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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Thea in Wonderland: Willa Cather’s Revision of the Alice Novels and the Gender Codes of the Western Frontier

William M. Curtin claims that Lewis Carroll “was one of Cather’s great enthusiasms” as indicated by her membership in the Lewis Carroll club at the University of Nebraska. In a letter to Mariel Gere dated 12 March 1896, Willa Cather explains how she relieved her boredom in Red Cloud by reading Alice in Wonderland to her ten-year-old brother, James. Curtin notes the letter in The World and the Parish (1: 357–58), and James Woodress has added about the visit that Cather “was sick of Alice in Wonderland after reading it to Jim sixteen times” (Woodress 105; Letter 22). In the 26 November 1896 issue of The National Stockman and Farmer, she announces that she has made a copy of Alice in Wonderland as the prize “for the little ones” “for the best letter to the editor from a boy or girl” (Bintrim 125). However sick of it she was, Cather quickly incorporated Alice into her own writing. In October 1897 her review of Alice appeared in the “Old Books and New” section of the Home Monthly, and she refers to the novel in “The Prodigies” (1897), and later in “The Treasure of Far Island” (1902), and “Flavia and Her Artists” (1905). Ann Moseley has briefly explored the connection between the Alice novels and “Flavia and the Artists,” but Cather’s use of the novels in her work after 1905 has gone unremarked.

This essay first shows how The Song of the Lark employs motifs from the Alice novels—queens, rabbit holes and their rabbits, March Hares, and tea parties—as signposts that reveal those people and places who try to force Thea to remain in childish Moonstone/Wonderland. The essay’s second part reveals the ways in which the word Wonderland shifts in meaning in late-nineteenth-century American travel narratives and advertisements to now refer to the American West and Southwest. I argue that once Thea leaves Moonstone, the novel relies on a reader’s knowledge of the then ubiquitous Northern Pacific Railroad’s Alice in Wonderland advertising campaign to structure Thea’s return as a tourist to the Wonderlands of Moonstone and Panther Canyon. The final part of the essay demonstrates how the allusion to Wonderland allows for a complex reading to emerge of the interrelationships between Thea’s childhood, her possibilities for self-discovery, and the gender codes usually attributed to the western frontier. I show how Cather reverses the gender codes of the western frontier, creating a subtle and yet biting critique of the new tourist trade that the expanding railroad industry pitched toward young, adventurous women.

Cather’s 1897 review of Alice reveals her dismay at having grown out of Wonderland: “Indeed, I sometimes open the red covers of the book and go back there now, but I travel through it by a tiepass now in the most humiliating manner, whereas once I went in a private coach and considered my chances of becoming a queen exceedingly good” (World and Parish 1: 360).[1] The plot of the Alice novels details Alice’s desire to become queen, and Cather associates this desire nostalgically with childhood dreams. The one direct clue that Song of the Lark is rewriting the Alice novels appears when Thea speaks a version of Alice’s line to the White Queen: “There’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things” (251). Thea tells Dr. Archie: “I only want impossible things. The others don’t interest me” (269). Significantly, both Alice’s and Thea’s lines reverse their respective novel’s earlier observations about “impossible things.” In an earlier passage, Carroll’s narrator of Through the Looking Glass observes: “So many out-of-the way things had happened that Alice had begun to think that very few things were indeed impossible” (30) The narrator of The Song of the Lark observes about Thea, “Now, everything that she really wanted was impossible; a cantabile like Harsanyi’s, for instance, instead of her own cloudy tone” (197). Whereas Alice’s words reveal her shift from a belief in the impossible to a renunciation of “impossible things,” Thea’s words reveal an opposite shift: from seeing that things are impossible to a deep belief in and desire to obtain those things deemed impossible.

