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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Cather's Shadows

Solid Rock and Sacred Canopy

Willa Cather seemed to have little interest in developing herself into a popular icon beyond encouraging the early image of a girl on a pony riding over vast prairies on her way to butter-making and story-telling immigrant homemakers, and the later one of the natural artist who produced O Pioneers! (1913) without "writ[ing] at all" (Carroll interview, Bohlke 21) and has Jim Burden declare in My Ántonia (1918) that he "didn't arrange or rearrange," just "simply wrote down" what he recalled without awareness of "form" (xiii). As the Benéts affirm in their 1940 interview, "she does not go in for personal appearances, speech-making, banqueting, public autographing, and the like" (Bohlke 136), activities that make popular icons of people who want to become such icons. But the prefatory note in Not Under Forty (1936), that she had ceased to identify with the contemporary world and numbered herself among "the backward" (v), suggests that we consider the kind of icon Cather indeed became, intentionally or not, for those dismayed that a major writer would identify with "the backward," and for those who view her as their champion for so doing.

Perhaps because of patriotism, lack of self-confidence, or fear that a favorite image of Cather as an icon of confident midwestern grandeur (a kind of literary Bess Truman) might topple like the Saddam Hussein bronze in Baghdad, scant attention is given to Cather's argument with Americanization. At Laura Bush's celebration of Cather and some others at the White House in September 2002, many well-known Cather literary passages were conspicuous for their absence among the celebratory ones that made us feel good about America. I remembered Jim Laird's condemnation of Sand City in "The Sculptor's Funeral" (1905) as "a dung heap" (Collected Stories 203) and "place of hatred and bitter waters" (210); Jim Burden's condemnation of Black Hawk as a collection of "flimsy shelters" full of "jealousy and envy and unhappiness," a place under the "tyranny" of gossip in which life is "made up of evasions and negations" and "every natural appetite . . . bridled by caution" (212); and Niel Herbert's lament in A Lost Lady (1923) about the passing of the Old West from greathearted dreamers to "shrewd young men, trained to petty economies," who "had never dared anything, never risked anything" (102), as well as the narrator's impetuous comment that Niel "was in a fever of impatience to be gone . . . forever, and was making the final break with everything that had been dear to him in his boyhood" (160). Most of all, I remembered Claude Wheeler's reflection in France in One of Ours (1922) that he had "no chance for the kind of life he wanted at home [in Nebraska], where people were always buying and selling, building and pulling down. He had begun to believe that the Americans were a people of shallow emotions" (328).

The insistence of such complaints, in spite of the obvious imperfections of the characters who make them, suggests that they probably were Cather's as well, a suggestion confirmed in "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," the 1923 article Cather wrote for The Nation. In it she laments the "Americanization" that has "done away with" (237) much of European culture and stamped out the use of other languages through English-only programs; she also condemns the indifference and even closed-mindedness of New England and southern settlers toward their Bohemian and Scandinavian neighbors. After presenting a picture of productive fields, new farmhouses with bathrooms, clean and well-kept towns, and "crowds of happy looking children, well nourished," on their way to school, Cather turns to "the other side of the medal, stamped with the ugly crest of materialism." An overabundance of prosperity, movies, and gaudy fiction has generated "the frenzy to be showy; farmer boys who wish to be spenders before they are earners, girls who try to look like the heroines of the cinema screen; a coming generation which tries to cheat its aesthetic sense by buying things instead of making anything." Then she zeroes in on the University of Nebraska, fearing that her alma mater "may become a gigantic trade school. The men who control its destiny . . . wish their sons and daughters to study machines, mercantile processes, 'the principles of business'; everything that has to do with the game of getting on in the world—and nothing else" (238). In The Professor's House (1925) the state university is being "farm[ed] . . . out to athletics, and to the agricultural and commercial schools favored and fostered by the State Legislature" (58), and Cather's criticism in this novel embraces both the nation and contemporary life. As a result of the effects of overabundant prosperity "[t]he world is sad to [Professor] St. Peter," and "everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man" (148-49).

