Among the most discussed scenes in Cather’s fiction is the beginning of the narrative proper of My Ántonia. Ten-year-old orphan Jim Burden has embarked from Virginia for Nebraska in the company of Jake Marpole, “one of the ‘hands’ on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge,” Jim writes, and the two travel west “all the way by day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey.” Along the way, Jake, who is older but not much more worldly than his charge,“bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watchcharm, and for me a ‘Life of Jesse James,’ which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read” (My Ántonia 1–2). This reference to this satisfying book, doubtless a dime novel, as Janis Stout has maintained in a recent article on this scene’s contexts, seems but a passing detail. Yet the reference is notable by its position in the second paragraph of Jim’s narrative, itself Cather’s second assay of the subject of prairie pioneering. With it, she acknowledges the presence and cultural power of the myth of the West it proclaims just as Jim ventures there; so doing, she signals that with her story we are entering what Stout has called a “different” West, a place where the West’s primary actors—Natives, soldiers, outlaws, and cowboys—are largely absent. Instead, Cather offers an alternative West: Burden finds only pioneer homesteaders, immigrants from all over the country and the globe, caught in the acts of taking up land and farming. That is, he finds the American West as a new landscape and a new living space, a growing but quotidian place. Before leaving My Ántonia, it is worth noting that Cather is writing—in 1917 or 1918—about her own first trip west, which had taken place in the spring of 1883.
Another person from the East who came west for the first time in the early 1880s was Frederic Sackrider Remington (1861–1909) of Canton and Ogdensburg, New York. About twelve years older than Cather, he had attended the art school at Yale for a year and would later study at the Art Students League in New York for a term in 1886. The rest, of course, is history: Remington went on to become the late-nineteenth-century illustrator and champion of the North American West: his images were everywhere in periodicals and books (by Parkman, Roosevelt, and many others); in the mid-1890s he began sculpting; he wrote and published stories of the West. (One needs to note, though, that he spent most of his time near New York City. Cather, for her part, lived in Manhattan after 1906, traveling regularly.) He became famous, and famously successful, because of all this. When the editor of Collier’s prevailed upon him to write “A Few Words from Mr. Remington” for its 18 March 1905 issue, he looked back to his first trip west, in 1881, to Montana and contextualized himself by writing that “I had brought more than ordinary schoolboy enthusiasm to [George] Catlin, [Washington] Irving, [Josiah] Gregg, Lewis and Clark, and others on their shelf, and youth found me sweating along their tracks. I was in the grand silent country following my own inclinations, but there was a heavy feel in the atmosphere. I did not immediately see what it portended, but it gradually obtruded itself. The times had changed.” As is well known in Remington scholarship, he then recounts sharing a campfire with “an old wagon freighter who shared his bacon and coffee” with the nineteen-year-old tourist. The old man had gone west from Iowa and “had followed receding frontiers, always further and further West. ‘And now,’ said he, ‘there is no more West.’” This man’s comments had had a deep effect on Remington, who wrote that “[h]e had his point of view and he made a new one for me” (“Few Words” 550–51).
Commenting on this passage and carrying it further, Nancy K. Anderson has written that Remington was “[a]lready inclined to believe that the West he had read about as a boy was soon to be overtaken by derby hats and smoking chimneys, [so] Remington resolved to record the ‘wild riders and the vacant land’ before they vanished forever: ‘Without knowing exactly how to do it, I began to try to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded’” (Anderson, “Curious” 21, quoting Remington, “Few Words” 551).
