Three years ago, my wife Jan and I were enjoying an autumn Sunday morning in The Mill, in Lincoln, when, as it seemed, Willa Cather walked slowly past our little table. Dressed for church as a good, still family-involved twelve-year-old ought to be, her figure square-built and still androgynous-seeming, her person quiet and unobtrusive, this girl circled slowly and attentively through the big room. Her mind was absorbed in the diverse mix of coffee-drinkers and paper-readers, whom she saw one by one, without staring. This intelligent young girl was gathering material. Sounds and images and the warm, bakery fragrance of the place, the whole ambience, were registering. You could see learning happening as clearly as watching India ink spread indelibly into soft paper.
I am going to argue that the real Willa Cather was also and above all a learner in this same way, and that her deepest-going books are about learning—that is, about sensitivity and vulnerability, and the extraordinary beauty of human consciousness when it is young and free.
This sensitivity is also, I believe, the basis of the ecological imagination. Cather's capacity to see a man or a woman, to imagine their inward life, is at root the same as her ability to feel the "light reflecting, wind-loving trees in the desert" (The Song of the Lark 37) and to describe the living landscape of a redrock canyon, or the open prairie. It is all one sensibility. It is in terms of this awareness, this capacity to learn, that she understands life and the characters in it. What is the real, fundamental difference between Thea Kronborg and her sister Anna? Between Claude and Bayliss Wheeler? Between Alexandra on the one hand and her brothers Lou and Oscar Bergson? I think the ruling question for Willa Cather was, has the freshness been kept? Is the person still alive at the quick, and learning?
We might also ask, historically, whether we, as a people immersed in machinery and our much-worshiped market, are losing the one fine thing we've got, the capacity to learn and in that openness to give sympathy?
The essential difference between Claude and Bayliss Wheeler is a matter of elasticity of consciousness. The crux of Godfrey St. Peter's terrifying crisis is that the freshness of discovery and learning, renewed by his relationship with Tom Outland, and which he, Godfrey, had then somehow conveyed in his histories, is leaving him. The mysterious essence of the New Mexico morning for Archbishop Latour, the something "that whispered to the ear on the pillow," revives youthful sensitivity and appetite. It keeps him a learning, young man.
To learn, in the sense I am outlining, is not at all to gather knowledge in the sense of discrete facts. Learning in the "Tom Outland" way, as we might call it, is not an intellectual process, but rather a continuing unsettlement and opening of consciousness as a whole. The power to relate, to see inside, to feel with another, transcends intellect and language.
By the same token, the power to understand ecosystems, to sense in one's bones the relational glue that holds the natural world together, does not come about by accumulating data. You can hang dozens of radio collars on animals, and by satellite come to know where the animals spend their time, but this information hasn't anything to do with a member's insight.
The data-gathering kind of knowledge is in fact not entirely benign. It feeds into the philosophy of materialism and mechanism. Data-gathering, when dominant in the mind, leads toward coldness and arrogance. René Descartes, who described dataconsciousness as clearly as anyone has, went so far as to argue that animals didn't really suffer pain. They are machines, he wrote (37-38). A novelist, a great novelist, needs a consciousness much deeper, much more comprehensive.
I think it will shed light on Willa Cather's achievement, in particular her ecological sensitivity, to look at the human mental spectrum and try to say what most of us do with our evolutionary gift.
Picture, if you will, the range of our capabilities. At one side of the spectrum, is the power to distinguish this from that, to see things one at a time in linear sequence. Obviously, this sense for sequence is the seat of our straight-line conception of time. It is also where the simple naming aspect of language has its foundation.
This corner of consciousness also sponsors dualistic conceptions. "Upper" is distinguished from "lower"; "inner" from "outer"; "good" from "not good." When dominant in one's life, this dualistic consciousness supports hierarchies and invidious distinctions and underlies, eventually, the pathologies of racism and nationalism and the fury of religious violence.
The most generative of the entity-oriented and dualistic conceptions, undoubtedly, is "me," "I," "ego," the sense of a separate, subjective inwardness. I say "generative" because "me" is not just one entity among many. It is the home base for certain habits of perception, a certain restricted kind of education and culture.
Its seemingly sharp focus, that small corner of consciousness, grants what seems to be sureness. But by creating a self as separate observer, it simultaneously creates incompleteness. This combination of precision and anxiety gives rise to a pathological, vicious circle of need and desire, in which more is never enough.
