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From Cather Studies Volume 2

Willa Cather and Alphonse Daudet

Anyone who has read extensively in the work of Willa Cather is aware that she had a lifelong love affair with France.[1] That she was very well read in French literature is equally apparent. In college, a friend remembered, she "amazed and sometimes abashed some of her professors by caring more for their subjects than they did. Especially French. There seemed to be a natural affinity between her mind and French forms of art. During her undergraduate years she made it a loving duty to read every French literary masterpiece she could lay her hands on" (Fisher 9). In the index to my recent biography of Cather I find the names of twenty-six French writers she read-from Balzac to Zola-and this list does not include all the French writers that she knew. Despite all the evidence of Cather's massive French connection, very little attention has been paid to the impact of French literature and French writers on her work.[2]

Balzac, Daudet, Dumas, père and fils, Flaubert, Hugo, Maupassant, Merrimée, Musset, Verlaine, and Zola were writers she knew well and loved, and George Sand, whose portrait hung over her mantel, was one of her heroines. Assessing the influence of all these writers on Cather's life and work would be a formidable undertaking, but to start the examination, I would like to look at the writer Cather loved the best, the writer she quoted from, paraphrased, and wrote about the most. This was Alphonse Daudet, who was born in Provence, a Paris sophisticate, author of a shelf of novels and stories that are read on both sides of the Atlantic.

When Daudet died in 1897, Cather, then a Pittsburgh journalist, wrote three articles about him in which she summed up his life and career perceptively and admiringly, and when she first visited Provence in 1902 and wrote about it for the Nebraska State Journal, she entitled her article "In the Country of Daudet." I think she was predisposed to be enchanted by Provence long before she ever set foot in France by having read Daudet's engaging stories and sketches of his native province in Lettres de mon moulin. That Avignon was Cather's favorite French city probably owes much to preconditioning by Daudet.

In Daudet, Cather chose an author of infinite charm, one of the great storytellers of the nineteenth century, not quite in the same class as his friends Flaubert, Zola, and Turgenev, but nonetheless a dedicated, significant artist. Born in Nîmes in 1840 into a bourgeois family, he was the son of a manufacturer of silk products at a time when the silk industry was flourishing in southern France; but the Revolution of 1848 triggered economic dislocations and bankruptcy for Daudet's father. Then young Alphonse, like Cather, was uprooted after nine years of a happy rural childhood and taken to a totally different environment. For Daudet this was the industrial city of Lyon, where he obtained an education under impoverished circumstances. Later, like Cather, he taught school for a time, then went to Paris to seek his fortune. Through luck and talent he succeeded in becoming a writer, both a critical and a popular success, and died relatively young at the age of fifty-seven.

It is clear from the three articles Cather wrote about Daudet that she had read him extensively and well. She refers to eight of his works in these pieces, quoting, paraphrasing, discussing his plays and novels, ranging from the beginning to the end of his career. She ranked Flaubert and Balzac above him among the major French novelists, but what she liked about Daudet was his sense of beauty, his delicacy, his sensitivity, and his love of life. She wrote, "He could perfectly reproduce all experience; he described things utterly inexpressible; he mastered the language of sensation" (Curtin 575). These generalizations could apply equally to Cather herself. Assessing the influence of one writer on another is, of course, an unscientific and chancy business. One cannot say with any assurance what a writer takes away from his or her reading. With Cather it is particularly difficult because she read so much, but it is surely true that books absorbed at an early age leave indelible tracings.

