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From Cather Studies Volume 2

Strains of Blood

Myra Driscoll and the Romance of the Celts

It has become customary to read My Mortal Enemy as a story "of a woman who chooses love over all other possibilities, and who suffers for it" (Klein xvii), an unsentimental counterpoint to The Awakening (Rosowski 145, Woodress 386) that exposes "the dangers of romantic love" (O'Brien 443). That My Mortal Enemy explores the limitations of romantic love is clear, but as Susan Rosowski has noted, "even when we grant that such love is inadequate . . . the novel remains troubling. Cather has disproved conventions about love, then offered sphinxlike riddles in its place" (154).

Among the many riddles raised by this text, I think the most fundamental is how Myra Henshawe is able to preserve her identity through a series of displacements that strip so much away from her-not only her love for Oswald but also her fortune, her health, and more than one home. When Nellie Birdseye learns that Myra is one of her neighbors in a cheap apartment-hotel in an unnamed western city, she dreads visiting her. But when she does so, she is "delighted." Myra greets her warmly, teases her about the past, and, within minutes, inspires Nellie to declare, "she was herself, Myra Henshawe! I hadn't expected anything so good" (62). Unreliable though her judgment may be (especially in the first half of the novel), Nellie seems right when she recognizes in Myra an enduring sense of self. The old woman who eventually finds the strength to walk out of a room in which she does not choose to die is, in many respects, still the young woman who had earlier insisted on leaving her uncle's house alone (16). She is once again shutting a door behind her and giving the dare to fate. In doing so, she achieves what seems her finest moment: death on her own terms, at dawn, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific-a death that seems "triumphant" (Rosowski 154), even to critics who fully realize Myra's limitations.

How is it, then, that Myra is able to remain "herself"? Myra's strength comes from more than one source: although reduced to near poverty, she has the strength of social superiority that comes from having been nurtured throughout most of her life by the protection and privilege that money can confer. She is also nurtured by art, finding comfort, when bedridden, by reciting long passages from Shakespeare that she had learned by heart. But most importantly, Myra draws upon a strength that is, we are told, within her blood. We learn early in the story that "the blood tie was very strong" (13) between Myra and her great-uncle, John Driscoll. And reminiscing about him shortly before her death, Myra emphasizes the importance of "blood" in one of the most reflective passages within the book: "As we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forefathers put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside us there, waiting, like our skeleton" (82).

There is every reason to believe that Myra is telling Nellie the truth, as she sees it, when she declares that individuality-like romantic love-is just another youthful illusion. And as her emphasis upon "blood" suggests, My Mortal Enemy is ultimately a novel about the triumph of race over individuality. Because racism is so troubling to the modern mind, it is tempting to speak euphemistically of Old World culture and emphasize terms such as immigrant and ethnic when addressing Cather's interest in race. But call it what we will, race is at the heart of much of Cather's work, and we cannot overlook what she has to say about it in My Mortal Enemy, the only novel in which Cather focused upon an Irish protagonist. If we accept Myra's own view, her life has been determined by her blood, and the blood, in this case, is Celtic.

Reminders of Myra's race occur regularly throughout the text. We learn early that John Driscoll "took her back to Ireland with him, one summer" (12.). And on the first afternoon of Nellie's visit to the Henshawes in New York, she observes Myra declare, "They always find me out," as she gives a coin to "a thin lad . . . with no overcoat, who was playing The Irish Waherwoman" (26), a role Myra herself will eventually play. For Myra seems to become increasingly Irish after her descent to poverty, and the woman who is first introduced to us as "Myra Henshawe" (3) is last referred to as "Molly Driscoll" (104). It is in a "rich Irish voice" (83) that she recites Shakespeare to herself. She explains her hoard of gold coins "for unearthly purposes" (86) by telling Nellie, "All old Irish women hide away a bit of money" (85). Shortly afterward, Nellie finds Myra writing to "an old friend, an Irish actress" whose son had just committed suicide (86). And at the end of this same chapter, when Nellie offends Myra by defending Oswald, the worldly Mrs. Henshawe adopts the voice of an Irish washerwoman: "Will you be pleased to take your things and go, Mrs. Casey? . . . It's owing to me infirmities, dear Mrs. Casey, that I'll not be able to go as far as me door wid ye" (89).

