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From Cather Studies Volume 6

Between Two Wars in a Breaking World

Willa Cather and the Persistence of War Consciousness

Was it at the Marne? At Versailles, when a new geography was being made on paper? Willa Cather, "148 Charles Street"

In 1947 Willa Cather's fellow modernist Katherine Anne Porter—a writer of whom Cather left no signs of awareness but who was keenly aware of Cather—wrote an aggressively humorous essay about Gertrude Stein in which she characterized the "literary young" who gathered around Stein in Paris in the 1920s as children stranded "between two wars in a falling world."[1] Porter's metaphoric adjective for the interwar period—"falling"—is evocative, if ambiguous, summoning echoes both of the "fallen" on the battlefield and of the "fall" from innocence in Eden, as well as the common phrase about the bottom dropping out from under one. Cather's metaphor for the postwar period (it could not yet be called interwar at the time she was writing) was, of course, a different one—a metaphor of brokenness. In the preface to Not Under Forty (1936) she famously declared that the world "broke in two" in 1922 "or thereabouts" (812).

Cather was scarcely alone in feeling this sense of rupture. The very year she alluded to (in so strangely evasive a way), 1922, was indeed the year of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with its insistent images of brokenness. Michael North and others have pointed out that brokenness was a metaphor invoked not only by Eliot but by many writers struggling, during the postwar years, to convey their sense of how thoroughly their lives and life in general had been disrupted. Europeans and Americans alike, perhaps people all around the world, were haunted by a feeling of having been severed from any intelligible past. They were haunted, that is, by the Great War —by a sense that, as Cather put it, the literary as well as geopolitical world had been so thoroughly sundered at the Marne or at Versailles that the present could no longer connect to the past. Many of them were troubled too by the sense that another war was impending. In that respect, Porter's metaphor, though unusual and elusive, is perhaps a richer and more satisfying one than Cather's. In using the progressive form "falling," rather than "fallen," she captured the sense of an ongoing process—as it most assuredly was. Cather's phrase "broke in two" implies, instead, a one-time event, an action already complete.

Writing in 1947, more than a decade after Cather affixed her preface to Not Under Forty, Porter (and everyone else) could easily see in retrospect that the years 1918 to 1939 were a time "between two wars." It was by then a self-evident historical fact. But she had already been foreseeing the second war and thus implicitly defining the 1920s and 1930s as a period between two wars as early as 1931. Several of Porter's letters written in that year, as well as on through the rest of the decade, show that she was seized by a troubled apprehension of what was ahead.[2] Not that her sense of foreboding was terribly unusual. She herself said that "everyone" was talking about the likelihood of war—a characteristically hyberbolic statement but one verified, to some extent, when we note that John Dos Passos (to cite just one example) was equally prescient in his view of the international situation by 1931. Various characters in his momentous 1932 novel 1919 characterize the Treaty of Versailles as a false peace and expect a renewal of war. Such fears were well founded. Though neither Porter nor Dos Passos nor the many others apprehensive about a return of war could have known it, the Nazi leaders who were seizing power in Germany in 1931 and 1932 (Adolf Hitler was named chancellor on January 30, 1933) fervently believed "the war did not end in 1918." To think it did, declared one, was "a laugh."[3]

Cather made no such pronouncements on the Versailles Treaty (though she did indicate, during the Conference, that she wondered what Europeans thought of Woodrow Wilson). Nor, to my knowledge, did she make any such predictions of renewed war— except one, far in advance. In a letter of December 21, 1914, to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin and a correspondent who would regularly tie his own letters to the events of both the Great War and the next, she made a statement that is significant not so much as an indicator of some kind of uncanny prescience (though it is that and perhaps even more so than Porter's statements in the 1930s) but as a demonstration of her emotional involvement in the great calamity of the time. Here, of course, I must paraphrase, and thereby lose the emotional overtones of her language. At this early point in the war she wrote that not only was there no possibility of pleasantness in the world as long as the war went on, but she supposed that after some sort of cobbled together peace treaty at some point "they" would repeat the process in another twenty-five years.[4] Twenty-five years from 1914 would be 1939. Hitler's armies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and France and England declared war two days later. An uncanny prescience indeed, based as it was not on information and observation, as Porter's was in 1931, but solely on a disheartened emotional apperception of how the world seemed to be going.

It is that emotional apperception that is my subject here. We can see the keenness of Cather's awareness not only of news of the war but of what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war" (his phrase for what he hoped his war poems would put before the faces of his readers) in her many letters written during the World War I years. She speaks of the war as a disturbing and engrossing worry, an intrusion on her mental vision that would not go away. As early as September 28, 1914—less than two months after the outbreak of hostilities—she was reporting that the news of the terrible battles going on had interrupted her enjoyment of the summer's visit to northern New Mexico, and in November of that year she lamented to her Aunt Franc (who was to be a centrally important figure in Cather's war consciousness by 1918, leading to the writing of One of Ours) that she could think of little else but the war and the suffering of the Belgians (Calendar #287 and #289). Her distress arose, then, with the fall 1914 battles on the Marne (later referred to in her pained question about the disruption of civilization, "Was it at the Marne?"), and it would stay with her well beyond the November 1918 armistice and Versailles.[5] According to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, when Cather was first conceiving My Ántonia, in 1916, she could not "forget that, in these war days, the youth of Europe, its finest flower, was dying," and shared Sergeant's own fear that "American youth" was also doomed to make that sacrifice (Sergeant 148). It was in the following spring, of course, that American youth would in fact be summoned into the conflict, with the U.S. declaration of war on April 15, 1917.

