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From Cather Studies Volume 3

Cather and the New Canon

"The Old Beauty" and the Issue of Empire

The new canon in American literature—the one (as opposed to many) that it is imperative to think about Willa Cather within—is multiculturalism: U.S. literature as a multiethnic, multiracial body of texts that exist in relationship to each other not hierarchically and Eurocentrically but laterally and pluralistically.

In contrast to literary critical practice twenty, or even ten, years ago, the phrase "American literature" does not today call up an agreed-upon America, much less an agreed-upon list of texts. Whose America? Whose literature? Whose definition of literature? According to whose standards? These questions instantly arise, and the answers, no matter how various, reflect the reality that the canon has already become multicultural. We refer matter-of-factly to African American literature, Asian American literature, European American literature, Native American literature, Latino/Latina literature. Even more specifically: Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American, Filipino literature; or Puerto Rican American, Cuban American, Chicano/ Chicana, and so forth. Literary categories that did not exist two decades ago are now routine, and the categories are cultural. Although we may argue about diversity, the changing canon, and the displacement of old masters, scholars and teachers increasingly think, write, and teach in terms of a culturally plural construction of U.S. literature. We do this because multiculturalism reflects the nation. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. has observed, "Whatever the outcome of the cultural wars in the academy, the world we live in is multicultural already" (38). Similarly, John Brenkman states that "a democracy in the contemporary world cannot create a monocultural citizenry... We must define and defend the equality, not the homogeneity, of citizens in the context of multiculturalism" (88).

By multiculturalism, I want to emphasize, I do not mean simply diversity. Multiculturalism implies difference but also conflict and power struggle, recognition of hierarchies of dominance and oppression. Cultures in the United States do not exist in a vacuum; they exist within power relations that are socially determined and politically invested, and they are therefore both constituted by and they themselves participate in the constituting of the political environment in which all of us write, read, interpret, and teach. As Frederic Jameson has argued, articulating a position that is now commonplace, as readers and critics we must begin "with the recognition that there is nothing that is not social and historical—indeed, that everything is 'in the last analysis' political."[1] Multiculturalism requires us to change established critical practices and positions. As Paula Gunn Allen observes, "The new field of study moves beyond the critical boundary set in Western academic circles and demands that the canonical massive walls be thinned and studded with openings so that criticism, like literary production itself, reflects the great variety of writerly lives and thought, particularly those in the American community" (305). Rosemary Hennessy cautions against "additive revisionist criticisms which correct the faults of a universalizing humanism merely by including minorities" (15). The emerging new multicultural canon demands radical revision of received opinion as well as inclusion of new ideas, texts, and perspectives.

The need for such revision is my subject here. I will suggest that what went wrong for Cather after 1922—what made the world split in two for her—was the obvious, undeniable emergence of a new world composed of multiple, competing, cultural perspectives struggling against white, Eurocentric, monocultural hegemony. This new world was not composed of interesting ethnic differences finally and comfortably dominated by Western European values (as in the happy worlds of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia, for example). Rather, it was a world in which the old securities of global, white, European cultural supremacy were starting to give way to something new and frightening: Jews with power, "dark" people making demands, immigrants writing literary criticism, lesbians out of the closet. What Cather longed for after 1922 was the return of hegemonic, white, patriarchal control, the return, that is, of Western European global dominance. Consequently, her position in the new canon of American literature becomes highly problematic. To phrase it simply, how does one put together one's commitment to a multicultural American literary canon and one's attachment to Cather, given her love of empire? What is the relationship between Willa Cather and the new canon?

