Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs012.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 12

"A Lot of Things”: The Value of the Vernacular in Shadows on the Rock

Let us begin with a small scene in Willa Cather’s novel Shadows on the Rock (1931). It is Christmas Eve, 1697, in the French Catholic colony of Quebec, and twelve-year-old Cécile Auclair is arranging a crèche, a Nativity scene, in the salon of the family home. The crèche, with its figures of the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, three kings, shepherds, and assorted animals housed in a stable-like structure suggested by the biblical story of Christ’s birth, was sent some months before from France. Cécile and her father have been in grave consultation concerning its placement, and Euclide Auclair has built a shelf to extend from under a window-sill so “the scene could be arranged in two terraces, as was customary at home” (126). Cécile lines the sill and the shelf with fr branches and moss gathered from the woods around the Jesuits’ buildings. She unpacks and arranges the figures with Blinker, the baker’s helper, and little Jacques, the son of “a bad woman” (132). When neighbors drop by to view the crèche before midnight Mass, Jacques returns with a small wooden beaver that one of his mother’s clients had carved for him, which he wants to place in the crèche. Cécile is “perplexed”: does Jacques’s toy belong in the biblical scene? But Mme Pommier, the devout elderly mother of the town cobbler, urges her to “put it there with the lambs, before the manger,” reminding her, “Our Lord died for Canada, as well as for the world over there” (131).

The crèche scene, occurring at the close of Book II, foregrounds one of the most meaningful questions with which the novel is concerned. For, although Mme Pommier’s response to Cécile afrms their shared Christian belief in the redemption of humankind, Cécile’s question had arisen from confusion about the aesthetic value and the cultural function of the made object: the toy beaver “was so untraditional—what was she to do with him?” (131). Many of the objects depicted in Shadows on the Rock are, like Jacques’s toy beaver, “untraditional”; they disrupt cultural and aesthetic taxonomies. The novel presents a series of confrontations, mediated through twelve-year-old Cécile’s imagination, between objects associated with the French cultural tradition and more “untraditional” objects. While glancing back at the medieval origins of vernacular art, these encounters issue an essentially modernist directive: to look with new eyes, even naïve eyes, to revise our judgments about the value of vernacular objects.

As John Murphy and David Stouck write in their explanatory notes to the Scholarly Edition of Shadows on the Rock, Mildred Bennett told us some time ago that Cather based the scene with the toy beaver on a similar moment she herself witnessed when her young nephew Charles tried to place a toy cow in the family nativity scene (469). So it is from frsthand experience that Cather recognizes the impulse to engage with the crèche, so appealing with its miniature movable figures representing any child’s favorite story: a family in a house. To the sheep, the donkey, the camels, which appear to be the pets of this family, why not add a cow, a beaver? Beyond Cather’s personal anecdote—and those that many of us could tell about fending Legos or Matchbox cars in the crèche after a visit from children—the scene of Jacques at the crèche belongs to a tradition of Christmas stories depicting visitors (sometimes transported through time) who bring presents to the baby in Bethlehem, as did the biblical three kings, who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). These stories range from the medieval Second Shepherds’ Play, in which the shepherds bring cherries, a ball, and a bird to the infant Jesus, to the twentieth-century popular song “The Little Drummer Boy,” in which the singer, stricken that he has “no gift for him,” resolves,“I’ll play my drum for him.”[1]

A similar mix of the sacred and the mundane defines the Christmas scene in My Ántonia (1918). For Jim Burden’s first Christmas with his grandparents in Nebraska, the family decorates their Christmas tree with “a collection of brilliantly coloured paper figures” sent to the hired man Otto Fuchs by his mother in Austria, including the traditional Nativity participants: “the three kings, gorgeously appareled, and the ox and the ass and the shepherds; there was the Baby in the manger, and a group of angels singing; there were camels and leopards, held by the black slaves of the three kings” (80). Although this Nativity scene is hung on the tree rather than housed in a little stable like the Auclair crèche, it is equally sacred: “all the coloured figures from Austria stood out clear and full of meaning” in the candlelight, and Mr. Shimerda kneels and crosses himself in their presence (84). Under the tree, Jim says, “we put sheets of cotton wool . . . for a snow-field, and Jake’s pocket-mirror for a frozen lake” (80)—features of the Nebraska winter landscape that might “perplex” a Bethlehem native, but are meant to delight the bereft and displaced boy.