How much St. Peter's condition can be applied to Cather herself is debatable; that St. Peter's thoughts echo Cather's is less so. The year The Professor's House was published, Cather discovered the biography of Bishop Machebeuf and got the particulars she needed to begin Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her attempt to depict "the story of the Catholic Church in [the Southwest,] . . . the most interesting of all its stories" (On Writing 5), in such a way as to measure "all human experiences . . . against one supreme spiritual experience" (9). The worldview of her priest-protagonist (and first European-bred consciousness filter) is not a private creation like Jim Burden's, Professor St. Peter's, or Tom Outland's but one essentially shared by other faithful believers, by his family back in France, by his scattered flock in New Mexico, and by those with whom he labors. A revealing aspect of her project is that Cather must mine the past to find such an integrated world, one clearly evident in the opening book where Latour gets lost in a chaos of conical red hills, each with its conical junipers: "'Mais, c'est fantastique!' he muttered, closing his eyes to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle" (17). When he opens them to behold the cruciform tree, order is restored; he dismounts, takes out his breviary, and kneels in prayer. Yet he has never ceased to be surrounded by the order of his belief; as David Stouck observes, the omnipresent triangles "begin to suggest the mystical number of the spirit and the Trinity itself, and they culminate in a tree shaped like a crucifix" (136). Cather's parched missionary is about to be miraculously rescued, senses a change in his mare's body, and below him appears "a green thread of verdure and a running stream" (24). In the settlement of Agua Secreta, Latour will find not only water and food but, more importantly, the basic faith he shares with the Mexican family who, in the aftermath of the recent Mexican War (1846-48), classifies Americans as "infidels" (27). He is greeted in the name of the Virgin by a young woman with a kindly face and finds himself "very much at home" among people who believe the Virgin must have led him there to baptize their children and sanctify their marriages (25-26). The wooden figures of the saints cherished here remind him of the stone carvings on the facades of churches in his native Auvergne.

Cather anticipates the integrated world of the Archbishop through two earlier protagonists. Claude Wheeler concludes near the end of One of Ours that because "[l]ife was so short . . . it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together" (328, my emphasis). Then Godfrey St. Peter develops this theme in what he calls his "rambling" (The Professor's House 70) on the Middle Ages: "As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives" (68, my emphasis). Of course, the thoughts of both protagonists look forward to Shadows on the Rock as well (even to its title), and it is to the circumstances surrounding the writing of that 1931 novel that I now turn.

When Cather first visited Quebec City, in June 1928, she had been prepared by experience to respond to it in the creative way she did. Since 1922 she had summered on Grand Manan, the rocky island that had become a sanctuary for her, the "only foothold left on earth" (Lewis 153), a refuge from a disturbing and rapidly changing postwar world. Cather and Edith Lewis were taking a route through Quebec to get to their cottage on the island when Lewis caught the flu and had to convalesce for ten days in Quebec City. Here, in one of North America's most spectacular settings, Cather discovered a sanctuary of significant historical implications. Seeing a French city clinging to a gigantic rock above the St. Lawrence, she was, as Lewis puts it, "overwhelmed by the flood of memory, recognition, surmise it called up" (153). We can guess that Cather remembered Avignon, which she described in 1902 as clinging to its rock above the Rhône; perhaps she remembered Mesa Verde, and certainly she remembered Acoma. Her discovery of Quebec came in the midst of personal difficulties that continued through the writing of Shadows and compounded her sense of cultural decline. The Bank Street building where she had her New York apartment had been torn down, her father had recently died, and her mother would soon suffer the stroke that would prove fatal after an illness of more than two years. Consequently, the family home in Red Cloud would be broken up—it would be the end of an era. The rock above the St. Lawrence, like Acoma in Bishop Latour's meditation, became another "expression of human need" and "yearning for something permanent" (Archbishop 103).

The faith community that had given Cather so much happiness during the writing of the Archbishop she now relocated to the rock of Quebec. Lewis speculates that during those difficult times "it may have been . . . a reluctance to leave that world of Catholic feeling and tradition in which [Cather] had lived so happily so long that led her to embark on this new novel" (155). Shadows reflects the human need for meaningful order as protection against chaos and for a cosmos to sustain the values of that order. The novel is a defense of what Peter Berger refers to as the "sacred canopy," "man's ultimate shield against the terror of anomy. To be in a 'right' relationship with the sacred cosmos is to be protected against the nightmare threats of chaos" (26). Cather herself compares her novel to a canopy in a June 1921 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Traveling back and forth across the country to see her dying mother meant that Cather had no quiet stretch of time, and she tells Fisher that writing Shadows was like working on a tapestry tent she could unfold in hotels and sanatoriums, picking it up and putting it down during her life in transit. The novel's first pages establish Quebec as a sanctuary of order surrounded by the chaos of nature: "the dead, sealed world of . . . interlocking trees, living, dead, half-dead, their roots . . . strangling each other. . . . The forest was suffocation, annihilation; there European man was quickly swallowed up" (5-6). Against this, on the rock, secular and sacred order combine for survival. Madame Auclair carefully instructs her daughter, Cécile, on cuisine, washing, and cleaning—practices basic to Cather's depiction of French civilization in this novel: "Without order our lives would be disgusting, like those of the poor savages," Madame Auclair concludes (20). After Cécile's excursion to an Isle of Orleans farm where domestic order has been distanced from the "kind things" one needed "about one" (159) and then compromised by proximity to nature, housekeeping suddenly seems sacred. Cécile compares herself to the nuns who arrived in Quebec to help establish the sacred order there, and she recognizes that she achieves something as sacred with her coppers, brooms, and brushes, that "[o]ne made a climate within a climate; one made the days . . .; one made life" (160).