Aside from whatever impact Daudet may have had on Cather's literary output, there are intriguing biographical parallels between the two writers. As noted already, both were Southerners uprooted as children and taken to another world. More than that, both Cather and Daudet in later life had ambivalent feelings about being Southerners, a sort of love/hate relationship that mellowed as they grew older. And perhaps their southernness gave each of them a tendency to stretch the facts on occasion (Cather admitted this), for biographers of both writers have to sift fact from fiction in both their public and private statements. The writers also shared a sense of a second self. Daudet once told his son: "We live two parallel existences which complete each other: one an existence of emotion, the other of observation. To give prominence to one or the other of these existences is to give oneself up to unhappiness. Happiness lies in their equilibrium" (Leon Daudet 148). Cather's idea of the second self, manifested in characters such as Bartley Alexander or Professor St. Peter, is similar. It would be too much to claim that Cather got this from Daudet, but it is an interesting affinity. In addition, they both shared a great disinterest in politics. Daudet stayed out of the Dreyfus Case, for example, while his friend Zola plunged in passionately. Cather has almost nothing to say about politics, even in her letters, and her criticism of social-action fiction, expressed in her essay "Escapism," is withering.

A final arresting biographical parallel in these two lives lies in their movement from rural beginnings to the metropolis, Daudet from Provence to Lyon to Paris, Cather from Nebraska to Pittsburgh to New York City. Neither writer had any desire to return permanently to his or her origins, though both enjoyed revisiting the scenes of their youth, and they both could evoke memorably place and character from their beginnings. What is more, Daudet's fiction is replete with the dramatization of the evils of the metropolis, just as Cather's letters again and again rail against the many things she hated about New York.

With these biographical similarities, Cather could no doubt empathize with Daudet, which perhaps accounts for some of the correspondences in their literary preoccupations and practices. Although it is not unusual for novelists to begin as poets (Faulkner, for example), both writers first published volumes of poetry. More significant is the fact that both drew their characters from family, friends, or people they knew or read about, even to the point of getting into trouble over this. Daudet, for example, in an early work, apparently without realizing it, drew an unflattering portrait of an uncle, just as Cather upset her family with the grim characterization of her Aunt Franc in "A Wagner Matinee." Many of the major and minor figures in Daudet are based on real people who are easily identifiable, just as Cather worked from life to create Claude Wheeler, Ántonia Shimerda, Marian Forrester, and others. When Daudet based a novel on real people he did not know firsthand, he had to research and embellish the material. Cather proceeded in the same manner to bring to life her Archbishop Latour or her Wagnerian soprano Thea Kromborg. It is also significant to note that neither writer hesitated to write autobiographical fiction. In his early novel, Le petit chose, Daudet follows closely his own experience when he first went to Paris, and in Cather's third novel, The Song of the Lark, the childhood and adolescence of Thea Kronborg are in reality sustained autobiographical fiction. Further, Cather's next novel, My Ántonia, created in Jim Burden a narrator who is hardly distinguishable from the author.

There are a number of striking parallels in literary technique between Daudet and Cather. Both writers are able to create memorable characters that linger in the mind long after the book is closed: the Nabab, Numa Roumestan, the exiled royal couple in Les rois en exile for Daudet, and Alexandra Bergson, Ántonia Shimerda, Marian Forrester and the Archbishop for Cather, to mention a few. Narrative structure also is often similar: both write novels that are loosely episodic, and both avoid trying to produce continuous narrative. Cather could well have picked up this method from Daudet, though, of course, she could have learned it from other writers. An appreciation of style also may have been molded by Daudet, for Cather comments specifically on his superior style, and she certainly developed her own linguistic competence. One small aspect of style that is specially interesting occurs in both writers. This is their occasional shift to present tense to give immediacy to a story that is generally narrated in the past tense.

In the matter of broad literary classification and posthumous reputation, Daudet and Cather have suffered somewhat the same fate. Admittedly realism and romanticism are not mutually exclusive terms, but both writers, to the confusion of critics, are difficult to classify. Daudet has been called a realist and naturalist, though today he seems pretty much a romantic. Cather certainly regarded his novels as romances, just as she thought she was writing in the romantic tradition, and Cather too is sometimes lumped among the realists by those who have not read her carefully. A greater irony, however, lies in the neglect of both writers after their deaths. Daudet has been an unfashionable author in this century because his work seems too easy to read and unnecessary to explicate. Though it happily is no longer the case, Cather also was regarded as too simple and uncomplicated for a number of years after her death in 1947.

