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From Cather Studies Volume 11

“The Earliest Sources of Gladness”: Reading the Deep Map of Cather’s Southwest

Willa Cather discovered the American Southwest a decade after she discovered Europe. I use the word “discovered” deliberately, despite its postcolonial baggage, because for Cather, to encounter a landscape was to discern what it had to reveal, to uncover its meaning. As a child transplanted from Virginia to Nebraska, she may have developed an early disposition for such discoveries, but her imaginative experience of landscape and its relation to her writing were redefined by her first trip to Europe in 1902, and especially by her visit to Provence. Something about Lettres de mon moulin (1869; Letters from My Windmill), the collection of stories by the Provençal writer Alphonse Daudet, had seemed “very sympathetic to her, very suggestive,” reports Edith Lewis, and when Cather visited the setting of Daudet’s stories she “found something in the Provençal landscape that deeply stirred her, something that in a hidden way linked itself with the American West” (56). What Cather discovered in Provence affected her encounter ten years later with the physical environment of the Southwest, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant writes, which “made available a path in which a new artistic method could evolve from familiar Nebraska subject matter” (Willa Cather 85). Cather applied her “new artistic method” to The Song of the Lark (1915), in which Thea’s experience in Panther Canyon indicates that embodied imagination, ritualized behavior, and historical-personal memory contribute essentially to the development of the artist.

In Provence in 1902, Cather had discerned a layering of time and space, history and geography that was as much a sensual delight as it was a concrete affirmation of her prodigious reading in literature and history. There, in “Daudet’s country,” where the Roman past lingered on the surface of the Provençal present, she realized,“In Italy itself one could scarcely feel [more] the presence of Rome, of the empire and all it meant . . . than here in the land where the richest and proudest of its colonies flourished” (“In the Country” 946, 947, 951). In Arles she had seen “splendid brown” women and identified their beauty as “Moorish” and “strangely Roman” (948–49); she was ready to believe the old story that the Arlésiennes “owe their beauty to the vows they used to make to their pagan Venus” (951). She imagined the bustling commercial city on the Rhone, that “great highway to Italy” (937), displaying its ostentatious wealth two millennia earlier with “a Chicago like vehemence” (950). The improbable but apt comparison between twentieth-century Chicago and ancient Arles announces the link Cather was beginning to forge between Provence and the American West. Her imaginative reconstruction of Roman Arles indicates that her “new artistic method” evolved from reading the deep map of Provence.

The term “deep map” was first used by William Least HeatMoon in his 1991 narrative of Chase County, Kansas, PrairyErth (a deep map). Heat-Moon quotes Jim Burden in Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) to describe how the “apparent emptiness, near nothingness” of treeless Chase County makes one feel “erased, blotted out” (12). Hoping to discover a rich complexity in the stark landscape, he begins by discerning in a patchwork of county maps he has laid out on the floor “a kind of grid such as an archaeologist lays over ground he will excavate. Wasn’t I a kind of digger of shards?” he asks (15). Heat-Moon thought his exploration might yield “a topographic map of words that would open inch by inch to show its long miles” (15). But PrairyErth is dense and deep rather than linear, a six-hundred-page inventory of the minutiae of material space, a chronicle of geohistorical time inscribed by folk memory. As Susan Naramore Maher defines them in her recent Deep Map Country: Literary Cartography of the Great Plains (2014), cartographic narratives like PrairyErth cross disciplines of geology, cultural geography, biology, and folklore; they “create cross-sectional narratives of natural history, illuminating the strata in which deep time and human time collide. [T]hey mark the shifts and migrations, booms and busts, erasures and additions, always keeping an eye open for the palimpsests of former worlds” (15). In PrairyErth, Heat-Moon observes, the deep map of Chase County “unroll[s] like a Chinese scroll painting or a bison-skin drawing where both beginnings and ends of an event are at once present in the conflated time of the American Indian” (15)—the kind of map that might be drawn by a meticulous French priest over forty years of travel with an Indian guide, or by a little girl riding her pony across the Divide, her head full of the stories of immigrant women.

