A surprising fact in this century of criticism is that nobody as yet has explored carefully the relationship between Willa Cather and William Faulkner. The two seem to me the century's chief fiction-writing rivals. While Faulkner acknowledged Cather, it defies common sense to assume that she-an equally competitive and voracious reader-was indifferent to him. As I will show here, at the end of her life Cather engaged Faulkner in a significant literary conversation. Finally, in "Before Breakfast," her penultimate story, printed as if it were her last, Cather spoke directly to Faulkner. As we will see, Faulkner began his fiction-writing career by extensively imitating and lifting from Cather's work, and she ended hers by acknowledging and answering him. Their interchange forces us to rethink several works of both.
Before we can get to the literary facts, however, we must review the biographical ones. The school dropout Faulkner trained himself to become a writer by reading. He explained, "When I was young I was an omnivorous reader with no judgment, no discretion-I read everything" (Fant 114). Critic Martin Kreiswirth says of Faulkner's method in his early work that "this fundamental derivativeness, far from being accidental or deceitful, represents an attempt on Faulkner's part to follow through a deliberate program of apprenticeship involving discipleship, imitation, and even a kind of outright duplication that approaches plagiarism" (4). And Judith Sensibar summarizes, "At twenty-two, Faulkner had read the major novelists of the past three centuries, as well as Shakespeare, the Romantics, the Symbolists, Swinburne, the Georgians, Yeats, and finally, Eliot, Aiken, and other Modernists" (8).
Faulkner never made any bones about what he did with all those writers he read: "A writer is completely rapacious, he has no morals whatever, he will steal from any source. He's so busy stealing and using it that he himself probably never knows where he gets what he uses.... he is influenced by every word he ever read, I think, every sound he ever heard, every sense he ever experienced; and he is so busy writing that he hasn't time to stop and say, 'Now, where did I steal this from?' But he did steal it somewhere" (Lion 12-8). So it remains only to establish that young Faulkner read Cather. And that fact he settled himself, in a letter to Anita Loos dated "Something Febry 1926": "I am still rather Victorian in my prejudices regarding the intelligence of women, despite Elinor Wylie and Willa Cather and all the balance of them. But I wish I had thought of Dorothy [in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes]" (Selected Letters 32). The date of this letter is important, for 1926 was the year before Faulkner published Mosquitoes and the year after Cather published The Professor's House.
Given his approach to the craft of writing and his voracious appetite for reading "the best," it is not even surprising that Faulkner wolfed the works of Pulitzer prize winner Cather. Given his sexism, however, what surprises us is that he publicly admitted admiring Cather at intervals throughout his career-early, middle, and late. It seems especially predictable, as the textual parallels bear out, that Faulkner would have read the latest Cather novel very attentively while he began composing Mosquitoes. He was still learning to write fiction, The Professor's House was a current bestseller, and Cather was a highly regarded contemporary rival.
Yet the one pressing question we must address before we go further is, Why would Cather, in declining health and at the close of her illustrious life, choose as a last-hour gesture to remove her hand brace in order to write "Before Breakfast," which initially seems to polish off Faulkner at his worst? The late-adolescent Faulkner who wrote Mosquitoes, who will be the target she aims for, is not a worthy opponent. Several answers suggest themselves: because Faulkner had stolen shamelessly and egregiously from Cather in writing Mosquitoes, and she decided to let him know she had noticed; because Faulkner in the process of assimilating her work had distorted it, and she wished to straighten it back; because in 1944 Faulkner did not seem to Cather an intruder so much as a peer, and she thus saluted him; or because Faulkner was a writer she had come to respect and she had something to say to him. We will touch on each of these answers.
The central situation of Faulkner's Mosquitoes resembles Cather's story "Flavia and Her Artists." It depicts an extended party in which the hospitality of a hostess is abused by a group of ungrateful artists. It is The Professor's House, however, that glimmers constantly, like pentimento, behind Faulkner's second novel.
The Professor's House furnished Faulkner characterization, description, symbol, and theme. The treasures once stored in St. Peter's attic reappear on display in Mosquitoes. Most obvious are the professor's dress forms. They metamorphose into one marble statue of a headless, armless, legless female torso that sculptor Gordon will not sell nor relinquish. Gordon describes this creation, to which he is deeply attached, as "my feminine ideal: a virgin with no legs to leave me, no arms to hold me, no head to talk to me" (M 26). Gordon's niece, Patricia, desires the statue. Her explanation: "It's like me" (2-4). This young woman and hence this statue resemble St. Peter's daughter Kathleen; all boast what Cather describes as "the slender, undeveloped figure then very much in vogue" (PH 41). Thus St. Peter's dress forms, which can replicate the shape of his youngest daughter, become the nubile silhouette of Gordon's marble torso, which Patricia immediately recognizes as herself.
