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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Introduction: Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux

The poem of the mind in the act of finding What will suffice. It has not always had To find: the scene was set; it repeated what Was in the script. Then the theatre was changed To something else. Its past was a souvenir. It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. It has to face the men of the time and to meet The women of the time. It has to think about war And it has to find what will suffice. It has To construct a new stage. Wallace Stevens, from "Of Modern Poetry" (1942)

When in My Ántonia Willa Cather concludes the story of Mr. Shimerda’s burial, his grave having been placed by Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch at “the southwest corner of their own land,” perhaps to satisfy an old Bohemian custom that a suicide be buried at a crossroads, she explains through Jim Burden how the roads that came later, as his grandfather had foreseen, deviated slightly so as to avoid passing over the suicide’s grave. Stepping back, Jim also writes that “I never came upon that place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the proprietary intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper” (109, 114–15). Both as an image and within the book’s plot, this is a romantic and retrospective moment.

But this is also a moment when Cather—through her autobiographical narrating persona, Jim Burden—may be seen standing at a crossroads, looking both ways, and recalling. Unlike Jim, and unlike the tired drivers he invokes, Cather was not at a literal crossroads; rather, in depicting them, she creates the figure of this crux within the modernist narrative she was making then: an aesthetic crux, a philosophical crux, a formal crux. As such, it is a moment that might well be seen as signifying Cather’s own situation. Born a Victorian in 1873, Cather made herself a modernist as she wrote her poems and fictions into the twentieth century.

In the essay that serves as our prologue here, John J. Murphy points to Wallace Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry” and uses it to excellent effect to define what he argues are a series of well-known and acknowledged epiphanies in Cather. That Murphy, like Tom Quirk in his Henri Bergson study (155, 187–88), sees this poem as indicative of Cather’s particular modernism is apt, since in many ways Cather’s own engagement with the poetry of her time, and her own early attempts to write and publish poems herself before abandoning the genre in the 1920s, mark her development as a modernist. We will develop this idea as a way of introducing the essays we offer here. Later in this volume, Joseph C. Murphy probes Cather’s relation to Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855), and Richard C. Harris begins and ends his discussion of Cather’s connections to Howard Pyle by invoking “Dedicatory” (1903). That poem was her first poem in her first book, one nostalgically and romantically celebrating the time she spent in childhood along the Republican River with her favorite brothers, Roscoe and Douglass. (Its image—young characters together dreaming, wondering what was to come to them—was one Cather reiterated in “The Enchanted Bluff,” in Alexander’s Bridge, in My Ántonia.) Even though W. H. Auden would later assert in his 1939 elegy to Yeats, written just as the world lunged toward another cataclysmic war, that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there is little doubt that poetry and the poetic embody an age’s time, its artists’ most critical concerns. As Auden continued, poetry is a “way of happening, a mouth” (246).

So Cather’s poems at the beginning of her career reveal her at an aesthetic crossroads as she set out from Nebraska and asserted herself. In some ways, Cather’s beginnings in poetry define her own biographical and aesthetic situation facing what we call here the “modernist crux.” That fact is revelatory through the poems she produced and published in April Twilights, her first book and one she later transformed in response to changing poetics. Few would dispute that the late-nineteenth-century lyric poetry she first wrote—with its conventions, its regularities, its certainties, and its precise formal demands—displays a writer’s assumptions about the poetic. Cather’s poems—written mostly in the 1890s and early 1900s—reveal a perfectly credible late-Victorian poet, trying her hand at most of the conventional modes, yet at the same time clearly indicating the emergence of something else: a modernist sensibility.

When in 1923 Alfred A. Knopf published April Twilights and Other Poems, and offered it in a fine book edition designed by Elmer Adler and others as their first such project at the Pynson Press, Cather presented herself as a very different sort of poet than she had in 1903. In the two decades between the two versions of her book, poetry itself had been transformed. The second collectionwas published just when she was being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours and about to burst, between 1923 and 1927, into four quite modernist novels. In the new collection of poems, thirteen of the more conventional ones from the original April Twilights were gone and another twelve, more modern, had taken their place. Among those dropped was “Dedicatory,” with its ring dove’s call and moonlight rendezvous; one of those added was “Street in Packingtown (Chicago),” a naturalistic, imagistic poem of power, quite different from anything Cather had produced before, featuring the image of “a Polack’s brat” who “Joylessly torments a cat.” It seems to be from another hand; yet she has this figure “beneath his willow tree, his tribal, tutelary tree, / The tortured cat across his knee, / With hate, perhaps, a threat, maybe, / Lithuania looks at me” (April Twilights 136, 137). To one familiar with the late-Victorian lyrics Cather offered in her original version of April Twilights, this poem brings some dismay, certainly, but it also shows Cather in 1915 at a crux: the poetry she tried to produce in the 1890s and 1900s was being supplanted by another type of verse altogether. Into the 1910s Cather tried her hand at it, and not without some success if one looks at such poems as “Prairie Spring,” one of the epigraphs to O Pioneers! She continued to write and publish poems during that decade and be recognized as a poet and included in the anthologies of the day; but after she published April Twilights and Other Poems in 1923, she would publish just one more poem, “Poor Marty” (1930). So her self-deprecation was real in 1925 when, having been asked about her poetry, Cather wrote Alice Hunt Bartlett that “I do not take myself seriously as a poet” (Bartlett 179).

