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From Cather Studies Volume 11

The Compatibility of Art and Religion for Willa Cather: From the Beginning

The touchstone for this essay is Godfrey St. Peter’s statement to his students in The Professor’s House (1925) that “Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had” (69). The Professor asserts that art and religion are compatible, that they are—or at least have the potential to be—equal and complementary forces for finding meaning in life. Many readers and critics believe this linking of religion and art expresses not only Godfrey St. Peter’s thinking but also that of Willa Cather, who said almost the same thing without the filter of fiction in a 1936 letter published in Commonweal: “Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin” (“Escapism” 27). Moreover, this position is commonly assumed to represent a shift in Cather’s thinking and writing away from a view of religion as mostly antagonistic to art, a view represented in her pre-1925 fictional portrayals of the crazed Free Gospel preacher Asa Skinner in “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” the insipidly pious Brother Weldon in One of Ours, the petty rivalry between Methodists and Baptists in The Song of the Lark, the art-killing Baptists of My Ántonia, the boring and conformist Cumberland Presbyterians so loathed by Paul in “Paul’s Case”; a full list would be long indeed. Cather’s “new” view, many believe, came to its fullest expression with the publication of her most overtly religious books, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. This critical position also draws support from the 1922 confirmation service in which she joined the Episcopal Church, often seen as a reaction to modernism and its accompanying societal and cultural shifts and to various physical and family challenges; presumably she turned to religion for comfort and meaning as part of a broad retreat into the past and its traditions. *

I do not seek to debunk completely such a view of Cather—of course she changed and responded to life, and these responses are reflected in her fiction. I will argue here, however, that Cather worked out much of the tension between religion and art long before the 1920s. Her early writing, primarily journalism, reveals that during the 1890s she had already discovered the power of both religion and art, and concluded that they could, in fact, be compatible. Cather never banished aesthetically rich religion from the kingdom of art; rather, it held a privileged seat from the start. Some religion was simply ugly, and indeed Cather had no patience for it and did not hesitate to expose it. But for the discriminating Willa Cather this distinction was true of all forms of expression by which humans sought entry into the kingdom of art: good poetry, music, paintings, architecture, and books were welcomed, while those that were base and distasteful were turned away.

I preface my analysis of religion in Cather’s early journalism with the comment that I am not particularly concerned with matters of belief in traditional doctrinal or theological ways. Belief is a prickly thing (that is true of political beliefs as well as religious beliefs) for which public practices and statements offer only limited evidence. We know very little of Cather’s private conversations about religion, and our knowledge of her practices is incomplete. We know that she was born into a practicing Baptist family, had a deep familiarity with the Bible, later joined the Episcopal Church, and attended—at least occasionally—religious services of various denominations. For many years she gave money to Grace Episcopal Church in Red Cloud, and at times she gave (and received) books and other items with religious meaning to family and friends. She read books that would commonly be labeled religious, and she counted ordained ministers among her friends. Such matters are important, but they tell us little about her specific beliefs. We know, for example, that she requested an Episcopal burial rite, but we do not know what she believed about life after death. I find no evidence that Cather experienced religious angst, that she had—or ever sought—a conversion experience, that she struggled significantly with religious principles. She does not seem to have cared much about notions of a Trinitarian God or apostolic succession or transubstantiation. When she writes of the Nicene Creed, as she did to her niece Helen on Easter Sunday 1940, it is to express admiration for its “beautiful prose” and “majesty,” not for its statements of belief (Letters 582). Despite the title of her short story “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” she seems more interested in saving Eric’s art than in saving his soul. Certainly there is much evidence that she believed in transcendence, forgiveness, selfless servanthood, the beauty of creation, miracles, redemption, and the warmth of a faith community. Such ideas are often religious, but they can also be broadly spiritual, even broadly human. To Cather, Orpheus, Nature, Truth—and more—could be divine.

From the cradle, the Judeo-Christian heritage—and its presence in daily life—was part of Willa Cather’s experience. In the 1930s, Cather recalled the religious legacy of her youth in a commentary on Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and she noted the expression of that inheritance through language:

The Bible countries along the Mediterranean shore were very familiar to most of us in our childhood. Whether we were born in New Hampshire or Virginia or California, Palestine lay behind us. We took it in unconsciously and unthinkingly perhaps, but we could not escape it. It was all about us, in the pictures on the walls, in the songs we sang in Sunday school, in the “opening exercises” at day school, in the talk of the old people, wherever we lived. And it was in our language—fixedly, indelibly. The effect of the King James translation of the Bible upon English prose has been repeated down through the generations, leaving its mark on the minds of all children who had any but the most sluggish emotional nature. (Not Under Forty 101–2)
Cather’s allusion to her childhood confirms that traditional religion was always a prominent part of her life and writing, beginning with her earliest public and professional pieces, which reveal how she used and understood the language of religion. Perhaps this religious heritage is why she spent little time in faithsearching. Bernice Slote notes that religious books, specifically the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, are a “constant, insistent, pervasive” presence in Cather’s writing, but that in her early journalism “[s]he did not need to contrive the [religious] metaphor and its extension, nor (at this time, at least) did she think to examine it logically, to correct roughnesses and omissions and even contradictions. This was simply the way one talked” (35). What Cather did with this heritage is remarkable. As this paper will demonstrate, in a few short years in the 1890s she rapidly moved from a crude and exaggerated use of religious phrases that amounted to little more than mimicking cultural traditions to a sophisticated application of religious vocabulary, metaphor, and symbol. In integrating religion into her aesthetic credo, she made the inherited tradition new and claimed it for herself—and for art. She at times questioned, abandoned, and rejected religious dogma and zealotry, but she never let go of a commitment that religion could serve art and art could serve religion.