Toward the end of Faulkner's novel the statue is said to be a metaphorical way to lock up a love so "she couldn't leave" (M 269). Novelist Dawson Fairchild comments to Gordon, "I see . . . that you too have been caught by this modern day fetish of virginity. But you have this advantage over us: yours will remain inviolate without your having to shut your eyes to its goings-on" (318). Here Faulkner picks up St. Peter's fancy that his wire lady "was most convincing in her pose as a woman of light behaviour" (PH 19). But it is not likely that this was an ideal Cather had in mind, and it follows that she would have noticed Faulkner's too literal transcription. The marble torso is as central to Mosquitoes as the dress forms are to The Professor's House. It is interesting, however, that Faulkner turns the wire or cotton-covered female forms into marble. Cather says of her black form: "though this figure looked so ample and billowy (as if you might lay your head upon its deep-breathing softness and rest safe forever), if you touched it you suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it before. It presented the most unsympathetic surface imaginable.... It was a dead, opaque, lumpy solidity, like chunks of putty, or tightly packed sawdust-very disappointing to the tactile sense, yet somehow always fooling you again" (18).
This change from hard putty to cold marble also follows a lead in The Professor's House, where Cather privileges sculpture. To be compared to sculpture in The Professor's House-which the dress forms were not-is highest praise. Tom Outland discovers on the Blue Mesa "a little city of stone, asleep. It was still as sculpture-and something like that" (201). Tom repeats, "It was more like sculpture than anything else" (202), and he feels that the place is "a sacred spot" (221). St. Peter too longs for the "sculptured peaks" of Outland's country (170). Later, Tom feels such joy in his exclusive possession of the sculptured city that his elation is like a religious emotion. That same religious feeling is aroused again by the "white dome against a flashing blue sky" of the Capitol in Washington (225)-another sculptured architectural monument. My point is that the impressionable young Faulkner picked up from The Professor's House the connection between hard white stone, a careful design, personal possession, and a sense of transcendence. The result in Mosquitoes is a female marble torso so compelling that Patricia recognizes herself in it and wants to touch and possess it. The form is so precious that Gordon, not unlike St. Peter, would rather possess the statue than the girl. Faulkner seems to admire this choice, thou li Cather cannot be required to do so.
In The Professor's House an interest in statuary is not confined to buildings and cities. St. Peter's head, "more like a statue's head than a man's'' (13), resembles "the heads of the warriors on the Parthenon frieze" (71)- It appears that significant heads are male; St. Peter's head is best, according to Kathleen, "between the top of his ear and his crown"-in the brain or analytical organ (13). Young, Faulkner seems to approve such implied judgments, missing the irony with which Cather juxtaposes them to Augusta's earthier, practical values.
The eager appropriation of all Cather says about St. Peter, however, extends Faulkner's novel in several directions. Sculptor Gordon has "a hawk's face" (M 111, 17), to match St. Peter's "hawk nose, hawk eyes" (PH 13). St. Peter's "slender hips and springy shoulders of a tireless swimmer" (PH 12) spawn Patricia's aquatic appearance: she dives like "a white arrow arcing down the sky ... clad in a suit of her brother's underwear" (M 80-81). She also swims naked, reminding us that "for looks, the fewer clothes [St. Peter] had on, the better" (PH 12). When she emerges from the water, "her taut simple body, almost breastless and with the fleeting hips of a boy, was an ecstasy in golden marble" (M 82).
Faulkner's characterizations in Mosquitoes often pick up details from The Professor's House. Gordon, in his third-floor, walk-up studio complete with "a high useless window framing two tired looking stars" (M 22), suggests an amalgam of St. Peter in that attic study with one bad window and Tom Outland, autonomous proprietor of Cliff City. Gordon lives "sufficient unto,,[himself in the city of his arrogance, in the marble tower of his loneliness and pride" (153). As part of his similarity to Tom Outland, spiritual son of Godfrey, Gordon leans "over the edge of the wharf, staring down into the water" and thinks with consciousness streaming, "stars in my hair in my hair and beard i am crowned with stars christ by his own hand an autogethsemane carved darkly out of pure space" (47-48). Strolling along a wharf, he even sees that "the warehouse, the dock, was a formal rectangle without perspective. Flat as cardboard" (47). That is, he registers a world like the one in Outland's stories, where "there were no shadows" (PH I23)
Faulkner's "soft blonde" jenny (55), "her stainless pink-and-whiteness, ineffable, unmarred by any thought at all" (M 255), is described more derisively than any other female character in Mosquitoes. But again, without reflecting the ambivalence marking Cather's text, jenny replicates the "very fair, pink and gold,a pale gold" pastels of Lillian, St. Peter's wife (PH 36). Lillian, to separating St. Peter, is "less intelligent and more sensible than he had thought her" (79).
