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From Cather Studies Volume 3

The Allusive Cather

We read in One of Ours that "when the Sunday School gave tableaux vivants, Enid [Royce] was chosen to portray Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii, and the martyr in 'Christ or Diana"' (123). What does that information mean to us? Do we recognize the allusions, or give them a second thought? Most readers would not know offhand that Nydia was the loving slave of Glaucus in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Last Days of Pompeii, nor would we know that Edwin Long's painting Christ or Diana portrays a young woman torn between devoting her life to Christ and following the earthly pursuits represented by the goddess Diana. Only by going to the sources of the double allusion can we make the rather surprising discovery that Willa Cather has pictured Enid in, not one, but two self-sacrificing roles and in two unusual love triangles.

In the first, Nydia heroically rescues her love, Glaucus, twice and his love, lone, once and then selflessly plunges into the sea. Except for Nydia's blindness, the application of the allusion to One of Ours is puzzling; the "Christ or Diana" allusion, however, has rather obvious surface application. The painting shows a young man pleading with the so-called martyr not to reject Diana in favor of a celibate life sacrificed to Christ. We can imagine Claude in the role of the young man, but we should also remember that the ambiguous Diana promises anything but marital bliss to her maidens and their unsuspecting lovers.

Since most readers would not see Enid as a selfless martyr in any case, what do we make of Cather's linking her to Nydia, even giving her a name that is very nearly a transposition of Nydia? Is Cather only making an ironic little joke with these allusions, or is she introducing additional complexity into the character of Enid? She is very likely doing both. The six or seven years I have spent on the trail of John March, who invested a lifetime ferreting out the allusions in Willa Cather's published writing, has convinced me that we still have much to learn about Nebraska's first lady of letters. Her use of allusion is a good starting place for a renewed quest for understanding.

Commentary on allusion in Cather's writing officially began thirty years ago with Richard Giannone's work on the musical aspects of her fiction. A decade later, James Woodress called attention to Cather's fictional blending of Old World cultural allusions with New World experience. The next year, Bernice Slote published the first of several statements on what she called the "secret web" of allusion and intentional mystery that undergirds Cather's writing, and in 1984 James Work delivered a spoof on Cather's prolific use of allusion and symbol. A few others, notably Joan Wylie Hall and Bruce Baker, have remarked on particular allusions in Cather's writing; and others, including John Randall, John Murphy, and David Stouck, have observed the influence of classical literature on her work. More recently, Ann Romines has seen a web of domestic allusion in Cather's fiction. But in view of the huge allusive substructure that informs, fleshes out, supports, shapes, and sometimes even becomes her fiction, we have made only a beginning. To more fully understand the fiction, and something of the mind that produced it, we must return to the novels and stories and examine the often masked and often ironic allusions the artist placed there.

Although some aspiring intellectuals regard Cather as too readable for mature tastes, for me the essence of her art lies in its being at once accessible and deeply complex-unequivocal on the surface and ironic or ambiguous underneath. She brings an immense reserve of knowledge and an astonishing memory to a considerable narrative gift. Few writers have drawn so specifically from their own past in creating the settings, furnishings, situations, cultures, characters, and emotions of their fiction. Whatever the narrative apparatus, it is mainly through allusion that what is uniquely Cather's-her mind, her feelings, her memory enters the story. It is Cather's ability to fuse sophisticated technique with moving description, spiritual authenticity, and engaging story that has captured readers both inside and outside the academy. Always scornful of symbol-hunting English professors, she filled her fiction with teasers for them anyway, sometimes burying her allusions well beyond popular reach. In doing so, however, she quite miraculously kept her stories well within that reach.

To Cather's credit, only rarely, usually in the earlier stories, do the allusions seem to call undue attention to themselves. But even the allusive profusion of "The Treasure of Far Island" and "Jack-a-Boy" seems warranted for calling up fanciful worlds. In those stories, illusion is her subject and allusion is her method. Generally speaking, though, as Cather polished her craft, her allusions became less intrusive, less posed, and more integrated with character and narrative. In her best work, unless she wanted to highlight her allusions, they are so unobtrusive as to be apprehended almost unconsciously, like the rhythms of blank verse in Renaissance drama. To remove them would be to collapse a vital substructure, and yet they must be taken for granted. If Ray Bradbury is right-if writers speak to readers at a secret level-then to some extent Willa Cather's deeper meanings can be apprehended intuitively, whether we consciously fathom her allusions or not. Without question, allusion was much more than window dressing to Willa Cather's art. She used it to reveal character, to develop theme, to add concrete detail, and to create resonance. She also used it to enrich and deepen her narratives by insinuating new levels of meaning into her text through complexities of tone and intent.

