Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs011.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 11

Elements of Modernism in The Song of the Lark

When literary critics think of Willa Cather and modernism, they think first of A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House, perhaps even of My Ántonia, but they hardly ever think of The Song of the Lark. However, if we expand our parameters and definitions of modernism beyond the “high modernism” of the 1920s, as Richard Lehan and other literary historians such as Ricardo J. Quinones, Sanford Schwartz, and Michael Levenson have done, we find several elements of modernism in this early novel. Although I am certainly not arguing that The Song of the Lark—a chronological narrative written primarily in what Cather famously called “the full-blooded” style (On Writing 96)—is a model of prototypical modernism, an examination of this novel in light of the more Continental modernism of her day reveals significant modernist qualities.

Contemporary discussions of modernism reject the traditional view that the “period” of modernism was confined to 1914 through World War II. Indeed, many modernist critics identify an early modernist period beginning around 1890 (Lehan, Literary Modernism ix) and incorporating the aesthetic and decadent movements, with figures such as Baudelaire and Walter Pater being viewed as precursors of later modernism. And although modernism was, in some ways, a rejection not only of literary naturalism but also of romanticism, there are also many direct connections between romanticism and modernism. Viewing modernism as “a revision of Romanticism” (30), Lehan writes: “The moderns were trying to adapt to what they saw as the hostile reality of naturalism, and they did this by going to a Romantic theory of the beautiful (aestheticism) and by working inward to theories of consciousness” (3–4). As shown in several essays in Willa Cather and Aestheticism (Watson and Moseley), Cather was influenced by Walter Pater and the two different directions that, according to Lehan, his thought took: “toward a theory of the beautiful as the end of life with art as its own justification, and a theory of sensation that moved the concept of self away from empiricism toward an informed subjectivity” (23). Thea, like Cather, seeks “the inaccessibly beautiful” (Song 498), and in Panther Canyon “her power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation” (330). Emphasizing sensations over abstractions, Pater defined “success in life” as the ability “to burn, always with a hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy” (236)—the ecstasy that Thea Kronborg feels after hearing Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony in Chicago, the determination that “as long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers” (224). From its beginnings, Lehan says, “Modernism created two contexts: the literary-aesthetic and the social-political. The major modernists for the most part kept the two categories separate . . . by affirming that literature (that is, art) was its own justification, and that such aestheticism was independent of moral purpose” (Literary Modernism 42–43). This essay will focus primarily on elements of aesthetic modernism in The Song of the Lark, but it will also include some important connections to the social and cultural modernism that was developing alongside the aesthetic and that also influenced the novel.

As I have argued elsewhere,[1] the first part of The Song of the Lark is essentially romantic in nature, as exhibited in the intuition of the child Thea, in whom, as Professor Wunsch implies, artistic knowledge is “inside from the beginning” (Song 86); in her love of and identification with nature, especially with the sand hills and its vegetation; in her desire for a holistic and organic view of life and art—that “sense of wholeness and inner well-being that she had felt at moments ever since she could remember” (239); in her awareness of her second self, her “sturdy little companion” (175); and in her piano teacher Harsanyi’s feeling that “a lamp had suddenly been turned up inside of her” when she gets a musical idea (213). All of Thea’s friends and supporters—Dr. Archie, Ray Kennedy, Johnny Tellamentez, and Professor Wunsch—are themselves romantics in one way or another: Archie in his sentimentalism, Kennedy in his love of adventure and the Southwest that attracts Thea to him, Johnny in his wanderlust and love of music, and Wunsch in his love of music and his current state of romantic degeneration.

As the novel develops, however, this early romanticism transforms into something else—into a modernism that clearly remains deeply rooted in the old romanticism. The modernism that lies under the surface in the whole novel but that flows most freely in “The Ancient People” and “Kronborg” has clear foundations in the ideas of major thinkers of Cather’s day (most of whom were romantics themselves) who influenced modernism as a whole—the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson, the early anthropologist Franz Boas, and the composer Richard Wagner.

In his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, H. L. Mencken declared, “There is no escaping Nietzsche. He has colored the thought and literature, the speculation and theorizing, the politics and superstition of the time. [E]ven the newspapers are aware of him.” Because of George Seibel’s memorial essay on Cather, we know that she did not “escape” Nietzsche (1844–1900) either. Seibel reports that one day after Cather had become telegraph editor of the Pittsburg Leader, she telephoned him and asked him to “talk about Friedrich Nietzsche for about five minutes, slowly and distinctly.” So, Seibel did so—“Zarathustra in a nutshell, the [concept of the] Superman put through a nutmeg grater,” he says, “everything I could misremember from an unforgettable lecture of two hours and forty minutes.” The following day he learned “why the telephone had been subjected to this strain. Willa had gone to interview the pianist Harold Bauer for the Leader. He talked mainly about Nietzsche, so volubly and volcanically that she might as well have been listening to a thunderstorm on the Brocken” (16–17). Whatever she learned about Nietzsche that day, and however much she read by and about Nietzsche in later years,[2] it is certain that—although her only direct mention of Nietzsche in The Song of the Lark is an oblique reference to a “Nietzsche club” (305)—she knew of his idea of the Übermensch (Overman, Superman), discussed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1886), and of the ApollonianDionysian polarity at the heart of The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which Lehan gives “a special place” among modern literary writers (40).