The hand-carved beaver and the makeshift landscape features are made of ordinary materials but, like Otto’s paper ornaments, are also “full of meaning.” Despite their apparent naïveté, they illustrate essential theological truths. For the Christian Auclair and Burden families, the feast of Christmas celebrates the incarnation of God in Jesus. The gestures of these children—Cather’s nephew, Jacques, Jim, and the hired men who are described as “unprotected . . . defenceless . . . boys” (81)—humanize the sacrality of the biblical Nativity story. They underscore the Christian belief in the humanity of Jesus, who, like Jacques and Jim, was a little boy who played with toys, as well as the God whose divine nature is acknowledged by the three kings’ royal gifts. The children’s inclusion of naïvely crafted objects in the sacred scene shifts the Christian doctrine of the incarnation from theological abstraction to literalized belief, from high academic discourse to folk culture.

The terms of cultural transmission, always a subject for Cather, inform both Christmas scenes. It is important that the Auclair crèche was made in France, where, as Mme Auclair has told Cécile,“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” (32). It carries cultural authority, as does the altar of Notre-Dame de la Victoire, “made in France by people who knew . . . just what Heaven looked like,” Cécile believes (77). Like Cécile’s silver cup and her mother’s pot of parsley, the crèche is one of the totemic objects that represent the transmission of French culture to the wilds of Quebec. The introduction into the crèche of the “marvelous beaver [carved] out of wood . . . its teeth [painted] white” (81) poses a question about the relationship of the Canadian vernacular to the French canon, a question underscored by the live evergreens that decorate the scene: the fr and moss that Cécile has gathered from the Jesuit woods make “a little cabine of branches, like those the first missionaries built down by Notre Dame des Anges,” thus creating a rough New World shelter for the crèche figures from the Old World (128). In My Ántonia, the Austrian Nativity figures are hung from “a little cedar tree” that the hired man Jake has cut somewhere between the Burdens’ farm and the Shimerdas’ dugout (79). The little cedar reminds Jim of his family’s Christmas trees in Virginia, as the paper ornaments must remind Otto of Austria (and Mr. Shimerda of his home in Bohemia), and Cécile and Euclide Auclair are reminded of France by arranging the crèche as it was “at home.” In these scenes, Old World culture is transmitted to New World locations specifically identified by their indigenous trees—firs from the Jesuit woods, a cedar that had grown between the Burden and Shimerda properties.

The significance of the extremely local or vernacular in relation to canonical culture is affirmed in the well-known Virgilian allusion in My Ántonia. Studying Virgil in college, Jim learns—and insists that the reader understand—the precise meaning of the quotation that we take to be Cather’s early avowal of her own writerly identity: “‘Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas’; ‘For I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my own country.’”“‘[P]atria’ here meant not a nation or even a province,” Jim goes on to explain, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. . . . [Virgil hoped] that he might bring the Muse . . . not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little ‘country’; to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops’” (256).

In Shadows on the Rock, then, Cather enlarges her fond memory of her nephew and the toy cow to construct the meaning of Cécile’s confusion. Cécile is perplexed because she is uncertain about the relation of the vernacular—local, folk—to the dominant, official culture: does an artifact from North American folk culture belong in a crèche made by “the most civilized people in Europe,” who “do all these things in the best way”? A related but different question is whether a North American animal belongs in Bethlehem—in other words, whether Jacques’s toy beaver violates the representational accuracy of the crèche. Mme Pommier’s catechetical response to Cécile sidesteps the question of mimesis to affirm the value of the Canadian vernacular, specifically in terms of the Christian (and French Catholic) tradition in which she and Cécile have been formed.

Shadows on the Rock charts the tension between Canadian folk culture and French canonical culture, between Canadians content to eat “dogs boiled with blueberries” (216) and the representatives of high French culture like Euclide Auclair, who prefers a conserve of gooseberries after his roast chicken (18). The Auclair ménage is informed by the instructions of Cécile’s dying mother, who was concerned with maintaining traditional French cultural practices to protect her family from the “disgusting” savagery of the New World (32). “The food here is coarse,” Mme Auclair cautions her daughter (31), and a market woman reminds Euclide Auclair that winter hunters “carry nothing but cold grease to fill their bellies. Here grease is meat” (59); the fur trader Pierre Charron was reduced to such hunger on a hunting trip that he ate boiled moss and roasted bear skin (216). Auclair’s dinner is a defense against such degradation, “the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman” (23) and, unlike the local Québecois, he dines in the evening “as he was used to do in Paris” (15). During the long Canadian winter,“careless people” in Quebec survived on “smoked eels and frozen venison,” but Auclair can rely on six dozen wood doves he has preserved en confit (57). The Jesuits and the Récollet friars tend indoor vegetable gardens in their warm cellars. Auclair keeps a wine cellar and, along with his apothecary stock, imports bay leaves, cloves, and saffron from France for cooking. These domestic practices assert the cultural identity of the French colonists and coexist in some tension with the indigenous Canadian culture.

