In May 1896, Willa Cather announced in her “Passing Show” essay in the Nebraska State Journal that John Ruskin was “near his end” (World and Parish 1: 297), and although he survived another four years, she correctly saw his life’s work as complete. In fact, the reputation of the great Victorian sage was ebbing in America and England, a decline signaled two decades earlier when the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler won a libel suit against him (the Englishman had accused the American of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”), and Ruskin, already suffering a mental breakdown, resigned his chair at Oxford. In her essay, Cather celebrates Ruskin as not only “the greatest living master of pure English prose” but also a “prophet,” “the last of the great worshippers of beauty” (297, 299), and she takes up his crusade against consumerism and aestheticism, against “our shallow thoughts and sordid lives” (300). Ruskin’s influence on Cather is profound but neglected, perhaps because association with him would constrain her standing as an American modernist. Although her championing of Ruskin does seem at odds with her gravitation toward modernism, Cather ultimately incorporated Ruskin’s aesthetic and historical vision into experimental literary forms. In particular, she absorbed the romantic typology of landscape articulated in his Modern Painters (1843–60), which links the minutiae of color, atmosphere, and geology to a set of transcendent ideas operating through a theological conception of history. Key passages in My Ántonia (1918), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931) demonstrate how Cather adapted Ruskin’s typology to a modernist aesthetic in constructing New World settings.
Cather had studied Ruskin for a year at Lincoln, and her essay shows familiarity with several of his works, including The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice (1851–53), and above all, Modern Painters. Through the five volumes of the last work, Ruskin’s defense of J. M. W. Turner and contemporary landscapists as better realists than the old masters branched into an exhaustive study of the relationships among the physical world, art, society, and redemptive history. In a section on “typical beauty” in the second volume, Ruskin proposes to apply figural typology—whereby people, things, and events in the Old Testament (types) prefigure people, things, and events in the New (antitypes)—to “every division of creation, in stones, mountains, waves, clouds, and all organic bodies” (86). According to George P. Landow, who situates Ruskin in the context of Victorian biblical typology, Ruskin “believes that typical beauty, like types of Christ, exists simultaneously on two levels or in two different contexts: the aesthetic surface of nature (or of a painting) has its own reality, but . . . this reality is completed only by reference to God.” By definition, a type must “adumbrate or represent something which has not yet come into existence—at least not into earthly existence” (4, 46). Although Ruskin, in the midst of his great work, fell away from the evangelical faith that fueled this religious vision, that early faith lingered in shaping his conception of nature and society as suspended in a historical continuum. However, Ruskin did not view painters as slavish transcribers of nature’s iconography; according to his romantic typology, the landscape’s inherent meanings are discovered through the artist’s imagination and arrangement. Cather grasps Ruskin’s project most succinctly in her gloss: “Beauty was God revealed, he said; man’s business was to find God” (World and Parish 1: 299).
Two passages from My Ántonia will quickly suggest the subtle conversation Cather carried on with Ruskin in her fiction. At the end of the first book, narrator Jim Burden, writing in the grand tradition of “word painting” Ruskin established in Modern Painters, describes “a beautiful electric storm” (133) he witnesses with Ántonia: The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was checkered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning-flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid sea-coast city, doomed to destruction. . . . One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. (134) The influence of Modern Painters is unmistakable here in the dramatic sky and its historical associations. Jim’s cloudscape, divided among black, ultramarine, and marble, reproduces the dynamics Ruskin observes in, for example, Turner’s Coventry, Warwickshire (c. 1832), where the rain clouds yield a “passage of repose” in “the purest blue which the sky ever shows,” mottled, however, by “faint white threads and fringes of cloud” (1: 255–56). Considered in terms of Ruskin and Turner, Jim’s reference to “the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction” seems a clear allusion to Turner’s paired canvases Dido Building Carthage (1815) and Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817)—familiar images, certainly, to someone of Jim’s classical affinities. Ruskin notes that the Carthaginian boys playing with toy boats in the foreground of the first canvas are a touch of “epic poetry” signifying Carthage’s future greatness as a seafaring power (1: 29–30). The counterpart in Jim’s scene is the black cloud like a “little boat” heading west into the deep blue yonder—like Turner’s toy boats, an auspicious sign tinged with foreboding. However, by Ruskin’s standards Jim’s description is somewhat forced. Ruskin, after all, saw Turner’s Carthage paintings as immature efforts (1: 171). Equally telling is Jim’s reference to lightning as “zigzags,” which Ruskin reminds us is not how lightning really looks (1: 261). An unreliable narrator, Jim sometimes resembles the second-rank poets Ruskin criticizes in “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” as “too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion” (Modern Painters 3: 158).