Indeed, Cather creates in Thea a kind of Überfrau, a superwoman who stands above her peers in creativity and strength. Thea’s declaration that “[a] child’s attitude toward everything is an artist’s attitude” and that she is “more or less of an artist now” but then “was nothing else” (506) recalls Nietzsche’s modernist creator Zarathustra, likening himself to a child, to someone who has been awakened (2). In Heirs to Dionysus, John Burt Foster says that Nietzsche views “the feeling of increased strength or fullness” as “the precondition for creativity” (120), along with a healthy body (Zarathustra 16). Thea often has this feeling of strength, fullness, and good health, but never more so than on the train returning to Moonstone when she observes a poor young woman dying, probably of tuberculosis. “How horrible to waste away like that,” Thea thinks, “when one ought to be growing fuller and stronger and rounder every day. Suppose there were such a dark hole open for her, between to-night and that place where she was to meet herself? Her eyes narrowed. She put her hand on her breast and smiled— though she was ashamed of it—with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless” (241).[3]

Zarathustra advises his listeners to “first be such as love themselves” (109) and argues for the human acceptance of “passion for power” and “selfishness” that the world has cursed (120). In a similar vein, Thea is so dedicated to her art that the young men she meets in Chicago boardinghouses believe her to be “cold, self-centered, and unimpressionable” (289). In Panther Canyon, Fred observes that “Thea was one of those people who emerge, unexpectedly, larger than we are accustomed to see them,” and even before she goes to Germany she appears to Dr. Archie “taller and freer,” and “her whole augmented self . . . made him feel that his accustomed manner toward her was inadequate” (409). According to James Huneker, Cather’s contemporary and a major source for the character of Fred Ottenburg, “Nietzsche had the true ascetic’s temperament. . . . To become a Superman one must renounce the world” (261). Likewise, Thea chooses to remain in Dresden to debut as Elizabeth in Tannhäuser rather than return to her dying mother, explaining to Dr. Archie that her work has replaced her personal life (501) and that “[i]f you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up for it, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard” (504).

But even more important to the novel than the influence of the Overman/Superman on Thea’s character are Nietzsche’s ideas in The Birth of Tragedy, the earlier book in which, according to Leon Surette, Nietzsche appears as “the Wagnerian celebrator of myth and ancient wisdom” (168), the book that made the biggest “literary impact” (179) on Cather and on modernism itself, and the book in which, Foster says, Nietzsche portrays his ideal of cultural excellence as found in the ancient Greek world (87). This book too, argues Andrea Gogröf-Voorhees, reveals the late-German “romantic traits in [Nietzsche’s] own nature,” even though he later decries romanticism (108). Nietzsche begins by introducing the two concepts that will thread their way not only through his entire book but also through modernism itself:

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have come to realize . . . that the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac. . . . We have borrowed these names from the Greeks who reveal the profound mysteries of their view of art to those with insight, not in concepts, admittedly, but through the penetratingly vivid figures of their gods. Their two deities of art, Apollo and Dionysos, provide the starting point for our recognition that there exists in the world of the Greeks an enormous opposition, both in origin and goals, between the Apolline art of the image-maker or sculptor . . . and the imageless art of music, which is that of Dionysos. These two very different drives . . . exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking . . . one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring in whom they perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them, an opposition only apparently bridged by the common term “art”—until eventually . . . they appear paired and, in this pairing, finally engender a work of art which is Dionysiac and Apolline in equal measure: Attic tragedy. (14)

To the best of my knowledge, the first critic to associate the terms Apollonian and Dionysian with Cather’s writing was Bernice Slote, in her 1966 essay “First Principles: The Kingdom of Art” (81).[4] In 1979, I applied these terms in detail to The Song of the Lark, but at that time I relied more on my knowledge of the myths of these two deities than on Nietzsche. The need remains to connect Nietzsche’s own interpretations of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and how they affected modernism, to Cather and particularly to Song. While favoring Dionysian elements, Nietzsche distinguishes between these two aspects of art and, if somewhat reluctantly, admits the need for both, asserting that “the difficult relationship of the Apolline and the Dionysiac in tragedy truly could be symbolized by a bond of brotherhood between the two deities: Dionysos speaks the language of Apollo, but finally it is Apollo who speaks that of Dionysos. At which point the supreme goal of tragedy, and indeed of all art, is attained” (Birth 104).

