I remain skeptical about the political tactic of calling any deeply admired or complex figure an icon. Icons, by definition, are easily recognized by simple people, are quickly replaced by fresher icons, and are magnetic to iconoclasts. Further, Cather's now-well-known habit of reversing elements in her work from one book or scene to the next seems her way of keeping herself a moving target. She herself bragged anonymously, as David H. Porter has shown, "One thing is certain—she will not repeat herself. There will never be a stereotyped Cather heroine or hero" (Porter 58). Normally, Cather will not sit still in any sense, as a stable icon should, but moves fast through juxtaposed works, with attendant surprises and innovations.
Nevertheless, I believe that at the end of her life Cather did begin to feel like an icon—visible, venerated, and vulnerable. At that point she was willing to behave like a good cultural icon, too. She thus prepared her final volume of fiction to sound as the work of a proper icon should: it would make clear statements and render usable summaries. She planned for it to appear as her last book, and she had it ready for the faithful A. A. Knopf to publish posthumously when she died, as he did. That a plan unfolds here is evident, I think, when Knopf, so careful to follow Cather's wishes to the letter, swiftly followed The Old Beauty (1948) with Willa Cather on Writing (1949); they are meant to be connected.
The best circumstantial evidence for this connection can be viewed in any collection preserving first editions with their book jackets on. The book jackets of both of Cather's collections of essays—Not Under Forty (1936) and Willa Cather on Writing— exactly duplicate the jacket for The Old Beauty except for color or shade. Thus the book jackets make a visual point: the nonfiction statements and the fictional statements are closely related. Specifically, the story "The Old Beauty" is related to "A Chance Meeting," Cather's sketch about getting to know Flaubert's iconic niece Caro, in the lady's old age. The Faulkner references in "Before Breakfast" are related to Faulkner's name inserted, after all Cather's resolutions not to comment on living writers—and after a stressed date for emphasis—in the addendum to her essay "148 Charles Street" (Skaggs, "Cather's War" 50). That essay, too, is collected in Not Under Forty. "The Best Years," the last story Cather wrote, relates to her essay on Katherine Mansfield. In the tribute to Mansfield, Cather refers to a writer's choice to use a nom de plume or a name not quite her birth name, to use the writer's family, Mansfield's alert delight in things around her, her definitions of home, and her waning vitality. Significantly, "Katherine Mansfield" reminds us that "The qualities of a second-rate writer can easily be defined, but a first-rate writer can only be experienced" (Stories 877). "Katherine Mansfield" is included in both essay collections, for emphasis, not only on writers generally, but on such autobiographical stories relating to writers as "The Best Years."
In the first story of her final collection, "The Old Beauty," Cather subtly and negatively comments on three of her contemporary American female fiction-writing competitors: Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Ellen Glasgow. She shares with them, she concedes, the wry recognition that even world-recognized, iconic faces fade and die in the end, just like everybody else. But there, her comtpanion piece "A Chance Meeting" establishes, the comparison between herself and those three women writers ends. The contrast reveals Cather approaching a commanding old lady from different points of view, from different gender perspectives, from different degrees of connection and of displacement from home, and in different moods or attitudes. Cather shows her attentive readers that she can tell a tale from any angle, to make any point.
Cather focuses on her own work in the story she places second, though she wrote it last of the three. "The Best Years" serves as a bridge between her negative allusions in the first tale and her basically positive ones in the last. She is perhaps most positive, however, about herself. She carefully weaves into "The Best Years" a phrase, image, or keepsake from each of her twelve novels and from the three great short stories of Obscure Destinies. Thus she embraces her own great work but concludes that we find out, too late, that "our best years are when we're working hardest and going right ahead when we can hardly see our way out" (Stories 756). Then, with the regal composure of an icon doing justice, Cather ends her last volume by saluting the young ones with grit: especially she acknowledges William Faulkner, who she shrewdly guesses will dominate the future's next phase.
We turn now to look more closely at these three final stories. Since we know that Cather wrote "The Best Years" for her brother Roscoe in the last two years of her life (Woodress 500), although his death preceded her giving it to him, we can pinpoint the planning period for this last volume and see Cather deliberately wrapping up her life. The first thing that strikes us about the whole book is its summarizing tone. After the stunning technical experiments and massive destabilizations of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, this volume sits still. Even when looking forward, it looks backward as if with Henry Grenfell's dry eyes. Yet the moving pen here is still held by Willa Cather, and the stories repay with their density all the attention an alert reader can bring.
