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From Cather Studies Volume 8

"The Bravest Act of His Life"

Cather, Claude, and the Disadvantages of a Prairie Childhood

Claude Wheeler, the protagonist of One of Ours, performs the “bravest act of his life”—not when he asks Enid Royce to marry him, not when he goes to Omaha in April 1917 to enlist in the army. He performs the “bravest act of his life” in a grocery store just after landing in France, when he “uttered the first phrase-book sentence he had ever spoken to a French person”: “Avez-vous du fromage, Madame?” (426).

This act, momentous to Claude at the time, hardly compares with his heroism at the end, when he jumps to a parapet to inspire his men in the face of a German advance and is killed by German bullets. But the scene in the grocery shop points to a subject of importance to Cather and her character: it attests to the value they placed upon speaking a foreign language, in particular, the French language. Fluency in French meant more than being able to order meals and ask for directions, more than knowing French grammar and having a large vocabulary. For both author and character, fluency in French meant achievement and possession—being at ease and at home in the world of high culture, as if all the riches of European tradition were compacted in the French language. The importance of French to Cather was far-reaching, affecting her relationship with at least two friends—Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Elizabeth Sergeant— and her portrayal of Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark and Claude Wheeler, who of all her protagonists feel most bitterly deprived by a prairie childhood. When Cather was still at the University of Nebraska, as Michel Gervaud notes, she began to associate the French language with what she observed in the homes of cosmopolitan friends, such as the Canfields and the Westermanns, and what she desired for herself: “a style of life— manners, conversation, good food—which to her became inseparable from her understanding of Europe and France particularly” (71). Hearing fluent French made her and a character like Claude acutely aware of what they longed to possess and what they felt that their childhood in prairies towns, far removed from Europe, had denied them.

We do not know how Cather felt about her ability to speak French before she made her first trip to Europe, in 1902. We do know how Claude feels. Even before he gets to France, he is attracted to and yet daunted by the French language. (Recall that the Europeans Claude knows at home are German—the Erlichs, the Yoeders, Mrs. Voigt.) He clutches at the word Marne as if to a piton on a dangerous slope: “The fact that the river had a pronounceable name, with a hard Western ‘r’ standing like a keystone in the middle of it, somehow gave one’s imagination a firmer hold on the situation” (232–33). Even before he arrives in France, he associates the French language with qualities he fears he does not possess. To him, the “bar of French ‘politeness’” is “so much more terrifying than German bullets” (233). As Steven Trout notes, “Cather’s hero never achieves fluency in the French language, let alone more than a superficial knowledge of the French people with whom he briefly interacts” (68–69). But, actually, Claude does pretty well with his phrasebook French. His instinctive courtesy, not the phrase book, supplies the Madame at the end of his first question: “Avez-vous du fromage, Madame?” “It was almost inspiration to add the last word” (426). He again clears the “bar of French ‘politeness’” when he rehearses what he would say if his presence in a church in Rouen were questioned: “Pardon, Monsieur; je ne sais pas c’est défendu” (451).

The textual editors of the scholarly edition of the novel, Frederick M. Link and Kari A. Ronning, note errors retained in Claude’s French: for instance, Qu’est for Qu-est-ce and à for pour (819) when he asks the wretched family of refugees, “Vous avez quelque chose à manger?” (475). But he is able to tell the little girl that her mother is “trop malade à marcher” (476) and that “Il faut que votre mère // se reposer. . . with the grave caesural pause which he always made in the middle of a French sentence” (475). Claude does better when he asks questions than when he is expected to reply to a question in French. He suffers painfully when a little boy approaches him in a park and asks him, “Voulez-vous me dire l’heure, s’il vous plaît, M’sieu’ l’soldat?” (431). Claude goes dumb with panic, feels his face grow red, sees the “child’s expectant gaze” change “to a look of doubt, and then of fear,” and rages at himself. “Unless I can learn to talk to the children of this country . . . I’ll go home!” (431).