My purpose here is to demonstrate that all through the next two decades, the 1920s and 1930s, Cather was still not "able to forget" the pity of the Great War. Like many others of her generation, she was haunted by it for years afterward—indeed, in my judgment, for the rest of her life. To be sure, the persistence of that haunting is not so easy to trace as her distress during the war itself. As we would expect from this writer who sought "not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on" (On Writing 9), the traces of the war in Cather's fiction are, with the exception of One of Ours, fleeting and relatively subtle. Nor did she persist in lamenting the war in her letters (so far as they survive). Nevertheless, and even though she did not, as Porter did, regularly and explicitly express a sense of foreboding about a renewal of war in Europe, it is demonstrable that Cather fully participated in the Janus-faced sensibility of the interwar years—a sensibility of gloomy expectation of another war to come as well as a fixation on the Great War experience. Despite her metaphor of a broken world, she experienced an ongoing process of breaking throughout the interwar years and on through World War II.

As both her letters and her fiction demonstrate, Cather's response to the First World War was an intensely emotional one. She referred to the war at various times as "terrible" and "unjust" and repeatedly asserted that it had unleashed a general misery infecting every aspect of life so that no one could have any true happiness as long as it went on. In part, these feelings sprang from her reading about the sufferings of civilians in the war zone (as we see, for example, in her letter to her aunt about the hardships endured by the Belgians) and from firsthand reports by people who had been there. Toward the end of the war, however, the intensity of her emotional engagement can be attributed more directly to the fact that her first cousin, Grosvenor P. Cather, enlisted in the American Expeditionary Forces and was killed in action on May 28, 1918.

Why the death of a cousin would have affected her so deeply is an important question, though one for which we may not find very clear answers. Yes, she seems to have known him well; according to a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher that was written during the final stages of work on One of Ours, she had helped care for him when he was a baby or small child (March 8, 1922; Calendar #595). But that fact in itself would not seem to account for the strength of emotion she expressed in her various letters touching on Grosvenor's (or as she usually called him, G. P.'s) story. There was also the fact that she was strongly devoted to his mother, her Aunt Franc. She seems to have felt her aunt's grief very keenly and may have wished to magnify his status as hero in the hope of easing that grief. But the emotional dynamic was yet more complex. Grosvenor had been—as Cather shows her hero Claude Wheeler to have been—perpetually dissatisfied with his life before going into the military. In the real life, as opposed to the fictional version, that dissatisfaction had expressed itself in illicit sexual relations that apparently even led to the death of his pregnant lover.[6] Misdeeds of this kind would undoubtedly have been gravely distressing to Franc Cather. When he was killed in action at Cantigny, however, his story could be constructed as one of redemption to a kind of secular sainthood, since, as Cather told her aunt in a letter of June 12, 1918 (Calendar #419), the label "killed in action" set such men apart from others.

It was after his death that Cather came to regard her cousin as having been, in some mysterious or even mystical way, bound up with herself so that, as she claimed, part of her was buried in his grave (Calendar #589). To speculate that she was in some way reading her own life story to that point as being also a story of redemption would not be implausible, though it goes far beyond the purposes of this essay to do so. Yet some such process of self-dramatization through identification with Grosvenor seems to have been at work and would account for the persistence of her fixation on him. Four years after his death she would still insist that he had become so deeply a part of her that she might never be the same and could absolutely not have written anything else until she wrote his story (Calendar #589). She declared that his presence kept returning and seizing her while she was reading proofs of One of Ours (Calendar #590).[7] The intensity of her fixation on Grosvenor hints at an obsessional quality, for instance, when she expresses a sense that she may never be able to shake off the concern that drove One of Ours (Calendar #595).

This intensity of emotion over Grosvenor's death was restoked, of course, as Cather continued to have interactions with her aunt and especially when she went to France in 1920. There, on July 4, she watched a parade of war orphans and shortly afterward located her cousin's grave. One wonders, indeed, if her feelings about his death would not have been revived simply by name association when, from 1928 to 1933, she lived in the Hotel Grosvenor whenever she was in New York.

