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From Cather Studies Volume 2

Cather's Semitism

The question of whether Willa Cather's writings betray an underlying anti-Semitism is not new. James Schroeter developed the accusation at some length in the mid-1960s, and Bernard Baum and John H. Randall III had made it explicit somewhat earlier. They conclude that indeed Cather was anti-Semitic in that she slipped into dismissive stereotypes-a characteristic she shared with other early modernists, Schroeter adds-stereotypes of the "poolroom" variety that identify Jewishness with "commercial exploitation, secularization, and destruction of traditional values" (Schroeter 376-77).[1] His list of the writers who casually label a character "the Jew" or picture the Jew as outsider and spoiler includes stellar members of Cather's generation (Anderson, Dreiser) and of the generation succeeding (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound).

However, Cather is an especially painful case, because she alone had dignified immigrant Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians in her fiction, making them, indeed, her heroes and heroines. Such a defiance of literary decorum appears now so mild as to be invisible, but at the time it was a daring position. Hence, for Schroeter, it is doubly disappointing to find that Cather's sympathetic imagination faltered when she confronted the most recent immigrants, the Polish and Russian Jews who arrived in this country in such numbers in the 1890s and early 1900s.

In the thirty-some years since Randall and Schroeter were writing, two developments have necessitated another look at Cather's treatment of Jews. First, the wheel of critical attention in general has taken a decided turn. Attitudes toward race, class, and gender are not dismissed as awkward blemishes but are perceived as deeply significant clues both to dominating cultural thought patterns and to individual habits of mind. Texts are combed to note what is mentioned only tangentially, or what is not said at all. Such clues are nowhere more powerfully operative than in signaling how a people in a culture thought about those it blocked from full participation-the "others" who are kept silent, left out, or domesticated.[2] To cite a much-repeated example, Jane Austen can be said to have legitimized West Indian colonialism when in Mansfield Park she makes a plantation the source of Sir Thomas's wealth. A more pertinent example is Cather's implied approval of Tom Outland's efforts to interest the Smithsonian in his Anasazi artifacts, with no expressed regard for Indian ancestral rights, thus legitimizing the gathering of Indian pottery into a museum as a pious act of preservation. In sum, the new rigor in cultural criticism asks us to be more alert concerning attitudes toward racial or other minorities and to treat such attitudes more seriously.

While this scrutiny is largely directed at the ideologies prevalent at a past time, it also highlights the observational power and moral sensitivity of the author. Despite a prevailing assumption that the writer as person is never free from a cultural context, we continue, paradoxically, to seek textual evidence that the writer as writer is prescient, however waveringly or unconsciously, about matters that we, in a later time, regard as foundational.

Second, during the past thirty years, critical opinion about Cather has taken a dramatic turn, a 180-degree swing. In the sixties she was a minor writer-interesting, but limited by her backward-looking fixation on the pioneer past. This view was shared by Randall, Schroeter, Leon Edel, even E. K. Brown, Cather's first "official" biographer. Today, a wealth of criticism has shown her to be an artist of sophistication and subtlety, both of method and of theme. A corollary of this new view is a new interest in Cather herself. The hearty, plain-speaking Westerner, a product of Populist midwestern small towns, as Randall describes her, has receded, her place taken by a bookish, self-conscious artist; this new perspective prompts us to question how aware she was of the culture she inhabited. It is no longer sufficient to point out that she describes some Jews as physically ugly (which she does) or as commercially successful (which she also does); in narrative context such portaits may be subverting the very stereotype represented, as Chaucer explodes antifeminism through the Wife of Bath.

At the outset it should be clear that, as the phrase has it, many of Cather's best friends were Jews, beginning with the Wieners, a family of German Jews living in Red Cloud during Cather's girlhood who loaned the young Cather books. Later friends, to name only those who figured prominently in her life, were Jan Hambourg (about whom more later), Alfred and Blanche Knopf, and the Menuhin family, who so brightened her last years. These people, it must be noted, were all "good" Jews, figures of exceptional learning and talent. She may have distinguished them from other Jews as being "like us."

In this connection we should also note David Hochstein, the model for the luminous David Gerhardt in One of Ours. Cather met Hochstein, a young violinist and nephew of Emma Goldman, through the Hambourgs in 1916. The following year he refused a deferment from serving in World War I, which was open to him as a professional musician, and was killed on active duty in 1918. When One of Ours was published in 1922, Cather gave a remarkable interview about her memories of Hochstein (whom she recalls as having met only three times). It is a detailed picture full of admiration for his artistry, his good looks, his intelligence, his sense of honor (Cather, "Fiction Recalls"). To read the interview is to know that Cather transformed her feelings about Hochstein into her fictional David Gerhardt. One then wonders why she gave that character a "neutral" name and omitted any reference to Jewishness in the novel. One reason, no doubt, is that to have done so would have introduced an element extraneous to her theme, one that would have cluttered the novel. In fact Cather almost certainly did not regard Hochstein as a Jew, at least not in any essential way.[3] She would have been more concerned with his identity as a cosmopolitan, European-educated artist, with Jewishness being a remote aspect of his background.

Still, questions keep nagging. Didn't Cather know about and deplore the anti-Semitism of the time? Did she want to avoid confronting it?