Grounded in her deep map reading of Provence, Cather was predisposed to discern the evidence of a dynamic ancient history in the American Southwest when she visited the area in 1912. The “new artistic method” that grew out of the imaginative link between Provence and the American West finds its first expression in The Song of the Lark (1915). Using her own experience as a reference for Thea Kronborg’s in the “Ancient People” section of the novel, Cather retrieves the past of the cliff dwellers and re-places it into Thea’s present. She depicts the past not as so much factual material to be learned by the visitor but as a sensory human history pulsing through the present: a living past, not dead at all (to paraphrase William Faulkner), not even past. As Thea becomes more attentive to the presence of the past in the southwestern landscape, her imaginative activity becomes more embodied, her behavior becomes more ritualized, and her personal memory merges with historic memory. Thea’s development as an artist is dependent on these shifts in disposition and behavior, which also contribute to the self-completion of characters in Cather’s later fiction like Tom Outland (The Professor’s House, 1925) and Archbishop Latour (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927). Thea’s transformation in Panther Canyon thus reveals Cather’s experiential understanding of authentic artistic development.

Panther Canyon reanimates Thea. She has been listless, “half anaesthetized” (321), physically ill, and disappointed in the lack of progress she has made in her musical training. More than halfway through the novel, Thea is standing on the threshold between uncomprehending, resistant apprenticeship and the full possession of her musical talent. Fred Ottenburg, who does so much to support Thea’s artistic development, has invited her to recuperate from the difficult Chicago winter at his family’s ranch in Arizona, where his father “owns a whole canyon full of Cliff-Dweller ruins” (319). Virtually alone at the ranch for two months before Fred arrives on his way to California, she is purged of the anxiety and struggle that made up her daily life in Chicago; she is “ashamed to think of what an apprehensive drudge” she had been (338). In the canyon, her personality “seemed to let go of her,” its “old fretted lines . . . erased” (326). She is “released from the enslaving desire to get on in the world” (326). She is “getting back to the earliest sources of gladness,”“the sweet wonder [of] . . . childhood” (326). She luxuriates in the sunny warmth of the canyon, bathing outdoors and sunning herself, picnicking, napping. She also does archaeology.

Because when Thea dislodges flakes of carbon from the roof of the cliff dwellings and concludes that they are “the cooking smoke of the Ancient People” (332); when she walks the water trail in imagined imitation of the cliff-dwelling women who had walked it before, their posture formed by the cliff city architecture and the babies they carried on their backs; when she follows Old Henry Biltmer’s directions to find “relics” in the ruins of the cliff dwellers (333); when she looks carefully at the colors and patterns on potsherds, matching the pictorial representation of the cliff houses on one to the actual scene before her—Thea is doing what archaeologists do: she is examining the material environment to understand its inhabitants and material artifacts to understand their makers; she is locating a culture in time and space. Like Heat-Moon in PrairyErth, she is a “digger of shards,” and to see her as an archaeologist expands our understanding of Cather’s particular deep map of the Southwest.

Archaeology is one of many disciplines that cross in the field of deep mapping; in turn, deep mapping has enriched and complicated archaeology. Influenced by the idea of the deep map, Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks in their 2001 study Theatre/Archaeology radically reenvision archaeology as a “creative event” that pulls the past into the present to reveal the dynamic “axes of time and space” marking the deep map (xiv, 26). Using the common language of deep mappers, they define the archaeologist’s field as a “stratigraphy . . . [a] folding, faulting, and erosion” of history and geography (24–25); it is a juxtaposition and interpenetration of time and space. “Archaeology’s temporality is not primarily linear, from past to present,” they write,“but turbulent, past and present percolating” through a “historical density” (10, 3; emphasis in original); “the past bubbles around us” (xvii). In contrast to deep mappers like Loren Eiseley and John McPhee, who are interested in the geologicalhistorical nexus of a place, or others who write about what Maher identifies as “the biology of place” (71), Pearson and Shanks emphasize the artifact as evidence of human ritual. They insist on the relation of the artifact to the physical landscape and the human body and decry its isolation in a museum case. They are interested in the way artifact “attests” to ritual—social, sacred, domestic—that has no written correlative. The archaeological project, they contend, is “the documentation of unwritten happening, attested through material trace” (9); it is “to create an authentic account of the lost event” (2)—not simply to identify, for example, a clay jar as something that contained water, but to imagine the water carrier’s physical behavior in the landscape and social environment, as the clay jar attests to it. “[T]he social needs to be understood as an embodied field,” they contend (xvi; emphasis in original). Moving beyond the fundamental site-specificity of traditional archaeology, Pearson and Shanks discern the sensuality of place and its relation to the “embodied and ineffable” nature of human experience, past and present (10). They reconstruct sensoria, “culturally located arrays of the senses” in acknowledgment of “the phenomenological qualities of things and places” (10, xvi).