As we have noted, though, besides the complex emotional dimensions of this personal association, Cather's keen awareness of the unfolding of the war would have been fed by what we know to have been her avid reading of newspapers, especially the New York papers. The evidence that she was an avid newspaper reader is scattered throughout her letters. In addition to the information about the war that we know she devoured, including casualty lists (she first learned of her cousin's death from such a casualty list), the print media would have provided her a keen visual sense of the war. The New York Times, for example, regularly published whole pages of pictures from the Western Front. She may also have seen pictorial images of "dead Boches" as well as Allied casualties on postcards or cards for use in stereoscopic viewers, since, according to Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War, these were widely distributed. "The horror of war," Ferguson concludes, "was concealed from the public less than is sometimes thought" (180-81). The effects of such images on a sensitive and imaginative person —as Cather most certainly was—do not have to be conjectured; they are evident in One of Ours. She may have insisted that the story was entirely centered in Claude Wheeler's perceptions and that he didn't see things as pictures (Calendar #589), but she did.[8] Brief as the battlefield sections of the novel are, they offer several pictorial images of devastation, wounding, death, and dismemberment. To be sure, Cather would have gleaned some of the elements of these pictures from her reading and from conversations with the wounded soldiers she visited in hospitals in New York (as she told Canfield Fisher she did during the winter of 1918, in an undated letter written in 1922 [Calendar #588]), but the grimness and the specificity of the verbal pictures she produced may well reflect the fact of her having seen such pictures in newspapers or other media.[9]

I would argue, then, that visual shock played a significant part in the persistence of Cather's wartime awareness of suffering, destruction, and battlefield horrors well after the time she encountered such reports—a persistence demonstrated by One of Ours. But One of Ours is a notoriously ambiguous piece of evidence of war consciousness. Not only is the novel's account of combat lacking in realism, in some ways—though, it seems to me, not so lacking as contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway would have us believe—but its publication came so soon after the end of the war that, after all, it can scarcely in itself demonstrate a very lengthy persistence. Published in 1922, it preceded by several years such postwar cultural products as the 1926 movies What Price Glory?, The Big Parade, and Wings and the 1926 hit song "My Dream of the Big Parade," in which a patriotic celebration turns into a parade of wounds, dismemberments, and grieving mothers, not to mention the 1929-30 "boom" of books about the war that came in the wake of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.[10] Indeed, One of Ours might have been a considerably different book and might have had a considerably different reception if Cather had let her wartime concerns, exacerbated as they were by her awareness of her cousin Grosvenor's experiences and his letters home to his mother, ripen for a few years. Instead, she went directly into planning and work on "Claude," as she first titled the manuscript, as soon as she finished My Ántonia—which itself can well be seen, indirectly, as a war novel.[11] As a result, One of Ours has been judged by standards of sensibility that for the most part developed after its conception and tone were firmly set in Cather's mind—that is, by standards reflecting postwar disillusionment, whereas the novel itself reflects the more immediate impressions and emotions of wartime, particularly Cather's wish to present her cousin in a heroic light. A tone of glorification appears in letters Cather wrote to Aunt Franc on June 6 and June 12 following Grosvenor's death on May 28, 1918 (Calendar #418 and #419), and she called the report of his death to the attention of her editor at Houghton Mifflin on July 2 (Calendar #421). All of these letters were written months before the end of the war, let alone the unfolding of the Versailles Treaty and the widespread erosion of a sense that there had been any real purpose to the carnage.

It is to texts other than One of Ours, then, that we must turn in seeking evidence that the trauma of the First World War persisted, for Cather, long after 1918 and that all during the interwar period her world kept breaking, despite her insistence that it had broken once and for all in or about 1922. The very fact that it was in 1936 that she wrote that statement about the world's brokenness indicates—assuming one accepts the view that it refers at least in part to the war and its effects—a persistence of war consciousness.[12] Her letters during the later 1920s and the 1930s do not provide support for the idea of such persistence, however; except for perfunctory references, the war is not even mentioned after 1922 until the beginning of the Second World War. Instead, it is from traces in her fiction that we can see that the concern with the war that impelled her writing of One of Ours did not disappear after that work was completed.

The Professor's House provides, of course, abundant demonstration that Cather's distress over the war persisted at least until 1925, the year of its publication. Indeed, it is this novel, rather than One of Ours, that most clearly bears the stamp of postwar disillusionment, in its generally wearied and disheartened tone and specifically in its account of what seems to be the pointlessness of Tom Outland's death in the war. Professor St. Peter, it seems, has lived (as Cather told Canfield Fisher, in her 1922 letter already cited, they both were living) in a different world than the one he knew before, a world with less hope, less glamour, and certainly less love. Steven Trout appropriately places The Professor's House in the company of such novels as Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (also 1925) and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) in "the category of fiction devoted to the after effects of the Great War" (Trout 161). If The Professor's House is Cather's greater war novel, however—a point I will not pursue because it has been capably argued elsewhere—we must concede that its concern with the war is far more subtle, far less foregrounded, than that of One of Ours.[13]

I would propose, however, that another work of that same year, 1925, is equally, if even more subtly, a work about the war: the short story "Uncle Valentine."[14] A story that turns toward the turn-of-the-century past so determinedly that it all but ignores the existence of the war at all, despite its postwar perspective, "Uncle Valentine" would appear to be concerned with issues of the tension between art, or beauty of any kind, and commerce, intertwined with issues of youth and innocence doomed to sad awareness by time and its corruptions. In both respects, it is a lament for a lost world. That lost world is represented in the story by Bonnie Brae, the estate on which the composer Valentine Ramsay lives, as did his family before him. The estate is located in an enclave of such estates near a village called Greenacre that is seemingly set off from the rush of the twentieth century as represented by the nearby city of Pittsburgh and its industries.[15] At the end of the story, Bonnie Brae has been demolished—having been "pulled down," significantly enough, "during the war" (249).