Claude does not seem troubled by his ignorance of French when young men like himself from farms and country towns ask him if he can “parlez-vous” (375). To a young marine from Wyoming he says, “No. I know a few words, but I can’t put them together.” “Same here,” says the other. “I expect to pick up some” (375). Claude is not intimidated by his cabin-mate, Victor Morse from Crystal City, Iowa, who affects an English accent and boasts of his conquests in London. When Victor asks him, “Are you quick with your French?” Claude grins and replies, “Not especially” (384). He sees that Victor only pretends to be sophisticated. When he meets Lieutenant David Gerhardt, he knows at once that he has met the real thing, even before he learns that Gerhardt, an easterner, is a concert violinist who has studied in Paris. The moment “he met Lieutenant Gerhardt’s eye, something like jealousy flamed up in him. He felt in a flash that he suffered by comparison with the new officer” (454–55). He recognizes what sets Gerhardt apart from all the other men: “He seemed experienced; a finished product, rather than something on the way” (456). At the home of the Jouberts, where Gerhardt introduces him, Claude feels “irritated and grudging” as he listens to Gerhardt speaking “Madame Joubert’s perplexing language as readily as she herself did” (457). The next day, he is pleased to see that Gerhardt is inept with the tools that Claude handles with ease. But nothing dispels his envy of Gerhardt as he listens admiringly to Madame Joubert speak “her difficult language with such spirit and precision” (468). “He wished he could talk to her as Gerhardt did” (468). It is noteworthy that Cather creates the effect on Claude of Gerhardt’s sophistication without giving him more than one French phrase to speak: “Le dernier baiser” (580).

Claude’s envy of Gerhardt’s fluency arises in part from his admiration for the French language itself—as Madame Joubert speaks it, “a language that couldn’t be mumbled; that had to be spoken with energy and fire, or not spoken at all” (468). Even before he goes to France, the French language holds for Claude an almost mystical power that no other language has. He reads an English translation of the court proceedings of Joan of Arc’s trial for his thesis in European history, but he keeps “the French text at his elbow” and is haunted by the words “in the language in which they were spoken. . . . like the speech of her saints” (91). Unlike French, German holds no particular charm for Claude, although he enjoys being with his German friends at home. He has had “many good times” at the Yoeders’, where the old grandmother told stories and “recited a long German rhyme” (340). He “loved to hear [Mrs. Erlich] sing sentimental German songs as she worked: ‘Spinn, spinn, du Tochter mein.’ He didn’t know why, but he simply adored it!” (69). But he never seems troubled that he cannot speak German. French is the only language that creates in him feelings of envy and cultural deprivation.

Such feelings set Claude apart from everyone else in the novel. Despite his bond with the men in his company, who boast that he can “speak French like a native” (430), he is different from those who, after a few weeks in France, “had lost all their bashfulness about trying to speak French. They declared they could get along in France with three verbs, and all, happily, in the first conjugation:manger, aimer, payer,—quite enough!” (575). He is not content to be like the thousands of Americans—soldiers and civilian volunteers—who expected to “‘pick up’ French in a few days on board a ship to France” (Price 12).

Cather makes explicit the connection between herself and Claude’s feelings in several of the twenty-five letters she wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher between March 1921 and November 1922. Mark Madigan has discussed these letters in his 1990 essay on the long but not unbroken friendship of Cather and Canfield Fisher. He recalls that the two became friends in Lincoln in 1891, when Cather was a student at the University of Nebraska and Canfield, six years younger, was still in high school. Dorothy’s father, James H. Canfield, was chancellor of the University of Nebraska, and her mother, Flavia, an amateur artist, presided at the center of the university’s social and artistic life. Dorothy had attended French schools while her mother studied art in Paris. In her collection of stories and sketches, The Real Motive (1916), Canfield Fisher recalls her early years abroad serving as companion and interpreter for her mother, who spoke no foreign languages. “I was with her in Paris, off and on, all through my childhood and youth, getting an education—if it could be called that—very oddly divided between Paris studio life, art galleries, and the classroom of a school kept by Roman Catholic sisters, and later, when I was older, in the Sorbonne and the École des Haute Études” (qtd. in Washington 71).