Pearson and Shanks’s radically revised archaeology departs from the positivist origins of the discipline and its compilation of social science data, which also contributed to the document-driven realist fiction Cather criticized in “The Novel Démeublé” (1922). In the terms Cather uses in that essay, Pearson and Shanks seek to understand the way “material things . . . exist . . . in the emotional penumbra” (40) of a person or community, rather than to undertake “the cataloguing of a great number of material objects” (37). We are not interested so much in the composition of the floor, Pearson and Shanks say, as in the dust between the tiles, in the grain and patina of the wood. They privilege the anecdotal, the quotidian, the intimate, the liminal, the idiomatic. To adopt the analogy Cather uses to illustrate Professor St. Peter’s experience of “interwoven” official and personal history, they are more interested in “the little playful pattern of birds and beasts” depicted in the Bayeux tapestry than in “the big pattern of dramatic action” enacted by its knights and heroes (Professor’s House 100). Like Cather, they believe that “a new society begins with the salad dressing rather than the destruction of Indian villages” (Cather, “On Shadows” 388).

Thea performs as a radical archaeologist in Panther Canyon. Like Pearson and Shanks, she recovers the embodied, ritualistic behavior to which the potsherds and the cliff dwellings attest:

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, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before—which must have come up to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed. (Song 332)
Here, Thea creates what Pearson and Shanks would call an authentic account of the lost event, a quotidian act of unwritten history, discernible only in the landscape itself and in the material traces of the cliff dwellers. Her imaginative recovery of the cliff-dwelling women’s domestic ritual leads to the epiphany she experiences while bathing in the canyon: as they carried water, she realizes, so does her voice carry music, so does her art carry “life itself” (335). Equally important, her re-creation of ritual is an embodied act, consistent with Pearson and Shanks’s assertion that the social past has to be understood as “an embodied field” (xvi). In re-performing the act, Thea increases her own sense of embodiment.

Before Thea ever visited Panther Canyon, her interior experience characteristically manifested itself in her body. Her “faculty of observation was never highly developed”; “she experienced [things] physically and remembered them as if they had once been a part of herself” (331). Fred has noticed many times “how vehemently her body proclaimed her state of feeling” (321). “[H]er back was most extraordinarily vocal. One never needed to see her face” to gauge her mood (321). But over the course of her dispiriting winter in Chicago she had become dissociated from her body, degraded by a dirty room with no running water and a chambermaid who “was such a dirty creature that Thea would not let her touch her cot,” “too sick to care” that the medical student attending to her “had exceeded his rights” (315). As she becomes reanimated in Panther Canyon, however, Thea reclaims her body, bathing and sleeping in the canyon. Her embodied engagement with the intangible is deepened as well. She holds “pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind—almost in her hands” (330). A song goes through her head “more like a sensation than an idea. [H]er power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation” (330). She becomes more aware of her own physical connection to elements of the ancient landscape around her, constructing her own sensorium. She feels capable of a kind of synaesthetic transformation into “a mere receptacle for heat,” like “the hot stones outside her door,” or “a color, like the bright lizards” or “a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas” (330).