In an 1890 column on high school happenings for the Red Cloud Republican (she was sixteen years old), Cather reported on the vivisection of a dog by the zoology class, raising the dog’s status from stray to soldier in “the immortal army of the martyrs” (“High School” 2). * This claim of martyrdom for the dog suggests a puckish awareness of the rhetorical possibilities of religious words, but there is no suggestion in the article that the idea of martyrdom and the communion of saints had any significant meaning for her. Cather’s religious rhetoric also appears in a gossipy letter written in 1889 to Mrs. Louise Stowell, a family friend who had recently moved away from Red Cloud. Cather refers to the students of a local piano instructor as “disciples” who “burn strange fire apon the alter of the Gods in these dgenerite days” (Letters 9–10, original spelling retained). Commenting on the possibility of a trip to Omaha to hear pianist Anton Rubinstein, she casts herself as “a pilgrim [going] to worship in a far country.” In these juvenile writings Cather demonstrates a playful acceptance of her religious inheritance and that the Bible left its mark, fixed indelibly in her language. Neither her language nor her ideas, however, are yet linked to art. Cather is practicing, observing, and imitating, but there are few signs that she is discriminating between the artistic and the profane.

One of the earliest signs of a more mature approach to religious language—and, eventually, religion more broadly—is the high school commencement speech she gave in June 1890, which was also printed in the Red Cloud Chief under the title “Superstition vs. Investigation.” True to her habit, Cather uses religiously tinged words: “exodus,” “pilgrimage,” “worship,” “reverence,” and more. Here, however, she complicates the matter by going beyond word choices to using religious references for clarification and meaning; for example, she follows the word “superstition” with the appositive “the stern Pharoah [sic] of his former bondage,” thus emphasizing the cruelty of superstition and adroitly capturing its prisonlike effect on people while also establishing it as the thing that held back the heroic Moses (“Superstition” 141). In an allusion to the Garden of Eden, she demonstrates a broad, symbolic interpretation of the fruit of the tree of knowledge rather than the narrow, literal understanding we might expect from a nineteenth-century Baptist: “It is the most sacred right of man to investigate; we paid dearly for it in Eden; we have been shedding our heart’s blood for it ever since. It is ours; we have bought it with a price” (142). In her speech Cather collapses distinctions between science and religion by blending powerful allusions to the Bible with equally strong references to atoms, the discovery of the circulation of blood, and Newtonian theories about matter. While the speech has science as its foundation, signs of artistic understanding and advocacy come through in Cather’s acknowledgment of the enticement of “prob[ing] into the mysteries of the unknowable” and in her presentation of “fact and fancy” as equals (143). In addition, she recognizes that the imagination is even more powerful than science: “Microscopic eyes have followed matter to the molecule and fallen blinded. Imagination has gone a step farther and grasped the atom” (143). The commencement speech reveals a young woman strengthening her understanding of the capacity of religion to be an evocative force in people’s minds, stronger even than the scientific method she celebrates. She also shows an ability to stretch religion without losing it: “There is another book of God than that of the scriptural revelation, a book written in chapters of creation upon the pages of the universe bound by mystery” (142). At the same time, she holds no tolerance for religion that blindly relies on superstition, seeks to limit imagination, or takes a dull, limiting view of creation. Now, Cather is ready to strengthen further her artistic credo at the University of Nebraska.

During her college years in Lincoln—1890 to 1895—Cather became increasingly aware of the power of religious expression as she began to work with her religious inheritance, gradually personalizing the ideas and traditions behind the rhetoric. After getting beyond the wordplay, she found in religious tradition something deeply sympathetic with her attitudes about art, and she set about the task of articulating that sympathy. Undoubtedly, the intellectual excitement of the university, the availability of diverse religious experiences, an increasing affinity for romanticism, and the usual process of maturation all combined to stimulate her to an examination of religion and how it fit her emerging creed of art.

