"There are many ways of handling environment—most of them bad,"Willa Cather declared in her 1899 review of Frank Norris (Stories 922). Yet when used correctly, she added, environmental description can be "a positive and active force, stimulating the reader's imagination, giving him an actual command, a realizing sense of this world into which he is suddenly transplanted" (922). A quarter-century later, when Cather realized four versions of this world as she scrutinized four modes of knowing, she produced a tetralogy designed around environments. Her four works cohered like the four autonomous movements of Dvorák's American quartet—its rhythms half American, half European. To achieve a wide relevance, she focused on gender.
Starting with The Professor's House, Cather used environmental keys to denote every important thematic or characterizing element in her four varied worlds. And because Ralph Waldo Emerson had authoritatively described nature on this continent, as well as because she loved him, she played with and against riffs of Emersonian music throughout. What she sought was enduring definitions. First she trenchantly critiqued the abstracting, objectifying, linear-thinking, phallocentric culture of the West in The Professor's House; then she flayed the feeling-wracked narcissism and gynocentric projections of My Mortal Enemy. Having settled the hash of both sexes, as well as their stereotypical ways of knowing the world, she turned to affirm myth-shaping and institution-building church fathers in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Then having accomplished in secular 1927 this astonish- ing tour de force, she faced her most daunting challenge: how to depict a dominantly feminine culture or lifestyle positively— in the absence of convincing historical models. I believe she had already begun to outline the story she alternately titled "Three Women" when, in 1928, she first spotted Quebec and realized that in it she could successfully represent a matrifocal moment in time. But when she finished the Quebec novel Shadows on the Rock, she immediately returned to her gestating story and therein produced an alternate ending for a gendered quartet.
Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter, holding the keys to the kingdoms of patriarchal, linear-thinking Western cultures in his hands, name, and character, has lived much of his productive life as the embodiment of Emerson's "American Scholar"—man thinking (65). He has built therefore his own world, as Emerson charged him to do at the end of Nature (Selections 56). He has done so by reordering history to emphasize Spanish Adventurers in North America, men "free and brave," full of Emersonian selftrust in which "all the virtues are comprehended" (74). Beyond embodying the Canadian and American ancestral bloodlines of continental forefathers, Godfrey has made Spanish adventurers his life's work. He therefore covers the whole continent, French top to Spanish bottom. He has concomitantly headed European History at his university (Professor's House 56). Thus he serves as purveyor of transatlantic Western thought-styles. He has accomplished his professional work through conscious design—a word sacred to Emerson. The fun of that effort—moving like Aristotle from beginning through middle to end—has produced an Emersonian delight. This delight, appropriately for an Emerson man, encompasses Neoplatonic abstract ideas and forms. He is, in short, the best of the West, the male who has fulfilled every Emersonian injunction and embodied every productive impulse of Western culture. The problem in the novel, in the Professor, and in Western cultures, however, is laid out clearly in the first sentence: "The moving was over and done." St. Peter got along very well as long as his control, his design, and therefore his delight, lasted—that is, as long as he kept on moving. But now he's finished.
In spite of his "powerful reaching arms" (71), St. Peter has no place to go but within. He is tired of his family, none of whom he understands; he has no intimate friends left in his university; he can see that "Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course)" (69), but he has no access to either high art or deep religion. He is thus reduced to acedia, depression—that sinful condition theologians equate with spiritual sloth. St. Peter's one inventive protégé is dead, having left as legacy a way for making war, creating carnage. By choice, St. Peter now occupies himself in staring fixedly at the "seven shaggy pine trees" (70) on his triangular beach. His action echoes Emerson's poem "Brahma," which ends, The strong gods pine for my abode, And pine in vain the sacred seven; But thou, meek lover of the good! Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. (Selections 451) As the novel ends, St. Peter may be outward bound (281) with Augusta, who is like the taste of bitter herbs (280), but he is bound for a world beyond delight (282). His control of his backyard French garden he is delighted to have gotten the upper hand of after twenty years (15) is no longer enough for him. Even his delightful youth seems little more than a poignant memory.