Thea’s sensory interchange with the landscape also exemplifies the function of “somatic mind,” which Kristie S. Fleckenstein defines in “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies” (1999) as a faculty that “locates an individual within concrete spatio-temporal contexts . . . [and] recognizes the cultural, historical, and ecological systems that penetrate and reconstitute these material places” (281). Somatic mind, then, demands a relationship with the deep map of one’s environment. Fleckenstein asserts that a state of “being-in-a-material-place,” a “corporeal certainty” (286, 288), is essential to the development of somatic mind, which will facilitate the embodied writing practice she advocates as an alternative to merely discursive (i.e., intellectualized) writing. Her rich and suggestive exploration of embodied writing practice extends beyond composition studies to provide an explanation for the imaginative and creative process in general. In Fleckenstein’s terms, Thea’s music practice in Chicago is discursive; she learns and then performs almost mechanically. It is only in isolated moments, as when she performs for the Nathanmeyers, that she truly inhabits her own body. In Panther Canyon, as she grows increasingly embodied, she develops “corporeal certainty”: her “[i]dentity expands to include the entire system of information exchange that comprises [her] location in a specific place at a specific moment” (Fleckenstein 288). Fleckenstein outlines a process of embodiment whereby the material boundary between self and environment becomes “permeable” (286); Thea “could become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a color, . . . or she could become a continuous repetition of sound” (Song 330). The writer (artist) undergoes an “immersion,” an experience in which “the boundaries between self and reality dissolve,” which Fleckenstein defines as a moment of “slippage between the is and the as if ” (295)—between metaphor and simile. Thea’s epiphany is embodied metaphor: the water the Indian women had held in their jars, the arrested motion caught in the Art Institute sculpture, what one “holds on one’s breath” in the “vessel of one’s throat and nostrils” (335)—these elements exchange identities, creating permeability between the physical boundary of Thea’s singing voice and the jars of water, the sculpture in arrested motion. From immersion, Fleckenstein finally states, there is “emergence” that balances the pleasure of boundless embodiment with a commitment to “culture and accountability” (297). Thea emerges from her experience having claimed her identity and her “older and higher obligations” to her art (339).

Acutely conscious of her own embodiment, Thea develops an empathic awareness of the lived experience the cliff dwellings had housed: “certain fears and desires; feelings about warmth and cold and water and physical strength” (333). From the landscape itself, “out of the rock-shelf on which she lay[,] . . . certain feelings were transmitted to her, . . . not expressible in words, but . . . translate[d] . . . into attitudes of body” (333). Other critical readers of The Song of the Lark, notably Sharon O’Brien, have called our attention to the embodied quality of the Panther Canyon landscape. While it may be true that “Cather imagined the land as female” with its “womb-like” and labial topographical features (O’Brien 410, 411), my point here is a different one: what is important for Thea is that her own embodiment allows her to imagine the bodies that once inhabited that particular landscape. Observing a ruined watchtower in Panther Canyon where the ancient people had ensnared eagles, Thea imagines over and over again, “[s]ometimes for a whole morning,” “the coppery breast and shoulders of an Indian youth” throwing a net and struggling with an eagle (333). As a kind of archaeologist, she imagines the embodied Indian in his natural landscape and social environment, as the watchtower attests to it.

Thea’s increased embodiment also changes the tenor of her relationship with Fred when he arrives at Panther Canyon, and throughout his stay their behavior with each other becomes increasingly sexual. He and Thea spend days exploring the canyon, and at one point he shows her how to throw a heavy stone off a ledge, far out onto the rocks below. The scene is playful, but it soon becomes sexualized: Fred registers the fact that “there weren’t many girls who could show a line like that from the toe to the thigh, from the shoulder to the tip of the outstretched hand” (342). He teaches her to move beyond imagined constraint and launch her body into space, “stretch[ing] her arm in position, whirl[ing] round on her left foot to the full stretch of her body” (341–42). Fred is essentially teaching her how not to throw like a girl. The image of the ancient (male) Indian throwing the net, which Thea had imagined repeatedly, resonates in her repeated attempts to throw the stone correctly. The scene literalizes Thea’s development of feminine embodied consciousness as Iris Marion Young delineates it in her landmark essay, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality.” “For many women as they move in sport,” Young observes, “a space surrounds them in imagination which we are not free to move beyond” (143). Young identifies that bounded imaginary space as the source of “inhibited intentionality” and notes that “[f]eminine existence appears to posit an existential enclosure between herself and the space around her” (147, 149). Assenting to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s location of subjectivity in the body rather than in the mind, Young concludes that feminine consciousness remains undeveloped when the feminine body does not move into all of the space that is available to it. The “Ancient People” section of Cather’s novel illustrates Young’s claim: as Thea becomes increasingly physical and sensate in the southwestern landscape, she becomes increasingly conscious and intentional. In Panther Canyon she reclaims her body through physical behavior in the landscape which imitates that of the ancient cliff dwellers, and it becomes the center of her consciousness. Her embodiment has increased her sensory pleasure and deepened her understanding of the source of art. It also leads Thea to enact her own agency as an artist: reflecting on her experience of Panther Canyon, she decides to go to Germany to study, refining her aim and moving beyond constraining boundaries in that way as well.