Alice’s abrupt reversal demonstrates that her experiences in Wonderland have caused her beliefs about impossible things to sidetrack her, shutting off future possibilities for the little girl. The White Queen chides Alice in response to her new disbelief in the impossible: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” (251). The queen’s words indicate that one can believe in impossible things as a child. But Alice, as a result of her Wonderland experiences, is growing up. Her change of heart about impossible things reveals that staying too long in Wonderland will cause the adventurer to lose her beliefs and dreams. Song of the Lark borrows directly from Alice because it suggests that Thea must still believe in “impossible things” to fuel her talent and propel her forward. Unlike Alice, Thea can’t stay in her childhood home too long, because then she will lose her beliefs. The imagery of Wonderland in Song of the Lark, then, serves as signposts that reveal ominous fates for Thea, places and people who will force her to stay in Wonderland, a queen, and who would cause her to lose her belief in her impossible dreams.

The White Queen is dowdy, childish, and ill kept. Likewise, Thea’s and many “Friends of Childhood” try to keep her as a childish, potentially dowdy queen. Ray Kennedy sees her while a potential child bride, as an eventual queen:

He always told himself, when he accepted the cigar from a newly married railroad man, that he knew enough not to marry until he had found his ideal, and could keep her like a queen. He believed that in the yellow head over there in the sand, he had found his ideal, and that by the time she was old enough to marry, he would be able to keep her like a queen. (59)
Ray’s dying words to Dr. Archie indicate that Thea had, at the moment of his death, become a queen in his eyes, and that had he not died, the money he willed to her would have kept her in this role: “Always look after that girl, doc. She’s a queen!” (166). When Thea’s mother dies, Dr. Archie makes an eerie observation: “When he last looked at her, she was so serene and queenly that he went back to Denver feeling almost as if he had helped to bury Thea Kronborg herself” (448). Had Thea reigned in Moonstone kept by Ray, she would have reached Alice’s goal of becoming a queen and remaining in the metaphorical state of Wonderland. She would die a queen just as her mother had—a coded message that becoming a kept queen is a deadly state for a woman.

In other words, the queen imagery that Cather borrows from Carroll allows Cather to write against the Victorian standard for ideal femininity. The White Queen lives backwards in a curious reversal of a Victorian women’s novel heroine who also lives backwards as she travels the plot arc projecting forward to her wedding day. Cather creates Thea as the opposite of these heroines who seek a life of queen-like domesticity. Ann Romines observes, “Thea is also separated from housekeeping, by the fact of her musical gifts, which differentiates her from her siblings” (145). Romines notes further that, once grown, “Thea’s own private life of hotels and restaurants and other people’ drawing rooms is anti-domestic; she shows no interest in being a housekeeper” (146). If Ray had kept Thea as his Queen, her life would be about housekeeping and not artistry. Her dreams of impossible things would have to wither and die, just as Alice puts away her beliefs in “impossible things” when she matures in Wonderland.

The allusion to the Alice novels suggests Thea must escape Moonstone and the Wonderland of her childhood. At the end of the Alice review, Cather notices that Wonderland is a rather ordinary place; in other words, it is not wonderful at all. She writes: “I am afraid that all the wonderful people that Alice met are just the same old people we meet every day with Wonderland costumes on” (361). In the 1923 essay “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” Cather writes that her Nebraska neighbors “kept themselves insulated as much as possible from foreign influence” and were “provincial and utterly without curiosity” about the world outside their own parish (237). Thea may be seen as being at odds with those provincial residents of Moonstone who have no curiosity about the larger world outside of Moonstone. The novel’s use of the motifs of Wonderland indicate exactly who may want to prevent Thea’s escape into the larger world.

