Applied to literary studies, ecology's principle of interconnection might be that reading a book in isolation is akin to reading a single chapter from a novel. It is a principle especially true for Willa Cather, who exhibited a lifelong attempt to see things whole, who understood wholeness to involve the fundamental biological pattern shared by all living things, and who recognized in the great dramatic form of comedy the artistic expression of that life rhythm. Indeed, Cather's genius lay in giving voice to what philosopher Susanne K. Langer calls "the pure sense of life [which] is the underlying feeling of comedy" (327). The purpose of this essay is to trace the ways in which she did so.
To begin we might remember that ecology shaped Cather's conception of the world as surely as the Bible did her sense of language. Within her family the young Willa had the model of a favorite aunt, Frances Smith Cather, an accomplished amateur botanist who with her husband emigrated from Virginia to Nebraska a decade before Willa's own family did so. Coming into her own as a student at the University of Nebraska, Cather witnessed the creation of the science of ecology, which arose not (as writers today often assume) from the transcendental naturalism of Emerson and Thoreau, argues historian Ronald C. Tobey, but rather from the struggle of grassland ecologists in Nebraska "to understand and to preserve one of the great biological regions of the world" (2). At the core of that struggle were the scientists centering around Charles Bessey along with his students and Cather's classmates—Roscoe Pound, Frederic Clements, and Edith Schwartz Clements. In fundamental ways Cather shared their experience of having been "raised on the frontier and [having] entered botany just as the successive booms of settlement were breaking upon the virgin soil," of looking to the prairies as "the heart, the enduring strength of the American continent," and of struggling to preserve the region (Tobey 2). From this effort the grasslands ecologists "created the science of ecology . . . in the United States" (Tobey 2-3) and Willa Cather created a body of work reflecting an ecological aesthetics.
That shared experience is evident in Cather's early fiction, where descriptions of nature that she knew firsthand are among the features that most clearly anticipate her mature art. In "On the Divide" (1896), for example, she described the effect of weather on crops in precise scientific detail: when "scorching dusty winds . . . blow up over the bluffs from Kansas," they dry up the sap in the corn leaves and "the yellow scorch creeps down over the tender inside leaves about the ear" (495). And in "The Treasure of Far Island" (1902) she describes the ongoing life of a sandbar, with all the changes that come with alterations in the weather: "In the middle of the island, which is always above water except in flood time, grow thousands of yellow-green creek willows and cottonwood seedlings, brilliantly green, even when the hottest winds blow, by reason of the surrounding moisture" (265). Such moments are spots of place akin to Wordsworth's spots of time.
By their very authenticity, however, such scenes often seem irrelevant to their stories' plots about famous playwrights and failed immigrants. Critical convention has it that Cather was searching for her subject during these years: East or West, London or Red Cloud, artists or farmers? Seeking she was, but for something far deeper than mere subject matter; she needed to find what feeling she wanted to express in her art, and then to find the form for that feeling. Cather's search culminated in Alexander's Bridge (1912) and O Pioneers! (1913), the books she joined in the essay she titled "My First Novels [There Were Two]." Together they explore attitudes toward nature in the alternative forms of consciousness that lie behind the great dramatic forms of tragedy and comedy.
Cather wrote Alexander's Bridge as a case study in feeling and form. She constructed her plot along a transparently familiar tragic pattern: it focuses exclusively upon an exceptional individual (the bridge-building engineer Bartley Alexander) who suffers greatly from a flaw in his nature, and whose suffering ends in catastrophe (his bridge collapses and he, going down with it, drowns). Yet Cather departed from convention in assigning her hero his flaw, which consists not of hubris but of youthful energy. The pride of achievement through individual endeavor versus the elemental, pagan energy of life—these are the terms of Bartley Alexander's divided self, and herein lies the brilliance of Alexander's Bridge. Cather inserted a comic feeling within a tragic form, then traced the consequences of the division. It was as if she imported scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream into The Master Builder, then documented the helplessness of Ibsen's hero against the pagan energy of Shakespeare's comedy.
With two radically different principles at work, Alexander's Bridge has a decidedly schizophrenic feel. Its form (the tragic plot) is like the fixed trajectory of the tracks along which the Canadian Express takes Cather's engineer hero to Quebec, where his bridge will collapse and he will die. Struggling to break out of this trajectory is the youthful energy that quickens in him when he attends a comedy featuring a woman he had loved in his youth, and for whom the playwright wrote the part of a donkey girl. As Bartley Alexander realizes, this is no love story, however. The "seductive excitement in renewing old experiences in imagination" involved "not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but . . . his own young self" (40-41). Despite Alexander's best efforts to subdue it, the life spirit of youthful energy proves irresistible, gaining force until even as the plot is taking him to inspect his "incurably disabled" bridge, "the unquiet quicksilver in his breast told him that at midsummer he would be in London" (124, 118).