In the stratigraphic landscape of the Southwest, the radical archaeologist pulls the ritualized life of the ancient cliff dwellers into the present. In her 1916 essay on Mesa Verde for the Denver Times, Cather wrote: “Everything in the cliff dweller villages points to a tempered, settled, ritualistic life Their lives were so full of ritual and symbolism that all their common actions were ceremonial. [T]heir settled mode of living, their satisfying ritual, seem to have made this people conservative and aristocratic” (“Mesa Verde” 332). “The Ancient People” presents an early delineation of Cather’s lifelong attention to the ritualistic quality of everyday life. Ten years later, in “Tom Outland’s Story,” for example, Fr. Duchêne deduces from material traces that the mesa dwellers “purif[ied] life by religious ceremonies and observances” (Professor’s House 219); in Archbishop, Latour appreciates the Indian “veneration for old customs” (143), which he finds similar to Catholic practice. In the two later novels, historic cultural rituals underlie the ordered, sensual ritual of St. Peter’s and Latour’s personal lives. In Song, the ritualized nature of past life bubbles up into Thea’s present: “The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic” (334). The material traces of the cliff dwellers—the potsherds, the “grinding-stones, and drills and needles made of turkey-bones” (333–34)—attest to the rituals of their lives.

Thea is able to receive her epiphanic understanding of the function of art—that, like a jar holding water, art holds “for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself” (335)—because she has imagined and attempted to enact the ritualized behavior of the ancient women who carried the jars. Old Henry explains to Thea that the water the women carried in pots was the origin of “the customs and ceremonies and religion” (334) of the cliff dwellers. She is bathing with a new “ceremonial gravity[,] . . . splashing water between her shoulder-blades” (334) when she realizes that her own art is like the ancient potter’s art. Her epiphany is an enacted metaphor derived from a newly aware—a bodily conscious—experience of the water that used to be carried in the painted jars whose fragments she sees around her.

By the time Cather visited the Southwest and wrote The Song of the Lark, the water-jar carrier, or “olla maiden” (olla is the Pueblo word for “water jar”), had become an icon of Pueblo culture. In “‘A New Mexican Rebecca’: Imaging Pueblo Women,” Barbara A. Babcock examines the tradition of the olla maiden as “the classic metonymic misrepresentation of the Pueblo” and the nature of Anglo America’s cultural investment in the image (403; emphasis in original). She finds that, by the 1880s, the olla maiden was represented in travel literature and images as analogous to Palestinian women—women whom Anglo Christian readers would have identified with the ancient time of the Bible, nonthreatening orientialized Others. “This is aesthetic primitivism,” Babcock asserts, “and this is a form of colonial domination—a gaze which fixes and objectifies, which masters” (404). Song participates in the primitivist discourse of its time. Cather’s description of Thea’s experience in Panther Canyon is replete with the tropes of modernist primitivism cataloged by Marianna Torgovnick in Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1990): in Panther Canyon, Thea has become childlike, one with nature, free (8). Viewing the figure of the olla maiden in Cather’s novel as an appropriation of the orientalized Other is consistent with O’Brien’s claim that Cather approached the American Southwest through her experience of nineteenth-century French fiction, which orientalized Mediterranean France and North Africa, as well as biblical and church history (407). “France to Cather was the symbolic location of the Other,” O’Brien states (135); Babcock argues that “the Southwest is America’s Orient” (406; emphasis in original).