Although Cather's Jewish friends and acquaintances were for the most part assimilated, secular Jews, her reading had given her at least some knowledge of Jewish religion, ritual, history, food, dress-the aspects of life that set a people apart. In nineteenth-century literature she would have encountered a romanticized Jewish culture (Scott, George Eliot). In the more realistic works of Israel Zangwill, whose novels enjoyed a vogue in England and this country in the 18gos, she would have found a graphic picture of the contemporary London ghetto, crowded with refugees from throughout Europe. Cather attended a lecture by Zangwill in Pittsburgh in 1898 and wrote a piece about the occasion for the Nebraska Journal, from which it is clear that she admired his work.[4] Her naive (to our ears laughable) portrait of Zangwill, apparently aimed at reporters who had ridiculed his accent and appearance, reveals Cather's own distancing sense of strangeness: "Handsome he certainly is not, but neither is he a freak. I was rather pleasurably surprised, indeed, when this slender, pale gentleman stepped before us. His physiognomy is typically Semitic; the bold nose, the pale, olive skin, the full lips, the heavy dark eyes, the shaggy black hair, suggested not only the Jew, but Oriental Jew" ("The Drama as a Fine Art" 491). She then stresses "the atmosphere of scholarship" Zangwill conveyed and sees in him "the dreamer of the ghetto" as well as the scholar, full of "the idealism of his race." She ends by rhapsodizing, in the manner of the young Cather, "The ghetto has always had its dreamers, and their dreams have changed the course of history and founded empires" (492). Clearly the romanticized views of Judaism she had found in her reading had left a mark.

However, her aroused sympathies did not prevent Cather from creating a character with conventional traits of the stereotyped Jew, a money-conscious art dealer in a story she would write soon thereafter, "The Marriage of Phaedra," set in the world of London society. The title refers to a painting. An American, McMaster, who sees its worth, tries to prevent a sale that will send the masterpiece out of England. Though he plays only a minor role, the Austrian-born Lichtenstein is so repulsive that his very admiration for the painting ("a chem, a chem!") offends McMaster ("The more genuine the Jew's appreciation, the more he [McMaster] resented it" [87]). One might possibly argue that Cather is paying a backhanded compliment in making the art expert a Jew ("The Jews always sense talent," Fred Ottenburg tells Thea (Song 344]), but Lichtenstein fits so easily into the poolroom kind of anti-Semitism that he can only be evidence of slack writing.

A story written after Cather had been working some five years at McClure's shows that by 1911 she was fully aware of anti-Semitism as a social and human problem.[5] In the story anti-Semitism is not only depicted, it is also touched on in exchanges among the characters.

When "Behind the Singer Tower" is the subject of critical attention, it is generally regarded as Cather's single muckraking story. In form, it is a tale within a tale. Fred Hallet, a construction engineer, recounts the death of a young immigrant Italian laborer he once befriended, Caesarino, who was crushed when a worn cable snapped during the construction of the Mont Blanc, a luxurious New York hotel. The story takes place a few years later, just after the hotel has burned, leaving only a blackened hulk on the skyline. Hallet had warned the builder, Stanley Merryweather, about the cable's weakness. Hallet's story may appear a bit self-serving, since he is the hero of his tale (he sees that Merryweather fully compensates Caesarino's poor mother), but the muckraking theme, that the lives of humble workmen are being sacrificed to greed, appears paramount.[6]

Recently, Joan Wylie Hall has directed attention away from Hallet and his tale to the carefully structured frame of the story. Intriguingly, she speculates that Cather had Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in mind as she wrote. In both stories, a small group of men, including the unnamed narrator (in "Behind the Singer Tower" he is a newspaperman) listen to an account of greed and moral decay, and in both, the scene is a boat at night in the harbor of one of civilization's great cities. Hall also finds that, like "The Heart of Darkness," "Behind the Singer Tower" points to an idea behind the exploitation: "the New York Idea," the drive for speed and bigness; and in both stories "ideas that should advance civilization cause destruction instead" (85).

By concentrating on the story's frame, Hall has discerned a meaning beyond simply contemporary social criticism. She leaves unnoticed, however, the byplay between Hallet and one of his passengers, Zablowski, labeled early in the story as "a young Jewish doctor from the Rockefeller Institute." Two other of the five guests on Hallet's launch are named, but only casually (another newspaperman, Johnson, and a lawyer, Chambers); the fifth is nameless, referred to as a draftsman. Hallet has invited the group for a boat ride to help them recover from their rescue work during the fire, a major disaster that has taken the lives of many important people in business, art, and diplomacy. The narrator observes that previous fires "had occurred only in factory lofts, and the people who perished in them, fur workers and garment workers, were obscure for more reasons than one; most of them bore names unpronounceable to the American tongue" (45).

Zablowski's name certainly sets him apart from the "more American" "Johnson" or "Hallet," and the young doctor seems allied through his name to the garment-district workers who were usually the victims of fires in tall, crowded buildings.

