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From Cather Studies Volume 5

Character, Compromise, and Idealism in Willa Cather's Gardens

In the early pages of The Song of the Lark Willa Cather establishes the garden, that intensively humanized parcel of nature, as a deeply informative figure. Here it appears to the novel's protagonist: As Thea approached the house she peeped between the pink sprays of the tamarisk hedge and saw the professor and Mrs. Kohler in the garden, spading and raking. The garden looked like a relief-map now, and gave no indication of what it would be in August; such a jungle! Pole beans and potatoes and corn and leeks and kale and red cabbage—there would even be vegetables for which there is no American name. Mrs. Kohler was always getting by mail packages of seeds from Freeport and from the old country. Then the flowers! There were big sunflowers for the canary bird, tiger lilies and phlox and zinnias and lady's slippers and portulaca and hollyhocks—giant hollyhocks. Besides the fruit trees there was a great umbrella-shaped catalpa, and a balm-of-Gilead, two lindens, and even a ginkgo—a rigid, pointed tree with leaves shaped like butterflies, which shivered, but never bent to the wind. (23) The Kohlers' garden, packed as it is with plants and flowers from Europe, Asia, and northeastern America, prospers at the margins of the great southwestern desert through dint of a human— partially deranged—desire. The relief map that Cather's garden provides for her readers charts the contours of sensibility, narrative poetics, and besieged idealism, particularly during Cather's emergence as an American great, from the moment of One of Ours through The Professor's House to Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather's already strong notions of nature, landscape, and the human presence in each are sophisticated and clarified in this phase. Nature as antagonist (the hostile winds and belittling horizons of the prairie novels) is replaced by a nature that gives either in proportion to human greed or takes in proportion to our neglect. Nature as benefactor (the springs and bountiful harvests of the prairie novels) is replaced by a nature that can represent the boundless human capacity to despoil and pervert the good or, if the soul of the gardener is modest and true, demonstrate the magnificence, perhaps even the divinity, of the idealized garden, or the garden in the mind.

Garden is a far more complex and laded notion than we ordinarily recognize. For example, when we use the word garden do we intend its ideal state, referring ultimately to Eden as a made place, either static and perfect or, after the fall, as stable and forever lost? Or is the garden in the gardening, in the efforts of the gardener and the changes of growth and decay, rain and drought, which she experiences? Such gardens are never finished, except in the imagination, which provides the desire to keep weeding and watering. Such gardens are as perennially demanding as raising children or keeping accounts. So why not sit still and simply dream Eden? Cather knows that we mean both at once; the contradiction reveals ambivalence we feel in our relationship to nature, to whom as Mother we assign our origins, and toward which, in our mortality, we feel resentment. In other words, gardens depend on nature and while in them we recognize our acute need to create human spaces, in nature improbable, yet they are signs of our desire to pull level and replace nature's hold over us with products of our willfulness.

Thus, an effort to define garden opens a paradox for which Cather's work provides many analogues. Consider how deeply our reading of Cather's protagonists depends on a continuously unresolved conflict between character—as inner nature, or the ground of self—and others—the outward culture, those who exist for the character in the space of action. For example, is it wholly clear that the four men who help Thea Kronborg are altruists, uncorrupted by any trace of a desire to exploit her? Is Claude Wheeler—as brother, husband, lieutenant—a stoical hero and idealist, or is he a doormat who justifies himself with a spurious and finally suicidal belief in high ideals and golden ages past? Is Tom Outland the Professor's ruin, or is he his making? Is the Archbishop's cathedral in Santa Fe representative of the triumph of a pure soul acting through an incorruptible will, or is it another of Cather's architectural incongruities, French Romanesque masonry travestying the stone pueblos of the Anasazi? Gardens, I argue, offer an exceptionally compact and lucid way of grasping an ennobling and tragic vision essential to Cather, one in which pure desire seeks to act in a rank world that nowhere offers concrete demonstration of absolute good or truth. Gardens confront us with the inescapable clash of the splendors and sorrows of the human condition.

