Written after the deaths of her parents, amid unstable health, and during her retreats to Grand Manan, Shadows on the Rock was a refuge for Willa Cather, perhaps even a synthesis of values she believed to be disappearing from the culture of the 1930s. As consoling as the subject of the novel may have been to her, Cather undertook a grueling combination of travel, research, and writing to strengthen its details, visiting Quebec five times to confirm the setting, drawing heavily on old letters, consulting a number of Francis Parkman's Canadian histories, and studying seventeenth-century artifacts (including old herbals) in both French and American museums (Woodress 422, 431-32). As Edith Lewis notes, "Willa Cather was always very painstaking about her facts—she intensely disliked being careless or inaccurate, and went to the trouble to verify them" (161). In the following discussion I will examine the "facts" of Shadows on the Rock that are specific to medicine, arguing that these meticulous historical details reveal one of Cather's most consistent cultural ideals, namely, the commingling of medicine and art evident in the character of Euclide Auclair.
Cather's negotiation of the relationship between medicine and art began in her childhood experiences as a physician's assistant in Red Cloud; was clarified during her tenure at the University of Nebraska, when her interest in botany and medical science took shape; and continued in her lifelong correspondence with Dr. Julius Tyndale, a Lincoln physician and drama critic. With Tyndale's dual interests in medicine and art in mind, I will explore similar characteristics in Euclide Auclair by tracing Cather's construction of his character as a "philosopher apothecary" with the ability to distinguish himself from typical seventeenth-century apothecaries in his scientific acumen and from specialized physicians in his incorporation of an aesthetic sensibility into the practice of medicine. As a cultivated physician grounded both in science and in art, Auclair is a cultural icon as germane to Cather's early-twentieth-century milieu as to seventeenth-century Quebec.
Most accounts of Cather's childhood interest in medicine assume that she was drawn to hard science more than to art during this time, but this scientific idealism was balanced by a dual interest in theater. Even though Cather was an ostentatious advocate of science, her flair for the dramatic transformed the office of physician into a theatrical role. Her first experience with medicine, according to biographer Mildred Bennett, came while her family still lived in Virginia, as her "great-grandmother Smith had insisted that she be bled once a month" (117). The surgical instruments (likely lances or scalpels) used for this monthly phlebotomy eventually came into Cather's possession after the family moved to Red Cloud, during which time she assisted local physicians in their rounds and occasionally signed her name "Wm. Cather, M.D." (Woodress 55). In an autobiographical sketch dated 10 October 1888, at age fifteen, Cather lists "slicing toads" as a pastime for summer vacation and alleges that "amputating limbs" is "perfect happiness" (Bennett 112-13). Just a few years earlier, Cather had created a make-believe town with her friends called Sandy Point in which she presided as mayor; she had also performed in local plays, including Hiawatha and Beauty and the Beast (Woodress 57). Armed with her grandfather's lances and scalpels, the young Willa Cather eagerly awaited a career in surgery, which she envisioned as a dramatic and heroic enterprise.
While the tenor of this early personal sketch is playful, the practice of surgery Cather knew from her experience with Dr. Damerell and Dr. McKeeby in Red Cloud derived from the grim operating rooms of the Civil War, in which most operations were either amputations or ball extractions (Cunningham 15). These procedures demanded scientific precision, the kind practiced in the French clinics and brought to the United States by such well-known physicians as S. Weir Mitchell and Oliver Wendell Holmes (Lovering 20; Browner 141). By 1890, the year of Cather's high school graduation, "slicing toads" represented much more than a summer diversion; consequently, her commencement speech posits vivisection as a medium for rigorous scientific investigation, the polar opposite of superstition ("Superstition" 141). At this point in her life, while her rhetoric seems to privilege science over art, Cather associated superstition with ignorance and scientific investigation with heroic human inquiry, the latter constituting a dramatic plot. Medical science was an aesthetic force to the young Willa Cather, commanding her attention precisely for its heroism and thus for its resonance as a touchstone for art.