The theme of the divided self provided a way for Cather to explore the radical (and, therefore, structural) difference of these feelings. Alexander's choruslike philosopher friend Lucius Wilson establishes the premise of division when he acknowledges Alexander's great ability, then comments, "I always used to feel that there was a weak spot where some day strain would tell. . . . The more dazzling the front you presented, the higher your facade rose, the more I expected to see a big crack zigzagging from top to bottom . . . then a crash and clouds of dust" (12). This is the division Cather explores when, after having given her hero the flaw of youthful energy, she traces his suffering as he comes to realize that focused ambition and youthful energy are feelings so fundamentally different they demand different lives. "I am not a man who can live two lives," he cries; "Each life spoils the other" (82).
Alexander describes well—albeit melodramatically—what was at stake for the tragic hero in the schism Cather was exploring. On the one hand the accomplishments that "gratified his pride" came because he directed his energies into building the great bridges that tamed rivers and won the beautiful Winifred for his wife. Such successes come only with the "power of concentrated thought" (39). On the other hand, the feeling quickening within Bartley has nothing whatsoever to do with the great man he had become and everything to do with "that original impulse, that internal heat" that all life has in common. As the "force . . . that is the thing we all live upon" (17) and "the one thing that had an absolute value for each individual" (39), it makes the pride of individual achievement absolutely irrelevant, for rather than distinguishing a hero from ordinary human beings, it distinguishes organic life from inorganic matter. And this feeling—this impulse, heat, force—gives rise to a loss of self antithetical to the ego-consciousness of a heroic individual. It is the feeling of being in a stream of life rather than of building a bridge.
In art, the dramatic forms of tragedy and comedy express these radically different conceptions of life. The end-directed tragic plot traces the life of an individual man or woman, which follows the rhythm of birth, growth, and death; the episodic, contingent form of comedy celebrates the multifaceted forms of life itself in a pattern of eternal renewal. Whereas the tragic spirit lies behind Alexander's struggle against the consequences of his actions and the inevitability of his plot, the comic spirit lies behind his enjoyment of the pauses that suspend that plot when he forgets where he is going and responds to the gray weather on a ship crossing, the smell of acacias on an evening walk, and the atmosphere of London during a carriage ride. When Bartley agonizes over his personal fate, he expresses the egocentrism of the tragic spirit's consciousness of an end: "'That this,' he groaned, 'that this should have happened to me!'" (69). When Hilda wonders how people can ever die, she expresses the comic spirit's view that "Life seems the strongest and most indestructible thing in the world" (95).
Bartley Alexander's tragedy is that the comic spirit is stronger than he, and that it will undo him. By tracing his suffering, Cather describes and eventually pays homage to its radically subversive nature. What lay ahead for Cather was finding a way to express this spirit that "wanted so much to live" (102). Before moving on, however, she had to finish off her tragic hero, and finish him off she did. Tragedy's "crisis is always the turn toward an absolute close," Langer observes, in that "[t]his form reflects the basic structure of personal life" (Langer 352). Bartley's bridge collapses and he goes down with it, the workmen pulling him under in a last desperate attempt to hang onto the great man. In a coda Cather provides tragedy's obligatory benediction by assuming a choruslike voice and reflecting, "For Alexander death was an easy creditor. Fortune, which had smiled upon him consistently all his life, did not desert him in the end. His harshest critics did not doubt that, had he lived, he would have retrieved himself" (131).
Bartley's harshest critics may have forgiven him, but Cather herself disowned Alexander's Bridge as uncongenial, and even her most sympathetic readers agreed. "I could not find in the story the author of strength and latent power I valued in life," her friend Elizabeth Sergeant wrote; "When Bartley's bridge went down, and he with it . . . the death was minor, the great chorus of tragedy failed to sound" (Sergeant 75-76). Cather must have realized, as Bartley Alexander did, "There was nothing to do but pull the whole structure down and begin over again" (122). But if not tragedy, what? The answer lay in the feeling of youth quickening within her character, so closely connected with the nature around Bartley and the country where he grew up. Released from the incompatible form of Alexander's Bridge, it found expression in apparently disparate writing that would come together as O Pioneers! "Soon after [Alexander's Bridge] was published I went for six months to Arizona and New Mexico," Cather later reflected of that period. It was as if she was fulfilling Bartley Alexander's yearning for the Western places of his youth, and in the Southwest she found the balance she needed. "The longer I stayed in a country I really did care about, and among people who were a part of the country, the more unnecessary and superficial a book like Alexander's Bridge seemed to me," she reflected; "I did no writing down there, but I recovered from the conventional editorial point of view" ("My First Novels" 92). After she left the Southwest Cather returned to Nebraska, spending "five weeks in June and July in Red Cloud, where she visited with old neighbors and watched the wheat harvest for the first time in several years" (Stouck 285). While there she wrote a poem about youth that she titled "Prairie Spring"—the life instinct exemplified briefly in Bartley Alexander had found another form. "This is how the wheat country seemed to me . . . when I first came back from the Southwest," she noted on the copy of "Prairie Spring" that she included with a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant. Then (the feeling quickening within herself taking yet another form) in that same letter she wrote that "on the edge of a wheat field she had the idea for another story—she was going to call it 'The White Mulberry Tree'" (Stouck 286). And then—seeing "The White Mulberry Tree" and "Alexandra" together—she realized that she had a two-part pastoral on her hands (Sergeant 86). This time the form for her story was coming from the materials themselves; this time her subject was nature, which she now comprehended as life itself.