For other consequences of delightful desire, of "hanging on with the heart," Cather turned her attention to St. Peter's opposite, Myra Henshawe. With My Mortal Enemy, she catapults us from a world of abstracted thought into a world of narcissistic feeling. The first sentence features four I's, soon to be engaged with other eyes seen in mirrors. The last phrase mentions a mortal enemy the identity of which is still undifferentiated because in this story "others" are projections of the female ego, the self-centered vision. These brilliant renderings remind us of Emerson's insistent I/eye/aye puns, in which one's self, one's sight, and one's acceptances blend as one thing, or emerge from one spirit. It doesn't matter who Myra thinks her mortal enemy is, or who Nellie thinks Myra thinks her enemy is, since all are swallowed into, and spring from, the all-encircling female ego, which exists by feeling: I feel, therefore I am. Nellie measures Myra by her own height, age, manner, and responses to Nellie: "By the time her husband came in I had begun to think she was going to like me. I wanted her to" (7); Oswald, similarly, "had a pleasant way of giving his whole attention to a young person" (9-10).We know both Henshawes by how they make Nellie feel. And that's the key to the novel, for the two females are variations on the same theme: women who think by feeling where they want to go.
The environments of My Mortal Enemy reveal the perceptual distortions that filter through feelings. While she ferries from the "Jersey City station," for example, Nellie strains so eagerly to see the city through blurring snow that she misses at her right that female who holds up the powerful light—the Statue of Liberty. Soon, however, she can spot the more ephemeral and sexy lass, St. Gaudens's golden Diana, stepping out "freely and fearlessly onto the grey air" (25). Half-blind or moonstruck, Nellie never asks about the difference between free stepping-out and real liberty. So Nellie, thoroughly delighted with her tourist site, sees Madison Square as setting for a dancing party into which winter is led like a tamed polar bear on a leash, held by a beautiful lady (25). Anyone who has survived a winter in Manhattan will gasp here. Even in Manhattan, nature cannot be leashed, manipulated or constrained so genteelly. In her pleasure to be out of Parthia, Nellie sees in Myra's apartments only plum-colored curtains and soup tureen painted with birds and flowers, charmingly artificial reminders of natural things.
When they take a hansom cab around Central Park to enjoy a fine sunset and the changing light on the snow, Myra sees only a wealthier acquaintance in her own carriage, while Nellie sees only Myra. Both miss the natural light they say they are there for (40). Myra's nature is unnaturally extravagant—like her florist's holly that "naturally" belongs to Modjeska on Christmas Eve (30), or the violets one can buy in the New York snow (25). And when Nellie reassures us that Myra has lived to see the dawn (101), she fails to acknowledge that Myra is looking the wrong way—toward the sea in the West. Both seem to have missed the real light for the third time. At the end, Myra dies estranged from church, spouse, friend, even nature, as well as from the healing she longs for. Her feelings can't get her where she wants to go. Her head would have graced "the wickedest of the Roman emperors" (63), but she, living marginalized, has lived inauthentically, miscast. In her last days, she seems to be searching for the other half of herself—her reasoning brain; but her only trails wind through memorized lines. Even the comforting possibility she pronounces as a recognized principle—"in religion seeking is finding" (94)—is merely what she feels ought to be true. The fact is left undemonstrated. Myra never lets go of desire, as the Professor is forced to do.
When Lydia says that Myra is often "unreasonable . . . —most unreasonable!" with Oswald (35), she underscores the fact that Myra's brains, her reason, don't control her feelings. They certainly don't prevent her brainlessly doing the romantic thing and leaving behind her uncle's fortune to marry Oswald. Retaliating, John Driscoll wills his money to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart: to women committed to feelings he endorses.
