Anyone who has read a great deal of Willa Cather's work cannot help but realize that she was an ardent Francophile. Whether it was painting or literature—or cooking—Cather from an early age was convinced that the French had developed the arts to the highest degree. In an 1895 article written for the Nebraska State Journal she declared that if that "very little country" should someday slide into the English Channel "there would not be much creative power of any sort left in the world" ("Dumas" 223).
In 1933 Dorothy Canfield Fisher remembered that while she and Cather were students at the University of Nebraska in the 1890s, Cather "amazed and sometimes abashed some of her professors by caring more for their subjects than they did. Especially French. There seemed to be a natural affinity between her mind and French forms of art. During her undergraduate years she made it a loving duty to read every French literary masterpiece she could lay her hands on" (9). Moreover, George Seibel, recounting his experience reading French masterpieces with Cather during her Pittsburgh years, said that their reading "covered a vast territory" (196). In his assessment of Cather's French connections, Michel Gervaud declared in 1974 that Cather's "imbibing of French literature was to be intense and prolonged until her last years" (72). And James Woodress noted in his 1993 article on Cather and Alphonse Daudet that in the index to his biography of Cather he found the names of twenty-six French writers whom she had read (156).
As would be expected, Woodress's list includes the nineteenth-century giants, among them Balzac, Daudet (Cather's favorite), Dumas (pére and fils), Flaubert, Hugo, Maupassant, Merrimée, Musset, Sand, Verlaine, and Zola. To that list we must add the name of the twentieth-century journalist, short-story writer, novelist, biographer, and essayist Henri Barbusse (1873-1935). It was probably through his war novel Le feu (Under Fire) that Cather came to know of Barbusse, and she may well have found some useful background information for her own "war novel," One of Ours, in that book. Barbusse's novel L'enfer (The Inferno), however, was almost certainly an even more important source, providing what Henry James called the "germ" for Cather's 1920 short story "Coming, Aphrodite!" and suggesting some of the central ideas in her 1922 essay "The Novel Démeublé."
Le feu, originally published in French in 1916 and then in English under the title Under Fire in 1917, came out of Barbusse's firsthand experience in World War I. Having joined the French army filled with patriotic spirit and moral fervor, Barbusse suffered a terrible sense of disillusionment in the face of that apocalyptic horror which would lead him to become one of France's most outspoken pacifists in the postwar period. In Under Fire he describes the brutal dilemma of the common soldier as no one before him had. In the late 1910s and early 1920s the novel was generally considered the greatest European account of the war, and it was certainly the most popular such account until the publication of Remarque's much shorter All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929.
Contemporary reviewers were struck by the awful truthfulness of Under Fire. Francis Hackett, writing in the New Republic, asserted, "No description of bombardment surpasses M. Barbusse's, even in translation. And no description of going forward, so it seems to me, can equal his chapter Under Fire" (358). Another reviewer found the novel a powerful indictment of modern war, "a grim book with a vengeance" (Gwynn 805). Robert Herrick, in his comment in the Dial, titled "Unromantic War," called Under Fire "the most searching, the most revealing statement of what modern war means both morally and physically" (133). In his 1926 essay, Brian Rhys stated, "The conviction comes that Under Fire will remain on record as the greatest novel of its kind" (xii); a half century later, in the 1976 article "Henri Barbusse: 'Le feu' and the Crisis of Social Realism," Jonathan King argued that Under Fire was not merely a major war novel but that its publication marked "a key moment" in the history of social realist fiction (46).
It was not merely the literary establishment or a European audience that read the book, however. In his 1919 New Republic review of Barbusse's volume of short stories We Others, John Manning Booker observed, "Americans consumed Under Fire by the tens of thousands; thrilled, throbbed, and ached over it" (146). Willa Cather must certainly have been one of those readers. She very likely looked at Barbusse's Under Fire in doing the research—what she called the "gathering" of materials—for One of Ours, which she began riting in late 1918. In Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War, Steven Trout notes not only that Barbusse's novel likely was one of Cather's sources for information on the war but also that there are striking similarities between macabre descriptions of bodies of the dead in Barbusse's chapter "The Doorway" and Cather's description of bodies found by Claude Wheeler and David Gerhardt in the Boar's Head trench in book 5 of One of Ours.
Having noted this likely connection between Cather and Barbusse's Under Fire, let us focus on two other connections with Barbusse that are even more obvious. They involve another extremely popular Barbusse novel, L'enfer, originally published in France in 1908, and published in English under the title The Inferno in 1918. Although, as Woodress points out, Cather read French with ease, an English translation, published in New York by Boni and Liveright in 1918, would have been readily available to her. The title page of that edition reads: "The Inferno, by Henri Barbusse, Author of Under Fire; Translated from the 100 th [emphasis mine] French Edition with an Introduction by Edward J. O'Brien."