The narrator introduces Zablowski by describing him as "a very handsome fellow, with sad, thoughtful eyes," and adds, "we were all fond of him, especially Hallet, who was always teasing him" (46). What follows in the story makes clear just what the narrator, and the others, regard as "teasing." Johnson begins it by calling attention to the pattern made by lights on the famous Singer Tower, prominent on the New York skyline:[7] "a Jewy-looking thing. . . . exactly like the Jewish high priest in the old Bible dictionaries" (46). Zablowski mildly denies the "Semitic" resemblance and suggests instead that the "high-peaked turban" is Persian or "a Magi or a fire-worshipper" or possibly "a Buddha." The exchange is playful enough, but significantly Johnson saw something amusing in a Jewish form above Manhattan and seized the opportunity for an idle tease about Jewishness (he even says that the fellow who placed the lights "must have had a sense of humor"). Further, Zablowski's response shows that he detected the ridicule and reacted to it as such.

The exchange between Johnson and Zablowski is crucial to the story in another way: through their banter the perspective is immensely enlarged to include great sweeps of cultural-religious time. Further, a tension is set up between the Singer Tower on the one hand (a brooding, enigmatic presence, "watching over the city and the harbor like a presiding Genius") and the Statue of Liberty "holding her feeble taper in the gloom off to our left" (46).

Continuing the conversation, Hallet terms the tower a "great heathen idol," suggesting the loss of "idealism" represented by the Statue of Liberty. This reference prompts Hallet to tell the story of the pathetic Caesarino, with its strange anti-Semitic slant.[8]

The villain of Hallet's tale, an embodiment of the "New York idea," is the engineer Stanley Merryweather-reckless, callous about working conditions, untouched by conscience (he is even "pleasurably excited" by disaster [52]), and sure that money will cover any lapse in the rules. But what is striking is how Hallet accounts for Merryweather. Despite his name, Merryweather is half Jewish, and "racial characteristics," though "very much veiled in Stanley," underlie his villainy. Hallet pointedly "teases" Zablowski with this analysis. There was something in Merryweather's eyes, he says, "something that you would recognize, Zablowski" (47). Hallet's elaboration on racial characteristics is extensive and fulsome: he describes not just ruthless ambition but also social pushiness (he was "insultingly cordial"), vulgarity of dress and manner (as a student he would buy a "necktie of unusual weave and haunting color"; he married a "burgeoning Jewish beauty" and hung her with jewels until she "looked like the Song of Solomon done into motion pictures"); and Merryweather's servility, which made him swallow, toadlike, any rebuff ("he always crawled"). It is a venomous portrait.[9]

Hallet ends his tale with the pious hope that something good will come from the death of Caesarino and others like him, out of all the "glare" and the "frenzy"-the "unborn Idea," he calls it ("There must be something wonderful coming" [53]).[10]

For us, the irony of the story-that Hallet is blind to the "new idea" of brotherhood and freedom that already exists, as represented by the Statue of Liberty-is obvious, and integral. Did Cather see it? I am persuaded that she did, partly because Hallet's callousness is so extreme but mostly because she pointedly ends her story with a final "tease" of Zablowski on just the point of "them" versus "us"; even Johnson, not notably sensitive, sees the paradox. After listening to Hallet's hope for the "unborn Idea," Johnson observes, "Well, anyhow . . . whatever it is, it will be ours," to which Hallet replies, "Don't call anything ours, Johnson, while Zablowski is around."

"Behind the Singer Tower" repays close attention. It is dense-indeed, overloaded-combining as it does an exposé of conditions in construction, a satire on the bland snobbery of native-born Americans, and a meditation on the slow forces of change that crumble one civilization after another, not only the forces of myth and religion, as suggested by the lights of the Singer Tower, but also the physical ones that dwarf the human will. The city itself that night seems to be "asserting its helplessness": The "towers of stone and steel" . . . appear to be "grouped confusedly together," the result of "an irregular parallelogram pressed between two hemispheres" (44). Cather is describing a world subject to the determinacies of nineteenth-century naturalism; only the feeble torch of the Idea, Liberty's torch, counters these forces, and the Idea is misunderstood by the very persons who give it homage.

In her portrait of the Nathanmeyers in The Song of the Lark (1915), Cather merges a picture of conventional Jewish wealth (enormous, built through retailing, spent on good living) with her romantic sense of Judaism's long past. The Nathanmeyers are, as Fred Ottenburg firmly tells Thea, "the finest kind of Jews" (343). Patrons of the arts, "so rich and great that even Thea had heard of them" (342), and clearly at home in Chicago society, they yet retain a Jewishness that lends them a transcendent poise, as though life has no further surprises for them. Mrs. Nathanmeyer, "a heavy, powerful old Jewess," has standards, Fred tells Thea, that "have nothing to do with Chicago. . . . Her perceptions-or her grandmother's, which is the same thing-were keen when all this was an Indian village" (344). Though they are not significant figures in Thea's fate, the Nathanmeyers and their home make a glowing interlude in Thea's drab Chicago winter, and we think well of Fred for his admiration of them.

Jews who figure in stories Cather wrote shortly after The Song of the Lark-Miletus Poppas in "The Diamond Mine" (1915) and Siegmund Stein in "Scandal" (1916)-are central to any discussion of Cather's anti-Semitism. Like Lichtenstein, they appear compounded of unpleasant traits (though they do not resemble each other), but unlike Lichtenstein, they are not humorous walk-ons. To confront these portraits is to confront the story in which each appears.

After finishing The Song of the Lark, Cather had more to say about opera singers. What fascinated her was the difference between performing artists, who must please and charm the public, and artists such as herself-writers or painters-who work in private, or even anonymously.