An important aspect of Cather's mind and memory centers in the cultural arts, particularly literature and music. Her countless allusions to the arts reveal something of her education, both formal and informal, as well as her passions and artistic preferences. Following a literary allusion to its source is especially interesting because that process uncovers both the source and its context. Furthermore, it allows comparison of the two texts, Cather's and her predecessor's. Small inaccuracies in her renderings of some passages indicate that innumerable phrases hung in her mind and that she called them up from memory and did not verify them. In attributing variations to faulty recollection, however, we should be alert to alterations that may be intentional; a changed line, whether imperfectly remembered or purposely changed, surely provides in its altered form the meaning Cather wanted. And often, whether she changed an allusion or not, she seemingly wanted to achieve irony.

As might be expected, allusions to Shakespeare, both direct and indirect, abound. Cather's fiction draws from at least two sonnets and more than twenty plays, including the less familiar King John, Coriolanus, and Troilus and Cressida. Judging from the multitude of quotations from Hamlet and Macbeth, we might conclude that they are the plays she knew best, or liked best. My first illustrations are borrowings from Shakespeare; both occur in "Flavia and Her Artists," which contains several allusions to his plays. Cather's larger intent, I think, is to invoke the artificial world of the play as a backdrop to the no less artificial construct Flavia has fabricated. Additionally, Jemima Broadwood, one of the principals on Flavia's carefully appointed stage, actually is an actress, and she plays the role of the wise fool in the story. Incidentally, Susan Rosowski has suggested that if Flavia Hamilton is modeled after Flavia Canfield, and Imogen Willard after Dorothy Canfield, then Jemima Broadwood could be intended to suggest Willa Cather herself. Indeed, Cather may be recognizing her own penchant for allusion in punctuating Jemima's conversation with it.

Cather uses Shakespeare in a variety of ways in the story. Early on, she rather acidly observes that of the "indigent retainers" from earlier days only Alcee Buisson was received into Flavia's extravagant new "asylum for talent," because he had done what Flavia required; he had kept "current value in the world" and thereby retained value for her. Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida provides the borrowed lines by which Cather comments on the special dispensation accorded Alcee. Cather interjects the lines without quotation marks, declaring that he "alone had remembered that ambition hath a knapsack at his back, wherein he puts alms to oblivion" (Collected Short Fiction 152 [hereafter CSF], emphasis added). The allusion seems clear and applicable to Cather's immediate point. However, a comparison with Shakespeare's Troilus, wherein Ulysses is attempting both to console and to advise a despondent Achilles, reveals that Cather has changed three words in two lines, bending the allusion to serve her own purposes. In Troilus, Achilles is aggrieved that since his withdrawal from the Trojan conflict his countrymen have embraced a new hero, and he sulkily vows to fight no more. Ulysses, however, simply attributes Achilles' fall from grace to humanity's fickle memory, noting that the public quickly forgets anyone whom it cannot see: "Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, / Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, / A great-sized monster of ingratitudes" (3.3.146-47, emphasis added).

We cannot determine whether or not Willa Cather intentionally altered the lines, substituting ambition for time, knapsack for wallet, and to for for, but time appears to have little thematic significance in Cather's story, while ambition has a great deal. Although Shakespeare's wallet may be interchangeable with Cather's knapsack, time and ambition are very different things. The Troilus line as it stood did not serve Cather, though its context did. By changing one word she was able to capitalize on the allusion and its context, advancing her own theme and characterization both directly and indirectly. The word ambition of itself carries rather sinister overtones, and here doubly so. On the surface, Cather applies the word to Flavia's guests, but the source of her allusion clearly indicts Flavia as well.

