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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Subsequent Reflections on Shadows on the Rock

The three preceding essays, by Richard H. Millington, John J. Murphy, and Joseph R. Urgo, were originally presented as a triptych of papers at the Ninth International Cather Seminar, "Willa Cather as Cultural Icon" (Bread Loaf, Vermont, 28 May-2 June 2003). The three scholars were then invited to respond to each others' viewpoints and to continue the conversation about Cather's iconicity, first in a roundtable discussion at the conference and then in the reflections that follow.


In the spirited discussion that followed the presentation of these three papers at the Breadloaf Seminar, my argument got translated, I believe, into a version of the time-honored "murder to dissect" debate: Should we be interpreting Cather's works at all? I confess to being at the time somewhat befuddled by this development; let me take this occasion, first, to clarify my claims. Sontag, as I hope my essay makes clear, is not calling for an end to literary criticism; she is, rather, arguing that we desperately need a descriptive rather than an explanatory (or, in her terms, an interpretive) approach to works of art, so that we may experience them—and through their example, the world—freshly and directly. Following Sontag, I set out to provide such a description of Shadows on the Rock, emphasizing the kind of experience of reading that Cather's formal choices seemed designed to produce. My argument, though "formalist," is not a- or anti-historical: I then tried to show that the very experience of reading that Cather creates in Shadows—the way the book enacts its interests and quietly instructs us in feeling and thinking differently—is, when put in the context of a contest between Victorian and modernist cultures, its most significant historical feature. Or, to put this another way, the affective and aesthetic experience of a text may well be the most interesting thing to "historicize." I would add to Sontag's argument this modification: different works require from their readers different forms of response. It makes all the sense in the world to apply the familiar model of character growth and development to Austen's Emma or George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke; it is the occasion of a profound readerly loss to apply such allegorical interpretive schemes to the work of a writer trying her best to escape them.

Perhaps in the spirit of Sontag, let me bring more to the surface the polemical undercurrent of my essay: I think Cather criticism—of all intellectual varieties—pays and has paid far too little attention to the experience of reading that her books create. Resolutely "interpretive," in Sontag's terms, we have explained all sorts of things about her texts—their themes, their relation to her life, their relation to American ideology—but, having explained so much about her books, we have failed to notice sufficiently what is at once most remarkable and most obvious about them: the way they refuse the novelistic tradition they inherit—and, through that refusal, make possible for their readers new forms of response. (Isn't that what major writers do—exemplify or transform structures of thought and feeling?)

Americanist literary criticism generally wriggles under the thumb of the explanatory, but Cather criticism seems to me to have an especially bad case. Am I alone in especially wishing for a respite from the biographical interpretation of her fiction? Let me be clear: biographical work is necessarily valuable; it is always good to know more, and that knowledge can sometimes bolster arguments or save one from interpretive error. For example, Janis Stout's fine biographical essay on Cather and the question of belief, with its convincing demonstration that, for most of her life, her actual religious feeling cannot be pinned down, has the salutary effect of keeping open the genuinely interpretive question of how "belief" might best be understood within her novels.[1] But biographical interpretation, the attempt to explain the qualities of the work by recourse to the life, has seemed to me inconclusive at best and, at worst, dispiritingly reductive, often denying Cather the respect due her as an intellectual and an artist. And in the unlikely event that a biographical interpretation were convincing, I am hard pressed to think of a case in which it would not make the text less rather than more interesting: of what possible use is it to know that Cather was feeling the same thing as Godfrey St. Peter when she was writing The Professor's House, or that Old Mrs. Harris is really Cather's grandmother's left-handed maiden aunt, twice removed? Within Cather studies the biographical urge is the most egregious and prevalent instance of rampant allegorism and the avoidance of engagement with the experience of the text. Frankly, I do not think most historicist readings fare much better in this regard. I have been happy to learn much from recent contextual work, but it is rare to find attention to anything but theme in such studies, and their address to the work is no less allegorical, as they track the trajectory of "real" ideological categories across the dispensable "surface" of the text.[2]

My little polemic raises a question. Why are academics, old-fashioned or new, so drawn to the "interpretive" and the "allegorical"—to moralized narratives, whether uplifting or demystifying, that will reveal the hidden truth about a text? Why have we been so impervious to the modernism of texts like Shadows on the Rock? Here is a historical answer: English professors—whether pre- or poststructuralist in their intellectual orientation—are the inheritors, through the university and the liberal arts college, the institutions that train and employ them, of the very ethos—high-minded, allegorizing, moralistic—that Cather's texts work so hard to combat. We have met the Last Victorians, and they are us.


