About a year ago, while helping one of my grandsons with a college English assignment, I rediscovered Wallace Stevens’s 1942 poem “Of Modern Poetry” and was surprised how applicable it is to the Cather canon, a body of work distinguished by the task of constructing a new stage during an age when the set script used by many generations of poets had become what Stevens refers to as “a souvenir” (line 6).“[T]he problem of modern life and art was for Cather, as it was for Wallace Stevens,” observes Tom Quirk,“finding ‘what will suffice’” (155). Her project is a response of sorts to this task; it is an agenda of renewal, but one not quite so stark about the break with tradition. To her, such renewal projects had always been the task of the artist, not something peculiar to modernism, and she refers to Leonardo, Velásquez, and Shakespeare to defend her own modernism. In conﬂating the roles of poet, playwright, actor, and musician, Stevens too relies upon the art of the past to “face” a modern audience and speak words deeply subjective, deeply individual; his poem, then, becomes an “act of finding / What will suffice” (1–2), which might merely be that “of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing” (27–28). This process becomes what Cather refers to as “a game . . . of re-production, very exciting and delightful to people who have an ear . . . or eye for it” (On Writing 125). In his recent review of Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute, Martin Riker explains that some books are “in a category all their own, in one sense new, and in another sense old, as if to remind us that this thing called literature is much larger than our own little moment” (11). Willa Cather clearly understood this.
A few months after rediscovering the Stevens, I made a first-time discovery of a 2010 painting by Warren Prosperi in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, quietly tucked away in a gallery of nineteenth-century romantic American landscape paintings and imitations of classical statues by Hiram Powers, William Wetmore Story, and others, the kind of work Cather has Lyon Hartwell describe in “The Namesake” as “those ingenuous marble things at the Metropolitan” by the “first fellows who . . . went to Italy for ‘Art,’ . . . to lift from its native bough the willing iridescent bird” (140). Prosperi depicts a young girl being coached by her mother and gazing up at Randolph Rogers’s statue Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii (1856), who is bent forward in the act of listening. Prosperi includes in the background several 2010 museum visitors variously absorbed in other works in the gallery collection: among the sculptures, Story’s Sappho (1863) and Powers’s Faith (ca. 1871), and, among the paintings, Thomas Cole’s An Italian Autumn (1844), Washington Allston’s Elijah in the Desert (1818), and, in an adjacent gallery, a glimpse of a 1904 John Singer Sargent portrait and his sketches for a mural of Adam and an angel. What the young girl would be able to see surrounding Nydia are Story’s Bacchus (1863) and Venus Anadyomene (1864), William Morris Hunt’s large painting Niagara (1879), other Niagara scenes by Jasper Cropsey, Albert Bierstadt, and John Kensett, as well as the latter’s Trenton Falls, N.Y. (1853) and Bash-Bish Falls, Massachusetts (1855)—it’s as if the Blind Girl of Pompeii is listening to the sounds of falling water. Within view on the left are scenes of Italy by George Inness, Henry Newman, and Sanford Gifford. I should also note what surrounds Prosperi’s 2010 painting: a New Jersey landscape by Inness, a French one by Joseph Cole, a French harbor scene by Frank Boggs, a Barbizon one by William Morris Hunt, and Massachusetts sand dunes by William Picknell. American connections between the Old World and the New World seem to have inspired the entire gallery arrangement.
My present task in connecting Stevens’s poem and Prosperi’s painting to each other and to Cather is similar to the challenge we face in connecting apparently disparate modernist segments of Cather texts: the Russian wolf story in My Ántonia (1918), “The Legend of Fray Baltazar” in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), “Tom Outland’s Story” to the other books of The Professor’s House (1925). Prosperi has titled his painting Museum Epiphany III; his young girl is experiencing a ﬂash of recognition, an intuitive insight via art objects, something analogous to what Haruki Murakami has one of his characters describe as “an experience—like a chemical reaction—that transforms something inside us. When . . . the world’s opened up in unexpected ways” (Kafka on the Shore 379). Such experiences are common in fiction, and usually associated with James Joyce. However, every Cather novel is constructed around epiphanic moments typically occurring within natural settings of prairie, canyon, rock, or mesa, and having about them something analogous to what Gretel Ehrlich describes as the Japanese aesthetic of wa and shunyata, of unity framed by impermanence (12). Every few years scholars gather at various “sites” that inspired Cather, many presuming locale as the major inspiration of her fiction, whereas the museum must claim an equal share. Cather prairies, canyons, rocks, and mesas are not creations inspired by nature alone but by works of art in stone, paint, words, music, and by cultural history. If, according to Stevens, the script had to be reset “to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time” (8–9), according to Cather it would include selections informed by tradition, from a “past [that] was a souvenir” (6) and refashioned for a contemporary audience, “finding . . . satisfaction” (26) in a woman bathing, teens picnicking, a cowboy in a canyon, a girl cooking.