That Cather was then drawn more to prose fiction than to poetry was clear, but her verse is nonetheless a critical barometer of her aesthetic. Though long disregarded in Cather criticism, often just ignored, by its very presence in her oeuvre Cather’s poetry helps define her particular modernism. She was, after all, the first novelist to teach us how to read the prairie as an achieved and realistic as well as an imaginary and fanciful setting—first in O Pioneers! and, once she had perfected her narrative telling in writing S. S. McClure’s My Autobiography and The Song of the Lark, more enduringly in My Ántonia.

The essays that follow are by readers of Cather who are also critics and scholars. Because Cather studies seems ever and always to be defining just how this author connected with the world in which she lived from 1873 to 1947, their engagement here with her antecedents, her reading, and her influences re-creates transformations in a long career of writing that shaped the understandings, the epiphanies, the wisdom embodied in her work. As Richard H. Millington has written in among the best single articulations of Cather’s modernism, her “novels invite us toward new forms of thought and feeling, toward a new sense of the sources of meaning and value, toward a new repertoire of response,” concluding that “Cather’s modernism is most powerful and most original when it has all but disappeared from sight” (56). Millington’s phrasing “all but disappeared” is the key point, as it has not disappeared, and as readers we follow her lead.

April Twilights and Other Poems was published in the year following both The Waste Land and Ulysses, and even though as a novelist she would publish just one more poem, Cather watched what was happening—with some dismay—during her time and continued to write poems and pay attention to poetry and poetics. That much is clear in My Mortal Enemy 1926), where Cather has the dying Myra reciting Heine to Nellie Birdseye and through their exchange offers her own critique of certain modernist poetics:

“Come, dear,” she said presently, when I put down the book, “you don’t really like this new verse that’s going round, ugly lines about ugly people and common feelings—you don’t really?”

When I reminded her that she liked Walt Whitman, she chuckled slyly. “Does that save me? Can I get into your new Parnassus on that dirty old man? I suppose I ought to be glad of any sort of ticket at my age! I like naughty rhymes, when they don’t try to be too pompous.” (66)

Cather also liked Whitman, also with qualifications. As Nellie is about to depart after their readings from Heine and their discussion of contemporary poetics, she offers this: “When I rose and turned on one of the shrouded lights, Mrs. Henshawe looked up at me and smiled drolly. ‘We’ve had a fine afternoon, and Biddy forgetting her ails. How the great poets do shine on, Nellie! Into the dark corners of the world. They have no night.’” Nellie’s next line applies equally well to her author: “They shone for her, certainly” (68). Cather closes this chapter of her chilling but inescapably truthful story with an account of Myra’s reading of “new books.” These books are delivered by, in Myra’s words, “a nice young person from the library”; Myra would try to read them, but “she used to shut a new book and lie back and repeat the old ones she knew by heart, the long declamations from Richard II or King John. As I passed her door I would hear her murmuring at the very bottom of her rich Irish voice: Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lan-caster . . .” (68).

Cather knew whereof she spoke. A poet herself and a novelist and editor of poetry and fiction at McClure’s, she followed modern poetry as perhaps the best literary measure of her time; she revered Robert Frost and hated Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915). Probably in 1939 she wrote a fan letter to Edna St. Vincent Millay, saying at one point that “Nobody ever sings anymore” and thanking Millay “for the glow of pleasure” the poet’s latest book—Huntsman, What Quarry?—had given her (Letters 572). While this elaboration of Cather’s views on poetry might seem a bit off focus here—since none of the essays that follow take up her verse except incidentally—that relation speaks directly to Cather as artist at the modernist crux. So formally changed, so discursive, so lacking in the melodic that she so valued, modern poetry made vivid the challenges Cather faced as a fiction writer as she both made herself born and, without emulating Ezra Pound (for she did not think him a poet), made her work new and modern in her own way. The essays collected here certainly demonstrate that Millington’s assertion is apt: “Cather’s modernism is most powerful and most original when it has all but disappeared from sight.”