An ideal text to bring to this question is "The Old Beauty," written late in Cather's life (1936) and set in 1922. The story is about the loss of European empire and how the world has changed for the worse. "The Old Beauty" unfolds in a French tourist town in September 1922. The story is narrated from the point of view of the principal male character, fifty-five-year-old Henry Seabury, an American who was educated in England, has spent his "long business career in China," and is now on vacation in this spot, chosen specifically because "here, at Aix-les-Bains, he found the place unchanged" (4, 7-8). The women, for example, do not wear makeup, they dress conservatively, and they display quiet good manners. Seabury fixates on an older female couple who are fellow tourists, one of whom, Madame de Coucy, the "old beauty" of the title, turns out to be a woman he knew years earlier as Gabrielle Longstreet, a fabulous beauty in her youth. As Seabury renews their acquaintance, this woman's complexity and mystery command the center of the story, the climax of which shows us (in a flashback) an unsettlingly ugly scene. We see Gabrielle as a much younger woman being sexually assaulted; and she is saved only because Seabury, happening to wander into the room, rescues her simply by his presence. "The Old Beauty" ends with Gabrielle dying peacefully in her sleep after an all-day outing to a famous mountaintop monastery that has included a minor auto accident caused by the reckless driving of a young lesbian couple. The night before she dies, Gabrielle and Seabury waltz so gloriously that they clear the dance floor, which had been dominated by tango dancers. Their waltz, in contrast to the tango, shows the two old people gracefully, elegantly controlling the space in "the grand style" (59).

The point of "The Old Beauty" for Seabury, and through him for us, is Gabrielle—" beautiful," mysterious, irresistible to men, from another era, the world that existed before 1922, which, this story forces us to ask, means what? One obvious answer is that Gabrielle stands for upper-middle- and upper-class Edwardian reserve, good taste, and refinement in the face of postwar vulgarity, recklessness, and noise. In this view, she simply represents the nostalgia of an old woman—Cather—for bygone reticence, subtlety, and class. Such an interpretation contains persuasion, but it is also inadequate: too much in the story points to deeper, more difficult possibilities.[2]

"The Old Beauty" longs for—mourns the passing of—European global empire. Its master plot Is colonialism. The question the story raises is: Who or what is Gabrielle-the woman with two names, the "muffled lady" (9), the mysterious beautiful "creature" (19) who enthralled a whole generation of powerful, older, protective men? And her biography answers the question. She configures empire. She comes from Martinique (a French colony). Her father was an English colonial from Barbados (a British colony). Her titled husband sailed into the Caribbean, bought her, and brought her back to England, where he successfully managed her as long as they lived in his secluded country house but lost control of her when they moved to London, the metropolitan center.

The following paragraphs detail Gabrielle's background: Sir Wilfred Longstreet, a lover of yachting and adventure on the high seas, had been driven into Martinique by a tropical hurricane. Strolling about the harbour town, he saw a young girl coming out of church with her mother; the girl was nineteen, the mother perhaps forty. They were the two most beautiful women he had ever seen. The hurricane passed and was forgotten, but Sir Wilfred Longstreet's yacht still lay in the harbour of Fort de France. He sought out the girl's

father, an English colonial from Barbados, who was easily convinced. The mother not so easily; she was a person of character as well as severe beauty. Longstreet had sworn he would never take his yacht out to sea unless he carried Gabrielle aboard her. The Sea Nymph might lie and rot there.

In time the mother was reassured by letters and documents from England. She wished to do well for her daughter, and what very brilliant opportunities were there in Martinique? As for the girl, she wanted to see the world; she had never been off the island. Longstreet made a settlement upon Madame the mother, and submitted to the two services, civil and religious. He took his bride directly back to England. He had not advised his friends of his marriage; he was a young man who kept his affairs to himself.