"The country insisted on being the Hero and she did not interfere, for the story came out of the long grasses," Cather wrote to Elizabeth Sergeant (qtd. by Sergeant 92), then added that she thought the people—Swedes and Bohemians—were rather interesting, too (to es, 21 October 1912). She opened O Pioneers! with "Prairie Spring," the poem at its genesis that celebrates the vital energy distinguishing organic life from inorganic matter. Its first half describes a lifeless landscape of flat land, miles of soil, empty roads, and "eternal, unresponsive sky." Then—by an explosion of vitality—the second half celebrates the life instinct: Against all this, Youth, Flaming like the wild roses, Singing like the larks over the plowed fields, Flashing like a star out of the twilight . . . Whereas in tragedy an individual is the measure of all things, comedy celebrates instinctual energy and elementary purpose common to all organic life "to maintain the pattern of vitality" (Langer 328).
"Prairie Spring" is Cather's song of youth, and it announces a narrative that, in the manner of Whitman, celebrates the ongoing pattern of life as a stream in which all living forms participate. O Pioneers! is about communal rather than individual history: its episodic structure reflects interconnectedness, and its theme of reiteration expresses continuity. Human stories—like the lark's song—are those of youth repeated over and over for thousands of years, and allusive echoes of pastoral establish that reiteration. As numerous critics have pointed out, Virgil's Ecologues lies behind Alexandra's creation of a garden farm, and the biblical Garden of Eden lies behind Marie and Emil's love and death in an orchard. Yet to focus upon literary allusions is to miss the larger pattern of O Pioneers!, which incorporates human stories into the rhythm of universal life connecting men and women to other life forms. Though Alexandra and Carl will marry, the greening of a new world in O Pioneers! does not concern their generativity (they marry as friends in middle age, presumably to remain childless). Instead, the new world of Cather's comedy has to do with the interconnectedness of all of life by which atoms pass from one life form to another in ongoing, everlasting renewal. "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again, in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth" (274). The final words of the narrative return to the opening poem's celebration of youth in the cyclic manner of comedy.
In Alexander's Bridge Cather had tried her hand at tragedy; in O Pioneers! she "hit the home pasture" with comedy. O Pioneers! is Cather's breakthrough expression of a feeling that was so pure she was already confronting issues of the pastoral as its vehicle. The pastoral's fault line lay in its separation of art from life, most obviously seen in its artificial contrast of rural simplicity versus urban complexity. Cather suggested cracks in that fault line by noting the incongruities of Alexandra's house (where she is more comfortable in the kitchen than in the dining room) and by placing a threshing machine on the cultivated Nebraska landscape and sacrificing Amadee to it (an action anticipating Leo Marx's machine in the garden). She identified the fault line itself, however, when she acknowledged the cloying unreality of the pastoral. Upon seeing the splendor of Alexandra's farm, Carl remarks, "I . . . think I liked the old country better. This is all very splendid in its way, but there was something about this country when it was a wild old beast that has haunted me all these years. Now, when I come back to all this milk and honey, I feel like the old German song, 'Wo bist du, wo bist du, mein geliebtest Land.' Do you ever feel like that, I wonder?" Carl asks (110).
"Where are you, where are you, my beloved country?" Carl's question haunts O Pioneers! as a lament for reality beneath pastoral's milk and honey. Though Cather had celebrated the feeling fundamental to comedy (the pure sense of life) with the literary form classically adapted to that feeling (pastoral), the form had taken her away from life's specificity and complexity, and she must have been still "starving for reality" (Preface viii). Here I draw upon research for the Cather Scholarly Edition, where we've realized that though Cather celebrated Nebraska in O Pioneers!, she didn't do so by the level of engagement with place that would distinguish her subsequent writing. That is, though the actual Divide between the Republican and Little Blue rivers figures (generally) behind the fictional Divide ofOPioneers!, and though most readers (incorrectly) equate Hanover with Red Cloud, I suspect we wouldn't make those connections were we not trained by Cather's later writing to look for specificity of place. Similarly, her characters in O Pioneers! seem to spring directly from myth unleavened by life. Whereas Alexandra is a reincarnation of the corn goddess and Emil and Marie a retelling of Pyramis and Thisbe, there is no comparable lived experience behind these characters, nobody like Annie Sadilek Pavelka behind Ántonia. If, as Joseph Meeker writes, "biology is the study of life itself, and esthetics is the study of the illusions of life created symbolically by man" (127), O Pioneers! calls for questions of aesthetics. That was to change, however.