"The eye is the first circle," Emerson began his essay "Circles." In My Mortal Enemy, all movement circles back to that eye and I, which circumscribes everything with one story—the only interesting story in town (3). But once the heroic female stages "Eve of St. Agnes" and rushes out with her lover into the storm, the story is over. "Our age is retrospective," Emerson declared in his first published sentence. Looking backward to one heroic moment is a Parthian maneuver, what one should expect from natives of Parthia, Illinois. The Parthians perfected the Parthian shot, in which they feigned retreat before turning to shoot down their mortal enemies.
Death Comes for the Archbishop reverses The Professor's House in almost every way, but none more charmingly than in its emphasis on la tour, the tower as "the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something," as we read in "Tom Outland's Story" (Professor's House 201). Latour, of course, holds together occupied houses and a living church in Death Comes for the Archbishop, not just sculptured ruins. He holds them by his political skill, administrative tact, tenacious perseverance, and clearheaded commitment to a higher good than his own life. Archbishop Latour is gentle, full of courtesy toward himself and others.
What is most remarkable about this almost infinitely complex masterpiece, however, is the thematic uses to which Cather puts various environments. As the first chapter abruptly begins, for example, we are catapulted into the most malevolently predatory female landscape I know about in fiction. We register that if Cather can create an actively fertile, heaving female plain in O Pioneers!, or an awesomely yonic Panther Canyon in The Song of the Lark, she can render with equal power in Death Comes for the Archbishop a ravenous female desert, which represents that force utterly alien to our Christian father. Here the confused and disoriented Latour, his mind wandering and unable to focus, is surrounded by fissures and triangles and hills like Mexican ovens—breasts and buttocks. The earth has for Latour a "peculiar horror," for the "very floor of the world is cracked open," as Father Ferrand warned it would be (7). Succubus-like, that country tries to "drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain" (10). Only when Latour spots the male icon of the cruciform tree—a natural form fitting his chosen vision—can he surrender his consciousness to the suffering of his Lord, pray, recover, and escape the devouring female.
Latour's fear of the female is activated again in that snake cave, which saves him from freezing but also nauseates and offends him. DeborahWilliams beautifully explains: "There is something primitive about the cave: the strong, devouring femaleness of the cavities and orifices directly contrasts with the icons of 'dolorous Virgins' above ground" (4: 85). That the snake cave is also a goddess cave, sacred to the Earth Mother to whom snakes are in turn sacred, at least explains Latour's aversion to this "relationship that implies connection, a connection that makes Latour uncomfortable because it asks him to acknowledge beliefs other than his own" (Williams 4: 80). Indeed, as Williams explains, "This powerful force resides in the cave below the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which adds to the sense that its sacredness antedates the blood of Christ under which it hides. The 'pagan' lies under the Christian surface implying the presence of an earth goddess whom Latour senses but cannot name" (4: 85). For Father Vaillant, a Mexican cave can render up hidden vestments and sacramental objects. For Latour, however, the cave remains inexplicably abhorrent. Obviously, he's intuitive as well as a man of ordering reason; that is, he has the strong points of both Professor St. Peter and Myra Henshawe.
Given Latour's distress when confronting older suggestions of female divinities than are dreamt of in his philosophy, we must explain why so many female readers regard him with marked affection. My own admiration has a lot to do with the orchestrated Emersonian sound track running beneath this text, much of it taken from Emerson's very great essay "The Poet." From the first chapter Cather places within her lethal female landscape a heroic male whose outlines we already know from far back: "As the traveller who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse's neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world" (Selections 233), Emerson sings, simultaneously describing Archbishop Latour's salvation in the desert and also defining Latour as a divine animal containing that of god within. When Latour kneels before the cruciform tree, Emerson explains, "The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body" (Selections 234). The Emersonian poet, in fact, can be found "resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms" (Selections 233), and is capable of new energy "by abandonment to the nature of things" (233). Saved at Agua Secreta, Latour ponders the mixed theology the spring suggests to him and Emerson intones, "No wonder, then, if these waters be so deep, that we hover over them with a religious regard" (Selections 228). My point is that the Emersonian echoes describing poets, who are thus liberating gods ("The Poet" in Selections 235), can manipulate my responses to Latour. I therefore accept as fitting the fact that in his last days, "he sat in the middle of his own consciousness" (290)—like a god—and thus dies happy.