This is the only scene in which Myra speaks with anything like a brogue, and it is, of course, a type of playacting to which Myra resorts in order to disengage herself from Nellie after allowing her a moment of great candor. Within the book as a whole, Cather has taken pains to keep Myra from seeming the stereotypical Irish-woman of American or English fiction. Although someone like Stephen Crane might have had Myra pull a bottle out from beneath her pillow or nibble on a potato as she gazes upon the Pacific, Cather has drawn a character who is more like a Druid priestess, a role with which Myra is specifically associated when the "Casta Diva" aria from Norma is sung for her in New York. As Father Fay observes, "She's not at all modern in her make-up," and while Myra may hold an ebony crucifix at the hour of her death, there is nevertheless something pre-Christian about her death, against a tree, on an altarlike rock facing the sea. This setting is significant not only because of its evocation of King Lear, as a number of critics have noted, but because the Celts believed that the otherworld was to be found either across or beneath the western sea. Even today, the Irish have a saying that equates death with "going west," which is exactly where Cather sends Myra to die.

There is thus something archetypal in the death of Myra Henshawe, and while her character may seem remarkable, it is by no means unique. It is only a sentimentalist like Oswald who can declare, "She isn't people! She's Myra Driscoll, and there was never anybody else like her" (76). While Cather spares Myra some of the most degrading and stereotypical characteristics that the WASP ascendancy once enjoyed attributing to the Irish, she has nevertheless drawn a woman who embodies nearly all of the characteristics that various commentators have attributed to the Celts ever since Caesar praised them for being fierce but reckless warriors, who, at peace, placed great value on music, poetry, and hospitality. Seen in this light, the witty and superstitious Myra Henshawe comes very close to being a stock figure.

Let me briefly review those aspects of Myra's character that are widely associated with the Celts, and the Irish in particular. Her virtues include intelligence and eloquence, as well as a genuine appreciation of music and a deep love of poetry (which, significantly, she preserves for herself as a type of oral tradition when she is no longer able to read). She is also capable of great generosity-as seen, for example, in her Christmas gift to Madame Modieska, "a glistening holly-tree, full of red berries and pointed like a spire, easily the queen of its companions" (30). But Myra tends to be generous beyond her means. Attractive though this holly tree may be, it is also clearly "extravagant" (30), as her husband points out, one of many signs that Myra is improvident, and, perhaps, reckless. Her chief extravagance, however, is with her emotions-"in caring for so many people and in caring for them so much," as Nellie observes (43). The emotional extravagance that once led her to elope with Oswald is seen elsewhere in devoted loyalty to such friends as Anne Aylward and an uncompromising vindictiveness toward anyone who has crossed her. She has, in short, an Irish temper-as seen most clearly in the quarrel Nellie witnesses during her visit to the Henshawes in New York.

In trying to understand what My Mortal Enemy says about the Celts, we should remember that Willa Cather was a child of the nineteenth century and that her values were for the most part formed within an age that took racial theory seriously. In addition to informing much of the century's work in philology and anthropology, race drew the attention of many of the best writers of the age, including the great Victorian essayists: Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold, all of whom were admired by Cather in her youth. I believe that our understanding of Cather would benefit from exploring her work in the light of nineteenth-century racial theory, and I take, as a starting point, a work by Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature. A collection of lectures first given at Oxford in 1864, Arnold's analysis of Celtic culture may be taken as a characteristic example of nineteenth-century Celtic studies in that it combines serious scholarship with a good deal of racial myth.

