest in life—for she enjoyed Pittsburg, I think, much more than Lincoln, her first flight away from home. She felt that somehow she got off on the wrong foot in Lincoln, although nobody else felt that. I think that her position there [in Lincoln] was not all she had hoped or expected. But in Pittsburg she had that wonderful opportunity, which every young person should have, of a fresh start, a beginning in a place where nobody knew a thing about the past with its associations and lacks." Fisher continues to discuss the cultural life Cather found in Pittsburgh, her relations with the Seibels and with Ethelbert Nevin—whom she describes as "one of the first American composers who wrote music that everybody liked and played as soon as he had written it," a person who "belonged to one of the wealthy Pittsburg families." Cather, she writes, "came to know the Nevins through various connections which her first friends in Pittsburg provided for her. She always gravitated rapidly toward famous people and Nevin was certainly the most famous man in Pittsburg." Fisher continues to describe Cather's visits to Lincoln after she had moved to Pittsburgh, where she got "the greatest satisfaction" in displaying "the proof that she was fully accepted in a place which entirely so outshone Lincoln in money and variety of cultivated activities." Louise Pound, she also writes, found Cather's bragging in this vein to be unseemly (10 December 1950).

Whatever else attracted Cather to Isabelle McClung, it is not incidental that the family lived in a section of Pittsburgh where the neighbors then had names like Carnegie and Frick (Thacker, "She's Not a Puzzle"). She gravitated to Nevin, "the most famous man in Pittsburg," as Fisher says. During these years too Cather met Mark Twain, attending his posh formal seventieth birthday party at Delmonico's in New York, one of 170 guests, in December 1905; there she was among a smaller group who, James Woodress tells us, "got to meet Twain before the dinner" (182). Later she visited him when they both lived in New York and he received callers lying abed.[8]

In May 1903—just after April Twilights was published and was reviewed in the New York Times and in Boston by a new Columbia PhD named Ferris Greenslet, the man who would later be her editor at Houghton Mifflin—Cather's campaign to attract the attention of S. S. McClure and his staff paid off: she was summoned to New York City, where she met McClure and his associates at the office. He promised to publish her stories in the magazine and a book collection with McClure, Phillips; he chided the readers who had rejected her submissions; he invited her to the McClure home in Westchester, where she met Hattie McClure, their children, and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, who was then visiting.

Just over a month later Cather wrote Viola Roseboro'—McClure's chief fiction reader, the person who had found O. Henry, Booth Tarkington, and many others for McClure's— from 1180 Murray Hill Avenue, Pittsburgh. She begins, "Do I know a Shropshire Lad? Do I? Isn't the internal evidence of my own verses all against me? Why I've been Housman's bond slave, mentally, since his first volume appeared some six years ago. As soon as I got to England I went straight to Shropshire, to all the places—Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Keighton, and the rivers 'Ouy and Teme and Clun.' I even went to Shrewsbury jail—it stands above the railway switch yards and that is why 'Trains all night groan on the rail to men that die at morn.'" Cather continues in this vein and describes the visit to Housman, writing that he is the most gaunt and grey and embittered individual I know. He is an instructor in Latin inscriptions in the University of London, but I believe the position pays next to nothing. The poor man's shoes and cuffs and the state of the carpet in his little hole of a study gave me a fit of dark depression. I would like to tell you about it sometime: I think he is making about the only English verse that will last, the only verse of this decade I mean. It is remarkable technically as it is unique in the truth of its sentiment. That sounds rather flat, but you will know what I mean. And how intensely it does appeal, where it appeals at all. It's not everyone who can care for it. I only know a dozen or so who see anything extraordinary in it. Cather then apologizes for having "gone on at great length about" Housman, "but I've tracked the man the length and breadth of England and done much shameless detective work on him, that I'm glad to be able to tell a few of my discoveries to some one who agrees with me about his verse. If you ever want more information just give me an opportunity and I will play on and on like a music box" (14 June [1903]).