As a radical archaeologist, however, Cather seems much more interested in slippage and connection than in the binaries generated by the vocabulary of alterity. The jars and potsherds Thea discovers bring her “centuries nearer” to their makers (336); they bind her “to a long chain of human endeavor” and make “the world seem older and richer” (337). “[S]he herself seemed older” as well (337): “The Cliff-Dwellers had lengthened her past” (339). Human history becomes personal history. Like Tom Outland, who names the ancient mummified body “Mother Eve,” slipping timeless biblical history into familial relationship, Thea appropriates an ancestry from the ancient women potters, who were artists before her. Fred witnesses the extension of Thea’s personal history into cultural history when he sees her standing on the edge of a projecting crag, waving to him, throwing an arm over her head—occupying the space available to her. He “rhetorically addressed the figure in the air. ‘You are the sort that used to run wild in Germany, dressed in their hair and a piece of skin. Soldiers caught ’em in nets’” (353). He recognizes the historical density of her life. There are nearly a thousand years of history in that girl.

Like a radical archaeologist myself, I want to poke around in the dust between the tiles just a little further, to pull more of the anecdotal and personal past into our present reading of The Song of the Lark. So I ask, did Cather think of herself as an archaeologist? Her early correspondence with Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant attests to their sharing a kind of archaeological sensibility; a shared appreciation of the deep map was a foundation of their early friendship. By the time Sergeant and Cather first met, Sergeant had been to Europe twice, with prolonged stays in France. During their first meeting, Sergeant captivated Cather with a story from her 1908 trip to Greece, when she saw Anatole France in an Athens museum, clutching a goblet from the excavated Mycenaean treasure (Willa Cather 38), a stratigraphic image enfolding some three millennia of history. The women shared a love of Avignon and the Rhone Valley, Daudet’s country; in fact, in a letter written during her 1912 Southwest visit, Cather encourages Sergeant, as desperate as she was to find “four walls in which one can write,” to go to Avignon; “I know you can work at Avignon,” she repeats two months later (Letters 151, 161–62). And Cather seems eager to have Sergeant understand the link between Provence and the American Southwest: when she wants to convey the magnificence of the country surrounding Albuquerque, she writes to Sergeant that “the valley of the Rhone is nothing to it” (Letters 151). Trying to discern its deep map, she writes that it needs “a new tragedy or a new religion, some crusades or something” (151). During a visit to the Museum of Natural History in May 1914 to see excavated cliff-dweller artifacts, Sergeant was transported by Cather’s description of “the burning sun of Arizona; the cry of the cicada in the great silence of a cliff city; the aromatic odor of yellow flowers growing in rocky crevices” (Willa Cather 123). Cather could just as easily have been describing sunny Provence, with its cigales (cicadas) and wild mustard. When Sergeant returned from a third trip to France, in 1913, Cather insisted on “[m]ore, more, tell her more about Provence. Like the Southwest it was a land that made one mad with delight” (Willa Cather 97; emphasis in original).

Sergeant would spend several years in the Southwest herself, in the 1920s and 1930s, with other “Bryn Mawrters” who used their rigorous educations and highly developed social consciences to advocate for the retention of Indian rights to traditional education and religious practices and for the re-valorization of Pueblo culture, including its artifacts. Sergeant worked with John Collier for the Indian Defense Association and later for the Commission for Indian Affairs, and for the School of American Research. In 1923 she published an article in The Nation about New Mexico, part of the same series as Cather’s “Nebraska: The End of the Cycle.” She describes the inhabitants of New Mexico as “pioneers in space and time” and notes the “Palestinian” quality of some of the villages (“New Mexico” 577). She states that the archaeological possibilities of New Mexico are immense and that “a pottery jar as fine as any in Crete can be had for the digging” (579), preempting by a couple of years Fr. Duchêne’s judgment that Cliff City pottery is similar or identical to “early pottery from the island of Crete” (Professor’s House 218). In 1922, Sergeant published a four-part article in Harper’s titled “The Journal of a Mud House” about the renovation of an adobe house in Tesuque, where she lived while working in New Mexico. It is itself a deep map reading, the stratigraphic study of topography, local culture, folkways, and economics, as well as the reflective memoir of a woman trying to establish “a room of one’s own.” Despairing of the transformation of old churches filled with santos into “neat little modern sanctuar[ies] with polished oak pews and commercial Madonnas all golden hair, pink cheeks, and blue robes” (57)—in other words, the disappearance of material traces that attest to ritual—Sergeant exclaims, “If only the Southwest could be ruled by a Roman Catholic potentate with an archaeological and aesthetic tradition!” (57). Sergeant’s article was published three years before “the idea of Death Comes for the Archbishop came to [Cather],” as Edith Lewis reports it, “in a single evening . . . essentially as she afterwards wrote it” (139).