One of the most important peoples of the ancient world, the Celts spread from their origins in central Europe eastward into Asia Minor and westward into Iberia and the British Isles, reaching the height of their dominion at about 300 B.C. By Arnold's time, the last of the Celts seemed confined to Brittany, Wales, Scotland, and, most importantly, Ireland-where Celtic tradition remained the best preserved. Arnold asks why "for ages and ages the world has been constantly slipping, ever more and more out of the Celt's grasp" (346), and his answer is that there is a fundamental flaw within the Celtic nature. He identifies this as "a chafing against the despotism of fact . . . [and] a perpetual straining after mere emotion" (344), a fatal tendency to strain "human nature further than it will stand" (347). In a key passage he argues:

Sentiment is . . . the word which marks where the Celtic races really touch and are one. . . . An organization quick to feel impressions, and feeling them very strongly; a lively personality therefore, keenly sensitive to joy and sorrow; this is the main point. If the downs of life too much outnumber the ups, this temperament, just because it is so quickly and nearly conscious of all impressions, may no doubt be seen shy and wounded; it may be seen in wistful regret, it may be seen in passionate, penetrating melancholy; but its essence is to aspire ardently after life, light, and emotion, to be expansive, adventurous and gay . . . and the impressionable Celt, soon up and down, is the more down because it is so his nature to be up-to be sociable, hospitable, eloquent, admired, figuring away brilliantly. (343)

Arnold's vision of the Celts might easily serve as a model for Myra Driscoll. At her best, she is adventurous, sociable, hospitable, and passionately determined to figure brilliantly as the star of her own her own life. But she is also subject to violent mood swings, and if the world slips from her grasp, it is, in good part, because her life has been distorted by her "perpetual straining after mere emotion," as Arnold puts it-or "excess of emotion," as James Woodress has argued (386).

It would be tempting to quote from Arnold at great length, for there are other aspects of his racial theory that bear upon My Mortal Enemy. He argues, for example, that there is a natural antipathy between Celts and Germans, which is worth noting not only because of the scene in which Myra intimidates a series of German hostesses but also because she lives unhappily with a husband who is half-German. But the point I want to emphasize here is that if we recognize that My Mortal Enemy is concerned with the triumph of blood over individuality and that Celtic blood was believed to carry within it a genetic tendency toward "excess of emotion," then we should be more sympathetic toward Myra and her unhappy romance. To blame Myra for succumbing to the dangers of romantic love is to suggest that she had a choice-and that her life might have been much happier if she had stayed in Parthia, secured her inheritance, and directed her formidable energy into some worthy career. Cather implies that that Myra's fate was inescapable and that she was destined by race to see the world slip from her grasp. This is not to suggest that Myra was destined to marry Oswald or that she was destined to lose her fortune, but it is to suggest that Myra was destined to find life disappointing because of her Celtic tendency to expect too much from it. Had she stayed in Parthia she would have found ample occasion for unhappiness in or out of marriage to anyone. We are encouraged to believe that the potential for "passionate, penetrating melancholy: was within her blood.

As this language suggests, Arnold's vision of the Celts, like Cather's vision of Mvra, is ultimately romantic. Confronted, like Cather, by a materialistic society that seemed increasingly indifferent to high cultural values, Arnold praises the "Celt's quick feeling for what is noble and distinguished" (374) and begins his study of Celtic literature by deliberately turning his back on "Liverpool steamboats," in order to look westward for "mystery," "beauty," and "light" (291)-a gesture with which Cather would almost certainly have sympathized, for, in a manner of speaking, it is what she herself did in so many of her works. Although I cannot prove that Cather read Arnold's work on the Celts, I think it likely, for it is a key work by a critic who was still much admired during the late nineteenth century, and we know that Cather valued a number of his other works (Slote 36, 40). But I am not trying to establish a case for direct influence so much as I am trying to locate My Mortal Enemy within a romantic tradition that sought, in Celtic values, a way to celebrate qualities that seemed to be passing from the modern world. If we recall the popularity of Ossian at the very beginning of the industrial age, we might read My Mortal Enemy as one of a number of works that use a mythic concept of the Celts to challenge the apparent triumph of bourgeois materialism. Indeed, interest in the Celts was so persuasive throughout the nineteenth century that one ethnographer has gone so far as to describe the period as one of "Celtomania" (Filip 15).