Like food preparation, the crèche scene in Shadows and the Christmas tree scene in My Ántonia depict domestic rituals that affirm group identity, as Ann Romines has demonstrated.[2] The identity of the group depicted in Shadows is still in formation, and the crèche scene tells us it will not be simply French; the French origins of the community are indicated by the custom of the crèche, but its assimilation to the New World is suggested by the Canadian greenery and wooden beaver that have been added to the French artifact. Richard Millington has identified Shadows as an “anthropological novel” that “draw[s] our attention to the meaning-life of objects” (35, 29). The meaning-life of the crèche with Jacques’s toy beaver has to do with the accommodation of the vernacular by people long accustomed to considering themselves “the most civilized in Europe.” The meaning-life of Auclair’s gooseberry conserve, of his confit of wood doves and his wine cellar, like that of the pot of parsley Cécile tends,“which had never frozen in her mother’s time, and . . . should not freeze in hers” (34), assert refined French domestic values in the “coarse” New World.

Jacques’s little toy beaver is a vernacular artifact, an object of local folk culture, certainly, but it is worth noting that the Auclair crèche itself is described in terms that distinguish it from high art. The crèche figures are not idealized; they do not conform to academically arbitrated taste. “The Blessed Virgin wore no halo, but a white scarf over her head. She looked like a country girl, very naïve, seated on a stool, with her knees well apart under her full skirt, and very large feet” (127). This figure is very different from the holy women depicted in the church of Notre-Dame de la Victoire: Sainte Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, “regally clad like a great lady of this world, with a jeweled coronet upon her head [and] . . . noble in bearing,” and a figure of the Virgin Mary, “radiantly happy, with a stately crown,” holding the child Jesus who looked like “a little Lord indeed” (78). Gold ornamentation enhances the aristocratic character of these figures: the gold flowers on Sainte Anne’s cloak glow in the candlelight “like a glistening liquid,” bathing the statue “in a rich, oily, yellow light” (80). The altar in the French Ursuline chapel, another site for the display of sacred images, is decorated with “delicate gold-work” (77).

In contrast to these aristocratic figures of Baroque art, the figure of Mary in the Auclair crèche seems to have much in common with the barefoot farm girl of Jules Breton’s The Song of the Lark. Both Mary and Joseph,“a grave old man in brown, with a bald head and wrinkled brow” (127), appear more like the santos of the Southwest that Archbishop Latour admired in contrast to the “factory-made plaster images” he found in Ohio churches (Archbishop 28). The Auclair crèche figures, like the Southwestern santos, are consistent with the aesthetic preferences asserted throughout Cather’s fiction: they not only evoke the extremely local Virgilian patria; they also exhibit that “irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand” that Archbishop Latour notices in the adobe walls of his Southwestern home (35) and the natural state of Tom Outland’s turquoises “before the jewelers have tampered with them” (Professor’s House 119).

The irregular and natural quality of Mary and Joseph underscores the vernacular origins of the crèche tradition. Although paintings and some relief sculptures depicting the Nativity had existed since early Christian times, the assembled and moveable crèche of the Auclairs’ tradition developed from the living crèche first enacted under the direction of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223 at Greccio, Italy, Francis coordinated a performance of the biblical Nativity scene by people and animals as a kind of tableau vivant (Sabatier 122). Unlike a painting or a sculpture of the biblical scene in a church, the Franciscan crèche invited the participation of ordinary people, attended—one assumes—by all the vagaries of human and animal behavior familiar to anyone who has watched a children’s Christmas play. The crèche with sculptural figures rather than human and animal actors developed from these enactments in the century after Francis of Assisi. The Neapolitan presepe and the French crèche— most strikingly in the Provençal santon tradition—increasingly incorporated figures representing such figures of everyday life as the fishmonger, the laundrywoman, and the baker, as well as the objects associated with them (Art Institute, L’Almanach 362).[4] An eighteenth-century Neapolitan presepe, for example, a “thrilling new . . . once-in-a-lifetime acquisition” of the Art Institute of Chicago, “features over 200 figures—including no less than 50 animals and 41 items of food and drink” (Art Institute).

