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From Cather Studies Volume 5


Read together, the essays in this volume introduce us to the greening of literary studies, a.k.a. ecological literary studies, ecocriticism, environmental literary studies—all terms for a field that is young, in flux, and determined to remain so. These essays also reintroduce us to a Cather we risk forgetting in recent decades' focus first on gender, then on class and race. I'm referring to the Cather who is profoundly identified with the places that shaped her and that she wrote about.

Place seems "poised to resume its place as a vital human concept," Glen Love observes as he anticipates the next one hundred years when literary scholars . . . will find themselves, along with other humanists and social scientists, engaged in important, ecologically based interdisciplinary work with the natural sciences. We will necessarily become more interdisciplinary because we live in an increasingly interconnected world, because we need all the intellectual resources we can muster to find a sustainable place within it, and because we will see more and more the relatedness of all of this to the work we do as teachers and scholars of literature. Love offers an interdisciplinary reading of The Professor's House that is, "if not overtly scientific, at least leaning in that direction." He calls for acknowledging archetypes (among other influences) in Cather's art as representing "biology and the commonality of human nature." Love argues for the role of science in literary criticism, not to replace interpretation but to reinvigorate it, in (for example) "reconsidering the interpretation of archetypes."

"My own journey to ecocriticism transpired via a series of environmentally preoccupied conference papers on Willa Cather," Cheryll Glotfelty recalls in "A Guided Tour of Ecocriticism, with Excursions to Catherland." From those beginnings a decade and a half ago, Glotfelty comes full circle to reflect upon ecocriticism generally and upon ecocriticism of Cather specifically. An ecological critical method addresses "the interconnections between human culture and the material world, between the human and the nonhuman."

What is the right relation between human beings and nature? The question fundamental to today's environmental movement is hardly new, as Joseph Urgo reminds us. After situating Cather within the conservationist debate of her time between utilitarians (who urged reserving land for profitable use) and preservationists (who sought to preserve natural resources for aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual reasons), Urgo argues that My Ántonia models a preservationist aesthetic in which landscape and memory are inextricably entangled. In "Biocentric, Homocentric, and Theocentric Environmentalism in O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop," Patrick K. Dooley explores Cather's "divided alliance" in terms of a problematic position illustrated by Aldo Leopold's essay, "The Land Ethic," the classic statement of ecological ethics. And in "Willa Cather: The Plow and the Pen," Joseph W. Meeker reads O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia as espousing an ethic of development rather than of the environment. For Meeker, Cather presents the natural world merely as setting for her characters and as raw material for her pen; furthermore, she "shows little knowledge or curiosity about the natural processes surrounding her characters" and is "disinterest[ed] in her ecological context."

Thomas J. Lyon reads Cather differently. "The dynamism of nature admits of only permeable borders; requires for its understanding a consciousness loose and free to move," he writes in "Willa Cather, Learner." "The learning state is one of intense empathy, involving transcendence of the usual self," and

when the full range of consciousness is awakened, our native sensitivity to relationship comes alive. This larger cognizance is inherently ecological, and lets us see and feel the environment in a participative, intimate way. Willa Cather is one of our greatest nature writers—without even being a nature writer—because she had this living sense of the biotic community. Her capacity to feel for places and for trees— for the cottonwoods being cut down by 1921's modern Nebraska farmers, for example—came from the same well of consciousness as her novelist's sympathy for character. . . .

For Cather the instinctive standard of excellence in human endeavor, the reference, is nature.

"Sometimes Cather lets us directly into her own creative, environmental imagination," enacting ecological consciousness.

In "The Comic Form of Cather's Art: An Ecocritical Reading," Susan J. Rosowski maintains that the interrelatedness of ecological criticism calls for reading Cather's work as a whole. Philosopher Susanne K. Langer offers a starting point for Rosowski; beginning with Alexander's Bridge Cather moved away from the ego-consciousness of tragedy's end-directed plot with its heroic individual and toward the episodic, contingent form of comedy, which celebrates the "pure sense of life itself" in a pattern of eternal renewal.

Ecological criticism's interest in the relation between language and nature invites reading literature alongside the botanist's field guide, the gardener's plot, the architect's plan, and the composer's score. As Janis P. Stout demonstrates, Cather's personal copy of F. Schuyler Mathews's Field Book of American Wild Flowers (1902) offers one such starting point. This was the field book Cather carried on her nature walks from 1917 to 1938, heavily annotated in her hand. Cather's "observant eye" trained by nature walks may lie behind her choice of Benda for the drawings of My Ántonia, Stout continues; "Benda in fact captured in these spare drawings much of the essence of Cather's spare style."