Although the parallels and similarities between Daudet and Cather are many, the differences also should be noted. Because both writers belong to different centuries, Daudet wrote novels characteristic of his period, and Cather was an experimenter and a modernist. Daudet's novels in the main are full blown, not as long as the typical Victorian three-decker, but nevertheless comparable in length only to Cather's The Song of the Lark and One of Ours. The minimalist style that Cather developed is not part of Daudet's equipment. In addition, the organic structure that Cather worked out after Alexander's Bridge bears little resemblance to the imposed order of Daudet's work. Where the logic of character shapes events in Cather, Daudet's guiding hand structures plot in his novels.

So far this essay has dealt with correspondences in the lives and careers, subject matter, methods of composition, and technique of Daudet and Cather, and these parallels may all be coincidental, explaining more why Cather liked Daudet than how she happened to write as she did. There is another area, however, in which a strong case can be made that Daudet really did influence Cather-in the realm of ideas. Some of the intellectual baggage that Cather carried with her through life probably came from reading her favorite Frenchman during those impressionable years of adolescence. In 1891, when she was seventeen, Cather acquired a copy of Daudet's best-known and notorious (that is, to Victorian sensibilities) novel, Sapho. That she valued it highly is documented by extant letters. Five years after obtaining it, she loaned it to her friend Sarah Harris. She worried about not getting the novel back and wrote Mariel Gere to ask Sarah for it, because Sarah was not very good about returning borrowed books (Cather to Gere, 2 January 1896). About this novel Cather wrote in 1897: "Daudet gave the world his best; reserving nothing, hesitating at nothing. It is through that book that he will live" (Curtin 575).

Sapho is really a surprising book for a seventeen-year-old girl, a good Baptist from Red Cloud, to have owned in 1891. It's all about illicit love. In it, Jean Gaussin, a young man from Provence, like Daudet himself, goes to Paris to prepare for a diplomatic career. He is immediately seduced by Fanny Legrand, known as Sapho because she once had posed for a statue of the Greek poet. Fanny and Jean live together off and on for five years, and even when Jean discovers that Fanny has had many lovers and has been the mistress of several more, his passionate attachment holds him to her. Even when Jean falls in love with and becomes engaged to the daughter of a prominent doctor, he can't make the break. When he breaks his engagement, his Provençal family disinherits him. At the end Fanny leaves Jean, and the young man, whose life has been ruined by this romantic involvement, prepares to go to a diplomatic post in Peru. This is a powerful novel that must have left its mark on young Willa Cather. Also in it are minor plot threads detailing other unhappy results of liaisons of this sort, and there is one really ugly scene in which Jean and Fanny breakfast in the country with a group of aging and worn-out courtesans.

Although Daudet does not moralize overtly, Sapho is a highly didactic novel. The message is clear: beware the disastrous results of uncontrolled sexual desire; romantic love is fraught with danger. That this message was one of Cather's lifelong beliefs is perfectly clear to any Cather scholar. How many times does romantic love lead to grief in her fiction? Bartley Alexander, Emil Bergson, Ántonia Shimerda, Myra Henshawe, and Lucy Gayheart come to mind immediately. The safe love affairs are those Platonic ones between Alexandra and Carl in O Pioneers! or between Thea Kronborg and Fred Ottenburg in The Song of the Lark. Cather certainly did not get the message that romantic love is a prescription for disaster from the examples of her own parents or the Miners and the Wieners, those Red Cloud couples she was close to when she was growing up, or from the Geres or the Westermanns, who became her close friends during her college years in Lincoln. But it came in capital letters from Daudet, not only in Sapho but in Daudet's other fiction. In novel after novel the inability of characters to control their sexual desires results in grief, pain, blighted lives, and sometimes death.

Another aspect of Sapho that is intriguing is Fanny Legrand's sobriquet, Sapho, having derived from her having once posed as the Greek lesbian poet. The novel contains unmistakable suggestions that Fanny has had lesbian relations as well as the overtly described heterosexual ones. Daudet could not have been explicit about lesbianism when he published the novel in 1884, but any alert reader can decode the message. Offsetting the lesbianism, however, is the fact that Fanny was the mistress of the sculptor who carved Sapho, and at the end of the story, when Fanny leaves Jean, it is not because she is renouncing male relationships, but it is to return to a former male lover with whom she expects peace and tranquility.