In discussing Remington’s autobiographical account, Anderson also makes the point that in his version of things Remington’s passage is reminiscent of a passage at the beginning of Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841) (see Thacker, Great Prairie 56–62). It is, certainly. Yet the interesting thing about Remington’s resolve is that it was made—or he says it was made and the facts of his biography bear that version of things out—in the face of the knowledge that the conditions he sought to define and illustrate were gone. Catlin, for his part, was bent on documenting what Natives looked like and how they lived on the Upper Missouri before time enforced the inevitable change coming with Euro-American settlement. That is, he was engaged during the 1830s with what William H. Goetzmann and Joseph T. Porter have called “romantic documentary” against Remington’s “romantic nostalgia.” Just how either artist is seen in relation to his initial intentions (as opposed to his recollection and assertion of them once the work has been substantially accomplished) is of less interest than, again, his presence. There would have been no Paul Kane had there not first been a George Catlin—the latter’s experience served as model for Kane’s own intentions to paint the Natives of western Canada (see Thacker, “Introduction”). Equally, there would not have been the iconographic Wild West we know now without the presence of Remington, who himself was indebted to Catlin, Irving, Gregg, Lewis and Clark, and others—as he admitted in 1905.
Yet as Remington offered his brief account of his beginnings as an artist to the readers of Collier’s in March 1905, he was, and he had been since he had returned from the Spanish-American War in Cuba, confronting formal aesthetic problems posed by color and landscape rather than any nostalgia for a bygone era.“Disillusioned by war and with his martial and emotional repertory exhausted,” writes Peter H. Hassrick, Remington “put his artist-correspondent days behind him and began to focus on color, landscape, and subject matter drawn from his own prodigious imagination. This altered focus remained vitally important to him for . . . the remainder of his life” (39). Put another way, Remington had moved since the war to other subjects, other places, and most emphatically to other ways of seeing the West. Images from this period of Remington’s career confirm this: The End of the Day (1904), Evening in the Desert, Navajoes (1905–6), The Last March (1906), Waiting in the Moonlight (1907–9), The Sentinel (1907), Pete’s Shanty (1908). While not all of these are of western scenes, most are—none, certainly, are of the Old West with its confrontations, its narratives of violent conﬂict, its stark confrontations. While there are many more images like these, and there are also scores of images done during the 1900s that are in keeping with Remington the illustrator, the last decade of Remington’s life was one focused on a different West: the American West as living space, a place to be alive, to be human. This is the same West that Cather re-creates in her “prairie trilogy” of the 1910s.
But in this Remington had a problem: as his audience saw such images as he gradually offered them in Collier’s and at his annual exhibits at the Knoedler Gallery in New York (1905–9), many among them had been expecting something else. Many expected “romantic nostalgic,” cowboys and Indians in conﬂict: images of the Old West as he had produced them for twenty years, the same sort of thing Jim Burden finds in his “Life of Jesse James.”
As I have worked on Remington I have come more and more to wonder about what Cather made of his presence. More than that, as I come to him now I am aware that I am, if you will, doing so through the eyes of Willa Cather. By the time Cather reached her mid-teens in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Remington’s career (and fame), through his increasingly ubiquitous illustrations of the West published in Harper’s, Outing, and elsewhere, would have been itself a presence in her world. Moving east to follow a career path similar to his, Cather made contacts during the early years of the century among the summer art colony at Cos Cob, Connecticut—with John Twachtman and with Remington’s friend Childe Hassam, among others—which in turn led her to New York in 1906 to work for McClure’s Magazine (see Skaggs; Thacker, “She’s Not a Puzzle”). She eventually became its managing editor and, as such, worked with artists and illustrators who doubtless knew Remington and his work. While Remington had not illustrated for McClure’s since 1901, and had only done so for two years, Cather would have been aware that he had, and as a transplanted westerner she would have been well aware of his presence. She might also have been aware—and maybe even visited—his exhibits of lost bronzes and recent paintings at the Knoedler Gallery in the five years after 1905.
The Knoedler, one of New York’s “French Galleries” (as Cather would later recall they were called in “Coming, Aphrodite!” ), had been a prominent art dealer there since 1846. In 1996, Ann Landi wrote about the gallery’s founder in an ARTnews essay celebrating the gallery’s sesquicentennial: One of the first dealers to show the Barbizon School in the U.S., [Michael] Knoedler also championed Frederick E. Church. . . . By the end of the century, Knoedler represented other outstanding Americans—Homer, Ryder, Chase, Sargent, Cassatt—and developed a privileged clientele that included John Jacob Astor, H. O. Havemeyer, Henry Clay Frick, and William H. Vanderbilt. (114)
In March 1908 Cather took time out from a business trip in Boston to run a personal errand: she visited a variety of shops to select, purchase, and arrange the framing for a group of reproductions for her brother Roscoe and his wife, who had just built a house in Lander, Wyoming. Cather chose seven prints, among them a van Dyck self-portrait, Jules Breton’s The Song of the Lark (which Cather would later use as inspiration for and take as the title of her third novel), two images by N. C. Wyeth, one by Maxfield Parrish, and Remington’s Caught in the Circle (1900). Writing to her brother on 2 March to report on her success, Cather commented that “personally, I would have sent you all brown photo-gravures of French and Dutch pictures that I like, but I thought you might like some of the real modern fellows better” (106).