In "Social (Re)Visioning in the Fields of My Ántonia, Jan Goggans reminds us that along with training the eye to see, ecological theory and botanical guides represent "significant ways of thinking about how humans exist in their environment." Ecologists' arguments about plants (native versus exotic) present an entry into cultural and political constructions of nativism in Cather's novel: how a "'native' like Jim Burden can tell the story of an 'exotic' like Ántonia Shimerda." My Ántonia shifts the paradigm away from nativism and toward a "flexible notion of place-based community," according to which "one's identity is constructed by the community into which one plants oneself."

Frank Lloyd Wright provides a starting point for Guy Reynolds in "Modernist Space: Willa Cather's Environmental Imagination in Context." "For both Cather and Wright, 'fit' (a kind of spatial symbiosis between the man-made and the natural) constitutes the regionalist style." The result is what Reynolds calls Cather's "organic modernism" in which "the environment of Nebraska is used as an analog for novelistic form; landscape might even create form." By such a view, Cather's Midwestern environments are "akin to the spatializing tactics of radical modernists—artists working in literature but also in architecture and painting."

Music provides an entry into depiction of place for Philip Kennicott in "Wagner, Place, and the Growth of Pessimism in the Fiction of Willa Cather." "Cather was that rare Wagner listener particularly alert to the power of these encounters" between characters and natural spaces, Kennicott writes; and with that alertness comes her awareness of the political and philosophical debates surrounding his music. One of Ours provides the example, which, Kennicott suggests, is "a Wagnerian world worked out in American terms."

Literature's analogy to music appears in "Willa Cather's Great Emersonian Environmental Quartet." In this essay Merrill Maguire Skaggs recalls the role that gender plays in culture and environment: Cather played "riffs" on Emerson's Nature when she wrote an environmental tetrology that began by critiquing phallocentricWestern culture in The Professor's House and culminated in creating the fully realized female lives of "Old Mrs. Harris."

Interconnections among nature, culture, and art are the subject of "The Creative Ecology ofWalnut Canyon: From the Sinagua to Thea Kronborg." Here Ann Moseley recalls the actual place that Cather drew upon for her character's artistic awakening, when "her life becomes inextricably intermingled with its ecology— with its geological and cultural history and with its natural life." While nature figures sparely in My Mortal Enemy, sensitivity to the relation of literature to life motivates "Unmasking Willa Cather's 'Mortal Enemy,'" where Charles Johanningsmeier argues that S. S. and Hattie McClure are "the real-life models for the novel's characters" and [interprets] what Cather's relationship to them was.

Ann Romines explores questions of memory, creativity, culture, and place in Cather's writing about Virginia. After Cather's family emigrated to Nebraska, Romines writes, Willa "was confronted with one of the major tasks of her life. She had to learn how to remember Virginia, how to live and write with her Southern inheritance." Then Romines argues "that much of Cather's best fiction before her specifically Southern novel of 1940 [Sapphira and the Slave Girl] is, on some level, engaged with the problem of how to remember and to render the South."

In "Character, Compromise, and Idealism in Willa Cather's Gardens," Mark A. Facknitz reminds us that interconnections between culture and nature are revealed in gardens. The garden confirms what we know: "nature gives us, not glimpses of her inward truths, but reflections of cultural assumptions." Situating Cather in her time, Facknitz notes the "prairie stoicism" of her refusal to succumb to facile alternatives. "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." "What happens," Facknitz writes, "at the threshold between gardened space and wilderness is transcendence . . . of basic categories of understanding."

Just as the essays collected here introduce ecological literary studies and demonstrate Cather's centrality to ecocritical ideas and issues, so they invite a reconsideration of the language we use and the stances we take. There is among these essays a remarkable absence of jargon. Rather than performing poststructuralist games of complicating, transgressing, interrogating, and contesting, these essays esteem simplicity, seek connections, and model humility. I recall Glen Love's discussion of archetype and essence and Ann Moseley's exploration of how abstracted elements represent intrinsic form. In a similar vein Mark Facknitz observes, "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." And Tom Lyon reflects that in "her simplicity of prose" lies Cather's desire "to convey the sense of the thing itself, in the first purity of response before description."

This introduction ends with acknowledgments. We have many institutions to thank for supporting the international seminar from which many of these essays emerged: the Nebraska Humanities Council, the Cooper Foundation, the Kimmel Foundation, and the Steinhart Foundation. And there are individuals, also, who supported this inquiry: At the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, Richard Edwards, Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs; in Red Cloud, Steve Ryan, Executive Director of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial. And through it all, Margie Rine, seminar coordinator, was at the heart of the seminar and of subsequent work on this volume.