Another female character, Faulkner's painter Dorothy Jameson, seems properly to be characterized by a liking for "blue jewelry . . . and sapphires in dull silver" (M 181). We recognize echoes of the "turquoise set in dull silver" that Louie Marsellus likes to associate with his wife, particularly when we recall that Louie's eyes "were vividly blue, like hot sapphires" (PH 43). Faulkner, putting on Cather's power without her knowledge, fails to find out that dull silver is too soft a metal to set hard sapphires in. Cather went out of her way to describe turquoise as "a soft blue stone"(120). But she must have been especially jotted to read that Faulkner's "yacht was a thick jewel swaddled in soft gray wool," was "motionless, swaddled in mist like a fat jewel" (M 164).
The list of Catherian items reappearing in Faulkner's Mosquitoes reads like a
catalog of stolen articles in a police report. Yet the most significant
transmogrification (to use a Faulkner word) may be the borrowed triads of
professorial abstractions. And these, it seems to me, show Faulkner at his most
precocious. Perceptively, Faulkner picks up two thematic "triads" from The
Professor's House. One is the chance-form-utility triad of linked ideas in
"Tom Outland's Story," which Professor St. Peter ponders before he almost dies. The
second is the art-religion-science triad developed in St. Peter's overheard lecture,
which we will consider first. When his wife and son-in-law eavesdrop on St. Peter's
class, they hear him teaching that art and religion are the same thing in the end
have given man his only happiness, while science has not added one thing of value
human life beyond comfort. Faulkner appropriates this lecture for Mosquitoes,
changing science to the more general term education. But this change itself echoes
another passage in The Professor's House, describing Roddy Blake's "great
respect for education," though "he believed it was some kind of hocus-pocus that
enabled a man to live without work" (PH 188). According to Faulkner's
character Dawson Fairchild,
[Education] doesn't make us all brave or healthy or happy or wise, it doesn't even
keep us married. In fact, to take on education by the modern process is like
marrying in haste and spending the rest of your life making the best of it. But,
understand me: I have no quarrel with education. I don't think it hurts you much,
except to make you unhappy and unfit for work, for which man was cursed by the
gods before they had learned about education. And if it were not education, it
would be something else just as bad, and perhaps worse. Man must fill his time
some way, you know. (M 41-41)
[Education] doesn't make us all brave or healthy or happy or wise, it doesn't even keep us married. In fact, to take on education by the modern process is like marrying in haste and spending the rest of your life making the best of it. But, understand me: I have no quarrel with education. I don't think it hurts you much, except to make you unhappy and unfit for work, for which man was cursed by the gods before they had learned about education. And if it were not education, it would be something else just as bad, and perhaps worse. Man must fill his time some way, you know. (M 41-41)
Cather's Professor St. Peter quarrels with science first and later objects to "the aim to 'show results' that was undermining and vulgarizing education" (PH 140). He says that science competes inadequately with art or religion because it offers only ingenious toys, while art and religion provide a sense of human importance, of human centrality in life's drama. Faulkner, however, registering St. Peter's loss of confidence in his educational profession and his loss of interest in his marriage, apparently concluded that too much education was his problem. It may be. But if it is, I see no evidence in the novel that St. Peter has quite figured out the fact, even eager as he is to return to his youthful self, who was "a primitive" (265). Cather, on the other hand, may be attacking, or at least skeptically scrutinizing, the abstracted forms of Western philosophical thought, which produced our science and ultimately corrupted our educational practice. If those forms St. Peter cannot work without are shaped female to suggest that they are manipulable as well as serviceable, they are headlessly female-that is, not real, distorted. But however we describe them, Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter, the named scion of Western politics, religion, and history, cannot relinquish them. He'd rather die.