Is that simple phrase identifying when it was that Bonnie Brae was "pulled down" only an insignificant marker? Hardly. If we turn back to the beginning of the story within a story that makes up the central text of "Uncle Valentine," we see the narrator's summary of her acquaintance with the musician, whom she called by the honorific "uncle" though he was in fact no relative at all: "Yes, I had known Valentine Ramsay. I knew him in a lovely place, at a lovely time, in a bygone period of American life; just at the incoming of this century which has made all the world so different" (210). With this reference to history's having "made all the world so different," the story is marked as expression of mourning for all that was lost when "the world broke in two." Cather had lamented to Canfield Fisher in 1922 that they seemed to be living in a different world than the one they used to know (as I have inadequately paraphrased the statement in her letter probably written on June 17, 1922, in Calendar #601). Not quite three years later, in this 1925 story, Cather again laments the loss of that familiar world destroyed (or perhaps "pulled down") by the war. In the context of the story's strategically placed reference to the changes wrought by twentieth-century history, the reference to Valentine Ramsay's song "I know a wall where red roses grow" (Cather writes it this way, without capitalization, in the story) takes on a larger resonance. Apparently written as a reference to the red roses that grew on his beloved neighbor's wall, the song becomes an emblem of the beauties of a civilization now "pulled down": "The roses of song and the roses of memory, they are the only ones that last" (249). Such roses are remembered from the other side of the break. Moreover, the association of roses and song with the war's devastation was already well established and lay ready to hand when Cather wrote "Uncle Valentine," through the tremendous popularity of the World War I song "Roses of Picardy" (1916, words by British officer Frederick Weatherley, music by Haydn Wood). Often sung by ordinary song lovers and professionals alike, "Roses of Picardy" was recorded in 1919 by the celebrated John McCormack. We know that Cather knew the song since, as John March notes (639), it is whistled by a character in One of Ours.

Four years later, in 1929, Cather returned to a similar thematic structure, again with the Pittsburgh setting and an emblematic rose, in "Double Birthday." Here, the oppositions of beauty and commerce, innocence and corruption are not so clearly drawn as in "Uncle Valentine." Beauty survives alongside getting and spending, the character emblematic of commerce is not altogether unbeautiful, and corruption is never a very threatening presence. Sentimental hopes exist only to be disappointed, however, and an undercurrent of concern about the war and the break separating past from present is much in evidence.

The title "Double Birthday" refers to the common birthday of the two central characters, who also share a name. Albert Engelhardt, the son of a wealthy industrialist, has been reduced to a small-salaried civil service job and residence in a shabby part of town as a result of his own and his brothers' squandering (so his father's old friend Judge Hammersley believes) of their inheritance, but he is quite content with his lot and doesn't regret a minute of his joyous youth. On the night of the birthday celebration narrated in the story, Albert is turning fifty-five. His uncle, Dr. Albert Engelhardt, long retired from a medical practice that brought him more prestige than money, is an amusingly vain old man who still enjoys good food, good wine (when someone gives it to him), and the company of beautiful women—one of whom, the judge's daughter, joins the birthday dinner. He also enjoys music of the nineteenth century and before, though emphatically not that of the twentieth. Uncle Albert is turning eighty. If we assume that the story was written in 1928, the year prior to its publication, and take its time-present to be that year, Albert the younger was born in Cather's own birth year, 1873, and his uncle in the year of her father's birth, 1848. As we will see, this is not the only trace of a personal presence in the story.[16]

The war motif enters the story inconspicuously enough when Judge Hammersley mentions to his daughter that he has seen Albert the younger. She hasn't seen him "for years," she says, "not since the war" (253). Soon, as a result of her father's offer to provide wine for the birthday dinner, she does see Albert, and the two reflect on their days in Italy some years ago. When he recalls that they were "always going to run away to Russia together, and now there is no Russia," it becomes clear that their time in Italy was before the war. "Everything has changed," he adds (267). Both parts of Albert's remark are characteristically Catherian in the brevity of their allusions—first to the Russian Revolution, then to her own conviction (not yet formulated in the familiar prefatory statement) that the world had "broken in two." As if fearful we will miss it, though, Cather repeats the message in a second reference to the fall of the dynasties during the Great War. Remembering how Pittsburgh used to seem to him when he was young, Albert thinks that "a lot of water had run under this bridge since then, and kingdoms and empires had fallen" (269). When the judge's daughter joins the birthday dinner, she reflects that the two Alberts' house is "the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war." The war, she adds, "destroyed" all the charm young people used to enjoy (273). As in "Uncle Valentine," a rose symbolizes the beauty that is lost—or in this story, significantly, is being lost, because it is not a rose of the past but a rose surviving beyond its time. A young girl who comes to bid Uncle Doctor Engelhardt happy birthday is, he says, "the rose in winter," the rose that cannot last.

