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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Willa Cather's Epiphanies and The Professor's House

The big stars, the blue night, The moon-enchanted plain: The olive man who never spoke, But sang the songs of Spain —Willa Cather, “Spanish Johnny”

Willa Cather never visited Spain, even though in her various trips to southern France she was but a short train ride from the Spanish border. For some reason, the Iberian Peninsula did not exert on her the same attraction as Italy, for example, although she loved the Mediterranean light and was enthralled by Romanesque and Gothic architecture, which Spain has in abundance. As a Spaniard, I have often wondered what Cather’s response might have been had she ever crossed the Pyrenees and set foot in a country that, nonetheless, left powerful echoes in her fictional universe. As a Spanish reader of Willa Cather, I have always been intrigued by the ambiguous and sometimes problematic role that Hispanic culture plays in her writing; it is as if she lacked the assurance she demonstrated with the French, Anglo, and even eastern European constituents of her fiction. Cather’s works leave much unnamed regarding Spanish culture, and this fascinating subject deserves greater critical attention than it has so far received. This essay will encourage such a reconsideration by focusing on Spain’s impact on the protagonist of The Professor’s House, whose “Spanish revelation” seems a fictional reflection of Cather’s own epiphany in the American Southwest.


Cather’s interest in Hispanic culture predates her 1912 trip to Arizona. Sharon O’Brien notes that in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett describing “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909), Cather had already acknowledged the importance of the Spanish influence in the imagination of anyone who had grown up in the West, where “Spanish words, legends, and history, were part of the historical heritage” (405). Interestingly enough, one of the first volumes the young Willa incorporated into her personal library in 1888 was George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy (1868), a dramatic poem of uneven quality set during the time of the last confrontations between Moors and Christians that projects a rather romanticized, if not stereotypical, portrait of Spain and its peoples. Despite its shortcomings, Eliot’s work re-creates a country torn by racial and religious confrontations at a time when Ferdinand and Isabella’s great Catholic crusade would culminate in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and in Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Even though it is impossible to measure its impact on the writer-to-be, this early reading suggests that Cather had already developed an interest in Spanish history in her formative years.

In her 1912 trip to the Southwest, Cather experienced an awakening that transformed her both personally and artistically. The primeval terrain of the region induced in her feelings of challenge and renewal, like those of a pioneer facing unexplored territory. The old missions and the Spanish and Indian legends she came to know through Father Connolly gave her an “intoxicating sense of discovery,” as her letters from this trip reveal (Woodress 6). During the first of her many visits to the area, Cather met Julio, a handsome Mexican guitar player who came to serenade her on a nightly basis. A native of Veracruz, Julio “knew a great many Mexican and Spanish songs, and . . . was wonderful,” she wrote Elizabeth Sergeant (Woodress 6). O’Brien is explicit about Julio’s impact on Cather: “Julio sang Mexican love songs to her. . . . She was entranced, delighted, infatuated. Having met Julio she was not sure she could ever leave” (404). O’Brien states that Cather described her love affair with Julio in a number of letters that never disclose whether the two actually became lovers; however, “what is clear,” concludes O’Brien, “is that Cather experienced a lover’s intense emotions—rapture, wonder, self-abandonment, self-renewal” (411). In Julio, whose surname we never learn, Cather met what I will name the “Spanish other.” With him, she visited the most remote places in the countryside, including Painted Desert, which made a lasting impression on her. Julio once took Cather to a Mexican dance, where she was the only Anglo present. Beyond the admiration raised in her by the dance itself and the possibility of its being the source of the Mexican dance scene in The Song of the Lark (Woodress 7), my primary interest is its significance as an encounter with this Spanish other.