Now it will be objected that the "me" has an actual, empirical, indeed irrefutable reality. The self isn't just a conception: I amnot you, and you are not me.
At one level of perception, such realism is inarguable. Dr. Johnson can come and kick me in the shins, refuting idealism. But from an only slightly enlarged perspective, it is possible to unsettle the boundaries of biological identity. Where is this "I" in the absence of oxygen produced by the world of plants? Or in the absence of bacteria in the gut? As Gregory Bateson asked, when the blind man taps his white-tipped stick down the sidewalk, where exactly does this perceptual self begin? (LaChapelle 60). What makes Bateson's question difficult for us is the extent of our historical rooting in entity-perception. We see things one at a time, mostly, and as we do so, with each perception our separate selfhood is subtly reinforced. That reinforcement keeps us, half-satisfied, in one small region of the spectrum of consciousness.
Most of us then act out a somewhat defiant or assertive version of what the philosophers call "naïve realism." "I think, therefore I am," as Descartes put it. Personal identity is our rock, maintained by a strategic limiting of awareness, and becomes a project that occupies the vast majority of our hours, days, weeks, years, and lives. Let us call this activity the ego process. It is why so few of us are great novelists.
We become, instead, Lou and Oscar. While the distinctionseeing, entity-oriented kind of consciousness is our lens, we look out upon a separate-seeming world of objects and judge whether any particular one will be useful, beneficial, negative, or merely neutral. Following this course, we become permanently needy, somewhat dyspeptic judges. We try to secure a conceptually preferred world: the Bayliss Wheeler world, call it, or, in a darker way, the crafty realm of Ivy Peters and Wick Cutter.
A central, shared characteristic of the people I have just named is that they have ceased to learn, ceased to grow. They all repeat some sort of formula that has become their adjustment. They have bought into society's authority.
And of course that is what we all do. Part of what makes Willa Cather a great novelist is that she sees the making of this adjustment as a deeply sad thing. The portrait of Anna Kronborg, for example, is particularly poignant. Her life has, essentially, stopped. Somehow, Cather has let us into the shared human and inward reality of Anna and ourselves. The tragedy of not learning any longer—choosing, or seeming to choose, to jell inside and to close the doors—this human incompletion is one of the profound things not named in One of Ours, andOPioneers! and The Song of the Lark and A Lost Lady and My Ántonia, and indeed, I would argue, throughout Willa Cather's work.
But at the beginning, we are all "born interested," like Mrs. Ringer in Sapphira and the Slave Girl (119). Or as Rousseau put it, we are "born free" (165). We still know that there is such a thing as a lyric connection with the world, the simple and trusting opening of self that is the gift of sympathy. Evolutionarily speaking, we come with the full spectrum of consciousness. We read Cather, avidly, with a sense of return to completeness.
But society wants us to keep such experience in its place. Society prefers that we stay within the field of distinction-focused, linear thought. Things go according to the norm when each of us is predictably self-oriented. We are encouraged to have a rueful kind of lukewarm, nostalgic sentiment, broadly shared and agreed upon as the ineluctable "human condition." Passion is allowed in moments, but is thought of as something you get over.
Society is all of us together, our collective consciousness. It is an agreement by which the individual self is corroborated as a distinct, personal identity—given weight and standing. In return for this peer support, we agree, more or less, to live within the predictable field. This quiet transaction is what Willa Cather's near-contemporary, Mary Austin, called "the huge coil of social adjustment," in her 1912 novel, AWoman of Genius (6). All her life, Austin railed against the adjustment, the conformity, the loss of creative power, the narrowing of consciousness.
When does this sad reconcilement happen, and who are its agents? I think you could say it begins virtually at birth, because the infant's whole contact is with people who have already made the agreement, who are society. Certainly with the acquiring of language, especially the relishing of powerful words like me and mine, we reinforce from an early age the social understanding of existence. We learn the language of separate selfhood.
We also live within the aura of our parents. Mary Austin's mother, at least according to Austin, disliked her from before her first breath, and seemed to take every opportunity to shame her. In Austin's account, Susanna Hunter was simply not the sort of person who could understand her daughter's mystical experiences— her occasional ranging beyond society's mentality. When in 1892 Mary Austin gave birth to a not-quite-right child, her mother asked her what she had done, to receive such a judgement (Earth Horizon 257). It is a matter for wonder that in her writing, Mary Austin's sense of life is not more combative than it is.