This is a remarkable letter: Cather is ingratiating, proud, a bit pushy, intent to impress. Equally, she is utterly sure of her Housman—"he is making the only English verse that will last"; his work is "remarkable technically" and "unique in the truth of its sentiment"—and of his influence on her own verse. When she assessed A Shropshire Lad in the Lincoln Courier in 1900, Cather asserted that "there is more poetry in this little book than in any half-dozen volumes of verse that I know of." There too she wondered "who and what this man Housman may be" (W&P 2: 709). Cather's wonderings over Housman continued even after she met him when, probably early in 1904, she wrote to Roseboro' again, beginning, "Amazement is a mild term for the state into which your letter has thrown me. He refused the money! Do we live in the days of chivalry? Why I would almost think I had been telling you the banal fairy tale of unappreciated genius," and she tries to connect this act to the man she and her friends met in Highgate (n.d.). That these Cather letters were those Bynner donated to Harvard suggests that Roseboro' brought them to his attention—well she might have, since as the poetry editor who published Housman's "Song" in the December 1903 McClure's as the first of fourteen poems from A Shropshire Lad, he would have told her that he sent the poet payment for the poem and Housman refused it (see Thirty Housman Letters 6).

Also sometime in 1904 Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher a letter of deep apology, a revelatory glimpse into what I have called her self-doubt and uncertainty. It suggests a very different person than I have emphasized thus far, one who well knows the trajectory she is on and the limitations she brings along with her: Of course I've always been conscious that I was ill tempered and ungrateful and that I behaved very childishly abroad two years ago, and frankly, I don't see how you could overlook it. There is just a terribly low streak of something both ill-tempered and ill bred that comes out in me only too often. It was surely not your fault that I didn't understand French and that I felt very provincial and helpless and ignorant, and it's incredible that any grown person should have behaved as I did. It makes me ill to think of it, it surely does. Acknowledging that she "gets stiff and haughty" when she is in the wrong, Cather admits that "the unpleasantness was all of my manufacture" ([1904]).[9]

Given that Cather is writing about herself retrospectively, and before the dispute over "The Profile" in The Troll Garden, Dorothy Canfield Fisher had not seen anything yet as regards imperious behavior from her friend Willa. Yet, paired with Housman and his book of poems that so affected this ambitious young woman from Virginia, from Nebraska, and just then from Pittsburgh but soon enough from New York, Cather was at a point in 1902-4 in which her incipient genius and her overall direction are clear. She was then a person moving methodically in pursuit of her professional goals, a self in formation. And, evident too, that genius is much like that of her poetic discovery: the A. E. Housman of A Shropshire Lad still sits uneasily with the difficult classical scholar from Cambridge, he of the excoriating footnotes on the insufficient scholarship of others (see Auden, "A. E. Housman"). So too Cather, and so too the echoes of A Shropshire Lad throughout her "poetic" fiction—"one knows it too well to know it well." The "stiff and haughty" person who "behaved very childishly abroad" in 1902, the pushy ambitious pest who was "making herself born" by seizing the main chance—by the end of 1904 she had attracted the attentions of Roseboro' and, through her and especially, McClure. This biographical story is neither serene nor entirely edifying, but it took Cather on a path that produced a most enduring poetic art. Arguably, whatever happened that day at Highgate when she and the others visited Housman told on her: it was a place and an occasion that remained quite real within Cather's imagination for the rest of her life.

This was so because of who Cather was, when she lived and wrote, and what Housman's verse seemed to mean for her. Cather's 1931 comment to Teasdale, "I don't like analytical verse," might appear to be yet another instance of being out of step with her times—as she famously wrote in her prefatory note to her Not Under Forty (1936), "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" (v). For good or for ill Cather emerged as a writer—again, largely a poet—writing in the manner of the late Victorians, using that era's conceits and prosody and looking toward Europe. She found Housman's A Shropshire Lad and savored its connection to a place, seeing in it a purity that was absent in most contemporary verse; it fired her imagination and led her to visit his home place and seek him out in Highgate. Its influence was much a part of the intellectual and aesthetic trajectory Cather had then embarked upon and was pursuing fervently. Both Housman and Cather—as we look back at them now, certainly—bore a similar relation to the literary modernism that emerged from the Great War. Housman's retrospection, the pathos with which he characterizes doomed youth, is punctuated by a modernist sensibility (see Poem 62: "Terence, this is stupid stuff"). In Cather's hands the same human considerations—the transitory pleasures life affords, doomed youth, the inevitability of death—become the bases of enduring modernist fiction.