Deep mapping began with The Song of the Lark (1915), Cather's Kunstleroman, in which she not only grounded but rooted herself in the world. She opened her story in Moonstone, Colorado, a small town so closely based on Red Cloud, Nebraska, that a map drawn from the fiction might guide a visitor through the actual town even today. Importantly for this essay, in writing of nature Cather resembles a biologist who is studying life itself, adopting the manner—as Douglas J. Colglazier has argued—of a field guide. A detailed description of Thea's walk out of town past patches of sunflowers, over a washout and a deep sand gully, and past a grove of cottonwood trees begins with a micro environment of place when Cather describes Moonstone, 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 light-reflecting, 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 well as rats do into granaries, and thieve the water. (37) For her story about youth's awakening to something beautiful, Cather traces Thea's relationship with nature as directly as she traces species of trees along the boardwalk out of town. Thea passes her childhood in a botanist's version of Noah's Ark, the small town of Moonstone, "set out in the sand and lightly shaded by grey-green tamarisks and cottonwoods." She suffers when in Chicago she is cut off from the country, and she is restored to creative vitality by entering into the earth in Panther Canyon. There she awakens to a feeling about nature as an everlasting stream, a feeling that she carries within herself until, when on stage at the Met singing Sieglinde, "that deep-rooted vitality flowered in her voice, her face, in her very finger-tips" (410).
The conception of life as a stream is critical to Thea's development, and Cather structured her novel to give Thea her idea in substance. As she was to reflect in Death Comes for the Archbishop, "There was an element of exaggeration in anything so simple!" (103). She moved Thea deep within the earth to a canyon with a stream at its heart, where she would experience the presymbolic feelings that give rise to all life forms. There "certain feelings were transmitted to her" (272) of yearning and desire, and they are as radical as it is possible to be. That is, they have to do with the impulse that distinguishes organic life from inorganic matter. "Down here at the beginning, that painful thing was already stirring," which is "desire of the dust," Cather writes, then explains that stirring as "the shining, elusive element which is life itself" (275-76, emphasis added). As Thea comprehends, this element—this life spirit—is what all life forms have in common. It animated the ancient women who had once climbed the water-trail as well as the nest-building swallows flying around her and the dwarf cedars giving off an aromatic smell in the sun. This is the life instinct that quickened in Bartley Alexander, then broke into the song of youth in "Prairie Spring" that heralded O Pioneers! In human beings this same life spirit gives rise to art, as Thea realizes in an epiphany while bathing in the stream at the canyon's heart: life is an everlastingly full and continuing stream, art is form given briefly to life, and the artist is a vessel. It is an audaciously direct exposition of a feeling that had long been teasing Cather's mind. That feeling—that conception of life and, therefore, of art—is comedic.
However, the larger form of The Song of the Lark follows the career of a young artist fulfilling her personal destiny, and, as such, it is at odds with any feeling of nature as an ongoing stream of life. The narrative builds toward the diva Kronborg's performance of Sieglinde, the crowning achievement of Thea's trajectory toward success (like a rifle shot, her lover Fred Ottenburg told her), rather akin to hitting a home run. On the one hand, the pure sense of life itself reappears in the description of Thea feeling "like a tree bursting into bloom" (478); on the other, the linearity of its plot driven by the ambition of its hero contradicts that feeling.
Though Cather came to believe she had taken the wrong turn in The Song of the Lark, her full-blooded plot perfectly accommodated her longstanding hunger for reality. Sated, she returned to the pastoral in My Ántonia (1918), this time to make it her own. When Jim Burden (the sensitive aristocrat) escapes from the city (New York) to the country (Nebraska) to restore himself, the pastoral pattern is so transparent that Cather could expect her readers to recognize it as such and thus to recognize her innovations upon it. My Ántonia is an antipastoral pastoral in that Jim's fantasy of escaping to unblemished nature is contradicted by the complexities of Antonia's life and the place she inhabits. My Ántonia is also the pastoral reinvented in that Cather celebrates the comic impulse of rebirth in Ántonia as an Earth Mother while—at the same time—she pays tribute to the complex authenticity of actual people and places with an ongoing life in the real world. In other words, Cather integrated the literary and the biological, the constructed work of art and life itself when in creating her Earth Mother she was faithful to a particular geography and the circumstances of its time. There was an actual girl, Annie Sadilek, who actually lived in a dugout when she was a child, and who eventually married and as Annie Sadilek Pavelka actually had a fruit cave that she actually showed to Willa Cather, and that visitors toWebster County can actually enter today.
