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From Cather Studies Volume 13


Why Willa Cather? A Retrospective

In June 2014 scholars gathered in Rome for a three-day symposium to celebrate Willa Cather and boost her reputation in Europe, where compared to other American modernists she remains relatively unknown. What dawned on me at the end of the three days was that none of the papers, including my own, asked or attempted to answer why we would want to promote the reading of Cather. Is it for her art? Her humanity? For the life principles manifest in her fiction? As an academic promoting the reading of Cather for over fifty years and exploring the complexity behind the pleasure, I want to suggest answers to the question unasked and unanswered in Rome. My effort is anecdotal at times, for it amounts to what Cather means to me.


Willa Cather is known for landscape description, a vehicle for something like Emily Dickinson’s circumference without that vehicle impeding the process. This proficiency was her initial appeal, although Cather was not my first American landscape enthusiasm. That was Hawthorne, who communicated circumference via New England mountains and countryside, especially in tales like “The Great Stone Face” and “Ethan Brand,” rivaling the best of the Hudson River school of painters. But in Hawthorne, allegory and excessive language often impede picture. Comparing parallel landscape passages from The Marble Faun and Death Comes for the Archbishop, for example, reveals differences that credit Cather with (in her words) “finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole” (On Writing 102).

In the Hawthorne novel, the American sculptor Kenyon is about to accompany the Count of Monte Beni on a tour of central Italy. Description is filtered through the visitor, who feels “magnified” by the

wide . . . Umbrian valley that suddenly opened before him, set in its grand frame-work of nearer and more distant hills. It seemed as if all Italy lay under his eyes, in that one picture. For there was the broad, sunny smile of God, which we fancy to spread over that favoured land more abundantly than on other regions, and, beneath it, glowed a most rich and varied fertility. The trim vineyards were there, and the fig-trees, and the mulberries, and the smokey-hued tracts of the olive-orchards; there, too, were fields of every kind of grain. . . . White villas, gray convents, church-spires, villages, towns, each with its battlemented walls and towered gateway, were scattered upon this spacious map; a river gleamed across it; and lakes opened their blue eyes in its face, reflecting Heaven. (Novels 1065)

In the Archbishop, Jean Latour, accompanied by his Native guide, travels through the desert country east of Ácoma pueblo. As in the Hawthorne passage, the country is filtered through the visitor, a Frenchman, who responds to its vastness:

In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left,—piles of architecture that were like mountains. The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush,—that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds. (99)

In order to satisfy Cather’s “higher processes of art” (which as a modernist she reduced to “simplification”), to “disregard” and “subordinate . . . to a higher and truer effect” (On Writing 40), I would delete as implied Hawthorne’s “grand frame-work” and “one picture” and substitute the “smile of God,” introducing his catalogue of vineyards, fig-trees, and foliage with something like: “Beneath an expansive sun-filled sky glowed a rich and varied country.” In his next sentence,“towered gateway” seems implied, as does “spacious,” and the “blue eyes” reflection might be replaced with “lakes mirrored the heavens.” Moralizing needs to be subtle in modernist description, and language subordinated to picture. Cather achieves similar effects with fewer words, her landscape made vivid through metaphors that create picture with contrasting images of “sea,” “Gothic . . . cathedrals,” and “enormous city.” Her use of color in describing the blooming vegetation suggests the influence of Impressionism, an improvement over the blur of Hawthorne’s “smokey-hued tracts.”

These passages represent both authors communicating landscapes encountered later in life, not familiar home country, which explains the filtering through visitors. More significantly, both landscapes focus on the sky and storms and reveal a predisposition toward transcendence. As Kenyon watches a thunderstorm moving across the valley,

the sky was heavy with tumbling vapours. . . . [T]he spectator could not tell rocky height from impalpable cloud. Far into this misty cloud-region, however,—within the domain of Chaos, as it were—hill-tops were seen brightening in the sunshine; they looked like fragments of the world, broken adrift and based on nothingness, or like portions of sphere destined to exist, but not yet finally compacted. The sculptor . . . fancied that the scene represented the process of the Creator, when He held the new, imperfect Earth in His hand, and modelled it. (1072)

Latour is fascinated by the same elements—storm clouds, sunlight, and Genesis aspects—but Cather has shuffled them and inserted specificity:

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. . . . The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave. . . . [R]ain began to fall as if it were spilled from a cloud-burst. . . . Looking out over the great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets, the Bishop saw the distant mountains bright with sunlight. Again he thought that the first Creation morning might have looked like this when the dry land was drawn up out of the deep, and all was confusion. (99–100, 104)

Aside from these culturally rich landscapes, both writers were adept at mythologizing country familiar to them since childhood. Hawthorne bequeathed to his readers New England forests haunted by The Scarlet Letter’s Hester, Arthur, and Pearl, and the complex fates of characters in dozens of tales. I will never forget my first trip, in 1972, to Cather’s Nebraska, to Webster County and Red Cloud. Traveling south from Hastings at dusk in a Pinto station wagon with my wife and four kids, the landscape was magic, at once Homeric sea and unmade country unfolding under an almost full moon. I can only second Cather’s self-estimate to an interviewer that “descriptive work” is “the thing I do best” (Mahoney 39).