James R. Kincaid has noticed that in Through the Looking Glass, “the most consistent attacks on Alice focus on the specific fault of governesses, or adults: evasive, and ultimately vicious, sentimentality” (95). In The Song of the Lark, the everyday people who attack Thea and try to keep her trapped in domestic Wonderland are creatures of sentiment. Ray is “deeply sentimental” (51) with “a sentimental veneration for all women” (57). Thea’s older sister, Anna, reads “sentimental religious story books” (147). Larsen “read a great many novels, preferring the sentimental ones” (184). Mrs. Anderson was just “sentimental” (190). The most vicious attack occurs when Thea’s rival Lily Fisher sings a sentimental poem to a very appreciative Moonstone audience oozing sentiment at the “semi-sacred concert of picked talent” on Christmas Eve (65). Thea’s costume that night consists of “her white summer dress and a blue sash,” which reverses John Tenniel’s classic illustration of Alice wearing a blue dress with a white sash in the first edition of the book with colored illustrations (68). Thea’s costume indicates that at that moment she is a reversed Alice, one who doesn’t want to be a queen in Wonderland, despite their shared wounding by the sentimental people who surround both characters.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice replaces Lily, the White Queen’s daughter, the white pawn, on the chessboard. In Song of the Lark, the performance of Thea’s rival contains everything enjoyed by the sentimental Moonstone audience. It is fitting that Thea’s rival shares the White Queen’s daughter’s name, because Lily will never leave Moonstone, always be a pawn of those around her, and will grow up to be a dowdy matron just like her mother. Nina Auerbach notes that Alice’s identification with the White Pawn suggests that she is in “danger of extinction,” and Thea’s identification with Alice suggests the same deadly fate for Thea—if she stays on the chessboard with other people’s queenly designs for her life (42).

The Alice novels are filled with threats to Alice’s existence. Just falling into the rabbit hole may kill her, and The Song of the Lark suggests that Thea, too, may be killed if she falls into any of the holes that open up in front of her on her path. Mr. Kronborg discusses with his wife Thea’s future: staying in Moonstone giving piano lessons while driving out to “Copper Hole” (109). A few pages later, the reader learns that “Before the Kronborgs reached Copper Hole, Thea’s destiny was pretty well mapped out for her” (114). The hole Thea’s parents speed toward is a metaphorical vortex that Thea could fall down, which would keep her permanently in the childish, ordinary Wonderland of Moonstone.

She escapes to Chicago because Ray—not Thea—is buried in a hole in the ground. But when she travels back home, sitting on the train “speeding westward” toward Moonstone, she begins to think about meeting alternative selves and holes in the ground:

It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it. That meeting awaited her, just as surely as for the poor girl in the seat behind her, there awaited a hole in the earth, already dug. (241)
For Thea, so much had begun with a hole in the earth. “Yes, she reflected, this new part of her life had all begun that morning when she sat on the clay bank beside Ray Kennedy, under the flickering shade of the cottonwood tree. She remembered the way Ray had looked at her that morning. . . . Suppose there were such a dark hole open for her, between tonight and that place where she was to meet herself?” (240–41). Because Thea moves toward Moonstone instead of away, the burial imagery, with its connotations of Wonderland and fate, reappear in the text. Thea’s future self will not happen if she falls down a hole that opens magically before her and ensures a certain death.

One of things Fred teaches Thea at Panther Canyon is to navigate holes that seem to abruptly open in front of her. When they get stuck in a storm, he stops and pants to her, “Gosh, what a hole! Can you jump it? Wait a minute” (360). Later in the same passage, he praises her jump across the hole: “Good jump! I must say you don’t lose your nerve in a tight place. Can you keep at it a little longer?” (361). The scene references the previous holes that Thea has jumped across in her life before meeting Fred, and suggests that she only needs to continuing jumping just “a little longer.” The fact that Fred, not the narrator, voices Thea’s leap across the hole expresses the novel’s ambivalence at Thea’s relationship to the man who helps her navigate deadly holes and stay out of Wonderland, but who simultaneously controls her leap across them and keeps her a pawn on his chessboard.

The White Rabbit leads Alice down the rabbit hole, and so in The Song of the Lark, any much older male character who may lead Thea down a deadly rabbit hole becomes associated with rabbit imagery. In “Alice on the Stage,” Carroll explains the White Rabbit’s character. Carroll asks: “Was he framed on the ‘Alice’ lines, or meant as a contrast?” Then answers: “As a contrast, distinctly. For her ‘youth,’ ‘audacity,’ ‘vigour,’ and ‘swift directness of purpose,’ read ‘elderly,’‘timid,’‘feeble,’ and ‘nervously shilly-shallying,’ and you will get something of what I meant him to be” (37). Just as the White Rabbit provides a contrast to Alice’s youth, audacity, and singlemindedness, so too do the white rabbits of The Song of the Larkthe older Spanish Johnny, Wunsch, Ray, and Dr. Archie—provide a contrast to Thea’s possession of the same characteristics. Cather wrote in a letter to Ferris Greenslet dated 6 April 1915 that she was shortening her novel in order to place emphasis on Thea’s youth and childhood (Letters 200). The use of the white rabbit motif identifies those who threaten Thea’s youthful vigor and, in doing so, will keep her trapped in the Wonderland of Moonstone because she will lack the energy to leave.