Cather's own interest in the Celts can be traced to more than one source. Her lifetime witnessed not only the rebirth of Irish literature but also the flourishing of Irish nationalism, the declaration of the Irish Free State in 1922, and a civil war that has yet to be resolved. Although it is probably a coincidence that Ireland broke in two in the very year that Cather declared "the world broke in two," we should note that Cather chose to write the story of an Irish Catholic who marries the son of an "Ulster Protestant" (113) at a time when the world wondered not only if the Irish were capable of governing themselves but also how long the artificial division of Ireland into two separate states could be maintained-questions that must have been of at least some interest to a writer who was personally acquainted with a number of key figures in the Irish Renaissance and who was, after all, part Irish herself. A "Celtic" reading of My Mortal Enemy may reveal that this work has political, cultural, and psychological dimensions that have yet to be explored. It may also suggest another feminist approach to Cather, for, among ancient peoples, the Celts held women in unusually high prestige (Dillon and Chadwick 153-54). Both history and mythology record many instances of powerful Celtic queens who dominated their consorts, and it could be argued that the queenly Myra Driscoll is a latter-day Boudicca, Cartimandua, or Medb who has been dispossessed of her throne.

But I want to turn one last time to Arnold. An important purpose of his work was to help the English rediscover the Celt within themselves, for he believed that a great number of Celts remained in England after the Saxon invasion, "their lot obscure and, so to speak, [the] underground lot of a subject race . . . yet insensibly getting mixed up with their conquerors, and their blood entertaining into the composition of a new people, in which the stock of the conquerors counts for most, but the stock of the conquered, too, counts for something" (338). Arnold traces the greatness of English poetry to this Celtic strain, and the great accomplishments of the English people to a multicultural heritage that fused Celtic imagination to Anglo-Saxon practicality.

Like Arnold, Cather sees the potential for self-destruction within the Celtic imagination, but she also sees something "noble and distinguished" there. Difficult to like but impossible not to admire, Myra is one of Cather's "dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence . . . strong in attack but weak in defense, who could conquer but not hold" (106). I take that line from A Lost Lady (1923), for Myra is another lost lady from the same period of Cather's work, but it is a line that could just as easily be used to describe to the nineteenth-century view of the Celts. Cather suggests that the modern world has no place for the "wild" and "lovely" Molly Driscoll and treats her as if she were the last member of her race. But to believe this we need to ignore the millions of other "Celts" who came to this country throughout the nineteenth century, making their traditions a lasting part of our multicultural heritage. Using Myra to represent a romantic vision of the Celts as a once-glorious people who could conquer but not hold may be marginally less objectionable than exploiting other racial myths, but it is still highly questionable. To believe that the Irish are doomed to fail is to make it easier for them to do, and making failure magnificent cannot compensate for the ravages of defeat. We should thus question Myra's belief that blood is destiny, for an identity based primarily upon race can lead to limits far more extensive than those imposed by romantic love. Myra's sense of what it means to be a Celt may give her the courage to die well, but it also helps lead to her death.


Arnold, Matthew. "On the Study of Celtic Literature." Lectures and Essays in Criticism. Vol. 3 of Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. R. H. Super. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1962. 291-395.
Dillon, Myles, and Nora K. Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. New York: New American Library, 1967.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. 1923. New York: Random House, 1972.
——. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Random House, 1961.
Filip, Jan. Celtic Civilization and Its Heritage. Trans. Iris Lewitova. Prague: Academia, 1977.
Klein, Marcus. "Introduction." My Mortal Enemy. Willa Cather, New York: Vintage, 1961, v-xxii.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1986.
Slote, Bernice. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1966.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1987.