"The Old Beauty," for example, suggests that some feminist and queer studies critics have stopped reading too quickly. They have inaccurately surmised that Cather never dealt openly with lesbianism. She did eventually decide to save the subject for her last volume, perhaps to save herself the stress of facing the flack. But Woodress tell us that she initially wrote the story to be published immediately, withdrawing it only after the editor of Woman's Home Companion disliked it. Cather, conversely, continued to be especially fond of it and regarded it with pleasure. According to Lewis's account, "She put it aside for inclusion in a book of short stories, if she should publish one later. She herself thought highly of 'The Old Beauty.' She had found it interesting to write, and she felt that she had carried through her idea successfully" (Woodress 475). After writing the story at about the same time in 1936, she prepared the manuscript for her essay collection Not Under Forty, including for easy comparisons "A Chance Meeting."
In any case, "The Old Beauty" includes two lesbian couples. Gabrielle Longstreet and Cherry Beamish are the admirable focal characters. The two women who actually cause the accident that precipitates Gabrielle's death, named Jim and Marge, are briefly glimpsed negative caricatures. Initially, Cather had planned to publish the story in Woman's Home Companion so that her two versions of the tale would come out at about the same time, forcing this comparison.
"The Old Beauty" and "A Chance Meeting" tell differently the same essential story. The autobiographical sketch featuring Cather, speaking as herself, seems cheerful, wryly amused, and fondly deferent. The story is at best sardonic. The tale's sniffy tone, reminiscent of Myra Henshawe's "sniffy little nose" (Stories 561), fits the way Cather stretches out the sexual spectrum to teach a lesson to her rivals: more varieties of erotic energy can be imagined and depicted than are dreamt of in your published philosophies; your eros is too humdrum and small. The central lesbian couple here consists of two widows, both once-famous objects of admiration, though one liked boy toys, the other, husbands or suitors; their almost parodically gay male adorer is never a prospective lover of either. The combined story and sketch dramatize Cather's deliberate choices as she writes to achieve a main idea. Those choices involve tone, mood, characterizing details, driving purpose, and assumed fiction or ostensible fact.
In recognizing the women writers Cather brings to judgment in "The Old Beauty," we turn first to Ellen Glasgow. Gabrielle Longstreet's name itself invokes Virginia's other southern woman writer, whose career so closely paralleled Cather's. In 1912 Glasgow had published a novel entitled Virginia, which irritated Cather profoundly because it claimed the home state and the representative female character for that other writer, who would also eventually acknowledge she had written a "social history of Virginia," Cather's home territory (Skaggs, "Interlocking Works" 162). Those two literary offenses of Ellen Glasgow—that she claimed the name and the region—are intimated by the Gabrielle and the Longstreet. Glasgow's next novel, after Virginia, was published in 1916 and entitled Life and Gabriella. Longstreet, however, is the most representative southern regional name one could find, for it belonged to Civil War general and university president Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who wrote Georgia Scenes. Georgia Scenes (1835) was the first fictional southern social history; Cather may be alluding to it in order to denigrate Glasgow's. Conveniently, Longstreet was buried in Oxford, Mississippi.
Gabrielle also has another name worth noticing, because her second husband was named De Coucy. The axiomatic motto of Enguerrand De Coucy, whose family is mentioned in Brewer's British Royalty (Williamson 16), is "Roi je ne suis / Ni Prince, ni compte aussi. / Je suis le Sire de Coucy" ("King I am not / Nor Prince, nor count. / I am the Sire de Coucy"). The allusion suggests the same arrogance Glasgow displayed for James Branch Cabell's amusement: "'Her shrewishness' wrote Cabell, in discussing her successful contemporaries was 'a never-failing well-spring of diverting malice; her remarks about Willa Cather were as unforgettable as they were unrepeatable'" (Skaggs, "Interlocking Works" 160). Cather, of course, strikes back here. She identifies her protagonist with a Glasgow-fingering name as a lady who "makes comments that are indecent, really" (Stories 714). Those comments are as arrogant as one would expect from a De Coucy.