A second passage in My Ántonia, near the end of the second book, seems to me a more positive enactment of Ruskin’s principles: “On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun” (237). Jim’s exaltation of the common plow against the sunset is consistent with Ruskin’s association of red with purification and sanctification (Modern Painters 4: 52–53). The illuminated plow also invites reference to Ruskin’s 1858 lecture “The Work of Iron,” which proposes the interaction between iron and air as a type of the union between body and soul. Ruskin argues that rusting iron is superior to pure iron because, mixed with air, it is “Living” (116). Iron oxide, he notes, is the source of color in earth, sand, and even blood: “Iron is in some sort, therefore, the sunshine and light of landscape, so far as that light depends on the ground” (118). Ruskin’s lecture proceeds to examine the proper use of iron in national policy, with special reference to the plow, the fetters, and the sword, and looks forward to “the time when the great change shall pass upon the iron of the earth;—when men shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: neither shall they learn war any more” (139). Buoyed by this same prophecy from Isaiah 2:4 (signaled by reference to the Cordoban sword earlier in the chapter), Cather’s plow, “black against the molten red” of the sun, achieves a fusion similar to Ruskin’s between iron, earth, and air—the adjective “molten” describing the sun borrowed from the process through which the plow itself was cast.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is the Cather novel most deeply suffused with Ruskin. Heading west from Laguna, Latour enters territory familiar to any reader of Modern Painters: “here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and white with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, the ever varying distribution of light” (100–101). Ruskin writes about clouds with scholastic rigor: volume 1 of Modern Painters devotes three chapters to “Truth of Clouds,” and volume 5 supplies four more, on “CloudBalancings,” “Cloud-Flocks,” “Cloud-Chariots,” and “The Angel of the Sea.” The veil of clouds is the medium through which God “bows” down to earth (4: 85): “by the mists of the firmament his implacable light is divided, and its separated fierceness appeased into the soft blue that fills the depth of distance with its bloom, and the flush with which the mountains burn as they drink the overflowing of the dayspring” (4: 88). In the Archbishop, such typological readings of land and sky are clarified through Latour’s theological cast of mind. After a cloudburst at Acoma, he regards “the great plain spotted with mesas and glittering with rain sheets[,] . . . the distant mountains bright with sunlight. . . . [H]e thought that the first Creation morning might have looked like this, when the dry land was drawn up out of the deep, and all was confusion” (104). For him, the rock of Acoma embraces the expanse of sacred time, from the Old Testament Hebrews through St. Peter (103), yet celebrating Mass there he feels “at the bottom of the sea,” as if “the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far” (106).
Probably the single most Ruskinian scene in all of Cather is Latour’s last entry into Santa Fe, where he pauses with Bernard “at the foot of the long street to await the sunset” behind the cathedral he built (283). The church itself is an expression of Ruskin’s architectural ideas in The Seven Lamps, particularly “The Lamp of Memory,” where he writes: “when we build, let us think that we build for ever. . . . [L]et us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us’” (338–39). Or, as Latour laconically tells Vaillant at the quarry: “But the Cathedral is not for us, Father Joseph. We build for the future—better not lay a stone unless we can do that” (254). With its “honest building and good stone-cutting,—good Midi Romanesque of the plainest,” the completed cathedral embodies the forward-looking principles of its inception: “the tawny church seemed to start directly out of those rose-coloured hills—with a purpose so strong that it was like action” (283–84). Vaillant’s motto is “Rest in action” (38), but in his cathedral Latour achieves somewhat the opposite: action in repose. The building’s intrinsic drama extends to its mountain setting, which is animated especially during storms, when “the carnelian rocks became an intense lavender, all their pine trees strokes of dark purple; the hills drew nearer, the whole background approached like a dark threat” (284).