Spanish Johnny and Wunsch chase after rabbits that lead them down dark, destructive holes into which Thea may follow. Whenever Spanish Johnny disappears from Moonstone periodically, his wife would “soon begin to get newspapers from La Junta, Albuquerque, Chihuahua, with marked paragraphs announcing that Juan Tellamantez and his wonderful mandolin could be heard at the Jack Rabbit Grill or the Pearl of Cadiz saloon” (48). Johnny runs away to a bar named after a rabbit, and so when he runs away, he runs to a rabbit: he falls into the metaphorical rabbit’s hole by being consumed by a passionate audience and his own passion for the music. He returns to Moonstone only “when he was completely wrung out and burned up,—all but destroyed—” (48). He fritters away his energy like the White Rabbit in Alice, and his art almost causes his death every time he chases the white rabbit. The novel suggests that if Thea began chasing rabbits, like Johnny, she would use up her vitality, ultimately leading to her death.

The novel similarly depicts Wunsch’s alcoholism as a tendency to follow rabbits down the rabbit hole. The Kohlers take in Wunsch after one particularly bad night of drinking. Spanish Johnny wakes “to find the German standing in the middle of the room in his undershirt and drawers, his arms bare, his heavily body seeming twice its natural girth. His face was snarling and savage and his eyes were crazy.” Johnny runs away looking for help as Mrs. Kohler exclaims to her husband: “Ach if you had your rabbit gun now!” (102). Mrs. Kohler’s call for the rabbit gun suggests that if Wunsch were shot or threatened with the gun, the craziness brought on by his drinking would be controlled. Her line implies that a rabbit is responsible for Wunsch’s behavior: if her husband shot the rabbit, then order would be restored. Because Thea looks up to Wunsch, the episode suggests that if Thea stays in Moonstone, she may become like Wunsch, chasing the white rabbit into an alcoholic wonderland.

The allegory is most clear as Dr. Archie warns Thea directly about the dangers of chasing rabbits, meanwhile posing as one of those potential rabbits himself. One morning, Dr. Archie and Thea sit and watch rabbits in Moonstone. He warns her: “don’t marry and settle down here without giving yourself a chance, will you?” Thea’s reply connects their intimacy to Archie’s warning: “See, there’s another rabbit!” Dr. Archie then issues another stern warning to Thea: “that’s all right about the rabbits, but I don’t want you to get tied up. Remember that” (91). By juxtaposing rabbit watching and Dr. Archie’s warning about being tied to a man, the novel connects the rabbit imagery to the warning and suggests that men who may tie down Thea will be metaphorically drawn as rabbits.

Dr. Archie may be one of those rabbits about which he warns Thea. While his role as a love interest is unmistakable in the 1915 version, he is substantially neutered in the 1937 revision. Robin Hayeck and James Woodress have shown how Cather removed suggestive passages that explicitly detail Archie’s attraction to Thea. For example, she removed Fred’s crude line to Dr. Archie about Thea: “If you’re stale, she’ll jack you up, That’s one of her specialties. She got a rise out me last December that lasted me all winter!” (434). Cather also removed Dr. Archie’s embarrassment at Thea’s décolletage (406), and Dr. Archie’s comment about Thea’s picture on her dying mother’s table: “It would be wonderful to live with anybody who looks like that” (Song 445; see Hayeck and Woodress 656–57). The last comment about the picture reveals Archie’s designs on marrying Thea, which in turn casts him as one of the potential rabbits he warns Thea about that morning in Moonstone. Cather may have removed the passages because Archie’s attraction to Thea complicates and possibly sexualizes his affection for her as a child in Moonstone.