Faulkner's boaters in Mosquitoes continue to play with St. Peter's ideas. Indeed, they soon have little choice, since they play out St. Peter's fantasy, "We should have been picturesquely shipwrecked together when we were young" (PH 94). Yet even on shore a conversant initially labeled (as Louie Marsellus is) "the Semitic man" (M 37; PH 43) says, "My people produced Jesus, your people Christianized him. And ever since you have been trying to get him out of your church" (M 40). The passage recalls McGregor's laconic comment, "How you get by the Methodists is still a mystery to me" (PH 70). In passing, Faulkner's rappers label "the Protestant religion" as "the worst of all" (M 42). Upon hearing such apparently negative reflections, novelist Dawson Fairchild asks, "Are you opposed to religion, then-in its general sense, I mean?" His answer: "Certainly not.... The only sense in which religion is general is when it benefits the greatest number in the same way. And the universal benefit of religion is that it gets the children out of the house on Sunday morning." To which comes the smart retort, "But education gets them out of the house five days a week" (41).
While St. Peter famously declares, "Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course)" (PH 69), in Mosquitoes the link is a facile murmur: "Artistic temperament . . . so spiritual" (M 20). But at one point art and religion appear to be the same thing in the end, even on Faulkner's beached yacht: Dawson Fairchild is accused of clinging to "his conviction [about American art] for the old reason: it's good enough to live with and comfortable to die with-like a belief in immortality. Insurance against doubt or alarm" (184).
Turning to Cather's second ideational triad, Faulkner also tries his hand, in Mosquitoes, at connections to be made between chance, utility, and design. Cather crystallizes these possibilities most succinctly in "Tom Outland's Story," which begins by stressing chance: in Tom's job as a call boy he must retrieve men from their games of chance behind the Ruby Light saloon. The theme proceeds through Tom's chance discovery of Cliff City and ends with his going off to war on the chance that he will find Roddy Blake. Once by chance ensconced on the Blue Mesa, Tom hears Father Duchene describe the cliff dwellers in terms of the useful designs of their lives, designs based on utility: "Their life, compared to that of our roving Navajos, must have been quite complex. There is unquestionably a distinct feeling for design in what you call the Cliff City. Buildings are not grouped like that by pure accident, though convenience probably had much to do with it. Convenience often dictates very sound design" (PH 219).
The resultant city is recognized by a Catholic priest as "a sacred spot" where people "built themselves into this mesa and humanized it" (221). St. Peter struggles with the same triadic conundrum of chance-utility-design: "All the most important things in his life, St. Peter sometimes reflected, had been determined by chance. His education in France had been an accident. His married life had been happy largely through a circumstance with which neither he nor his wife had anything to do.... Tom Outland had been a stroke of chance he couldn't possibly have imagined . . . it was all fantastic" (257).
In the wake of such chances, St. Peter holds on to the forms that imply both "cruel biological necessities" (21) and the designs of his domestic life. That is, he holds tight to the utilitarian forms that by chance come to represent patterns or designs his life has fallen into. He holds chance, utility, and design together in his mind to symbolize wholeness-as Melville's Ishmael holds the triad of chance-free will-necessity. It is in such a frame of mind that St. Peter thinks, "His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning" (264).
Faulkner shrewdly spots these thematic connections. He also sees the clear injunction to deal with them that is implied in St. Peter's observation that "the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if-it makes nothing of them" (68). Faulkner seems determined to make his characters, at least his sculptor Gordon, interesting. So Gordon strolls his wharf thinking, "Form and utility... Or form and chance. Or chance and utility" as "he walked, surrounded by ghosts" (M 47). And 1, for one, catching sight of all these Cather buzzwords and riddles, register that Gordon is more interesting for dwelling on them.
In the course of The Professor's House St. Peter concludes that "the design of his life had been the work of this secondary social man, the lover." None of it had anything to do with "his original ego," who is "the Kansas boy who had come back to St. Peter" during that summer he spends alone (PH 2-65). St. Peter concludes that "adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man's life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together" (267). Faulkner appears to have taken this passage quite seriously, with its implication that sex comes into life as a graft, an intrusion. Gordon, the most sympathetic character among Faulkner's crew, chooses not to get involved personally with intrusive sexual relationships but to cherish a marble torso and to frequent brothels.
Perhaps the most stunning transfer of material one can imagine between Cather and Faulkner concerns the central metaphor of "Tom Outland's Story." David Harrell has recently observed that the theme of art saving life from time, paradoxically preserving it in static motion, is the same [in two Cather works]. In The Song of the Lark, Cather introduces this theme and explicates it, but not until "Tom Outland's Story" does she develop it fully, creating an entire landscape to contain it.... What Outland finds is indeed a sort of natural urn, "a memorial to man's thoughts and works which defy the ravagings of time and attain the immortality of art." . . . Like Keats's speaker, Outland is enthralled by the images before him.... It is life once again caught in static motion, "like a fly in amber." (Harrell 140)
That Keatsian urn, therefore that blue mesa landscape's symbolic values, recurs repeatedly, as all Faulknerians know, throughout the Yoknapatawpha saga. We see here one reason the image is so highly charged for Faulkner's imagination: he seized it from a master fiction as well as a master poem. As he himself said years later, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies" (Lion 239).