As I have argued elsewhere, My Ántonia is America's most fully realized birth myth. In it Cather achieved what she had been struggling toward in O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark—a marriage of form and feeling, art and life. It is not surprising, perhaps, that My Ántonia would be the last time Cather treated regeneration as a given. Having affirmed a living world, Cather began to fear for its survival. When a character says, "It's always been my notion that the land was made for man, just as it's old Dawson's that man was created to work the land" (One of Ours 67), he acts as spokesman for the tragic plots of man against nature that appear in One of Ours (1922) and A Lost Lady (1923). Both involve "the question of property" (One of Ours 80) that arises when the American West, having been charted and settled, falls to the mercy of men like the land-hog Nat Wheeler and the unscrupulous lawyer Ivy Peters. These are the characters who commit acts of indiscriminate violence against nature so powerful they explode throughout the texts, affecting the meaning of everything else. In Nebraska, mutilation takes the form of a cherry tree lying beside its bleeding stump, a blinded woodpecker wildly seeking to regain her perch, and a silvery marsh that, drained, vanishes from the story. And in France, violence against nature assumes the massive scale of war that leaves "long lines of gaunt, dead trees, charred and torn; big holes gashed out in fields and hillsides . . . winding depressions in the earth, bodies of wrecked motor-trucks and automobiles lying along the road, and everywhere endless straggling lines of rusty barbed-wire, that seemed to have been put there by chance,—with no purpose at all" (One of Ours 358).
The pure sense of life fundamental to comedy "is the realization in direct feeling of what sets organic nature apart from inorganic: self-preservation, self-restoration," Langer reflects (327- 28). Seen in both communal and individual biography, the struggle to regain equilibrium when threatened by disruption is a principle common to all life forms, and one articulated by Cather. "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" (Preface, Not Under Forty), she famously reflected of the year that Mussolini formed a Fascist government, the New Ku Klux Klan gained political power in the United States, and T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" was published, along with One of Ours. When the next year she received a Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, disruption became personal. "The struggle to preserve the integrity of her life as an artist, its necessary detachment and freedom, cost her something," Lewis recalled; "But . . . it was self-preservation" (Lewis 136-37). She began writing The Professor's House, the "most personal" of all Cather's novels, according to Lewis. Lewis was not referring to autobiographical details, of course, but rather to the novel's concern with self-preservation and self-restoration. Maintaining "the pattern of vitality . . . is the most elementary in stinctual purpose" of life, and when it is disturbed, an organism seeks to regain equilibrium in order to maintain that biological pattern, Langer writes (328; see Meeker 39). She is describing the fundamental rhythm of comedy, but she could have been describing The Professor's House.
For her exploration of feelings about living and dying, Cather tried "two experiments in form" ("On The Professor's House" 30). One involved inserting a story into a novel, the second came from Dutch paintings of an interior with a square window opening onto the sea, and—the important point—both concerned how form influences feeling. To translate these forms into her narrative, Cather wrote her novel as three books, each of which presents a distinctive structure and language; together, they trace the relation between the forms humans construct (building houses and writing books) and the feelings they experience. Book 1, "The Family," in its single-minded preoccupation with house building and decorating, is a postmodern experience of being out of place (outland), confined within overcrowded interiors, until—feeling stifled—St. Peter responds by recalling his former student, Tom Outland. Book 2, "TomOutland's Story," is the narrative equivalent of an open window with its uncluttered, spare account of "carving out place" (as Glen Love has written) on the Blue Mesa. And finally, at the novel's core, book 3, "The Professor," is St. Peter's meditation upon the earth itself as the resting place—the home—of the life force expressing itself in the everlasting pattern of renewal. "He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him. He was not nearly so cultivated as Tom's old cliff-dwellers must have been—and yet he was terribly wise. He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never been married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth" (241).
The comic rhythm is the loss and recovery of equilibrium, which is the life rhythm shared by all living things. When an organism has been disturbed, it seeks to regain the vitality of dynamic form by overcoming or removing obstacles, by slight variations, or by opportunistic adaptations (see Langer 327-28). That is precisely the rhythm of The Professor's House, which is narrative seeking equilibrium. The narrative's opening line ("the moving was over and done") establishes disruption as the premise to which the following three books respond with its organismcum- character, Godfrey St. Peter, and as important, with the opportunistic adaptations of its radical narrative shifts. Through these adaptations the narrative retrieves the vitality of first principles by moving Godfrey St. Peter from a family narrative of individual personalities (book 1), to recover an ideal narrative of adaptation to place (book 2), and—finally—to retrieve the instinct to survive that is fundamental to all life forms (book 3).
Whereas The Professor's House was an experiment in form, Cather's next novel was an experiment in feeling. "How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, . . . all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre . . . leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and small" (42-43), she had written in "The Novel Démeublé," and My Mortal Enemy tested her idea in substance. Its opening pages recall the night when its heroine, Myra Driscoll, walked out the front door of her uncle's house with only the clothes she was wearing, though her friends threw some articles out a back window in an ironic reenactment of throwing furniture out the window. The story that follows presents "the play of emotions, great and small" as Myra Henshawe steps out of her role as the heroine of a love story and realizes that she is a victim of feeling.