At least two of Cather’s early college essays survive; both were written for class in 1891 and then published in the Nebraska State Journal.[3] They reveal that already she was finding her vocation. In the first of them, an essay on Thomas Carlyle, Cather still sometimes wrote in an overblown style—years later, in 1927, she wrote to Will Owen Jones, her old managing editor at the Journal, remembering this essay with its “very florid” style,“full of high-flown figures of speech” (Letters 391). The essay is memorable, however, not for its style but because it reveals that Cather had found in Carlyle her own sort of hero, someone whose life and ideas were compatible with her emerging beliefs, someone who had wrestled, as she was wrestling, with the tensions between art and religion. She praised “the strength of his great heart,” his “love and sympathy for humanity,” and his “soul sincere as truth itself.” This essay, about a man she saw as a kindred spirit, gave her a forum for working through some of those tensions, for exploring how religion gets translated into the life of an artist.

Cather learned from Carlyle that it is possible to hold a passionate reverence for creation yet remain free of the narrowness that she often saw accompany religion. Noting a difference between reverence and creeds, she celebrates Carlyle as a model for freeing the divinity of creation from the strictures of religious creeds: “Carlyle’s was one of the most intensely reverent natures of which there is any knowledge. He saw the divine in everything. His every act was a form of worship, yet . . . [h]e was too passionately, too intensely religious to confine himself to any one creed” (Kingdom 423). In this essay Cather acknowledges Christianity while inserting it into a larger tradition of sacredness, including references to Valhalla, Buddha, the trees worshipped by Druids, and the pious Anchorites of ancient Thebes. Religion does not have to be a tool of public opinion misused by journalists and politicians. Cather praises Carlyle because “[h]e never strove to please a pampered public” while she condemns “the desperate efforts of modern writers” to respond to the “variation[s] of public taste” (424). Struggling to reconcile the conflict between the fundamentalism she observed in daily life and the sacredness she found in literary and artistic traditions, Cather perceived in Carlyle an indication that religion can be integrated with art.

Sacrifices (the word “sacrifice” shares linguistic origins with “sacred”) also come with the artistic life, and in the Carlyle essay Cather uses the context of religion to discuss them: “Art of every kind is an exacting master, more so even than Jehovah. He says only, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ Art, science and letters cry, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods at all.’ They accept only human sacrifices” (423). Cather articulates the cost to Carlyle of serving his art: an unhappy marriage, poor health, lonely solitude, and battles with his publishers. This essay shows that she was increasingly turning to religion, not as an expression of her Baptist traditions, not because of any sympathy with the culture of evangelism, and certainly not as some sure path to happiness, but as a way of working out her ideas about art. When Cather writes that “[Carlyle] saw the divine in everything,” the phrase is more than a sweeping generality, because she has communicated her emerging belief that divinity is manifested in the artistic life and her awareness of the accompanying joys and sorrows.

In her second 1891 essay, “Shakespeare and Hamlet,” Cather demonstrates her continued interest in the power of religious metaphors, writing about heaven, blood, the virgin’s face, and altar lights, along with quoting from the Bible several times. More significantly, however, she furthers her exploration of the connection between art and religion, here moving beyond Jehovah/God to find similarities between artists and Moses (prophet) and Jesus (teacher). She uses the example of Moses to assign a religious motive to a call for artists to separate themselves from worldly concerns: “It was only after Moses had left all the luxury, the learning, and the culture of the Egyptian court, and had fled into [the] Midian desert and dreamed for years in the sand hills, that the bush burned before him and was not consumed” (Kingdom 435). Cather finds a similar exemplar in Jesus, whom she evokes as a teacher when she directs “literary men” to do as Shakespeare did and follow Jesus’s command to “take all [that you have] and sell it and give unto the poor. Give all, and follow me out into the desert and the waste places, and over the rugged mountain sides, and among the publicans and sinners, and over to Calvary” (435). In this essay Cather assigns to the artist the role of the disciple who sacrifices everything to follow his god; indeed, she has Shakespeare join the disciples: “‘Will of Avon’ . . . went out into the wilderness with the fishermen” (435). She changes the metaphor, however, when she identifies Shakespeare as much with Jesus as with the disciples: he “anxiously calls upon his God, but it responds no more,” thus suggesting the dying Christ crying out, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46). Cather has engaged a variety of traditions—the artist as ascetic, teacher, leader, prophet, servant—comparing them, working with them, trying them out as she struggles to establish her own artistic principles. Such an engagement foreshadows the variety of religious forms of expression that will occur in her fiction; in particular, this Shakespeare essay offers an early look at Cather’s use of the Christ metaphor for the artist (among several examples from her fiction are Jack-a-Boy and Anton Rosicky). To Cather the comparison is complex; she does not mention Christ in the powerful role of savior, specifying instead his servanthood, his destiny to be ignored and misunderstood, his suffering. Still, she celebrates the sacredness of his mission and his supreme capacity to love, thus making the comparison between Christ and artist a useful anchor for the religious aspects of the kingdom of art.