The story of Cressida Garnet, the singer in "The Diamond Mine," is structured around her four marriages, but the narrator, Carrie, a friend from childhood, also describes her career, which Cressida pursued with undaunted energy through disappointments in her personal life. Carrie notes, however, that Cressida's success was owing to the voice coaching she received in Germany from Poppas, who thereafter became her accompanist-omnipresent, to the annoyance of family and husbands. Carrie is aware that Poppas is essential to Cressida's career. While she has vocal talent and ambition, she lacks musical intelligence. Poppas supplies "intuitions, discrimination, imagination, a whole twilight world of intentions and shadowy beginnings which were dark to Cressida" (86). At the same time, Carrie finds Poppas, a Greek Jew, unsavory. There seems to be something demonic in his grayish skin, waxed moustache, and "alarming, deep-set eyes,-very close together . . . and always gleaming with something like defeated fury" (70). "He was a vulture of the vulture race, and he had the beak of one" (75).

Only at the end of the story does Carrie, looking back, see Poppas's full worth. After Cressida's death on the Titanic, Poppas has retired to the Middle East, his "sainte Asie," for his health. From there he sends Carrie a letter that ends with four lines of verse from the closing scene of Wagner's Das Rheingoid. In this scene the Rhine maidens sing of the mysterious meaning of the gold: "Traulich und Treu / ist's nur in der Tiefe" (Loyalty, or comfort, and truth are found only in the depth). Finally, Carrie sees the totality of Poppas's devotion to Cressida, to her art, to the whole of art, and she writes the story we have read.

The tone of "The Diamond Mine" is reportorial; in fact, events surrounding Cressida's fourth husband so closely follow events of the life and death of the singer Nordica that publishers feared libel action. The figure of Poppas, however, edges toward allegory; he is the artist's deepest level of self, essential but not decipherable.

Why did Cather choose a Jew as the image of the intuitive self? It is a romantic-rather, Gothic-portrait. (It perhaps owes something to the mesmerizing voice coach, Svengali, in the novel Trilby, which is mentioned in the story.) When Carrie sees Poppas and others waiting at the White Star Line for news of Titanic survivors, she thinks he looks "old as Jewry"-ageless, timeless. Poppas might be an Old Testament Jew, returning to the Holy Land (his "sainte Asie"). By making him also Greek, Cather may have been trying to suggest the twin roots of Western art and aspiration. She had written, after listening to Zangwill, "The Hebrews, indeed, felt the beauty of holiness, but the Greeks felt the holiness of beauty" (492).

The dynamics of "The Diamond Mine," then, point away from any anti-Semitic meaning-again, in fact, as in "Behind the Singer Tower," what is highlighted is prejudice that blinds.

"Scandal" is often deplored, both generally for its failure to interest and specifically for its disturbing picture of the unrelievedly ugly Siegmund Stein. Cather's agent made fifteen attempts to sell it before succeeding, evidence enough that it lacks immediate reader appeal (Woodress 282).

Much shorter than "The Diamond Mine," "Scandal" focuses on the performing artist's need for publicity and on the threat this need poses for the real, or inner, self. With its concern for the effective image, so different from earned fame, or reputation, the story seems peculiarly pertinent to the 1990s.

Both setting and situation are claustrophobic: the soprano Kitty Ayrshire, recovering from tonsilitis, has been at home alone for six weeks. Though her apartment is lavish, with a view of Central Park West, being "confined like a Trappist" is telling on her nerves, and Kitty begs her doctor to allow her one visitor (154). That evening she and a shadowy friend, who bears the pretentious name of Pierce Tevis, exchange stories in which Kitty, or rather the public personage of Kitty, figures. These are the "events" of the story. As the two friends talk, the real woman recedes, her place taken by the other Kittys, the subject of popular imagination, rumor, gossip, legend, lies, myths (all terms used in the text).

The reader is early alerted to Kitty's ingrained habit of projecting a self. In the opening scene, she handles the doctor as an audience who must be charmed, "Even with him she rose to her part just a little" (156). For Tevis she puts on a "costume" of diaphanous white and rose and arranges the room, with its many plants and flowers, so that it "composed about her." Sitting at one end of the huge room, she appears "a beautiful little toy woman" (157).

One corner of this room, located "off stage," as it were, is very different. It houses a painting, a Paris interior picturing Kitty's friends from an earlier time, all of them distinguished-a composer, a sculptor, and women "at once plain and beautiful" (158). The attention the narrator gives this painting signals to the reader that Kitty had once had, or had been aware of, "the kind of beauty" possessed by "the rather sallow women of the Simon painting" (162). The painting hints at the interior self that has been eroded by the necessity, the habit, of self-publicizing. The place of the soft gray painting is being taken by Kitty's mocking bird in its gilded cage next to the artificially blooming white lilac tree.

Kitty tells Tevis that she worries that her fans will forget her, but Tevis reassures her, "There is an affinity between you and the popular imagination" (160), and the stories and gossip that she has always attracted are keeping her alive with her public. After talking about the most exotic of the myths-that Kitty has an eight-year-old son living in Saint Petersburg in the care of his father, Grand Duke Paul-Kitty asks how ugly gossip starts, and Tevis tells her of an elaborate masquerade staged some few years back by Siegmund Stein, a department store millionaire. Stein, who started as a poor immigrant garment cutter, has climbed through a series of guises into social prominence. At one time, finding it useful to appear a success with women, he picked a little coat model, Ruby, who superficially resembled Kitty, had the girl suitably coiffed and dressed, and then escorted her to operas and restaurants. His clientele from Sioux City and Council Bluffs was flattered to associate with a man known to associate with the famous singer, and besides, Tevis observes, "They want the old gaudy lies" (170).