Gabrielle Longstreet makes her abrasive remarks because she is now on the wrong half of a divide. Her world once broke in two as she was awakened to sexual facts she had not hitherto known. Also like Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, Cather's Gabrielle Longstreet has awakened from "a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream" (Chopin 32). Gabrielle's awakening occurs after Cather has referred to her twice as "unawakened" (Stories 702, 714). What awakens her, however, is a ghastly assault inside her own New York parlor, which is interrupted just in time by Henry Seabury, the character who provides our focal point of view (and who functions as the same kind of peephole Niel Herbert does in A Lost Lady). Having clipped Ellen Glasgow with Gabrielle's name, Cather seems also to remind Kate Chopin's readers here that horror can awaken a sleeping beauty as well as ecstasy can. It can change a beauty's style from "fresh" to arrogant, obscene, and judgmental. Cather seems to accuse Chopin of romantic naïveté.
It is the plot of Edith Wharton's "The Muse's Tragedy" (1900), however, that Cather reshapes in "The Old Beauty." While Wharton may be using her story to correct Henry James's The Tragic Muse (1890), Cather herself addresses the subject of world-recognized muses who are famous merely because "Great Protectors" have loved them. In Wharton's offending story, a dead poet's muse-figure, now without male protectors, tests her waning powers on a younger male by provoking him to fall in love with her. Cather commented about such literary formulas and fashions as existed at the time she wrote her first novel: "The drawing-room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people. . . . But Henry James and Mrs. Wharton were our most interesting novelists, and most of the younger writers followed their manner, without having their qualifications" (Stories 963-64). By 1916 Cather was expressing concern to Ferris Greenslet because an article had said she wrote like Mrs. Wharton (Stout no. 369), and she did not want to. In "The Old Beauty" Cather reminds Wharton that even great beauties or muses can attract younger male admirers by their "grand style" (Stories 714), without needing to prompt any male's predictable (if not formulaic) dreams of love, and the same point goes for "A Chance Meeting." Cather seems to think the other three ladies have expressed limited imaginations when it comes to the bonding emotions. In neither Cather's short story nor her sketch about meeting Flaubert's niece is the younger admirer a prospective lover. Thus, like the simpleton in a fairy tale, Cather finishes off three in one blow.
The collection's second story, "The Best Years," begins by featuring Miss Evangeline Knightly, Supervisor of Schools, wearing gauntlets. Here Cather throws down the gauntlet to all her critics by reviewing her own accomplishments. For example, Lesley Ferguesson, teaching in a one-room country school, keeps her head in a disaster she cannot stave off, saves others but perishes herself, and still remains the one everybody loves best, as Bartley does in Alexander's Bridge. The experimental farming with new ideas of O Pioneers! turns into a joke here, as is the name "Wide Awake Farm." Lesley's room at home duplicates Thea's private retreat in The Song of the Lark, but the standpipe Lesley spots so eagerly on her way into town shines up the one in which Thea's tramp drowns himself in Cather's third novel.
In My Ántonia, Cuzak children have natural good manners, as do Ferguesson pupils and brothers in "The Best Years." In both works, a town hotel importantly facilitates plot. While One of Ours, Cather's fifth novel, features as terrible a blizzard as "The Best Years," Wheelers justify the poor education they offer Claude, just as Miss Knightly rationalizes hiring a fourteen-year-old child to teach school in the story. A Lost Lady shares with this tale its panting trains, tributes of roses, and types of prints on parlor walls. In The Professor's House Roddy Blake objects to Tom's turning "Fourth of July speech" patterns on him; but Fourth of July speeches become the chief raison d'être of Lesley's useless father. In My Mortal Enemy, neighbors in Parthia, Illinois, love talking about Myra Driscoll's elopement, just as MacAlpin neighbors love talking about "Old Ferg," Lesley's father, and for the same reason: both legends produce glimpses of novelty and audacity. In fact, Mr. Ferguesson "talked a trifle as if from a rostrum, perhaps" (Stories 742), as ponderously as Captain Forrester, who saw no reason to vary his speech patterns.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop the keys to building a functioning southwestern church are Latour's authority and organizational ability; in "The Best Years" those talents belong to the Ferguesson mother, who runs her family effectively. In Shadows on the Rock Father Hector is the flower of the priestly flock, as Hector Ferguesson is "flower of the family" (Stories 738); and the children in both these works are distinguished by "the deepest, the most solemn loyalty" to their mothers and homes (741), a trait Cather usually approves.