Going to Cather's source illuminates the story in still other ways. In Troilus Ulysses immediately introduces the term "monster of ingratitudes," which, though not cited in "Flavia," has heavy implications in the story. Then, in an uncannily apt description of Flavia, he calls time "a fashionable host / That slightly shakes his parting guest by th' hand" even as he "with his arms outstretch'd . . . / Grasps in the comer" (165-68). One might even conclude that the Troilus allusion gave Cather the germ of her story. To see the connection, however, we must pursue the allusion to its source, because Cather herself stops short of quoting the revelatory lines. In Ulysses' further observation that, like it or not, "the present eye praises the present object" (180) we see Flavia's rationale for extending guest privileges. Achilles, like Flavia's castoffs, has been neglectful of his public image.

On occasion Cather also slyly uses an ambiguous allusion to undercut a character, even (or especially) a seemingly innocent one. In "Flavia" she may be targeting young Imogen Willard with another line from Shakespeare. Near the end of the story, Arthur Hamilton borrows from Richard III to remark on Imogen's hurried exit on the heels of Flavia's offended artists. Arthur sees fortuitous wisdom in it, declaring that Imogen's book learning has left her "so girt about with illusions that she still casts a shadow in the sun" (CSF 172). The reader who does not recognize Arthur's remark as an allusion might see in it simply an acknowledgment that Imogen is naive in the extreme and that a lengthy stay in Flavia's house might shatter her youthful idealism.

The source of the allusion, however, offers additional interpretive possibilities. Arthur's reference is to the play's opening scene, in which Richard soliloquizes in "the winter of [his] discontent." Well disposed to combat, he is restless in peacetime because his misshapen figure precludes participation in the warrior's customary postwar entertainments. He sardonically describes himself as "unfinish'd, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up"; and he complains that he has "no delight to pass away the time, / Unless to spy my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity" (1.1.20-27). I would not want to overstate the importance of Arthur's brief allusion, but in context it intimates that Imogen Willard is also "unfinished" and "sent before [her] time" into Flavia's world. There she too is out of her element, blinded by the sheen of her illusions and surmises. Informed only by adolescent schooling, those shining notions reveal a deformity as prohibitive as Richard's.

Willa Cather was obviously widely read, but most of her literary allusions are from writers of the traditional canon, in particular Virgil, Scott, Byron, Heine, and Longfellow. The historical settings of Cather's fiction, of course, account to some extent for her neglect of contemporaries, but not of forebears. She makes surprisingly few references to the Greek dramatists and philosophers, and none that I know of to Chaucer. That she knew the work of current writers, however, is obvious from her correspondence. It appears to me that, regardless of the breadth of her adult reading, for her own writing Willa Cather drew mainly from the literature that had been stored for years in the vaults of her mind. She looked there also for the models of many of her characters, as well as for her inset tales and her settings; the memorable lines, stories, and situations she had "banked" along the way were available to be withdrawn as she needed them.

Some of her characters operate in the same way. In "Consequences," for example, Henry Eastman calls up a seemingly odd line from Longfellow to comment on Kier Cavenaugh, noting that Cavenaugh's pleasure-driven life has not yet taken a toll on his physical appearance. Eastman is almost surprised to find the young man looking "fresh and smooth," with "a lustre to his hair and white teeth and a clear look in his round eyes." That Cavenaugh, in defiance of his lifestyle, appears "cheerful and trim and ruddy" suggests to Eastman that the young man can stand as living proof of "the inherent vigor of the human organism and the amount of bad treatment it will stand for" (Uncle Valentine 71). Then Eastman implies, with characteristic denseness, that Cavenaugh's example could even be an encouragement to other mortals, and Eastman summons Longfellow to finish his thought: "'Footprints that perhaps another,' etc." Only in following Eastman's "footprints" to "A Psalm of Life" do we see the curious ineptness of his applying the allusion to Cavenaugh. The pertinent Longfellow lines are these: Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints in the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o'er life's solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again. (stanzas 7-8, in March 440)

Indeed, throughout the story ineptitude at understanding human character typifies Eastman's obtuse and literalistic nature; and I suspect that Cather uses this allusion to emphasize the fact. Maybe Eastman sees the irony in applying an excerpt from such lines to a young man who in no way resembles the noble exemplars of Longfellow's verse, but I doubt it. Cavenaugh, on the other hand, were he privy to the comment, would readily detect the irony in the comparison and find it a good joke.