Once again, as in "Uncle Valentine," Cather reaches back to the sense of the world's breaking—the idea she had expressed to Canfield Fisher in 1922 and would formulate in her 1936 preface. Here, though, she adds another element: notice of a new danger rising in Europe. In response to his nephew's reminiscing about Italy, the old uncle asks, "What is Mussolini's flower, Albert? Advise your friends in Rome that a Supreme Dictator should always have a flower" (270). The story announces itself, then, as inhabiting a time "between two wars, in a falling world." Though Cather may not yet have foreseen the "fall" into the Second World War, it is clear that present events in Europe, as well as the war of the previous decade, were troubling her. We can see that there were two wars bracketing the melancholy birthday party; she could not yet see the second, only the rise of a dictator; but she could quite clearly see two worlds, with a break between. Both Alberts prefer the former, the world from which they have been separated by the war: Albert the elder drinks to "the lost Lenore," a lost ideal of female beauty, and Albert the younger drinks to his—and Cather's —"beautiful youth" (274-75).

In February 1933, four years after "Double Birthday," Cather published (in the Atlantic Monthly) an essay called "A Chance Meeting," in which she describes her brief acquaintance with the niece of Gustave Flaubert. Here, there is only the slightest manifestation of her persistent war consciousness; she touches the note and does not hold it but passes on. Still, it is often from such lightly touched notes in Cather's writing that we catch the theme. She did not carelessly throw in extraneous details; we know that. We take notice, then, when she mentions that this woman whose perseverance in living out her life to the fullest had been in Italy "a great deal . . . during the late war of 1914" (Not Under Forty 825). And indeed when Cather returned to "A Chance Meeting," using it as the basis for her story "The Old Beauty," she greatly expanded this seemingly incidental reference.

In the same year in which she rewrote "A Chance Meeting" into "The Old Beauty," 1936, she also revisited two other earlier pieces —"The House on Charles Street," from 1922, and "Katherine Mansfield," from 1925 (the year of The Professor's House and "Uncle Valentine"). Both were revised for inclusion in Not Under Forty. In all three of these revisitings she either expanded or added, and greatly emphasized, references to the war. Clearly, the Great War was weighing heavily on her mind.

In revising the essay on Katherine Mansfield, Cather chose to add a quasi-fictional introductory frame and a final section about the personal difficulties with which Mansfield had to cope. As a part of this material, she pointedly added that Mansfield's brother was killed in action in the war and that for the rest of her life (seven years) "her brother seems to have been almost constantly in her mind" (881).[17] This lost brother was indeed "the person who had freed her from the self-consciousness and affectations of the experimenting young writer, and had brought her to her realest self" —as perhaps Cather felt that Grosvenor Cather had for her.

In rewriting "A Chance Meeting" as a story rather than an essay, Cather not only greatly increased the emphasis on World War I but relocated the time frame to 1922, the year when she told Canfield Fisher that they seemed to be living in a different world than the one they used to know (Calendar #601). The year is specified in the story's opening sentence. "The Old Beauty" thus becomes a parable of the broken world, which like "a beautiful woman may become"— and indeed, in the wake of the war did become—"a ruin" (705). We recall that a beautiful woman, "the lost Lenore," represented the beautiful past to the elder Albert in "Double Birthday" and to the song-writing Valentine in "Uncle Valentine."

Pointers to the centrality of the war in "The Old Beauty," a story of quiet retreat to aristocratic hotels and old ways beset by the new, are peppered throughout, from the note that Gabriella Longstreet had remarried "during the war" and that her husband "was killed,—in '17" (700) to a recollection that the narrator's friend Hardwick "was killed in the war" (706). In the story's section VIII alone (712-14), a great cluster of references to the war includes the following: Gabriella Longstreet (now Madame de Coucy) and her companion are "the queerest partnership that war and desolation have made" (712); again, Madame de Coucy's French second husband "was killed in action" (713); her younger friends "were killed or disabled" in the war (713); an "old French officer, blinded in the war" comes to visit her (713); she had sold her place in England "before the war" (713); Mrs. Allison, her companion, served on a committee with her "during the war" (713); and "after the war broke out and everybody was all mixed up" (714). It could scarcely be more clear that in 1936, eighteen years after the Armistice, Cather was still thinking about the event that Seabury, the narrator of "The Old Beauty," calls "a storm to which the French Revolution, which used to be our standard of horrors, was merely a breeze" (715).[18]

The theme of the world's breaking accompanies these reminders of the war throughout the story. Seabury's remark that "long ago" he had liked the grand hotel where they are staying (707) expresses his wish for continuity, for the survival rather than the destruction of the past. But the story will not allow that continuity. Mrs. Allison explicitly states that Madame de Coucy "thought, once the war was over, the world would be just as it used to be" but that "of course it isn't . . . it's all very different . . . everything" (714, 720). The signs of difference are scattered throughout, and all—or almost all—are differences of deterioration if not ruin. Seabury himself has noticed that Madame de Coucy seems "a little antagonistic to the present order" (711). That antagonism, as well as his own, is evident over and over. When they seek to visit a very old monastery that represents "the world of the past," it is guarded by "a one-armed guard in uniform" (723)—presumably a war veteran. The impossibility of a return to the world represented by the monastery is made clear when, on their return drive, they have a near-collision with a newfangled sports car driven by brash American women of uncertain gender. The point is clear that the Old Beauty, Seabury, and apparently the author herself belong on the far side of the break guarded by the veteran.