What Cather's St. Peter finally needs to learn is how to desire one special skill. St. Peter believes that "desire is creation, is the magical element in that process. If there were an instrument by which to measure desire, one could foretell achievement" (29). If St. Peter could desire, he could create. What he needs to create, to desire, is delight. If he can summon the desire, he can commence the creation. He starts haltingly, at the end, by desiring Augusta's company in his newfound loneliness. Yet his prospect remains bleak.
We surmise that young William Faulkner, at this beginning point of his career, intensely desired literary achievement. To foretell such achievement confidently, he needed, according to Cather, to measure his own desire. He was eager enough to appropriate St. Peter's bleakness in order to speed the process. But Faulkner was impatient as well as audacious in his early years. His desire to wade into the literary mainstream may have been responsible for his memorably unfortunate meeting with Cather face to face. As Blotner tells the story, in the autumn of 1931 Faulkner was lunching with Dashiell Hammett and Bennett Cerf in New York. While drinking steadily they heard that Cerf was planning that evening to attend a dinner party given by the Knopfs at which Cather was to be a guest. The two young writers insisted on being taken along. When Cerf picked them up later, he discovered that they had continued to drink throughout the afternoon, as they also did throughout the cocktail hour. After Hammett passed out before dinner was served, Faulkner had to be helped to stand and make his exit (Blotner, Faulkner 742). One makes a reasonable guess that Faulkner's life and work were mentioned later at the dinner table. This seems a logical date for Cather to have begun reading Faulkner's fiction, for curiosity if nothing else.
The "childish bitterness" she discovered in his early works seems to be what Cather finally decided to talk about. She desired the conversation enough, in fact, to write what James Woodress describes as "a chilly piece that reflects the old-age preoccupations of its author" and "yet . . . ends on a note of affirmation . . . quite different from the pessimistic tone of her letters to old friends at this time" (Woodress 498).
For Willa Cather seems to have valued the work of William Faulkner. At least that inference is possible after Cather's reference to Faulkner in her essay "148 Charles Street." In this charming tribute to Mrs. Annie Fields, Cather contrasts her subject's old-fashioned literary tastes with those of modern readers who can tolerate only contemporary fiction. She quotes a letter from a prep-school boy: "D. H. Lawrence is rather rated a back-number here, but Faulkner keeps his end up" (Not Under Forty 74). Once Cather decided to publish it, this quotation did two things: it dismissed D. H. Lawrence, whom Cather had already pilloried in "The Novel DémeubIé" (50-51), and it elevated Faulkner. Now, why would Cather, who seems at first glance so opposite Faulkner, do such a thing? The answer arrives in Mrs. Fields principle that Cather quotes approvingly: "With a great gift . . . we must be willing to bear greatly, because it has already greatly borne" (73).
The next questions concern procedure. First, when Cather wrote in "Before Breakfast" that her protagonist "crossed the first brook on stepping-stones . . . for the water was rushing down the deep-cut channel with sound and fury" (162), she clearly expected at least one reader to come to attention. But Faulkner, whose personal library at his death included only The Old Beauty among Cather's works, may already have been on the alert. For the character moving in Cather's story, passing a fallen spruce, has addressed it aloud: "Hello, Grandfather!" (160). Faulkner likely recognized the greeting as a combination of the "Oleh, Chief, Grandfather," Sam Fathers uses to pay respects to a giant stag in "The Old People" (GDM 177) and the "Chief, Grandfather" (GDM 314) with which Ike McCaslin salutes a giant snake in "The Bear." That snake, which Faulkner described as "the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth, fatal and solitary . . . evocative of all knowledge and an old weariness" (GDM 314), had previously been spotted behind the melon patch in My Ántonia (47). Cather's Jim Burden, who described him first, claimed to have felt "proud of him, to have a kind of respect for his age and size. He seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil" (47). But this "Grandfather" would have been only one of many familiar things Faulkner would recognize, perhaps sheepishly, on the "Before Breakfast" trail.
Cather has a reason for making Nature's grandfather a tree and not a snake or a stag in "Before Breakfast." Faulkner probably guessed it, as we soon will. He would likely have also heard a direct address in the paragraph immediately to follow: "on another breezy, grassy headland . . . one could stand beside a bushy rowan tree" (OB 162.). The world-famous resident of Rowan Oak must have known for sure that Cather was addressing him, however, when he proceeded past one more paragraph and read, "This knob of grassy headland with the bushy rowan tree had been his vague objective when he left the cabin" (163). Intensely private William Faulkner did not need to be the detective storywriter whose plots turned on subtlest verbal nuance in order to recognize that reclusive Willa Cather was speaking to him. Or perhaps answering him back.