Whatever feelings of inferiority Cather suffered in comparing herself to the Canfields were exacerbated when she made her first trip to Europe in 1902 with Isabelle McClung. Dorothy Canfield, who was doing research at the Sorbonne for a dissertation on Corneille and Racine, met them in England and then in Paris. First came the painful visit to A. E. Housman in his dreary London boardinghouse. Although Cather revered Housman’s poetry and imitated it in her own verse, it was Canfield’s research in Paris and the British Museum that interested Housman and became the subject of a long conversation. Years later, at Cather’s request, Canfield Fisher described the meeting as she remembered it in a letter dated 20 April 1947, four days before Cather’s death. Canfield Fisher recalled that she and Housman had talked of a professor in Paris they both knew and about her work on Old French manuscripts and pre-classic Latin. “This was evidently his subject, and he held forth at length,” she wrote. Afterward, on their return to the hotel, “I saw you were weeping, my heart was simply broken because I thought I had spoiled the whole occasion for you.” She had been reassured by Cather’s denial, and thought Cather had been “great-hearted of you not to have minded” (Fisher, Keeping Fires 262).

Surely, Cather “minded” not having the kind of knowledge that would interest Housman. Her young friend’s conversation with him would have vividly represented the world of intellect and culture from which she felt excluded. Then they traveled to Paris, where Canfield was again on her own ground. Cather had studied French at the university, but according to Edith Lewis, “French was then poorly taught at the University; she got little enough from her French classes” (55). But on her own, Cather had read widely in French literature as an undergraduate; according to Fisher, “she made it a loving duty to read every French literary masterpiece she could lay her hands on” (“Daughter” 9). During her early years in Pittsburgh, Cather often joined her young friends George and Helen Seibel, who spoke French and German, and spent many evenings with Cather translating French texts into English (Byrne and Snyder 19). Cather knew the French language as a reader, not a speaker, and Canfield’s fluency in French constantly reminded her of that lack.

She confessed as much in a March 1904 letter to Canfield in which she apologized for her ill-tempered and ill-bred behavior in Paris, blaming it on her inability to understand French, which made her feel provincial and ignorant. These feeling, not exorcised by her self-abasing apology, could not have made her particularly receptive to Canfield’s efforts in 1905 to prevent Cather from publishing her story “The Profile” in The Troll Garden, Cather’s first book of fiction. The collection of stories was published without “The Profile” but with the satire of Canfield’s mother, “Flavia and Her Artists.” Cather takes a dig at Dorothy’s scholarship in the portrayal of the protagonist, Imogen Willard, a young woman who “had decided to specialize in a well-sounding branch of philology at the École des Chartes” (7) and, in Flavia’s words, seemed “quite buried” in her “grim studies” (53). In another story, “The Garden Lodge,” the narrator refers to “withered women who had taken doctorate degrees” (53). After the publication of The Troll Garden, correspondence between Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Willa Cather ceased.

The breach did not start to heal until 1922, when Cather in a 6 February letter asked Canfield Fisher to read the page proofs of One of Ours and comment on the accuracy of the French scenes. This was a natural way for Cather to take the initiative in renewing the friendship. Unlike Cather, Canfield Fisher had direct knowledge of France during the war, having spent two years near Paris doing war relief work. She had also written stories and sketches about wartime France, with details and ideas similar enough to passages in One of Ours to suggest to Janis Stout “the possibility of imitation on Cather’s part” (56).

Subsequent Cather letters of late March, 7 April, 8 May, and 10 September in the Fisher Collection at the University of Vermont give another reason why Cather sought Canfield Fisher’s help. In response to Dorothy’s interest in the role of David Gerhardt in the novel, Cather explained that Gerhardt was based on the violinist David Hochstein and that in portraying Claude’s envy of Gerhardt she was describing her own envy of Dorothy in Paris twenty years before (Cather to Fisher [March 1922]). Beside Dorothy and her family background of culture and social position, Cather had felt like a ruffian. Madigan paraphrases passages from two letters in the spring of 1922: “She admitted . . . that Fisher’s intellectual background had intimidated her, especially while they were in Europe, just as Claude had felt intimidated by David. . . . It was these feeling of inadequacy and uneasiness that Cather had for so long wanted Fisher to understand” (127). Cather gives a revealing glimpse of her prairie culture in one letter when she confesses that in One of Ours she used French words similar enough to English that they could be understood by readers in Red Cloud, where no one had a French dictionary. Years later, her publisher Alfred A. Knopf recalled that Cather advised again used ost using French words to advertise Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows (1944), which Cather greatly admired: “All middle westerners hate foreign words, especially French, because they are uncertain how to pronounce them” (Knopf 220).