I have selected a single epiphany, an art-generated and timeless “moment” rescued from impermanence within natural surroundings, from each of four Cather novels: The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia, The Professor’s House, and Shadows on the Rock (1931).
The passage in The Song of the Lark where Cather’s young operatic soprano, Thea Kronborg, realizes the essence of her art has become iconic in Cather criticism, but as important is what prepares Thea for this moment and what follows it to make it timeless amid the chaos of getting on in the world. Thea’s struggles to overcome the provincialism of her small Colorado town and discover herself in Chicago make up the bulk of the novel. But, while she escapes both environments to experience her epiphany in an Arizona canyon, what she has learned in them are essential to the eternal moment that impels her success. Certainly the experience of family living and friendship are important, but my concern here is Thea’s art life: the defeat she detects in Fritz Kohler’s piece-picture of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow; her escape to the night of the ball in Anna Karenina; singing with Spanish Johnny in Mexican Town, where “[s]he felt as if all these warm-blooded people debouched into her” (258), and most of all her piano lessons with Professor Wunsch, who introduces her to the lament from Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice. In Chicago, after her piano teacher Andor Harsanyi discovers her voice and she sings Orpheus’s lament for him, her career changes course. Almost simultaneously she attends a Chicago Symphony concert and hears Dvořák’s Symphony in E Minor, From the New World, which she associates with the mountains, plains, and sand hills of the West, and music from Wagner’s Ring, “which was to ﬂow through so many years of her life” (222). Thea also begins visiting Chicago’s Art Institute, where she puzzles over the statuary and discovers Jules Breton’s The Song of the Lark, which, like the Dvořàk, evokes the American landscape.
Thea’s vacation in Arizona with her benefactor boyfriend Fred Ottenburg is a deliverance from exhaustion and discouragement. The episode represents a pause in an undefined career, a “getting back to the earliest sources of gladness” (326). Panther Canyon combines spectacular landscape with yet another cultural initiation, that of the Anasazi, the ancient people who built their dwellings within the folds of the canyon walls. Thea identifies particularly with the women who left traces of their lives in the worn water trail and of their artistic endeavor in fragments of pottery used for carrying water. As she sponges water over her body while bathing in a pool on the canyon ﬂoor, she experiences a ﬂash of insight about such endeavor that synthesizes singing and potterymaking as “an effort to make a sheath . . . to imprison for a moment the . . . elusive element which is life. . . . 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” (334–35). It is strategic that Cather returns us at this moment to the museum and, by implication, to the concert hall and Thea’s art life, which even at this stage has been enriched by the past that for Stevens had become “a souvenir.” The eternal moment of unity on the canyon ﬂoor is soon interrupted by impermanence, by the revelation that Ottenburg is married and by the return of Thea’s career difficulties.
Souvenirs of the past not only prepare but serve as models for the Cather canon’s most popular epiphany: Jim Burden and the hired girls springing to their feet before the vision of the plow against the setting sun in My Ántonia. Framed by Jim’s anger at social prejudice against these immigrant girls in the small town he is anxious to escape, and by his disappointment in Ántonia for accepting employment from the local rake, who subsequently attempts to rape her, the plow scene is the most painterly of Cather epiphanies and, unlike Thea’s, beyond verbal meaning, somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s “certain Slant of light” (Johnson #258). Set on the bluffs above the Republican River south of the prairie town of Red Cloud, where Cather lived from age nine until she left for the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, this scene and its central object, if new theater, are constructed from old script, from Virgil’s Georgics and the Bible, and mannered after the kind of landscape art copied in and surrounding Prosperi’s painting.