Julio never found his way into Cather’s fiction as a major character, but James Woodress sees traces of him in Spanish Johnny, who plays a minor yet significant role in The Song of the Lark. Spanish Johnny was a Mexican guitar player living in Red Cloud, and Cather remembered how “she had never heard him when he wasn’t either singing or swearing” (Woodress 267). In her 1903 collection of poems, April Twilights, Cather had already given a romantic yet dualistic image of that Mexican who sang the songs of Spain with his mandolin, a man capable of great tenderness but also of an extreme violence that embodied the spirit or myth of the Old West, as the poem quoted at the beginning of this essay suggests. Years later, Spanish Johnny would reemerge in Cather’s universe to represent the Mexican community in Moonstone, a group of newcomers experiencing a profound and probably traumatic process of adaptation to the new environment: “A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border” (Song 336). As border crossers, or cultural trespassers, the Mexicans become the object of racist disdain, which they have to learn to tolerate. The racial awareness of the Spanish other manifested in this 1915 novel reflects Cather’s growing consciousness of the Hispanic presence in North America, which would be clearly presented in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and obliquely in The Professor’s House (1925).


While Julio and his songs would eventually vanish from her life, the Southwest would remain with Cather forever. After 1912 the Spanish other emerged powerfully in her novels. Her fascination with the Spanish conquistadores and their wanderings in North America is revealed by My Ántonia (1918), where she knowingly redraws Coronado’s route so that he ends up in the Nebraska prairie. Even though historians seem to agree that the returning point in Coronado’s exploration was in Kansas, Jim Burden and Charley Harling hold a different theory, one that places the Spaniards on the very banks of the river where Jim picnics with the hired girls. As proof, they allude to some relics found by a farmer while breaking sod: “a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a Spanish inscription on the blade.” The sword bears the name of the Spanish maker and an abbreviation “that stood for the city of Cordova” (236). This allusion gains significance if we relate it to the passage in The Professor’s House where Tom Outland describes his feelings at the discovery of the Blue Mesa (Mesa Verde) ruins: “To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labor and care in the soil of an empty country” (192). For Cather, such emptiness is a palimpsest that hides rich layers of history, as Father Latour realizes in the Archbishop when he comes across the hidden refuge of Agua Secreta: “The old grandfather had showed him arrow-heads and corroded medals, and a sword hilt, evidently Spanish, that he had found in the earth near the water head. The spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it” (32–33).

Jim Burden’s allusion to Cordova anticipates significant motifs in both The Professor’s House and Death Comes for the Archbishop, the two Cather novels in which the Spanish element is most conspicuous. Cordova is a city in southern Spain where Christian and Muslim elements have coalesced in a unique cultural site. The caliphate of Cordova was the most advanced society of medieval Europe, and in the tenth century the city was probably the largest and most developed urban center on European soil (some estimates speak of a population of about a million). But Cordova is also a symbol of the Reconquest, that eight-hundred-year frontier experience in the Iberian Peninsula, whose climax in 1492 would be the pistol shot for the colonial race emerging from the Spanish discovery and settlement of the Americas. That the sword, like the stirrup, was made in Cordova not only suggests refined craftsmanship but symbolizes the triumph of Christian Spain over the Muslims, as the mosque in that city, eventually turned into a cathedral, also does. A sword probably made by a Moorish artisan was used by a Christian conquistador in his wanderings through the American plains. These echoes in the text of My Ántonia prefigure the role that Spanish history will play in Cather’s subsequent novels and signal the continuity between the frontier in the Iberian Peninsula and that on American soil, a continuity made explicit by Father Latour in his commentary about the bell of San Miguel, itself a testimony of this transferral from medieval Spain to colonial America: “The Spaniards handed on their skill to the Mexicans and the Mexicans have taught the Navajo to work the silver; but it all came from the Moors” (Archbishop 48). Coronado and his party littered the American soil with cultural waste, artifacts of a material culture that inscribed the blank space of the unknown with Spanish icons of powerful resonance, like the Mediterranean coral left in the Navajo country by “Coronado’s captains when they passed through it on their way to discover the Hopi villages and the Grand Canyon” (Archbishop 231).