Virginia Boak Cather, fortunately, took a different tack. Strict and rather formal in her manners and interactions with her children, she nevertheless instinctively respected their individuality— what we would call their space. They could be relied upon to become good people. This climate of spiritual regard, as I think of it, was of inestimable value for Willa Cather's development. It probably stands behind her mature ability to have Alexandra Bergson go to the prison and talk with Frank Shabata and to honor what was fine, in the end, in Sapphira Colbert.
But those accomplishments come later, and what was crucial in Cather's developing years was that there was no lid on discovery, no limit on the confidence one could feel in one's own mind. I think learning, as a talent, may be fairly fragile in our young lives. We are being told and shown on all sides that life is to be lived guardedly. We are encouraged always to stay within the lines.
But learning is a boundary-crosser. When consciousness expands beyond the fences and begins to loosen out to its rightful, intuitive, relation-perceiving range, that, one might say, is the awakening of learning. This movement means the coming alive of insight and caring, that is, compassion. It is the recovery into new life of the wordless, musical ranges of consciousness. It is an emergence. It is inherently positive and happy. It impels Lucy Gayheart down the sidewalk. It is the almost-felt, mysterious something just ahead, for Claude Wheeler. Godfrey St. Peter catches a fugitive glimpse of it when, from the closing-down grayness of midlife, he comes again to look at the seven lakeside pine trees. It is what makes Alexandra Bergson's face radiant, on the way back from the river to the Divide.
I think you could state as a kind of formula that the more confident and solidified the self is, the rarer learning will be. For a confirmed identity, there will be very few discoveries. The strategic perception that protects the self always looks ahead, radarsearching for what will be agreeable to it. In the world projected by the self, we only come upon what we plan to come upon, such as specific pleasures; and we avoid all negative items if possible. Living from this standpoint, there can be no real freshness. A Bayliss Wheeler world, in short.
We keep up a chatter, that there shall be no empty space in consciousness in which a contemplative, possibly unsettling, insight, or a genuine discovery, might happen. One could say that this stream of words and thoughts and judgments, almost totally occupying our days, makes up the furniture in the rooms of society, contributing to our astonishing, endless possession-gathering. To unfurnish this world, on the idea of the mind démeublé, would be to reestablish the possibility of simple quietness and direct touch.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote to Mildred Bennett in 1949, "She [Cather] felt, and said in print several times, and often in conversation, that for her the only part of life which made a real impression on her imagination and emotion was what happened to her before the age of twenty" (Bennett 151). James Woodress tells us that Cather "also believed that most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." "That's the important period, she said" (Woodress 40).
The world, or society, has pretty much got us by the end of adolescence. We have, most of us, begun to fit into the economic lines, the simplifications of dualistic sexual-identity, and the other pathways of expectation. No blame—this is just the reality. But most of us, accepting a restricted life, are not going to be great novelists.
At first look, if learning means having a genuine, presenttense awareness, alive to the world, it may seem anomalous that Cather went back to the past for her best subjects. But I think she didn't go back in a linear, sentimental sense. Her use of nineteenth-century Nebraska and New Mexico and Virginia, and late-seventeenth-century Quebec, is not an act of nostalgia. It is a reinhabiting. William Faulkner's famous saying that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past, is only true for those with a living imagination (92). The ordinary or self-bound person who dwells in the past, as the phrase has it, has a sentimental and self-pitying attitude. He or she is seeing through the lens of self, looking for praise or blame. This is us, with Lucy Gayheart's well-meaning but limited friend Harry Gordon as our representative: " . . . it was a kind of mental near-sightedness, and kept him from seeing what didn't immediately concern him" (Lucy Gayheart 98). Harry Gordon could not write a novel of the past; to do that requires the identity-crossing range of consciousness. But it is poignant that he cannot write that kind of book and cannot even talk to anyone about what is most important in his life. Sadly enough, we understand him.
The dominant collective mind, society, urges Willa and us toward success in New York, that is, toward peer recognition and a good, widely recognized bottom line. What could be more attractive, by the collective valuation, than to become the managing editor of the premier magazine in the country?