In E. K. Brown's Rhythm in the Novel (1950), made up of lectures he gave while at work on his Cather biography, there is a fine discussion of The Professor's House. Toward the end of it Brown holds that [t]he surprise for the reader who really reads the novel is not the startling intercalated story: it is the strange short third part. The common quality between the Middle Western college town and life in the Cliff Dwellers' village is that both kinds of life end in death. That is something for which neither the first nor the second part of the novel had prepared us. Dominated by the feeling that both kinds of life end in death, we know how to measure them, the ancient and the contemporary. Great chords are sounding; and as they sound they alter radically the impression we had before we approached the end of the novel. (Rhythm 77) Every character in The Professor's House offers a "My Tom Outland"—that is, each sees and values his meaning differently—and it is no leap at all to see Outland as Cather's "athlete dying young." Or, as it is stated elsewhere in A Shropshire Lad, when Housman describes the young men at the Ludlow fair as "The lads that will die in their glory and never be old" (Poem 23: 46). Cather uses that very image in an eerie fashion in her Jamesian story "Consequences" (1915; 81-84). The phrase "My Tom Outland" echoes My Ántonia, which itself echoes My Autobiography, the book Cather wrote for her friend and mentor S. S. McClure. That book offers a narrative that concentrates on McClure's boyhood story of immigrant drive, persistence, and eventual success even though, when she wrote it in 1913, McClure was out of the magazine that still bore his name. As Elsa Nettels has argued persuasively in her fine discussion of the Housman connection, Cather "perceived the central paradox of A Shropshire Lad—to recapture in poetry the world of home and childhood was to feel most deeply separated from it" (285). Also, Cather understood that "'Shropshire' is also a state of mind, timeless but irrecoverable except in memory" (288). As Janis Stout notes as she follows Cather's textual changes to April Twilights, until "Poor Marty" was added to end the volume in 1933, its last word was "home." When Cather offered what Curtin called her "Housman sampler" to the readers of the Lincoln Courier in early 1900—writing when she was twenty-six—she quotes from Poem 11 ("On your midnight pallet lying") and asserts, "That is what it means to write poetry; to be able to say the oldest thing in the world as though it had never been said before, to make the old wounds of us all bleed fresh, to give a new voice to the Weltschmerz, that, perhaps, is the most exalted lyric of the entire collection" (Housman, cp 33; Cather, W&P 2: 708).

Within Cather's art Housman's A Shropshire Lad was indeed a book, like Madam Bovary, that Cather "knew too well to know it well." She was among its first discoverers and, as she admitted to Roseboro', its first emulators. Its sentiments are found in the very opening of her April Twilights in "Dedicatory," a poem inscribed to her brothers Roscoe and Douglass, its effects Housman-like in its retrospective cast and in the image "Of the three who lay and planned at moonrise, / On an island in a western river, / Of the conquest of the world together" (3).[10] She returned to this same image, significantly, as she was maturing as a prose writer: in "The Treasure of Far Island" (1902), in "The Enchanted Bluff" (1909), and in Alexander's Bridge (1912). With My Autobiography (1914), itself a Housman-esque experience in her listening to McClure tell his story, Cather reshaped his story just as she was taking up her own autobiography through Thea Kronberg. In 1915 too she offered an explicit echo of Housman's athlete dying young in "Consequences." Following The Song of the Lark Cather structured the whole of Jim Burden's telling of his story in My Ántonia as a rueful backward look at his best years, those that have fled. Housman's presence might be elaborated in One of Ours (1922), and it is palpable in A Lost Lady, but with The Professor's House and Lucy Gayheart it is inescapable.