But let’s first review the polarities between the Dionysian and the Apollonian that Nietzsche distinguishes. According to Nietzsche, every artist is “either an Apolline-dream artist or a Dionysian artist of intoxication or finally—as, for example, in Greek tragedy—an artist of both dream and intoxication at once” (19). Dionysian elements dominate part 1 of Song, “Friends of Childhood.” Spanish Johnny experiences what Nietzsche calls “Dionysiac stirrings, which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting, awaken[ed] either under the influence of narcotic drink . . . or at the approach of spring when the whole of nature is pervaded by lust for life” (17). Early in the novel, Thea accompanies Dr. Archie on a visit to Johnny’s home, to which Johnny has just returned after one of his fits of wandering: “What was termed his ‘wildness’ showed itself . . . in his feverish eyes and in the color that burned on his tawny cheeks. That night . . . his eyes were like black holes” (46–47). As Cather explains, “[h]is talents were his undoing. He had a high, uncertain tenor voice, and he played the mandolin with exceptional skill. Periodically he went crazy. There was no other way to explain his behavior. . . . [S]ome night he would fall in with a crowd at the saloon and begin to sing. He would go on until he had no voice left. . . . Then he would play his mandolin furiously, and drink until his eyes sank back into his head. At last, when he was put out of the saloon at closing time, and could get nobody to listen to him, he would run away When he was completely wrung out and burned up,—all but destroyed . . . [he] always came back to [his wife] to be taken care of” (47–48). Thus, Dionysian music, which can be destructive as well as creative as illustrated in ancient Bacchic orgies, is both Johnny’s passion and his undoing.

Thea’s piano teacher also shows Dionysian tendencies. At first Professor Wunsch quietly sits with his hosts in the grape arbor (associated with Dionysus as the god of wine), sipping Mrs. Kohler’s homemade wine and, when the time comes, giving Thea her piano lesson. He plays and sings for her the great aria of loss from Gluck’s Orpheus (78–81)—which is the structuring myth for Thea’s later quest in Panther Canyon. Having once been a great musician himself, he also tells Thea, “Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. There is only one big thing—desire” (84). However, while providing a Dionysian impetus for Thea, he is finally overcome by a Dionysian nature unbalanced by the Apollonian, and soon he begins drinking too much, chops down the Kohlers’ dove house, and threatens their trees, after which he leaves town.

Thea herself is absorbed by both youthful and artistic desires, so much so that she lies on the floor of her room “in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation”—filled with passion that the elder Dumas felt essential to drama (156). But, as shown by Cather’s imagery, Thea is also starting to develop a balanced life, a life with Apollonian as well as Dionysian elements. She begins to have a “double life” in her new cave-like attic room (64); and when she returns to Moonstone from her first year of study in Chicago and realizes that she cannot live her life in the little town of her birth, she fears that “[t]here were certain dreams that might refuse to come to her at all except in a little morning cave, facing the sun—where they came to her so powerfully, where they beat a triumph to her” (265). Cather associates the sun with Apollo, one of whose roles is that of the Greek god of the sun, just as she associates Dionysus with the moon, under which his worship took place. In Chicago, Thea’s piano studies with Andor Harsanyi develop her love of music as well as her musical intellect, for from him she gets “musical idea[s] and understanding” that she had never had before. She visits the Art Institute but, significantly, is at this point more interested in the “casts” (218)—the sculptures or images that Nietzsche associated with Apollo.

Thea’s mother, Ray Kennedy, and Dr. Archie have provided some order for her young life, and she has a necessary—if negative—Apollonian experience with her cold but intelligent voice teacher, Madison Bowers and his pseudo-artist pupils. However, it is not until Thea accepts Fred Ottenburg’s invitation to spend the summer exploring the cliff dwellings of Panther Canyon that she has the full creative Apollonian experience that, combined with her Dionysian background, will ultimately make her the true artist she longs to be. After her depressing experiences in Chicago, Thea descends into Panther Canyon like Orpheus searching for his Euridice, and in so doing she goes “back to the earliest sources of gladness that she could remember. She had loved the sun and the brilliant solitudes of sand and sun” long before her life had become encumbered with other things (326). In the ranch house where she stays, she is awakened each morning by “the first fierce shafts of sunlight” (327) that come through her window, and she spends her days in the clean, sun-baked cliff dwellings: “This was her old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun” (328). These sunny days in these womb-like dwellings bring calm to her life and, along with her ritualistic baths, prepare her for the musical ideas that she begins to develop here, Dionysian ideas that have “almost nothing to do with words” (330)—with the dialogue that Nietzsche associates with Apollo (Birth 46). “She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was like a pleasant sensation, indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than like an idea. Music had never come to her in that sensuous form before” (330). Here Thea is approaching that ideal balance between Apollonian ideas (intellect) and Dionysian sensual forces (emotions), a balance that leads to true art. Indeed, one day she has an epiphany about the nature of art: “The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?” (334–35). In the canyon Thea finds fragments of this sheath, of the pottery that held the artistic desire of the Native women (354). This sheath, of course, represents Apollonian form and order, whereas the water represents Dionysian life and desire.