These letters to Canfield Fisher indicate that Cather saw herself in the position of both Claude and David Gerhardt. Cather not only identified with her cousin G. P. Cather, whose unfulfilling life in Nebraska and heroic death in war impelled her to write the story of Claude Wheeler, she perceived that to her cousin she herself was the sophisticated, successful figure that Claude sees in David Gerhardt, that G. P. Cather’s scorn for her way of escaping the prairie betrayed his envy and dissatisfaction with his own life. In the March 1922 letter she compared her cousin’s envy of her in 1914 with her own envy of Dorothy in France twelve years before. Cather’s sense of identity with Claude is of course greater than with any other character in the novel. She seems to be speaking of both G. P. Cather and Claude when she said in an interview, “the hero is just a red-headed prairie boy. . . . but by a chain of circumstances I came to know that boy better than I know myself” (Bohlke 39). To Canfield Fisher, she wrote of the joy of her complete possession of Claude, her soul’s companion for so many months. Elizabeth Sergeant recalled that Cather “never ceased to say, in print and out of print, that Claude was her favorite of all her heroes. Was it because he was almost a piece of herself, left behind in Red Cloud?” (182).

All that Claude feels he lacks is dramatized near the end of the novel when Gerhardt takes him to stay with his French friends the Fleurys. Madame Fleury’s daughter, Claire, a pianist, was Gerhardt’s fellow student in Paris, and her older son, René, has been killed in battle. The family maintains a cultivated life of order and decorum that seems to realize Claude’s dream of that “something splendid about life” (79) he has longed to find. Thus Cather reverses the familiar pattern, showing Claude oppressed and alienated by the soulless commercialism of American culture before the war, while the characters of her harshest critics, like Hemingway, are so tormented after they return. Not surprisingly, Claude’s presence in the French household of Gerhardt’s friends intensifies his feelings of inadequacy and discomfort. Expected to play tennis, Claude becomes “stiff and unbending,” wants to “get a billet somewhere else,” and admits to Gerhardt, “I don’t feel just comfortable here. . . . I’m out of place.” He continues: “I guess I’ve always been more afraid of the French than of the Germans. It takes courage to stay, you understand. I want to run” (545–47). Despite the confidence he has gained in the army as a leader of men, he is still the same Claude who felt out of place with the Erlichs in Lincoln, a stranger, with only a “frail claim” on a “kind of a life” where he does not belong (121).

These feelings of exclusion and envy come to a head when Claude, Madame Fleury, and her younger son, Lucien, listen to David and Claire play a Saint-Saëns violin concerto. The performance, at night by firelight, is memorable, a scene distilled from time, like the singing of the “Casta Diva” aria at the New Year’s Eve party in My Mortal Enemy. The violin enters the concerto with a “suppressed, bitter melody” (550)—the perfect prelude to Claude’s emotions: He was torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. What would it mean to be able to do anything as well as that, to have a hand capable of delicacy and precision and power? If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people. He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it; tonguetied, foot-tied, hand-tied. If one were born into this world like a bear cub or a bull calf, one could only paw and upset things, break and destroy, all one’s life. (551) Canfield Fisher could have had Cather’s letters in mind when she described this scene in her review of One of Ours as “the beautiful and poignant passage where David plays his violin for the last time, where the music reveals to poor Claude a Promised Land of Beauty from which, quite casually, through nobody’s malice, and yet irretrievably, he has been shut out. The climax of the book is there, in that cry of suffering in which hurt vanity has no part” (121).