Dr. Archie’s comment to Thea’s mother repeats the passage from “Friends of Childhood” in which he examines Thea and admires her beauty. Archie tends to the very sick Thea and thinks,“what a beautiful thing a little girl’s body was,—like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white” (10). The long passage ends with the narrator’s comment: “Her affection for him was prettier than most of the things that went to make up the doctor’s life in Moonstone” (11). Auerbach’s reading of Charles Dodgson’s appreciation of little girls offers a framework through which one may read Archie’s appreciation of Thea’s beauty. She points out that “Even Victorians who did not share Lewis Carroll’s phobia about the ugliness and uncleanliness of little boys saw little girls as the purest members of a species of questionable origin, combining as they did the inherent spirituality of child and woman” (32). Dr. Archie may see Thea not as herself but as the embodiment of late nineteenth-century ideas about the spiritual purity of little girls.

However, even if Dr. Archie is not looking directly at Thea, but at some complicated array of ideas about “little girls,” his gaze mirrors Dodgson’s when he looked through the camera’s lens at naked girls, including Alice Liddell, on which he based the Alice novels. Lucie Armitt has shown that biographers and critics of Dodgson have taken great pains to downplay the inherent sexuality in his photographs of naked girls. She stresses: “Dodgson’s nude images, or girls ‘sans habillement,’ as he euphemistically titled them, are a form of sexual fulfillment in themselves. Through them he possesses ‘his’ little girls, just as much as any producer or consumer of pornography” (171). Just as Dodgson possessed the girls in the photographs, Archie possesses Thea metaphorically by consuming her child’s beauty, and then later as an investor in her talent. At the end of the novel, Dr. Archie remembers “the night they watched the rabbit in the moonlight” and asks, “why were these things stirring to remember?” (440). Remembering Thea as a child stirring up rabbits seems to stir up Dr. Archie as well. It is unclear exactly how he may lead Thea down a deadly rabbit hole, but the rabbit imagery suggests that he poses a large threat to Thea’s movement away from Wonderland and away from childish Moonstone.

Dr. Archie’s association with the White Rabbit also reveals his lack of sophistication as a consumer, marking him as a member of the Moonstone friends. In New York at the novel’s end, Fred Ottenburg laughs to Thea about Dr. Archie eating an overpriced rabbit:

“He can’t be trusted at all, Thea. One of the waiters at Martin’s worked a Tourainian hare off of him at luncheon yesterday, for seven twenty-five.”

Thea broke into a laugh, the deep one he recognized. “Did he have a ribbon, this hare? Did they bring him in a gilt cage?”

“No,”—Archie spoke up for himself,—“they brought it in a brown sauce, which was very good. He didn’t taste very different from any rabbit.” (476–77)

Thea points out that they probably got the rabbit off a “push cart on the East side” (477). Because they laugh at Dr. Archie at the novel’s end, his eating the hare may be seen as an Alice in Wonderland joke. Thea has navigated the path to becoming an opera diva and has achieved “impossible things” by avoiding ersatz rabbits. Dr. Archie, who warned Thea about rabbits, eats the rabbit with gusto, enjoying every bit of her success.

Thea’s question about the rabbit’s ribbon reveals the darker aspect of the humorous conversation. Thea, just like the hare she imagines, wears a “pale-blue ribbon around her throat” when she leaves Moonstone for the first time (171). The short conversation shows that Thea had the potential to be her own rabbit by getting in the way of herself and leading herself down the deadly hole. Cather acknowledges these aspects of Thea’s character in a letter she wrote to Glendinning Keeble sometime between 15 May 1915 and 19 July 1915. In Janis Stout’s paraphrase, “Thea has control over her own fortune; was a liar and was lied to.” Thea lies to get what she wants and manipulates those around her to get what she wants for her future. Her potentially conniving ways align her more closely with a complicated Alice, whose characteristics make her appear more as Auerbach writes a “vision of that ‘fabulous monster,’ the Victorian child” (Cather, Calendar 33; Letter 305). Alice disrupts Romantic visions of childhood purity and innocence through her duplicity and tendency to become grotesque. If Thea lies and manipulates those around her, then she cannot be a picture of childhood innocence, which, Cather notes in the letter, may “alienate readers.” Instead, she becomes her own rabbit who leads herself down deadly holes through her own character flaws.