The “meaning-life” of Jacques’s toy beaver thus increases in complexity: it figures in a realistic rendering of a child’s behavior; it is a symbolic gesture of culture-making; it illuminates the theological doctrine represented by the crèche; and it reclaims the vernacular origins of the crèche tradition, which calls for participation and enactment. The Franciscan charism with its attention to the ordinary, the concrete, and the indigenous is often identified with the source of Western vernacular art—“vernacular,” in the case of visual art, meaning that the content not only depicts what is local and native, but does so with new verisimilitude that corresponds to common human experience.[5] The Italian painter Giotto (1266–1337) is credited with the development of this more realistic pictorial style, which reflected the rise of humanism in the early Renaissance and contrasted with the Byzantine tradition of symbolic gesture and static physicality, to depict “figures . . . in ways that are . . . recognizable and experiential” (Stubblebine 92). In the new vernacular art, like Giotto’s frescoes of the life of St. Francis in the basilica at Assisi,“furnishings of interiors, costumes, animals, even work tools became themselves the objects of artistic interest” (Stubblebine 90), an interest we also see developing throughout the centuries in the crèche tradition. Giotto’s St. Francis frescoes at Assisi have enraptured viewers for centuries with their attention to individualized clothing and facial expressions and to the realistic positioning of the human body in architecturally defined space. “These scenes,” remarks Stubblebine, “have an immediacy that magnifies inversely to the untutored state of the viewer” (1). We might think of Blinker’s thrilled response to the unwrapping of the Auclair crèche. Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovigni (or Arena) Chapel in Padua (identified with the Franciscan St. Anthony, whose statue Cécile and Jacques notice in the church of Notre-Dame de la Victoire [76]) also depict recognizable human behavior: in the Nativity fresco, for example, Mary is shown lying down, as we might expect of a woman who has just given birth, rather than kneeling in adoration before the infant Jesus; in the Presentation in the Temple, the infant Jesus reaches back to his mother as he is handed to an unfamiliar elder.

Architecturally defined space is another distinctive hallmark of this early vernacular style: in Giotto’s Assisi and Padua frescoes, interiors are individualized by their structural features (columns, windows, walls) and their relationship to the exterior as well as by the furnishings and objects in them. Outdoor scenes acquire a similar spatial definition through the depiction of a layered landscape that allows for the varied positioning of several different human figures in a single scene, enhancing the verisimilitude of the fresco. This use of layered space corresponds to the Auclair crèche “arranged in two terraces” as well as to the landscape of Quebec, which is itself compared to a crèche. Before the Christmas crèche scene, upon his first appearance in the novel, Euclide Auclair thinks that Quebec itself, with its Upper Town and Lower Town, is “like nothing so much as one of those little artificial mountains which were made in the churches at home to present a theatric scene of the Nativity; cardboard mountains, broken up into cliffs and ledges and hollows to accommodate groups of figures on their way to the manger; angels and shepherds and horsemen and camels, set on peaks, sheltered in grottoes, clustered about the base” (8–9).

The Auclairs’ crèche, with all its vernacular hallmarks, thus becomes a microcosmic image for the little colony of Quebec. The architecturally defined space of vernacular representation is paralleled in the spatial density chez Auclair, in what Cather imagined as “the close air by the apothecary’s fire” (“On Shadows” 16). The “double walls” of the house are “nearly four feet thick against the winter cold,” the salon is “partly shut of from the [front] shop by a partition made of shelves and cabinets,” and Cécile’s trundle bed is kept under her father’s “four-post bed, with heavy hangings” that was “concealed from the shop by tall cabinets” (14, 34). A sense of “pious enclosed space” (Sergeant 242) prevails in this novel; it houses Cécile, if not quite “a devoted slave of the enclosure” (Romines 75), certainly as dedicated to the values represented by her space as the cloistered Jeanne Le Ber is to hers.

The Auclairs’ crèche presents an analogue for their “orderly little French household” (“On Shadows” 16), with its focus on the child, Cécile, for a crèche enshrines a family with a new baby “needing,” as the poet Denise Levertov has written,“like any other, / milk and love” (56–57). Shadows on the Rock is first of all the story of a much cared-for child, one whose relationship with her mother echoes the larger narrative of colonial Quebec’s relationship with the mother country of France. The meaning of the novel is not complete until we read in the “Epilogue” that Cécile is the mother of “four little boys, the Canadians of the future” (320), but Cécile is a child in a family throughout the novel proper. The child’s familial role in this novel is often constructed in terms of the Auclairs’ Catholic faith; Cécile is pious, obedient, and charitable. References to the Holy Family and to saintly children abound: the church of Notre Dame de la Victoire itself seems dedicated to children, having been first named the Church of the Infant Jesus (76).“The high altar was especially interesting to children” (77); “[t]wo paintings hung in the Lady Chapel, both of Sainte Geneviève as a little girl” (76); the parental groupings of St. Anne and the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary and Christ are Holy Family images. At home, Cécile shows Jacques an image of “the boy saint” Edmond receiving a vision of “the Heavenly Child . . . friendly like a playfellow . . . not floating in the air as visions are wont to do” (101–2). Together they visit Mme Pommier, who is “especially devoted to the Holy Family” and has a private chapel with images of “the Holy Mother and Child, and Saint Joseph, and . . . Sainte Anne and Saint Joachim” (119). The Québecois have a particular devotion to the Holy Family (120), and the children go sledding on Holy Family Hill (117).