The important point for any ecocritical reading is how radically Cather strips the world away in this most severe rendering of the novel démueblé. Separation from place appears in multiple forms of dispossession: in disinheriting her, Myra's uncle severs her from the place of her childhood, a stone mansion in a ten-acre park; in falling upon increasingly hard times, her marriage takes her to the placelessness of a New York apartment, then to rented rooms in an unnamed sprawling western city; and in telling her story, her author casts her upon a bare stage.
The bare stage provides a structural principle in that My Mortal Enemy resembles drama being performed rather than fiction being read. Its putative narrator, young Nellie Birdseye, isn't so much a teller of a story as the spectator of scenes that unfurnish the stage and narrow the focus, until, as if lit by a single spotlight on a bare stage, there is only the empty bed from which Myra has fled. It is here—with Myra vanished from her own play— that we confront how severely Cather has eliminated the world from her story. Look for nature and one finds only remnants and artifacts—topaz mounted in sleeve buttons, sprays of white hyacinth ornamenting a coat, opals flashing in a bracelet, and plum curtains lined with the cream-color lying beneath the blue skin of ripe figs. Windows, when they appear, are frames for curtains or backdrops for characters posed before them rather than openings onto the world.
Its central character gone, this performance is over, it would seem. But of course that is not how My Mortal Enemy ends. Nellie remains. I imagine her as disembodied voice speaking to the darkened theatre, reflecting that "[a] yearning strong enough to lift that ailing body and drag it out into the world again should have its way" (99). As Tom Outland's story lets in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, so Nellie's description of Myra meeting death on a bare headland lets in the fresh air that blows off the ocean. "That is always such a forgiving time," Myra says about seeing dawn from that place: "When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it's as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution" (73). Lest we fail to recognize the basic biological (rather than specifically religious) pattern in Myra's death, Cather distinguishes between forms of absolution in a coda. Though Myra had returned to the Church, she didn't change her will requesting "that her body should be cremated and her ashes buried 'in some lonely and unfrequented place in the mountains, or in the sea'" (102), and Cather ends the book with Nellie's voice recalling sometimes hearing Myra's "strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: 'Why must I die like this, alone with My Mortal Enemy!'" (102-03). It is the soul without disguise giving voice to insight into the essence of things. Freed from misdirected love, the life force that had gathered strength in Bartley Alexander and burst into voice in "Prairie Spring" remains strong, the life force by which the death of an individual is "a phase of the life pattern itself" (Langer 329).
When Nellie reflects, "A yearning strong enough to lift that ailing body and drag it out into the world again should have its way" (99), we may recall other easeful deaths in Cather's fiction where characters relinquish individual identity and rejoin the ongoing process of nature. The country receives Alexandra Bergson's heart to give it forth again in new life, the imprisoned spirit of Bishop Latour is released into the desert air, and Anton Rosicky returns in death to the open country he had always longed for. As Jim Burden realized in his grandmother's garden, "that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great" (My Ántonia 18). It is the quotation on the headstone marking Cather's grave.
Whereas Cather recorded the tension between feeling and form in The Professor's House and My Mortal Enemy, she celebrated their union in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather returned to the Southwest, this time not as preparation for writing about Nebraska but instead to write about the feeling of that desert country. Indeed, her account of writing the Archbishop is all about feeling. She found in the Southwest mission churches "a direct expression of some very real and lively human feeling" ("On Death" 5) and in Father Machebeuf's letters "the mood, the spirit in which they [the two priests Fathers Machebeuf and Lamy] accepted the accidents and hardships of a desert country, the joyful energy that kept them going" (10). She turned to legend as the form for this feeling because "In this kind of writing the mood is the thing—all the little figures and stories are mere improvisations that come out of it" (10). She did not start writing "until the feeling of it had so teased me that I could not get on with other things" (10). And so on.
The picaresque provided a form perfectly adapted to the feeling of joyful energy.With its loosely connected episodes, realistic details, and sequential (rather than consequential) action, Death Comes for the Archbishop is Cather's most fully realized comedy in the sense that Joseph Meeker uses for The Comedy of Survival: "[I]t is an image of human adaptation to the world and acceptance of its given conditions without escape, rebellion, or egotistic insistence upon human centrality" (182). Cather's narrative has the structural diversity of the picaresque in representing life as it occurs, the ease of language that is the antithesis of tragedy's elevated style, and—most fundamentally—a cosmic vision by which all things are related.
Though a narrative without accent would scarcely have a climax,
Cather included a meditative core—a heart, as it were—for
Death Comes for the Archbishop. By contrasting two manners
of relating to nature, it presents her most explicit statement of
When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered
them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate
every trace of their temporary occupation. . . . [J]ust as
it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape,
to change it, make it over a little (at least some mark
or memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass
through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and
leave no trace, like fish through water, or birds through the
It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape,
not to stand out against it. . . . They seemed to have none
of the European's desire to "master" nature, to arrange and
re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction;
in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they
found themselves. This was . . . from an inherited caution
and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and
they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or
as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to
antagonize and arouse. . . . They ravaged neither the rivers
nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water
as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore
they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve
it, they never desecrated it. (246-47)
When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. . . . [J]ust as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least some mark or memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through water, or birds through the air.