Indeed, the only unparadoxical element to my definition is that gardens are defined by human presence; only an unflagging human proclivity to impose design where no design necessarily inheres creates a garden of the wilderness, as our literal and figurative journeys to the edge transform the landscape through the acculturating eye. In this sense, following Susan Rosowski's thesis in The Voyage Perilous, gardens are Romantic, particularly in the Keatsian need to struggle through, to discover the perfect blossom in the least likely purlieu, or, within the metaphor of dangerous pilgrimage, to grasp not the crushing irony but the inspiring possibility of the garden as menaced by the wasteland that encircles and will ultimately reclaim it. In other words, Romanticism invests the garden with greatest value, the poetry of life, that ephemeral human capacity to conceive of beauty and truth where none necessarily abides. We are never without it, for we garden as we go, no matter how lightly we tread in the wilderness: nature gives us, not glimpses of her inward truths, but reflections of cultural assumptions. Rare and precious and real, however, are the moments when in our gardening relation to the land we glimpse, in imagination, not the fatuousness of our desire for pastoral perpetuity, but the Edenic idea of a perfect relation to God and nature.

In this sense, Cather inserts herself into the uniquely American argument about the connection to the new continent of people of European origin. The red kraut and the native sunflower seeds for the imported canary in Mrs. Kohler's garden suggest aliens and native accommodation. Many of her plants are grown from seeds that left on their own might never germinate, or that might invade and destroy the environment. The tamarisks that shade the yards and mark the water holes, the tough feathery trees beloved of Father Latour, are introductions. Though some think they came with the Spaniards, others suggest that they were introduced after New Mexico became a U.S. territory, or about the time Latour and Vaillant arrived. (I have also seen the assertion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [usda] brought them in between 1909 and 1915, which if true means that Thea could not have peeked through them at the Kohlers'.) But any Westerner can tell you today that they are interlopers, aggressive, wasteful of ground water, to the Southwest what kudzu is to the Southeast and the starling to the whole continent.[1] Yet they are beautiful to Latour, and in an abstract sense one must agree. This tree that Abraham called the Tree of Life and planted at the well at Beersheba is nice to look at.

Botanical immigration to North America repeats the fundamental contradiction of human immigration in which we are stuck between the postulates of Manifest Destiny (or the Promised Land) and the worry that in our westward expansion and industrial explosion we have despoiled a pristine continent. During Cather's youth and early adulthood it became increasingly diffi- cult to hold to an agrarian, even Mosaic, sense of America as a perpetually renewed land to which we held a divine grant. By the time Cather is at work on Shadows on the Rock, the Agrarians' I'll Take My Stand (1930) advances a hair-raising reactionary politics in defense of a rural society that was always harsh and undemocratic. It is now long gone, and its vestiges can only survive in the manner candles persist in the age of the electric lamp or the cold compress after the invention of aspirin. The response to modernity by Lytle and the Nashville group is risible compared to Cather's, for she refuses to arrange the past in curio cabinets or to conceive of the fundamental connection to land as fully expressed in the defeat of the Agrarian aristocrat by the industrial bully. Rather than the desperate hankering of Nashville, she had a prairie stoicism. She guessed that in the modern moment we needed to travel farther, to ever less comfortable liminal zones like the canyons once inhabited by the Anasazi, to be able to intuit incorruptible nature. As agricultural communities declined into soul cramping bitterness and poverty—for example, as in Wharton's 1913 Ethan Frome or Sherwood Anderson's 1919 book of grotesques, Winesburg, Ohio—a nostalgia for the great America garden meant that we needed special places, distant prospects, in order to refresh belief.