The sacred cosmos is emphasized in all seven sections of Shadows. In the opening scene, Auclair compares the rock-set town to "one of those little artificial mountains made in the churches at home to present a theatric scene of the Nativity" (4). Later, "he would construct a shelf in front of the windowsill" so their crèche scene "could be arranged," like Quebec itself, "in two terraces, as was customary at home" (86). Quebec thus becomes a new Bethlehem early in Shadows, and by the beginning of the fourth book it is the New Jerusalem "gleaming above the river like an altar with many candles, or like a holy city in an old legend, shriven, sinless, washed in gold" (137). The paradigm of the sacred canopy is clarified in the novel's second book, where the cheerfulness of the nuns on All Souls' Day contrasts with the sorrow of those burdened by memories of their homes in France. The sisters are at home everywhere, the narrator explains, because they had distanced and theologized nature and inhabit a world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world), and they had the . . . well-ordered universe about them; this all-important earth, created by God for a great purpose, the sun which He made to light it by day, the moon which He made to light it by night,—and the stars, made to beautify the vault of heaven like frescoes, and to be a clock and compass for man. And in this safe, lovingly arranged and ordered universe . . . the drama of man went on at Quebec just as at home, and the Sisters played their accustomed part in it. (78) Under the sacred canopy, as in Professor St. Peter's fantasy, "every man and woman" has the opportunity to become "a principal in a gorgeous drama with God . . . [and] life [is] a rich thing." In a scene before the Christmas section, when Cecile takes the waif she befriends sledding on a tilted street, she experiences an epiphany. It is not an aesthetic one like Thea Kronborg's in The Song of the Lark (1915), nor one of private elation like Tom Outland's; it is, rather, contentment in the order of her life: A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbours' houses. . . . On a foreign shore . . . would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one's own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air. (83-84) Her revelation is of a world that, like the world of the nuns, is communal and cosmic—it occurs on Holy Family Hill; it includes her link to the waif and to neighbors as well as to the heavens.

The worldview of Shadows represents several challenges for contemporary critics. Cather's modernism must be negotiated around cultural absolutes, as Richard Millington attempts to do in situating the fiction against the work of Franz Boas and in pointing out that Cather's interest in place and history precludes a dogged attachment to such absolutes and demands (and develops) culturally sensitive readers. In Shadows the interest is in the making of meaning, continues Millington, and objects and events are juxtaposed to illustrate "the [Quebec] community's ongoing work of constructing its meaning" (33). This is an illuminating way to read Cather, and it would be extremely so if it offered complements rather than chose alternatives. Millington concludes that the subject of Shadows "is not the revelation of Meaning but the making of meanings" (35), that Cather "is interested in Catholicism not as a believer . . . but as a cultural observer" (36), and that "what interests [Cather] is neither the content of the belief nor its truth value but the imaginative process of its production" (37). Yet in her 1931 letter to Wilbur Cross, Cather expresses admiration for a "feeling [disposition, understanding] about life and human fate [in Quebec] that I could not accept, wholly, but which I could not but admire" (On Writing 15, my emphasis). Cather suggests the ambivalence at the heart of belief as well as an interest in the meanings we make of Meaning, in how culture grapples with Truth. While certainly interested in change, she admired, she told Cross, what endured. Her modernism is not compromised by this; it is complicated by it. Millington's final estimate of Cecile is a case in point; his Cecile "emerges not as la petite vierge but as une petite moderniste, consciously choosing" her cultural "affiliation" (39). But the essence of the Virgin's meaning (indeed, the essence of Cecile's religious tradition) is choice: "And Mary said [to Gabriel], Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38, King James Version).