"Old Mrs. Harris" and "The Best Years" both depict the same family of siblings—one adored sister and four adoring brothers; Cather inclined to erase her sisters in her so-called autobiographical fiction. The opening trope of "The Best Years" describes in loving language the act of driving through the beautiful land that "Neighbour Rosicky" also drives through so winningly, and admires so well; yet part of the beloved landscape in both stories is a comforting country cemetery. Obscure Destinies culminates in "Two Friends," and William Jennings Bryan wreaks havoc in "The Best Years" as he has done in the previous story. In fact, as Woodress reminds us, "Bryan is the only political figure she ever profiled" (102).
The self-described station master with no ambition in "The Best Years" duplicates Mr. Gayheart, the watch-repair man of Lucy Gayheart. And in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, as in "The Best Years," the big house feels more empty at the end because the girl its owners love is dead. What one realizes in so lengthy a set of parallels, of course, is that such a list of parallel details can go on for a long time. The point of the list, however, is that Cather left none of her works out: she embraced them all in her final summing up of her writing career. Those telling details, she knew always, were what good stories were made of.
Thus Cather deftly acknowledges and salutes all her own fine work. Then she further acknowledges that a time comes when one feels diminished—a Less-ley. This pronunciation is even used by Lesley's mother to hiss her name (Stories 732). The stressed punctuation leads to guesses about creating fictions, as any Fer-guess-on might. When her spent time arrives, Lesley thinks of being home as of being replanted in the earth, as a kindly gardener might replace a washed-out plant. "The feeling of being at home was complete, absolute; it made her sleepy" (745). We can even notice with a catch of breath that in this, her final story, Cather uses the phrase her mentor William James said conveys the finished and dead: "complete, absolute" (Skaggs, "Cather's Radical Empiricism" 15).
Cather made a point of arranging this volume so that a determined note of affirmation ends it. Along with Faulkner, Cather, if somewhat grimly, hails the future here, toward which we are all still hopping as best we can. Yet at the end as at the beginning, we can see that "plucky youth is more bracing than enduring age" (Stories 769). Plucky youth shows every sign here that it has the gumption to stick to its chosen tasks, cold and hard as they may be. Cather does not allow herself this kind of final pronouncement, appropriate to a cultural icon, until her last page in her posthumous volume of stories. By then, however, she was clearly ready to stop.
Cather, however, must have had gauntlets on the mind as she arranged her last volume. The gauntlet she throws at Faulkner takes the form of her throwaway allusion to Henry IV, Part I. It lands before him—perhaps her best reader—as if she were playing Bolingbroke at the beginning of Richard II. In this, her last thunderously resonating literary reference, we can expect reverberations as well as flourishes. For one example, she gets in three Shakespearean plays for the space it takes to name one and leave one up to the reader: Henry IV, Part I can pair plausibly with either Richard II, whose plot leads up to it, or Henry IV, Part II, which follows it up. Grenfell has packed two little volumes bound alike (Stories 763).
Henry Grenfell's name suggests Shakespeare's troubled King Henry IV, formerly Harry Bolingbroke, whose grin fell away when, as a young man, he was crowned King of England in Richard II. Cather's Grenfell was equally young when he collided with his destiny. Since Cather's allusion initially concerns the personalities of the analogous Henrys, Grenfell and the King, she initially draws more from Richard II: here Bolingbroke plays foil to King Richard. Thus she underscores a doubleness that starts with Shakespeare: there will be two kings at the beginning and end of the sequence playing out here, plus two Harry juniors, Hal and Hotspur. Cather may be saluting an equal here, but she is also giving notice that she is not throwing in the towel; instead, she is throwing a gauntlet (thus alluding to a saga that begins with old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster).