He kept his wife in the country for some months. When he opened his town house and took her to London, things went as he could not possibly have foreseen. In six weeks she was the fashion of the town; the object of admiration among his friends, and his father's friends. Gabrielle was not socially ambitious, made no effort to please. She was not witty or especially clever,—had no accomplishments beyond speaking French as naturally as English. She said nothing memorable in either language. She was beautiful, that was all. And she was fresh. She came into that society of old London like a quiet country dawn. (16-17)

This description is a virtual tourists' guide to colonial conquest and raid. An English nobleman comes to the Caribbean, strolls about, sees a beautiful woman, wants her, buys her, and takes her home. Her "colonial" father has no problem with this. Her (native?) mother does but is easily bought off. She herself is happy to go with the lovely Englishman because it is boring on her little island. She would rather be in Europe. Once there, like any number of Africans or American Indians before her, she is translated into a fascinating exotic—"the fashion of the town"—a gorgeous curiosity whose presence, quite significantly, is indispensable to the self-image and well-being of powerful, older, mysterious white men of state. Gabrielle represents the colonial trophy, the living symbol of European power around the world. Best of all, she loves it. She dedicates her life to flattering and supporting all those old white men. When her husband divorces her, he is simply replaced by "a succession of Great Protectors, . . . all men much older than she" (23). Except for one, these men are not "known for light behaviour with women" (23). That is, Gabrielle is not sexual, or at least not in any obvious sense. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite—her inexhaustible freshness, her pristine unspoiledness—that attracts these men. "She came into that society of old London like a quiet country dawn" (17).

As the human representative of the colonial spectacle, Gabrielle configures the natural to the metropolitan center's decadence and artifice. She puts on no face paint; she wears "her brown hair parted in the middle and coiled in a small knot at the back of her head"; she has "no glitter about her, no sparkle. She never dressed in the mode" (A). Her skin, we are told twice in a most appropriate trope, "had the glow of orient pearls" (18, 55). Her chambers always have a small fire burning yet are cool; in her living quarters there are "always flowers, and not too many" (22); around her neck as an old beauty she wraps white fur. Gabrielle perfectly embodies white colonial fantasies: the island beauty who is at one and the same time nature incarnate and orientalized; the colonized subject who loves her colonization.

The story's climax literally stages an essential part of the racist core of this standard, Western fantasy of colonial dominance and submission: the hypersexualization and bestializing of the colonized male, complete with the island woman's physical rescue by an Anglo-Saxon savior. Set in New York, where Gabrielle lived briefly, a lurid flashback shows us the sexual danger from which she must be protected. We view the threat that skulks in the unpatrolled colonized woman's private chambers: a dark, foreign, repulsive, non-English-speaking, glistening-faced man who pins her down from behind and plunges his hand into her dress, fondling her breasts. Gabrielle names her attacker, drawing for inspiration, literally, on the King's English: "I was mired down in something . . . the power of the dog, the English Prayer Book calls it. But the moment I heard your voice [Seabury's], I knew that I was safe . . . I felt the leech drop off" (48). The dark man is described as a "beast," "repulsive," "under his smoothness . . . vulgar," an "immigrant who has made a lot of money" and who "does not belong," an intruder who is generous with contributions to good causes only as a way of "pushing himself" where otherwise he would not be accepted (49-50, 56). Gabrielle shudders to Seabury: "In a strange country one goes astray in one's reckonings. I had met that man again and again at the houses of my friends,—your friends!" Seabury replies simply and finally, "The man's accent must have told you that he belonged to a country you did not admire" (49).

What is that country—the place from which dark, sweaty, pushy, moneylending, broken-English-speaking, repulsive, hypersexualized immigrants come; the place from which the tango, a dance that makes Gabrielle think of "lizards dancing—or reptiles coupling" (58), comes; the place that before 1922 was under control but now is not? This world that Gabrielle loathes—and in which she does not fit—is a world in which the dark, hot, southern regions of the globe are moving north and claiming space. The tango, not the waltz, is the dance. Gabrielle's "succession of Great Protectors "—her old white men—are most of them dead. All that remains are their frozen, fading images in the photographs that she hangs, museumlike, in the various hotels she inhabits. In their place, out lesbian couples—the two brash, young, trouser-wearing, cigarette-smoking women named Marge and Jim—crash (literally) about, smashing into the sedate, classy, chauffeur-driven vehicle containing Seabury, Gabrielle, and Gabrielle's companion, Cherry Beamish (65-68). Gone is the covert, ambiguous "beautiful friendship" of Gabrielle and Cherry ("Chetty"), a former music-hall star famous, we are told several times, for playing boys' roles. In place of their "queerest partnership" (40), a phrase certainly coded by 1936 to mean just what it says, lesbian, we get a glimpse of the next generation—Marge and Jim.[3] They, like the "reptilian" tango or the repulsive racialized sex-fiend immigrant, are designed to make us appreciate the colonially controlled pre-1922 world. In fact, this nostalgia is overt. We are explicitly told that Gabrielle represents not just an individual but an era (5). Her "talk brought back not only the men, but their period; its security, the solid exterior, the exotic contradictions behind the screen; the deep, claret-coloured closing years of Victoria's reign" (36).