When Fred comes to the canyon, she rejects the idea of his being “the Apollo of a homey flat” for her (349), but by this time she has thrown off her lethargic, dream-like state. She realizes that “with her at least—voice was, first of all, vitality,” and she feels “a livelier movement in her thoughts” and “a desire for action” (338). This emphasis on vitality shows the influence on Cather of another important precursor to modernism, Henri Bergson (1859–1941), the French philosopher whose book Creative Evolution Cather read in 1912 (Cather to Sergeant, 12 September [1912], Letters 167). As W. T. Jones explains, Bergson’s “metaphysics was ‘Romantic’ in its emphasis on dynamism and continuity,” in “its denial of the capacity of reason to know the inner nature of reality, and in its assertion that reality can nonetheless be known—in intuition” (15–16). Challenging Spencerian and Darwinian mechanism, Bergson, according to Lehan, “created a systematic, rigorous philosophy that became the foundation for modernism” (Literary Modernism 47). Indeed, Lehan asserts, the modernists “would have had to invent” Bergson if they had not already had him, for he not only gave them “a liberated sense of time” but also released them from the limitations of Darwinian mechanism, which “robbed the universe of a creative unfolding and man of the corresponding creative power of a deep subjectivity within which the mythic, the primitive, and the intuitive could survive” (“Bergson” 307).

Besides the modernists’ interest in myth and the primitive, literary artists such as Cather, Faulkner, Stevens, and Eliot were drawn to Bergson because he wrote like a writer; that is, he frequently used metaphors and images to present his ideas. For example, he compared creative evolution to “a shell, which suddenly bursts into fragments,” in contrast to “a solid ball shot from a cannon” (Creative 98). Moreover, he employs art (145), an artist (177), and a novelist (100) in other philosophical comparisons. To him, the existence of intuition is proven “by the existence of an aesthetic faculty along with normal perception. The intention of life . . . is just what the artist tries to regain, in placing himself back within the object by a kind of sympathy, in breaking down, by an effort of intuition, the barrier that space puts up between him and his model” (177). Similarly, in her 1922 essay “The Novel Démeublé” Cather identifies realism as “an attitude of the mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme” (On Writing 37). The resemblance between these two statements as well as Cather’s reference to Bergson in the 1922 preface to Alexander’s Bridge suggest his influence on her.

In Bergson and American Culture, Tom Quirk points out that The Song of the Lark is particularly filled with Bergsonian ideas (144–54). Basic aspects of Bergson’s philosophy that surface in Song, and especially in “The Ancient People”—which Quirk calls “the mystical and aesthetic center of the novel”—are those of the two selves, intuition, perception, duration, and most centrally, élan vital (vital force)—elements that will be discussed in the following paragraphs. From the time Thea moves into her little attic room in Moonstone, she begins to experience “a double life,” having “thoughts which were like companions, ideas which were like older and wiser friends” (64). In Moonstone she must keep her artistic self hidden under what Bergson calls the social self (Time 231), but she takes her true self to Chicago, where Harsanyi discovers it—the “secret” of her voice—and tells her “the strongest need of your nature now is to find yourself, to emerge as yourself” (Song 232).

In Chicago, Thea has trouble discovering her real self, for Bowers teaches voice through intellect rather than intuition, and Thea cannot learn that way. According to Bergson, “intellect goes in the inverse direction” to the intuition that leads toward life (Creative 267). Whereas “intelligence treats everything mechanically” (Creative 165), just as Bowers teaches “as if he were in a laboratory” (Song 239), instinct (the precursor to intuition) “proceeds . . . organically” (Creative 165). Bergson asserts that “it is to the very inwardness of life that intuition leads us.” Intuition is, as he defines it, “instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely” (176). In Panther Canyon, when Thea first climbs the ancient water trail, “she began to have intuitions about the women who had worn the path, and who had spent so great a part of their lives going up and down it. She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed” (333). Thea’s developing intuition will help her “find her way home” as an artist, just as Cather wrote in her 1922 preface to Alexander’s Bridge that the guide that helps a writer find her way home is “what Mr. Bergson calls the wisdom of intuition as opposed to intellect” (197).

Elements of Bergsonian pure perception, duration, and élan vital are also present in the novel. Thea has strong perceptions in the canyon, perceptions that appeal vividly to her senses. The scent of the chokecherry blossoms is “almost sickeningly sweet after a shower,” and the “bright, flickering, golden-green,—cottonwood seedlings” provide “a living, chattering screen” for her bath (329). Quirk calls attention to the “pure perception” she experiences when “her power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation. She could become a receptacle for heat, or become a color, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door, or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas” (Quirk 26; Song 330). Here, she feels as if she is “waiting for something to catch up with her. For the first time she experiences music as a “sensation” (Creative 229–30). Her languorous form, and the form of her music, is, as Bergson describes the process, in “evolution,” her “body changing form” to a “snapshot view of a transition” (302)—of her awakening as an artist.

Lying in the canyon under the sun, Thea leaves mechanical, clock time behind her and, through her memory, experiences duration, or real time, which is, according to Bergson, “a continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future” (Creative 4) and creates a “succession of our conscious states . . . when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states” (Time 100). As her past lengthens into her present, Thea not only reconnects to the places and people of her childhood but also relates intuitively to the Indian women who had walked the same path hundreds of years earlier and inspired her for later “heroic parts” (500). The central image that serves as the catalyst for Thea’s personal and artistic epiphany—the stream and the broken pottery (334)—further recalls Bergson, who, like the modernists, recognized the importance of form, of stable views or images of life that initially occur as snapshots but that can, in the process of “Becoming,” be transformed into eternal “Forms” (Creative 302, 317–18).