The saga of Death Comes for the Archbishop begins and ends with an invitation to journey, a diligence horn echoing in the Auvergne mountains calling two young priests to Paris to prepare for missionary work in the American Midwest and Southwest, eventually to head new dioceses in New Mexico and Colorado. Theirs is arguably the most historically spectacular of Cather success stories but only one among many, for a major appeal of this fiction is its call to achievement to those disadvantaged by geography or society, or both.

Earlier works also prioritize middle America—in class as well as location. For a second-generation American like myself, the first in a blue-collar family to attend college, Jim Burden’s experiences in My Ántonia at a provincial university of serious young men “who hung on through the four years” on “only a summer’s wages” (250) were as familiar in 1950s Brooklyn, New York, as in 1890s Lincoln, Nebraska. My being in New York City offset his privileged social status, although our discoveries were similar. My best teacher made literature so alive and significant that I changed my major from history to English and supplemented it with theatre, concerts, opera, ballet. Like Jim, I could appreciate the “people of my own infinitesimal past” (254), my parents and especially my Irish grandmother, who began to recite Tennyson’s “Song of the Brook” one evening as I read it aloud to her. She had memorized it in school in Donegal during the years Jim Burden was reading Virgil with his teacher Gaston Cleric. Her American daughters had little literary schooling, which helped me understand the cultural deprivation of children of poor immigrants.

For half of my academic life I taught first-generation college students from the depressed mill cities in Massachusetts strung along the Merrimack River, sharing and introducing literature and the related fine arts and hoping my students’ lives would be enriched like mine had been. Perhaps we’ve been too hard on Jim Burden, emphasizing his failures, sexual squeamishness, disengagement, and self-deception rather than his successful engagement with the arts in bequeathing to us the greater success story of an immigrant girl overcoming rejection and shame to become, as Cather intended her to be,“a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” (342).

More dramatic than either story is Thea Kronborg’s rise from Moonstone, Colorado, to the world stage of opera in The Song of the Lark. Hers is one of ongoing struggle to identify her talent, cope with poverty and disappointment, and familiarize herself with the cultural tradition she needs for artistic success. Thea’s discovery of her place in this ascent occurs in an Arizona canyon and is strategically positioned subsequent to her breaking out of the restrictions of her upbringing, what artists and perhaps all the truly educated must experience—what Cather describes in her Katherine Mansfield essay as “escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and . . . affections have woven about [one]” (On Writing 109). In Thea’s case there is a vast distance between the world she enters and the world she leaves behind. The break occurs on a train bound for Chicago after a less than successful visit home: “As the train pulled out she looked back at her mother and father and [brother] Thor. They . . . did not know, they did not understand. Something pulled in her—and broke” (273). Separation and isolation are the price of success, although not necessarily unqualified. Canadian novelist Gabrielle Roy envisions such a break as a summons, maybe a love call, to teachers and artists,“to withhold [oneself] . . . along the road, and then to catch up with the others, to rejoin them and cry joyously, ‘Here I am, and here is what I’ve found for you along the way!’” (209).

Claude Wheeler’s story in One of Ours resembles Thea’s in provincial upbringing, escape to a larger world, and brush with heroic theater, but is one in which Cather plaits success with the tragic. As such, it recalls Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! and anticipates Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland in The Professor’s House, as well as Lucy Gayheart. In Claude’s case, war disturbingly replaces art as the venue of success. On leave from the front line in France, he listens to his companion David Gerhardt play Saint-Saens’s third violin concerto with Claire Fleury and is torn between admiration and bitter envy at never having “been taught to do anything at all,” at being “tongue-tied, foottied, hand-tied” during his years on his family’s Nebraska farm. But the sound of artillery fire from the front restores his self-confidence and belief that the war will make the future different, rescue the world from the “strait-jacket” of “business proposition,” and be his “adventure,” his “Destiny” (551–54). Getting “his men in hand” when “they were going soft under his eyes” at the approach of German bombers, successfully holding back the enemy, and discovering while mortally wounded that “he commanded wonderful men” (596–97) fulfills Lieutenant Wheeler’s destiny. His mother’s reflection that “he must have found his life,” that “[h]e died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be,” defines his success. If these values seem illusory, they are also visionary; Mrs. Wheeler con-cludes,“[T]hose were beautiful beliefs to die with” (604).