With these bells ringing, he would easily have registered a swarm of Faulknerian details in "Before Breakfast," most of them bred in Mosquitoes. Faulkner himself described Mosquitoes after this point as a "bad book" (Lion 92). He knew what he had stolen. He could also hope, however, that Cather judged him tolerantly. She declared that she herself had paid Gertrude Hall the greatest compliment one writer can pay another when she stole from her. In any case, at this point Cather commits some reciprocal thefts of her own. Or perhaps we should say that she returns Faulkner's compliments.
To help us begin spotting the Faulkneriana Cather carefully selected to reassemble
for "Before Breakfast," here is Faulkner's description of a young woman's dawn swim
Up from the darkness of the companionway the niece came, naked and silent as a
ghost. She stood for a space, but there was no sound from anywhere, and she
crossed the deck and stopped again at the rail, breathing the soft chill mist into
her lungs, feeling the mist swaddling her firm simple body with a faint lingering
chillness. Her legs and arms were so tan that naked she appeared to wear a bathing
suit of a startling white. She climbed the rail. The tender rocked a little under
her, causing the black motionless water to come alive, making faint sounds. Then
she slid over the stern and swam out into the mist. (M 164)
Up from the darkness of the companionway the niece came, naked and silent as a ghost. She stood for a space, but there was no sound from anywhere, and she crossed the deck and stopped again at the rail, breathing the soft chill mist into her lungs, feeling the mist swaddling her firm simple body with a faint lingering chillness. Her legs and arms were so tan that naked she appeared to wear a bathing suit of a startling white. She climbed the rail. The tender rocked a little under her, causing the black motionless water to come alive, making faint sounds. Then she slid over the stern and swam out into the mist. (M 164)
In Cather's "Before Breakfast" swim, a young woman approaches the water in a white-lined robe, then drops it to reveal a pink bathing suit. The effect of a naked nymph at water's edge is decidedly similar. Faulkner's niece swims out into mist from a grounded yacht, while Cather's daughter swims out from island ground to a rock, but the basic scenes mirror each other.
As Faulkner's Patricia reboards the yacht, "the mist without thinning was filling with light: an imminence of dawn like a glory, a splendor of trumpets unheard" (M 166). Cather's revising scene reveals "deep shadow and new-born light, yellow as gold, a little unsteady like other new-born things. It was blinking, too, as if its own reflection on the dewdrops was too bright. Or maybe the light had been asleep down under the sea and was just waking up" (OB 160).
The early swim completed, Faulkner's Patricia tells an admiring young steward, "Let's get some stuff for breakfast, and beat it. We haven't got all day" (M 166). Then they gather a flat box of bacon, a loaf of bread, matches, a knife, and oranges, for Faulkner has not yet learned much about suggestion. When Cather's Grenfell returns to his cabin with sharpened appetite, he smells coffee and that is enough to assure his good breakfast ahead.
Although there are more details in Cather's "Before Breakfast" that derive from a Faulkner source, I would like to concentrate on Venus, the morning star. For Cather is able to make one image suggest several meanings. Her story begins when Henry Grenfell rises in his island cabin after a bad night, raises his bedroom shades, and tips his head for eye drops, then spots Venus. Here the conversation between the two writers begins, and Cather's first sally corrects Faulkner's facts. For in Mosquitoes the Faulknerian narrator commented, "The moon was getting up, rising out of the dark water: a tarnished, implacable Venus" (133). As her first agenda item, Cather reminds her reader that Venus and the moon are different things: Venus is a planet.
Soon after the moon thus rises in Faulkner's novel, the sun logically follows, and the niece and the steward set out to run away together. They take a wrong turn and head into a swamp, where they find "always those bearded eternal trees like gods regarding without alarm this puny desecration of a silence of air and earth and water ancient when hoary old Time himself was a pink and dreadful miracle in his mother's arms. It was she who found the fallen tree" (M 174).