O'Brien's opening remarks include the following statement: "'L'Enfer' has been more widely read and discussed in France than any other realistic study since the days of Zola. The French sales of the volume, in 1917 alone, exceeded a hundred thousand copies, a popularity made all the more remarkable from the fact that its appeal is based as much on its philosophical substance as on the story it tells" (9). While there is no recorded mention of Barbusse in Cather's letters, Elizabeth Sergeant, recalling the period of the late 1910s, says, "Willa was always happy to know of new French authors, whom she preferred to new American authors" (157). Given the widespread interest in Barbusse's novel, Cather as an avid reader of French literature would hardly have been unaware of, or unfamiliar with, The Inferno. And given her attempts to hide or disguise her sources, it is understandable that references to Barbusse do not appear in her correspondence.
By the winter of 1919-20 Cather felt she needed a break from work on One of Ours, which she later told Fisher had become an obsession with her. As Woodress puts it, "During the Christmas season of 1919 Cather took a break from her novel and wrote a long story just for fun, an uncharacteristic act but one that turned out well" (A Literary Life 309). By this time Cather had become dissatisfied with her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and was considering offers from several New York publishers who seemed to like her work more, chief among them Alfred A. Knopf. Knopf, at twenty-three (and as he put, "full of chutzpah"), had founded his own publishing company in New York in the late spring of 1915, and in the late 1910s he was aggressively pursuing writers to add to his list. He wooed Cather with offers to publish a volume of short stories—in fact, to reprint a number of stories from the earlier volume The Troll Garden (1905) while she completed her novel. On 1 February 1920, Cather and Knopf agreed to a contract for the volume of short stories, a move that changed the course of Cather's whole artistic career.
Youth and the Bright Medusa was published in September 1920, with four stories from the earlier volume ("Paul's Case," "A Wagner Matinée," "The Sculptor's Funeral," and "'A Death in the Desert'"); three more recent stories, previously published in magazines ("The Diamond Mine," "A Gold Slipper," and "Scandal"); and one new story, "Coming, Aphrodite!" The gem, without a doubt, was "Coming, Aphrodite!," which had been published in the Smart Set in August as "Coming, Eden Bower!" Critics simply raved about the story. The reviewer for the Nation said that Cather here had completely achieved the effect she was after; another said the story had been written with "the utmost skill, and the deftest effects of descriptive incident." H. L. Mencken declared that "Coming, Aphrodite!" showed "utterly competent workmanship in every line." The reviewer for the New York Times called the publication of Youth and the Bright Medusa "decidedly a literary event" and said that if Cather had written nothing except "Coming, Aphrodite!" "there could be no doubt of her right to rank beside the greatest creative artists of the day" (O'Connor 99-104).
Certainly one of the most striking elements in the story is the embedded narrative, "The Forty Lovers of the Queen," a violent Aztec fertility tale that Don Hedger tells Eden Bower. As Cather scholars have long known, Cather wrote Sergeant in 1912 that the story had been told to her by a young Mexican singer during Cather's visit to her brother Douglass in Winslow, Arizona, in the summer of that year. The other particularly fascinating detail of "Coming, Aphrodite!," the premise of the story, the Jamesian donné, involves Don Hedger's discovering a hole in the wall of a closet in his apartment, which enables him to look into the room next door and observe its occupants. The incident has long fascinated Cather readers. Woodress calls the account of discovery "one of the most remarkable scenes Cather ever wrote" (A Literary Life 313).
Cather did write a remarkable story, but she clearly did not invent the remarkable scene. That scene, as well as other details in "Coming, Aphrodite!," in fact, almost certainly came right out of Barbusse's The Inferno. Barbusse's novel begins with a thirty-year-old unnamed narrator alone in a room he has just taken in a Paris boardinghouse. Cather's Don Hedger is twenty-six years old. Both men have been on their own for years: Barbusse's character had lost his mother and father "eighteen or twenty years before" (19), and Cather's character had been a foundling and "had grown up in a school for homeless boys" (17). Reflecting on his life, Barbusse's narrator notes, "I was unmarried. I had no children and shall have none" (19). Cather's Don Hedger is "singularly unencumbered; he had no family ties, no social ties, no obligations" (17).
In "Coming, Aphrodite!" Don Hedger has lived for four years on the top floor of an old house on Washington Square. Like that of Barbusse's narrator, his room is dark, "very cheerless, since he never got a ray of direct sunlight" (11). In Barbusse's novel, the door between the narrator's room and the room next door is "always kept locked" (30); in Cather's story, Hedger's apartment is separated from the one next door by "bolted double doors" (13).