Kitty responds with two stories of her own, the first a preface to the second. At the outbreak of the Balkan troubles threatening war, she had smuggled a young tenor onto an ocean liner at Naples by pretending to the inspector that the "ridiculous" boy was "indispensable to my happiness . . . that I couldn't live without Peppo" (172). Where a cash bribe would not work, this scandalous pose, one of the old gaudy lies, did.

Kitty's follow-up story brings in Stein. She tells of a recent evening at the Stein mansion, where she and Peppo presented a private concert to a large invited company. She now sees in the attentive care that Stein and his wife lavished on her, and in the rapt appreciation of the audience, their assumption that here was a dramatic encounter of wife and discarded mistress-another of the old gaudy lies. Even at the time, Kitty recalls, she had felt suffocated by the attention and had sent Peppo for a taxi and fled.

Kitty appears to put the seal on her victimization when she says, in the closing line of the story, "If the Steins want to adopt you into their family circle, they'll get you. . . . That's why I don't feel compassionate about your Ruby. She and I are in the same boat" (177). What Kitty doesn't see, and the reader does, is that Kitty is as much deceiver as deceived: the very practice of her art-her smile, her zest, her acting a part in the old gaudy lies-is eating away at the reserves of her being. She projects a persona for the inspector of the ocean liner just as she does on the concert stage or at the Steins.

And finally, is she not like Stein-a stage manager, a master of effect and image making? The devices practiced by Stein in his rise-reported by Tevis in detail-dovetail with those Kitty uses: when Stein had been only "a hideous underfed little whippersnapper," working the machines in Rosenthal's garment factory, he was concerned about dress, associates, recreations; he studied libraries and museums to learn about pictures and porcelains and took lessons in the social graces; as he accumulated wealth, he became a collector of art objects and of as-yet-unknown poets and musicians (167). In the full meaning of the term, Stein is self-made-he is the ever-changing sum of his public selves. Kitty seems to have sensed this kinship to herself; she remembers that she felt something "hideously forceful" about him (176). In Cather's lexicon, force has a special ring; it denotes essential, though anarchic, vitality and power, the energy without which nothing, least of all art, is accomplished. Perhaps that is why Kitty fled: she sensed their similarity; she dimly realized that she had just played a part in Stein's scene, not a part (the condescending opera star) in her own.

Why did Cather choose a Jew to stand for the underside, as we might say, of building a career-the relentless effort, the conniving, the exploitation? True, it is Tevis who voices the full dislike that he, and others of his kind, feel for the upstarts pushing into the Fifth Avenue mansions "that used to belong to people of a very different sort" (171), and it is Tevis who describes Stein's physical ugliness ("tiny black eyes, with puffy lids and no lashes" [166]). Nevertheless, despite the obvious snobbery, we are meant to agree with Tevis's repugnance, the story suggests, so as to perceive that living by publicity is a danger to the integrity of the self: it is Stein who represents the danger to Kitty, not, as she thinks, the used-up Ruby.

Clearly Cather knew all about the stereotype of the social-climbing Jew-the stereotype of the drawing room and salon more than the poolroom.[11] She needed an image to convey the dangers of human commodification, and she chose that cartoon figure. Did she know that she might risk offending her friends and associates who were Jews? She must have, but she took that risk.

A slight story Cather published in the Century magazine in 1918, "Ardessa," suggests that at McClure's Cather had met, and sympathized with, Jews from the working class, stenographers, office managers, and the like. The story shows her awareness of the new immigrants from Eastern Europe and their efforts at gaining a toehold in American culture. Centered on office personalities in a magazine publishing house, the story describes an old-fashioned, leisurely office style that is yielding to modern business demands for efficiency. Ardessa Devine, the secretary who has been with the firm from its founding, who comes in late and takes vacations at will, exploits Becky Tietelbaum-"a thin, tense-faced Hebrew girl"-by concealing Becky's stenographic abilities (106). When Ardessa's boss, the hard-driving O'Mally, discovers this, he transfers Ardessa to the business office. There she will have to work under handsome Rena Kalski, another "slender young Hebrew," whose self-assured intelligence has made her the office manager's chief assistant (109).

The tone of this little story is tolerant, amused at all the characters but clearly on the side of Becky and Rena. In defeating Ardessa, they, and particularly Rena, treat Ardessa with unexpected kindness.[12]

Of particular interest is the narrator's description of Becky's family. Becky lives with eight brothers and sisters, her mother, and her father, Isaac, in three dark rooms behind Isaac's tailoring shop, hoping to move soon to a better flat upstairs. Isaac is ambitious for his daughter, who has finished a high-school commercial course, and tells her that she must "improve herself." After she is placed with Ardessa, Becky "fairly wore the dictionary out." Efforts at self-improvement and the "pushy" ambition that Pierce Tevis found offensive are here viewed admiringly though Becky is operating at a very different social level.