Fanny, who is sixteen years older than Jean, is in her forties in the last chapter. She has loved Jean passionately, but their affair has been too tempestuous, and she is tired and exhausted. She dreads going to the tropics where women age quickly, and she fears that she and Jean would suffer the fate she has read about in some eastern country when a woman deceives her husband. The punishment is to sew up the woman and a cat in a rawhide and in toss it out on the seashore in the in the blazing sun. In her farewell letter Fanny writes Jean: "The woman screeches, the cat claws; both one another, while the hide stiffens and shrinks on this horrible battle of the prisoners until the final death rattle, until the final movement of the sack. That is somewhat the torture that would await us together" (Alphonse Daudet 159-60 [translation mine]). This detail of the ending of a turbulent love affair left an indelible impression on Cather, and she quoted it in 1899 when she wrote about the horrendous relationship between a Pittsburgh poet and his wife.

What inferences can one draw from Cather's reading of Sapho and other Daudet works when she was still in her teens and early twenties? That Cather was ambivalent about her sexual orientation during these years seems clear to many Cather scholars. Dressing like a boy, calling herself William Cather, cutting her hair short, in general refusing to be a girl-all these activities characterize her Red Cloud years as an adolescent; but in Pittsburgh a few years later she dated often, was proposed to by at least two young men whose attentions did not repel her, and seemed to enjoy being a marriagable young woman.

Did Daudet's message help Cather come to a conclusion about her sexuality? If a woman's sexuality is programmed from birth, no amount of novel reading is going to change her orientaiton; on the other hand, if the orientation is not fixed ab ovo, as the evidence suggests in Cather's case, then Cather may have found Daudet's warning against entangling romantic male relationships convincing. One can only speculate, and the answer must remain moot. The only thing that can be asserted for sure is that Cather made an explicit decision to remain single at the age of twenty-four.

This decision brings to mind a discussion of Daudet's story collection entitled Les femmes d'artistes. George Seibel, Cather's Pittsburgh friend, reported that this was the first book that he and Cather read together. Although it is one of Daudet's lesser works, reading it aloud over a period of weeks, as they did, gave the book every chance to make a cumulative impact. What sort of a book is it? Les femmes d'artistes begins with a prologue, a dialogue between a poet and a painter. The painter argues strenuously his view that artists should never marry. Wives, he says, cause artists to lose their talent; they clutter up artists' lives with all the minutiae of domesticity; they demand attentions that distract artists from their art; they want creature comforts that make artists prostitute their work; and so on and so on for ten pages. Then the painter pulls out a manuscript supposedly written by a friend who passes his life among artists and amuses himself with sketching some of the households he has observed. The painter urges the poet to read it. Next come twelve tales, some amusing, some serious, every one of which describes a disastrous relationship between an artist and the woman he marries. There are poets, painters, sculptors, and musicians involved in the stories. It makes no difference: all the marriages are failures.

Most readers of these stories probably did not take them very seriously, but nonetheless the argument that artists should not marry is one that Cather took to heart. If all of Daudet's artists were male and all their marriages failed, what chance was there for a woman trying to be a wife and an artist? As late as1931 Cather told a correspondent that anyone who didn't think it was a disadvantage to be a woman author was just plain foolish (Cather to Bain). Even before reading Les femmes d'artistes, Cather had concluded that art required a single-minded dedication . In an essay she wrote on Carlyle while she was preparing for the University of Nebraska she had stated categorically that art says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Slote 423), and later she argued this point very explicitely on a number of occasions. In 1893 when a singer Cather admired retired from opera to marry, Cather wrote a kind of obituary, saying that the artist must love his art above all things and must say to it, as Ruth said amidst the alien corn: "Where thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge," and she added: "Married nightingales seldom sing" (Curtin 176). Later when an actress Cather had been reviewing retired to be married, Cather said in effect, oh well, she wasn't first rate and maybe marriage was the best thing for her (Curtin 201). When Cather turned down proposals of marriage during her Pittsburgh years, she did it, as she wrote a friend, in order to preserve her freedom to devote herself entirely to her art (Cather to Gere, 27 April 1897). It would be interesting to know how much Daudet's argument influenced her decision to remain single.