The journey from Cather's adamant endorsement of experimental medicine in 1890 to Euclide Auclair's confession to his daughter, Cécile, over forty years later that "medicine is a dark science" can be clarified by acknowledging that Cather's dual interests in medicine and art tempered one another at each stage of her development (Shadows 171). Cather's attraction to medicine throughout these years lies less in scientific formulae and more in the artistic idea of investigation culminating in discovery. Her dismissal of Émile Zola as "perverse" in his attempt to apply the scientific method to the "experimental novel" sharpens this distinction, as does her thorough disgust for Lucius Sherman's "scientific" literary criticism at the University of Nebraska, which involved "analysis of sentence length, comparative predication, and ratios of force, with charts, diagrams, formulae, and equations" (Woodress 128, 80). As Edith Lewis notes, Cather held that the "Sherman method . . . reduced all that was great in literature, the noblest flights of the human spirit, to dry-as-dust, arbitrary formulae" (35). More than thirty years after her undergraduate tenure, while still defending scientific investigation against superstition in the character of Euclide Auclair, Cather allows science to balance, rather than dominate, her aesthetic sensibility.
To understand Cather's balanced cultural ideal, one might begin with her long friendship with Dr. Julius Tyndale, whom she met during her university years in Lincoln. Tyndale moved to Lincoln in 1893, primarily to practice medicine, but his influence on Cather also extended to drama criticism, which was one of his hobbies (Woodress 84). Notorious for his vicious articles, which earned him the reputation of a "severe iconoclast," the Lincoln physician served as a model for Cather's own "meatax" reviews in the Journal once she began to write professionally (84). Tyndale was a "man of great personal and intellectual force," E. K. Brown notes in his critical biography of Cather, "as keenly interested in music and letters as in medicine and science generally" (63). Tyndale and Cather were in frequent correspondence during her retreats to Grand Manan, and the Lincoln physician was also a prototype for Dr. Engelhardt of "Double Birthday," a short story Cather likely finished in either 1928 or 1929 (Woodress 417). For Cather, Tyndale represented "an atmosphere where the arts and manners of a past time lingered with none of the desiccation of the classroom but with the fragrant natural life that can be maintained only by discriminating affection" (Brown 138). As a man of medicine and a blistering drama critic, he was a "dramatis persona" in her life, embodying the commingling of medicine and art throughout their relationship from her undergraduate tenure in Lincoln during the early 1890s to his death in 1929, the year before Shadows on the Rock was completed (Woodress 82). These portraits of Tyndale as a physician who actively commingled medicine and art throughout his life closely resemble Cather's representation of Euclide Auclair.
Exhibiting a complexity of character reminiscent of Tyndale's dual medical and artistic interests, Auclair is both a scientific physician and an artist. His commitment to medical science is revealed in his equipment, including "distilling apparatus, mortars, balances, retorts, and carboys," all common pharmaceutical instruments of his time; additionally, his scientific work makes him an "accomplished cook," as "continual practice in making medicines kept his hand expert in handling glass and earthenware and in regulating heat" (Shadows 126). Here, Auclair's technical medical skill directly informs the domestic art of cooking; indeed, it is difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins. Within the opening pages of the novel, the scientific elements of the apothecary shop blur into the aesthetics of a home space: "On entering his door the apothecary found the front shop empty, lit by a single candle. In the living-room behind, which was partly shut off from the shop by a partition made of shelves and cabinets, a fire burned in the fireplace, and the round dining-table was already set with a white cloth, silver candlesticks, glasses, and two clear decanters, one of red wine and one of white" (7). A slight division between shop and home appears in the cabinet partition, but the merging of Auclair's medicine making and cooking skill is mirrored in this simultaneous glimpse of medical cabinets and a dining table. From a reader's introduction to Auclair as the "philosopher apothecary of Quebec" to this snapshot of a shop that fades into a salon, Cather creates a space in which scientific precision does not diminish aesthetic resonance and in which artistry does not compromise science (3). Where a medical character with Zola's or Sherman's aesthetic sensibility might regard the act of eating as a mere physiological necessity, Cather turns Auclair's dinner into a work of art, with firelight washing over an elegantly dressed table in full view of his medicine shop.
Cather's view of the scalpel seems to have shifted in the four decades between her mention of "slicing toads" as a summer pastime and her completion of Shadows on the Rock, as Auclair's vehement opposition to phlebotomy distinguishes him from the barber-surgeon in Quebec, who complains that "the meddlesome apothecary took the bread out of his mouth" (Shadows 210). Of the two, Auclair is undoubtedly the more sophisticated, not only in his aversion to bloodletting but also in his refusal to slander his dubious colleague. Only in the performance of autopsy, after Count Frontenac's death, when medical practice is reduced to dissection, does Auclair work alongside the barber-surgeon, drawing from a "black bag full of deadly poisons" (211). While her respect for the medical profession had not diminished by the end of her life, Cather may have wished Auclair's character to transcend the connotations of reductive science (and cultural bleakness) that she associated with surgery.