It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. . . . They seemed to have none of the European's desire to "master" nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was . . . from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse. . . . They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it. (246-47)The word desecrate, toward which the passage builds, makes explicit the sacred relation of human inhabitant to nature fundamental to the mood throughout the narrative. Cather contrasts two manners of relating to the world: mastering nature versus vanishing into it and leaving no trace. Nowhere is this distinction more evident than in the Archbishop's decision to spend his closing years in New Mexico because of a quality of air. The aging Father Latour "always awoke a young man" in New Mexico, where "his first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows" (287), "on the bright edges of the world" (288).
Critics customarily have treated Death Comes for the Archbishop as the other side of a divide, with the increasingly dark novels beginning with One of Ours on one side and the sunny Archbishop on the other. But in terms of issues Cather was addressing about the relation of feeling to form, The Professor's House, My Mortal Enemy, and the Archbishop belong together. Appearing in three consecutive years (1925, 1926, 1927), they are the astonishing output from a single sustained burst of creative energy, the most intense and productive period of Cather's life. Together they explore the fundamental relation of human to the world. The three novels are three iterations of an overall movement from ego to eco—the terms of today are precisely appropriate. By "letting go of the Ego," Godfrey St Peter regains "the ground beneath his feet"; after serving penance for the egoistic idolatries of her youth, Myra Henshawe dies overlooking the ocean; and Bishop Latour's decision to die in the Southwest reflects his understanding that life was "an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself" (304). It was a conviction apart from his religious life, Cather explains, "an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature" (304, emphasis added).
This movement toward an eikos (the Greek word for "habitation") of ecology involved questions about forms of consciousness. The House of Fiction has many rooms, Henry James had written. I imagine that Cather might have muttered "of course," then retorted that the important point concerned the relation of the House of Fiction to Life. As if replying to James, Cather maps the movement from ego to eikos by the various habitations that appear on the pages of The Professor's House, My Mortal Enemy, and the Archbishop: an empty three-story frame house with narrow stairs leading to an attic study, a new house featuring a bath room, a Norwegian manor house being built on the shores of Lake Michigan, a New York apartment and boardinghouse rooms somewhere in a sprawling West Coast city, a sleeping cliff city nestled in a Southwestern canyon, one solitary hogan through which desert winds blow and another where "one seemed to be sitting in the heart of a world made of dusty earth and moving air" (Archbishop 242)—and the earth itself, which is our final home. The movement from ego to eikos appears in each of the three novels individually and also—more expansively—in the novels read together. That is, by 1927 the stifling interiors opening The Professor's House have given way to the cosmic view of Death Comes for the Archbishop, where "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!" (245).
Cather extended her vacation from life by writing the novel most distant to her in time and place. Shadows on the Rock (1931) concerned "the curious endurance of a kind of culture," she wrote, describing its principle of equilibrium in a system. Cather further described her book as about "a feeling about life," and she drew upon biology to explain its aesthetics. She compared the Quebec community to a colony of ants that—when their colony is kicked in—rebuilds, and she likened the ships returning each year to sea birds returning every year to "certain naked islands . . . mere ledges of rock standing up a little out of the sea, where the sea birds came every year to lay their eggs and rear their young in the caves and hollows" (225).
Writing Shadows established the equilibrium Cather needed to return to the places of her youth and the early memories they held. Obscure Destinies (1932), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) continued the cyclic pattern that Cather announced in O Pioneers! and maintained throughout her literary life. The three stories of Obscure Destinies provide widening perspectives of the little rural neighborhood in Nebraska she had written of so often, this time reiterating themes in the language of the country itself. "Neighbour Rosicky" is the pastoral revisited, but with neither the fantasy of O Pioneers! nor the escapism of My Ántonia. Rather than an Amazonian pioneer cultivating a mighty farm or an Earth Mother generating a New World, the Rosickys are ordinary farmers facing a drought. "The pastoral landscape does not permit thistles," Meeker comments (90); yet Russian thistles are invading the Rosickys' fields. Continuities take similarly ordinary forms of life as it is lived: Rosicky suffers a heart attack, learns that his son and daughter-in-law will remain on the land, and that she is with child. A coda presents his death within the continuity of the family and the everlasting pattern of nature when Doctor Burleigh pauses beside the graveyard where Neighbor Rosicky is buried, and reflects "[e]verything here seemed strangely moving and significant, though signifying what, he did not know" (60). The implicit question—what does this place signify?—prepares for the description of the graveyard where the life spirit of nature expresses itself in the simple acts of Rosicky's son cutting hay, moonlight silvering the grass, neighbors passing, horses working in summer, and cattle eating fodder as winter approaches. Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do with work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last. Rosicky's life seemed to him complete and beautiful. (61)
Whereas "Neighbour Rosicky" affirms the pattern of renewal of life in nature, "Old Mrs. Harris" concerns the specifically human feeling of this pattern. Cather drew again upon memories of her childhood in Red Cloud to write a technical tour de force in that multiple points of view coexist as individuals and— simultaneously—as a family and a community. Vickie Templeton prepares to leave her family to attend the university,Victoria Templeton learns she is again pregnant, Grandmother Harris dies, and Victoria and Vickie will go on to "come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers" (156-57). Each character is a stage of life endlessly repeating itself; simultaneously, each is intensely individual and particular. Whereas Cather had celebrated the life force of youth in "Prairie Spring," the poem with which she began O Pioneers! so many years ago, she now acknowledges the feeling of a whole life fully lived: Victoria and Vickie "will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: 'I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know'" (157).
