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From Cather Studies Volume 4


Gazing Down from Cap Diamant: Cather's Canadian and Old World Connections

In Willa Cather Living (1953), Edith Lewis accounts for the gestation of Shadows on the Rock (1931) in a single image, that of Cather gazing meditatively from a window in the Chateau Frontenac upon the town of Quebec below: "But from the first moment that she looked down from the windows of the Frontenac on the pointed roofs and Norman outlines of the town of Quebec, Willa Cather was not merely stirred and charmed—she was overwhelmed by the flood of memory, recognition, surmise it called up; by the sense of its extraordinarily French character, isolated and kept intact through hundreds of years, as if by a miracle, on this great un-French continent"(153-54). Set atop the rocky eminence of Cap Diamant, controlling the St. Lawrence by virtue of its geographical position, Quebec became the first permanent French settlement in the New World. Writing of it in Shadows on the Rock, Cather has Euclid Auclair see Quebec as "this rock-set town [which was] like nothing so much as one of those little artificial mountains which were made in the churches at home to present a theatric scene of the Nativity; cardboard mountains, broken up into cliffs and ledges and hollows to accommodate groups of figures on their way to the manger; angels and shepherds and horsemen and camels, set on peaks, sheltered in grottoes,clustered about the base" (4-5). Thus Quebec harkens his memory back to an Old World association that diminishes the naturalness and beauty of the place. For her part, his daughter Cécile sees Quebec as her home: she loves "being on the river" (195) and runs "up the hill with a light heart" (54), her identity wedded to the Cap Diamant and the town of Quebec, herself a "woman for Canada" (42). Quebec's ultimate permanence and its people's cultural transformation came at some price—after a turbulent colonial history followed by over 150 years of serene neglect at the hands of first the British colonial authorities and then English-speaking Canada, Cather saw it for the first time. To her, Quebec physically announced its own gestation—the signs of Brittany and Normandy transported to the New World caught her imagination.

Though a lifelong Francophile, Cather did not see Quebec until 1928, when at the age of 54 she traveled along with Lewis to the city on her way to summer at Grand Manan, New Brunswick. While they were there Lewis fell ill with flu, leaving Cather with several days to explore the old town on her own. She was ripe for the place in many ways: her father, with whom she had been exceptionally close, had died earlier that year; her mother was declining and, she knew, had not many years left. Given such concerns, and a sharpened sense of her own aging, Cather gazed down upon Quebec from the height of Cap Diamant; in Gary Brienzo's words, her eyes "came to rest upon Quebec as an emblem of stability, tradition, and peace" (50).

Exploring the city, Cather found in it a history and physicality that confirmed the continuity between European culture and New World conditions—it seemed to her a miraculous gift. What Cather saw led her to research the historical underpinnings of Quebec, though in this instance her library was initially the reading room of the Chateau Frontenac. There she found the histories of Francis Parkman—what David Levin has called "history as romantic art"—and, equally important, The Jesuit Relations. These volumes, which Cather probably saw in the form of Reuben Gold Thwaites's massive 73-volume limited edition, are more precisely entitled The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 (1896-1901). The Canadian historian W.J. Eccles has called them "the most important single source for the history of Canada during the period of company government" (40; that is, before 1663, when a Royal Colony was established in New France). The volumes related to the early history of the town of Quebec had a powerful impact upon Cather, providing another window upon the pattern that was under her eyes.

The story of Cather's composition of Shadows on the Rock has been told elsewhere (see Woodress and Skaggs). Neither is it appropriate here to trace her various sources. Yet, looking at the novel today, one is struck by what resulted from Cather's gaze. As she asserted, the view from atop Cap Diamant left long shadows indeed. Shadows on the Rock makes the isolation and vulnerability of Quebec very clear: clinging to the shore of the St. Lawrence, rising above the river to command the heights, protected to the rear by the St. Charles River, even after 80 years of established settlement the town was still a frail French presence in North America. By taking up the Relations—and by taking from that work—Cather extended her gaze from the town into the vast interior country. For trader and missionary alike, Quebec was the center of civilization for New France, but its reach extended West into Cather's own Missouri River basin. This was, she asserts emphatically, New France—an Old World culture slowly transforming itself into a New World phenomenon. So Cécile becomes mother to "the Canadians of the future" (278).