As an apothecary, Auclair occupies a humble position even by seventeenth-century standards, yet Cather reinforces his medical competency by granting him the ability to distinguish science from pseudoscience. Auclair's remedies rest upon empirical bases, including his opposition to bloodletting, which he ably defends to Bishop Saint-Vallier by distinguishing between gout and varicose veins and by referring to previously unsuccessful treatments of phlebotomy on Bishop Laval, the patient in question (Shadows 96). Auclair's precise medical knowledge is notable, because for centuries apothecaries have been regarded by licensed practitioners as incompetent. An "informal hierarchy" had materialized among medical practitioners by the fourteenth century, as historian Nancy Siraisi notes, in which "university graduates in medicine occupied the highest place, followed by other skilled medical practitioners, then skilled surgeons, and finally by barber-surgeons and various other practitioners, among them herbalists or apothecaries" (20). Roughly two hundred years later, the College of Physicians actively sought to prevent apothecaries from practicing medicine during the seventeenth century, precisely for their alleged incompetence in comparison to university graduates (18). In spite of his rigorous self-education, it would seem that Euclide Auclair occupies the least prestigious position possible in the profession of medicine.
Cather's decision not to incorporate surgery into Auclair's practice of medicine may derive both from her resistance to specialization and from the fact that phlebotomy, as defended by Saint-Vallier, was considered fashionable during the seventeenth century, a possibility I will discuss later. Surgeons themselves were not as problematic to Cather as the cultural connotations of specialization inherent in the position. In fact, while Cather was writing Shadows on the Rock, the "only Grand Manan islander she made friends with was Doctor Macaulay, a cultivated graduate of McGill Medical School, surgeon, and physician of more than ordinary skill" (Woodress 416). Macaulay became "a staunch friend," as Edith Lewis puts it, and "helped [them] out in any emergency" (194); his various interests included producing and directing musical performances on Grand Manan (Ingersoll 34-35). Macaulay's dual interests in medicine and art would have resonated with Cather's vision of Auclair's character while also reinforcing Tyndale's influence on the novel as it was taking shape.
Through her correspondence with a medical professional like Dr. Tyndale and friendship with a cultivated surgeon like Dr. Macaulay during the time she wrote Shadows on the Rock, Cather drew upon competent medical sources who were also, by her standards, civilized. Auclair "devoted himself seriously to his profession" as a young man, Cather writes, embedding a concise lesson in medical history into her novel: "Euclide had gone deep into the history of medicine in such old Latin books as were stuffed away in the libraries of Paris. He looked back to the time of Ambroise Paré, and still further back to the thirteenth century, as golden ages in medicine,—and he considered Fagon, the King's physician, a bigoted and heartless quack" (24). Throughout his study, Auclair cultivates an open mind regarding both new ideas and "old ideas that had gone out of fashion because surgeons and doctors were too stupid to see their value" (23). By distinguishing between credible practitioners (Paré) and quacks (Fagon), Auclair demonstrates that he believes in standards of competency and holds himself to those standards while maintaining a refined aesthetic sensibility.
Tracing Cather's steps in creating Auclair's character will help clarify what might initially seem like mixed messages. First, her distinction between Auclair's role and the archaic practice of the barber-surgeon in Quebec seems to be complicated by Cather's direct reference to Ambroise Paré as a credible practitioner, since Paré began his career as a barber-surgeon. Barber-surgeons date back to the twelfth century, when medical training was rare and crude surgery (bleeding, lancing, and amputation) was often performed by uneducated barbers. As a result, barber-surgeons were referred to as "surgeons of the short robe to distinguish them from the educated surgeons of the long robe" (Haggard 159). The position of apothecary dates still further back to the rhizotomists ("root cutters") of ancient Greece and Rome, who collected roots and herbs to sell as medical remedies (81). Like barber-surgeons, apothecaries had little formal education and were thus regarded as healers of the "short robe." At first glance it would seem that Auclair's status as an apothecary would bear little resemblance to medical professionals like Tyndale or Macaulay.