As a revelatory moment, the scene is complex not only in being informed by previous experiences of the narrator persona but also as an event recalled and recorded almost thirty years after its occurrence. Unlike Thea’s epiphany, created by Cather as an immediate happening, Jim’s is constructed as the stylized product of someone intimately acquainted with the arts, whose memoir is indebted to a variety of aesthetic inﬂuences subsequent to the day he and the hired girls watched the sun setting from their position on the bluff. Jim’s references to Virgil clarify this. Chagrined at his grandparents’ disapproval of the hired girl dances, he has been sitting at home with the old people at night reading Latin “and began Virgil alone” (220, 224). Some months later, he is reading The Georgics at college, citing the lines “Optima dies . . . prima fugit” from the poem’s third book (Cather 256): “Life’s earliest years for wretched mortal creatures / Are best, and ﬂy most quickly” (Virgil lines 67–68), his memoir’s epigraph. In this third book, as in the rest of the poem, Virgil celebrates the Italian landscape as a subject for poetry, and such sentiments are woven through Jim’s celebration of the local Nebraska countryside with its meandering river. If we pursue Cather’s hints, we discover that the plow component of the central image owes to very ancient scripts, indeed, to Virgil and to Isaiah.
Jim’s description specifies the parts of the magnified plow: “the disc, the handles, the tongue, the share” (237). In the opening book of The Georgics, Virgil catalogs the “weapons the hardy farmer needs” to sow and raise his crops, mentioning the “share . . . and curved plough’s heavy stock,” the “curving plough-beam,” the “bifurcated sharebeam,” and “the rearward handle” (lines 160–75). Virgil concludes this first book with a reﬂection on times of peace and war, that the farmer’s plow and hoe will someday turn up rusty spears and helmets and upturn graves, but that at present, because Caesar prefers the sword to the plow, the fields remain unkempt, and the farmer’s peacetime weapons are being forged into swords for war (493–97, 507–10). This lament echoes and reverses Isaiah’s prophecy of the prosperity of Yahweh’s new covenant:
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (2:4)The version of the Coronado story that Jim tells the hired girls plays off both ancient scripts. According to Jim, the search for the Golden Cities took the conquistador into Nebraska. A farmer to the north had turned up a Spanish sword forged in Cordova, thus adding a layer of history to the vista spread out below the picnickers.
At this point landscape painting impacts the climactic moment. Jean-François Millet and the Barbizon school, whose work Cather praised in her 1902 European travel sketches, are an obvious inﬂuence: the hired girls and Jim become visual counterparts of the harvesters she saw working in the Barbizon fields at sunset (Willa Cather in Europe 22–23, 127). More startling, perhaps, are borrowings from the Hudson River school and American luminists, landscapes by Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, John Frederick Kensett, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Edwin Church, in Jim’s description of “the curly grass . . . on fire now. The bark of the oaks . . . red as copper,” the “shimmer of gold on the brown river,” the “sandbars glitter[ing] like glass, . . . the light trembl[ing] in the willow thickets,” and, most emphatically, in the “long fingers of the sun touch[ing the] foreheads” of the girls (My Ántonia 236–37). Cather’s approximation of luminism suggests stasis—“The breeze sank to stillness” (237)—and produces super-real overtones in the magnified plow, the iconic image in this memoir of the country and conditions Jim associates with Ántonia, who shares with him the awe of this vision. Nebraska, “a kind of country [Cather] loved,” once considered “distinctly déclassé as a literary background” (On Writing 93–94), represents a new stage for fiction, yet Cather’s rendition of it is considerably fabricated from museum materials.