What is longed for here is clear: colonial empire, white supremacy, sexual secrecy, hypocrisy. The only question is, why? And whose longing is it? just Seabury's? just the privileged white male's? Or Willa Cather's too? Interpretively, there are various possibilities. One is that Cather is being subversive in "The Old Beauty" (or whatever colonial text we choose). She is not really longing for the good old days of European empire. After all, Gabrielle is a querulous old woman and Seabury a lonely leftover from an earlier era; our sympathies lie neither with him nor with Gabrielle, but with Gabrielle's companion, cheery, chatty Cherry "Chetty" Beamish, a woman who accepts the modern world. From this perspective, Gabrielle's life has been tragic. What we see is a wasted human being, a bitter, empty old woman whose vitality was stolen and sapped by powerful white men who, once she has lost her youth and beauty, have no use for her. Gabrielle is a portrait of empire's ravage. We have to admire her ability to manipulate her masters—her refusal to accept the role of passive victim—but, finally, her life is very sad. Her loneliness and rootlessness signify empire's ruthless disregard for the humanity of the people it dominates.

But a totally contrary interpretation is equally, indeed more, possible. The very name Cherry Beamish, not to mention her possible lightweight theatrical background and bright, superficial good humor, casts doubt on how seriously we can think of her as the key to some subtle, subversive subtext. Plump and jolly, she is not the story's focus. Her easy acceptance of the modern world totally lacks the depth and passion of Gabrielle's loathing of it, which mirrors Willa Cather's. As is well known, Cather, like her fictitious character, even if not as intensely, strongly disliked the postwar world. As James Woodress puts it: "She deplored Prohibition, the Jazz Age, the flapper, the relaxation of moral standards, the deterioration of taste, the scramble for money; she didn't like cubism, couldn't take Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound seriously, wouldn't go to see an O'Neill play, and probably could not have been dragged to hear Schönberg" (476).[4] Can we really pretend that "The Old Beauty" does not say what it obviously does say, namely, that the weakening of white northern European global power will unleash disorder and destruction—dark dangerous "southern" reptilian heterosexual threats, violent "immigrant" assault on white male European power, and reckless, outof-control lesbian narcissism? What is abhorred in "The Old Beauty" is not the colonial past, which is gracious, beautiful, missed. What is abhorred is the brash, threatening present, prefigured by the swarthy, sweaty, sexual, male immigrant—sign of the new, of the uncontrolled colonial subject, erupting violently into empire's sacred inner sanctum, the boudoir of the kept, colonized woman. Cather sent her conservative story in 1936, the height of right-wing Aryan enthusiasm, to the Woman's Home Companion, and there is nothing, to my knowledge, to suggest that she did so ironically. Indeed, the only irony I know is the fact that the editor did not like "The Old Beauty" and that therefore it did not show up there.