Cather’s own “southwestern epiphany” inspires Thea Kronborg’s awakening in Panther Canyon as well as Jean Latour’s anagnorisis in front of the cruciform tree: two examples of revelatory moments intimately connected with the landscape. An intriguingly similar passage in The Professor’s House is the episode in which the young Godfrey St. Peter is embarked on a ship from Marseilles bound to Algeciras and happens to sail by the Sierra Nevada ranges in southern Spain. It is one of the most crucial moments in the life of the protagonist, since at this point he suddenly receives the inspiration that will transform his scholarly life. Spain plays a pivotal role as the locus of this scholarly awakening as well as its focus, and provides a valuable clue for understanding Cather’s aesthetic and ontological response to the Spanish other: One day stood above the others. All day long they were skirting the south coast of Spain; from the rose of dawn to the gold of sunset the ranges of the Sierra Nevadas towered on their right, snow peak after snow peak, high beyond the flight of fancy, gleaming like crystal and topaz. St. Peter lay looking up at them from a little boat riding low in the purple water, and the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through. (104–5)

John J. Murphy has identified this passage as an epiphany that, for St. Peter, represented his “survival as a scholar,” since, together with his stay at the “bachelor haven of the French garden,” it helped to “maintain a creative balance between the absorbing domesticity of family life and the expansive historical vistas of scholarly exploration” (59). Murphy does not pursue the nature of this revelation, however, or the suggestive implications that this awakening contributes to the text. The passage is rendered in carefully chosen, highly poetic language that articulates St. Peter’s epiphany in an array of colors and sensorial images that evoke a world above and beyond “the flight of fancy,” that is, beyond the reach of the imagination: the dawn is “rose” and the sunset “gold,” while the peaks are “white”; from the “purple” water, St. Peter perceives the peaks as “crystal” and “topaz.” The whole passage, beginning with its Homeric rendering of the morning, becomes an impressionistic memory of his vocational realization, a pictorial evocation of his scholarly awakening. And yet, like so many other elements that are silenced or suppressed in the novel, as Marilee Lindemann has observed (52), we never learn how those sensorial impressions affect the psychology of the character, what his mind is truly processing while contemplating such breathtaking landscape. Professor St. Peter feels awakened by southern Spain as Cather herself felt awakened by the American Southwest, territories sharing many things in common. And probably like Cather, St. Peter sees the design of his oeuvre “unfolded in the air before him.” It is the perfect communion of land and self, which is the source of artistic inspiration for St. Peter, as it had been for Cather.

The landscape that St. Peter is admiring, those mountain ranges of snowy peaks, is the symbolic borderline between the African and the European continents, a territory that had been under Arab dominion for centuries. Andalusia, or Al-andalus, embodies the frontier experience on Iberian soil, the exotic and mysterious land that had been the object of longing for Christians throughout the Middle Ages, the cradle of many of the legends and chimeras that the conquistadores brought to America. Washington Irving fell under a similar spell during his sojourn in the spring and summer of 1829 in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, where he conceived the design of The Alhambra (1832), a book that re-creates legends and folktales of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain. And Granada lies precisely on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas, which St. Peter contemplates from the boat’s deck. Like St. Peter, Irving lived for an extended period of time in Spain, where he was involved in the composition of his Columbus (1828) and its sequel, The Companions of Columbus (1831). His fascination with the Moorish history of Spain also led him to compose A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829). Furthermore, Irving was appointed a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of History (Real academia de la historia), an important recognition of his labor as historian echoed in St. Peter’s Oxford Award.


These connections seem too obvious to be missed by anyone familiar with Irving and his Spanish writing. In fact, Irving was to a great extent responsible for the creation of the Spanish stereotype that (mis)informed the American imagination, and may lurk behind Cather’s own re-creation of the Spaniards. Like Professor St. Peter, Irving eventually displaced the focus of his literary interest from Spain to the American West. A Tour on the Prairies (1835), a book that Willa Cather must have known well, is pervasively informed by Irving’s European stereotypes, to the extent that “a crest of broken rock” seen in the prairie horizon immediately turns into Moorish castles amid Spanish landscapes, as Robert Thacker observes (74). For Thacker, this transferral of motifs between distant and hardly related geographical sites proves Irving’s unwillingness to accept the emptiness of the American prairie and need to infer some “mysterious reason for the land’s lack of human inhabitants” (74). Irving is compelled to invest that emptiness with meaning, as Cather does in My Ántonia, and both writers coincide in their allusions to medieval and Renaissance Europe to furnish that void. By so doing, both Irving and Cather tinge barren prairie landscapes with legendary hues, turning the grassy blank of the prairies into an American Iberia colored by Moors and fearless conquistadores.