Starting in November 1893 Cather’s reviews and columns regularly appeared in the Nebraska State Journal; they reveal that this was a period of continued experimentation and struggle to clarify her artistic vision and to find the most effective voice for that vision. Cather had plenty of journalistic models for appropriating the words of religion for mundane situations. Red Cloud newspapers were emblematic of the routine, if often crude, application of religious vocabulary that Cather imitated. The Republican, a paper Cather wrote for and which her father helped found, commented about a rival editor that he “had the misfortune, however, in his journey on the Jericho road to fall among thieves and no good Samaritan has as yet appeared to rescue him” (“Report” 1). (While the paper uses “Jericho” for its religiously allusive quality, south-central Nebraska really does have a Hebron and a Gilead, both within sixty miles of Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud.) Large-city newspapers, readily available in Red Cloud, were no different in their use of explicit and pretentious religious language: after the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan for Congress in 1890, a Lincoln paper editorialized that Bryan “had been offered as a sacrifice upon the party altar” (qtd. in Werner 25). The influence of such reporting, regular syndicated features like the Republican’s two-column Sunday school lesson, and extensive local coverage of church ice cream socials, visiting preachers, and church entertainments permeates Cather’s own early journalism. Imitating the popular press, her choices of topics and her language are heavily tinged with religious overtones.

Cather also had to work through the journalism profession’s antipathy to women journalists and its stereotyped views of women readers. Few women were in the profession, and these few typically wrote about religion, children, and “society news” rather than topics like railroad regulation, labor laws, or politics, which were the province of male reporters. Furthermore, as journalism historian Eileen M. Wirth notes, male reporters “used flowery language to pay deference to respected women but [denied] their individuality and full humanity” (24). Wirth provides an example from 1888 of a story—respectful on the surface—of an Omaha pioneer: “For thirty years she has been a guardian angel in Omaha gliding here and there” (25). Even a popular (and prolific) woman journalist like Elia Peattie of the Omaha Evening World-Herald got headlines like “Salvation Lasses at Home: Mrs. Peattie Writes of the Blue-Frocked Sisterhood of the Lord” (Wirth 22). It is not surprising that Cather, like other aspiring female journalists, at first followed the unwritten rules but struggled to take religious ideas and language seriously and to follow prescribed gender roles; what is startling is that such a young, inexperienced writer settled so quickly on a philosophy of art and religion that would characterize her writing. Journalism became her laboratory, the site where she applied to art the principles of experimentation she had advocated so fiercely in her commencement address for science. Wirth observes, “Cather came of age when the literary world was torn between realism and sentimentalism, and she experimented with both styles as a student at the University of Nebraska” (34). Typically, Cather rejected both styles, breaking down the binary distinction between them for a unique, sophisticated appreciation of ambiguity.

For her earliest columns Cather wrote vignettes or sketches, mostly of religious scenes and personages: an earnest minister preaching in a fully appointed church on the brotherhood of man is juxtaposed against the quiet sincerity of a prison chaplain; other sketches present a Salvation Army tent, Christmas at a Negro church, and a magnificent crucifix. Cather had learned that religious subjects are appropriate for public writing, especially by women. She demonstrates her familiarity with the most popular and common phrases of the church when she writes of “the heirs of the promise” (World and Parish 1: 6), “the light of the heavenly messenger” (8), “the brotherhood of man” (5), and “the faith of childhood” (8). Cather, however, inflects the language with judgment: sometimes she casts religion as meaningful, powerful, and beautiful, but at other times she unleashes her arrows of satire and exposes ugliness.

In her very first column, which appeared in a Sunday edition, she sets side by side a description of a grand church service, complete with hundreds of “well-dressed, well-educated” worshippers, an eloquent preacher, a magnificent pipe organ, white flowers, and brass chandeliers, and an account of a much simpler service conducted by a quiet old chaplain in a “bare, barn-like” prison chapel (World and Parish 1: 5–6). She had not yet embraced the terms “kingdom of art” and “Philistia,” but she clearly places one church service in the realm of art and banishes the other. Both ministers speak of the “brotherhood of man,” but there is no doubt that Cather finds nothing artistic beneath the trappings of the fancy church service and finds the simple service aesthetically rich. The first minister, flushed by “the pleasant knowledge that he was being appreciated,” is enthusiastic, but his hypocritical enthusiasm is for “the beauty of the women in the audience” and “his own eloquence”; he is ridiculously melodramatic as he “took a white hothouse rose from the cut glass rose bowl beside him and shook the water gently from its leaves. He laid the fleshy white petals against his nostrils with evident satisfaction, then dropped it again into the water,” all while quoting Browning. He sits down and takes a drink from a silver water pitcher, and there is no response at all from the people in front of him. In the prison chapel, on the other hand, despite the “low ceiling and grated windows,” the chaplain “is very artful in his discourse”; “artful” is a word Cather did not use to describe the other minister. Feelings and responses are more natural and honest, less staged: the man speaks “in a trembling voice” and the men “smile indulgently” and laugh, the “dreary, lifeless laughter” of prisoners. But when he is finished,“Even the darkest faces look lovingly at him and some of the younger men wipe their eyes with their hands.”