Let me begin by acknowledging my collaborators, whose distinguished work on Shadows on the Rock has helped rescue the novel from neglect and recognize it as an essential component of Cather's exploration of culture-making. I have cited their essays in my preceding essay because in exploring this flood subject, they touch upon (if ever so gently) what seems an impasse in contemporary criticism vis-à-vis issues of religion and faith. The primary difficulty concerns objectivity, which in our discipline ranges from truth to matters of taste. C. S. Lewis claims that the modern penchant for ideological relativity stems from regarding the savage as the human norm, that as we turn to developed civilizations we find fewer differences than popularly believed. He denies that there exists "choice between clearly differentiated ethical systems," affirming that "no ethical attack on any of the traditional precepts can be made except on the ground of some other traditional precept." His argument recognizes the Absolute (what Cather's rock symbolizes) and concludes that Christianity presupposes moral truth, which (like God) has no basis: "The ultimate ethical injunctions have always been premises, never conclusions" (55). The contemporary urge to mutilate or expurgate what Lewis calls the "text of the . . . original manuscript" (56) stems not only from our demand for intellectual and moral freedom but from scandalous behavior and inconsistency within religious denominations, violent acts committed under the guise of righteousness, resentment of authority, and growing secularism. Sometimes very personal experiences cause literary critics to dismiss religious issues (unless they are discrediting) in texts with obvious religious intentions.

In Cather's case, religious intentions are underrepresented in the criticism generated by her work. Unlike Flannery O'Connor, Cather never really identified with a religious system, yet she was fascinated by the cultures of such systems, by how they determine vision and values and influence motivation. Sometimes Cather was dismayed by the narrowness of religious communities, but more often the saintly lives, folkways, art, and architecture of religion inspired her. But more than cultural curiosity can be implied from the increasing dominance of religious subjects from The Professor's House (1925) to the Avignon story left unfinished at her death in 1947. For example, thoughtful speculation on the existence of God is the subject of a 1936 letter Cather wrote to Edith Lewis from New Hampshire. Cather describes (in my paraphrase) how Jupiter and Venus hang together in the October evening sky "for an hour . . . . then silver Venus slips into the rose-colored twilight to be close to the departed sun, and Jupiter now hangs alone in the sky, going down about 8:30. It surely reminds us of Dante's 'eternal wheels.' I can't believe that all this beauty and majesty, these unfailing and fated arrivals and exits, are nothing more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are, then human beings are the only wonderful things—because they can wonder." Cather would express her own wonder through Father Ambrose in the Avignon fragment, yet here it appears unmasked, personal, a concern of the woman as well as the artist. This letter is important in helping us determine why Cather repeatedly returned to religious subjects and why she chose to be confirmed with her parents in Red Cloud's Grace Episcopal Church in 1922.

That an intelligent woman and artist would have such concerns in modern times need not be viewed as an aberration. Intelligent people may still be as concerned about the existence of the ultimate as Thomas Aquinas was in the thirteenth century. His agenda, too, involved proof of the reality of God, the "idea" which in Bishop Latour's speculation in Death Comes for the Archbishop was for the ancient Hebrews "their rock . . . the only thing their conquerors could not take from them" (103). St. Thomas also argued from effects ("Existence of God") that God's existence is proven through motion and causation, the need for primacy and maximum being, and the intelligent direction of the universe (the argument Cather refers to in her letter). More convincing for modern sensibilities (because it addresses our psychological composition) is his argument that the fulfillment we seek through temporary pleasures, riches, fame, and so forth can be satisfied only in God ("What Is Happiness?"); this, indeed, is why we crave it. The struggle to sustain faith in such fulfillment is at the core of religious life. Such is Bishop Latour's struggle in "December Night," Noël Chabanel's and Jeanne Le Ber's during periods of spiritual aridity, and Myra Henshawe's during her terrible final days. Godfrey St. Peter merely struggles with the emptiness of corruptible things; his faith journey begins beyond the pages of Cather's novel. "[P]eople don't realize . . . how much religion costs," Flannery O'Connor wrote to Louise Abbot in 1959. "They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can't believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God" (354).

I refuse to concede that such struggles are out of date in the twenty-first century, and I feel that literary critics who are agnostics or atheists should acknowledge the seriousness of such struggles, just as believers should recognize that their version of reality may seem irrelevant to others. It should be noted by critics, for example, that Chabanel made his perpetual vow "in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed" (123)—that is, out of the tabernacle—because in his belief Christ was present in the Sacrament. The critic who is an orthodox Catholic should not use this occasion to declare the real presence as a fact; believers must present matters of faith as personal rather than universal truths. If a critic is an agnostic or atheist, he or she should be aware of the significance of such a specification to the character involved; this should not merely be a matter of courtesy but one of comprehensive reading. Cather herself is a perfect model (perhaps even an icon) of the sensitivity and intelligence needed to recognize the meaning of certain traditions and to respect them. With her kind of sympathy, belief and its object, God, will not be relegated to darker ages and peasantry but recognized as viable components of contemporary life.