The presence of children contributes to the meaning of Shadows in several ways. First, it enhances the vulnerability and fragility of the colonial project. Cécile has lost her mother; Jacques is a fatherless boy who could easily succumb to neglect. The crèche sacralizes the ideal of the coherent family, as does the Nativity scene in My Ántonia, in which the viewers are a revised family—grandparents who are taking the place of parents, hired men who “had been like older brothers” to Jim (140). Jake and Otto will soon leave, when the Burdens move into Black Hawk, and Mr. Shimerda will commit suicide in homesickness and in despair of sustaining his family. These wistful and poignant scenes of families fragmented by death and separation, venerating the primal narrative of mother, father, and child, deepen our sense of the immigrant as a kind of cultural orphan who laments his separation from the mother country—as Euclide Auclair does, for example, especially once the Count de Frontenac dies. The child-centeredness of Shadows also contributes to the sense of “ordinary time” and domestic space in which the transmission of culture is most importantly enacted. “A new society,” Cather wrote about the novel, “begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages” (“On Shadows” 16). Cécile’s “emerging experience of cultural identity” (Millington 34) mirrors the French colonial project. Her discernment of “cultural affiliation” (Millington 38) is a process of personal development, in which she participates in the transplantation of French culture to the New World. In cultural transplantation, wrought objects are revalorized and recategorized, things are reassessed, just as Cécile rethinks the value of “these coppers big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes,” with which one didn’t simply make the ménage but “made life itself” (227).

Most important, it is through the child Cécile’s encounter with cultural artifacts that Shadows asserts the value of the vernacular. The novel enhances the confrontation between the French tradition of high culture and the New World vernacular by depicting the process of Cécile’s differentiating and/or reconciling the two.

Cather often depicts ekphrastic moments in her fiction—scenes of characters viewing art in a way that informs our sense of that character or the meaning of the narrative.[6] Her most memorable ekphrasis might be in The Song of the Lark (1915), when Thea Kronborg is enthralled by the Jules Breton painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. There are no art museums in Shadows on the Rock, however, not just because the novel is set in the wilds of colonial Canada but because it is 1697 and there are no art museums anywhere. One viewed art not in the institutional space of a museum but in a church or a home, as Cécile sees the paintings of Sainte Geneviève in the church of Notre-Dame de la Victoire or the glass fruit in the home of the Count de Frontenac.

But, like Jacques’s carved beaver, the Count’s glass fruit is perplexing: what is the place in the aesthetic taxonomy occupied by a bowl of glass fruit made by the Saracens? By Cécile’s silver cup engraved with a wreath and her name or by Mme Auclair’s pastoral prints and copper-red velvet curtains? Through Cécile’s eyes, we see these objects accrue in value because of the narratives attached to them and because they are to her wondrous and sensual. Naïveté in relation to art is a subject of Shadows on the Rock, and Cather takes pains to describe the way in which children regard artistic representation. In the church of Notre-Dame de la Victoire, Cécile is certain that “the Kingdom of Heaven looked exactly like [the feudal castle represented on the high altar] from the outside . . . ; just as the statues of the saints and of the Holy Family were portraits” (77). Cecile tells the Count that his crystal bowl of glass fruit “is much lovelier than real fruit” (71); looking at Robert LaSalle’s wooden shoe at the cobbler’s shop, she is “startled” when Pommier pronounces, “That foot will not come back” (98); she takes care to place the two angels of the crèche “‘behind the manger; they are still watching over [the infant Jesus]’” (127). At times, the narration of the novel itself takes on the same childlike quality: “When [the Ursulines and Hospitalières] came across the Atlantic, . . . they brought to Canada the Holy Family, the saints and martyrs, the glorious company of the Apostles, the heavenly host” (114).