Interestingly, Bergson uses a musical metaphor to further explain duration and its interconnection with space (which he calls simultaneity—another modernist concept). To Bergson, the “gradual organization of our successive sensations” results in a unity resembling that of a phrase in a melody” (Time 110–11). Without actually singing, but with songs going “through her head” in a new, sensuous way, Thea knows that her voice is now more interesting: “She had begun to understand that . . . voice was . . . vitality, a lightness in the body and a driving power in the blood” (338). Cather’s idea of vitality here derives from Bergson’s concept of the élan vital (Creative 340–41), which Bergson believes is behind the creation of all life. Seeking to answer the question “Where . . . does the vital principle of the individual begin or end?” Bergson looks “further and further back” toward “the individual’s remotest ancestors” and concludes: “Being . . . one with his primitive ancestor, [man] is also solidary with all that descends from the ancestor in divergent directions. In this sense each individual may be said to remain united with the totality of living beings by invisible bonds.” In spite of the “gaps and incoherences” common to all life,“each living being” is part of “the collective whole of all others” (Creative 43). In “The Ancient People” Thea first achieves this sense of vitality and wholeness, later exhibited in her performance as Sieglinde.

Another influence on “The Ancient People” in particular is Franz Boas (1858–1942). Born and educated in Germany, Boas immigrated to the United States in 1884 and in 1899 became the first professor of anthropology at New York’s Columbia University (N. F. Boas 123). In his discussion of Cather’s cultural modernism, Richard H. Millington suggests that Cather’s work is “animated by the kind of perspectives the new anthropology”—that of Boas and his students—“made available” (57) and points out that Cather would have known of Boas’s work through a 1910 McClure’s article by Burton J. Hendrick discussing the anthropologist’s work on “immigrant skull sizes,” work that was an “important early attack on theories of racial determinism” (57). It is not known whether or not Cather knew Boas and his wife, but his expeditions and his 1911 book The Mind of Primitive Man were well known by the reading public.[5] Boas’s primary thesis in The Mind of Primitive Man is that “[t]here is no fundamental difference in the ways of thinking of primitive and civilized man” (17). Cather’s treatment of “The Ancient People” in The Song of the Lark not only shows a Boasian sympathy and respect for Native culture but also includes details and observations resembling some of those in Boas’s groundbreaking book.

Especially relevant to our discussion here is the artistic heritage of the primitive people who inhabited Panther Canyon—in reality the ancient Sinagua who lived in Walnut Canyon near Flagstaff, Arizona. Boas says that we “must bow to the genius of all” (85) those who helped develop ancient civilization. Recognizing affinities among ancient cultures of the American Southwest, Cather demonstrates connections between the “aborigines” (as Ray Kennedy calls them) whose burial mounds he and his friends excavated and the tools—“the grinding stones, and drills and needles made of turkey-bone” (333–34)—that Thea and Old Biltmer find in Panther Canyon. Boas, like Cather and Ray, admires “the perseverance of primitive man in the manufacture of his utensils and weapons” (Boas 48). As Biltmer explains, the ancient people “had developed masonry and pottery far beyond any other crafts” (Song 334), and Ray declares that “if those old fellows had learned to work metals once, your ancient Egyptians and Assyrians would n’t have beat them very much. . . . Their masonry’s standing there to-day, the corners as true as the Denver Capitol” (128).

According to Marc Manganaro, Boas, like other modern anthropologists, focuses on “cultural traits in local contexts” (5). Boas defines culture as “the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behavior of the individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relation to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself and of each individual to himself” and including “the products of these activities and their role in the life of the group” (56). Obviously, the canyon itself determined much of Sinagua culture—their type of housing and their methods of selfprotection as well as their food and water and their methods of obtaining them. They built their dwellings in the hollow space created, in Cather’s description, where a “stratum of rock, softer than those above, had been hollowed out by the action of time until it was like a deep groove running along the sides of the canyon” (327). And, after they had made their dwellings,“the next thing was to house the precious water. [Biltmer] explains to [Thea] how all their customs and ceremonies and their religion went back to water [T]he water was the care of the women. The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the cleverer ones made the vessels to hold it. Their pottery was their most direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of the precious element itself. The strongest Indian need was expressed in those graceful jars, fashioned slowly by hand, without the aid of a wheel” (334). In taking her bath at the bottom of the canyon, Thea feels that the water has “sovereign qualities, from having been the object of so much service and desire” as the Indian women carried their jars up the path from the bottom to the top of the cliff (334). Cather, like Boas, admires the primitive people’s “willingness to undergo privation and hardship to fulfill [their] desires” (48).