Like Thea’s and Jim’s epiphanies, Tom Outland’s “first night [he] was ever really on the mesa” (Professor’s House 249) is firmly anchored in locale, Cather’s 1915 visit to Mesa Verde, Colorado, where from a ﬂat rock on the canyon ﬂoor she, like Tom, “watched the long summer twilight come on, and the moon rise up over the rim of the canyon” (Lewis 97). Yet, Tom’s transforming night, which instigates an ability “to co-ordinate and simplify,” which “brought with it great happiness” and “lasted all summer” (250), also owes to his and Cather’s obsession with the past, with literature, and the fine arts. An interlude framed by Tom’s falling out with Roddy Blake and subsequent guilt, it is indebted to landscape painting tradition, to Virgil and the Bible, and to an idealization of primitive culture going back to the eighteenth century and embraced by modernists of Cather’s generation in literature, painting, and music. Father Duchene is Cather’s spokesperson for this tradition, theorizing that these Anasazi were “a superior” and “thoughtful people” who “rose . . . from the condition of savagery” to develop “the arts of peace,” to decorate pottery rivaling that of Crete, and to “purify . . . life by religious ceremonies . . . , caring respectfully for their dead, [and] protecting children” (217–19). If such notions are compromised by recent anthropological studies like Christy and Jacqueline Turner’s Man Corn (1999), which reveals a history of violence, homicide, and cannibalism, they nevertheless underlie, with the help of Virgil’s Aeneid, orphaned Tom’s epiphany.
Tom’s initial vision of Cliff City through a veil of falling snow a year and a half earlier also contributes to his transforming night on the mesa. Cather has him first view the city from the canyon ﬂoor, although explorer Dick Wetherell (her prototype for Tom) and Cather herself would have initially viewed Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace ruin from the mesa top. Tom’s vantage point emphasizes otherworldly aspects of the city: “its immortal repose,” its “calmness of eternity” and “solemnity” (200). His description is faithful to Cliff Palace ruin yet echoes biblical holy cities: it has the lofty situation of the Lord’s city in Psalm 48 (1–2), is looked upon as a city of “solemnities” and “quiet habitation,” as in Isaiah (33:20); it is “compact together” like the Jerusalem of Psalm 122 (3), held together by a tower, a common metaphor in Psalms for the Divinity (18:2, 61:3, 144:2). Such echoes prepare for Tom’s avowal that on his epiphanic night “the mesa was no was no longer an adventure [for him], but a religious emotion” (250).
The visual component of this epiphany begins early in Tom’s story and, like the plow episode in My Ántonia, is informed by landscape painting. As in the earlier novel, the inﬂuence of the Hudson River luminists is evident in Tom’s description of day breaking over the mesa, when the “top would be red with sunrise and . . . the slim cedars . . . would be gold-metallic, like tarnished gold-foil” (190), and when “the rays of sunlight fell slantingly through the little twisted piñons—the light was all in between them, . . . they fairly swam in it” (239). Of course, impressionism is detectable in Tom’s first view of Cliff City “through a veil of lightly falling snow” (199). Yet there are starker, more solid descriptions than these, bordering on the abstract and cubistic: “It [the mesa] looked . . . like a naked blue rock set down in the plain, almost square” (185). “[T]he mesa was like one great ink-black rock against a sky on fire” (191). The eclectic nature of these descriptions, which trace the progressive effect of the mesa on Tom, have the earmarks of paintings by Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), whose journey from and to realism through expressionism and abstraction produced dramatic landscapes of New Mexico (which Cather perhaps saw) and later of Maine, particularly of Mount Katahdin under different weather conditions. Barbara Haskell’s comments on these mountain “portraits” are easily applicable to Tom’s. The “Katahdin scenes were given strong . . . colors and clean outlines. . . . Hartley simplified form into large shapes delineated by discreet areas of color. . . . [H]e was more intent on imbuing [them] with a sense of the solemn, religious grandeur he felt the mountains embodied, than with faithfully describing their external appearance” (118). I am not arguing that Hartley inﬂuenced Cather but that common aesthetic movements inﬂuenced both contemporaries. Haskell’s commentary provides a context for the chemical reaction within Tom that “made it possible for [him] to co-ordinate and simplify,. . . brought with it great happiness[,] . . . was possession, . . . [and] a religious emotion” (250).
The “filial piety” (250) Tom feels for the mesa is identified through his readings in the Latin poets, particularly Virgil’s Aeneid, the text now interwoven with Tom’s memories of the place: “When I look into the Aeneid now, I can always see two pictures: the one on the page, and another behind that: blue and purple rocks and yellow-green piñons with ﬂat tops, little clustered houses clinging together for protection, a rude tower rising in their midst” (252).