In the novels Cather wrote in the twenties, only one Jew appears, Louis Marsellus, but his is a pivotal portrait in any discussion of Cather's anti-Semitism, partly because the novel in which he figures, The Professor's House (1925), is one of Cather's major works and partly because Marsellus has so frequently been cited as evidence, from a biographical point of view, of Cather's deepest feelings about Jews and about the marriage of her friend Isabelle McClung. Schroeter and Leon Edel first proposed the notion that through Marsellus, Cather was at last venting her resentment of Jan Hambourg, who had married Isabelle some nine years before, in 1916, and this interpretation has been widely accepted. (Anger at Hambourg has also been seen, more plausibly, behind the portraits of Poppas and Stein, since the stories in which they appear were written close to the time of the event.) But the whole matter of Cather's feelings about Hambourg should be regarded as conjectural. There can be no question that Cather missed the McClung home in Pittsburgh as a refuge (the house was sold after the death of Judge McClung in late 1915) and following that, the loss of Isabelle to marriage. But what is striking is how open Cather was about her feelings-she spoke about her sense of loss to friends and wrote about it in letters.[13] She also feared that the Hambourgs might eventually live in France, which they did. Such honesty is the opposite of seething anger. Elizabeth Sergeant, in her memoir, stresses Cather's exuberance and physical joy in living in 1916; McClung's marriage cast a shadow, but it was not devastating. Further, the sheer biographical evidence of the continued friendship between Cather and the Hambourgs, full of immediate sociability in New York (as shown in the Hochstein interview) and then long visits in Toronto and later in France, should be considered. The Professor's House is dedicated to Hambourg ("To Jan, because he likes narrative"); it seems inconceivable that this mark of esteem and trust (Hambourg's ability to see into fiction) is only "a nasty joke," as Schroeter terms it (369).[14]

Disengaging Marsellus from serving as a mask for Cather's alleged hatred of Hambourg does not, however, mean that his is not an anti-Semitic portrait. It does mean he can be looked at in narrative context. It is my view that Cather here deliberately explodes the stereotype, showing that Marsellus's energy and zest for living (what the Professor, with unconscious bias, calls the "florid" style) make him the true inheritor of the Outland legend. However, since I have written elsewhere about The Professor's House, I will not repeat myself (Wasserman, "Music of Time").

In Cather's late work, after 1930, Jewish characters appear only twice, in the Rosens of "Old Mrs. Harris" and as the stout, dark man who assaults Gabrielle Longstreet in "The Old Beauty."[15] This unnamed figure, whose national or ethnic origin is never given, is an interesting measure of the strength of the Jewish stereotype in our consciousness in that the briefest of descriptions, in addition to physique and coloring, have been sufficient to cause readers to sense anti-Semitism behind his lineaments: "He is an immigrant who has made a lot of money. He did not belong" (56). Here is not the place for a full discussion of this story, perplexing because the allegorical substructure is so close to the surface that realistic characterization scarcely applies.[16]

The Rosens, modeled on the Wieners, who were kind to Cather in her youth, are important figures in "Old Mrs. Harris." Rather as David Gerhardt points Claude Wheeler toward a richer, expanded life (though it is too late for Claude), the Rosens, with their books, their quiet home, their reverence for great authors, point young Vickie to education as an end in itself, "If you want it without any purpose at all, you will not be disappointed," Mr. Rosen tells her (158).

There is nothing of the poolroom stereotype about the Rosens, who appear thoroughly at home in Skyline, Colorado, where Mr. Rosen, not ambitious for a great financial success (unlike his urban relatives), has a dry-goods store. Semitism, in the sense of a people apart, is not an issue in this story. The Rosens belong to no church but contribute to the support of all.[17]

Simpler and more likable people than the Nathenmeyers, the Rosens are linked only subtly to the ancient Jewish wisdom that Cather liked to invoke: through a quiet simile, brief, but epic in suggestion, Cather touches lightly on the deep past of Judaism. Mr. Rosen, she says, "carried a country of his own in his mind, and was able to unfold it like a tent in any wilderness" (121). Momentarily we see the small-town merchant silhouetted against the desert violets of his remote Hebrew heritage. To contrast Mr. Rosen with Lichtenstein, the first Jew to appear in her fiction, is to see how surely Cather advanced in fineness of execution and also in delicacy of feeling.

It is unlikely that we can glean significant new insights about endemic anti-Semitism in the first decades of the century from Cather's fictional Jews, many and varied though they are. Possibly the sheer intensity of hatred on the part of cultural leaders (Fred Hallet, Pierce Tevis) is revealing. Though there is nothing here to equal the brutal, mindless tormenting of Robert Cohn (The Sun Also Rises), there is a surreal physicality in the way Hallet describes Merryweather and Tevis describes Stein, and in Kitty's sense of suffocation by Stein's guests, that brings home to us the visceral impact of this particular prejudice. An interesting dynamic also appears. Hallet's case against Merryweather is climaxed by his outrage at Merryweather's sufferance ("When you had him, he always crawled" [47]), and Johnson is annoyed at Zablowski's patience with Hallet's teasing ("Why don't you ever hit back?" [54]). The comparison to Cohn's persecutors is again apt-they become increasingly maddened by his endurance of abuse. It is significant, I think, that in The Professor's House Cather again dramatizes this forebearance (Marsellus excuses his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, Scott, who has secretly blackballed Marsellus's admission to a club), but this time patient forgiveness (Christian, we might say) is admired. The Professor says, "Louie, you are magnanimous and magnificent!" (170).