In an adjacent sketch, Cather celebrates the enthusiasm of “a heavy-featured coarse-looking man” in a Salvation Army uniform while attacking “a professor of language,” who, despite his “intellect” and the “exquisite delicacy” of his features is dead to the world and lost (World and Parish 1: 7). People, she continues, are “‘Saved’ not by knowledge, or capacity or righteousness, but by enthusiasm.” She shows no mercy for educated but lifeless people: “The finely trained minds who lose themselves in the world, the men who know all about poetry but never write a line, the men who know every date in history but never are heard of by the publishers of histories, these are all lost men, lost eternally because of their frozen souls.” Such commentary—satiric barbs for pretentious churches and dry professors, but praise for prison chapels and Salvation Army enthusiasts—takes conviction and courage in a community that is full of learned professors, takes pride in its grand churches, and wishes the needy would go quietly away.

Cather’s early journalistic pieces are, as one would expect, a mixed bag. Her writing sometimes falls into melodrama, likely indicating that she was testing the boundaries of her art. She relies on stock characters like the undertaker, the town drunk, and the Salvation Army woman singing on the street corner; such characters often seem little more than stereotypes. She can be repetitive and trite with descriptions: these sketches abound with flushed faces, trembling lips, quivering voices, and misty eyes. Emotion sometimes gets maudlin: “I am lonely . . . and I wish in some way to get near again to the only love I have ever known which was never darkened by pain or misunderstanding” (World and Parish 1: 9). At the same time, she demonstrates acute powers of observation and an amazing variety of perspectives, moving easily between being a first-person participant and a third-person observer. The range of subjects, emotions, and voices in these pieces, all written before she was twenty years old, suggests that Cather was learning to bring to the literary task the qualities of vision, flexibility, originality, and courage. She was learning—and deciding—what was art and what was not, and how to communicate the distinction.

Christmas, for example, belonged to art, for both secular and sacred reasons. Cather writes of the Christmas story as “a beautiful story, this of the holiest and purest childhood on earth, beautiful even to those who cannot understand it” (World and Parish 1: 8). She puts herself in the midst of the pleasant and bustling anticipation of Christmas: “It is not a very great while till Christmas now. One begins to feel the restlessness and secrecy in the air, and to smell the cedar and see the holly gleaming in the windows. Almost everyone I meet has a bundle and is hurrying home to hide it. The toy shops are filled with people buying things for the children they love” (9). After hearing the Christmas story in a Negro church, she writes, “After all, if we cannot hear the carol and see the heavenly messenger, it is because our ears are deaf and our eyes are blind, not that we turn willfully away from love or beauty” (8). These ideas, images, and words—worked out early—anticipate Cather’s fiction. We know the fictional echoes of several powerful Christmas passages: My Ántonia, Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes for the Archbishop, “Neighbour Rosicky,” My Mortal Enemy, the surviving fragments of her unfinished Avignon book. We hear the foreshadowing of Bishop Latour’s comment on miracles: “The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (54).

As Cather invested herself ever more fully in her vocation as an artist, and as she grew in her powers of expression, her confidence in using religious language to talk about art became more and more specific and rich with meaning, culminating in the central metaphor of her commentaries about art and culture: “the kingdom of art.” The phrase captures, in the manner of allegory, the religious power of the words used repeatedly by Jesus when he labeled the more-perfect world he championed “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven.” Cather’s most profound and strongest use of the phrase “kingdom of art” comes in a 1 March 1896 review essay on novels about Christ and the Christ period: “In the kingdom of art there is no God but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few men born of women who are strong enough to take the vows” (Kingdom 417). The kingdom of heaven promises a new order: a world built on compassion, love, forgiveness, peace; a world turned upside down with the poor gaining the most and the rich losing the most. Those early newspaper sketches, with their preference for the Salvation Army tent and prison chapel over the palatial church sanctuary, had anticipated the promise of art and the expression of that promise in a kind of allegorical inversion. Cather would repeat and refine the concept in her fiction through humble, religiously infused characters like Ántonia, Rosicky, Ivar, Jacinto, Sada, Mahailey, Ray Kennedy, Spanish Johnny, Augusta, Till, but their first expression came in her journalism of the 1890s.

The kingdom of art, like the kingdom of heaven, both requires much and gives much, and Cather made it clear that she knew both halves of the equation. She linked the demands of service in the kingdom of art with those of religious orders when she wrote that the life of Eleonora Duse spoke “of the loveliness and lovelessness and desolation of art. . . . Of the loneliness which besets all mortals who are shut up alone with God, of the gloom which is the shadow of God’s hand consecrating His elect. Truly, it is fortunate that genius is not often laid upon men, for how many are strong enough to endure its anguish? Solitude . . . is the veil and cloister which keep the priesthood of art untainted from the world” (Kingdom 153). Against the solitude and sacrifices demanded by art, Cather set art’s promise of restoration and transcendence. She thanked Joseph Jefferson for “hav[ing] given us of the living waters which brings contentment and peace” (World and Parish 2: 687). She acknowledged that the artist, in the person of the actress Clara Morris, could transcend “an awful play” with “the genius which forever evades analysis that can breathe into it a living soul and make it great” (World and Parish 1: 44). To Cather, Nellie Melba had a “voice like the archangels of heaven,” and the actress Minnie Maddern Fiske had the power to confirm that “there is a resurrection and a life” (World and Parish 1: 183, 2: 663). Cather synthesized the sacrifice and the promise of the kingdom of art, as well as its steadfastness with religious feeling, when she wrote that art was “Duse’s consecration, her religion, her martyrdom” (World and Parish 1: 207). Art and religion are becoming “the same thing.”