This recognition reveals something of Cather's connection to Sarah Orne Jewett. About midsummer the narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs walks with her landlady's brother William to the top of a small island off the Maine coast. He is taking her to a high pasture where she will witness a sweeping prospect and reckon its significance: Through this piece of rough pasture ran a huge shape of stone like the great backbone of an enormous creature. At the end, near the woods, we could climb up on it and walk along to the highest point; there above the circle of pointed firs we could look down over all the island, and could see the ocean that circled this and other bits of island ground, the mainland shore and all the far horizons. It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in,—that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give. (45) In Shadows on the Rock (1931) Cécile longs to visit the Ile d'Orleans, four miles down river from Quebec and a "landscape [that] looked as if it had been arranged to please the eye" (148). At first Cécile is enraptured: She had never seen so many wild flowers before. The daisies were drifted like snow in the tall meadow grass, and all the marshy hollows were thatched over with buttercups, so clean and shining, their yellow so fresh and unvarying, that it seemed as if they must all have been born that morning at the same hour. The clumps of blue and purple iris growing on these islands of buttercups made a sight almost too wonderful. All the afternoon Cécile thought she was in paradise. (153) Of course, the trouble in paradise is that its ordinary human inhabitants, the people with whom she must lodge, are smelly barbarians with a coarse diet and no sense of the natural splendor that surrounds them. Seeking relief Cécile strikes off on her own and comes to a place strikingly similar to the place where William takes the narrator of Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs: Cécile got away unobserved into the nearest wood. She went through it, and climbed toward the ride in the middle of the island. At last she came out on a waving green hayfield with a beautiful harp-shaped elm growing in the middle of it. The grass there was much taller than the daisies, so that they looked like white flowers seen through a driving grey-green rain. (156) Safe from the Harnois, Cécile naps and is refreshed. She can manage another night with the family, for she has discovered a vantage from which to see the world around her deeply and differently. She feels that her trip has taken her long and far away; she is glad to find her home unchanged. Looking at the implements of daily life, "these brooms and clouts and brushes," she realizes that "with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life" (159-60). Or, to return to Jewett's terms, Cécile has been briefly freed of space and time, constituents and limits of human consciousness. What happens, therefore, at the threshold between gardened space and wilderness is transcendence, in the Kantian sense, of basic categories of understanding. It is also a moment of beauty, a grasping not of content and line of a transcendental self, but the reassurance that this unspeakable self exists, for if it did not Cécile would be incapable of conceiving of an outside—or stepping beyond—the quotidian self to which she returns with happiness and new insight.

Surely some continuity, perhaps even an intentional allusion, is at work that the key moment in the mentor's masterpiece should resonant in a late novel by the ephebe. Here surely is a fascinating archetypal recursion in the imaginative life of Willa Cather. The trope of the woodland clearing provides a prospect that is constant in Cather's work, no matter what else she may change in her nature, gardens, or understanding of the function of landscape architecture. For example, in The Professor's House (1925) Godfrey St. Peter, a man not given to vain indulgences, bought himself "a little triangle of sand running out into the water, with a bath-house and seven shaggy pine-trees on it" (57). Though in fact on the shores of Lake Michigan, St. Peter's parcel is a place to which he retreats and where his meditations are most likely to return him to calm determination and where his youthful years in France replay themselves. The clutter of suburb, university, family, and materialism are at his back as he looks over—or swims into—the oceanic immensity of the water. As a liminal garden, then, this parcel, unlike the tidy half-acre he made behind his house, is a shred of residual wilderness, the habitable edge of an immensity that may be entered only at its extremes and then temporarily. Indeed, in the contrast of the two bits of land one sees the disequilibrium in the Professor. On the one hand, the natural element is shoved to the imperiled margins; the ordered, artifi- cial, overcivilized garden is central and a sign of the Professor's public success. The two worlds of the Professor mesh almost not at all for deep in him is a schismatic pathology that, unresolved, compels continual accommodation to the vulgarity of modern life. Life becomes shabby, drab, suffocatingly interior. Its degradation becomes his exclusive perspective. As if to reiterate how complete is the rout, how invidious the menace, Cather puts the physics building, shoddy and compromised, in a grove of pines. The Professor can see it profaning the pines from the window of his study in the old house.