At the beginning of "Before Breakfast" Cather's now-elderly Grenfell ponders a recent moment when he sparred with his eldest son as he was packing to go away. He was preparing to enjoy "glorious loneliness" (Stories 766) when Harrison (Henry's or Harry's son) picks out of his open traveling bag an edition of Henry IV, Part I and the two converse tensely, ostensibly about the play. Even in Shakespeare's play the father-son relationship is labeled punishing (3.2.11). But Harrison does not err grossly enough to pick up the matching volume, so we are permitted to imagine it as either prelude or finale to King Henry's story. This setup may be crooked, but when the stakes are survival, the story points out, a frog-toad hops.
At the beginning of this carefully arranged swan song, then, Cather's Henry Grenfell and Shakespeare's Henry IV face two similar problems: first, how to imagine the undisturbed possession of a beloved island that is foundationally divided; and second, how to love a first son and heir whose values, interests, and manners seem utterly alien. Cather allows her churlish Henry, after dyspeptic fuming, to rediscover some fire in the belly, as well as his damaged appetite for food—or perhaps one should say, a good digestion. What transforms Grenfell's outlook is seeing a plucky young person perform an elected task under difficult circumstances, without dodging. He returns to his cabin to find approvingly that his cook "William hadn't waited; he was wisely breakfasting" (Stories 769). The question that now dawns on readers as the story ends is, which William is Cather referencing here, Shakespeare or Faulkner? This question we might call a clear ambiguity.
If William Faulkner blinked to spot his name associated with a "man Friday" who was "'boarded out' in a fisherman's family" (Stories 766), he must have grasped the flattering bow to William's heartier appetite. William, at least, is not like Grenfell or Henry IV, to whom Fortune has given a feast and then taken away the stomach to enjoy it (Part II, 4.4.103-7). Grenfell, like Bolingbroke, has paid dearly for his achievements. And this Shakespearean sequence also references another Cather work. As Marvin Friedman has pointed out (61), "Before Breakfast" itself references My Mortal Enemy, in which Myra murmurs "Old John of Gaunt, time honored Lancaster," from Richard II, in her dying days; in those hard times she ponders being left alone with her mortal enemy and concedes that lovers can be enemies too. Grenfell, sounding like Myra, acknowledges: "The bitter truth was that his worst enemy was closer even than the wife of his bosom—was his bosom itself!" (Stories 765). We ourselves are invited to recall that admirers and rivals can blend as two in one body—and that Shakespeare's Harry and Hotspur embodied that kind of doubling first.
We may now consider "Before Breakfast" Cather's summarizing story of the relation between the two greatest twentieth-century American fiction writers, Faulkner and herself. While Cather always hid at least one Shakespearean allusion within every fiction she published, the lifting up of Henry IV, Part I is uncommonly obvious in this piece. It underscores the stakes she is playing for as she acknowledges the problems of having two kings in one kingdom. The Shakespearean play also highlights other themes: How does a power figure tolerate an uncivil successor? Do sins really require atonement (Shakespeare says no)? What finally is worth celebrating? For that matter, how far should good manners be expected to go? As Richard II-quoting Myra Henshawe says, "It's all very well to tell us to forgive our enemies; our enemies can never hurt us very much. But oh, what about forgiving our friends? . . . that's where the rub comes!" (Stories 554).
Leaving as wide open as possible that question about who one's mortal enemy might be, and whether there is any significant difference between what one loves most and what one fears most (questions robustly active in Shakespeare's trilogy about Henry IV), we turn back to Shakespearean resonances in "Before Breakfast." Cather seems to ask here, is this Henry a king, a rascal, or a clown? Like King Henry IV, Henry Grenfell has reached the pinnacle of his power at Grenfell and Saunders, Bonds, by accident (though it is surely no accident that Cecily Saunders and Jim Bond are Faulkner names). The "firm truth," however, can be interpreted two ways: as a businesslike way to identify Faulkner as the prototype for Grenfell, or as the bond between two equal partners. Grenfell, like Bolingbroke, once collided with another, rose to rescue something important, gained the favor of the powerful thereby, and thus found glory. In the process he has paid the bills of his children but come to look suspiciously on relatives and former friends. Yet from the first he has also displayed an occasional and quixotic willingness to forgive his enemies. He is now himself a loner, envious of his opponents' preferable children, and anxious about what his own sons "just reach out and take" (Stories 763) with no struggle (as Hal reaches to take the crown at the end of Henry IV, Part II when he thinks his father is dead). Grenfell's self-congratulatory regard for the way he worked hard to gain his kingdom seems defensively smug and potentially self-deceptive. We know him to be smart, ambitious, inconsistent, and energetic, but not necessarily trustworthy. It is therefore gratifying to see him regain some faith in the younger generation and their future, as Henry IV does also at the end of both parts of Henry IV.