Long before Claude meets Gerhardt and listens to Frenchspeakers, he has convinced himself that he is a failure: “Everything he touched went wrong under his hand—always had” (294). In fact, he does many things well. He runs the Wheeler farm successfully when his father and brother go to Colorado; he builds the house where he and Enid live; his professor at the university praises his work in European history. But none of this makes any difference. He says to his friend Gladys Farmer, “What have I ever done, except make one blunder after another?” (345). He sees “shyness and weakness” in his face and hates his large, square head; Even his name, a “chump” name (31), is painful to him. In Nebraska he never hears the French pronunciation (“clode”) of his French name, only “clod” or “clawed.” Merrill Skaggs notes that the “sounds themselves make a major thematic statement” (42).

Six years before Cather published One of Ours, she created in Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of The Song of the Lark, a character with whom she felt as deep a sense of attachment as to Claude. In some ways, the characters are similar. Like Claude, Thea feels keenly all that her provincial background has failed to give her. Harsanyi, her piano teacher in Chicago, “soon learned that she was not able to forget her own poverty in the richness of the world he opened to her” (224). Her anger at a “world that had let her grow up so ignorant” (221) is even stronger than Claude’s bitterness. But the similarities between the two characters make the differences even more striking. Where Thea is strong, Claude is weak. Feeling powerless at home, Claude languishes in melancholy and at one point feels that “the world was too rough a place to get about in” (210). When the world seems roughest to Thea, she becomes most defiant and determined to succeed. She exerts her “rugged will” (37) and vows to get what she wants: “Let people try to stop her!” (274). Unlike Thea, Claude is crippled by self-consciousness, which he makes little effort to overcome. Dissatisfied with himself, Claude thinks it “must be great fun to take up a part and play it to a finish; to believe you were making yourself over, and to admire the kind of fellow you made” (434). Like Claude, Thea feels her difference from those she admires, but she accepts herself as she is. She believes that the people she hears speaking on a train in “that quick, sure staccato” she identifies with easterners “had a great advantage in life,” but she reminds herself that “the most important thing was that one should not pretend to be what one was not” (275).

When Claude is compared to Thea, what he lacks becomes clear—determination, energy, self-confidence, and, of course, artistic genius. Totally without her capacity for “fierce, stubborn self-assertion” (Song 274), at critical times he is unable even to state what he wants, much less prevail over the will of others. But Cather makes Claude a sympathetic figure, whose most attractive traits—sensitivity, kindness, delicacy of feeling, idealism— are the ones that make him helpless to assert himself against his father’s “coarse humour” (12) and overbearing will and his mother’s blind but stubborn piety. He is, as John Murphy describes him, the victim of a destiny shaped by his temperament and the will of others, “trapped by his father, his wife, himself most of all” (236). When Claude’s father simply announces that Claude will give up his university studies to stay home and manage the family farm, Claude seems justified in feeling “as if a trap had been sprung on him” (99). Unlike Thea, who is admired and helped by many people, Claude meets only one person, his history professor at the university, who recognizes his intellectual capacity and encourages him. Otherwise, he is surrounded by people who simply accept their lives in a commercial, money-grubbing society, are indifferent to his needs and desires, or mock him for wanting something other than business success. His impoverished life on a Nebraska farm makes understandable the bitterness he carries with him to the end of the novel.

Creating in Thea an artist “in the full tide of achievement” (Song vii) did not dispel Cather’s need to dwell on the drawbacks of her prairie childhood in her letters to Canfield Fisher or to make a fictional character the repository of the bitterness and envy she had felt in Europe twenty years before. A recurrent theme in Elizabeth Sergeant’s memoir is Cather’s never-ending sense of lacking the kind of culture that was the birthright of friends like Canfield Fisher and Sergeant: “It had been a regret to her that she had not been born into an inheritance of musical scholarship and linguistic gifts like the Viennese. There were gaps, she said ironically, that youthful temerity andc native flair and assiduity could never fill” (48). Comparing Cather and Robert Frost, the modern American poet Cather most admired, Sergeant recalled that “both thought of themselves, if I were to believe them, as ‘roughnecks’ who had more or less happened into fame” (212). (Cather called herself a roughneck in her 8 May 1922 letter to Canfield Fisher to account for her ill-tempered behavior in Paris.) Cather herself felt that the stories of the West in The Troll Garden (especially “A Wagner Matinée” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral”) were flawed by their “harsh mood,” Sergeant recalled. “The starvation of a girl avid for a richer environment seemed to stick out, to deform, to make the picture one-sided” (67). And Cather never lost her wishful respect for Sergeant’s “deep immersion” in French culture and society. Returning from a summer in France, Sergeant recalled her meeting with Cather, who “esteemed me for having the patina of Europe, as she called it, still clinging to me” (46).