The first chapter of the last section of The Professor's House, what Brown calls "the strange short third part," is particularly indicative. It begins with Professor St. Peter ruminating that "all the most important things in his life . . . had been determined by chance" (257). He thinks first about his education in France and his romance with his wife, Lillian, but most of the chapter is devoted to Tom Outland's appearance, friendship, and effects on the Professor and his work. Here Cather details the trips two men took together to the Southwest and, another summer, to Mexico: "They had planned a third summer together in Paris, but it never came off. Outland was delayed by the formalities of securing his patent, and then came August, 1914." She continues in a passage that displays Housman's influence and reaches something of a modernist crescendo: To this day St. Peter regretted that he had never got that vacation in Paris with Tom Outland. He had wanted to revisit certain spots with him: to go with him some autumn morning to the Luxembourg Gardens, when the yellow horsechestnuts were bright and bitter after rain; to stand with him before the monument to Delacroix and watch the sun gleam on the bronze figures—Time, bearing away the youth who was struggling to snatch his palm—or was it to lay a palm? Not that it mattered. It might have mattered to Tom, had not chance, in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself. (260-61)

This, the penultimate paragraph in the chapter, is followed after a break with one of the most often-quoted passages from the novel, one that encapsulates St. Peter's seeming envy because Outland never had to grow old: "He had made something new in the world—and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others" (261). "The lads that will die in their glory and never be old" (Housman, cp 46). After this chapter closes, Cather describes St. Peter's rediscovery of his former self: "Tom Outland had not come back again through the garden door (as he had so often in dreams!), but another boy had: the boy the Professor had long ago left behind him in Kansas, in the Solomon Valley—the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter" (263). Part of the Professor delights in his rediscovery of his former self, but another part of him sees that discovery as indicative of the nearness of death. The Professor visits his doctor, worries over the impending return of most of his family from Europe, and ultimately nearly dies of asphyxiation in what Cather calls "an ugly accident" (278).

Another fiction inspired by Housman is Alice Munro's short story "Wenlock Edge" (2005), where the main character has a strange experience involving reading from A Shropshire Lad. Between the story's first publication in the New Yorker and its book publication in Too Much Happiness (2009) Munro changed the ending. In the magazine version's penultimate paragraph the narrator looks at people at her college "passing me on their way to classes" and writes, "Most of them on a course, as I was, of getting to know the ways of their own wickedness" (91). In the book version this becomes, "On their way to deeds they didn't know they had in them" (94).[11]

Godfrey St. Peter, meditating on his lost Tom Outland, who disappeared in "the one great catastrophe [that] swept away all youth and all palms, and even Time itself" (261), in "the strange short third part" of the novel, is also on his "way to deeds [he] didn't know [he] had in [him]": his "ugly accident," the return of his family and the coming of a first grandchild, and a life "without delight" (282). Wickedness and delight. Heaven and Hell. In a 1938 review of Lawrence Housman's memoir of his brother, W. H. Auden characterized the poet as "Jehovah Housman and Satan Housman," saying, among other things, that the latter believed that "the essence of poetry was lack of intellectual content" ("Jehovah Housman" 438). ("I like something to flower in a poem . . . to let a feeling flower," Cather wrote to Teasdale.) Focused on the two personae Housman offered, Auden asserts the same point that Brown made about the connection between the Professor's world and that of the Cliff Dwellers: "But they had one common ground upon which they could meet; the grave. Dead texts; dead soldier; Death the Reconciler, beyond sex and beyond thought. There, and only there, could the two worlds meet" (438).[12]

Following after Housman, achieving her most philosophically considered elaboration of these ideas and of the influences of A Shropshire Lad in The Professor's House, Cather continued to meditate on these matters. In the first paragraph of Lucy Gayheart (1935) Lucy's youth in Haverford and her tragic early death are acknowledged immediately. The townspeople "still see her as a slight figure always in motion; dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home" (3). In that book Cather herself writes "the oldest thing in the world as if it had never been said before." Harry Gordon is trapped into following Lucy's lifeless body back to Haverford after she has drowned because of his shameful actions—his own wickedness led him to a deed that he did not know he had in him. There Cather echoes Housman. And in that novel's beautifully set final paragraph describing Harry's last departure from the Gayheart home—"What was a man's 'home town,' anyway, but the place where he had had disappointments and learned to bear them"—Cather the poet captures in an objective correlative both Housman and life itself in Harry Gordon's final pause upon leaving the Gayheart house, "as he had done so many thousand times, to look at the three light footprints, running away" (231).

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves; The gale, it plies the saplings double, And thick on Severn snow the leaves. 'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger When Uricon the city stood: 'Tis the old wind in the old anger, When it threshed another wood. . . . . . . . . . . The gale, it plies the saplings double, It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone To-day the Roman and his trouble Are ashes under Uricon. (Poem 31: 55)[13]


I acknowledge and warmly thank those friends who have read and commented on earlier drafts of this essay: Richard Millington (Smith College), Elsa Nettels (College of William and Mary), Kari Ronning (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), K. P. Stich (University of Ottawa), and especially Janis P. Stout (Texas A&M University).