Auclair, like Paré, seems to demand the respect given to healers of the long robe, even though his lack of a formal degree complicates this designation. Paré began as a "rustic" and then gained his education on the battlefield as a surgeon; similarly, Auclair inherits his father's and grandfather's shop in Paris and then delves into medical history on his own, making a "profession" of the apothecary business (Garrison 224; Shadows 23). If "change is not always progress," as Auclair tells Saint-Vallaint, then Cather indicates that formal degrees do not always signify genuine healers (97). Paré's use of ligature (reducing blood flow by tourniquet) for surgery during the sixteenth century in place of the conventional practice of cauterization (pouring boiling oil into wounds) proved so influential that he is now regarded by some medical historians as the most influential surgeon of his day (Siraisi 176, 192). His work on amputation and gunshot wounds likely informed the medicine Cather learned during the post-Civil War years in Red Cloud, as ligature was common practice by that time. Paré is regarded by Fielding Garrison as a medical pioneer: "Like Vesalius and Paracelsus, he [Paré] did not hesitate to thrust aside ignorance or superstition of it stood in his way" (224). Replacing cauterization with ligature showed Paré's break from a Galenist tradition that began in the second century and persisted in relative constancy until the 1200s (Camp 42).
Auclair's familiarity with medical history is notably limited to a period beginning with the thirteenth century, precisely the time when Galen's influence began to diminish in Western medicine, suggesting Auclair's affiliation with a tradition of practitioners who advanced scientific discovery by challenging the medical establishment. Tyndale's dual interests in medicine and art similarly deviate from the norms of his time, as Cather's portrait of him as Dr. Engelhardt in "Double Birthday," the short story she wrote while finishing Shadows on the Rock, demonstrates: "Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times—there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen" (41). Historically speaking, Auclair, too, is "a little out of tune" with his time, as was Ambroise Paré. But, as Paré's pioneering vision transformed his age, so Cather's representation of the ideal of a cultivated physician in Auclair's character offers a potentially progressive view of the medical and artistic milieus of her time.
If formal degrees do not always signify genuine healers, the question of medical competency is still a serious one in comparing Auclair to Julius Tyndale. Questions of medical competency would have been familiar to Cather during her childhood, as her relationships with Dr. McKeeby, Dr. Damerell, and Dr. Cook (owner of the Red Cloud Pharmacy) stood in stark contrast to the town homeopath, Dr. Tulleys, who once advised Mary Miner's mother to slice open a red onion and place it in the window, where it would allegedly "absorb all the diphtheria" (Bennett 116-17). Divisions between homeopathy and experimental medicine were stark and polemical, as revealed in Oliver Wendell Holmes's denunciation of homeopathy as a "humbug" of the nineteenth century in an 1842 address (39). Holmes links homeopaths with mesmerists and ancient conjurers, claiming that society always includes "a class of minds much more ready to believe that which is at first sight incredible, and because it is incredible, than what is generally thought reasonable" (33). These sentiments also appear in Cather's 1890 speech, especially in her chastisement of ancient civilizations for emphasizing the "mystical and metaphysical" while "leaving the more practical questions . . . unanswered" ("Superstition" 141). Some forty years later, following the deaths of her parents and amid her own struggles with illness, Cather was no doubt struggling to answer the very practical questions of health while Shadows on the Rock was taking shape. The cultural ideal of a cultivated physician, grounded in both science and in art, thus would have appealed to her in both physical and metaphysical ways.
As strong as the temptation might have been to use Auclair's character as a means of satisfying her own yearning for quick and easy cures, however, Cather separates the appeal of the "incredible" (as Holmes puts it) or the fantastical from medical practice. "The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years," she reflects, "not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire" (Shadows 111). While Auclair's character distinguishes between religion and the practice of medicine, he is much less dismissive than Holmes (and perhaps than the Cather of 1890) of the "class of minds" ready to believe in miracles. "The relics of the saints," he tells his daughter, "may work cures at the touch, they may be a protection worn about the neck; those things are outside of my knowledge" (103). What lies inside his knowledge is an empirical observation that human bone can prove toxic when ingested. "I am the guardian of the stomach," Auclair maintains, drawing a stark line between the realm of faith and his practice of medicine, "and I would not permit a patient to swallow a morsel of any human remains, not those of Saint Peter himself" (103). Auclair's reticence on even the psychological implications of religion for health implies his alliance with scientific medicine, which, for Cather (in 1890 and in 1930), meant opposition to alternative treatments, including religious cures and homeopathy. The cultivated physician as Cather envisioned him needed firm scientific integrity balanced, but not compromised, by an aesthetic sensibility.