In Latour’s sundown scene, the intimation of sacred time is assisted by Ruskin’s typological readings of color. Cather is precise, almost to the point of contradiction, about the color of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: “no matter how scarlet the sunset, those red hills never became vermilion, but a more and more intense rose-carnelian; not the colour of living blood, the Bishop had often reflected, but the colour of the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome, which liquefies upon occasion” (284–85). Shades of red are central to Ruskin’s iconographic program in Modern Painters: “color generally,” he writes, “but chiefly the scarlet, used with the hyssop, in the Levitical law, is the great sanctifying element of visible beauty inseparably connected with purity and life” (5: 319). Red is the “color which the sunbeams take in passing through the earth’s atmosphere. The rose of dawn and sunset is the hue of the rays passing close over the earth. It is also concentrated in the blood of man.” It is “an entirely abstract color,” he argues, adding: “It is red to which the color-blind are blind, as if to show us that it was not necessary merely for the service or comfort of man, but that there was a special gift for teaching in this color” (5: 317– 18). Like Cather, testing the limits between “rose-carnelian” and “vermilion” in her description of the Sangre de Cristo range, Ruskin favors rose over pure red: rose is more realistic as well as more scripturally correct. The colors of the Tabernacle were the “sacred chord” of “blue, purple, and scarlet, with white and gold”; “the purple and scarlet will be found constantly employed by noble painters, in various unison, to the exclusion of pure crimson” (4: 52). Rose is more beautiful, he maintains, because it is typical of moderation (2: 84–85).
Shadows on the Rock resonates with Ruskin’s typological understanding of the substance Cather names in this novel’s title, the geological formation on which a French colony casts its fortunes. Rock, for Ruskin, is a type of purity in the “vital and energetic connection among its particles.” The purity of rock, “contrasted with the foulness of dust or mould, is expressed in the epithet ‘living’” given to rock in most languages (2: 78–79). The world of Shadows is structured on a like dichotomy between the order, vitality, and energy of Quebec’s rock and the unsettled continent, “the dead sealed world of the vegetable kingdom” characterized by “silence, distance, mould, black mud” (Shadows, 11). The highest and most beautiful form of rock, Ruskin contends, is that in which different shapes of atoms “are inseparably united by some fiery process which has purified them all” (4: 102). On a political level, such variegated rock represents, in contrast to lesser crystalline forms, “the perfect state of brotherhood and strength in which each character is clearly distinguished, separately perfected, and employed in its proper place and office” (4: 103). Cather’s sure-footed navigation of Quebec does not descend to its atomic structure; however, as a community platform her “mountain rock” does achieve Ruskin’s political purity, “cunningly built over with churches, convents, fortifications, gardens, following the natural irregularities of the headland on which they stood; some high, some low, some thrust up on a spur, some nestling in a hollow, some sprawling unevenly along a declivity” (9).