 1. Two of these three biographers suggest that Cather alone wept upon leaving Housman's lodgings while the third, Woodress, says they all did. When she wrote her recollections to Cather in 1947, Fisher has Cather the sole weeper (Keeping Fires 262). Cather told Viola Roseboro', who was in charge of fiction at McClure's, that "the three of us, not one of whom is exactly emotional, really and literally cried most of the way by to Charring [sic] Cross station. The effect of the man and his surroundings was the most dismal I hope ever to encounter" (n.d.). (Go back.)
 2. The two letters from Cather to Roseboro' regarding Housman were given to Harvard by Bynner in November 1960. In a cover note there he explained that they had been given him by Roseboro', his "fond friend," and one who cooperated when he was poetry editor of McClure's in convincing "Mr. McClure to let me print in the magazine a number of poems from The Shropshire Lad [sic], already existent as a volume" (see Haber). In his correspondence with Housman Bynner offered to send the poet books from the McClure, Phillips catalog; one of the books Housman selected was Cather's The Troll Garden, a volume Bynner also sent to Henry James (Thirty Housman Letters 10; Cather to Bynner, 24 February [1906?]). (Go back.)
 3. While this is not the place to describe the details regarding Cather's campaign for a staff position with McClure's, I take as fact that she had been visiting the Cos Cob artists' colony in Connecticut—a place favored by McClure's staff in summers and by Roseboro' in particular—prior to McClure's call to meet her in May 1903. Dedicating a copy of April Twilights to Roseboro' on 10 May 1903, Cather wrote, "Miss Viola Roseboro' in remembrance of her championship of Grandmither." "Grandmither, Think I Not Forget" was first published in Critic in April 1900 (and in two other places that year). This suggests their meeting during the 1890s or once that poem had appeared. This copy of April Twilights is in the Barrett Collection, University of Virginia. See also Larkin; Skaggs; and Thacker, "She's Not a Puzzle." (Go back.)
 4. In the foreword to 75 Books by 75 American Women Margaret L. Johnson asserts that the Smith College gathering "is in no sense an exhibition of 'best books,'–rather a representative sampling of noteworthy books by American women in all fields of endeavor" (3). The entry for April Twilights reads as follows: "Willa Cather was introduced to the world not as a novelist, for which she was to become famous, but as a writer of verse and of short stories, done while she was still a school teacher. This, her first book, is now neglected by many who go no farther back than Alexander's Bridge, 1912" (11). The person likely responsible for this "odd choice" was Grace Hazard Conkling (1878-1958), a well-regarded poet and professor of English at Smith College. She taught one of Cather's nieces there and knew Cather herself through Grand Manan connections. I thank Melissa Homestead (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) for this information. (Go back.)
 5. In 1915, just after The Song of the Lark, Ferris Greenslet at Houghton Mifflin suggested a revised April Twilights to Cather; she replied, "Yes, I'd like to bring out an expurgated and revised edition of April Twilights You are good to offer to do it" (23 October [1915]). (Go back.)
 6. Asked in 1925 about her poetry by Alice Hunt Barlett, American editor of Poetry Review of London, Cather wrote to her, "I am afraid you will have a hard time proving that I have been an 'effective force in American' I do not take myself seriously as a poet" (Barlett, "Dynamics" 179).

And the same month she wrote Teasdale, Cather had "let a feeling flower" in a poem when she wrote and published "Poor Marty," an elegy for Marjorie Anderson, who was a member of the Cather household and had come with them from Virginia. It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1931 and was subsequently added as the final poem to April Twilights and Other Poems.

(Go back.)
 7. There is in Fisher's assessments of Cather a certain condescension—that of a married woman seeing an unmarried friend's adult life as empty, and read today such comments clearly dance around questions of Cather's sexuality—yet her descriptions compare Cather, specifically through her attraction to the theater, to Henry James. In the same letter in which she asks about Cather's fixation on the Housman visit, Fisher quotes her husband as saying that "neither of them, after growing up, ever had any close intimate personal relations—save those with the family circle which were part of their youth. Not surprising that each of these greatly gifted writers felt the glamour of the footlights more than most of us. It sort of supplied something they never had their normal amount of in real life" (Fisher to K. Brown, 29 October 1949).