As with other volumes of Cather Studies, most of these essays were first presented at an International Willa Cather Seminar, in this case the fourteenth, “Willa Cather: Canyon, Rock, and Mesa Country,” held 16–22 June 2013 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. It was sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Northern Arizona University. With well over a hundred participants, the gathering included twenty-two plenary talks and sixty papers in concurrent sessions arranged throughout the week, a keynote presentation by Professor Christian E. Downum (Anthropology, Northern Arizona University), and two excursions: to Walnut Canyon and to the Winslow area. Later summarizing the essence of his presentation that day, Downum wrote that “the pueblo people of Walnut Canyon had their feet rooted firmly in the earth that they farmed, yet their social connections reached far across the real world, and their ideas soared well into the cosmos. Walnut Canyon was, and is, a place of harsh realities but also a place of great beauty and meaning” (Downum). Northern Arizona, especially Walnut Canyon and the Winslow area, is critically strategic to Willa Cather’s particular modernism. Her introduction there to ancestral Pueblo locales and ruins was the source of a profound artistic awakening for her, the selfsame awakening she gives Thea in The Song of the Lark.

More than that, as we have long known, Cather’s first visit to the Southwest, in 1912, was a catalytic moment in her developing aesthetic: there she found on her own continent a landscape possessed of a deep past, equivalent to the south of France she had seen, felt, and understood around Avignon in 1902. Seeing the Southwest for the first time ten years later, Cather envisioned the new ways of writing the West she knew and began discovering how she would ultimately develop them. That experience led to O Pioneers! (aesthetically her “first novel”), to The Song of the Lark (where Thea discovers the “great fact” of the ancient people of the Southwest who would prove so important to Cather’s art), and to Jim Burden contemplating Mr. Shimerda’s crossroads in My Ántonia. Traveling to the Southwest in 1912 and then back to Nebraska, where she again visited the Bohemian country and wrote Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant in July of anticipating the wheat harvest there, led Cather directly to her modernist awakening. Her immediate response to what she saw in the Bohemian country was the poem “Prairie Spring,” which she enclosed in typescript in that letter (Letters 164–65) and which would become an epigraph in O Pioneers!

In arranging the essays here, we have decided to take a bio-thematic approach, offering them in sections. As the subject our frontispiece makes visual and John J. Murphy suggests in the prologue, cultural inheritances and responses to art define most of these essays and predicate Cather’s response to the arts she lived through, was influenced by, saw, read, and heard. Thus Warren Prosperi’s image of a twenty-first-century girl responding to nineteenthcentury sculpture and painting is comparable, even as a tantalizing reversal, to Cather’s modernism from the perspective of nineteenthcentury aesthetics. The process of discovering what to set out in a changed theater and on an empty stage was the crux Cather shared with her modernist contemporaries. Our first section,“Beginnings,” focuses on early Cather; the second,“Presences,” extends early influences to deal with specific instances of relation: with Howard Pyle, with Frederic Remington, with Ernest L. Blumenschein, with Franz Schubert, and with others. The third section,“Articulation,” focuses mainly on The Song of the Lark, that novel most especially critical to Cather’s emergence as a writer of the Southwest, as a modernist, and as the major novelist she would become. Just as Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux begins with a prologue, it ends as so many of Cather’s own books do, with an epilogue.

This epilogue, a meditation on The Selected Letters of Willa Cather by its editors, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, is a recognition that in 2013—just before the Flagstaff seminar—Cather studies was transformed by the publication of their book. So Jewell and Stout spoke at the seminar in the full glow of another crux, at the shining moment when Cather’s letters could be read in books and on websites. Gone are the anguished paraphrases, gone is the sense of unease in the very act of quoting from Cather’s wonderful letters at all. Their Selected Letters, now widely used in Cather scholarship in ways that, given all those years in which we scholars had been precluded from using them, make us all positively giddy. More than that, the Selected Letters presages the Complete Letters of Willa Cather, which will eventually be available on the Willa Cather Archive website. As Grace Slick had it as she began a set at Woodstock in August 1969, “It’s a new dawn!” Thus the JewellStout meditation recaptures and preserves a watershed moment in Cather studies. As we consider Cather’s own transformations as she stood at the modernist crux, as she stood at an imaginative crossroads, knowing what had been and anticipating what was to come, we readers of Cather, we critics of Cather, and we scholars of Cather discover more of what she saw and how she wanted us to read.


Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: Modern Library, 2007. 245–47. Print.
Bartlett, Alice Hunt. “The Dynamics of American Poetry—XI.” Poetry Review 16 (1925). In Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. Brent L. Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. 179. Print.
Cather, Willa. April Twilights and Other Poems. Ed. Robert Thacker. Letters selected by Andrew Jewell and Janis P. Stout. New York: Everyman’s/ Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.
———. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress, Charles Mignon, and Kari Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994. Print.
———. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
Downum, Christian E. Message to Ann Moseley. 29 July 2015. E-mail.
Millington, Richard H. “Willa Cather’s Two Modernisms.” Letterature D’America 144 (2013): 41–56. Print.
Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. “Of Modern Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 7th ed. 5 vols. New York: Norton, 2007. D (1914–45): 1453–54. Print.