If Auclair's medical proficiency is bolstered by his empiricism, linking him to the experimental tradition Cather learned firsthand from physicians in Red Cloud, his ostensible connections to the tradition of herbalism might seem to compromise his practice of medicine. Herbalism, with its frequent mingling of spiritualism and medical practice, is often interchangeable with folk medicine and figures closely into the "holistic" treatment of patients advocated by Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy (Garrison 437-38). However, Auclair demonstrates repeatedly that he is capable of distinguishing between authentic and specious alternatives to scientific medicine.
Auclair's discernment is evident in his rejection of viper broth as a remedy, which distances him from Sir Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth-century figure notorious for his misuse of snake venom. As medical historian Garrison wrote in 1929, when Cather was writing her apothecary novel, Digby may have "poisoned his wife with too-frequent doses of viper's wine, given in aid of preserving her good looks" (289). Viper venom was only one aspect of Digby's quackery, which included applying a secretive ointment to battle weapons rather than wounds, believing that the wound would heal sympathetically (287).
As if responding directly to Digby's fashionable practices, Auclair states that he "detest[s] all medicines made from lizards and serpents, . . . even viper broth" (Shadows 171). Cather's familiarity with this medical fad is bolstered by Auclair's following explanation of viper broth to his daughter: "My dear, at the time when we came out to Canada, it was very much the fashion at home." Half the great ladies of France were drinking a broth made from freshly killed vipers every morning, instead of their milk or chocolate, and believed themselves much the better for it. Medicine is a dark science, as I have told you more than once" (171). Such informed skepticism of faddish remedies would have been highly atypical among seventeenth-century apothecaries, most of whom would have immediately identified with Digby, owing either to a shared resentment of censorship at the hands of the College of Physicians or to a common belief in miraculous cures.
As a cultivated physician reminiscent of Julius Tyndale, Auclair further demonstrates by his forfeit of underhanded profits in the apothecary trade that his sophistication includes both scientific and cultural integrity. Other apothecaries and pharmacists in seventeenth-century France made a much better living by working directly with doctors or by taking advantage of the high prices their competitors were charging (Garrison 291). Had Cather included a professional relationship between Auclair and a doctor, she may have invoked swindles like those of the medical faculty at the University of Paris during the sixteenth century, including prescriptions of preposterously expensive remedies for members of the royal family (Siraisi 147). In contrast, Auclair discouraged his patients in Paris from seeing doctors, largely because of the popularity of what he called "indiscriminate blood-letting," a treatment that was as expensive as it was ineffective (Shadows 24). Instead, he issued "tisanes and herb-teas and poultices, which at least could do no harm," offering dietary advice and "prescrib[ing] goat's milk for the poorly nourished" (24). Auclair's intentional use of placebo (cures that "could do no harm") and his forfeit of pecuniary gain in favor of his opposition to phlebotomy affirm not only the strength of his convictions but also his medical competency.
As an herbalist, Auclair distinguishes himself from the Digbys and the Tulleys, and his admiration for Paré suggests an association with the iatrochemists, who were scientific pioneers within the tradition of herbalism. Inspired by Paracelsus, a sixteenth-century physician regarded by many medical historians as a pioneer in modern chemistry, the iatrochemists abandoned attempts to change lead into gold, focusing instead on the chemical production of medical remedies (Weeks 28; Shryock 12). Similarly, Auclair's "drugs" and "remedies" are "of his own compounding"; when compared with his extensive experience in "handling glass and earthenware and in regulating heat" while making medicine, Auclair's remedial compounds illustrate the kind of technical skill modeled by the iatrochemical school (Shadows 18, 126). His use of "alcohol and borax" to purify the "oleum terroe," which he uses to treat snow blindness, contrasts with the practices of spiritual herbalists like Nicolas Culpeper, who distrusted chemicals and preferred nonchemical means of purification such as drying herbs in the sun (170). Auclair's practice of medicine in the novel gains even more credibility when compared with a seventeenth-century iatrochemist like Jean Baptiste van Helmont, who was respected for his discovery of the physiological significance of ferments and gases, but who also "believed that each material process of the body [was] presided over by a special archaeus or spirit" (Garrison 261). Van Helmont's study of gases led him to believe that what he called a "sensory-motive soul" (a material combination of chemicals and spirit) was located "in the pit of the stomach, since a blow in that region destroys consciousness" (261).