As Latour recoils from assertive femaleness, so Cécile and the women of Quebec are repelled by the assaultive masculine wilderness. Henry David Thoreau may bellow vigorously that he loves the wild not less than the good, but Quebec women don't share that point of view. And Pierre Charron agrees with them, saying, "Very well; religion for the fireside, freedom for the woods" (Shadows 175). In fact, in both Cather's affirmative books, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, these alien environments are in reality dangerous. So nowhere in this quartet do dominant figures relax placidly in natural spots. All are happiest with the artificial—arranged, artistic, and civilized—where alien nature is under control.
But why call Quebec in 1697 matrifocal? Because its most successful figures are mothers, or mothers-to-be, like Cécile. The males, though usually concerned about the town's daughters, are weak-willed as is Euclide Auclair, broken as is Antoine Frichette, guilt-wracked as is Blinker, extravagant and lawless as is Pierre Charron, pointlessly self-torturing as are Father Hector and Noël Chabannel, destructively willful and competitive as are the two bishops, imprudently audacious as LaSalle or disloyal as are his men, or dying as is Governor Frontenac. A bad father lets his little daughter be torn apart by carp.
This town is built around mothers. Its most central mother is Holy Mother Mary and its favorite church—Notre Dame de la Victoire—celebrates her military prowess and political intervention. Her church on the lower-town square features Mary at the central altar holding the baby Jesus, as it also honors Ste. Anne, who mothers Mary, as well as Ste. Genevieve, who once saved Paris and who appears here twice. Holy Family Hill is named for Mary's domestic kingdom.
Beyond the holy mother are the reverend mothers and nuns who heal themselves and others at the hospital, as Mother Juschereau does, while telling their eager young friends heroic stories of other nuns and mothers. The triumphant adventurers in this novel are these mothers who get wherever they want to go, against all paternal opposition, and occasionally with the aid of a Queen Mother (41). In fact, though Willa Cather's touchstone adventure story is the Aeneid, in which Aeneas carries his father from burning Troy on his back, here in Quebec Cobbler Pommier carries his mother on his back when she needs to visit or go somewhere on Holy Family Hill.
Besides healing the sick, organizing charitable activities such as educating girls, making flowers for country altars, and carrying their country and families with them in their minds, these mothers stay within their wilderness-excluding fortress and stay cheerful. "They were still in their accustomed place in the world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world), and they had the same well-ordered universe about them" (97). Maintaining that vision is their contribution to life on this rock where winter is "the deepest reality of Canadian life" (98).
The biological mothers within this artificial environment also preserve this way, their way, of life. Cécile's mother gives her the pots and pans with which one makes a life, then teaches her how and when to use them (25). Their proper use is her sacred trust. No wonder, as the action begins, that Cécile is not interested in hearing her father's fresh news from Montreal, that masculine world down the river: she's concerned about her dinner roast, as she should be. Serving that dinner is the daily, culture-preserving performance that keeps her father "a civilized man and a Frenchman" (17).
There are bad mothers, of course—several of special interest. La Grenouille, mother of Jacques, is negligent and worthless. Madame Harnois leaves dirty sheets on her beds, lets her children go unwashed while they prattle of barnyard habits, and breaks the laws of hospitality. Even sainted Mother Catherine de Saint- Augustin fails to pray for Marie, the sinful pécheresse, until years after Marie's death. But the most interesting failure is Jeanne le Ber's, who refuses motherhood (177), breaks her father's heart, rejects her dying mother's last wish, and thereafter isolates herself completely. She experiences her cell as her paradise (136), however, and her "mode of knowing" allows her to receive grace and realize a heaven Myra never does. The male martyrs, conversely, even when bolstered by their vows of perpetual stability, live in hell (150-54). La Recluse summons angels to her aid and brings a miracle to Canada (128). Thus these women, good mothers or bad, transform the humdrum in ways that seem miraculous.