Of more particular interest is whether Cather should continue to be seen as harboring an anti-Semitic streak. Those commentators who base their answer on the incidence of "positive role models" in her fiction must say yes. The moral absolutists, too, who find any expressed consciousness of otherness evidence of racism or elitism, will find many instances of distancing, if only in the epithets Jew, Jewess, Hebrew. The rest of us must read and ponder. We can at least agree that Cather was aware of Jews as a presence in American life and, more than any other writer of her time, chose to register that presence in fiction. Zablowski, the Nathenmeyers, Poppas, Stein, Becky Tietelbaum, Marsellus, the Rosens-just to list these figures, vivid and memorable-must be convincing. She witnessed, and put in her fiction, the anti-Semitic prejudices of the dominant culture. In her way, she combatted this bias, but hers was not the direct way of the social protest novel and, clearly, she did not make it an overriding concern. She put the needs of the work first.

We can say of Cather as a writer, as Henry James said of Hawthorne, that she "is perpetually looking for images which shall place themselves in picturesque correspondence with the spiritual facts with which [she] is concerned." I think Poppas and Stein, and possibly the dark man of "The Old Beauty," were created for reasons of "picturesque correspondence," never mind that they may also have confirmed pervasive prejudices. At the same time, one of the "spiritual facts" dearest to Cather was the worth of art and learning, and the Nathanmeyers and the Rosens can be numbered among the many images by which she sought to dramatize her faith.


 1. Schroeter is here quoting Bernard Baum, who perhaps should be credited with being the first (1949) to find "anti-Semitic caricatures" in Cather stories, concluding that "the lady . . . shared with Eliot one of the genteel caste's own petty vulgarities" (Baum 599). (Go back.)
 2. Of course the turn of the wheel of fashion exposes the criticism of the past, as well as its literature, to this stringent examination. Schroeter's assumption that Cather (he calls her "Miss Cather" or, occasionally, "Willa") embraced with the same "Whitmanesque hug" both "immigrant Mexicans and stolid Norwegians" (Schroeter 365) is not one that today's commentators would share, noting, for example, that in "Old Mrs. Harris" the trash man is merely "the Mexican," whereas the neglected Maude children, whose paternity is questionable, are given the dignity of a name. (Go back.)
 3. Very likely, neither did Hochstein. In the interview, Cather quotes from one of Hochstein's letters to his mother in which he writes that in France he has found a belief: "I adhere to no creed, no more than my father did, nor to any particular kind of God, but, dear mother, I believe" ("Fiction Recalls" 56). (Go back.)
 4. Zangwill's chief works are The Master (1895), which Cather called "a very remarkable novel"; Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), somewhat imaginative biographies of famous Jews who rebelled against orthodox Judaism, including Spinoza and Cather's favorite, Heinrich Heine; and Children of the Ghetto (1897), both a novel and a play, set in London's East End. Cather would have learned a great deal about Jewish life from the long and detailed Children of the Ghetto and perhaps would have absorbed Zangwill's half-mocking, half-admiring attitude toward orthodox beliefs and practices. (Go back.)
 5. A lengthy article on Jewish immigrants in New York, Hendrick's "The Great Jewish Invasion," appeared in McClure's in 1907. The tone of the article is sympathetic, stressing such traits as discipline and ambition and reporting on the immigrants' desire for full assimilation. The article could have played a part in Cather's change of attitude as reflected in the difference between her portrayal of Lichtenstein and Zablowski or Becky Tietelbaum. (Go back.)
 6. There is some evidence that Cather herself did not think she had written a muckraking story. In her essay "Escapism" she says: "When I first lived in New York and was working on the editorial staff of a magazine, I became disillusioned about social workers and reformers. . . . The man who has a true vocation for imaginative writing doesn't have to go hunting among the ash cans on Sullivan Street for his material" (23-24). (Go back.)
 7. The Singer Tower was a significant landmark, both architecturally and socially, at the time (see Hall and Haller). (Go back.)
 8. With Hallet's racism in view, we note that his attitude toward Caesarino is always condescending. When he pictures Caesarino's boyhood on the island of Ischia, he sees only a "swarm," a "breed," "panting little animals "wild little water dogs" ("Behind the Singer Tower" 48-49), and he always refers to the Italian workers as "dagoes." (Go back.)
 9. Of the commentators, only Marilyn Arnold confronts Hallet's anti-Semitism. She explains Hallet's ill-natured teasing as the result of his pain and frustration with conditions: he is "giving vent to cynicism," angered by Zablowski's "vulnerability" and angry "that the immigrant comes to this country and naively offers himself as a sacrifice . . . to the New York idea" (Arnold 94). However, this account does not explain why Hallet chooses the Jews as objects of his disgust. (Go back.)
 10. The reference to an "unborn Idea," a faith in an ineffable, evolutionary future, suggests the Bergsonianism that was immensely popular in the early years of the century. In his study of Bergson's impact, Tom Quirk points out that the nineteenth-century split between Naturalism and Idealism was answered by Bergson's vitalism and that Cather quickly absorbed this mode of thinking. Quirk notes the influence only after 1912, the year Creative Evolution was translated, though the general outlines of Bergsonian thought were already being argued and discussed (Quirk 13-51 and passim). (Go back.)
 11. Schroeter makes a good deal of an "essay" Cather wrote in 1914 that he calls "Potash and Perlmutter." It is a long piece of theater criticism, "New Types of Acting: The Character Actor Displaces the Star," that Cather wrote for McClure's. One of the plays she discusses is Potash and Perlmutter, a comic portrayal of two Jewish businessmen in the garment industry. She says of it, "Here is a New York play at last," and explains, "In this play you have a group of the people who make the external city, who are weaving the visible garment of New York, creating the color, language, the 'style,' the noise, the sharp contrasts" (46). Her tone, light and wry throughout, nevertheless suggests reservations concerning the changes wrought by the likes of Potash and Perlmutter, to which Manhattan resident "has to adapt" (46). It is interesting to note that in the same piece, reviewing George Arliss's performance as Disraeli, she commends Arliss for managing "to suggest the wisdom of a very wise old race" (43). (Go back.)
 12. Most studies of Cather emphasize her preference for past ways of life and her resentment of change. It is her conscious ambivalence that should be emphasized, her visceral preference for old ways against her knowledge that change is inevitable. Her attraction to philosophic vitalism would have strengthened this double vision. (Go back.)
 13. Woodress reviews the evidence for her feelings about the marriage (276-77 and passim). (Go back.)
 14. An allusion to Jews in one of Cather's critical writings from the 1930s should be mentioned. Adding to an earlier essay on Sarah Orne Jewett that she was readying for publication in Not Under Forty, Cather writes scornfully of young critics "born in New York City . . . violently inoculated with Freud," and "perhaps of foreign descent: German, Jewish, Scandinavian" ("Miss Jewett" 92-93). Her tone here, as she turns on all her immigrants and their descendants, is not light, as it was with Potash and Perlmutter. Herself native born, of families long settled here, with aristocratic leanings, Cather may have harbored at some level the labels "upstart newcomers" and "us." Here she uncharacteristically allows her sense of fairness to be overwhelmed by resentment. (Go back.)
 15. The brief scene of the assault tells us that Gabrielle's beauty is not sensual, not meant as sexual invitation. The dark man, an lago figure, his provenance mysterious, conveys the spiritual heaviness and materiality that cannot respond to beauty as inviting aspiration (see Wasserman, "Cather's 'The Old Beauty'"). (Go back.)
 16. Mr. Wiener was an ally of Charles Cather in a feud that divided the town, a fact that would have endeared him to Cather (see Woodress 48-50). (Go back.)
 17. Perhaps Cather would have denied the possibility of ever fully erasing a consciousness of ethnic differences-what she called race, or blood. How strong such assumptions were in the young Cather is illustrated by the menacing Freymark in the early story (1900), "The Affair at Grover Station"; rumored to be a Jew, Freymark's villainy is explained by Asiatic blood (341-42). In this regard see Robert K. Miller's interesting discussion of Myra Henshawe's Irishness, "Strains of Blood." (Go back.)