While Auclair's self-proclaimed office as "the guardian of the stomach" differs greatly from van Helmont's study of gases, their mutual emphasis on the stomach's importance calls attention to Cather's phraseology, implying that even if Auclair did not believe in a "sensory-motive soul," as his spiritual ambivalence would suggest, Cather might have derived his specific defense of the stomach from the medical discourse of his time. Cather herself saw the stomach as central to the creative process. "My mind and stomach are one," she quipped in an interview with the Cleveland Press in 1925, two years before she began work on Shadows on the Rock; "I think and work with whatever it is that digests" (Sumner 88). If guarding the stomach in the seventeenth century meant protecting the seat of consciousness, then Auclair's statement carries much more weight than simple dietary advice would imply. Further, if a university-educated iatrochemist like van Helmont is regarded by medical historians as having practiced good science even while entertaining mystical ideas about ferments and spirits, one might take a second look at the ostensible rank of Auclair's character at the bottom of the "informal hierarchy" among seventeenth-century medical practitioners. As a cultivated physician, his defense of the stomach is a defense of consciousness and of the creative process—of the mind itself.
As a "guardian of the stomach," Auclair places a high value on diet, both as a means of maintaining health and as an art form. "Dinner," Cather observes, "was the important event of the day in the apothecary's household," a ritual that Auclair shares daily with his daughter (Shadows 13). Cather herself regarded wholesome food as one of the first priorities of life, employing a French cook whose talent she lauded frequently (Woodress 379, 416). As culinary pleasure was among Cather's dearest cultural ideals, it is fitting that the evening meal provides an aesthetic anchor point in Auclair's life and that this close attention to diet largely influences his practice of medicine.
Household medical remedies and cooking recipes were often found in the same books during the seventeenth century, as "good food, fresh and naturally produced, was then, as now, accepted as necessary for good health, although dietetics was not highly developed" (Knight 237). Auclair's prescription of goat's milk for his patients and the mingling of medicinal remedies with cooking spices in his apothecary's shop, as well as his own delight in carefully prepared meals, partially resemble this folk tradition. His empiricism, however, deviates from the thread of superstition that ran through most folk remedies. Additionally, Auclair nowhere demonstrates any belief in the "doctrine of signatures" common among alternative practitioners, which assumed that visual similarities between plants and symptoms of illness or between plants and organs indicated potential cures; thus, "lungwort, with spotted leaves suggesting pulmonary disease, could be used to cure chest complaints. Plants with yellow flowers, or yellow spices, might be good for jaundice" (Knight 240). The doctrine of signatures further illuminates the polarity between experimental medicine and homeopathy in Red Cloud during Cather's childhood, as Dr. Tulleys's association of a red onion with diphtheria would have been disparaged by McKeeby, Damerell, and Cook, whose treatments addressed specific symptoms with experimentally proven cures.
If Auclair's emphasis on good food can be seen to resemble the folk tradition while avoiding its fantastical elements, his aversion to animal-based remedies is illuminated by a similar distinction. During his discussion of viper broth with Cécile, Auclair admits that "in general he distrusted remedies made of the blood or organs of animals," though he concedes that some have proven efficacious (Shadows 171). One of these remedies that he has found to be effective through experience is "a medicinal oil from the fat livers of the codfish," though he avoids lumping himself in with those who harbor "an almost fanatical faith in its benefits" (172). Such a qualification of Auclair's principles shows Cather's awareness of the connotations of medical terms and practice, as Auclair's demonstrates at best a cautious trust in his remedies, contrasting the "fanatical faith" some had in cod-liver oil.
Allowing Auclair to profess a general aversion to animal-based remedies, while conceding an exception, bolsters his credibility and invites a reader to investigate his reasons for distrusting certain remedies. His distrust of viper broth derives from its faddish popularity, but the brutality of other animal remedies might have also given him pause. One such seventeenth-century remedy, allegedly effective for consumption, involved plucking a chicken alive, then disemboweling it through an incision made down the back, after which the bird was "pounded in a mortar" and mixed with wine and milk (Knight 245). Presumably, the chicken mercifully died soon after the mortar pounding began, but the drama leading up to that point was meant to intensify a patient's faith in the power of the cure. Auclair's aversion to the brutality of such cures, as well as to their reliance on superstition, reasonably explains this distrust: as an icon of cultural sophistication and medical integrity, Auclair extends the physician's mandate to do no harm from his human patients to animal life as well.