The relative nature of Meaning is further nuanced by Joseph Urgo, who defines religion as a cultural response to "the non-material essence of life" (100), a way to explain what the dying Count Frontenac detects as "something in himself and in other men that this world did not explain" (201). Urgo interprets Cather's rock as "stability, immutability, the values without which a civilization will not survive," and the shadows on it as "the shades of meaning cast by those in momentary possession of the rock, the closest that human life can get to something that will not change" (98); he concentrates on such shadows to trace French culture transforming into Canadian. While I have little argument with this, I would prefer exploration of both permanence and change within the system represented by the shadows. To what extent does a belief system possess permanence, and to what extent is it transitory? Just how close do the shadows embrace absolutes? Karl Rahner tries to answer this question in tracing the development of Roman Catholicism beyond Europe, suggesting that the Catholic Church has "in potency" the ability to be more than "an export firm which exported a European religion as a commodity it did not really want to change but sent throughout the world together with the rest of the culture and civilization it considered superior" (717). Rahner challenges the system to make distinctions between culture and belief, for as a theologian he refuses to collapse them. Why, he asks, must canon law be a Western code? Why must the marital morality in East Africa reproduce that of the West? Why must grape wine be required to celebrate the Eucharist in Alaska? I think Cather's rock represents the essentials of belief surviving migration and adaptation to a new continent, and the shadows become the primary approach to these essentials.

Cécile does not "rema[k]e the rock out of indigenous materials" (9), as Urgo argues; nor is Pierre Charron a "relativist existentialis[t]" (110) who "rejects the rock for the wilderness" (106). Pierre's basic belief, like Cécile's, is also Father Hector's and Noël Chabanel's. Pierre tells Cécile that "every autumn, before I start for the woods, I have a mass said at the paroisse in Ville-Marie for madame your mother" (141). When Bishop Laval asks him if he has confessed since returning from the woods, "Pierre said respectfully that he had" (142). When he reveals to Auclair his heartbreak over Jeanne Le Ber, he credits her prayers with saving him "three times in the woods [when] my comrades . . . thought it was all over with me" (145). In the epilogue chapters, Auclair informs Bishop Saint-Vallier that Cécile married Pierre, who "has built a commodious house in the Upper Town, beyond the Ursuline convent" (228). What Pierre objects to is the cultural identity of many of the priests, that they are "too French" and "smell . . . of Versailles" (140).

Urgo explains that "[c]losed systems of belief, totalizing worldviews . . . are discredited structures of thought in the contemporary world," that our "migratory culture . . . believes above all else in the mutability of belief" and has lost the "sense of the sacred" necessary for a culture "to survive" (109-10). "Cather," he concludes, "accentuates the distance traveled between the origins of Quebec and modern consciousness" by "projecting a past . . . so remote from the present, so foreign in the mode of thought there" (110-11); "[o]ne does not go back" (109), he adds. I would qualify these generally valid insights: first of all, major systems of belief are never closed if they are open to the mystery that is their raison d'être; second, not all readers find the world of Shadows remote—it is far less remote to me than, say, The Great Gatsby (1925) or The Sun Also Rises (1926); third, Cather did "go back"—Shadows is not the end of her medieval journey; in the unfinished Avignon story she went back in the manner of her Ursulines, via the mind.

The rock of Quebec further materializes the light beyond the shadows, the light that suggests transcendent reality, the God Thomas Aquinas defines as "not composed of matter and form" (16). The shadows between—darkness, clouds, whatever obscures—are our realm, our lives. Some Cather scholars at the Quebec seminar in 1995 noticed the wall sundial in the courtyard of Laval Seminary with the Latin inscription Dies Nostri Quast Umbra, "Our days as if a shadow." The source of the inscription is a line from 1 Chronicles 29:15, which in the King James Version reads, "our days on the earth are as a shadow." The whole verse resonates in Cather's novel: "for we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding." We catch glimpses through the shadows on the rock: during the afterglow, when the sky throbs with fiery vapors; when the sun makes Quebec gleam like an altar; when Cecile and Jacques light candles and watch holy figures emerge from the darkness of the church. The system is not closed; the comfortable universe of the Ursulines is merely a conceit, a fresco, like the frescoes in Padua's famous Scrovigni Chapel, on the walls and ceilings of which Giotto painted the entire Christian story from the lives of Joachim and Anne to the Last Judgment. But above that final event Giotto painted two angels in the process of rolling back the sky to reveal an ultimate reality ungraspable to us now in our shadow state.

My favorite photograph of Cather is the one by Carl Van Vechten, taken a few years after the publication of Shadows. Enclosed in black hat and black furs, the face broods, is sad; yet the volumes in the bookcase behind it and the icon of an equestrian saint (or perhaps of Christ) suggest a world of the mind shared somewhat with those strained baroque Counter-Reformation devotees Cather wrote about in this novel, who were under attack, as she was, on the barricades in an alien age.


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———. Letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. June 1931. U of Vermont, Burlington.
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———. "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle." Nation 5 Sept. 1923: 236-38.
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