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Baum, Bernard. "Willa Cather's Waste Land." The South Atlantic Quarterly 48 (Oct. 1949): 589-601.
Cather, Willa. "The Affair at Grover Station." Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
——. "Ardessa." Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-29. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1973.
——. "Behind the Singer Tower." Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
——. "The Diamond Mine." Youth and the Bright Medusa. 1920. New York: Vintage-Random, 1975.
——. "The Drama as a Fine Art." Lincoln Courier 7 Jan. 1899. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, .1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
——. "Escapism: A Letter to The Commonweal." 1936. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
——. "Fiction Recalls Violinist Lost in War." New York Herald 24 Dec. 1922. Rpt. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
——. "The Marriage of Phaedra." The Troll Garden. 1905. Ed. James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.
——. "Miss Jewett." Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936.
——. "New Types of Acting: The Character Actor Displaces the Star." McClure's Magazine (Feb. 1914): 41-51.
——. "Old Mrs. Harris." Obscure Destinies. 1932. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974.
——. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage-Random, 1973.
——. "Scandal." Youth and the Bright Medusa. 1920. New York: Vintage-Random, 1975.
——. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Hall, Joan Wylie. "Cather's 'Deep Foundation Work': Reconstructing 'Behind the Singer Tower.'" Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (Winter 1989): 81-86.
Haller, Evelyn. "'Behind the Singer Tower': Willa Cather and Flaubert." Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 (Spring 1990): 39-55.
Hendrick, Burton J. "The Great Jewish Invasion." McClure's Magazine 28 (Jan. 1907): 307-21.
Miller, Robert K. "Strains of Blood: Myra Driscoll and the Romance of the Celts." Fourth National Willa Cather Seminar, Santa Fe, 16-23 June 1990. This volume, below.
Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.
Randall, John, III. The Landscape and the Looking Glass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Schroeter, James. "Willa Cather and The Professor's House." Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1967.
Sergent, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953; rpt. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P Bison Book, 1963.
Wasserman, Loretta. "The Music of Time: Henri Bergson and Willa Cather." American Literature 57.2 (May 1985): 226-39.
——. "Willa Cather's 'The Old Beauty' Reconsidered." Studies in American Fiction 16.2 (Autumn 1988): 217-28.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.