Religion was powerful when linked to quality art and artists, but it could be unartful as well. In October 1894, Cather commented on the church choirs of Lincoln, “The Episcopal and Congregational churches at least, perhaps others, dignify and sanctify their services with music. But there are still too many churches who profane the sanctuary with music that would not be endured from a musée band” (Kingdom 177). She broadened this local commentary to criticize the common human tendency to separate art from religion: “It is peculiar, this idea people have of everything colorless and spiritless being sacred. It is strange how we object to giving beautiful things to God” (178). She emphasizes God as creator, “this Painter, this Poet, this Musician, this gigantic Artist of all art.” Cather claims that God “never made an unlovely thing,” specifically mentioning “the nightingale’s song” and “[t]he Mediterranean at noonday” before asserting, “The world was made by an Artist, by the divinity and godhead of art” (178). Not all art was divine, however, as art made by humans could be sacred or profane. In this column Cather anticipates that when “the Master Workman selects from this world the things that are worthy to endure in the next, it is not likely that He will take Baxter’s Saints’ Rest or the Gospel Hymns, or bound volumes of the sermons of great divines”; rather, “He will probably take simply the great classics and the things which should be classics, and the paintings that will make even heaven fairer, and the great tone melodies that must make even His angels glad, and the many lives that in themselves are art” (178). Cather is anything but antagonistic to melding religion and art. Churches, and religion more broadly, should be home to art, and they should be wary of what is not art. Cather used the common nineteenth-century term Philistia, popularized by Matthew Arnold, George Santayana, and others, as the antithesis of the kingdom of art.[4] Bernice Slote notes that for Cather, “Philistia is primarily a state of mind, a human failure to choose the real thing” (171). Cather expressed her revulsion toward Philistinism in characteristically definite, uncluttered language that made the contrast to the kingdom of art clear: “In Philistia there are no standards and no gods” (Kingdom 172). For Cather, religion—its language, characters, locations, stories, events, symbols, and history—was one of the great battlefields for art. When she uses “Philistines” as a contrast to “artists,” she identifies artists with the biblical David: young, beautiful, singer of psalms, clever, chosen by God, and victorious over Goliath (literally and metaphorically). When she mocks ladies’ literary clubs, Cather alludes to Jeremiah 23:28, stating the club ladies “endure a great deal of chaff to get a very little wheat” (Kingdom 180), thus suggesting the proverbs and parables that use grain imagery to communicate the promise of a rich harvest available to those who seek it. This is similar to how the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur claims Jesus worked: Jesus’s proverbial sayings relied on “intensification, based on hyperbole and paradox” (32). Furthermore, according to Ricoeur, “In saying ‘the kingdom of God is among you,’ Jesus sets his hearers before . . . a truly tensive symbol with its power to evoke a whole set of significations” (111). Religion for Cather was one of the sites where artists and Philistines battled, but religion could also be a tool, even a weapon, to use during the battle. She wanted religion—the art-filled kind, not the artless—to win. She was an enthusiastic warrior for joining religion and art.