In The Alhambra, Irving uses language and imagery that bear striking similarities to Cather’s style. Like the American prairie, the Castilian plains are naked and immense, flat and grandiose as the ocean: There is something, too, in the sternly simple features of the Spanish landscape that impresses on the soul a feeling of sublimity. The immense plains of the Castiles and of La Mancha, extending as far as the eye can reach, derive an interest from their very nakedness and immensity, and possess, in some degree, the solemn grandeur of the ocean. . . . [T]he country, the habits, the very looks of the people, have something of the Arabian character. (726) Irving’s Spain and its people vividly recall the American Wild West and anticipate Cather’s own re-creation of the Southwest in the Archbishop, especially the prologue: The general insecurity of the country is evinced in the universal use of weapons. . . . [T]he most petty journey is undertaken with the preparation of a warlike enterprise. The dangers of the road produce also a mode of travelling, resembling, on a diminutive scale, the caravans of the east. The arrieros, or carriers, congregate in convoys, and set off in large and well-armed trains on appointed days. . . . In this primitive way is the commerce of the country carried on. (The Alhambra 727) The description brings to mind Bishop Ferrand’s evocation of the primitivism and dangers of the Southwest: “Trade is carried on by means of pack-mules, over treacherous trails. . . . The post is carried by hunters, fur trappers, gold seekers, whoever happens to be moving on the trails” (Archbishop 8).

Irving’s “caravans of the east” seem to have found their way from Spain to America, establishing a continuum from the cradle of humankind to its utmost confines in the Southwest: men have gathered and traveled together as a defense against the dangers of a hostile environment from the Arabian deserts to the wastelands of New Mexico. And along the way, they have developed a tradition of music and song: The Spanish muleteer has an inexhaustible stock of songs and ballads, with which to beguile his incessant wayfaring. The airs are rude and simple, consisting but of a few inflections. These he chants forth with a loud voice, and long, drawling cadence. . . . The couplets thus chanted, are often old traditional romances about the Moors, or some legend of a saint, or some love-ditty; or what is still more frequent, some ballad about a bold contrabandista, or hardy bandolero, for the smuggler and the robber are poetical heroes among the common people of Spain. . . . This talent of singing and improvising is frequent in Spain, and is said to have been inherited from the Moors. (The Alhambra 727–28) Through Irving we can reimagine Spanish Johnny and his “songs of Spain,” his simultaneously violent and artistic personality, as Cather portrays him in her poem. In such passages, Irving’s technique, too, vividly resembles Cather’s, a terse and matter-of-fact style that re-creates the exotic human and physical territory at once enticing, dangerous, and providing ample nourishment for the imagination. Like Father Latour, Irving stresses the rich legacy that the Moors have left in Spain. His first view of Granada vividly recalls St. Peter’s vision of the Sierra Nevadas: “In the distance was romantic Granada surmounted by the ruddy towers of the Alhambra, while far above it the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada shone like silver” (The Alhambra 749). And the similarity of St. Peter’s name, Godfrey, to Irving’s narrative alter ego, Geoffrey Crayon, may be more than sheer coincidence.