Visionary components of success are also apparent in subsequent Cather novels. Apparitions encapsulate the height of success for both Professor St. Peter and Tom Outland. The Professor’s occurs off the south coast of Spain, below the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada,“high beyond the flight of fancy”; as he “lay looking up at them . . . the design of his [prize-winning history] book unfolded in the air above him. . . . He had accepted it as inevitable, . . . and it had seen him through” (105). Tom’s “high tide” also occurs from a supine position but at the bottom of a Blue Mesa canyon: “high above me the canyon walls . . . dyed flame-colour . . . and the Cliff City lay in a gold haze against its dark cavern. . . . This was the first time I ever saw [the mesa] as a whole. It all came together. . . . For me the mesa was . . . a religious emotion” (249–50). Tom delivers this narration after his university graduation, after making his way from amateur archaeologist and student of Virgil to physicist. Both visionary experiences are recalled rather than occurring in the present and are tarnished by tragic circumstances: Tom’s heartless rejection of his best friend, his own death in the Great War, and the disastrous legal and monetary consequences of his invention; the Professor’s loss of Tom, family discord, despair, and flirtation with death.

Outland’s departure for the war in France, his leaving behind marriage and life in the Midwest, echoes Claude’s. Father Duchene, Tom’s mentor, offers an interpretation of the mesa’s ancient inhabitants easily applicable to the ideals Claude believed he was saving. The tribe, Duchene speculates, was “a superior people,” who “developed the arts of peace,” had “a distinct feeling for design,” and “purif[ied] life by religious ceremonies and observances. . . . They were probably wiped out, utterly exterminated, by some roving Indian tribe without culture or domestic virtues” (217–19). The description reads like a palimpsest, echoing the earlier text of Claude’s war of the worlds between his brother’s buying and selling and his own high ideals, of life “reinforced by something that endured, . . . a background that held together” (One of Ours 535).

St. Peter’s relinquishing “something very precious” late in his story duplicates what Thea broke with: “He didn’t . . . feel any obligations toward his family. . . . He doubted whether his family would ever realize that he was not the same man.” He would seek refuge in a larger family, in “the bloomless side of life he had always run away from,” one embodied in the devout family seamstress, Augusta, “with whom one was outward bound” (280–82). The Professor’s is, perhaps, the darkest of Catherian success stories, one of “letting go with the heart” (Sergeant 215), as Cather indicated to Robert Frost, borrowing the phrase from his poem “Wild Grapes.”

Shadows are evident in each of these successful journeys and in those that follow: Myra Henshawe’s in My Mortal Enemy, Sapphira Colbert’s in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and in “Old Mrs. Harris” and “Before Breakfast.” Success is qualified by modernist complexities and realism, and redefined to include the visionary, individual integrity, and even illusion.


It is 13 October 2015, and I have just returned from an exhibition of Dutch painting in the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As a Cather scholar I was anxious to get to the opening, for it was to such an exhibition and to the sonata form that Cather credited the experimental structure of The Professor’s House. Bernice Slote gave a lecture at Merrimack College in 1972 titled “The Secret Web,” explaining that a “web of connections and relationships . . . illuminate and . . . define [Willa Cather] as a person and as an artist,” that her art “is apparent simplicity, actual complexity,” and that the web “always moved outward from this time and place” (2, 9, 8). Those of us fortunate enough to have worked on the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition will emphatically agree. Exploring a Cather text for what exists in, above, or beneath it amounts to a liberal education, and while the extent of the web, if not always secret, is fathomless, following where it leads into locales, histories, literary texts, and the fine arts profoundly expands our worlds. Cather texts of “complexity ... determined by simplification” (Slote 19) have directed much of my study, interests, travel over the years—in fact, defined much of my life.

The web connects to the American writers Cather admired and/ or was influenced by. During the 1960s and early ’70s, when paperback editions of the novels were unavailable and most American literature professors ignored Cather or offered “Paul’s Case” as a sample, many of us struggled to make her novels integral to the canon. Certainly, Ántonia Shimerda could be discussed with Huck Finn as an American type, and Jim Burden with Huck as the narrator of a comparable and apparently episodic narrative. We could argue that including Cather actually discloses the canon. Burden’s account at the beginning of My Ántonia of leaning against a warm yellow pumpkin and being dissolved into the universal,“whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge” (18), echoes the transparent eyeball passage at the beginning of Emerson’s Nature and later a child’s love of nature: “I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons” (Essays 38). Jim approaches his new world with new eyes, as Emerson encourages, building his own world and his own heaven. Emerson’s disciple Walt Whitman, whom Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy slyly labels a “dirty old man” (66), inspired Cather’s cosmic vision in O Pioneers!, which takes its title from one of his poems. The mating of earth and air, the yield of the earth to the plow, Alexandra Bergson’s yearning for the spirit breathing across the land owe to “Song of Myself,” as does the novel’s final sentiment that hearts like hers will be received by the earth to live again in wheat and corn. Alexandra’s insights on death after her brother’s murder affirm those of the persona in “The Sleepers.”