In these early years of friendship with Cather, archaeology was hardly new to Sergeant, a major in history and political science at Bryn Mawr, where the history curriculum included a course in “The Primitive Societies of America.” While Sergeant was at Bryn Mawr, an important collection of redand black-painted Greek vases and sherds was assembled there by the director of her major department. Those artifacts may have influenced the professional choices of Sergeant’s classmate and lifelong friend, Hetty Goldman, who went on to earn a doctorate in archaeology from Radcliffe and in 1911 became the first woman to direct an excavation on mainland Greece. By the time she first met Cather, Sergeant’s cultural experience was extensive—in some ways, beyond Cather’s—and her political conscience was highly developed. She was quite sensitive to the cultural politics of European immigrants, for example, and chided Cather for her apparent apathy toward the Italian artisans of Washington Square, forced into degraded work in the garment trade (Willa Cather 36). This discernment of the “political meanings of space” is also a kind of deep map reading, which Susan Stanford Friedman identifies as a“geopolitical reading” (110). Sergeant would be likely to question whether a St. Louis beer baron like Otto Ottenburg could—or should—“own a whole canyon full of Cliff-Dweller ruins.”

Cather and Sergeant shared a frank fascination with men whom they constructed as primitives. Cather’s captivation with Julio, described in her 1912 letters to Sergeant, has been treated in detail by Sharon O’Brien and James Woodress, but it is worth noting once again that Cather describes Julio as (thrillingly) primitive and that she is very much aware of the construction. She hates to be one of those people who “rave about the beauty of untutored youths of Latin extraction” (Letters 159), she writes to Sergeant, but raves on nonetheless: “He’s never read anything but the prayer-book, so he has no stale ideas—not many ideas at all, indeed” (158; emphasis in original). She sees the historical past in him: “[H]e has the long strong upper lip that is so conspicuous in the Aztec sculpture” (159). The very next year, Sergeant matched Cather’s Aztec with her Fauve, “the wild man from a Provençal vineyard . . . le sauvage, as his mother called him” (Willa Cather 114). Both women are intrigued by men whose cultural past is so clearly discernible in the present, as Fred was by his imagined tribal Thea. Torgovnick states that “the idiom ‘going primitive’ is in fact congruent in many ways to the idiom ‘getting physical’” (228), and indeed, Sergeant’s stories of the Fauve, according to her memoir, lead the two women to banter about marrying these men and to a conversation about the incompatibility of marriage and children with the life of the artist.

Two friends, cartographers of considerable depth, their heads bent over the map of a beloved place: it’s a lovely image. But it is also instructive. “A ‘wonder’ that has only a geological history can be interesting for only a limited space of time,” Cather wrote to Sergeant from the Grand Canyon in 1912 (Letters 157–58). And so, from a land that at first glance appeared “unstoried” (as her friend Robert Frost would call it), Cather created and re-created inhabitants, artifacts, rituals; she recovered its history and re-placed it in the history of a girl like herself, an “orphan soul trying to find its kin somewhere in the universe” (“Joseph” 97). The nexus of geology and history, space and time, continued to resonate in her fiction, in the juxtapositions and interpenetrations of European and American culture in One of Ours (1922), The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931). The Song of the Lark (1915) may be its most intense expression, however: the historic past of the ancient potters welling up into the personal present of the twentieth-century opera singer to create “life itself” (273).


Babcock, Barbara A. “‘A New Mexican Rebecca’: Imaging Pueblo Women.” Journal of the Southwest 32 (1990): 400–437. Print.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. John J. Murphy and Charles W. Mignon. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. Print.
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