That Cather admired medical science in 1890 as an aspiring surgeon is evident in her claim that "scientific investigation is the hope of [her] age, as it must precede all progress" ("Superstition" 142). By 1930 she qualifies her stance somewhat by giving Auclair the line "Change is not always progress" while discussing his "progressivism" as a medical practitioner with Bishop Saint-Vallier (Shadows 97). Cather's general disillusionment with the material culture of the twentieth century remained distinct from her still-solid faith in the kind of scientific investigation modeled by Auclair. Had she entirely lost faith in medical science, she might have changed Auclair's line to something more like "Change is a given, but progress is a myth." Her chosen phraseology, however, suggests that Auclair does quietly believe in the ability of science to build upon its empirical store of knowledge, an implication further reinforced by his aspiration to publish his study of the medicinal properties of Canadian plants.
Furthermore, one might say that the value of medical science, to Cather's mind, depends largely on the cultural sophistication of its practitioner, so evident in Auclair's character and so absent (in Cather's mind) from Lucius Sherman and Émile Zola. Auclair's mild mannerisms, as Lewis notes, may derive from Cather's memory of her father while writing Shadows on the Rock, as "her mind often went back to his gentle protectiveness and kindness" (156). As Brienzo and Murphy suggest, these memories, the setting of Quebec, and the composition of the novel itself were all sources of comfort to Cather. By delving into the past, Murphy maintains, Cather went in search of "medieval order and spirituality" (76).
As the previous discussion of Sir Kenhelm Digby and the fad of viper broth demonstrates, however, Auclair's seventeenth-century milieu in Europe was anything but orderly; even in Quebec he must face professional stigmas associated with his title of apothecary, haggling with a barber-surgeon who lacks Auclair's sophistication yet seems to have held equal status in the "informal hierarchy" among medical practitioners of the time. Even in Quebec, Auclair is faced with 'Toinette, Blinker, and Bichet, reminders of the Parisian underworld. 'Toinette's dismissal of Auclair's remedies as "poisons" resonates with irony as she lumps him in with the faddish dealers of viper broth and with apothecaries who peddled poisonous compounds to disgruntled courtiers bent on murder (Shadows 71; Garrison 173). Moving to Quebec offers little relief from the doubts about his education and medical authority that Auclair would have faced his whole life as the son of apothecaries. In this light, whatever peace he finds (and, by implication, whatever comfort Cather derives from his alleges in his description of Auclair's "retreatist attitude" (272). Rather, like the recluse Jeanne Le Ber's chilling description of her cell as an "earthly paradise," Auclair's discovery of order in Quebec is also a kind of imprisonment that requires perpetual adaptation to grim circumstances (110).
For Cather, exhausted by visits to her mother in California before her death and by the self-imposed research required by an historical novel like Shadows on the Rock, solace had little to do with rest and everything to do with cultivating an active mind. Grand Manan, like Quebec, is merely another setting for work, as Cather's scrupulous verification of historical data for the novel and Auclair's independent compilation of a Canadian herbarium with the novel both demonstrate. The public form of the finished novel, in all of its elegance and grace, belies the backbreaking work involved in the creative process and especially obscures Cather's private resistance to writing "safe" fiction. If Cécile's prudish disgust for Madame Harnois's housekeeping calls attention to itself, Auclair's avoidance of Native American remedies in his methodical study of medicinal Canadian plants similarly invites investigation.
By twenty-first-century standards, even by the standards Cather knew in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Auclair's dismissal of Iroquois medical treatments as "savage" reflects deep prejudice. Cather's reliance on Francis Parkman's French Canadian histories, written in the late nineteenth century, may partially influence her representation of indigenous culture in the novel, as Wilbur Jacobs suggests (259). "Without giving names of chiefs," Jacobs argues, "or attempting to describe cultures and lifestyles of the Huron-Iroquois people, Cather paints them all as cannibal-barbarians. She did these native people a great disservice in neglecting to do her homework" (259). Indeed, Cather's reticence on autochthonous themes in Quebec is conspicuous enough to risk undermining the credibility she has established by her otherwise scrupulous historical details. If Auclair is to be trusted as a competent practitioner of scientific medicine, a contemporary reader must wonder why he entirely avoids Native American treatments, many of which have been added to the Western pharmacopoeia.