I offer one final example of an allusion from secular literature that requires a consideration of Cather's source to unlock its meaning. In "Eleanor's House" Harriet Westfield observes somewhat querulously to her husband that Harold Forscythe had probably pictured his second wife, Ethel, as an unassertive vassal who would honor "the door of the chamber" after their marriage (CSF 97), that is, that he had felt safe in assuming that she would not attempt to invade the territory in his heart and mind that was consecrated to the dead Eleanor. The "door of the chamber" allusion, however, is also macabre, since a journey to its source reveals it as the door behind which the murderous Bluebeard (in the story by Charles Perrault) hid the bodies of his previous wives. Each new wife was forbidden to open it. Is there just a hint in this allusion that the neurotically possessive Harriet secretly blames Harold Forscythe for the death of her beloved and peerless Eleanor? This is an ironic suggestion indeed, given the celebrated empathy between Harriet and Harold (whose names, like their feelings, appropriately alliterate), an empathy born of their mutual reverence for Eleanor's memory. More likely, perhaps, the allusion intimates some covert danger to Ethel.

Willa Cather was also fond of using biblical allusions, some of them for ironic purposes that are indiscernible if isolated from their scriptural contexts. As with other textual allusions, we must follow them to their sources. Near the end of A Lost Lady, Niel Herbert wishes he might call up the shade of the youthful Marian Forrester, "as the Witch of Endor called up Samuel's" shade. Niel wants to ask Marian "whether she had really found some ever-blooming, ever-burning, ever-piercing joy, or whether it was all fine play-acting" (171-72). The allusion is to 1 Samuel (28:7-15), where King Saul, engaged in a worrisome battle with the Philistines, approached the Lord but, because of his disobedience, received no answer. In desperation he consulted a woman of Endor reputed to be a spiritualist, and she conjured the soul of the deceased prophet Samuel. Instead of offering encouragement, however, Samuel told Saul that he would be conquered and slain in battle. Similarly, I cannot think that the spirit of Marian Forrester would have foreseen for the sanctimonious, conventional Niel Herbert anything resembling the "wild delight" he covets. And it is ironic, and terribly characteristic of Niel, that he would wish for news of joy by means of an allusion to gloom.

Another ironic biblical allusion that requires a consideration of Cather's source to reveal its hidden meanings occurs near the end of My Mortal Enemy. When Nellie Birdseye calls on the impoverished Henshawes in California, Myra complains that "the stalled ox would have trod softer" (82) than her noisy neighbors in the rooms above. Assuming that a stalled ox would do a good bit of stamping in place, we readily grasp her surface meaning. But as with previous examples, to bypass Cather's source would be to miss Myra's private and subtler meaning. The full verse in Proverbs (15:17) is instructive: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith." Placed in context, Myra's allusion is less a caustic criticism of the Henshawes' neighbors than it is a bitter commentary on the Henshawes themselves. A relationship that has turned sour can certainly be compared to a stalled ox-heavy, implacable, and beyond entreaty. just as Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor's House, created a tableau featuring his sons-in-law with implications that only he and Lillian would fully grasp-and only he would enjoy-so Myra comments on her marriage through a biblical allusion that neither Nellie nor the freethinking Oswald would recognize. And I think Myra takes perverse pleasure in her rueful private joke. Less subtle is a biblical reference in O Pioneers! that not only links Frank Shabata to King Herod but predicts his slaying of the innocents, Marie and Emil. Cather says that if Frank were to discover the spirit that Emil Bergson found in music, he would slay it "as Herod slew the innocents" (255).

Cather's copious reliance on a few particular literary figures is repeated in her frequent use of a few musicians. It is significant, too, that her musical allusions are more often to vocal music and to singers and composers of vocal music than to instrumental music and performers of instrumental music. Allusions to the operas of Wagner are legion, and Cather makes numerous references to Schubert, Schumann, and Verdi as well. Voice was her passion and her subject perhaps because voice is also the writer's special instrument. Moreover, with song, as with literature, Cather had a written text to draw from and a similar opportunity to alter it in the borrowing.