It is therefore no surprise, when we read of the wonderful Christmas Eve mass that brings all the town inside the glowing doors of the mother church (113), that we catch an echo of Emerson: "Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; . . . it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand" ("Divinity School Address" in Selections 104). The intuitions here occur to gregarious and caring women like Cécile and Madame Pommier and Madame Pigeon, who know where to go on Christmas Eve and how to gather together inside the feminine doors of the cathedral. Quebec's opposite male summons to worship is furnished every iron-cold morning by Old Bishop Laval, who routs his reluctant flock out of bed and coerces them into early mass "because his will was stronger than theirs" (74).
It's Emerson who seems to me to provide the best source for the title of Cather's Quebec novel. In "Circles," he says, "We learn that God is; that he is in me; that all things are shadows of him" (Selections 172). By the end of Shadows on the Rock Cather has brought off yet another tour de force. Even she seems to have been a bit incredulous, however, when she writes Governor Cross, "There, among the country people and the nuns, I caught something new to me; a kind of feeling about life and human fate that I could not accept, wholly, but which I could not but admire" (Stories 966). What she caught and then caught on paper was the way mothers could make a good life, even on a hostile rock. Cather's uncertainty about her own accomplishment is the best explanation for why she turned immediately to "Old Mrs. Harris," in time to have it ready for publication within the year. And that great story shows every sign of a long-previous conception, for it is not only built around triangles, as are all the books in this quartet, but is also only a few pages longer than My Mortal Enemy, which it inverts in as many ways as Death Comes for the Archbishop inverts The Professor's House.
The central triangle, as well as the three women she indicated in her magazine title, are the three generations of the Templeton family. Old Mrs. Harris, Victoria, and Vicky also represent the triune faces of the Earth Goddess—maiden, mother, and crone. This masterful story becomes historically as well as artistically important, however, because it provides the first instance incorporating the Great Goddess—in three equal parts—into this country's fiction. Susan J. Rosowski, for example, has demonstrated compellingly in Birthing a Nation that Ántonia suggests by 1918 the Earth Mother (81), the female force now often called the Great Goddess, who can be found in Native American emergence myths as well as in the artifacts unearthed in central Europe. Ántonia certainly stands as a "founder of races" (My Ántonia 342), whose children erupt dizzyingly from her well-stocked fruit cave (328). As Rosowski cogently points out, however, Ántonia disappears even from the text entitled My Ántonia, after Jim turns to Lena Lingard for sexual instruction. From Ántonia's perspective, "there is no I here" (Rosowski 83). That is, Cather leaves Ántonia to find a legitimate husband and produce her happy houseful of children offstage, out of sight. She brings her back only as a grizzled crone in the we of her family. In Victoria of "Old Mrs. Harris," conversely, Cather left an emphatic I at stage center, spotlighted.
The differences between Cather's eyes-averted treatment of Ántonia during her sexually powerful, baby-producing period, and Cather's treatment of Victoria in "Old Mrs. Harris," is significant not only because the story "realizes" the female life force differently, but also because it closely follows Emerson to do so. In Emerson's "Experience," "the art of life has a pudency" (266). Emerson's nature in this later essay is no longer the "beautiful mother" (see Nature in Selections 48) adored by her infantine child who is happily "embosomed for a season in nature whose floods of life stream around and through" him (Nature 20). Instead, Emerson's maturer nature is wilder, freer, tangier, more transgressive and unpredictable: Nature, as we know her, is no saint. . . . She comes eating and drinking and sinning. Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law; do not come out of the Sunday School, nor . . . punctually keep the commandments. If we will be strong with her strength we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences . . .We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come. (263) Maiden, mother, and crone in Cather's later story are avatars of this redefined, if still divine, life force. Cather finds not only a plausible way to set believable evocations of these strongly pre- Christian forms in the American Midwest, but also to create an unprecedented fiction depicting an American child-loving and domestically effective mother who is also actively and magnetically sexual in the "strong present tense" of the text. The story presents approvingly this mother's sexual power exerted over neighbors and townsmen as well as spouse and also insists that her house full of children is proud of her for having it (105).