Cather has Cardinal Allande drolly refer to Fenimore Cooper in the prologue to the Archbishop, perhaps her hint that there are clear parallels between Cooper’s Leatherstocking and Littlepage novels and her own Nebraska ones, from the ocean metaphor describing shaggy grass in The Prairie and My Ántonia to the environmental impact and social decline of settlement recorded in The Prairie and Littlepage series and from O Pioneers! to A Lost Lady. Natty Bumppo’s escape to the prairie from western New York due to plunder serves as an ironic foil for Niel Herbert’s flight from the prairie as petty businessmen “destroy and cut up [the vast territory] into profitable bits” (Lost Lady 102). One of the American books Cather singles out for praise in her preface on Sarah Orne Jewett is The Scarlet Letter, which she refers to earlier in “The Novel Démeublé” as an example of creating without naming. Its influence is felt in the sympathy nature accords to the lovers in O Pioneers!, and I detect Hawthorne in both My Ántonia and the Archbishop: Jim Burden seems a clone of the narrator of The Blithedale Romance, Miles Coverdale, and the execution of Fray Baltazar a dead ringer for the murder of Miriam’s model in The Marble Faun.

Elizabeth Sergeant recalls that at their first meeting Cather recognized her as a fellow Jamesian and somewhat brusquely questioned why Sergeant “joined the reforming pamphleteers” (35). Henry James was a lifelong model of sorts for Cather’s fiction and occasional essays on fiction, which she, too, related to the fine arts. Her early and awkward Jamesian imitations, such as “Eleanor’s House” and “The Willing Muse,” and several, like “Flavia and Her Artists,” on writers and artists, prepared her for perhaps her best story on art and performance,“Coming, Aphrodite!” Even after Cather admitted in a 1905 letter to Viola Roseboro’ a certain impatience with James’s later fiction, a mature Cather, as Sharon O’Brien explains, “assimilated James’ influence . . . and could accommodate his technique for her own purposes” (310). Cather’s maturity involved her introduction to the Southwest, an altered view of her home country, and the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett, whose work exemplified Howellsian theories of realism, and also American Naturalists Stephen Crane and Frank Norris, the first for style and perhaps the drowning scene in Alexander’s Bridge, the second for violence in early prairie stories, for Wick Cutter in My Ántonia, and the suicide of Ántonia’s father. Cather was able to recast the Jamesian consciousness to new locales and situations. This is especially evident in male characters in her later novels: Latour in the Archbishop, Auclair in Shadows on the Rock, Henry Colbert in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. All three are informed by literature, the arts, philosophy, religion, and capable of metaphoric thinking. Latour, for example, filters the New Mexico landscape through Genesis and compares mountains and clouds to censer and smoke, wave and foam. An intimacy with the American canon is a requirement for following Cather’s “Secret Web.”

The British canon is the most familiar and shortest step from the American in tracing Cather connections. Shakespeare, the Romantic poets (Wordsworth and Keats primarily), and the Victorians significantly informed Cather’s vision and provided artistic models. However, as several scholars have demonstrated, French and Russian writers are at least as important. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary should be required reading for us and perhaps Alphonse Daudet’s Letters from My Mill for its arrangement of sketches as well as the flavor of Provence, which permeates Cather settings from O Pioneers! to the Avignon fragment “Hard Punishments.” As for the Russians, Tolstoy’s Confession informs the final book of The Professor’s House, and fables like “What Men Live By,” “The Three Hermits,” and “Master and Man,” which a youthful Cather would have dismissed as “wearisome” because written “for a moral purpose” (Kingdom of Art 378), resonate in the “miraculous” vignettes a mature Cather wove into her “Catholic novels.”Similarly,a minor work of Turgenev, “Bezhin Meadow,” from A Sportsman’s Notebook, suggested the structure of “The Enchanted Bluff” (and also the picnic scene in My Ántonia). Five boys sit around a fire near a river and tell stories. The contrast between Old and New World mentalities is of significance: the Russian boys are obsessed with superstitions, death, and doomsday; the Americans see the legendary past as an opportunity for adventure, although one never realized. In both, a river, birds, fish, stars, moon, sunset, sunrise give cosmic life to the setting, and each ends with the revelation of the future death of one of the boys. A Latinist well-versed in the classics, Cather knew Virgil, Homer, the tragic dramatists, and also Dante. The Aeneid is referred to repeatedly throughout the Cather canon, and The Georgics is arguably the major literary source for My Ántonia. Dante’s world is that of the Archbishop, Shadows, and “Hard Punishments,” and the stories embroidered in the Commedia inform, like Tolstoy’s fables, both novels.

Willa Cather was a prodigious educational traveler. Her readers and scholars have followed her from the grasslands of Webster County, Nebraska, and Cather family sites in Red Cloud; to Lincoln, where she studied; to the northern Virginia mountains, where she was born; to Pittsburgh, where she taught school; to New York, where she worked and lived most of her life; to New Hampshire, where she wrote and is buried; and to Grand Manan Island, where she owned real estate and summered. But beyond her home places, which provided settings, Cather the tourist expanded the scope of her fiction from Chicago to Avignon. Through a wealth of details, like a Southwest tower seen through falling snow, a copper flash on the dome of St. Peter’s, the yellow of a New Mexico cliff evoking the Palace of the Popes, exotic places become immediate. They invite study, entice visits and adventures well beyond the web—for me a hike up the Puy de Dome, the view of Rome from Parco Savello, of Percé Rock from a boat, a decade of choir in Archbishop Lamy’s (Latour’s) cathedral.