By the mid-1890s, early in her development as an artist, Cather had staked out her positions on religion and art. In ways that matter most, religion and art already were “the same thing”; good religion and good art worked together to stimulate enthusiasm, enrich life, and give people happiness, but bad religion and bad art were ugly, deadening, and mean-spirited. Religion that was marked by beauty, sincere emotion, and honest enthusiasm was elevated to the kingdom of art, but religion that shunned beauty for dull literalness or hypocrisy was condemned to Philistia. In a discussion that includes mention of Cather, James Wood, the Princeton professor and regular commentator on books for the New Yorker, celebrates writers who tend away from knowledge, from cleverness, from the merely known, to feeling and emotion. Wood points out that “there have always been writers great enough to move between the religious impulse and the novelistic impulse, to distinguish between them and yet, miraculously, to draw on both” (xvi). To accept that Cather was such a writer long before The Professor’s House means backing away from common critical views. One of these is that Cather’s assertion of the compatibility of art and religion in the novel reflects some sort of resolution of her angst about life, what James Woodress calls “a period of midlife crisis” (Historical Essay 291). This novel is seen as a fictional analogue to Cather’s 1936 statement in her prefatory note to Not Under Forty: “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”(v). I do not deny Cather’s troubles during the 1920s (they are well documented), nor do I deny the possibility that she became increasingly religious in response (though I find little evidence of that), but there are important contrasts in what Cather and Godfrey St. Peter thought about art and religion. Cather has already established St. Peter’s lassitude and cynicism, and his words seem dismissive, even mean-spirited, as a response to a student’s comment. Given St. Peter’s claims of ignorance about Catholicism to Augusta (claims that seem disingenuous coming from the eminent author of Spanish Adventurers in North America, for any self-respecting scholar on the Spanish adventurers surely would have known the role of the church in their lives), his “gesture of negation” toward his churchbound rival Professor Langtry (55), and his own lapsed faith, St. Peter’s statements pressing the cause of religion are highly ironic. Professor St. Peter can in this lecture recall multiple references to the Bible and religious liturgy (seven such references from this passage are explicated in the Explanatory Notes to the Scholarly Edition), including something as obscure as a Mosaic decree about cutting fingernails, yet only a few days earlier he had denied to Augusta his ability to remember All Souls’ Day and Maundy Thursday, and a few days later he expressed his ignorance of the Magnificat. Other than this lecture—which borders on pomposity, pettiness, and irony—there is little evidence that St. Peter ever had a meaningful religious experience or that religious music, art, or literature had been important to him (an exception is his recall of Brahms’s Requiem [258]). Coming from St. Peter, words proclaiming the harmony of art and religion lack the depth of lived experience, but that is not the case when Cather makes the same proclamation, repeatedly and indirectly in her writing and explicitly in 1936. The Professor’s House is rich with what Woodress labels “autobiographical similarities” and “obvious correspondences” between Cather and her professor (Willa Cather 369), but too easily accepting the similarities diminishes Cather’s artistry and masks some of the novel’s cynicism and ambiguity.[5]

Several critics have seen The Professor’s House as a lead-up to Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, novels frequently (and appropriately) held up as paragons of religious artistry. John J. Murphy comments that “Godfrey St. Peter’s classroom response to a student . . . anticipates the worldview Cather adopted for the Archbishop” (Historical Essay 348). Mildred Bennett articulates Cather’s presumed worldview in her novels prior to the mid-1920s with labels like “bull-headed,” “mean-tempered,” “gossipy,” and “nosey” to describe religious people in Cather’s earlier fiction (7) but also labels Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock as “definitely Catholic” (9). Bruce P. Baker contrasts Cather’s satirical barbs directed toward the “sterile, narrow, provincial world . . . of evangelical Protestantism” (21) in “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” The Song of the Lark, and One of Ours with the “true faith, real compassion, and honest devotion” of Jean Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop (25). Certainly such commentaries offer useful insights, but they reinforce the misconceived idea that Cather had been indifferent or negative most of her life before turning positively to religion and expressing her new faith in religiously powerful novels. Janis Stout disparagingly sums up the common view: “. . . as if somewhere between the writing of a book published in 1926 and one published in 1927 she had turned a corner and seen brighter skies” (Willa Cather 221). The reality, I believe, is much more complicated in both her life and her fiction. It is a mistake to peg our reading of The Professor’s House too strongly to our awareness of what came afterward. For Cather religion and art were complex subjects, not easily placed on one side of a dividing line or the other. We limit our ability to receive the power of Cather’s writing when we say “This book is religious, but this one is not” or “Here she is irreverent, but here she is pious.” Cather did not shy away from expressing strong opinions, but as a modernist she also knew (and celebrated) ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery. In this essay I have concentrated on Cather’s early journalism and correspondence, but I have argued elsewhere for meaningful and positive religious aspects to her early novels, which are often viewed as critical of religion.[6]

Undergirding the midlife crisis/turn to religion critical position is Cather’s December 1922 confirmation into the Episcopal Church, a rite held at Red Cloud’s Grace Church. Several critics have emphasized the significance of this event. E. K. Brown considers it part of a major self-assessment Cather underwent at the time: “The seriousness with which she was examining the world and herself in 1922 appears more sharply in an act than in anything she said. On December 27, in the company of her parents, she was confirmed in the Episcopal Church” (227). James Woodress labels the confirmation service “an important event” (Willa Cather 331), and Ann Fisher-Wirth considers the confirmation “a reflection both of Cather’s increasing conservatism—her increasing desire to fill her life with tradition and ritual—and of her intensifying spiritual longing for a haven, a sanctuary, something to set against what she was coming to see as the tragedy of human experience: the cruelty, anguish, and bleakness of life and love in the world” (37). John J. Murphy has labeled the confirmation a “conversion” (“Cather’s New World” 22), and Sharon O’Brien writes that by joining the Episcopal Church Cather “redefined her Baptist heritage” (226). Cather herself threw fuel on the fire in that prefatory note to Not Under Forty (1936) that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” (v).