Back on Cather's island before breakfast, Grenfell finds a fallen tree that he has noticed before: "The grandfather was a giant spruce tree that had been struck by lightning (must have been about a hundred years ago, the islanders said)." Grenfell stops to twitch off a twig and is astonished at the tree's resilience, which is entirely accountable: "Well, Grandfather! Lasting pretty well, I should say. Complimentsl You get good drainage on this hillside, don't you?" (OB 160). Cather's point? Trees are not eternal, nor do they predate Time. Fallen on a Canadian coastline and not in a Louisiana swamp, they last a century if they get good drainage. To endure admirably for a surprisingly long time does not require a tree or anything else to predate eternity. All things existing in time are finite, and so is geology. In correcting Faulkner's facts Cather also corrects Faulkner's distortion of Professor St. Peter's lecture. She changes the emphasis back from education to science. For Grenfell, a self-educated man like Faulkner himself, stews ostensibly about education and then complains specifically about science. Here Cather seems to insist that it is not general education but science that disturbs most. Grenfell's "childish bitterness towards 'millions' and professors," Cather tells us, "was the result of several things. Two of Grenfell's sons were 'professors' . . . [one] a distinguished physicist"; and "a pleasant and courtly scientist whom he had met on the boat yesterday" (144-45) ruptured Grenfell's equanimity with scientific facts Grenfell did not wish to assimilate, such as the probable age of the island. Grenfell is meant to portray neither Cather nor Faulkner, of course. But at this juncture Cather plays her professor: she deliberately wrecks Faulkner's imagined calm with specific facts about places stretching from earth to the planet Venus, as well as imposing on him the probable dates and times of fallen trees and other things of enduring age. With Faulkner's hyperbolic youthful rhetoric deflated, Cather moves toward more primary concerns, and that brings us back to the planet Venus. Faulkner's novel begins with three words: "the sex instinct." And Cather, I think, uses the planet Venus to address Faulkner's first-identified theme. Almost as soon as Grenfell spots Venus, he addresses her aloud: "And what's a hundred and thirty-six million years to you, Madam? . . . You were winking and blinking up there maybe a hundred and thirty-six million times before that date they are so proud of. The rocks can't tell any tales on you. You were doing your stunt up there long before there was anything down here but-God knows what!" (144). The first thing we notice is that Cather keeps plenty of physical and psychological space and time between Venus and her protagonist, while she still confronts Faulkner's opener head on.
Toward the end of Faulkner's novel the writer Dawson Fairchild, who delivers many of the arresting lines, remarks about women, "After all they are merely articulated genital organs with a kind of aptitude for spending whatever money you have; so when they get themselves up to look exactly like all the other ones, you can give all your attention to their bodies" (M 241). At this point I can imagine Willa Cather thinking to herself, You want an articulated female genital organ? Try this, then: "She opened her robe, a grey thing lined with white. Her bathing-suit was pink. If a clam stood upright and graciously opened its shell, it would look like that. After a moment she drew her shell together again-felt the chill of the mornings air, probably" (OB 164). Lest Fairchilds to follow regret the disruption in their thoughts of female bodies, Cather returns them to the subject. Grenfell walks home feeling his spirits lift: the geologist's daughter "would have a happy day. He knew just how she felt. She surely did look like a little pink clam in her white shell!" (166).
A thrice-repeated assertion in Mosquitoes holds that "in actual life people will do anything" (181, 228, 255). In Cather's story "anything" includes an early-morning plunge into water so cold that Grenfell, watching from cliffs above, prepares to rescue the swimmer and thinks indignantly, "This is the North Atlantic, girl, you can't treat it like that!" (OB 164). Nevertheless, she does. In Faulkner's novel the most interesting things people do sometimes play out the sex instinct. But Cather chooses to differ with Faulkner on this point. She suggests that instincts cannot be so antiseptically separated. Sex is one appetite, like hunger. Making the point in a quick review of his life story, Grenfell thinks of himself as a "throw-back to the Year One, when in the stomach was the only constant, never sleeping, never quite satisfied desire" (1157).
In Mosquitoes Faulkner holds young women responsible for a great deal of male stress and confusion regarding the sex instinct, for the women he portrays are so often selfish, infantile, narcissistic, and stupid. At least most of the women in Mosquitoes seem most of these things. Cather deliberately creates an alternate type in her geologist's daughter who swims before breakfast. Cather's young woman is a "comely creature who shows breeding, delicate preferences" and is "sweet, but decided" (OB 145-46). That is, she is an animal with sophisticated tastes and clear opinions. "She had lovely eyes, lovely skin, lovely manners" (145). Nobody could accuse Faulkner's mosquito-bitten young women of lovely manners; yet Cather stresses the quality side by side with moral fiber: "There was no one watching her, she didn't have to keep face-except to herself. That she had to do and no fuss about it. She hadn't dodged.... She would have a happy day" (166).