The Boston Museum of Fine Art’s exhibition of Dutch paintings reminded me that serious exploration of Cather’s writings takes us beyond the strictly literary and into the fine arts. Her critical essays reveal that fiction is a fine art, and she collapses the distinctions among them. The fragment “Light on Adobe Walls” groups Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Leonardo as equal players in “the game of make-believe” (On Writing 125). The “Casta Diva” aria from Bellini’s Norma reveals Myra Henshawe’s situation and character in My Mortal Enemy; the Hudson River luminist painters inspire the sunsets in My Ántonia and “Tom Outland’s Story”; hearing Dvořák’s Symphony in E Minor,“From the New World,” becomes a formative occasion for Thea Kronborg; the Central Park afternoon scene in “The Diamond Mine” is Cather’s take on her Impressionist painter contemporaries. Correspondences with the fine arts have proven a field day for scholars: Schubert’s Die Winterreise and Lucy Gayheart, Puvis de Chavannes murals and the Archbishop, Wagner’s Parsifal and One of Ours, La Dame à la licorne tapestries and Shadows. And we should explore the symphonic structure of Cather narratives, her scenic arrangements, and use of chiaroscuro in them. Edith Lewis describes the diet of opera she and Cather enjoyed in their early days in New York: “We lived very economically. . . . Our practice of economy was, however, accompanied by extravagance. . . . [W]e went often to the opera, sitting high up, in the cheap seats” (74). The influence of theater, especially opera, is detectable in the love and death scene in “The White Mulberry Tree” in O Pioneers! and in the farewell scene in My Ántonia’s “The Pioneer Woman’s Story,” a duet, really, staged beneath the moon at sunset. Cather challenges us to make the fine arts as much a part of our lives as reading. They were for her and are detectable in the particular cadence and quality of her voice.


As an artist Cather cherished and delighted in the physical world, and her fascination with our appetites is evident in a variety of characters, from Thea Kronborg to Grandma Harris, Bartley Alexander to Jean Marie Latour, and in situations as diverse as Marie and Emil’s lovemaking beneath the white mulberry tree and Cécile Auclair pulling Jacques on her sled up Holy Family Hill to enjoy a Quebec sunset. Always, however, something somewhere beyond is predictably present if unnamed, what Flannery O’Connor explains as the mystery “left over” that “cannot be accounted for” when the fiction writer is done with nature and manners (Mystery 153). Count Frontenac’s contemplation of death in Shadows is my favorite Cather passage on this mystery, that he believed “his spirit would go before God to be judged. . . . because he had been taught it in childhood, and because he knew there was something in himself and in other men that this world did not explain. Even the Indians had to make a story to account for something in their lives that did not come out of their appetites” (284).

Among Cather scholars, my work, although hopefully balanced by aesthetic and historical concerns, is usually associated with the issue of Cather and religion. I first read Cather and then taught her in belief contexts, at Catholic and Mormon schools, which, as O’Connor argues, might be more liberating than restricting—as introductions to “a larger universe” (Mystery 175). Critics as disparate as E. K. Brown, who identifies The Professor’s House as “a religious novel” (246), grouping it with the three novels subsequent to it, and Joan Acocella, who recognizes Christianity as “central to [Cather’s] work” but “as an instance [and] not the summation of Cather’s idealism” (84, 86), seem to justify approaching Cather, at least partially and unsentimentally, from the perspective of religion. Acocella’s observation is insightful in distinguishing religious attitudes beyond Judeo-Christianity and sectarianism. I go back to The Marble Faun for a metaphor encapsulating these distinctions. During their ramble through Umbria, the sculptor Kenyon and the Count visit many churches, and the American is fascinated by the brilliance of the stained glass, by the depicted “religious truth and sacred story” made radiant by the bright Italian sunshine. “[V]iewed from the warm interior of Belief . . . Christian Faith,” Kenyon claims,“is a grand Cathedral, with divinely pictured windows.” But, he continues,“standing without, you see no glory, nor can imagine any” (Novels 1107). Later when his Puritan girlfriend softens toward Catholicism, Kenyon condemns its truths and stories as “a brilliant illusion” and situates himself outside, declaring,“[b]ut, give me—to live and die in—the pure, white light of Heaven!” (1156–57). Erase the defensiveness and condemnation and this duality clarifies the stance toward religion in much of Cather’s fiction.

Frontenac situates himself both within and outside the cathedral. He accepts the “religious truth and sacred story” of his church, recognizing these as creations, versions of the inexplicable. Belief becomes both a matter of interpretation and of culture and art. In Shadows on the Rock, the range of faith within the same belief system is extraordinary, from the innocent acceptance of Cécile and Jacques to the rational qualifications of Euclide Auclair and Frontenac, from the administrative orderliness of Bishop Laval to the conservative hysteria of recluse Jeanne Le Ber and martyr Noël Chabanel, and to Father Hector Saint-Cyr’s benign interpretation of that Jesuit’s life as Christlike self-sacrifice. Through the nuns of Quebec, Cather envisions the church as a “world of the mind,” a “lovingly arranged and ordered universe” in which one could feel “at home” (115). The physical counterpart is Jean Marie Latour’s Midi Romanesque cathedral, built to represent Catholicism at its aesthetic best in a new country. Like Shadows, the Archbishop contains a diverse range of belief: the literalness of Father Vaillant, Sada’s servility, Latour’s developing ecumenism regarding religious traditions outside Christianity. Both novels might be considered illustrations of Professor St. Peter’s argument that “art and religion . . . are the same thing, in the end,” cultural constructs “giv[ing] man the only happiness he has ever had” (Professor’s House 69).