Boas recognizes the presence of originality (49) and aesthetic needs (58) in primitive people, though he admits that the development of decorative arts does not take place until after the culture has a reliable food supply (71)—one such as the Sinagua would have had from the stream running through Walnut Canyon (until it was dammed up in modern times) and from crops grown on the flat tableland on either side of the cliffs of Walnut Canyon. Boas identifies “culture areas” (55) among which pottery was distributed (60), as shown in the variety of pottery fragments that Thea discovers: “jars done in a delicate overlay, like pine cones”; “patterns in a low relief, like basketwork”; “pottery decorated in color, red and brown, black and while, in graceful geometrical patterns”; “a crested serpent’s head, painted in red on terra-cotta”; and “a bowl with a broad band of white cliff-houses painted on a black ground” (Song 336). Some of this pottery supports Boas’s claim that primitive decorated art derives from nature and reality (64), a belief that Ray holds as well (129). As Sinagua style was simple reddish-brown paddle-and-anvil pottery, these other types of pottery attest to dissemination through area trade. Division of labor, Boas theorizes, also contributed to the development of decorated art objects such as “the beautiful pottery of the Pueblos” (70), but Boas believes that the purpose of primitive art was symbolic as well as aesthetic (83). Likewise, Thea views the pottery she finds as symbolic—as vessels to hold the water of life, indeed life itself: “The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals” (335).

Cather’s association of the primitive with originality, with artistic desire, and with art itself parallels her association of Thea with the primitive and the savage. Harsanyi tells Theodore Thomas that Thea is “a fine young savage” with a voice that “is a wild thing” (226–27); Fred accuses her of “turning savage” on him when he kisses her in Panther Canyon and she pushes him away; and Fred says that experiences like Thea’s having to go onstage to sing Sieglinde in the middle of the performance without any rehearsal is “the kind of rough deal that makes savages of singers” (482). More than once Cather compares Thea to an Indian woman. To Ray, both Thea and her mother “carried their heads like Indian women, with a kind of noble unconsciousness” (135), and climbing up the water trail in the canyon Thea finds herself “trying to walk as [the Indian women] must have walked,” feeling “the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back” (332). In various ways, then, Cather reflects a modern Boasian view of culture, as in what Manganaro calls Boas’s reading of culture “according to the standards of . . . wholeness” (27). Similarly, Thea develops a sense of “wholeness and inner well-being” not only after Harsanyi helps her recognize that voice is her artistic genre but also in Panther Canyon and in her final performance.

Indeed,“The Ancient People” is a fully modernist text in the center of The Song of the Lark. In Panther Canyon “everything was simple and definite” for Thea, “as things had been in childhood. . . . Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer” (337). Thea has discovered, as Cather writes in “The Novel Démeublé,” that “[t]he higher processes of art are all processes of simplification” (On Writing 40). This section also employs the modernist techniques of juxtaposition, a search or a journey, mythic archetypes, and symbolic images such as “life-giving water or sunlight”—all formalistic qualities that Linda Wagner-Martin associates with modernism (4–5). Except for the time gaps between parts 5 and 6 and between part 6 and the epilogue, the novel as a whole employs a traditional chronological plot structure, but “The Ancient People”—like “Tom Outland’s Story”—metaphorically opens a window and lets in the “fresh air” of Panther Canyon between the adjacent “overcrowded” sections. The canyon itself is a site imbued with the unknown myths and rituals of the ancient Sinagua people. Moreover, the entire section portrays Thea’s Orphic quest for a new understanding of herself and her art in a Freudian landscape rife with birth imagery—the “darkness [that] had once again the sweet wonder that it had in childhood” (326) on her first night and the bright sunlight that wakens her on her first morning; the V-shaped inner gorge of the canyon itself with its fringe of cedars and piñons (327) that Ellen Moers has called “the most thoroughly elaborate female landscape in literature” (228); the sunny cave that Thea takes for her own as she sleeps and waits “for something to catch up with her” (328–29); and the bathing pool nestled below her cave where she takes her ritualistic baths (329). The novel’s central modernist image, of course, is that of the stream and the broken pottery, which invokes Bergson’s vision of the vitality of life and art.

The final section of the novel, “Kronborg,” focuses on Thea as a Wagnerian diva, and in so doing it portrays not only the Bergsonian vitality of her performances but also the balance of Dionysian and Apollonian qualities that makes her a consummate artist. Initially worshipped and then reviled by Nietzsche, Richard Wagner (1813–83) was both the last of the great romantic composers and a forerunner of modernism. Lehan emphasizes the importance of myth, archetype, and symbol to modernism, stating that “Wagner made varied use of these elements in his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–1874) in which nature is violated when the Rhine maidens’ gold is stolen and ‘manufactured’ into a ring. Wagner created a myth appropriate to that moment of history when an industrial system challenged the values of an agrarian culture. Before we return to lost agrarian innocence, we witness the combat and then the death of Siegmund at the hands of Hunding; Siegfried, his son, is killed later by Hagen. When the spirit of nature (the land) is violated, the mythic hero is needed to help restore (as does Siegfried) the lost balance” (Literary Modernism 77).

To the young Nietzsche, “the mythic musical grandeur” of Wagnerian opera was “altogether new” and completely shattered “the feeble art and literature that came before it. . . . Because Wagner’s art has achieved the ‘highest and purest effect’ that theater can reach,” he thought, “it will inevitably bring ‘innovations everywhere’” (Levenson 2). Although the Wagnerian operas of love and heroism in which Thea performs derive from the ancient German past (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) and the Christian Middle Ages (Lohengrin and Tannhäuser), they are all music-dramas that exemplify Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total art work,” in conjunction with the idea of interdisciplinarity that, Juliet Koss claims, is “at the heart of modernism” (xi).