The fact that Remington appears here, in 1908, as one of “the real modern fellows” is telling. Given her own aestheticism, and given especially her struggle at this time to “make herself born” as an artist, as she would write in the highly autobiographical record of that struggle in The Song of the Lark (1915) (Song 196), it is difficult to believe that Cather would have been unaware of the presence of Remington’s exhibitions at the Knoedler each December from 1906 to 1909—that is, in the four years following her own arrival in New York City. Located on 355 Fifth Avenue at the corner of Thirty-Fourth Street, the Knoedler Gallery was only ten blocks from Cather’s office at McClure’s (44–60 East Twenty-Third Street, near Park Avenue), and about thirty blocks from her Washington Square apartment.
The reviews Remington’s shows garnered confirm that critics noticed his remaking of himself. No longer just an illustrator of “men with the bark on,” he became something quite different during the 1900s: an accomplished impressionist, praised by Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf among The Ten; a landscape painter—and eastern landscapes painted on Ingleneuk, his island on the St. Lawrence River, at that. It was during this time, too, that Remington visibly showed his frustrations with his new work by burning many images that dissatisfied him. For instance, on 19 December 1908 he wrote in his diary: “Fine day—worked all morning on the cowboys in early morning light. If a man could paint that elusive thing it would not be interesting from lack of color. Burned it up together with other failures.” Getting just what he was after vexed him, and, as he also wrote, he regretted letting some of those images get away and so escape the fire.
But most clearly, as Stephen Tatum has detailed in In the Remington Moment, Remington did get what he wanted on some of his canvases. This was clear to the art critics who were watching him as he exhibited at the Knoedler during the last years of his life. An assessment by Mary Fanton Roberts (under the pseudonym Giles Edgerton) appeared in the Craftsman in March 1909: “[I]t is not only as a painter of exceptional interest that posterity will seek his work, but as a pioneer worker in the presentation of phases of American civilization” (662). Roberts continues:
What more complete justification for such a course could an artist ask than Mr. Remington’s exhibit this winter at Knoedler’s? No advertising canvass of the country to bring people to look at his pictures; no play in any subject for popular approval; no swerving to the smallest degree from his original purpose or from the development of that purpose of that purpose along lines most satisfactory to himself, as an artist without fear and with much reproach, yet, a result of success beyond the greatest hopes of the student of years ago. In all his latest work Mr. Remington has portrayed the Indians of the West as they existed to each other, and the cowboy and the scout and the traveler, each as typical as the characters in Bret Harte’s stories, approaching death of a certain phase of our civilization. (Edgerton 664–65)Ironically, the best assessment of Remington’s presence appeared in Scribner’s in February 1910, just after his premature death from appendicitis in late December 1909. It was written by Royal Cortissoz, a contemporary art critic whose reviews of Remington’s work had been both critical and positive; before his death the artist had had a hand in selecting him for the job. Cortissoz’s piece gains added weight through the effect of the artist’s absence:
I have seen paintings of his that were hard as nails. But then came a change, one of the most interesting noted in some years past by observers of American art. Mr. Remington suddenly drew near the end of his long pull. He left behind him the brittleness of the pen drawings which had once scattered so profusely through magazines and books. His reds and yellows which had blared so mercilessly from his canvases began to shed the quality of scene painting and took on more the aspect of nature. Incidentally the mark of the illustrator disappeared and that of the painter took its place. As though to give his emergence upon a new plane a special character he brought forward, in an exhibition in New York, a number of night scenes which expressly challenged attention by their originality and freshness. Since then he has made another exhibition only to deepen one’s sense of his broader and stronger development. (186–87)
Throughout, Cortissoz understands the experimentation Remington was engaged in then, the inﬂuences he used, and the focus he kept on his subject, the West. He asserts: “Under a burning sun he has worked out an impressionism of his own” (192). Cortissoz saw that Remington was taking the aesthetics and techniques of the impressionists and making them work in a region that might seem antithetical to their use. At the same time, the critic notes new effects and new subjects in the 1909 exhibition. He has this to say about The White Country: “The little landscape fits naturally into one’s conception of this American painter. It suggests a talent that is always ripening, an artistic personality that is always pressing forward” (195). This line concludes Cortissoz’s essay and leaves readers expecting more—both from the critic and, especially, from the forward-pressing artist. By then Remington had, to paraphrase Auden’s famous line from his elegy to Yeats, “become his admirers.”