The “hare” in the “gilt cage” that Thea jokes about with Dr. Archie and Fred Ottenburg refers to the March Hare, who attends the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party wearing a blue ribbon as a bowtie in John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. In British folklore, the March Hare hops randomly and appears mad because March marks the beginning of mating season for hares. Carroll parodies the folklore of the March Hare by bringing the Hare to the tea table. Cather invites comparison between Fred Ottenburg and the March Hare when she writes of Thea having numerous teas with Ottenburg, and then invites further comparison with Dr. Archie, who tried to see Thea in New York “last March” (434). Tenniel’s illustration of the March Hare includes a few wisps of straw around the Hare’s head, the nineteenth-century symbol of madness. Archie wears a straw hat twice in the “Friends of Childhood” section, inviting further comparisons between the March Hare and himself and illustrating his mad desire for Thea (45, 89). The conversation about the hare occurs just as Thea signals the end of tea with Dr. Archie and Fred by turning on the lights. Thea, unlike Alice, controls the tea table and perhaps the two men who have their sights set on her.

Once Thea leaves Moonstone, the novel’s allusions to Wonderland serve to connect Thea’s visits home to Moonstone with her rip to Panther Canyon. The novel suggests that both places are Wonderlands for Thea. She must return to Wonderland because the narrative takes the form of the hero’s journey. For Alice and Thea, as with all classical voyagers, the knowledge gained from the journey is ultimately self-knowledge, and she brings back the knowledge that her identity has shifted as a result of taking the journey. Auerbach has noticed Alice’s introspection:

Other little girls traveling through fantastic countries, such as George Macdonald’s Princess Irene and L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale, ask repeatedly “where am I?” rather than “who am I?” Only Alice turns her eyes inward from the beginning, sensing that the mystery of her surroundings is the mystery of her identity. (33)
Thea, like Alice, must learn who she is and, more importantly, what her vocation means in order to discover where she should exist and with whom she should consort. Thea must return to Wonderland so that it becomes clear that her identity has shifted as a result of having left home. Travel for Thea, as for Alice, promises the possibilities of epiphany through the discovery of old surroundings again, and through movement into completely new surroundings.

In the decades before the turn of the twentieth century, the word “Wonderland” began to expand in meaning to include the American West. The Song of the Lark plays on these new definitions that primarily emerge from Northern Pacific Railway advertising imagery in order to further develop the complicated relationship between Thea’s childhood in Moonstone and her journey toward adult success. In order to accomplish the narrative development and further strengthen the allusion to the Alice novels, Cather revises the Victorian gender coding ascribed to the western frontier in the late nineteenth century.

As a young reader and railroad traveler, Cather must have seen this analogy everywhere. The May 1871 issue of Scribner’s Monthly’s cover article is simply titled “The Wonders of Yellowstone” (Bruce 70). In 1877, Henry N. Maguire published The Black Hills and America’s Wonderland, and in 1878, Edwin James Stanley wrote Rambles in wonderland, or, Up the Yellowstone: and among the geysers and other curiosities of the national park. Colgate Hoyt wrote of his September 1878 trip to Yellowstone: “It contains in the same space probably a greater number of natural wonders & curiosities than any other region of the entire globe & thus is rightly named Wonderland” (Brust and Whittlesey 59). In 1882, William Wallace Wylie published Yellowstone National Park, or, The great American wonderland: a complete description of all the wonders of the park, together with distances, altitudes, and such other information as the tourist or general reader desires: a complete hand, or guide book for tourists and in 1883 the Chicago and North Western Railway Company published The early history and rapid progress of that wonderland, central Dakota.