According to Foster, when Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy he believed that he had found “in Wagner’s operas . . . the strongest evidence for the new influx of tragic myth needed to accomplish . . . cultural transformation” (90). In her performances, Thea exhibits and combines Nietzsche’s two essential elements of tragedy, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. When Fred describes her performances as a Rhine maiden to Dr. Archie and again when he analyzes her performance of Elsa, he associates Thea with “the idea,” with the intellectual aspect of art and music that Nietzsche connected to Apollo and the dialogue of opera (Birth 46). To Harsanyi, however, the secret that explains her success is the Dionysian quality of passion. These spectator responses, along with those of others in the audience, relate to Levenson’s declaration that “modernism needs to be understood not as an elite craft refined in secret but as a complex exchange between artists and audiences” (3).

At the climactic moment of her final performance of Sieglinde, Thea “came into full possession [my italics] of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long” (Song 525), acting “freely to gain possession [my italics] of [herself]” as Bergson believed was necessary to accomplish pure duration (Time 232). That afternoon,

She had only to touch an idea to make it live.

While she was on the stage she was conscious that every movement was the right movement, that her body was absolutely the instrument of her idea. Not for nothing had she kept it so severely, kept it filled with such energy and fire. All that deep-rooted vitality flowered in her voice, her face, in her very finger-tips. She felt like a tree bursting into bloom. . . . [E]verything in her [was] at its best and everything working together. (526)

For this epiphanic scene, Cather draws on three of her premodernist influences. Her rendition of Thea’s performance connects closely with Wagner’s own poetic description of the recognition scene between Sieglinde and her brother Siegmund, in which the spring “warms them, lo, the branches / Break into blossom; Bud and bough / Submit to his sway” (Wagner, Die Walküre, act 1, p. 15). Thea’s “deep-rooted vitality” represents the “vital process, something like the ripening of an idea,” like “the sprouting and flowering” of form that Bergson associates with art (Creative 340–41). With “everything working together,” Thea has also achieved the artistic wholeness of Dionysian and Apollonian elements that Nietzsche says are required to create an ideal performance for the true “aesthetic spectator” (Birth 105). For her friends Fred, Archie, Harsanyi, and even Johnny Tellamantez, Thea provides this ideal performance and accomplishes what Cather declared (as Evelyn Funda reminds us [29]) the true artist must do: the “performer ‘must rouse [the audience’s] strongest emotions, stir their holiest memories’” (Cather, Kingdom 217). In The Song of the Lark, both Cather and Thea accomplish these goals of eliciting emotions and memories from their audiences.


 1. See my Historical Essay 569, 575–79 and “Willa Cather’s Transitional Novel” 225–30, 234–36). (Go back.)
 2. Byrne and Snyder report that although “there is no record of the books Cather selected from the library shelves,” she “used to carry them out by the armful” (69). According to Tom Barnes in Reference Services at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, the library acquired Thus Spake Zarathustra in the week ending 6 February 1904 and, according to the Classified Catalog of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 1895–1916, acquired The Birth of Tragedy sometime between 1907 and 1911. The editions were probably Alexander Tille’s translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All or None, published by Macmillan (New York) in 1896, and William August Haussmann’s translation of The Birth of Tragedy, published by Macmillan (New York) in 1909 (Barnes, 30 April and 5 May 2013 emails). These volumes would have been available for Cather to read while she was in Pittsburgh, either while she resided there between 1896 and 1906 or on her numerous visits there to Isabelle McClung, especially when she was working on The Song of the Lark in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1913, late spring of 1914, and fall and early winter of 1914 (Moseley, Historical Essay 580–82). Callander suggests that Nietzsche’s nihilism may provide a clue to Niel Herbert’s name in A Lost Lady and further argues for Cather’s emphasis on the aesthetic and the existential as understood by Nietzsche. (Go back.)
 3. Slote writes that Cather, during her journalistic years, “was caught in that ancient pull of the gods, torn between the Dionysian and Apollonian forces of rapture and repose, release and containment. That conflict was at the very center of her creative will. She wanted both in one. Sometimes she achieved wholeness, as in the temporal-sacred metaphor of art, or even in the figure of the ‘voyage perilous,’ in which were joined both brain and hand, power and craft. But much more was unresolved. That story is harder to tell, for never again after this summer of 1896 would Willa Cather speak so frankly of what she desired, feared, and worshipped in the kingdom of art” (81).

I explored these terms in my dissertation, “The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Mythic Quest” (1974), and in my essay “The Dual Nature of Art in The Song of the Lark” (1979). For other discussions of Nietzsche and his ideas of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, see H. M. Jones; Borgman; and Wolff.