Yet Henry Grenfell owns a cabin like Cather's on an island in the North Atlantic, which is very like her beloved Grand Manan. Here he, as she, loves to isolate himself and take long walks. The obvious walking path leads by waterfalls, as two busloads of Cather scholars discovered for themselves by visiting the island in 1995. Grenfell thus also begins to seem a lot like one of those autobiographical males in Cather's work: Jim Burden, Niel Herbert, Godfrey St. Peter, possibly even Bartley Alexander. We are therefore eventually forced to ask, is Grenfell really supposed to suggest only Faulkner, or is he also a surrogate for Cather herself? Or does he represent both? And is this glorious loneliness what both have come to? Who or what is this new Henry? Is this crown worth fighting over?
Once we look closely at Shakespeare's Henry IV, we find transferable images from the play that reappear in Cather's text. In the first lines of Shakespeare's play we glimpse King Henry IV looking for "frighted peace" with "opposed eyes . . . like the meteors of a troubled heaven," while he feels "shaken" and "wan with care." His hope is to "March all one way and be no more oppos'd / Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies." In our first glimpse of Grenfell after his sleepless night, his head and eyes are tipped upside down to receive eyedrops, from which odd posture he soon wonders whether he has treated his family exactly right. Yet he resents them because his wife and eldest son seem "a close corporation" (Stories 764), much as the Duke of York's wife and son comically incorporate their efforts at the end of Richard II to extract a pardon from Bolingbroke for the treason of which York accuses his son (5.3). Grenfell feels his sons do not chase the ball but reach out and take it with fine hands, as both Bolingbroke does in Richard II and Hal does in IV, Part II. Grenfell's bitterness toward professors and physicists in "Before Breakfast" alludes to Henry IV's bitterness before his death at the public failure to recognize the terrible effects on one's health of being a self-made king and of wearing a crown. The "intestine shock" Henry registers in the opening scene of Part I reflects Grenfell's "hair-trigger stomach" (Stories 765). At the least, Professor Fairweather's name is as transparent as Shakespeare's Shallow, Pistol, Silence, or Wart from Part II. And Grenfell's recognition that his "worst enemy" is "his bosom itself" corresponds to Henry IV's similar recognition at the end of Part II (4.5.182-220).
With his head awry, before breakfast, Grenfell spots the planet Venus. This glimpse of the morning star, however, follows his sight of the "big snowshoe hare" he remembers fondly from previous visits. The hare reminds us of "hare-brained Hotspur" (Part I, 5.2.19), whom the King admires, as well as the reluctance to "start a hare" (Part I, 1.3.197-98). Hotspur's remark that it is easier to "pluck honor from the pale-faced moon, / Or dive into the bottom of the deep" (Part I, 1.3.202-3), conversely, frames the sky-to-sea survey Grenfell accomplishes here, but reminds us that his tale begins after a troubled night of sleepless agitation because a geologist has told him the two ends of his preferred world don't match. Grenfell soon doffs his "easy robes of peace" (Part I, 5.1.13), in this case his "eiderdown bathrobe" (Stories 765), to dress for action that commences with dawn, as does the battle between Henry IV and Hotspur. But after all the parallels are noted, the main point is that Grenfell is an "unthankful king" of the island (Part I, 1.3.136) and a "forgetful man" (1.3.161), whose former allies cannot trust him. Yet Cather seems willing to make the charge, or allow us to make it, against either Faulkner or herself. They are the two disparate halves of a literary kingdom, two icons, who now have no choice but to stick to each other for "the eternities" (Stories 761; a Faulkner word), or at least for a long time (a Cather correction). Cather may then be suggesting in her last public pronouncement that she thinks they are bonded double permanently, two iconic sides of an American coin, and that's the end of it.