Willa Cather was one of those admirers. What is more, she doubtless saw Remington’s relevance to her own ambition throughout the trajectory of what might be called her critical years: from 1911, when she left McClure’s, to 1920, after she had published her first four novels with Houghton Mifflin and was in the process of moving to the much better arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf. Cather’s admiration for and appreciation of Remington as “a great man in American art” (as she would write in “Coming, Eden Bower!”) is evident in the story that was to open her first book published by Knopf. There, after Remington had been dead for a decade and she had established herself as the first American novelist to write in powerful ways of the West as both pioneering and post-conquest living space—with but the glancing reference to the outlaw West with “The Life of Jesse James,” and a few others to cowboys and Indians and soldiers—Cather wrote and published “Coming, Aphrodite!”
“Coming, Aphrodite!” is a New York story set in Washington Square that details the brief but intense romance between a painter, Don Hedger, who lives largely alone but for his dog, and Eden Bower, a young singer bent on worldly success. She is stopping in New York for a time on her way to Europe and takes the apartment next to Hedger’s. Cather is careful to define each character with long perspective; first detailing the young woman’s background and acknowledging her subsequent fame, she writes that “Eden Bower was, at twenty, very much the same person we all know her to be at forty, except that she knew a great deal less. But one thing she knew: that she was to be Eden Bower” (33). And as she ends the section that this quotation begins, Cather writes of Hedger and of the two together:
Each of these two young people sensed the future, but not completely. Don Hedger knew that nothing much would ever happen to him. Eden Bower understood that to her a great deal would happen. But she did not guess that her neighbour would have more tempestuous adventures sitting in his dark studio than she would find in all the capitals of Europe, or in all the latitude of conduct she was prepared to permit herself. (37)As this quotation shows, at its bottom “Coming, Aphrodite!” is a debate over an artist’s best relation to an audience: Is it better to pursue an art for art’s sake, wherever it leads, or to find a paying audience and keep it? This question was the one Cather herself was confronting when she put Remington among “the real modern fellows” in 1908. By the time she wrote “Coming, Aphrodite!” she had devised a plan to do both and was well embarked on it by her novels of the 1910s; she was also about to explode into the intensity of the five novels she would produce in the 1920s. After appearing in a bowdlerized and retitled version (“Coming, Eden Bower!”) in George Nathan and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set in August 1920, this story would appear in its intended form in the first book of Cather’s to be published by Knopf, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). Arguably, Cather’s plan worked. Arguably, too, it was a plan modeled by Remington’s career and is offered as the crux of the difference between Cather’s protagonists in “Coming, Aphrodite!”