Cather’s recognition of Irving is verbalized in The Song of the Lark by Ray Kennedy, the self-instructed railroad man and former sheepherder who “by the light of many camp-fires . . . had pondered about Prescott’s histories, and the works of Washington Irving, which he had bought at a high price from a book agent” (338). The reference to Prescott here is also relevant. William Hickling Prescott devoted his life to the study and recreation of the history of Spain and its American empire. Works such as History of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837),History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), and History of the Conquest of Peru (1847) trace the historical evolution of frontier Spain into an imperial power in the New World. He writes that during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the several States, into which the country had been broken up for ages, were brought under a common rule; the kingdom of Naples was conquered; America discovered and colonized; the ancient empire of the Spanish Arabs subverted; the dread tribunal of the Modern Inquisition established; the Jews, who contributed so sensibly to the wealth and civilization of the country, were banished; and, in fine, such changes were introduced into the interior administration of the monarchy, as have left a permanent impression on the character and condition of the nation. (Preface, History of Ferdinand) Prescott proves surprisingly accurate in his appreciation of the historical factors that determined the exceptional nature of Spain within Europe. His works, even if tinged by the typical nineteenth-century romanticism, show an outstanding historical rigor and breadth. His presence alongside Irving in The Song of the Lark suggests that Cather may have conceived the character of Godfrey St. Peter years before writing The Professor’s House, inspired by these historians who felt the same fascination with Spanish history that she increasingly did, especially after discovering the Southwest.

The Professor’s House has only two references to actual explorers that St. Peter may have written about in his scholarly works: one is to Fray Marcos de Niza, the embodiment of enthusiastic Spanish credulity, always eager to set out for new Dorados. Fray Marcos is the subject of an article read by Tom Outland that, according to Father Duchene, was “the only thing with any truth in it he’d read about our country down there” (112–13). The other reference is to Fray Garces, a Franciscan missionary and martyr killed by the Yuma Indians on the banks of the Colorado, whose manuscript, transcribed by the Professor from the original in Spain, he and Tom take along with them to the Southwest. And Tom is capable of locating Garces’s exact geographical references, proving his expertise on the ground (and also the veracity of Garces’s manuscript). We know that St. Peter’s work underwent an important transformation, becoming more simple and inevitable, after meeting Outland. When St. Peter first began his work, he realized that his great drawback was the lack of early association, the fact that he had not spent his youth in the great dazzling Southwest country which was the scene of his explorers’ adventures. By the time he had got as far as the third volume, into his house walked a boy who had grown up there, a boy with imagination, with the training and insight resulting from a very curious experience; who had in his pocket the secrets which old trails and stones and water courses tell only to adolescence. (259) Hence Outland is, to a great extent, coauthor of St. Peter’s magnum opus, since he provides the practical experience and the imagination the Professor lacks. We also know that St. Peter had managed for years to live “two lives, both of them very intense” (29), and yet we learn mostly about his family and university life, hardly touching that other life, in which Tom is an important player. Like much in Cather, that life is left for the reader to imagine.


Godfrey St. Peter acts as a surrogate Spaniard in the Hamilton community and in the novel. Even though he is of mixed stock (Canadian French on one side and American farmers on the other), St. Peter is “commonly said to look like a Spaniard,” according to the narrator, who immediately adds that “that was possibly because he had been in Spain a good deal, and was an authority on certain phases of Spanish history” (13). St. Peter’s portrait stands in the novel as the physical representation of the Spanish stereotype, with his tawny skin, black and silky hair, long brown face (like Cardinal Allande’s in the Archbishop), hawk nose and hawk-like eyes, and oval chin with a “close-trimmed Van-Dyke, like a tuft of shiny black fur (13). The portrait resembles the El Greco portraits of saints and noblemen evoked in the prologue of the Archbishop and bestows a mysterious spirituality on the character, whose students “call him Mephistopheles” because of his “wicked-looking eyebrows” and the profound cavities of his sockets, where his eyes had “plenty of room to move about” (13).

On the other hand, St. Peter is “exaggerated and quixotic,” comic traits that no doubt reinforce his Spanish ethos: “He idealized the people he loved and paid his devoir to the ideal rather than the individual, so that his behaviour was sometimes a little too exalted for the circumstances—‘chivalry of the cinema’” (169). Cather makes her protagonist into a modern-day Don Quixote, and the barren territories of the Southwest, where Spanish conquistadores and missionaries performed heroic but quixotic deeds, into the region of La Mancha. Their deeds are the private realm of the Professor, his refuge from the prosaic reality of job and family, just as chivalry novels offer Don Quixote refuge escape from the dull routine of his days. Godfrey St. Peter finds his peculiar Sancho in Tom Outland, who is endowed with the natural wisdom and intuitive intelligence of a country boy who has grown up in the open ranges of New Mexico. Outland brings back to the life of the Professor the enthusiasm of youth and plays the role of the explorer/conquistador, the discoverer of a golden city whose treasures he holds in sacred respect. He is therefore the personification of one of St. Peter’s Spanish protagonists, a modern-day Coronado or Cortés, but one who advocates preservation and understanding, while his friend Roddy turns the treasure into commodities, as most Spaniards did with the cultural artifacts they discovered in their American wanderings. Tom Outland is the scholarly as well as personal dream of the Professor come true, his complementary self, the animus of his anima, as Father Vaillant was for Father Latour in the Archbishop (Hively 156–57).