Cather describes the Professor's garden at the old house as "without a blade of grass" and "a tidy half-acre of glistening shrubs and bright flowers" (6). A work of twenty years, the garden is "Frenchified," grassless at the edge of the prairie, and laid out with a constipated Cartesian's wish that a rational regularity suit the intimate space that publicly expresses the individual's relation to nature. This is not the nativist aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright; indeed, as quiet and tasteful as it may seem by contrast with the vulgarity of the new Marsellus house—the pseudo-Norwegian place named Outland—the Professor's garden, his work of twenty years, is similarly at odds with its natural context. It expresses determination, a stolid ability to make something work where it does not belong, and as such is a sign of the Professor's repression, first repression of the prairie, finally repression of self. By the end of the novel, when St. Peter has let go much of the control he had exerted over himself, "the Kansas boy who had come back to St. Peter . . . was a primitive" who "was only interested in earth and woods and water" (241). Tobe returned to himself is to leave the garden and the self it mimics: Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him. . . . He seemed to be at the root of the matter: Desire under all desires, Truthunder all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so . . . He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely, "that is right." (241) Clearly Cather intends us to understand the return of the repressed landscape of youth as the positive result of a catharsis and a return to the native ground of essential character.

All biographies of Cather, even brief ones on book covers, mention the psychological contrast opened in her memory by the move from verdant Virginia to the gray sheeting of southcentral Nebraska. To the gardener, the transposition is as harsh and as mythic as the contrast between Beulah (long a nickname for the Shenandoah region) and the Sinai Desert in which the chosen wandered and nearly lost hope. My contention is that, more than a key archetype in a particularly interesting woman's imagination, more even than a source of especially relevant images and themes, the garden was an early and important key to the development of Cather's narrative poetics. During her first visit to Europe, Cather was at Barbizon near Fontainebleau in September of 1902. With a sensibility remarkably like the one she will give to Claude Wheeler, she praises the residents of the village: They have built no new and shining villas, introduced no tennis courts, or golf links, or electric lights. They have even heroically denied themselves any sewage system whatever, and the waste water from the kitchens and water tubs flows odorously along through the streets. The village at first sight looks like any other little forest town; the home of hardworking folk, desperately poor, but never so greedy or so dead of soul that they will not take time to train the peach tree against the wall until it spreads like a hardy vine, and to mass beautiful flowers of every hue in their little gardens. (120)

Barbizon represents, not the Professor's rationalist and monarchic France, but Cather's own France of good omelets and unpretentious farmsteads. It is a wholly different human adaptation to topography than nearby Fontainebleau, or, for that matter, Le Notre's Vaux le Vicomte, or Versailles, which even the laudatory recent essay, "The Grand Gesture," by Roy Strong, admits is "an expression of French absolutism, the garden as a manipulation of perspective whose lines met in the eyes of le Roi Soleil" (82). According to Strong, we recognize the space of the classic French garden by "its ability to orchestrate vast space, its glorification of the central axis, its rigid adherence to symmetry, its subtle manipulation of changes of level, its stately progression from parterre to bosquet to park and its embrace of infinity" (80). Thus, rather than take the gardening mentality to the edge, as does the narrator of The Country of Pointed Firs and so many of Cather's more sympathetic characters, the absolutist model creates a center point of human dominion around which nature is compelled to organize itself, or, in caricatured submission, to resolve itself into evergreen cubes, cones, and spheres. Such sculpting, obedient to an inflexible human will, is remarkably like the huge consolidated farms on which monoculture is practiced and the creation of which destroyed the orchards and back gardens of the humble and respectable immigrants of the early novels. Or, as becomes clear to Claude Wheeler as he experiences the rural France of the yeoman farmer, a particularly American obsession with wealth transformed what might have been the great American garden into a giant agricultural factory that is offensive to sensibility, as if the organizing principle revealed in the new landscape were the industrial and financial absolutism of the age.

Cather's model is altogether other. Having traveled from Barbizon to the extreme south, she finds at the fishing village of Lavandou on the Mediterranean a place where "the gardens are for the most part pitiful little hillside patches of failure" (Willa Cather in Europe 156) and yet it is here that she achieves "a sense of immeasurable possession and immeasurable content" (157). Human presence clings to the steep landscape of Lavandou, the "principality of pines" where there is "the scent of dried lavender always in the air, and the sea reaching like a wide blue road into the sky" (161). Here at the end of human grasp Cather is able to conclude: "One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame" (157-58).