Early in “Coming, Eden Bower!” Cather writes that Hedger “had got over a good deal of the earth’s surface, in spite of the fact that he had never in his life had more than three hundred dollars ahead at any one time, and he had already outlived a succession of convictions and revelations about his art.” She continues:
Though he was now but twenty-six years old, he had twice been on the verge of becoming a marketable product; once through some studies of New York streets he did for a magazine, and once through a collection of pastels he brought home from New Mexico, which Remington, then a great man in American art, happened to see and generously tried to push. But on both occasions Hedger decided that this was something he didn’t wish to carry further,—simply the old thing over again and got nowhere,—so he took enquiring dealers something in a “later manner,” and they put him out of the shop. When he ran short of money he could always get any amount of commercial work because he was an expert draughtsman and worked with lightening speed. The rest of his time he spent groping his way from one kind of painting into another, or traveling about without luggage, like a tramp, and he was chieﬂy occupied with getting rid of ideas he had once thought very fine. (“Eden Bower” 309)While it is clear that some of these details owe to Cather’s own strivings, the similarities to Remington during his time as a successful commercial illustrator and his later experiments during the 1900s are evident—he too groped throughout his last decade “from one type of painting into another.” That he is directly mentioned in the story demonstrates the connection, as well as the ubiquity of his presence, both when he was alive and when Cather was writing the story about ten years after his death.
And although evidence for a direct connection is only circumstantial, it is strong. Cather uses a phrase in the story that seems like it may be a direct link to one of Remington’s last—and arguably most compelling—images: Moonlight, Wolf (ca. 1909, fig. 5.1, p. 122). Describing Hedger in his studio, completely focused on his work, imaginatively isolated and obsessed, Cather writes:
When he was working well he did not notice anything much. The morning paper lay before his door until he reached out for his milk bottle, then he kicked the sheet inside and it lay on the ﬂoor until evening. Sometimes he read it and sometimes he did not. He forgot there was anything of importance going on in the world outside of his third ﬂoor studio. Nobody had ever taught him that he ought to be interested in other people; in the Pittsburgh steel strike, in the Fresh Air Fund, in the scandal about the Babies’ hospital. A grey wolf, living in a Wyoming canyon, would hardly have been less concerned about these things than was Don Hedger. (15)Moonlight, Wolf offers an image of “a grey wolf, living in” what appears a canyon, whether in Wyoming or not. The painting was not included in any of Remington’s Knoedler exhibitions—its title is not among those listed in the published catalogs. Even so, the fact that Cather makes this reference in a story that names Remington and describes the circumstances of his fame, and probably also draws upon his situation to create the character Hedger later calls “the worst painter in the world,” Burton Ives, seems at least fortuitous. If Cather’s knowledge of Moonlight, Wolf is not provable, though, Remington’s high regard for it is clear. In an undated note to the dealer Annesley & Company—they had evidently written seeking paintings, as they had previously—Remington offers them The Emigrants (ca. 1904) and adds “Some of your people ought to try the Wolf—that is the real thing” (Remington to Annesley & Co., n.d.).
“Coming, Aphrodite!” is an odd story in that in a central episode Cather has Hedger regularly peeping through a hole in a closet at Bower while she is doing her daily workout in the nude—thus it foregrounds matters of point of view and subject in art. What is more, there is an ongoing awareness of “the modern” in art. As the two are developing their relationship, Bower asks Hedger if he has studied in Paris. He replies: “No, I’ve never been to Paris. But I was in the south of France all last summer, studying with C——. He’s the biggest man among the moderns,—at least I think so” (29). This figure is probably Cezanne:
Hedger began to relate how he had seen some of this Frenchman’s work in an exhibition, and deciding at once that this was the man for him, he had taken a boat for Marseilles the next week, going over steerage. He proceeded at once to the little town on the coast where the painter lived, and presented himself. The man never took pupils, but because Hedger had come so far, he let him stay.... Being there and working with C—— was being in Paradise, Hedger concluded; he learned more in three months than in all his life before. (29–30).Sharing such intimacies, the two fall for each other hard, and Hedger, for his part, remembers being with her “[o]n the roof, in these warm, heavy summer nights, with her hands locked in his, [and] he had been able to explain all his misty ideas about an unborn art the world was waiting for; had been able to explain them better than he had ever done to himself” (63). He told her things that he had not said to his mentor in France.