André Malraux, in his landmark essay “Museum without Walls,” reminds us that viewing art is a function of consciousness tied to a historical moment and that it is only recently, since the establishment of the art museum, that a painting has been seen as a picture rather than an accurate representation of its depicted subject. In our own day, he asks, “What do we care who The Man with the Helmet or The Man with the Glove may have been in real life? For us their names are Rembrandt and Titian” (14). For Cécile, who is a child of the seventeenth century, “the statues of the saints and Holy Family were portraits” (77). There is no “fourth wall” for her; more than two centuries will pass before Magritte declares,“Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Works of art in seventeenth-century Quebec were not “estrange[d] from their original functions,” as Malraux contends happens in “the modern art gallery” (14). The statues of saints and the architectural altar of Notre-Dame de la Victoire are devotional objects. They inspire piety in the young Cécile; she does not identify them as Baroque figural sculpture. The narrator of Shadows adopts Cecile’s perceptual mode: “When [Cécile] passed by the Jesuits,’ those solid walls seemed sentinelled by a glorious company of martyrs . . . ; at the Hôtel Dieu, Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustin and her story rose up before one; at the Ursulines,’ Marie de l’Incarnation overshadowed the living” (112–13).

The reassessment of things and of our relationship to them is a modernist preoccupation that informs Cather’s fiction. Thea realizes the Panther Canyon potsherds are sheaths for “life itself” (Song of the Lark 335), for example, and Tom Outland develops a filial reverence for the artifacts of Cliff City. Cather told the Maine novelist Mary Ellen Chase, who stayed at Grand Manan in the autumn of 1929, that her Shadows on the Rock wouldn’t “have a trace of what is called movement or suspense. It will just have people and a lot of things” (Chase 512; original emphasis). In May 1930, Cather and Lewis went to France, where “for two months, Willa Cather followed the trail of Count Frontenac in Paris. She used to walk often along the Quai des Célestins and about Frontenac’s old quarter; she visited the church of St. Paul, and of Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs, where Frontenac’s heart was buried; and spent many mornings at the Musée Carnavalet, looking up things she wanted to know” (Lewis 158).

Cather’s choice of the Carnavalet is significant, for it is nothing if not a museum of “a lot of things.” Established in 1880 as a museum of the history of Paris, the Carnavalet houses over 600,000 objects that range from a dugout canoe from 4600 bce to the desk of Mme de Sévigné (Museum Carnavalet). It includes shop signs, children’s toys, household tools and utensils, and other objects of everyday life as well as painting and sculpture. One of its exhibits is L’Apothicaire Lescot, the imposing marble façade of an apothecary shop from the late nineteenth century displaying what Cather would describe as Auclair’s “mortars . . . carboys, all the paraphernalia of [the] trade” in its shelved windows (Shadows 29–30). It has been on continuous display very close to the museum entrance since 1913. Another exhibit that might have drawn Cather’s attention is the collection of maquettes: tabletop-sized architectural models of Paris at various historical periods, including one of Auclair’s quartier on the Île de la Cité, at the end of the sixteenth century. The maquettes are three-dimensional documents of every structure and every alleyway in different neighborhoods of the city and have been on continuous display since at least 1900, if not earlier.[7] Like an anthropological museum, the Carnavalet displays an object as itself. The façade of L’Apothicaire Lescot is the façade of an apothecary shop; an ironmonger’s sign is an iron-monger’s sign. The Carnavalet does not have a public library or public archives, so perhaps these exhibits are some of the things Cather “look[ed] up,”“things she wanted to know.” On that 1930 visit to Paris, too, although her focus was on the Quai des Célestins in the Marais, she might not have been able to resist taking a look at the Hotel Chateau Frontenac, renovated in the 1920s, located on rue Pierre Charron in the eighth arrondissement. “[T]he queer old part of Paris where part of my new story lies . . . has changed very little,” Cather wrote to her mother from Paris in 1930. “Many, many things are still the same” (Selected Letters 428).

It might seem a bit naïve—not aesthetically estranged enough—to draw these straight lines from Shadows to objects Cather is likely to have encountered in Paris in 1930. But evidence suggests that what Janis Stout has called “the biographical and textual thingness of Cather’s mind” (2) has much to do with the central ideas of this novel. The novel seems to have accrued in meaning-life (to use Millington’s term) for Cather herself as the narrative of its composition developed. In 1927 city renovations forced Cather and Edith Lewis to move from Bank Street into the Grosvenor Hotel, putting their household things in storage.“She felt like a turtle that was losing its shell,” writes Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant of Cather. “The psychic pain of stripping of this protective integument was unbearable; she was exposed and miserable” (226–27). Writing the novel became a new shell, enclosing her in a psychic refuge. Lewis writes of Cather working on Shadows in their “small apartment at the Grosvenor,” copies of the Cluny Lady and Unicorn tapestries “hung at the foot of her bed” (157–58). Cather later wrote to Dorothy Canfeld Fisher that the novel “has been like a little tapestry tent that I could unfold in hotels and sanitariums and strange places and forget the bleakness about me” (Selected Letters 445). It was not until the fall of 1932 that Cather and Lewis finally moved out of the Grosvenor into a Park Avenue apartment, and Lewis remembers “the pleasure Willa Cather got from being reunited with all the rather humble things buried so long in storage vaults, and also in getting a few new furnishings” (167).