Early in Barbusse's novel, his narrator, looking over some notes after a long day of travel, says, "I heard a song hummed quite close to my ear. . . . The singing came from the room next to mine." Barbusse continues: Why was it so pure, so strangely near? Why did it touch me so? I looked at the wall between the two rooms, and stifled a cry of surprise. High up, near the ceiling above the door, always kept locked, there was a light. The song fell from that star. There was a crack in the partition at that spot, through which the light of the next room entered the night of mine. I climbed up on the bed, and my face was on a level with the crack. Rotten woodwork, two loose bricks. The plaster gave way and an opening appeared as large as my hand, but invisible from below, because of the moulding. I looked. I beheld. The next room presented itself to my sight freely. (30-31)
In Cather's story, Don Hedger makes a remarkably similar discovery. One afternoon shortly after a new neighbor has moved into the apartment next door, Hedger is cleaning out his clothes closet. Cather tells us, When he took his overcoat from its place against the partition [between the two rooms], a long ray of yellow light shot across the dark enclosure,—a knot hole, evidently, in the high wainscoating [sic] of the west room. He had never noticed it before, and without realizing what he was doing, he stooped and squinted through it. Yonder in a pool of sunlight, stood his new neighbour, wholly unclad, doing exercises of some sort before a long gilt mirror. (26)
Both men are stunned by their views into the adjoining rooms—Hedger, obviously, more so. For both, peering through the hole becomes an obsession. Barbusse's narrator says that he "could not tear his eyes from" the room next door (53). For Cather's character, "the pull of that aperture was stronger than his will. . . . This thing . . . drank him up" (30). What happens in the two narratives after this initial shock and fascination, however, is quite different.
Over a period of several weeks Barbusse's narrator observes a number of different individuals and couples in the room next door: a hotel maid who reads and kisses a letter, apparently from her lover; an adolescent boy and girl who have discovered the thrill of first love and have sneaked into the room to be alone together; a frustrated young woman trapped in an empty and monotonous marriage, who has escaped there with her lover; another woman, pregnant, who is there with her terminally ill husband.
While there is a voyeuristic element to the book, Barbusse's real interest is not in the prurient possibilities of the narrator's situation but rather in the opportunity to observe the truths behind the lives of those who enter the room. Of his glimpse of the maid, his speaker says, "And that simple gesture of kissing the paper, that gesture buried in a room, stripped bare by the dark, had something sublime and awesome in it" (34). Realizing the essential differences between the young married woman and her lover, he remarks, "And suddenly the veil fell from my eyes, and reality lay stripped before me. I saw that between these two people there was an immense difference, like an infinite discord, sublime to behold because of its depths, but so painful that it bruised my heart" (70).
Barbusse's characters all suffer a modern malaise in a contemporary Dantean inferno, a world without God. They are painfully alienated from each other, they desperately cling to the false hope that relationships—love—can free them from their loneliness, and they are overwhelmed by a terrible awareness of their mortality. Malcolm Cowley said in 1922 that the books Barbusse wrote before 1914 (The Inferno was originally published in 1908) were "so blackly pessimistic that Schopenhauer beside them seems a booster for the Rotary Club" (180). As Colin Wilson has noted, Barbusse's unnamed narrator is the Outsider, the modern man alienated by his vision of the truth and his insistence on confronting it. In a word, Under Fire is a remarkable early existential text.
While it seems clear that Cather "borrowed" (T. S. Eliot said, "Young writers imitate; mature writers steal") the defining event from Barbusse's novel, her story has a much different tone and takes a much different direction after Don Hedger discovers the hole in the wainscoting of his room. Hedger is sexually aroused by the vision of the woman next door, becomes infatuated with the young diva Eden Bower, and carries on a brief affair with her that ends in a dispute over the relationship between artistic integrity and popular success. When Hedger insists that he, like any other real artist, works only for himself, Eden asks incredulously, "You mean you could make money and don't? That you don't try to get a public?" (66). Days after the disagreement, Eden leaves New York to pursue her ambitions. After years of "spectacular success" in Paris, she returns in triumph to New York. Curious about what had happened to Hedger, she looks up the art dealer M. Jules, who reveals that Hedger is a highly respected though not wealthy artist, and remarks, "But Madame, there are many kinds of success" (77).
Marilyn Arnold has surmised that the newer stories in Youth and the Bright Medusa, "like The Song of the Lark, probably had their genesis in Cather's meeting and subsequent friendship with [the Swedish-born opera singer] Olive Fremstad" (106), and Woodress speculates that "Coming, Aphrodite!" must have given Cather the idea for the volume as a whole. With her earlier success as editor of McClure's magazine and particularly with the very recent triumph of My Ántonia, Cather at this point in her life, circa 1920, was clearly pondering the causes, consequences, and meaning of fame and fortune; in finally coming to know the pleasures of success (though real financial success would only come in the next couple of years), she also no doubt had developed a heightened awareness of the dangers of same to the serious artist. A reading of The Inferno certainly would have provided additional food for thought.