Still, two small details in the story give reason to think that perhaps the postwar world is not altogether bad: Young people at a dance in Seabury's hotel are not rude or irritable when he interrupts the playing of modern music to request a waltz, which leaves the floor empty for himself and Gabrielle; they respectfully applaud. And Mrs. Allison, recalling how one Nurse Ames arranged her introduction to Madame de Coucy, comments that the war "made a lot of wise nurses" (713). There may be some survivals of courtesy, then, and some small benefits of the disaster—fragments to shore up against ruin.

The third essay that Cather revised and expanded in 1936, "The House on Charles Street," became "148 Charles Street" in Not Under Forty. The original essay (or review) was an "appreciation" of a volume of collected extracts from the diaries of Annie Adams Fields, widow of the publisher whose name was half of Tichnor and Fields and herself a celebrated hostess to the literary world for, as Cather says, sixty years. It was at Annie Fields's house on Charles Street in Boston that Cather first met Sarah Orne Jewett. The house represented, then, a beautiful and highly cultured past now lost; and its representation of that past was charged, for her, with strong emotion. Just as she grieved the deaths of Jewett and later of Mrs. Fields, she now, in revising the essay, seems to have grieved afresh the loss of the house and all it meant. Its loss takes a place in her vision of the brokenness of the world, with beauty such as that centered in 148 Charles Street stranded on the other side of the break.

On March 9, 1936, while she was preparing Not Under Forty, Cather wrote to Ferris Greenslet (whose office was, of course, in Boston) asking if it was true that a garage had been built on the site of the Fields house (Calendar #1301). Greenslet's confirmation of the fact two days later allowed her to begin the closing section that she was now adding to her essay with this passage that so compactly sums up her theme of the break "in 1922 or thereabouts" and all that it meant: "Today, in 1936, a garage stands on the site of 148 Charles Street. Only in memory exists the long, green-carpeted, softly lighted drawing-room, and the dining-table where Learning and Talent met, enjoying good food and good wit and rare vintages, looking confidently forward to the growth of their country in the finer amenities of life. Perhaps the garage and all it stands for represent the only real development, and have altogether taken the place of things formerly cherished on that spot" (Not Under Forty 847). Two paragraphs later she makes the link with World War I that I have used as an epigraph. Here is the passage quoted more fully: "Just how did this change come about, one wonders. When and where were the Arnolds overthrown and the Brownings devaluated? Was it at the Marne? At Versailles, when a new geography was being made on paper? Certainly the literary world which emerged from the war used a new coinage" (848). How powerfully this passage demonstrates the persistence of Cather's war memories! She is writing about literary history and the depredations of a modernism of which she herself was, of course, a part, and she expresses her sense of that subject in terms of the war. We can see here how her consciousness of the Great War lay always ready, just below the surface of her mind, available to be drawn on whatever the topic.

Cather's association of a sense of loss (here, of the Fields house and all it meant) with the losses of the war was characteristic. In much the same way, she had earlier, in 1927, manifested her continuing war consciousness by speaking of the past—again, a lost past—in terms of the war even though the war was unrelated to the subject at hand. In a public letter to the editor of The Commonwealth giving an account of how she came to write Death Comes for the Archbishop, she recalled a Belgian missionary priest named Father Haltermann whom she had known in or around 1912, whose driving from mission to far-flung mission had entered into her depiction of Father Vaillant. In the course of this brief reference, she added a point totally unrelated to the novel except insofar as it may be reflected in the sense of loss evident toward the book's end: "He went home during the war to serve as a chaplain in the French army, and when I last heard of him he was an invalid" (On Writing 4).

Cather's return to such a keenness of war consciousness in 1936, as she prepared Not Under Forty—the poignant addition to "148 Charles Street," her prefatory statement about the world's having broken in two, her revision of "Katherine Mansfield" by adding a paragraph about the brother who died in the war, her revision of "A Chance Meeting" into a story laden with markers of the war—is tantalizing. Why then? What made 1936 such a watershed of remembrance? Her correspondence gives no clue. Her letters do, throughout the 1930s, show clear evidence of her dismay over the widespread sufferings brought by the Great Depression—itself an aftermath of the Great War. Whether she saw the Depression in that way or not (and I know of no evidence that she did), it was a continuation of the spectacle of breakage that she had been witnessing and feeling for years. Her personalization of the economic news she read in the newspapers in terms of people she had known in Nebraska and the letters she received from farm people there telling her their hardships and often their fear of losing their farms—to which she responded more than once by sending money to prevent foreclosure—must have continually borne in on her the sense of how different life had been for these same people when she first knew them. It was another aspect of the sense of loss after the break, another kind of breaking. What the letters she wrote during those hard times do not do, so far as I have been able to find, is talk explicitly about the war or about current international politics and tensions. The Japanese invasion of China is not mentioned. Hitler's rise to power in Germany is not mentioned. The Spanish Civil War is mentioned only a single time, and quite indirectly— though, to be sure, in a very significant way, because it demonstrates her fear of the coming war. In an unclearly dated letter to Yaltah Menuhin, probably written on September 3, 1938, Cather expresses her gratification that Yehudi was able to see Spain before it went crazy and urges Yaltah to go to Venice before it too is bombed.[19]