The composition of Shadows was framed by the deaths of Willa Cather’s parents; during the time she was working on Shadows, constructing a story about a girl and her parents and how they kept house, she was suffering the loss of one parent and anticipating the loss of the other. Cather’s father died of a heart attack in March 1928, and she went to Nebraska for the funeral, just a week after she had returned from a lengthy visit spent supervising repairs to her parents’ house (Woodress 413). After “an exhausting family gathering” (Lewis 153), she spent a month getting her parents’ house in order while her mother went with her brother Douglass to California for an extended visit. She then traveled to California to help move her mother into “a little home,” “spending days and days shopping for hardware, linen, furniture, dishes, mattresses” (Selected Letters 415). Cather began Shadows once back in New York in the fall of 1928, and went to Quebec at Thanksgiving for a brief visit (Lewis 156). In December, Cather’s mother suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed and confined to a Pasadena sanitarium (Woodress 417). Cather traveled to California three times in the next couple of years to help care for her mother (419–20, 424). She finished Shadows in December 1930; her mother died in August 1931, the same year the novel was published (435).

Cather, then, was writing of Cécile being instructed in domestic tasks by her dying mother, lying on the long red sofa in the Auclair salon (31), at a time when she herself was preoccupied with a mother who “defied time so long” (letter to Fisher). Edith Lewis writes about the great toll her mother’s long illness took on her: “She had to watch her continually growing weaker, more ailing, yet unable to die” (Lewis 157). (James Woodress reports that Hamlin Garland “did not recognize [Cather], so changed was she” in the winter of 1930 [422].) Lewis writes that Cather’s mother’s death “meant the final breaking up of the family After [her parents’] going, the family as a family might almost be said not to exist any longer, but only personal relationships between the different members” (163).

The breaking up of a family is also the breaking up of a household, requiring attention to “a lot of things.” The composition of Shadows on the Rock is entwined not only with the deaths of Cather’s parents but with the replacement and rearrangement of furnishings and other household objects. During her 1928 stay in Red Cloud in her mother’s absence, Cather’s letters refer to choosing “lovely gray English chintz [wall]paper” for her mother’s bedroom and “lovely silk curtains” for the dining room, planting “big red zenias [sic]” and arranging for lawn care, and having furniture polished and painted (Selected Letters 407–8). She had to have been sorting through household objects and personal possessions, determining what her mother might continue to use, perhaps distributing or storing some of her father’s and siblings’ things. It is natural that later, too, after her mother’s death, she would sift through things, recollecting the narratives attached to otherwise unimportant objects, locating them in the “emotional penumbra” of the people she loved (“Novel Démeublé” 40)—like Mr. Shimerda,“full of sadness, of pity for things,” the lacrimae rerum of Aeneas.After her mother’s death and the publication of Shadows on the Rock, when Cather returned to Red Cloud for a Christmas visit in 1931,“she plunged into the task of opening and cleaning her parents’ house, which had been closed since her father died nearly four years before” (Woodress 436). At Christmas, she displayed the 30-fgure French crèche that Isabella Hambourg had given her. Later, as a memorial to her mother, she donated to Grace Episcopal Church a stained glass window depicting the Nativity.

Shadows on the Rock is concerned with the continuity of everyday life as the transmission of culture and draws our attention to common things that are connected with the human narrative, “trifles dear as the heart’s blood” (116), leading us to reassess the ordinary and reconsider its relationship to what we designate as art. “The obscure [Auclair] family, with all its detail of living, is clear as if seen behind glass in a museum,” noted Sergeant appreciatively (242). In this late novel, the crèche becomes emblematic of a coherence juxtaposed to “those breaks in her family circle which later saddened her life” (Lewis 149) and an expression of the Virgilian aesthetic first announced in My Ántonia—a thing that accrues in meaning to finally represent “life itself.”