In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railway (npr) began service to Yellowstone and built lavish hotels for the new wilderness tourist. In 1884 the npr published a brochure titled Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland: The Yellowstone National Park, which transformed Carroll’s book into an advertising campaign for the “Wonderland Route” to Yellowstone. The brochure’s cover art reimagines Tenniel’s young Alice as a young woman in a blue dress, western hat, gloves, and belt who beams over a rugged mountain path. The image depicts a woman who possesses a new, thoroughly modern, and rugged version of femininity and whose contours and colors replicate the western landscape she surveys.

The brochure cover draws from earlier paintings, such as John Gast’s American Progress (1872), that depict a female muse of western expansion. In Gast’s painting, the female figure, dressed as a Greek goddess, holds a schoolbook and leads settlers westward while Native American and animals flee from her influencing powers of progress and modernity. Stout has demonstrated that Gast’s picture reflects a Victorian gender division. The picture encodes the western landscape and those who work on it as masculine and the ideas that inspire the work as feminine. She argues that because the new Pullman cars brought large numbers of women to the West, the meaning of the western landscape shifted to hold possibilities for both genders in reality and in representation (117–19). The npr advertising image of a new Alice suggested to a generation of young, modern women the possibilities provided by train travel and promised that they, too, might become part of America’s West. The Song of the Lark addresses the new possibilities the trains brought to women when Dr. Archie says to Thea: “The railroad is the one real fact of this country” (70). Joseph Urgo has declared that The Song of the Lark is “embodied by the railroad, moving the course of empire westward, paralleled by the telegraph and its imperial message” (137). Women took part in moving the course of empire westward by becoming tourists of America’s West and Southwest. The Song of the Lark considers the complexities of this new use for the railroad by invoking the new version of Alice in the npr advertising brochure.

Stout shows that Cather’s familiarity with and sensitivity to the relationship between drawing and copy can be seen in the page layouts at McClure’s in 1907 and 1908 and argues that Cather continued thinking about the relationship between words and images in her later novels. She names The Song of the Lark as a particularly interesting case of what she calls “picture—text interaction” because the title of the novel is also the title of a painting (145). The image on the npr brochure would certainly have appealed to Cather, and it provides another example of the “picture-text interaction” Stout identifies as permeating the novel. The narrative draws on a reader’s knowledge of the npr brochure image of Alice in order to show that Thea, taking the train to Moonstone and thinking about “hole[s] in the earth,” speeds back toward Wonderland.

The new train routes allowed the western tourist industry to expand quickly, and the word Wonderland, with its connotations of Alice’s curiosity and wandering, expanded in definition along with it to include the cliff dwellings. In 1891, Rev. Charles H. Green bought a large number of cliff-dweller relics that he displayed in cities across the United States, including at the Art Institute of Chicago. The accompanying brochure refers to the area that is Mesa Verde as “This Wonderland” (Green and Art Institute 31). In 1893, J. W. Buel wrote America’s Wonderland: A Pictorial and Descriptive History, which includes pictures and a description of the Mesa Verde region under the heading “Over the Heights and Into the Deeps of Wonderland” (2). Mitchell Prudden repeats the metaphor in “An Elder Brother to the Cliff-Dwellers,” published in the June 1897 issue of Harper’s Magazine, which begins, “The purpose of this paper is to relate some recent discoveries in the hot wonderland which lies along the San Juan River, and its Northern territories” (58). By the time Cather wrote an article for the 31 January 1916 edition of the Denver Times titled “Mesa Verde Wonderland is Easy to Reach: Colorado Show Place as Authoress Sees It,” the conceit had been well established.

Paula Kot has argued that “In adding her story to the reproductions available in park brochures and published advertisements, Cather help to reaffirm the sight’s/site’s authenticity” (406). The Song of the Lark, written two years before the article on Mesa Verde, also helped to assign authentic meaning to the ruins. But the novel does so with a marked ambivalence not found in the newspaper article, because the novel interweaves the meaning of the cliff dwellings with the advertising imagery of the trains that took tourists to the ruins. The novel frames Thea’s visit to the cliff dwellings as a “return” to Wonderland, and the framing indicates that the cliff dwellings pose the same ominous threats to Thea as Moonstone. However, because Thea returns as a tourist, Thea, for the first time, poses a threat to Wonderland because her presence destroys the natural landscape.