(Go back.)
 4. The first major treatment of Bergson’s influence on Cather is Loretta Wasserman’s “The Music of Time.” (Go back.)
 5. Although Cather mentions a “Mrs. Boas” in three letters to Mrs. Charlotte Stanfield (12 June [1921], #544, p. 83; n.d. [10 June 1922], #600, p. 91; 16 October [1926], #852, 127, all in Cather, Calendar), there is no proof that this Mrs. Boas was the wife of, or indeed any relation of, Franz Boas. According to Tom Barnes in Reference Services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, sometime in the week ending 23 December 1911 the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh acquired Franz Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man: A Course of Lectures Delivered Before the Lowell Institute. Boston, Mass. And the National University of Mexico, 1910–1911 ([Macmillan, 1911]; Barnes, 30 April and 5 May 2013 emails). (Go back.)


Barnes, Tom. Reference Services, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Messages to the author. 30 Apr. and 5 May 2013. E-mail.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Holt, 1911. Toronto: Dover, 1998. Print.
———. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. 1910. Rpt. Ila: Kessinger Publishing, n.d. Print.
Boas, Franz. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Macmillan, 1911. Print.
Boas, Norman Francis. Franz Boas, 1858–1942: An Illustrated Biography. Mystic: Seaports Autographs P, 2004. Print.
Borgman, Paul. “The Dialectic of Willa Cather’s Moral Vision.” Renascence 27 (1975): 145–59. Print.
Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh, 1896–1906. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1980. Print.
Callander, Marilyn Berg. “Another Answer to Myra’s Question: Cather’s Existentialism and the Evidence in the Willa Cather Collection.” Willa Cather: New Facts, New Glimpses, Revisions. Ed. John J. Murphy and Merrill Maguire Skaggs. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2008. 158–68. Print.
Cather, Willa. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Janis Stout. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
———. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. Print.
———. Preface. 1922. Alexander’s Bridge. 1912. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Tom Quirk and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007. 195–98. Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
———. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Ann Moseley and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012. Print.
———. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. 1949. Foreword by Stephen Tennant. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. Print.
Foster, John Burt. Heirs to Dionysus: A Nietzschean Current in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.
Funda, Evelyn. Reading Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark.” Western Writer’s Series 137. Boise: Boise State UP, 1999. Print.
Gogröf-Voorhees, Andrea. Defining Modernism: Baudelaire and Nietzsche on Romanticism, Modernity, Decadence, and Wagner. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Print.
Hendrick, Burton J. “The Skulls of Our Immigrants.” McClure’s Magazine 35 (May 1910): 36–50. Print.
Huneker, James. Egoists: A Book of Supermen. New York: Scribner, 1909. Print.
Jones, Howard Mumford. The Bright Medusa. 1952. Excerpted in Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ed. Kames Schoeter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1967. 235–48. Print.
Jones, W. T. The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre. 2nd ed. A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 5. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975. Print.
Koss, Juliet. Modernism after Wagner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.
Lehan, Richard. “Bergson and the Discourse of the Moderns.” The Crisis of Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Ed. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 306–29. Print.
———. Literary Modernism and Beyond: The Extended Vision and the Realms of the Text. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2009. Print.
Levenson, Michael. Modernism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print. Manganaro, Marc. Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002. Print.
Mencken, H. L. The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Kindle book. 1908. Millington, Richard H. “Willa Cather’s American Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. Ed. Marilee Lindemann. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 51–65. Print.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976. Print.
Moseley, Ann. “The Dual Nature of The Song of the Lark.” Western American Literature 14.1 (1979): 20–32. Print.
———. Historical Essay. Cather, The Song of the Lark 549–615. Print.
———. “The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Mythic Quest.” Diss. U of Oklahoma, 1974. Print.
———. “Willa Cather’s Transitional Novel: The Song of the Lark as a Romantic Naturalistic Novel with a Modernist Center.” Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark.” Ed. Debra L. Cumberland. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 225–40. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
———. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. 1883–91. Trans. Thomas Common. N.p.: Pacific Publishing Studio, 2011. Print.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. London: MacMillan, 1910. Print.
Quinones, Ricardo J. Mapping Literary Modernism: Time and Development. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.
Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. Print.
Schwartz, Sanford. The Matrix of Modernism: Pound, Eliot, and Early Twentieth Thought. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.
Seibel, George. “Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska.” New Colophon 2.7 (1949): 195–208. Rpt. Willa Cather Remembered. Comp. Sharon Hoover and Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. 11–21. Print.
Slote, Bernice. “First Principles: The Kingdom of Art.” The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896, by Willa Cather. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. 31–112. Print.
Surette, Leon. The Birth of Modernism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1993. Print.
Wagner, Richard. Lohengrin. Metropolitan Opera House Grand Opera Libretto. New York: Fred. Rullman, n.d. Print.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Modern American Novel, 1914–1945. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.
Wasserman, Loretta. “The Music of Time: Henri Bergson and Willa Cather.” American Literature 57.2 (May 1985): 226–39. Print.
Watson, Sarah Cheney, and Ann Moseley, eds. Willa Cather and Aestheticism: From Romanticism to Modernism. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2012. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Time and Memory in Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Sex, Abuse, and Art.” Cather Studies 3. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996. 212–37. Print.