Whatever her own religious beliefs, Willa Cather was fascinated by and took comfort in the culture of belief and made it a major component of her fiction and life. She was confirmed in the Episcopal church in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and in New York attended the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, although, as Flannery O’Connor claimed,“scratch an Episcopalian and you’re liable to find most anything” (Collected 1057). The art in this Fifth Avenue church was its attraction. Cather “loved the beautiful altar, with John La Farge’s great fresco [The Ascension of Our Lord] above; and for years went regularly to the vesper services, where the organist . . . conducted one of the best-trained choirs in New York,” writes Edith Lewis (151–52). In one of her last letters, Cather wished she “could have had a comfortable boardinghouse near Chartres when Henry Adams used to prowl about the cathedral” (Letters 672). She, too, was inspired by pictured windows.

However, the transcendent aspect of Cather’s fiction is my main concern here, the ongoing offering of grace and vision to her characters when acceptance is tantamount to human transcendence, what theologian Karl Rahner describes as “God’s self-communication to man as a free being” capable of “an absolute ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God” (118). Instances of such offers regularly occur beyond the pages of Cather texts. In O Pioneers!, the mystery left over from Alexandra Bergson’s “resolution” to go to her brother’s killer, Frank Shabata, in jail, is an example, a decision “formed” during the several days she lies bedridden (252). Similar reserve is evident in the Archbishop, where we are removed from Latour’s painful decision to release Vaillant to the Colorado mission in spite of deep personal need. The “Bishop . . . was shut in his study all morning” (256), subsequently presenting Vaillant with a challenge he responds to enthusiastically. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the death of her granddaughter Betty becomes Sapphira’s opportunity to overcome her long alienation from her daughter, Rachel, after slave-girl Nancy’s escape. Again, Cather distances us from the mystery: “[T]he Mistress was thinking, turning things over in her mind. . . . [W]hen she had quite made up her mind, she put her hand on her husband’s drooping shoulder” (262), and asks him to invite their daughter home.

All three are positive examples, but there are negative ones as well. Harry Gordon’s refusal of Lucy Gayheart’s request for a ride, the result of which is a life haunted by guilt: “Lucy had suffered for a few hours. . . . But with him it was there to stay. . . . [a] dark place in his mind” (Lucy Gayheart 232–33). Tom Outland’s rejection of Roddy Blake is perhaps the most dramatic in Cather, and is a struggle less distanced. “There was an ache in my arms to reach out and detain him,” Tom confesses, “but there was something also that made me absolutely powerless to do so.” Following this negative prompting is a clear positive one to rise above anger, disappointment, and a hurt ego as Roddy pauses to echo the Golden Rule: “And I’m glad it’s you that’s doing this to me, Tom; not me that’s doing it to you” (Professor’s House 247). The result for Tom is a dark place in his mind: “But the older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it” (252).

Arguably, the most protracted of transcendent opportunities, one filled with negatives but positive in outcome, occurs in My Mortal Enemy, involving Myra Henshawe in the final stage of her life. Narrator Nellie takes her to a headland above the Pacific, where a twisted cedar and intense sunlight complement the spare realism of the text. “From a distance I could see her leaning against her tree and looking off to sea, as if she were waiting for something. . . . The afternoon light . . . grew stronger and yellower, . . . beating from the west on her cliff as if thrown by a burning-glass”—an obvious symbol of grace. Myra’s smile becomes “soft,” her face “lovely.” The transformation is viewed from the outside, its mystery distanced.“Light and silence,” she claims, “heal all one’s wounds ... but one, and that is healed by dark and silence” (60–61). Her need for healing, sense of guilt, and hope for forgiveness intensify the sun setting into the sea, like the cedar, a traditional Crucifixion image.