Quite likely when she was writing Thea Kronborg's visit to the Southwest, Cather's imagination was invigorated not just by her own discovery of the land and ruins of Colorado and New Mexico, but also by the memory of her time at Lavandou. She understands that there are some people—Mrs. Kohler, for example, or Ántonia—who are humble and admirable, and their worthiness is reflected in their gardens, outward signs of self-sufficiency, a love of beauty for its own sake, and a talent for accommodating desire to nature. But there are others, those who have greatness within, for whom the tended half-acre is not enough. They need to find themselves within a deep quiet and against a broad prospect. These are Cather's artists and heroes. They risk being plowed under by capitalism. They are almost capable, as is Thea, of transcendence, of thinking beyond language, or of hearing a music beyond sound, if they happen on that place where their inward nature is in harmony with outward nature. Like Outland, they do not need maps or instructions on how to move about the far limits of human occupation, though they do seem to need, as did Cather at Lavandou, and Thea and Tom in the Southwest, some rudiment of shelter and some potsherds, traces of ancient human struggle. The corners of the world hospitable to such people are, Cather insists, very few and diminishing in number.

The garden does not simply reveal a binary relation between the good and humble and the good and great people of the world. One of Ours complicates the case. Claude is not one of the great characters, nor is he one of the admirable Bohemians or others who prosper within modest limits. Claude never quite generates the ego to insist on his fair share, or to do something entirely for himself, for though he desires a better education, he hasn't the temerity to demand it, and though he should kiss Gladys, he doesn't. Rather, he builds for Enid a house of modest proportions reflecting a desire that she cannot understand. He places it near a grove—to which, like St. Peter, he can retreat—and plants a flowering vine on its porch. Frosty Enid traipses off to China and Claude heads for France where, having mothered his men through the Spanish influenza on the troop ship, he will meet his soul mate, Olive de Courcy, and see the house and garden she tends. Claude grows from a naïve young man of deep but extremely vague desires into someone who has real human weight. He has a breadth of sensibility that makes him nearly androgynous, or at least extremely rare in his ability to grasp the perspective of women. And as soon as he sees in Olive and her garden just what he would have were he to get what he was never really quite able to tell himself that he wanted, he is about to die. Both of them know that events have precluded their happiness; each is stoical in his or her own way as Claude leaves. Finally, he is an inverted Candide, for when his ideal garden materializes and his Cunïgonde appears, it is too late for him. History has rendered him obsolete; it cannot admit the private man who looks to his own work and family and is satisfied.

Once, however, it was possible to retire from the world and be satisfied in one's garden. In Death Comes for the Archbishop the detestable Fray Baltazar grows corpulent at Ácoma largely from eating the produce of his garden. It took coerced labor to build it, as soil was carried up from below the mesa, and the virtual slavery of the women of Ácoma to keep it watered. The garden demonstrates that greed, even in the absence of common sense, can accomplish just about anything. Of course, it is not the demands of the garden but the accidental murder of an Ácomite boy that gets Baltazar tossed off the rock; still, the deterioration of the garden of arrogance delights the women who had once carried water up the cliffs. How different is Latour's garden at Tesuque, down from the heights of Santa Fe to a well-watered valley and a milder climate. Latour lays out the garden in front of a two-hundred-year-old apricot tree that gives particularly sweet fruit, planting where prosperity has a natural chance. Moreover, rather than press labor the retired archbishop helps tend the garden and shares its produce with willing helpers; it is, Cather says, his "recreation," adding: "Wherever there was a French priest, there should be a garden of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers. [Latour] often quoted to his students that passage from their fellow Auvergnat, Pascal: that Man was lost and saved in a garden" (267). Before he dies, this gardener gains the power to understand: There is . . . something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country girls—but how much more endearing was the belief that They (the Holy Family), after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play Their first parts . . . in a wilderness at the end of the world, where angels could scarcely find them. (282-83) Finally, the return to simplicity is the point, the destination of the pilgrimage, the first principle of horticulture and the central aesthetic recognition that transformed Cather from an American realist into a survivor of modernism and a major writer.