Fred tells Thea that his father owns “a whole canyon full of cliff dweller ruins” while they are “waiting for their tea at a restaurant in the Pullman Building” (319, 318). George Pullman built the building they sit in with the profits made from his Pullman cars; Thea sits above the main Pullman office space, located on the floors below her. The location of Fred’s announcement shows neatly that Pullman’s train car will allow Thea to visit the Ottenburg ruins in comfort and style. The tea party in the Pullman building successfully connects the tea party of Alice in Wonderland with the trains and a touristy visit to the cliff dwellings. Kot points out that because of the confluence of narratives that greet the tourist at Mesa Verde, it “is not a place where tourists admire the ruins from an aesthetic distance; rather, here they insert themselves into the story and relive it” (406). In Song of the Lark, when Thea visits the cliff dwellings she inserts herself not just into the story of the ruins but also into her childhood story of Wonderland. She relives her childhood time in Wonderland as the nostalgic adult Alice featured on the advertising brochure and voiced by Cather in her review of Alice, rather than as the child who could be trapped there forever.

Cather drew from her 1912 trip to Arizona when writing Thea’s trip to Panther Canyon. Sharon O’Brien writes of a letter Cather wrote to Elizabeth Sergeant during the trip. O’Brien notes: “Cather said that she had not been as happy since childhood—which to her was an androgynous, Edenic time of play and play-acting before gender limited the identities men and women could assume” (411). At the end of the novel, Thea thinks of her childhood in exactly these same terms: as an Edenic Wonderland. She says to Dr. Archie, “I’ve gone to sleep and wakened in the Kohler’s garden, with the pigeons and the white rabbits, so happy! And that saves me” (505). The npr brochure’s image of Alice also recasts her as a somewhat androgynous woman who is costumed in a female version of a man’s explorer outfit. Her costume and the possibilities of visiting the West afforded her by train travel seem to promise a return to childhood Eden, where she can be an impossibly grown-up Alice. The idea of Wonderland, then, is nostalgic in that it highlights exactly what has been lost—childhood—while simultaneously underscoring the impossibility of its return.

Kincaid points out that “The Alice books are, above all, about growing up and they recognize both the melancholy of the loss of Eden and the child’s rude and tragic haste to leave its innocence” (93). Ann Fisher-Worth has identified that this “keen sense of loss” is also at the center of Cather’s novels and that “the lives of most of the major characters enact a recurrent tragic pattern, a sense of dispossession, exile and longing” (37). Thea’s time in Panther’s Canyon may be read as a vacation to Wonderland that underscores that she is no longer a child and can never truly return to Wonderland. The landscape is never as the advertising brochure promises, and the novel’s final emphasis on adult Thea’s dreadfully tired and haggard appearance in her dressing room indicates that Thea’s future is not as wonderful as she had hoped for in childhood.

Thea’s statement “I only want impossible things” serves as an instruction to read The Song of the Lark as a rewriting of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (209). Bernice Slote noticed that in Cather’s early work, “she seemed to think allegorically and write figuratively,” blending quotations, figures of speech, and classical allusions. Cather’s novel weaves a rich tapestry of allusion, which, Slote contends, “would have drawn forth tomes of analysis, had T. S. Eliot written it” (211). By employing and rewriting Carroll’s novels in her narrative, Cather asks us to think about the dark ramifications of a young, female artist’s belief in Victorian Wonderland, and in doing so infuses the novel with a new modern sensibility.


 1. Willa Cather’s copies of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There have been lost, so it is impossible to say with any certainty which editions she owned and whether she had multiple copies of the novels. The first British edition, published in 1866 by Macmillan and Company in London, has red covers, as does the first American edition, published by D. Appleton and Co. in 1866. Macmillian published a facsimile of the novel in 1886 that has red covers. The sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1872 by Macmillan, also has red covers. (Go back.)


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