I’ve saved two major examples from English literature relevant to that “something” in human nature “that this world did not explain,” the King James Bible and John Bunyan. The King James, the more important, served Cather not only as a source of direct quotes and indirect reference through the arts, but for archetypes enhancing her material and language arranged in seamless and evocative poetic clusters. Characters as diverse as Claude Wheeler and Grandma Harris reveal themselves negatively and positively through scriptural reference. Claude is so terrified by bodily decay during his college years that he pins assurance of privileged escape on Psalm 16:10: “[N]either wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption,” betraying a crippling narcissism (One of Ours 75). Mrs. Harris, in contrast, accepts a servile role in her daughter’s house, is thankful for each night’s rest on her thin mattress, taking comfort in Psalm 23: “To be off her feet, to lie flat, to say over the psalm beginning: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ was comfort enough” (Obscure Destinies 80). Perhaps Cather’s greatest achievement in mining the King James is the evolution of a poetic style drawn from scriptural clusters. In the Archbishop, for example, chapter two of the seventh book opens with Jean Latour racked by doubts about his missionary work in New Mexico and in need of the support of his vicar serving far off in Arizona. Latour is “unable to sleep, . . . failure clutching at his heart.” His prayers seem “empty words,” his bed becomes “a bed of thorns,” his soul “a barren field,” and his work “a house built upon the sands” (221). The restless night and thorns in the flesh are humbling experiences in, respectively, Job 7:4 and 2 Corinthians 12:7; the barren field and house built on sand are parable images referring to unsuccessful missionary endeavor in, respectively, Matthew 13:4–7, 20–22, and 7:26–27.

Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War are referred to directly and used archetypally in Cather texts. As Grandma Harris on her deathbed begins to listen to her young grandson read her a story, her mind drifts into a passage from Bunyan’s allegory, where Christian’s wife, Christiana, her family, and her friend Mercy “come to the arbour on the Hill of Difficulty: ‘Then said Mercy, how sweet is rest to them that labour’” (Obscure Destinies 150–52). Allegorical landscapes and nomenclature link Pilgrim’s Progress and the Archbishop. The Holy War, an allegory Bunyan wrote between the first and second parts of the more famous Pilgrim’s Progress, is introduced in Sapphira and the Slave Girl during Henry Colbert’s struggle over his attraction to the slave Nancy, whose sexuality he mitigates by associating her with Bunyan’s Mercy.

“Saul Bellow once said that all great modern novelists were really attempting a definition of human nature in order to justify the continuation of their craft,” writes James Wood (74). This certainly seems applicable to Cather, who clothed human activity and aspiration, success and failure in the mystery left over that cannot be accounted for.


I use this single term for consistency in the final part of this retrospective and to respect Cather’s claim in a 1941 letter that she was not a social critic, never tried to write “any propaganda—any rules . . . or theories about the betterment of human society,” especially “when disguised as fiction” (Letters 597). However, through characters and situations and clear complaints in essays, she reveals disapproval, bitter at times, of the course of American society. This is evident in her earliest work, in stories like “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and, prior to her recourse into history, casts shadows on all her more or less contemporary novels from O Pioneers! to The Professor’s House. Her 1923 essay in The Nation, “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” should be required reading for aficionados of her Nebraska novels and a featured text for some future Cather Spring Conference in Red Cloud. Her denunciations of the “Americanization” (237) of the state that was her residence from 1883 to 1896 and provided the setting for much of her fiction emphasizes discrimination against foreign immigrants, suppression of foreign languages, the decline of cookery and craft, and, most importantly, the “eclipse” of the humanities by the study of “mercantile processes” at her alma mater, the University of Nebraska (238).

Cultural decline seems to be inversely proportional to the prosperity and modernization following the state’s recovery from depression in the 1890s. New houses lit by electricity and equipped with bathrooms, well-kept towns, happy-looking and well-nourished schoolchildren with opportunities for university study are eclipsed by “the ugly crest of materialism. . . . Too much prosperity, too many moving-picture shows, too much gaudy fiction have colored the taste and manners of so many of these Nebraskans of the future. There, as elsewhere, one finds the frenzy to be showy . . . a coming generation which tries to cheat its aesthetic sense by buying things instead of making anything” (238). The phrase “There, as elsewhere” is strategic, for what is being castigated in 1923 is these United States, the cultural standard to which Nebraska has succumbed. By 1923, after One of Ours and two years prior to The Professor’s House, her argument with Nebraska had expanded to the whole country and, perhaps, beyond. The question we have to ask concerns the current relevancy of Cather’s disapproval, which assumes several literary forms, most successfully satire, although more frequently and less successfully character-belittling diatribe, jeremiad, confession, and lecture.

O Pioneers!, composed when she was still enthused about her “home pasture,” contains one of her sharpest satiric episodes. The newly prosperous Bergson clan assembles for dinner in Alexandra’s dining room, which the local furniture dealer “had conscientiously done his best to make . . . like his display window” (92). The talk is in English because her brother Oscar’s wife, “from the malaria district of Missouri, was ashamed of marrying a foreigner, and his boys did not understand a word of Swedish” (94). Oscar is jealous because Alexandra is buying a piano for brother Lou’s daughter. Lou fears gossip about his sister keeping the Bible-reading Norwegian hermit Ivar on her farm because, as Ivar puts it, “the way here is for all to do alike” (88). The surprise arrival of the Bergsons’ old neighbor, Carl Linstrum from New York, prompts Lou’s wife, Annie, to primp herself and boast of her daughter’s piano skills and wood-burning art, her husband’s success, and their plans to move into town “as soon as her girls are old enough to go out into company” (104). Lou swaggers to the New Yorker about William Jennings Bryan and how the “West is going to make itself heard” (104). As Annie appears for departure “in a hat that looked like the model of a battleship” (105), the brothers draw Alexandra aside to warn her that Carl might be after her money. With much left unnamed, Cather introduces the portrait of pioneer patriarch John Bergson hanging in Alexandra’s sitting room, noting its “sad eyes that looked forward into the distance, as if they already beheld the New World” (98). In all these scenes, consumer culture is satirized and materialism is questioned.