The notion of Cather's garden is not limited to glossing her fiction; it can also situate her in the context of American literary history and current criticism. In fact, something of its ability to clarify functions appears even in such apparently unlikely places as Marilee Lindemann's Willa Cather: Queering America and Guy Reynolds's Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire. Lindemann, for example, places the struggles to live out a lesbian identity within "the battle to authorize and claim custody of the word "America" (3).Working from Alan Trachtenberg's perspective of what she calls "the massive structural and economic transformations that occurred between the Civil War and World War I, a process of redistribution of wealth and reorganization of society" a time of the "increasing standardization and mechanization of American life" (3), Lindemann discovers the acute challenges to Cather's sexuality and Lindemann's own in her relationship to Cather. The garden, as mythic archetype and as real place, is displaced and threatened by the same obliterating forces that challenge any identity that is not normative or mediocre. As an ideal it appears newly precious and precarious, needing reformulation in order to survive. As such, it shares similarities with progressivism for the new garden must respond to what Reynolds describes as "the splintering of . . . idealism during the FirstWorldWar" (14). Cather's poetics (narrative and horticultural, I would claim) resemble progressivism in being "structured around polarities of idealism and disillusion" (14). Her gardens would be archaic, sites of lonely nostalgia, were it true that Cather's "earthly heavens and Utopias . . . seem a historical—purely and simply mythic ideal communities." But as Reynolds shifts the terms, "an apparently mythic discourse is revealed as historically conditioned; the great, good places of Cather's fiction emerge as part of a large cultural pattern, namely the Utopian idealism of progressive America and its reforming drive to recreate the nation as an earthly Eden" (15). Now it becomes clear, how, within a context of social transformation, the garden re-gardened, transfigured by new exigencies, can become freshly expressive of characters who are not human relics and ideals that are not obsolete.

Joseph Urgo's premise that "a dialectic between migration and settlement informs New World history at every stage" (1) recalls the central paradox in my definition of the garden, that inescapable oscillation of never-finished gardening—Urgo's "exploring the world as it emerges from an imagination in continual transposition"(7)—over against the ideal of Eden as original and final home place. The dream of being done, or settled, keeps us moving and we keep moving so as never to still the dream of settlement. Or consider this sentence: "Migration is paradoxically the keystone of American existence, and migrants father paradoxes as they move from one 'permanent residence' to the next" (13). Slightly amended: "Gardening is paradoxically the keystone of American existence, and gardeners father paradoxes as they move from one 'permanent residence' to the next." Or perform a similar perversion on this passage from his conclusion: "American culture, in the context of Willa Cather's writing, exists as a finished object in the future alone, in the form of spatial imagination, national purpose, and migration [gardening] into possibility. American hostility toward history, toward the past as the image of completion, is the migrant's [gardener's] resentment for the settled, the traveler's [horticulturalist's] suspicion of the entrenched" (195).

In The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual, Ann Romines writes of Cécile that "as she becomes more conscious of the satisfactions of her domestic life, she also becomes more conscious of its fragility" (156) and "for her, art, religion, and housekeeping are one" (157). Cécile chooses "not the flowery Edenic island—but the beauty of the domestic enclosure" and so "insures the continuity of a culture, although it will almost certainly cost some of the complex potential of Cécile's selfhood" (158). Romines's shrewd recovery of what can be called the quiet nobility of the homely arts can be extended to gardening as well, but not just women's gardens. Indeed, though some gardens are gendered—Le Notre's landscape rhetoric at Versailles is thoroughly masculinist, Gertrude Jekyll's late nineteenth-century revolution of the country house garden was feminist—Cather's gardens are not as pervasively gender-inflected as, say, the raising of children or the baking of kolaches, or the making of money and the maiming of birds. While her return home and her disappearance into marriage certainly suggest Cécile's emergence into womanhood, Romines is far from condemning a "simultaneous process of self-discovery and self-loss through which a girl cloaks herself in the traditional life that her culture offers to women" (163). Rather than a regrettable dynamic of young womanhood, it resembles characters crossing the garden, shedding ego, and recovering contact with the deepest self. Defined by her home, Cécile resembles the gardener writ large, especially the grateful steward who renders her plot always more fecund as she increases its produce and beauties from year to year, cycle to cycle, or through the phases of life's migration.