 1. Much of the humor—as well as the theological meaning—of The Second Shepherds’ Play (from the Wakefield Cycle written in the fourteenth century) derives from the “untutored” shepherds who, very like the seventeenth-century children of Shadows on the Rock, have no sense of aesthetic estrangement. They move in a world of enacted metaphor where a stolen sheep is disguised as a baby on the same night that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is born. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the lyrics to “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941. (Go back.)
 2. In “After the Christmas Tree: Willa Cather and Domestic Ritual,” Romines argues that Cather’s representation of domestic ritual “changed tellingly” (61) between My Ántonia and Shadows on the Rock: in the earlier novel, ritual is “an androgynous cultural ideal of transcendence” (61) whereas in the later book, it is enacted chiefly by women to emphasize “collective life” (71). (Go back.)
 3. In “Where Is Cather’s Quebec? Anthropological Modernism and Shadows on the Rock,” Millington argues persuasively that “Cather’s invention of the anthropological novel” (35) was achieved in the context of Franz Boas’s innovations in anthropology that “identified ‘culture’ as the central arena of human meaning-making, suggesting new kinds of interest in daily life” (25). (Go back.)
 4. Provençal artisans began making santon figures out of clay in the eighteenth century, but figures made of wood, spun glass, alabaster, and even bread had been used in churches for centuries (L’Almanach 362). Francis may have been acquainted with an early Provençal santon tradition through his mother, Pica, whose family was from Provence. (Go back.)
 5. This essay is informed throughout by James H. Stubblebine’s fine analysis of fourteenth-century Italian vernacular art, especially those paintings found in Assisi and Florence. Particularly valuable is his articulation of the visual depiction of layered architectural space in these paintings. (Stubblebine’s study contributes to the debate among art historians concerning Giotto’s authorship of the Assisi frescoes.) (Go back.)
 6. On Cather’s use of ekphrasis as a critique of the aestheticized commercial object, see Prenatt,“Art and the Commercial Object in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House.” (Go back.)
 7. In a conversation at the Carnavalet on May 9, 2015, museum personnel informed me that both L’Apothicaire Lescot and the maquettes have been on continuous display since their acquisition around the turn of the century. (Go back.)
 8. In its slightly awkward phrasing, Cather’s description of Mr. Shimerda’s sad smile seems a deliberate reference to Aeneas’s “lacrimae rerum” upon seeing the depiction of the Trojan War, in which so many of his patria died, on the temple to Juno in Carthage (Aeneid 1.462). Literally translated as “tears of things,” the phrase should carry a sense of nostalgia and regret. I think Mandelbaum’s “tears for passing things” is the most apt translation—for Mr. Shimerda as well as Aeneas. (Go back.)


The Aeneid of Virgil. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Art Institute of Chicago. “Neapolitan Crèche: A Holiday Gift to the City.”
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay and explanatory notes by John J. Murphy. Editing and textual essay by Charles W. Mignon et al. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
—. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay and explanatory notes by James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
—. “The Novel Démeublé.” 1922. Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 35–43.
—. “On Shadows on the Rock.” 1931. Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 14–17.
—. The Professor’s House. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay by James Woodress. Explanatory notes by James Woodress with Kari
A. Ronning. Editing and textual essay by Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
—. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013.
—. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay and explanatory notes by John J. Murphy and David Stouck. Editing and textual essay by Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005.
Chase, Mary Ellen.“Five Literary Portraits.” Massachusetts Review 3.3 (1962): 511–16.
“Les Santons.” L’Almanach de la Provence. Ed. Pierre Échinard. Lassay-lesChâteaux: Éditions Jacques Marseilles-Larousse, 2003. 362.
Levertov, Denise. “The Annunciation.” A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions, 1989. 86–88.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976.
Malraux, André.“Museum without Walls.” The Voices of Silence. 1953. Bollingen Series 24. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1978. 13–127.
Millington, Richard. “Where Is Cather’s Quebec? Anthropological Modernism in Shadows on the Rock.” Cather Studies 4. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. 23–44.
Museum Carnavalet/Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de la ville de Paris/
Prenatt, Diane. “Art and the Commercial Object as Ekphrastic Subjects in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House.” Cather Studies 9. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. 204–24.
Romines, Ann.“After the Christmas Tree: Willa Cather and Domestic Ritual.”
American Literature 60.1 (1988): 61–82.
Sabatier, Paul. The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. Ed. Jon M. Sweeney. Brewster ma: Paraclete, 2014.
The Second Shepherds’ Pageant. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. Ed. A. C. Cawley. London: Everyman, 1993. 77–104.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963.
Stout, Janis P. “For Use, for Pleasure, for Status: The Object World of Willa Cather.” Willa Cather and Material Culture. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005. 1–14.
Stubblebine, James H. Assisi and the Rise of Vernacular Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.