The information Cather gleaned from the Relations provides instructive examples of her process of composition. Cather used this material in two ways, primarily. First, she took exact details from the Relations as the basis for her characterization of Bishop Saint-Vallier, Laval's young replacement (64: 121, 123, 147); indeed, Cather lifts the friction between the two men from the pages of volume 64, and she creates as a kind of counterpoint a moving scene in which the younger man's hubris is transformed, after years away in France, into serene humility. Most striking, however, is her appropriation of the story of the martyrdom of Father Noël Chabanel. Although she creates a fictional character, Father Hector Saint-Cyr, to narrate the incident, she draws her details "without alteration" from the Relations accounts (Bloom 81; see Jesuit Relations 35: 147ff., 40: 35ff.; Cather, Shadows 150-55). As Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom noted some time ago, Cather thereby "makes the historically accurate point that [Chabanel's] heroism was eclipsed by the fame of his fellow missionaries, Fathers Jogues, Lalemant, and Brebeuf." Temperamentally ill-suited to be a missionary, repulsed by the behavior of the Natives, unable to learn the Natives' language despite years of effort and previous successes with European languages, Chabanel experienced a Canadian life of "unrelieved horror"; he emerges in Shadows on the Rock as a martyr "of spiritual and intellectual endurance, not for personal satisfaction but for the exultation of God" (Bloom and Bloom 81).

What Cather created in Shadows on the Rock conforms to the confrontation documented in the Relations. Though intended as propaganda and often tinged with the lurid attractions of the exotic, the Relations also record the meeting of two worlds, two cultures, two ways of seeing and being. The "Voyage into Substance"—the phrase is Barbara Maria Stafford's—they depict may be seen at every conceivable level: factual, theological, geographical, anthropological, and literary, among others.

For her part, and on her own, Cather undertook to dramatize this "meeting" in her fiction. That is what the essays gathered here elaborate: hers was an imagination open to nuance—of various sorts—that could then be delicately situated within the pages of her novels. Disarming in its apparent simplicity, that art renders as perhaps its great subject precisely that meeting of two worlds, both embodied in Cather's own inner being: the intellectual and cultural inheritances of Europe meeting the "great fact" of the settlement of New World, whether in Quebec, Nebraska, New Mexico, or Virginia. Ever given to tracing the myriad implications of these confrontations, Cather put it best when she wrote to Wilbur Cross just after the publication of Shadows on the Rock that "And really, a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages. Those people brought a kind of French culture there and somehow kept it alive on that rock, sheltered it and tended it and on occasion died for it, as if it really were a sacred fire—and all this temperately and shrewdly, with emotion always tempered by good sense" (On Writing 16).

Many of the essays appearing here were presented, in earlier versions, at the Sixth International Willa Cather Seminar held in Quebec City in June 1995. Sponsored by St. Lawrence University,Trent University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, the seminar brought 130 people to Quebec City for a week of discovery not unlike Cather's own in 1928. There seminarians also gazed down from Cap Diamant, held sessions in Bishop Lavel's seminary, and discovered Quebec perhaps as Cather did—seeing the city, "Kebec," as she refers to it in Shadows, not as France but rather as Canada: "Ah, yes, the Canadians of the future—the true Canadians" (Shadows 278). And by meeting there in late June—the seminar began amid celebrations of St. Jean Baptiste (Quebec's Fête Nationale, its "national" day) and ended to the muted festivities of Canada Day, scarcely evident as a celebration these days in francophone Canada—we late-twentieth-century seminarians felt the power that the province of Quebec today invests in its pursuit of sovereignty, an urge borne of its French identity in North America, that identity formed first when shadows were initially cast before French eyes from the height of Cap Diamant above the town below. As we witnessed, Cather's Quebec stands there today as it did when she first saw in the city below a correlative for her imaginings over Old World culture transformed into New, "as if by a miracle, on this great un-French continent."


Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. " Shadows on the Rock: Notes on the Composition of a Novel." Twentieth Century Literature 2 (1956): 70-85.
Brienzo, Gary. Willa Cather's Transforming Vision: New France and the American Northeast. Selingsgrove PA: Susquehanna UP, 1994.
Cather, Willa. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art.Foreword by Stephen Tennant. 1949. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P,1988.
Eccles, W. J. France in America. Rev. ed. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1990.
Levin, David. History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1959.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. 1983. Athens: Ohio UP, 1989.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
Stafford, Barbara Maria. Voyage into Substance: Art, Science, Nature, and the Illustrated Travel Account, 1760-1840. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France,1610-1791. 73 vols. Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1896-1901.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.