As selves, we don't really want to be vulnerable to the world. But if we retain somehow, at some level, a cellular memory of the exhilaration and freedom that accompany learning, then there is conflict. We live day to day amidst what we have been taught to admire, that is, to aspire to, to bend our life to, to imitate.We can, on the other hand, experience some of what it takes to become a great novelist if we can leave off this admiring and begin to remember, that is, reenter the young state of open consciousness and learning.
The learning state is one of intense empathy, involving transcendence of the usual self. Therefore, I have to take issue with James Woodress's judgment, that Cather's "strongest impulse [was] the desire to preserve the inviolability of the self" (127). Woodress made this remark apropos of discussing sex in Cather's writing. He continued, "Throughout her work there is fear of sex, as character after character is destroyed by it or survives by escaping it" (127). He concluded that Cather had a "yearning for the pre-puberty years of sexual innocence" (299). Sharon O'Brien says essentially the same thing, that Cather "feared 'erasure of personality,' whether by dying in a cornfield or by losing the self in romantic love" (138). But I think this judgement may give too much centrality to sex and too conclusive a characterization of sex as threatening. But most of all I think they are wrong about the erasure of self.
These are two formidable critics in agreement on a salient point of analysis. But I think that Cather's strongest impulse was to preserve for herself the conditions in which learning can happen. I would call this hallowed state not the inviolability of the self but the sacredness of the empathic. Sex is only one of the tracks on which personal identity is regularized. In modern life, that is, under the conditions of distortion, it can be one of the factors actually hardening the self. We play sexual roles within gender assignments, surrounded with issues of possession and jealousy, just as we play economic roles. It is the ego-self that falls into sentimental, romantic love—and soon enough falls out of it.
Let me name some names. It is Myra Henshawe and Enid Royce and Marian Forrester who model firmness of self most spectacularly. Cather gives a salute to their stubborn inviolability, but she doesn't want to be them. She is much closer to Nellie Birdseye and Claude Wheeler and Niel Herbert. In their youthfulness, discovery shimmers just ahead of them.
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. The secret of free consciousness is that what it sees, it sees with love. Free consciousness is always learning, touching, absorbing—it interimpinges with the intensely meaningful blue sky and the light of sunset and the rustling cottonwood leaves.
For Cather the instinctive standard of excellence in human endeavor, the reference, is nature. Thea Kronborg's voice, even when she was a youngster, "was a nature-voice, Wunsch told himself, breathed from the creature and apart from language, like the sound of the wind in the trees, or the murmur of water" (The Song of the Lark 77). When Thea herself is becoming aware of "something about her that was different," and found that hunting for it sometimes didn't work, merely stepping "out of doors" was one of the triggering moves that could bring the mystery close again. "And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people" (79). Transcendence is intimately associated with natural landscapes: More than the mountain disappeared as the forest closed thus. Thea seemed to be taking very little through the wood with her. The personality of which she was so tired seemed to let go of her. The high, sparkling air drank it up like blotting-paper. It was lost in the thrilling blue of the new sky and the song of the thin wind in the piñons. The old, fretted lines which marked one off, which defined her,— made her Thea Kronborg, Bower's accompanist, a soprano with a faulty middle voice,—were all erased. (296) This erasure opens the mind to the great source. It lets us see where the truly inviolable, renewing power comes from, where the voice comes from. Erasure of the little self marks emergence into creative consciousness. The analogies and similes for this life passage naturally come from nature, because it is this waiting world that one is reentering.
Another week passed. Thea did the same things as before, felt the same influences, "went over the same ideas; but there was a livelier movement in her thoughts, and a freshening of sensation, like the brightness which came over the underbrush after a shower. A persistent affirmation—or denial—was going on in her, like the tapping of the woodpecker in the one tall pine tree across the chasm" (307).
All outdoors is on the side of the greater. Sometimes Cather lets us directly into her own creative, environmental imagination. The opening paragraph of chapter 6, in The Song of the Lark, is a beautiful enactment of ecological consciousness. Seen from a balloon, Moonstone would have looked like a Noah's ark town set out in the sand and lightly shaded by gray-green tamarisks and cottonwoods. A few people were trying to make soft maples grow in their turfed lawns, but the fashion of planting incongruous trees from the North Atlantic States had not become general then, and the frail, brightly painted desert town was shaded by the lightreflecting, wind-loving trees of the desert, whose roots are always seeking water and whose leaves are always talking about it, making the sound of rain. The long, porous roots of the cottonwood are irrepressible. They break into the wells as rats do into granaries, and thieve the water. (37) Cather's awareness moves with the water and the roots and the leaves, across categories, feeling the process. There is nothing linguistically extraordinary in this paragraph, perhaps, but if we recognize the importance of words—"light reflecting," "windloving," "seeking," "talking"—we see an unmistakable orientation toward process. The dynamism of nature admits of only permeable borders; requires for its understanding a consciousness loose and free to move.