All of this gives too much importance to the event. The confirmation service formalized a long-standing relationship; from at least 1906, when Elsie Cather was baptized, all significant Cather family religious occasions were in Grace Episcopal Church (Bohlke 292–93). Cather’s reviews and correspondence show that she attended Episcopal services (though not exclusively) in the 1890s in at least Red Cloud, Lincoln, Beatrice, and Pittsburgh; her college friends Katherine Weston, the Gere family, and the Canfield family were all Episcopalian (Bohlke 41). She was a godparent for her niece Helen’s Episcopal baptism several years before 1922. The Rev. John Mallory Bates, rector of Grace Church from 1902 to 1930, had long been a Cather family friend; in particular, Willa Cather appreciated him for his expertise in botany. The December 1922 timing was as much a convenience as anything; Cather was in Red Cloud for an extended visit to celebrate her parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, an occasion noted by her nephew William Thomas Auld, who recounts details of the anniversary celebration (including the presence of the Episcopal bishop) but makes no mention of the subsequent confirmation service (78). Furthermore, Cather’s letters during the several months preceding the confirmation service are mostly upbeat, filled with pleasure about One of Ours, activity in writing A Lost Lady, and gratitude for friendships and gifts. I find little, if any, evidence that Cather was seeking a spiritual sanctuary or that she was yet retreating from the world. Nor, as Janis Stout points out, do her letters after the confirmation service say anything about it, certainly nothing suggesting that a major spiritual occasion had just occurred (“Faith” 19). After 1922 Cather’s letters increasingly show signs of distress for herself, her family, and the larger world, but it would take a tenuous twist of logic to say that she anticipated those troubles and sought a deeper spiritual source of comfort to prepare for them. The service seems to have been a warm and pleasant family occasion with good friends which strengthened Cather’s bond to the Episcopal Church, both in Red Cloud and beyond. It was meaningful enough that she recalled it fondly more than twenty years later in a letter to the Rt. Rev. George Beecher, the bishop who had presided: “I am glad you remembered the little church in Red Cloud where you confirmed me with my father and my mother. I think of that service and that church very often” (Letters 634). The confirmation service solidified what was already real for her: religion should be celebratory, and it could be a site for aesthetically meaningful experiences.

The idea, the feeling, that art and religion belong together, that they can enrich and support each other, found its first expression in Cather’s earliest writing. She had to move beyond a borrowed language and inherited traditions of art and religion, taking with her what was useful, discarding what she did not need, and molding what was left into a personal and artistic credo. In the context of what would become her career, it had not taken so long to find her way, to establish her code, her aesthetic principles. Typically, she was never satisfied and never fully resolved the tension between religion and art. But I find little waffling by the time she was writing mostly fiction: it is usually quite clear when religion is incompatible with art and when it is compatible, and there are many examples of both. Her most explicit linkage of art and religion may have come in The Professor’s House, but the idea was not new to that novel. In her earliest writing Cather grappled with the relationship between art and religion, staked out a common territory for both, and ultimately claimed a meaningful partnership as one of the strongest of her artistic principles.


 1. A good summary of the critical position that Cather significantly changed in the 1920s to a more favorable view of religion in both her writing and her life is from E. K. Brown: “On December 27, in the company of her parents, she was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of Western Nebraska, her old friend Dr. Beecher. She had set her foot on the way that led to Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock; and in the books that intervened she touched more and more closely on religious issues” (227–28). The implication is that Cather’s Episcopal confirmation marked a new path which led to a more positive expression of religion than that of her earlier writing. Woodress posits a similar argument, concluding that “by 1922 [Cather] was ready to believe” (Willa Cather 338). I will examine such positions in more depth later in this essay. (Go back.)
 2. The column is signed simply “a Pupil,” but there is little doubt that Cather wrote it. The paper was started by Cather’s father and his friends, and the language of this column suggests others signed by Cather. In an August 1889 letter to Mrs. Helen Stowell, Cather proclaimed herself “on[e] of the staff reporters” (Selected Letters 11). (Go back.)
 3. Cather’s essay on Carlyle was simultaneously published with slight differences in the Hesperian, a campus newspaper for which Cather later served as literary editor. (Go back.)
 4. Cather preferred the label “Philistine” to “Bohemian,” another common nineteenth-century term for that which was not art: “The colossal egotism of the world is in Philistia, not Bohemia. The Bohemians make large pretentions, it’s a part of their business. But they have great standards, that saves them” (Kingdom 172). (Go back.)
 5. Janis Stout makes a similar point when she demonstrates that “Godfrey St. Peter is, after all, not entirely modeled after herself” (Willa Cather 209). (Go back.)
 6. See my essays “‘A Full, Perfect, and Sufficient Sacrifice’: Eucharistic Imagery in Cather’s The Song of the Lark” in Literature and Belief 14 (1994); “My Ántonia and the Parables of Sacrifice” in Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief (2002), edited by John J. Murphy and reprinted in Bloom’s Modern Critical Editions: Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia” (2008); and “Beulah Land: Reconsidering the Ending of O Pioneers!” in The Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 55.3 (Summer 2012). (Go back.)


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———. “High School Notes.” Red Cloud Republican 22 Feb. 1890. Print.
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———. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936. Print.
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———. Historical Essay. Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop 325–71. Print.
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———. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000. Print.
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