Despite the near-total absence in her 1930s letters of evidence of a sense of foreboding about the impending return of war, one wonders if the resurgence in 1936 of evidence of Cather's long ago feeling of devastation over World War I may not have been as much forward-looking as backward-looking. That is, one wonders if it was a result of increasing unrest in Europe, the now unmistakable signs of a next war looming on the horizon. It was in 1936 that the Spanish Civil War broke out, and, in the United States, debates over isolationism made it clear that a new war in Europe was so firmly expected that Americans were trying to think through what their posture toward it should be. The fact that it was also in 1936 that Cather met the eccentric British nobleman Stephen Tennant may not be coincidental; their conversations may well have included the ominous events of the day. At any rate, this cluster of expressions in 1936 of ongoing distress over the First World War seems to indicate indirectly Cather's Januslike awareness of war both behind and ahead. Only a year later, in 1937, she began work on Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a novel of the prewar (pre- Civil War) South that briefly looks forward to a postwar period in which positive, rather than entirely negative, changes can be seen. Perhaps this note in Sapphira is an indication of hope that something good might come out of what was now looking inevitable, as it had from the war that preceded Cather's birth by only a few years. After a storm of family sorrows, she took the novel back up in 1939 and completed it, so she told Canfield Fisher, as an escape from the distress of the new war (letter October 14, 1940, Calendar #1497).

If the parallel with the Civil War and its having made possible a better life for people like Nancy and Till does indicate, by parallel, a slim hope for some good result of the coming renewal of world war, that hope seems to have been very hard for Cather to maintain. Her correspondence during these years bears the marks of renewed war worry and grief. In October 1940, slightly over a year after the German invasion of Poland, when things were looking dark for the people of England and France, she called the war unspeakable (as she had once referred to World War I as terrible and unjust). On that same October day in 1940 she wrote to Van Wyck Brooks, telling him that she greatly admired Winston Churchill and agreed with Archibald MacLeish that the United States should enter the war in defense of democracy (Calendar #1496). The seeming tension between considering the war unspeakable and considering it a just cause is scarcely surprising; many people in the United States had conflicting feelings about American entry into the war. It foreshadows the conflicted feelings that would torment her for the next five years.

Cather's surviving correspondence from this late period in her life indicates that the war would seldom be out of her consciousness. Her spirits would sag and sag as she saw the devastation spread, even as she celebrated the staunchness of the British people and the resistance of her friend Sigrid Undset's fellow Danes. She especially grieved over the suffering of American soldiers in the South Pacific and over wartime separations in her own family. Why, she cried out to her old friend Viola Roseboro' in the dark days of 1944, did a single generation have to see civilization destroyed in not one war, but two? (Calendar #1659). Like Porter, Cather had been caught between two wars in a world that had not simply broken but kept breaking.