To my mind, there is no more sure evidence of Willa Cather's having transcended the chatter of typical or conventional thought than her simplicity of prose. She seemed to recognize that what can be said, after all, is only the tiniest fragment of what is. The small corner of consciousness that I have been talking about in this essay is very much preoccupied with words, definitions, judgments, adjectives dramatizing our responses as selves. When we are firmly within the self, we think that when we say "maple," we are saying what the tree before us is. The better-informed will say "red maple," or even acer rubrum. But none of these descriptors touches the reality of the bark, the limbs, the presence on and in the ground. The more words we use, in fact, the further we move from the tree itself, from the primary meeting in which we share existence with it.
Her religiously chaste style, to use Glen Love's wonderful insight (303), is evidence that Cather knew well the seductive power of words. She is skeptical about them. She would like her writing to convey the sense of the thing itself, in the first purity of response before description.
Only the relational consciousness can feel the aura of a tree, the thing not named—never named—about it. The relational consciousness is not oriented toward words, and uses as few as possible. By simplicity, the reader is urged toward apperception.
When Cather wants us to be inside a character, using their eyes, she most often, most movingly, has them seeing nature. She doesn't "work up" scenery—she hated to have to "work up" something. Instead, at her best, she seems simply to inhabit the learning mind. She conveys the beauty and poignancy of Claude Wheeler's situation, newly arrived in France and about to be sent to the front, by showing his attention to what is growing: "Claude didn't want to go [with David Gerhardt, to a possible billet], didn't want to accept favours,—nevertheless he went. They walked together along a dusty road that ran between halfripe wheatfields, bordered with poplar trees. The wild morningglories and Queen Anne's lace that grew by the road-side were still shining with dew. A fresh breeze stirred the bearded grain, parting it in furrows and fanning out streaks of crimson poppies" (279).
From the voyage of the Anchises onward, Claude has been learning. Some, at least, of his former self has been erased, enough to open a certain door. And how do we know, have evidence, for this learning? We see nature through eyes that are opening. The rain had dwindled to a steady patter, but the tall brakes growing up in the path splashed him to the middle, and his feet sank in spongy, mossy earth. The light about him, the very air, was green. The trunks of the trees were overgrown with a soft green moss, like mould. He was wondering whether this forest was not always a damp, gloomy place, when suddenly the sun broke through and shattered the whole wood with gold. He had never seen anything like the quivering emerald of the moss, the silky green of the dripping beech-tops. Everything woke up; rabbits ran across the path, birds began to sing, and all at once the brakes were full of whirring insects. (285)
Having entered holistic perception, we move companionably with Claude when he ventures to summarize, philosophically, where he stands: "Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together" (328).
This is pure Cather, of course; it says what it says because the forest, where she and Claude (and we) have been walking, is the literal ground of such insight about context and matrix. This forest, by the passive urging of its wholeness, has enlarged and clarified consciousness.
How sad that Claude, seeing so much more clearly now, shortly must die. How regrettable that the entire world, so Cather thought, broke in two about the time this book was published.
Almost eighty years later, with a lot of hindsight, we can perhaps see some of what she meant by "broke in two." Certainly, the phrase has proved environmentally accurate. Where formerly there were contiguous, intact ecosystems, we live among fragments. Among the shards, we scurry toward a global life given completely to possession, cunning, and short-term prudence. With wild nature in tatters, it seems inevitable we will have a diminished sense of the whole. We might all become experts in contracts, guarding above all the inviolability of the self, and know little or nothing of the great contract.
We are living, in short, in a further state of what shadowed Willa Cather's last forty-five years. Thank goodness that she left us such a clear record of what it feels like, on the other hand, to be young, with the world and the mind in a loving partnership, opening together in the movement of learning. Thank goodness for the "shining eyes of youth" (O Pioneers! 274).