Because of the tower reference, James Woodress and Kari Ronning suggest in the Scholarly Edition of the novel (380) that Tom might have in mind a passage from book 6 of Virgil’s poem, and a closer look indicates that perhaps Tom’s guilt at failing to follow his instinct “to reach out and detain” Roddy Blake (247) is implied in this passage. Aeneas is at a crossroads: to his right is the way to Elysium; to his left, a city under a cliff with an iron tower rising from its midst, a place of punishment for souls who “put off atonements in the world / . . . / Until too late, until the hour of death” (765–67). Tom Outland’s epiphany, which like Jim’s is recalled years later, has become inseparable from guilt. Forgetful of Blake, yet “frightened by [his] own heartlessness” (251) during the summer that was his “high tide” (250), he concludes his story with this prophecy: “Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I’ll be called to account when I least expect it” (252–53).
Tom’s complex epiphany, which Cather made the expansive central movement of the “academic sonata” she claimed her novel was “akin to” (On Writing 31), is inextricable from its natural setting and so much more: a collection of history, classical texts, cultural theory, fine arts.
In Shadows on the Rock, Cather mined the past directly, using Francis Parkman’s histories of New France, The Jesuit Relations, the Mémoires of Louis de Rouvroy (duc de Saint-Simon), and many other sources to set a story in 1690s Quebec. Geographical locale is as important in this novel as in “Tom Outland’s Story,” for Cather’s Quebec maintains the features that Parkman has Jacques Cartier behold in the mid-sixteenth century: “A mighty promontory . . . thrust[ing] its scarped front into the surging current” of the St. Lawrence. On this rock apothecary Auclair’s daughter, Cécile, experiences an epiphany intricately connected to what Parkman describes as the “stern poetry of the wilderness” (1: 157). This French outpost’s vulnerability to wilderness chaos and boreal cold, English and Native enemies, and political cross-purposes intensifies the indispensability of the religious and domestic rituals at the heart of Cécile’s revelation. Working on this book during the moral and social upheavals of the late 1920s, Cather would have been particularly sympathetic to the uneasiness of her Quebecers and assembled a rich collection of decorative arts and useful objects to sustain the security of the daily routines and values of living.
The complementary nature of religious and domestic activities in a text celebrating “shelter[ing] . . . and tend[ing]” “a kind of French culture” rather than “Indian raids or the wild life in the forests” (On Writing 16) is proposed in two passages that invite juxtaposition. One concerns the religious sisters, who maintain cheerfulness in exile from France because they occupy “their accustomed place in the world of the mind,” a “well-ordered universe” of earth and heavens held together by God “for a great purpose” (Shadows 115). The other passage concerns the physical effort underlying this “world of the mind.” During the last months of her life, dying Madame Auclair instructs her daughter in the difficult work of maintaining a household and preparing healthy meals for her father. She warns her daughter of the fatigue of these tasks but stresses their importance and quintessence, that they define “our way”: “your father’s whole happiness,” she says, “depends on order and regularity. . . . Without order our lives would be disgusting. . . . At home, in France, we have learned to do all these things in the best way, and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe” (31–32). The two kinds of order, religious and domestic, are bridged in a later passage, where Cécile lies in bed on a winter morning, hears the cathedral bell, and pictures old Bishop Laval pulling at the end of the bell-rope and then carrying holy water from his kitchen stove to the faithful coming to early mass. She felt “a peculiar sense of security” from this image: “The punctual bell and the stem old Bishop who rang it began an orderly procession of activities and held life together on the rock, though the winds lashed it and the billows of snow drove over it” (124–25).