For "Two Friends," Cather drew again upon the Red Cloud of her childhood, this time with the cosmic consciousness of the Archbishop. This simple story of a friendship that was senselessly broken contains at its heart a description of an event followed by a meditation on place. The description is of an occultation of Venus, or two planets in their rotation; the meditation is upon a dusty road in a Nebraska village, a precise spot of this planet drinking up the light from another planet: The road, just in front of the sidewalk where I sat and played jacks, would be ankle-deep in dust, and seemed to drink up the moonlight like folds of velvet. It drank up sound, too; muffled the wagon-wheels and hoof-beats; lay soft and meek like the last residuum of material things,—the soft bottom resting place. Nothing in the world, not snow mountains or blue seas, is so beautiful in moonlight as the soft, dry summer roads in a farming country, roads where the white dust falls back from the slow wagon-wheel. (176) As did The Professor's House, so "Two Friends" addresses the loss of equilibrium. "Things were out of true, the equilibrium was gone," Cather writes about the rupture in the friendship of men who, "when they used to sit in their old places on the sidewalk, . . . seemed like two bodies held steady by some law of balance, an unconscious relation like that between the earth and the moon" (188).
A large perspective of the world's smallness had been fundamental to Cather's writing from the time of O Pioneers!, with its opening description of the little town of Hanover perched on a windy tableland, trying not to be blown away. Nowhere, however, does she present relationship more forcefully than in Obscure Destinies, where the stories concern the relation of a family to the seasons of nature, of individuals to generations of a family, and of this world to rotations of the planets. The pattern of connection is aesthetic as well as biological: the stories Cather included in Obscure Destinies reiterate the patterns of her oeuvre with exceptional directness and clarity. In "Neighbour Rosicky" Cather recalls My Ántonia by returning to the family of Annie Sadelik Pavelka for her models, and in "Old Mrs. Harris" she recalls The Song of the Lark by returning to her own family. In a like manner, scenes ask to be read alongside one another. For example, Doctor Burleigh's reflection on the graveyard where Rosicky was buried echoes Jim Burden's reflection in his grandmother's garden: each describes the happiness of becoming part of nature, yet the phrase "complete and great" (My Ántonia 18) has modulated into "complete and beautiful" ("Neighbour Rosicky" 61).
Sapphira and the Slave Girl completes the return. Set inside the rural Back Creek community of Cather's birthplace in Virginia, it testifies to continuity in the most personal and direct of terms. Whereas in writing O Pioneers! Cather had imagined herself forging a new path in art, she concluded her last novel with an epilogue in which she recalled herself as a child for whom life lay ahead, unexpected and various. The genetic instructions and the historical forces for the works to follow are stored within the moment, as the oak is stored within the acorn. Her family would emigrate to Nebraska, taking her with them; there she would meet a hired girl, see her cousin struggle to find his way, and enjoy picnics in a neighbor's grove, and from these experiences My Ántonia, One of Ours, and A Lost Lady would spring. It is a profoundly comic perspective according to which the world seems neither pastoral nor tragic, but picaresque.
Cather's Virginia novel proved to be the final book published in her life, and it is fitting that with it she drew upon the earliest memories of her family. One recalls the recurring image in Cather's stories of a road becoming a circle: what youth sees as an intensely individual career, age understands is "the road of Destiny" circling back and repeating itself (My Ántonia 360). Represented by that circle are the themes of comedy—the ongoing rhythm of the life spirit in birth, growth, and death, as well as the comic rhythm of disruption and recovery of equilibrium. They provide the themes of Cather's stories that, when read together, give form to a whole life completely lived. They account for their mood as well. As Cather reflected in the conclusion of "Old Mrs. Harris," these are the great concerns that startle us out of our intense self-absorption, for acknowledging that we are subject to natural laws engenders humility before the processes of life on this earth.
I am grateful to Josh Dolezal, Kyoko Matsunaga, and Mark Robison for reading and commenting on this essay.