Cather portrayed many native French-speakers in her fiction, but she never became a fluent speaker of French. Richard Harris, citing Woodress (161), states that “although Cather could read French, she (like Claude) never learned to speak the language well” (639). Edith Lewis recalled that she and Cather were obliged to speak “our very lame French” with their French cook, Josephine, who would “never speak English” (88). This fact was not a disabling weakness. Surely, Cather spoke French well enough to enjoy the months she spent in France after the World War I. Nor did her lack of fluency blight her love of French literature or weaken her confidence in making French writers her ultimate standard of literary excellence. Early and late, she recommended to aspiring writers the study of French as the best model of elegance, precision, and economy. As an undergraduate she read student themes for a preparatory course at the university and advised her student Alvin Johnson, later to become a well-known editor and economist, “You write not badly. . . . But you don’t see. . . . Learn French, a little French and read Flaubert or even Maupassant. They see. Madame Bovary: the book is worth committing to memory” (qtd. in Sergeant 10). Some fifty years later, she was giving the same advice to a young novelist, Pendleton Hogan, who had written to her with questions about My Mortal Enemy. In concluding her letter (5 February 1940) she recommended studying French literature and language as the best way for Americans to correct common faults of style.

Although Cather “could at any time feel impatient with the limitations of her prairie education” (Sergeant 65), by the time she wrote O Pioneers! she knew that her unique powers as a novelist were realized not in conveying “genuine” but “very shallow” impressions of London literary life but in writing about the world of her Nebraska childhood, about “a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it” (“My First Novels” 91, 93–94). In her 1932 preface to The Song of the Lark, Cather referred to Thea’s “escape from a smug, domestic, self-satisfied world of utter ignorance” (viii). But, in the novel, Thea testifies to the life-sustaining values of her childhood. “They save me, the old things,” she says to Dr. Archie, one of her many champions. “When I set out from Moonstone with you, I had had a rich, romantic past. I had lived a long, eventful life, an artist’s life, every hour of it” (551–52). Something of Cather’s dual sense of her prairie years as a time of deprivation and richness is suggested in her essay “A Chance Meeting,” about her encounter in 1930 in a hotel in Aix-lesBains with Madame Grout, Flaubert’s niece, then in her eighties. Feeling herself to be a “poor linguist,” Cather did not venture to speak to her—“If one spoke to her at all, one must be at ease” (5)—until her fellow guest spoke to her in English.

This fortunate encounter balances the unhappy visit to Housman almost thirty years before. In “A Chance Meeting,” Cather is not overshadowed by her friend. Her companion—not named, but surely Edith Lewis—has only one brief observation to make. It is Cather’s command of French literature that ensures the success of this meeting. The conversations between Cather and Flaubert’s niece could give pleasure to both of them, not only because they could speak in English but also because Cather was sensitive to the other’s character and feelings, and above all, because she revered the works of Flaubert and knew them so well that she could talk of individual sentences in them. In the end, this was the knowledge that mattered the most. It gave Cather the subject of a great literary portrait and the reality most precious to her in her chance meeting with Flaubert’s niece: “It was the Flaubert in her mind and heart that was to give me a beautiful memory” (33). “The old lady had brought that great period of French letters very near; a period which has meant so much in the personal life of everyone to whom French literature has meant anything at all” (23). A prairie childhood did not deprive Cather of the literature, the memory, and the power to preserve it in art.


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