Four decades ago John Randall recognized the significance of Ántonia's garden, "the garden of the world," as he calls it, for "at the center of all this fertility of farm and family is a place of quietness, a place which contains the deepest peace which human kind can know" (142). I would be more emphatic, for Ántonia's grape arbor, not the house, is the center of the world she creates, a still point of comfort, productivity, and beauty so attractive and personal that it is the most revealing place on the farm to take Burden. The grape arbor shows Ántonia's triumph and happiness to her old friend; it is so pleasant that minor community events are held there. Gardens may be the best-civilized places on earth, like Ántonia's, and so a balm to enter; or sad mistakes for all outward signs of labor and intention, like the Professor's tidy half-acre; or repugnant for the ease with which the land gives up nutrients as money, as do Mr. Wheeler's many acres. All good gardens are laid out and tended like a Cather novel. Though today we tend to read The Song of the Lark as one of Cather's masterworks, we understand whyWilliam Heineman brought the well-pruned O Pioneers! to England but declined The Song of the Lark. Cather's return to a less fulsome method in My Ántonia (or in her cuts to The Song of the Lark in the late 1930s) as well as the principles she elaborates in "The Art of Fiction" (1920) and "The Novel Démeublé" (1922) reveal an artist clear about her aesthetic principles. Later statements, such as "A Chance Meeting" (1933)—the piece on Flaubert's niece—and "Light on Adobe Walls" (1949), demonstrate their continuity throughout her artistic maturity and the success of the simple expression of the grape arbor.

In "The Novel Démeublé," Cather writes about The Scarlet Letter: "[T]he material investiture of that story is presented as if unconsciously; by the reserved, fastidious hands of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department-store window-dresser" (49). Soon she will damn Lawrence for reducing characters to "mere animal pulp," for failing to create: "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact of the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself" (Not Under Forty 50). The sheer good of creation cannot be revealed through a narrative poetics that regards richness as derived from diversity and intensity of detail or, for that matter, novelty of linguistic effect. Indeed, to write this way is to kowtow to materialism and hedonism, or, to stretch my metaphor, to industrialize the land on which literature grows. In Cather's gardens, at their most important, we see characters touch their idealism before, inevitably, being snapped back into ordinary life. She instructs us: Novelists compromise to historical moment and readers; gardeners compromise to soil and to climate; noble souls suffer anomie and die. But all of them keep reaching, not for sensation, not for power, not for material wealth, but for that truth that is just over the fence, that can be "killed by a tasteless amplitude" (51). She makes clear in "Light on Adobe Walls" that "nobody can paint the sun, or sunlight," they "can only paint the tricks that shadows play with it" (On Writing 123). My point is that the garden, Cather's prolific metaphor, her metaphysical passe-partout, is the place where we encounter the possibility of being at liberty in space and time. To recall Jewett, the garden is permission to be at liberty from categories of consciousness—past and present, male and female, self and other, public and private, civilization and nature. Rather than compensate us for the degradations of industrial prosperity with more of the same, Cather's novels and her gardens are intended to bring us into the perfect light in a perfect place possible only in the liberated imagination.


 1. For a broader discussion of the tamarisk's history and its threat to southwestern wetlands, see especially the following web sites: Cameron Barrow's "Tamarisk Control and Common Sense"; Ken A. MacKenzie's "Fighting Tamarisk Infestations on the South Platte River"; "Tamarisk on the Colorado Plateau"; "The Tamarisk Invasion"; and, among others, "The Tree of Life, II, The Tamarisk." (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (Mariner), 1995.
Cather, Willa. One of Ours. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage, 1971.
Cather, Willa. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather on Writing. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Jewett, Sara Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs. New York: Norton, 1994.
Lindemann, Marilee. Willa Cather: Queering America. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
Randall, John H. III. The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Reynolds, Guy. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire. New York: St. Martins, 1996.
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Strong, Roy. The Grand Gesture. Gardens Illustrated (June 2000): 80-82.
Urgo, Joseph R. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.