Brown pressed Fisher some on the question of Cather's relations with men when she was in Pittsburgh. For instance, there is in Leon Edel's papers at McGill a transcribed letter from Fisher to Brown in response to an inquiry from Brown about this subject; in it she treats in detail her sense of just why Cather never successfully attracted a man. Fisher sees this as a lack that, if acknowledged publicly by Brown, "would make Willa turn over in her grave. I think she would much prefer any other explanation,—even one with a dark significance. Can you—a man—put yourself in her place, I wonder? But how else can you write the story of her life? (Fisher to Brown, 21 January [1951]). Fisher asked Brown to destroy this letter; it was transcribed, apparently, so that he could tell her he had done so.

(Go back.)
 8. Michael Shelden's recent biography of Twain's last years, Mark Twain: Man in White (2010), calls prominent attention to Cather's relations with Twain when both of them lived near Washington Square just after she joined McClure's (xxxiii). After William Lyon Phelps published a piece on Twain in the Yale Review in 1936, she sent him a letter to compliment the piece and took issue with Van Wyck Brooks's portrait of the author in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), writing that if he "had ever seen that old lion in bed telling stories to three or four young people, he could have seen this for five minutes, he could never have written his book" (Cather to William Lyon Phelps, 17 February 1936). (Go back.)
 9. Stout, in her Calendar of the Letters, dates this one (#94) March 1904 (16). Since Cather refers to their trip abroad as "two years ago," this may be The dispute over "The Profile" began in December 1904; this letter was written before. Also, Stout holds that Cather behaved badly when they visited Housman; that may be, but the letter says Cather's difficulty with French—Canfield was fluent—was a key part of the issue, so the bad behavior may well have taken place once they got to France after the Housman visit. (Go back.)
 10. "Dedicatory" was among those dropped from April Twilights and Other Poems (1923). (Go back.)
 11. Munro's knowledge of Cather is well established—she has a story, "Dulse" (1980), in which Cather is in effect a character (see Thacker, Alice Munro 386, 493). (Go back.)
 12. While Auden's relevance here is less direct than Munro's—she connects to Housman through her title and her use of poems from A Shropshire Lad—his position as among the leading English poets of the 1930s and 1940s and, especially, his poem "A. E. Housman" (1939) seem to demand mention here. That poem comments on the very qualities Cather and Munro each saw in It concludes: In savage foot-notes on unjust editions He timidly attacked the life he led, And put the money of his feelings on The uncritical relations of the dead, Where only geographical divisions Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don. (182) (Go back.)
 13. Recently called "what is perhaps the most accomplished poem in the sequence," this Housman poem embodies the long perspective of A Shropshire Lad, comparing as it does the poet's present moment with the Romans' experience of the same place as Uricon (Paulin). So too Tom Outland, so too Godfrey St. Peter, so too Harry So too Alice Munro, whose first ending of "Wenlock Edge" in the New Yorker echoes Housman's ending here; there the narrator offers this as her last paragraph: "I kept on learning things. I learned that Uricon, the Roman camp, is Wroxeter, a town on the Severn River" (91). (Go back.)


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———. "Song." McClure's December 1903: 203. Print.
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———. "Wenlock Edge." New Yorker 5 December 2005: 80-91. Print.
———. "Wenlock Edge." Rev. Too Much Happiness. By Munro. New York: Knopf, 2009. 140-64. Print.
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———. "Willa Cather's Poetry and the Object(s) of Art." American Literary Realism 35 (2003): 159-74. Print.
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———. "'It's Through Myself that I Knew and Felt Her': S. S. McClure's My Autobiography and the Development of Willa Cather's Autobiographical Realism." American Literary Realism 33 (2001): 123-42. Print.
———. "She's Not a Puzzle So Arbitrarily Solved: Willa Cather's Violent Self-Construction." Violence, the Arts, and Willa Cather. Ed. Joseph R. Urgo and Merrill Maguire Skaggs. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007. 124-36. Print.
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