Cather certainly knew that Daudet had children and a wife he adored, just as she knew that Louise Homer, the Metropolitan's leading contralto, combined an operatic career with a husband and five children. Yet in the article she wrote for McClure's 's Magazine in 1913 on Olive Fremstad, Geraldine Farrar, and Louise Homer, she again argued vigorously the necessity for artists to remain wedded only to their art. It seems reasonable to suggest that a slow and careful reading of Les femmes d'artistes five or six years after absorbing the lessons taught in Sapho bolstered Cather's conviction that marriage was not an option she wanted to consider seriously. Her friendships with Isabelle McClung, Elizabeth Sergeant, Zoë Akins, and Edith Lewis did not throw up roadblocks to artistic success, as enumerated ad infinitum in Les femmes d'artists. Another witness, Fanny Butcher, in her autobiography reinforces this point: "I never knew anyone else who seemed to be more wrapped around by her work, to be almost encircled in it like Laocoön in the coils of the sea serpent. Once she said to me that nothing mattered to her but writing books, and living the life that makes it possible to write them" (Butcher 354). And Cather wrote Mariel Gere after going to Pittsburgh in 1896 that there was no god but one god and art is his revealer; that was her creed and she would follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be (Cather to Gere, 4 August 1896).

No one can say for sure where influence begins and ends, but scholarship on Cather in the past decade has turned up many connections between her work and the literature she absorbed during her formative years. Sometimes there are direct references; other times the borrowings are transmuted and barely discernable. Cather was an omnivorous reader from childhood forward and an indefatigable reviewer of drama and books in her twenties. It is safe to say that she was shaped by literature as well as life. There is much more work to be done in studying Cather against her literary enthusiasms, whether they are American, English, Russian, or French. Daudet's impact on her life and art is only one piece of what eventually will become the picture that emerges in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.


 1. This is the subject of an essay I recently contributed to Yves Carlet and Michel Granger, eds., Confluences Américaines: Melanges en I'honeur de Maurice Gonnaud (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990), 91-102. The essay surveys what Cather wrote about France in her letters and journalism, her fictional use of French material, and her visits to France. (Go back.)
 2. Robert Nelson, Willa Cather and France (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988), is the only study on this subject, but Nelson's interest is in a Lacanian reading of Cather and not at all in assessing the impact of French writers on Cather's life and art. The subject is treated briefly by Michel Gervaud, "Willa Cather and France: Elective Affinities," in The Art of Willa Cather, Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner, eds. (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1974), pp. 65-81; and it is partly the subject of David Stouck, "Willa Cather and the Impressionist Novel," in Critical Essays on Willa Cather, John Murphy, ed. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 48-66. (Go back.)


Butcher, Fanny. Many Lives-One Love. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Mr. Bain. 14 January 1931. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
——.Letter to Mariel Gere and her sisters. 2 January 1896. Nebraska Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.
——.Letter to Mariel Gere. 4 August 1896. Nebraska Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.
——.Letter to Mariel Gere. 27 April 1897. Nebraska Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1970.
Daudet, Alphonse. Sapho: Moeurs Parisiennes. Vol. II of Alphonse Daudet: Oeuvres Completes. Edition Ne Varietur. Paris: Librairie de France, 1931.
Daudet, Leon. Memoirs by Leon Daudet. Vol. 24 of The Works of Alphonse Daudet. Boston: Little, Brown, 1900.
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. "Daughter of the Frontier." New York Herald-Tribune, 28 May 1933, sec. 11, 7-9.
Slote, Bernice, ed. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1966.