When the couple quarrel and subsequently part, it is over “an abstraction,” Cather writes. Bower tries to have Burton Ives, an extremely successful painter who, Bower says, “has a Japanese servant and a wine cellar, and keeps a riding horse,” help Hedger’s career (61). Hedger refuses. She does not understand, and asks:
“What’s the use of being a great painter if nobody knows about you?” Eden went on persuasively. “Why don’t you paint the kind of pictures people can understand, and then, after you’re successful, do whatever you like?” . . .Claiming to disregard the public, Hedger asserts that he is “painting for painters . . . who haven’t been born” (61). For him, Ives—whose name Mark Madigan sees in connection with the famed artistic partnership of Currier and Ives (Youth 393), but whose prosperity and personal details are similar to Remington’s—is “almost the worst painter in the world; the stupidest, I mean’” (60). More than his assessment of the man himself, Hedger is appalled at Bower’s very suggestion: “He had never in his life been so deeply wounded; he did not know he could be so hurt. He had told this girl his deepest secrets. . . . And she had looked away to the chattels of this uptown studio and coveted them for him! To her he was only an unsuccessful Burton Ives” (62–63). For her part, ever practical and clearly aiming at great success for herself through her own art, Bower hoped to “gild Hedger’s future, ﬂoat him out of his dark hole on a tide of prosperity, see his name in the papers and his pictures in the windows on Fifth Avenue” (62). Fifth Avenue is, of course, where the Knoedler was located, and where presumably Remington’s latest paintings were displayed in windows that Cather may well have passed by and paused to look in.
Hedger melted a little. “My dear, I have the most expensive luxury in the world, and I am much more extravagant than Burton Ives, for I work to please nobody but myself.” (61)
As the story ends, Cather has the very successful Bower back years later from Europe in New York. She passes through and pauses in Washington Square, where she and Hedger had lived, and takes her chauffeured car to one the “French Galleries”—again, like Knoedler’s—where she inquires of Hedger’s reputation as an artist. The director, a Frenchman, tells her that Hedger “is one of the first men among the moderns. That is to say, among the very moderns. He is always coming up with something different. He often exhibits in Paris” (72). Here, using much the same language she used to describe Remington, among others, in a letter to her brother Roscoe in 1908, Cather presses on to offer a description that might well be used to describe herself. Hedger, the director continues, “is a great name with all the young men, and he is decidedly an inﬂuence in art. But one can’t definitely place a man who is original, erratic, and who is changing all the time” (73). Hedger ultimately fails Bower’s highest test: he may be talked about in Paris, but the trajectory of his career has not led to the sort of success she has achieved herself there since she left him eighteen years before. She has come to New York to be feted as she plays the lead in Coming, Aphrodite!
It should be clear just why “Coming, Aphrodite!” seems so apt in this association. Beyond Cather’s overt reference to Remington as a possible sponsor of Hedger’s career, her creation of an artist who was single-mindedly focused on his art, hardworking and productive, and who was always changing and experimenting rings accurate to Remington. And to Cather. In Remington’s later works—the nocturnes and those evincing impressionist experiments with color—Cather had a model for what she would ultimately do herself: treat the American West as living space rather than as the scene of violence and death involving Natives, soldiers, outlaws, and cowboys.
Here, arguably, a painting like The Outlier (1909)—which Remington painted numerous times as it moved from a Metcalfinspired version with a dark palette to the bright and affecting final version seen in the Brooklyn Museum, the one that Remington said Hassam thought the “best of my pictures” (Diary, 14 October 1909)—embodies his West as living space. So, too, does Moonlight, Wolf, which features a dark palette of shades of green to black capturing “a grey wolf, living in a [western] canyon” pausing at a water source, staring directly at the viewer with haunting yellow eyes, stars ﬂicking above, moonlight illuminating the whole scene. Cather repeatedly did same sort of thing through her prose. Moreover, Cather creates in Burton Ives an artist who has found an audience willing to pay for what he produces, and as for Ives, for Remington it paid for his suits, his club, his horses, his summer places, his palatial home in Connecticut. But like Cather, Remington managed to have both audience and aesthetic as he transformed himself during the last decade of his life. And here we are, admiring yet—recognizing that the great fact of Remington’s presence, as Willa Cather apprehended, was one to learn from, to model, and to extend.