Near the end of his essay in this volume, John Murphy states that he "would prefer exploration of both permanence and change within the system represented by the shadows," and follows immediately with the question, "To what extent does a belief system possess permanence, and to what extent is it transitory?" This a very good, and haunting, question. In the question-and-answer portion of the public presentation where these essays originated, Charles Peek raised a similar question, which I will attempt to paraphrase here. Granted Cather's interest in strong manifestations of belief, and granted that Quebec presents a particularly salient example of "truth happening" among the devout, what, in Cather's mind, casts the shadow? If Nebraska pioneers, French missionaries in the Southwest, Catholic settlers in Quebec, and soldiers marching off to the Great War are manifestations of something constant in human nature, some unaccountable predilection, as Cather might have it, what exactly is it that is manifest? It does not necessarily follow that the attempt to know about a great number of such manifestations is preferable, superior, or more intellectually sophisticated than devoting a lifetime to knowing one manifestation thoroughly. The quest is common: we seek access to the eternities, to the source both of meaning and meaning-making. The divide is as old as Western philosophy. In their successive attempts to understand human political arrangements, Plato contemplated one, theoretically perfect state. His student, Aristotle, cataloged every known political system. The desire was constant; the means successive, various, and different.

The purpose of literary criticism is, in the end, to renew our interest in literary texts. The enterprise has a number of auxiliary functions, which spill over into every discipline in the humanities, and into the sphere of public affairs. As literary critics we deal, in essence, in the human imagination. When the three of us—John Murphy, Richard Millington, and myself—began to think about this collaboration, what drove us was the experiment of moving Shadows on the Rock to the center, rather than the periphery, of the Cather canon, as if it, and not My Ántonia, were considered the main text, the great achievement. There is no formal reason why this should not be so; Shadows on the Rock is as technically accomplished as any other Cather novel. If Catholicism, and not geographical pioneers, were the source of so much American ideology, then the content of Shadows on the Rock would be compelling, not compulsory.

With the evocation of Plato's allegory of the cave, from The Republic, Cather implicitly raises a subsidiary issue. No one in literary studies thinks of The Republic without recalling that Plato famously bans poets from his ideal state. The danger that the poet (and today, the novelist) brings to the state comes in the habit of mimesis, producing the demand for interpretation, a demand that divides citizens. At the time Plato was writing, philosophers challenged poets for prominence in matters of state. Was not rationality more to be trusted than the mimetic arts? Philosophers argued logically, and their conclusions could be examined and challenged with even more precise and accurate thinking. Poets, however, were liars. They made things up, aroused emotions, evoked opposed responses. The divide continues today, as it has throughout Western intellectual history, between fact and fancy, science and humanities, critics and poets. Our souls, our training, our institutions are similarly divided between the manipulation of what has been given to us and the creation of what has not.

The question of what Cather meant is not as interesting as the nature of the debate she ignited when she stranded the "philosopher apothecary" and his daughter on the rock. We are attracted to poets who are able to articulate and breathe life into that which remains unsettled. The matter of religious pluralism in the contemporary world, the idea of God, the challenge to coexistence posed by fundamentalist systems—the vital nature of these issues does not depend on our eyes being open to them. And unlike Plato's philosopher-kings, we are not at liberty to ban from our presence the poet who compels us to attend to such matters. As descendants of philosophers and poets, we continue to study the effects on our intellectual situation brought to bear by the philosopher's system and the poet's imagination, the confrontation between our received beliefs and the vision of what else might be there. The question—Which are shadows and which are rocks?—will remain with us until we become something else besides our inherited and imaginable selves.


 1. See Janis P. Stout, "Faith Statements and Nonstatements in Willa Cather's Personal Letters." Let me be clear about my terms: I would describe the three essays that precede this chapter as, mainly, "intentionalist" rather than biographical. The Cather evoked in my essay and Joe Urgo's (and, for most of the time, in John Murphy's) is the artist-intellectual we infer from the distinctive attributes of the texts she writes; in my view, it is precisely when Murphy's essay veers toward the biographical—when it wants to claim something about Cather's actual beliefs—that its argument becomes unpersuasive (as when Pierre Charron's supposed piety is taken as evidence for Cather's, or when Cécile's quite secular celebration of the pots and pans of civilization is somehow taken as evidence of the book's stake in the "sacred"). (Go back.)
 2. An exception to this criticism is Chip Rhodes's fine discussion of The Professor's House in "American Modernism, Aesthetics, and Man-made Truths: Willa Cather and John Dos Passos," chapter 2 of his Structures of the Jazz Age. (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Charles W. Mignon with Frederick M. Link and Kari A. Ronning. Historical essay and explanatory notes John J. Murphy. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
———. Letter to Edith Lewis. 4 October 1936. Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, Red Cloud, Nebraska.
———. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Lewis, C. S. "On Ethics." Christian Reflections by C.S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids mi: Eerdmans, 1967. 44-56.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1980.
Rhodes, Chip. Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Disclosures in American Modernism. London: Verso, 1998.
Stout, Janis P. "Faith Statements and Nonstatements in Willa Cather's Personal Letters." Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief. Ed. John J. Murphy. Provo UT: Brigham Young UP, 2002. 7-27.
Thomas Aquinas. "The Existence of God" (Question 2). Summa Theologica. Trans. English Dominicans. 5 vols. Westminster md: Christian Classics, 1981. 1: 11-14.
———. "What Is Happiness" (Question 3, Eighth article). Summa Theologica. Trans. English Dominicans. 5 vols. Westminster MD: Christian Classics, 1981. 2: 601-2.