Throughout Mosquitoes Faulkner's characters seem torn between attraction and repulsion in regard to each other, especially as sexual creatures. Their strong ambivalence seems to leave them feeling surly. Thus, Cather's story "Before Breakfast" develops a surly character with the Faulknerian name Grenfell, suggesting at least a fallen grin and a sulky mood (perhaps as petulant as a mosquito-plagued guest trapped on Faulkner's yacht Nausicaa). Cather's Grenfell truculently spots the planet Venus. The sight
roused his temper so hot that he began to mutter aloud" (OB 144). Though the planet suggests balletic grace-"She had come in on her beat, taken her place in the figure"-in Grenfell's mind that very grace contrasts cruelly with his own rabbitlike anxiety: "Merciless pefection, ageless sovereignty. The poor hare and his clover, poor Grenfell and his eye-drops!" (144). Some moments and a summarized lifetime later, Grenfell sees Venus again: "He bethought him of his eye-drops, tilted back his head, and there was that planet, serene, terrible and splendid, looking at him ... immortal beauty . . . yes, but only when somebody saw it, he fiercely answered back!" (158).
So far, it seems to me that Grenfell's planet vitalizes a sophomoric aphorism in Faulkner's Mosquitoes, which Cather decided to accept in order to dramatize: "the thing is merely the symbol of the word" (M 130). She makes the thing, the planet Venus, the symbol of the word sex, or words with which Faulkner's novel starts: the sex instinct. Then she observes that Venus is ancient: it predates the isolated island Grenfell stands on, and it is both immortal beauty and merciless perfection. It is force, life force, in the Henry Adams sense of Virgin or Venus. It drives males out of the isolation they construct and defend. It shows them sights that lift their depressions, restore their appetites, rekindle laughter. It is terrible and splendid, merciless and sovereign. But only if someone sees it, as Grenfell testily remarks. Without human sight or insight, the words it symbolizes convey youthfully cynical derision. That derisive tone dominates Faulkner's Mosquitoes. As Cather once observed, it makes one feel so grown-up to be bitter.
Though Venus exists above him, Grenfell realizes that "he himself was . . . sitting in his bathrobe by his washstand, limp!" (OB 149). Seen with moistened eyes, however, the morning star, the planet Venus, the sex instinct, can remind Grenfell of simple and self-evident delights. In Mosquitoes Talliaferro declaims about "the spirit of youth, of something fine and hard and clean in the world; something we all desire until our mouths are stopped with dust" (26). Cather's Grenfell, having seen both immortal Venus and an immediate avatar, thinks succinctly, "Plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age" (OB 166). Grenfell's train of thought leads him to the life force that draws "that first amphibious frog-toad . . . to hop along" (166). Venus is immortal and sovereign as a symbol of the appetites and reflexes that perpetuate life. Cather seems to say to William Faulkner, This, my friend, is nothing to be "childishly bitter" about. It's joy and renewal and wonder and beauty: the satisfaction of appetite both of stomach and of genitals; a familiar miracle that one sees: on a good day, before breakfast.
At the end of "Before Breakfast" Cather's Grenfell remembers the worst possibility for survival-a cataclysmic disruption requiring a blind assertion of energy, a call on the life force of Venus herself. He remembers that such devastation requires struggle without end. And then he remembers that, after all, things could be worse. So Grenfell ends "Before Breakfast" with the declaration William Faulkner searched for Faulkner said, "I am trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period" (Cowley 14). Grenfell says, "Anyhow, when that first amphibious frog-toad found his water-hole dried up behind him, and jumped out to hop along till he could find another-well, he started on a long hop."
A salute to the long hop is what Willa Cather seems to have removed the brace on her writing hand to make. She made it in a period when Faulkner told students at Ole Miss, "I feel I'm written out. I don't think I'll write much more" (Lion 54). In her story Cather hails a fellow thief with a great gift, in order to tell him, in that dry time, to keep hopping.
So what did Faulkner think of this story? In 1955, after he had won the Nobel prize, the State Department sent him to Japan as a cultural ambassador. He tried to be courteous there but seems to have been bothered by being asked the same unwelcomed questions. In the middle of a trying interview an enterprising inquirer thought of a new way to discover the answer to an old, often evaded query. So Faulkner was asked, "Who do you think were the five greatest American novelists up to the end of the nineteenth century?" Faulkner replied, "Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Theodore Dreiser-the next two would be difficult to choose-there are some works of several people which are first rate." And then he seemed, in a desperate moment, to give a mental hop. He added, "I can name the ones that I was impressed with and that probably influenced me to an extent that I still like to read-one a woman, Willa Cather-I think she is known in Japan" (Lion 167-68).