Toward the end of The Inferno, the narrator enters a large restaurant. In the room he is saddened by overheard bits of conversation that surprise him with their "persiflage" and "consistent irony" (234). Amid the "general hubbub," he is particularly interested in a M. Villiers, a famous writer, who is holding court, and in Villiers's claim that he is currently writing a novel the theme of which is Truth, "a succession of human beings caught just as they are" (235). The novel begins, Villiers relates, with the following event: "A man pierces a hole in the wall of a boarding-house room, and watches what is going on in the next room" (236).
Initially astonished by the coincidence between the experiences he has actually had for the last month and the scenario the author describes, Barbusse's narrator is then angered by the glibness with which the popular writer describes what he has written thus far: "he retailed a lot of amusing oddities, described comical persons and things, heaped up picturesque and piquant details, coined typical and witty proper names, and invented complicated and ingenious situations. He succeeded in producing irresistible effects, and the whole was in the latest style" (237). The crowd in the restaurant responds with "Ahs" and "Ohs" and cries of "Bravo" as the writer, in the narrator's words, continues "to travesty the truth" (238). "Thank God," Villiers exclaims, "I am a writer, and not a thinker" (237).
Returning to his room and once again drawn irresistibly to look into the adjoining room, Barbusse's narrator hears the lover of the frustrated young married woman describing a meeting he had had with a poor woman and her baby on the street earlier that evening. The young man, who had been deeply touched and inspired by the divine beauty of that woman in rags and had written a poem about her and the child, "seemed to be searching for something, to be seeing things, and believing infinitely. He was in another world where everything we see is true and everything we say is unforgettable" (241). Is not the contrast established in these two characters—the popular, glib writer who superficially sees the tales of those characters in his novel merely as "amusements" to be used to gain literary success and popularity, and the truly sensitive, unknown poet who recognizes the essential human tragedy and artistic possibility in that poor woman's smile—very similar to that which Cather establishes between Eden Bower and Don Hedger in "Coming, Aphrodite!"? Might Barbusse's novel perhaps have provided not only the donné for the first story in Youth and the Bright Medusa but also solidified a fundamental theme for the volume as a whole?
Finally, there is a possible connection between Barbusse's The Inferno and Cather's 1922 essay "The Novel Démeublé." There Cather declares, "In any discussion of the novel, one must make it clear whether one is talking about the novel as a form of amusement, or as a form of art" (35), and she deplores the cheapness of the novel "manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people" (36), much as Barbusse's narrator deplores the work of the facile, popular author in the restaurant, who finds the lives of his characters merely "amusing" (237). The narrator of The Inferno is dedicated to an ideal, Truth. His observations through the peephole as an unknown observer have given him insights into what is "real," the tragic dilemma of the human condition, which almost defies expression.
The lover-poet describing the profound significance of his meeting with the simple woman on the street has been overwhelmed by what he has experienced. He tells his mistress that the experience with the poor woman has "pierced [his] heart" (241) and revealed to him a higher truth. In "The Novel Démeublé" Cather asserts that "realism" is not merely a matter of "cataloguing" details but rather is "an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme" (37). "The higher processes of art," she continues, "are all processes of simplification" that lead to "a higher and truer effect" (40).
Barbusse's narrator has come to understand the truths to be discovered by those individuals and true artists who honestly seek or are open to them, and who understand that realization of them often challenges or defies expression. "I have such respect for the actual truth," Barbusse's narrator tells us, "that there are moments when I do not dare to call things by their name" (244). "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there," Cather says in "The Novel Démeublé," "that one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself" (41-42). The similarities in both phrasing and meaning are striking.
Finally, might Barbusse's novel even have suggested the title for Cather's essay? What dark but beautiful truths emerge from that room, "stripped bare by the dark" (The Inferno 34), into which Barbusse's narrator peers. That room, figuratively "unfurnished," now unseen, is exactly what Cather describes at the end of her essay: a scene left "bare for the play of emotions, great and little" (43).
Henri Barbusse, then, seems to have been another very important French connection in Willa Cather's literary career. In his novel Under Fire Cather most likely found some information that proved useful in writing One of Ours. The Inferno, however, appears to have had an even more significant influence on her. Interestingly, Cather ends "The Novel Démeublé" by noting the elder Dumas's opinion that to make a drama all a writer needed was one passion and four walls. There is good reason to accept Dumas's assertion, but Barbusse seems to have given Cather not only four walls and a passion but also a peephole, and thus the "germ" for one of her very best short stories. In addition, Barbusse's room "stripped bare by the dark" and his assertion that there are moments when one dare not "call things by their name" almost certainly provided Cather with the inspiration for one of her most important statements about the art of fiction.