The questions raised by the romance of empire in "The Old Beauty" are much the same as those raised by the theme of Indian museumification in The Professor's House, Francophile conquest in Death Comes for the Archbishop, or racist appropriation in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Various scholars and critics have challenged Cather scholarship to take seriously the author's racism and ethnocentricity. Mary Austin, Blanche Gelfant, Toni Morrison, E. A. Mares, Cordelia Candelaria, Mike Fischer, Walter Benn Michaels, and I have all written or spoken about the ways in which racism and racist attitudes pervade Cather's fiction, caricaturing, demeaning, and exploiting people of color even as she claims to be celebrating cultural diversity in the United States. Yet Cather studies has been slow to absorb and deal with these challenges to an idealizing view of the writer. There exists for many readers a strong desire to shelter Cather from analysis that exposes her racism, xenophobia, and Europhilia.[5]

To what extent do white readers deny Cather's exclusivity, racism, and attraction to empire to preserve a comfortable illusion of her, and themselves as well, as tolerant, liberal, and progressive? Often, I think, she is idealized in order to satisfy a reassuring, made-up version of U.S. history and literary production as only incidentally racially influenced. Yet, in fact, her work is not separate from and somehow above the culture in which she lived and wrote and in which we all continue to live, write, read, and teach. Despite her sympathetic portraits of northern and eastern European gentile immigrants and her own status as a closeted lesbian writer in an increasingly homophobic era, Willa Cather was in key ways reactionary and racist. Her depictions of Indians, Jews, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans display many of the stereotypes and much of the ignorance, wishful thinking, and hostility to be found in the views of most white people in the United States early in the twentieth century. Her work contains significant exclusions and is clearly invested in master narratives of Western cultural dominance and white superiority. As Cather is read in the new multicultural canon, it is important to recognize and think about these issues.


 1. Jameson immediately follows this statement with the thought: "The assertion of a political unconscious proposes that we undertake just such a final analysis and explore the multiple paths that lead to the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts" (20). (Go back.)
 2. For existing readings see Wasserman's "'The Old Beauty' Reconsidered." Wasserman summarizes others' views and herself argues for Lily Langtry as a prototype for Gabrielle. In another essay, "Cather's Semitism," Wasserman suggests that the dark foreigner appears in the story simply as "picturesque correspondence" (17). (Go back.)
 3. See the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "queer." (Go back.)
 4. For Woodress's belief that Cather is more closely aligned in the story with Cherry Beamish than with Gabrielle, see 477. (Go back.)
 5. A recent example of this resistance is Acocella's "What Have the Academics Done to Willa Cather?" (Go back.)


Acocella, Joan. "What Have the Academics Done to Willa Cather?" New Yorker, 27 November 1995, 56 ff.
Allen, Paula Gunn. "'Border Studies': The Intersection of Gender and Color." Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 1992. 303-19.
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
——."My Ántonia and African American Music." New Essays on My Ántonia. Ed. Sharon O'Brien. New York: Cambridge UP, forthcoming.
Austin, Mary. Quoted in T. M. Pearce, The Beloved House. Caldwell ID: Caxton, 1940. 176.
Brenkman, John. "Multiculturalism and Criticism." English Inside and Out. The Place of Literary Criticism. Essays from the Fiftieth Anniversary of the English Institute. Ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz. New York: Routledge, 1993. 87-101
Candelaria, Cordelia. "Song of the Dark: Cather's Unwitting Portrayals of Bigotry." 1989.
Fischer, Mike. "Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism." Mosaic 23 (winter 1990): 31-44.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Pluralism and Its Discontents." Profession 92. Ed. Phyllis Franklin. New York: MLA, 1992. 3-45.
Gelfant, Blanche. "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia." American Literature 43 (1971): 60-82.
Hennessy, Rosemary. Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Mares, E. A. "Padre Martinez: Defender of the People." New Mexico Magazine, June 1985, 57-60.
Michaels, Walter Berm. "The Vanishing American." American Literary History 2 (summer 1990): 220-41.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Wasserman, Loretta. "Cather's Semitism." Cather Studies, vol. 2. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1993. 1-22.
——. "Willa Cather's 'The Old Beauty' Reconsidered." Studies in American Fiction 16 (1988): 217-28
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.