Laval’s bowl of holy water is one of many objects giving palpability to this novel’s concepts of cultural order. The apothecary’s round walnut table set with its white cloth, silver candlesticks, decanters, and soup tureen are the first such objects mentioned, for they maintain the dining routine that “Auclair regarded as the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman” (23). The salon behind the cabinets of the apothecary shop contains the treasured furnishings that duplicate life in Paris: a carpet from Lyon, a red upholstered sofa, cotton-velvet curtains, a china shepherd boy, and colored prints of pastoral scenes. These domestic items judiciously reﬂect the efforts of Louis XIV to develop fabrics like those of India, Asian-like porcelain, and fine walnut furniture to be touchstones for the rest of Europe. However, they are much more than the sum of their parts: “though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver,” Auclair’s house “was really made of very fine qualities in two women: the mother’s unswerving fidelity to certain traditions, and the daughter’s loyalty to her mother’s wish,” which is why “the townspeople were glad of any excuse to stop at the apothecary shop” (33).
The process of the mother’s wish becoming her daughter’s wish is concluded in Cécile’s epiphany and expands the definition of vocation into the domestic realm. When Cécile accompanies her father to the Hôtel Dieu to attend to Mother Juschereau and asks to be told the story of the mystical Catherine de Saint-Augustin, who preceded Juschereau as superior of the hospital, but begs off its moral, Mother concludes that Cécile “has certainly no vocation” (49), a term used exclusively in this context as a call to convent life or the seminary. Cather presents almost grotesque examples of this narrow view of vocation in Jesuit martyr Noël Chabanel, who violated his natural talents to live among the Natives, and recluse Jeanne Le Ber, who entombed herself in a chapel to become like a sanctuary lamp. Cécile’s epiphany is placed subsequent to these portraits, and its catalyst, her excursion to the Isle of Orleans, immediately follows our final glimpse of the recluse.
During her visit to the island, Cécile samples the collapse of domestic order in the Harnois household: the food is cooked in grease, the rooms hot and close, the linens soiled; the family’s little girls go to bed with mud-splashed legs. She sits up through the night listening to the snores of the family and thinking about her mother, how she “had always made everything at home beautiful just as here everything about cooking, eating, sleeping, living, seemed repulsive” (221). To highlight this human disorder, Cather frames this night scene in impressionistic daylight idylls of island ﬂora: “The daisies were drifted like snow in the tall meadow grass, and all the marshy hollows were thatched over with buttercups . . . that . . . seemed as if they must all have been born that morning” (218). Cécile falls asleep under a harp-shaped elm amid tall sweetsmelling grass, through which the daisies “looked like white ﬂowers seen through driving grey-green rain” (222). The description corresponds to an earlier “museum” one during Cécile’s visit to Count Frontenac’s chateau, where she studies the milleﬂeurs tapestries from France, trying to distinguish the ﬂowers and figures.
During her voyage back home, Quebec’s rock with its spires and steep-roofed buildings sparkles in the sunlight as an oasis of orderly life. Cécile wants to kiss the ground on her arrival as had Sister Catherine de Saint-Augustin. Here Cather conﬂates the two vocations and then reprises the practical and decorative objects that fill her text, sustain order, and beautify life. Cécile thinks that although the poor Harnois “had kind ways, . . . that was not enough; one had to have kind things about one too” (227). This is a reminder of the Auclair living room, of Frontenac’s tapestries, of the glass fruit that reminded him of the South and threw colored reﬂections on the walls. Back in her kitchen Cécile realizes that she carefully performs her tasks not so much to please her father or carry out her mother’s wishes, but for herself. Her coppers and brushes and brooms were tools, like the cobbler’s tools that had fascinated her, and with them “[o]ne made . . . a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special ﬂavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life” (227). There’s an obvious echo here of the first epiphany I considered. Thea Kronborg realized that her voice, like the Indian women’s pottery, held life, if only momentarily. It is interesting to juxtapose the two passages; it reveals much about Cather’s progress and the relationship of life, art, and religion.
In a recent essay, Richard Millington makes a case for what he calls Cather’s “‘other’ modernism.” “The key moments in a Cather text,” he writes, “are more likely to be acts of heightened or illuminated witnessing—a scene that etches itself into the mind, the observation of a particular quality of light, the accruing apprehension of a meaning as it is gathered up by an object or a ritual—rather than climactic life events like the marriage or romance plots dear to traditional fiction” (54). Cather’s epiphanies are such “key moments” and distinguish her fiction. Many, if not all of them, owe significantly to the museum.