Occasionally she even reversed the meaning of a line by changing a single word. In The Professor's House, for instance, Godfrey St. Peter picks up on a line he hears in a performance of the Brahms Requiem. In the original score the line reads, "He heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them." Cather renders the line differently: "He heapeth up riches and cannot tell who shall scatter them" (emphasis added). Only if we go to her source, or know the Requiem well, are we likely to catch the substitution of scatter for gather. Thus changed, however, the line becomes an ironic reminder of the disappointing legacy of Tom Outland-increasing disaffection (emotional "scattering") and greed among the people once dearest to him. A disheartened St. Peter interprets the line as a "curiously bitter burst from the baritone" (157-58). Willa Cather may not have made the substitution knowingly, but one thing is certain: scatter was the word she needed, not gather, and it reverberates through the book as a baritone's voice reverberates through a concert hall.

Although Cather was prolific in adapting allusions from written texts and in finding ironic uses for them, she had many other resources at hand, among them an impressive acquaintance with plant life in familiar locales and considerable knowledge of the visual arts. As an example of the former, I point to the incident in "On the Gulls' Road" when the moonstruck young diplomatic clerk admiringly compares Alexandra Ebbling's splendid blonde hair to a twining yellow plant native to his home locally called "love vine" (CSF 87). She is disconcerted by the name, and he should be by the comparison too, for the vine her guileless lover describes is probably dodder, an insidious tangled pest, a common parasitic plant that flourishes by sucking nourishment from its host plants, eventually killing them. Although the young man does not know it, his intended compliment is both a slur and a foreboding. Indeed, twenty years later the Ambassador is still in the long-deceased Alexandra's clutches, unable to shake himself loose from her life-absorbing hold on him. This fact is symbolized in the story's Poesque final scene, where a lock of her hair still clings relentlessly to the Ambassador's arm, like inescapable strands of dodder.

In "The Sculptor's Funeral" Cather generates heavy irony by having Harvey Merrick's coffin placed before a "Rogers group" sculpture in the Merrick family parlor (CSF 176). None of the famous artist's own work is in evidence, only this popular twentydollar reproduction by John Rogers. Cather introduces a second layer of irony in the subject of that cheap art piece, which happens to feature John Alden and Priscilla. A probe of the allusion yields the title Cather withholds: "Why Don't You Speak for Yourself John." The "Rogers group," therefore, seems to ask Priscilla's question of the inert artist, silenced all his young life by his unsympathetic environment and now again voiceless in that environment in his death, denied speech even through his art.

In all, Willa Cather uses allusion to suggest more than appears on the surface of her narratives. She seems so open and forthright in her fiction that we sometimes miss the allusions, ironic or otherwise, that she does not single out. Even when we encounter an obvious allusion, we may be hard-pressed to uncover its source. The immense contribution of John March in identifying and explicating hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Cather's allusions can scarcely be overstated. And by the time another year passes, my graduate student colleagues and I hope to have an important phase of his work in print. It is possible that one day the allusive Willa Cather will be less elusive, though I would not bank on it.


Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.
——. My Mortal Enemy. New York: Knopf, 192.6.
——. One of Ours. New York: Knopf, 1922.
——. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
——. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected
Short Fiction, 1915-1929. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1973.
——. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Rev. ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.
March, John. A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather. Ed. Marilyn Arnold, with Debra Lynn Thornton. Westport CT: Greenwood P, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.


Baker, Bruce. "From Region to the Word: Two Allusions in Cather's A Lost Lady." Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature 8 (1986): 61-68.
Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather's Fiction. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.
Hall, Joan Wylie. "Nordic Mythology in Willa Cather's 'The Joy of Nelly Deane." Studies in Short Fiction 26.3 (1989): 339-41
——. "Treacherous Texts: The Perils of Allusion in Cather's Early Stories." Colby Library Quarterly 24.3 (1988): 141-50
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot. Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
Rosowski, Susan J. "Prototypes for Willa Cather's 'Flavia and Her Artists': The Canfield Connection." American Notes and Queries 23.9-10 (1985): 143-45
Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather: The Secret Web." Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium. Ed. John Murphy. North Andover MA: Merrimack College, 1974. 1-19.
Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975
Woodress, James. "Willa Cather: American Experience and European Tradition." The Art of Willa Cather. Ed. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1974. 43-62.
Work, James C. "Cather's Confounded Conundrums in The Professor's House." Western American Literature 18.4 (1984): 303-12.