Finally, "Old Mrs. Harris" is the first American story I know of to reject the still-active platitude that mothers should be self-sacrificing and should put their children first. That's the way to rear selfish children, Mr. Rosen murmurs (85). Emerson, in "Experience," comments, "Everything runs to excess; every good quality is noxious if unmixed . . ." (Selections 264). The three generations of Templeton women, whose "lot will be more or less" alike (190), provide in their three very different faces the healthy mix of generous and selfish motives characterizing a female principle, the natural mix reminding us of Emerson's wry admission in "Experience" that "Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive" (Selections 265).
To use an Emersonian phrase, in this story "All things swim and glitter" evanescently (see "Experience" in Selections 255). Vickie, who normally has a happy disposition (91), when severely disappointed "turned her face to the wall" (135), like Jeanne le Ber, though heretofore she has loved rocking in a hammock because it was "not on the earth, yet of it" (129). She gets what she wants through an old-lady network. The life-defining romance she cares about is education, not mating (125). And college will fulfill her dreams because she has no practical goals—she just wants it (131).
Conversely, Grandma Harris, who is willing to play kitchen cat to Victoria's parlor cat (112), holds up a head like an "old lion's" (76), reminding us of the lionlike female divinities to be found from Egypt through Asia. We then recall that the most powerful avatar of the Great Goddess was the crone. In some cultures she welcomed her beloved children back into her comfortable womb/tomb when they died, and in some cultures she ate them in the end. But her command and control of death is her great power. Thus, Old Mrs. Harris presides carefully over the lingering death of Blue Boy, the cat. Further, this story explicitly gives Grandma Harris the illusion of control at the time of her own death. When she lost consciousness she did not die immediately, but she thought she did (156).
This intricately patterned evocation of a religious tradition so much older than Judaism, Christianity, or any of the sky-god myth systems explains, I believe, the crucial role of Mrs. Rosen. In Cather's defining first sentence, Mrs. Rosen looks crosswise over her green back lawn toward the scorched earth belonging to the Templetons, while she does cross-stitch. Mrs. Rosen represents the Judeo-Christian tradition that must judge the goddess representatives. Mrs. Rosen is better educated, better organized, more accomplished, more affluent, perhaps more intelligent, certainly socially superior, than they. What is important here, as Jessica Rabin has demonstrated, is that she is not only willing but eager to perform her cross-cultural stitching, even to embrace all that Old Mrs. Harris suggests to her. The stronger, culturally dominant female overlooks her neighbor's ragged ground and rushes to treat and honor Grandma Harris, whether Mrs. Harris wants the connection or not. In the gesture, Cather seems to suggest that women who stick together can prevail. It is Mrs. Rosen, after all, who takes the walk out of Skyline on a road that leads to the moon (101). But roads taken remind us that Cather's favorite line from Michelet—"the end is nothing, the road is all"—though it appears in this story, has not yet been located in the work of that French historian. It does, however, echo strongly two lines from Emerson's "Experience": Twice Emerson repeats "Everything good is on the highway" (Selections 263); he also adds, "To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom" (Selections 261-62).
Grandma Harris relies on the wisdom of the earth. She knows to keep going when "every step cost her something" (114). She knows that "Everything that's alive has got to suffer" (118). That narrative voice who tells her story acknowledges that every female lot eventually seems much like hers, whether recognition begins in maiden, in mother, or crone. That voice of experience in "Old Mrs. Harris," articulating one of Cather's greatest endings, moves in step with Emerson's great finale in "Experience." That Emerson voice, in conclusion, is what I think Cather was hearing when she completed her great Emersonian environmental quartet: "Patience and patience, we shall win at the last. . . . Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart! . . . there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power" (see "Experience" in Selections 273-74).