Well versed in the field of Spanish history, St. Peter discusses with his guest Edgar Spilling, another specialist, manuscripts “shut up in certain mouldering monasteries in Spain” (44). With this allusion, Cather evokes the other Iberia. The Andalusian mountains, the site of St. Peter’s epiphany, symbolize Arab Spain, and the “mouldering monasteries” symbolize Christian Iberia, where vaults keep the records of medieval history and are the site of St. Peter’s scholarly research. The dual nature of the Spanish civilization is hence captured through these contrasting symbols, Gothic Christendom versus florid Islam—a dichotomy that would find its replica in the New World, in which the American natives, whose apparent wealth and magnificence matched those of Al-andalus, assumed the role of the Arabs in the Spanish imagination. Not in vain do the Cristopher Columbus diaries abound in similes that identify the tropical landscapes of the Caribbean with an Andalusian garden; it was a conscious strategy to lure the Spanish monarchs with a new and bountiful frontier for them to conquer and convert. We know that Outland and St. Peter often converse about the Professor’s project, yet the actual conversations are hardly recorded. The only one we get to know is Tom Outland’s story, an autobiographical account whose ultimate authority relies, precisely, on the Professor’s memory. Thus, it is not “autobiography” but “biography,” with all the implications that such narratives may have, for it is ultimately not Outland’s voice but St. Peter’s memory of it that we read. Finally, there is a parallelism that we should not miss: St. Peter transcribes Fray Garces’s diary and begins to annotate Tom’s. Both diaries speak of pioneers in the same territory—the Southwest, the space of St. Peter’s imagination—and both Outland and Garces suffer martyrdom while performing their duty of imperial expansion in a reversal of roles that strikes me as very Catherian. Fray Garces, the carrier of imperial Christendom, is sacrificed by the Yuma, while Tom, the porter of American imperialism, gives his life on European soil. And St. Peter, a historian, rescues their contributions to history.

If we place St. Peter’s fictional awakening to a lifelong fascination with Spain and its American chimeras alongside Willa Cather’s own infatuation with Julio, we can discern a parallel pattern of “suppression” of the Spanish other, both in Cather’s personal life and in her fiction. In his work St. Peter is attempting to do “something quite different” (33), as Cather herself was trying to do with her writing, and yet we never get a glimpse of his work, just as we never learn about the Professor’s life in Spain as opposed to his life in France. In fact, Spain is a conspicuous blank space in the novel, as Mexico is in O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Emil Bergson’s stay in Mexico City, where he reaches manhood—“He is a man now, sure enough,” Alexandra laments. “I have no boy left. He smokes terrible-smelling Mexican cigarettes and speaks Spanish” (O Pioneers! 193)—is never described, nor is Thea’s and Fred Ottenburg’s Mexican vacation. Again, those are rather intriguing gaps that, in my opinion, reveal Cather’s problematic handling of the Hispanic component of her fiction, fiction that shows an increasing awareness of the Spanish other. Godfrey St. Peter is characterized as a cultural hybrid; his life is a locus where the Hispanic meets the Anglo-Saxon and the Native American. As such, it stands as a symbol of interracial and cross-cultural understanding; a scholar of American descent, he gets fascinated by Spain and its American adventurers, and eventually reimagines pre-Columbian America through the Blue Mesa remains. Even if often silenced, the Spanish ingredient is fundamental in The Professor’s House, as it is in much of Cather’s fiction—a silent presence that this essay hopes to have helped unearth.


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