Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs007.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 7

A Commentary on An Explanation of America

I tried to make An Explanation of America a long poem somewhat in the old, premodernist way: a compendious, heuristic tour of a subject, with many an allusion and submerged quotation. I had in mind a way of allusion (the root of that word is "to play," as in ludicrous!) far more like the eccentric adventuring of Lucretius or Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy than the fragmentary modernist manners of The Cantos or The Wasteland. ("Postmodernism" was not quite yet a slogan when I was working on the poem.)

After Walt Whitman, the author I found myself raiding most for the poem was Willa Cather. Her brilliant phrase "obliterating strangeness" renders the oceanic prairie into the sea crossed not only by Homeric heroes but by the European immigrants who in their own way challenged Poseidon, taking heavy losses, on their journey that ended in places like a crossroads in Nebraska.

In Jim Burden's garden encounter, early after his own immigration to the Plains, the obliterating smallness and vastness of his new world are an American, urgent redaction of Keats's romance with death in "Ode to a Nightingale." Alan Shapiro, in his book In Praise of the Impure, writes with great insight about the ways I use Cather's garden scene. His descriptions of the tense and person changes in my versified adaptation have been instructive to me.

The wanderer who leaps into the harvest machinery embodies a terrifying, literal negative side to our forgetful national abundance. His suicide echoes the darkest vaults of "obliterating strangeness," as reflected by his vaguely xenophobic remarks. Some such cultural and social line I try to trace by borrowing the strength of Cather's great words and images, trying to see into them and, by their light, into our history.