Cather must have considered this dilemma while composing the novel, especially since Hawthorne had already set a precedent in The Scarlet Letter for adopting Native remedies into medical science with Roger Chillingworth's dual use of chemical compounds and indigenous herbal treatments in seventeenth-century Boston. Cather may have decided that to show Auclair's adoption of Native remedies (which would have been closely tied to spirituality) would present a contradiction in his character. Instead, Auclair's reluctance to comment on religion might extend also to indigenous medicine, as he would have regarded both as "outside of [his] knowledge." After all, Auclair's admission to Cécile that "medicine is a dark science" reveals his recognition of his own limitations even within the profession to which he has devoted himself. Cather qualifies his role at the beginning of the novel, stating that "he was clearly not a man of action, no Indian-fighter or explorer" (6). To Wilbur Jacobs this means that "Cather, in short, oversimplifies. . . . She appears to have selected only the historical episodes, incidents, and facts that would serve her story" (260). But, by taking on the challenge of portraying Auclair as a medically competent seventeenth-century apothecary, it seems that Cather complicates the novel; also, it would have been difficult for her to sustain an accurate historical narrative while avoiding selectivity, especially concerning a shy character like Auclair, who would, under different circumstances, have lived his life exactly as his father and grandfather did in Paris (Shadows 6).
Auclair is most himself—functioning most as the cultivated physician—when he adds courtesy (or manners) to his practice of medicine. Sometimes this involves nothing more than listening when Count Frontenac feels lonely or when Blinker needs to talk about his previous position as a torturer (Shadows 128, 195). Sometimes this means preserving dinner as a ceremony—a preventative medicine—as his evenings with Cécile demonstrate. Even Auclair's literal remedies are things of beauty, such as the cordial he gives to Antoine Frichette, which is meant to "reach the sorest spot in a sick man"; as Frichette takes the cordial, he holds it up to the firelight and admires the color of the drink ("C'est jolie, la couleur") before draining the glass (112). Only a cultivated physician might turn a medical prescription, usually associated with pungent odors and bitter flavors, into a work of art.
Suffusing the business of medicine-making with a sense of beauty, as Frichette observes, adds a dimension of pleasure to the patient/healer relationship. Cécile also notes that everything she does with her father is "a kind of play"—not in a trifling sense, but in the sense that one delights in discovery (47). Where Lucius Sherman might allow formulae to dominate his sense of aesthetics, reducing flights of the human spirit to numbers and charts, Cather holds the bold march of scientific investigation up to the firelight as a thing of beauty, even a source of comfort able to "reach the sorest spot in a sick man." Antoine Frichette is not miraculously healed by the cordial (his rupture is an irrevocable injury, assuaged but not cured by the brace Auclair gives him), but rather empowered to face the long task of adapting to a new lifestyle, as Auclair's practice of medicine might also be seen as providing consolation to Cather while emboldening her to face life without her parents and with her own deteriorating health. Shadows on the Rock may be a refuge, but the cultural ideal Euclide Auclair represents does not allow for resting places; rather, the commingling of medicine and art provides an anchor point for the ongoing process of investigation, both scientific and aesthetic. As Grand Manan is more a fresh context for Cather's work than a getaway, so Quebec is a new setting for Auclair's rigorous mind, his self-education (begun in medical history, including Ambroise Paré) continuing in the herbarium of Canadian plants that he collects throughout the novel.
When a reader meets Auclair in the opening pages of the novel, Cather highlights his "warm and interested" eyes, which "had a kindling gleam as if his thoughts were pictures" (6). In 1930, while struggling with her own health, Cather must have wished for a physician gifted with such clarity of mind. Working back through her lifelong relationship with Dr. Julius Tyndale, through her friendship with Dr. John Macaulay in Grand Manan, back through the forty years leading up to Shadows on the Rock, one might see a steady thread of clarity in Cather's life, namely the ideal of a cultivated physician who could prepare a cordial and relish its color at the same time. While the recent deaths of her parents weighed on her mind as she wrote Shadows on the Rock, there is little doubt that Dr. Tyndale's death in 1929, the year before she finished the novel, also affected her deeply (Woodress 419). Mindful of the active dialogue between medicine and art evident in Tyndale's relationship with Cather, one might find added resonance in Euclide Auclair as an icon of medical and cultural cultivation, so meticulously documented yet still somehow playful—rigorous, but warmed by pleasure. On the gray rock of Quebec and within Cather's bleak inner landscape of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Auclair's salon shop pulses with firelight, animating a mortar and pestle atop a dinner table set for two.