My appreciation to Dr. Patrick Lesley, who offered suggestions that greatly improved this essay.
 1. Porter's essay in which this phrase appears, "The Wooden Umbrella," was first published in December 1947 in Harper's as "Gertrude Stein: A Self-Portrait." It was reprinted in The Days Before, a collection of Porter's essays, before being incorporated into her Collected Essays and Occasional Writings. See Collected Essays 257. (Go back.)
 2. See, for example, Porter's letter to Peggy Cowley dated October 1, 1931, written from Berlin, referring to "the strain of the next war"; also, to Eugene Pressly, dated December 27, 1931, stating, "War is just over the horizon, or so it seems." Neither of these letters appears in Isabel Bayley's Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (1990). Both are found in the Papers of Katherine Anne Porter at the Library of the University of Maryland, College Park, Special Collections, and are quoted by permission of the University of Maryland Libraries and Porter's executor, Barbara Thompson Davis. (Go back.)
 3. See Eksteins, Rites of Spring, 308-09. (Go back.)
 4. Cather's letters are still protected by copyright, and her executor never gives permission to quote, primarily because of Cather's own explicit instructions in her will. The letter referred to here appears in A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather as #292, but the necessarily brief summary given there does not indicate the presence of this sentence about the likelihood of another war. My reference, then, is to the letter itself, which is held at Houghton Library, Harvard University. Subsequent references to the letters will provide the entry number in the Calendar of Letters and will indicate when the information cited does not appear in the summary given there. Locations of actual letters are given in the Works Cited. (Go back.)
 5. It is notable that Cather's question was, "Was it at the Marne?" rather than, "Was it at the Somme?" The breaking of the world was more commonly seen to have come at the Battle of the Somme, two years later. (Go back.)
 6. Conversation with Mary Weddle, June 2003. Ms. Weddle is the great-granddaughter of Franc Cather and has recently donated Grosvenor Cather's letters to his mother to the University of Nebraska. (Go back.)
 7. This is the only instance I am aware of when Cather even approached a belief in Spiritualism. That it was in connection with a soldier's death that she expressed such a sense of a presence from beyond the grave aligns her response with the far more literal and protracted beliefs of many thousands whose desire for continued contact with their war dead produced a great surge of Spiritualist activity during the war and on through the 1930s; see Cannadine, 227-31. (Go back.)
 8. See my earlier discussions of the pictorial nature of Cather's imagination in "Willa Cather's Poetry and the Object(s) of Art" and "The Observant Eye, the Art of Illustration, and Willa Cather's My Ántonia." (Go back.)
 9. For example, the hand that protrudes from the side of Claude's trench may have come from a newspaper image of a hand projecting upward from the ground. I have been unable to find the source of this particular image, but it appears in the video version of Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New. On the other hand, severed body parts are so often mentioned in verbal texts that she might well have composed that image from her reading alone. Eksteins reports that "in the Ypres salient at one point men being relieved all filed past an arm protruding from the side of the trench and shook hands with it" and "those effecting the relief did the same on arrival" (151). The documentation for this particular instance of the presence of body parts in the trenches is in unpublished papers that Cather could not have known, but as Eksteins points out, "Mutilation was a daily spectacle in some sectors" (152). She could have learned about such horrors from any number of poems by the "Trench Poets" (Edmund Blunden, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenburg, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and others) or from other sources. (Go back.)
 10. See Eksteins, the chapter "Memory," 275-99. (Go back.)
 11. For an argument that My Ántonia reflects the culture of war, see Stout, Willa Cather 155. (Go back.)
 12. Scholars continue to debate the meaning of Cather's "broke in two" statement. It is often linked to the publication of One of Ours and the flood of negative reviews that so distressed Cather. However, the letter in which she first stated the idea was written in 1922, several months before the novel was published; see Calendar #601. (Go back.)
 13. For an extended reading of The Professor's House as a novel preoccupied with war, see Trout 148-87. (Go back.)
 14. "Uncle Valentine" was published in 1925 in Woman's Home Companion. (Go back.)
 15. The fictional Greenacre is a close sound-alike for Vineacre, the family estate of the composer Ethelbert Nevin, whom Cather knew in Pittsburgh. The fictional song "I know a wall where red roses grow" is in part a reference to the frequency of roses in Nevin's songs. (Go back.)
 16. Both Woodress and Lee also point out biographical parallels in "Double Birthday" but not those asserted here. (Go back.)
 17. I am indebted for this information and for the dates of original publication of the essays in Not Under Forty to Sharon O'Brien's notes in the Library of America volume Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. (Go back.)
 18. That these were indeed purposeful additions to the essay, not traces of earlier deletions that she had now decided to restore, seems to be indicated by a typescript of "A Chance Meeting" held at the New York Public Library, bearing Cather's holograph corrections. There are no struckthrough elements comparable to the new phrases I have indicated. (Go back.)
 19. Letter to Yaltah Menuhin, September 3, [1938?], Princeton. My summary of this letter in Calendar #1416 unfortunately does not include these references to Spain and to Venice. (Go back.)


Cannadine, David. "War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain." In Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death. Ed. T. Joachim Whaley. London: Europa, 1981. 187-242.
Cather, Willa. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Janis P. Stout. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
—."A Chance Meeting." Typescript. New York Public Library.
—."Double Birthday." 1929. Rpt. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. With notes by Sharon O'Brien. New York: The Library of America, 1992.
—. Letters to: Van Wyck Brooks, October 14, 1940. Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, U of Pennsylvania.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher, March 8, 1922; April 1922 (fragment); April 26, 1922 [?]; [April 28, 1922?]; [May 8, 1922]; June 17, 1922; October 14, 1940. Bailey-Howe Library, U of Vermont.
Mrs. George P. Cather (Aunt Franc), November 17, 1914; June 6, 1918; June 12, 1918. Love Library, U of Nebraska.
Ferris Greenslet, December 21, 1914; July 2, 1918; March 9, 1936. Houghton Library, Harvard U.
Yaltah Menuhin, September 3, [1938?]. Princeton U.
Viola Roseboro', February 12, 1944. U of Virginia.
Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, pm. November 13, 1914, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
—.Not Under Forty. 1936. Rpt. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. With notes by Sharon O'Brien. New York: The Library of America, 1992.
—."The Old Beauty." The Old Beauty and Others. 1948. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1992.
—.On Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
—."Uncle Valentine." 1925. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1992.
Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989.
March, John. A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather. Ed. Marilyn Arnold, with Debra Lynn Thornton.Westport ct: Greenwood P, 1993.
North, Michael. Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Collected Essays and Occasional Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1970.
—. Letters to Peggy Cowley, October 1, 1931, and to Eugene Pressly, December 27, 1931. Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park MD.
Stout, Janis P. "The Observant Eye, the Art of Illustration, and Willa Cather's My Ántonia." Cather Studies 5: Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2003. 128-52.
—.Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000.
—."Willa Cather's Poetry and the Object(s) of Art." American Literary Realism 35 (2003): 159-74.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.