In My Ántonia, and especially in A Lost Lady, Cather seems to have lost patience with the society if not the terrain of her “home pasture,” and the result, diatribe and jeremiad, is less successful. Jim Burden’s denouncement of the town of Black Hawk is an example of the former. Put off by the townspeople’s dismissal of foreigners as “ignorant people who couldn’t speak English,” by their fear of immigrant girls from the country as a menace to the social order, and by the “respect for respectability” (My Ántonia 194–95) of Black Hawk youth like himself who enjoy frolicking with these hired girls before marrying conventional ones, Burden walks the streets of the town at night “scowling” at the flimsy houses sheltering lives “made up of evasions and negations” (212). Yet Cather tempers his criticism, identifying him through a “grown-up” neighbor as a “romantic” given to exaggeration (145, 222). Similar subjectivity accompanies Niel Herbert’s musing on the demise of the pioneer West; Niel is rigid, described as “stiff” (60), and cruelly dismissive of Marian Forrester for not satisfying his heroic expectations. Although compromised, Cather’s criticism is extended through Niel from the local indictment of a town to “all the vast territory of the Old West” and capped with a dire prophecy of the future: “[S]ettled by . . . great-hearted adventurers[,] . . . the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of [“shrewd young men”] . . . who. . . . would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom” (102). This is the environment Claude Wheeler inherits in One of Ours.

Claude’s story and that of Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House, if explored for social disapproval, represent a transition on Cather’s part and require a change of key. Both are confessional literature of sorts: Claude’s a bildungsroman and St. Peter’s a disclosure of artistic, political, and religious struggle. Unlike Jim’s and Niel’s adolescent memoirs highlighting female symbols of setting, Claude’s and St. Peter’s stories are extremely intimate, self-focused—and deadly. Restricted by a social environment valuing mechanical toys over education and passing to shrewd young men trained to petty economies, Claude courts distinction in going to war in France for humanistic ideals that will save the world. Social disapproval here has broadened from province to nation: Claude “had begun to believe” that Americans “were always buying and selling, building and pulling down . . . [,] were a people of shallow emotions” (535).“[P]erhaps he would never go home at all ... would buy a little farm and stay here for the rest of his life” (534).

In The Professor’s House, bickering over money and status in his family (more corrupting than anything in O Pioneers!), in his university, and in general society made “[t]he world . . . sad to St. Peter . . . small and tight and airless. . . . [E]verything around him . . . seemed insupportable. . . . [T]he little world . . . might become like that; a boat on which one could travel no longer” (148–49). Disapproval here is summarized in the lecture St. Peter gives early on, universalizing Cather’s Nebraska essay. All of Western history is the context: the biblical era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. The Professor’s subject is the development of science at the expense of much else—science here read as psychiatry dismissive of sin, physics “revolutionizing aviation” (42) but debasing a family, technology in the service of profitmaking and physical comfort at the expense of moral impoverishment. However we define “science” in this novel, “the other side of the medal” (to borrow a phrase from the Nebraska essay) is stamped with “[a]rt and religion (they are the same thing, in the end)” (69). “The classics, the humanities, are having their dark hour,” Cather lamented in her essay (238) two years prior to the publication of St. Peter’s story, which frames the extension of decline to America’s capital city in “Tom Outland’s Story,” a materialistic narrative set ironically in a landscape much touted for its liberating style.

There is a dichotomy in the Catherian sensibility. A jarring addendum to the Professor’s lecture is Cather’s comment in her 11 August 1945 letter to Sidney Florance that “the atomic bomb has sent a shudder of horror (and fear) through all the world” (Selected Letters 652), yet the previous year, in “Before Breakfast,” she has her aging protagonist, Henry Grenfell, watch a young woman take an early morning plunge in “the death-chill” waters of the North Atlantic and, despite his chagrin and decrepitude, recover his optimism, “chuckling to himself: ‘Anyhow, when that first amphibious frog-toad found his water hole dried up behind him, and jumped out to hop along till he could find another,—well, he started on a long hop’” (Collected 406–7). Saul Bellow’s comment again seems appropriate: “[A]ll great modern novelists were really attempting . . . to justify the continuation of their craft.” Mildred Bennett quotes Robert Frost’s observation that “with Carl Sandburg, it was ‘the people yes.’ With Willa Cather, it was ‘the people, no’” (149). Cather’s disapproval turned toward the “Stupid Faces” that confront Thea Kronborg, turned toward conventional society, its fads, misplaced values, rumors and faulty education. She gave her assent to those who rose above such limitations, those who, in spite of them, quietly or dramatically achieved.


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