The most elemental of Cather’s titles, “Shadows on the Rock” could easily be one of Ruskin’s subheadings in Modern Painters, which contains, in the first volume, a passage called “Peculiar Distinctness of Light and Shade in the Rocks of Nature,” which reads in part: “Now, if there be any part of landscape in which nature develops her principles of light and shade more clearly than another, it is rock; for the dark sides of fractured stone receive brilliant reflexes from the lighted surfaces, on which the shadows are marked with the most exquisite precision” (311). Quebec is tested by the panoply of Ruskinian atmospherics and chromatics, by the hour and the season: on an autumn morning, “rolling vapours . . . now brown, now amethyst, now reddish lavender, with sometimes a glow of orange overhead where the sun was struggling behind the thick weather” (73–74); on an autumn afternoon, “ledges of brown and lavender clouds . . . above the river and the Île d’Orléans, and the red-gold autumn sunlight pour[ing] over the rock like a heavy southern wine” (42); on a winter evening, “the last flames of orange light burn[ing] off the high points of the rock” (118), then “All the western sky . . . throbbing with fiery vapours, like rapids of clouds,” and elsewhere “the sky [shining] with a blue to ravish the heart,—-that limpid, celestial, holy blue that is only seen when the light is golden” (122); at sunrise in spring, “The rock of Kebec . . . gleaming above the river like an altar with many candles, or like a holy city in an old legend, shriven, sinless, washed in gold” (195). By the second autumn, sacred time is second nature to Cécile Auclair: “That crimson flow, that effulgence at the solemn twilight hour, often made Cécile think about the early times and the martyrs—coming up, as it did, out of those dark forests that had been the scene of their labours and their fate. The rainbow, she knew, was set in the heavens to remind us of a promise that all storms shall have an ending. Perhaps this afterglow, too, was ordained in the heavens for a reminder” (268). In any case, this sign of the martyrs does not trouble Cécile. “It makes me feel happy,” she says, “as if I could never be afraid of anything again” (268).
Cather’s New World landscapes are palimpsests of geological, cultural, and sacred history. Their prophetic cast, owing so much to Ruskin, suspends their inhabitants between type and fulfillment, sustaining a range of private experiences that deepen Cather’s modernist conception of time and consciousness. The opening sequence of the Archbishop reads the wrinkled desert landscape as a compression of time: Latour, “winding his way in the narrow cracks” between “monotonous red sand-hills,” reviews “his long wayfaring from the mountains of Auvergne”; however, he escapes the present “geometrical nightmare” by discerning “the form of the Cross” in a juniper tree and experiencing his physical suffering as “the anguish of his Lord” (16–19). In Modern Painters, Ruskin imagines the last hours of Aaron and Moses, their motion through the “folded” mountain landscape transforming, in Moses’ mind, into an unfolding of his whole career as prophet, now complete: “the horizon grew broader as they climbed, and all the folded hills of Idumea, one by one subdued, showed amidst their hollows in the haze of noon, the windings of that long desert journey, now at last to close. . . . [T]he whole history of those forty years was unfolded before [Moses], and the mystery of his own ministries revealed to him” (4: 379). The dying Moses contemplates “the fair hills of Judah, and the soft plains and banks of Jordan, purple in the evening light as with the blood of redemption” (4: 380). Landscape reveals the typological standing of both Moses and Latour; however, their historical and geographical positions, and their levels of awareness, are different. The Hebrew prophet is a type unconsciously awaiting fulfillment in Christ’s redemption; the French missionary seeks signs of a redemption accomplished long ago and far away. Latour is, loosely speaking, both type and antitype of Christ: Christ’s suffering fulfills his own; in turn, his New World ministry fulfills, or advances, Christ’s ministry. In absorbing Ruskin, Death Comes for the Archbishop draws upon the vitality of Victorian typology, which applied figural meanings to “all kinds of things, events, and people” in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and encouraged the belief that “types are still being fulfilled in the nineteenth century as they were in the time of Christ” (Landow 117, 50). Increasingly, Latour understands his life as completing, and indeed preserving, relatively recent history as well. Thus in old age he dictates stories of the first Spanish missionaries of the diocese “which he had come upon by chance and feared would be forgotten.” He wishes he had written them down earlier so as to “[arrest] their flight by throwing about them the light and elastic mesh of the French tongue” (289).
Latour’s personal memories, like his Christian memory, are shaped by typology, by landscape, and, in subtly coded ways, by a Ruskinian vision. His touchstone memory is of his secret departure, with Vaillant, from Riom to Paris in preparation for the American missions. The young priests, in disguise, meet at dawn in “a mountain field, tip-tilted by reason of its steepness” (298). Vaillant is mortified to abandon his father, but the sound of “the diligence rumbling down the mountain gorge” (299), with Latour’s nudging, prompts him to depart. The memory recurs to Latour as the last repose of his consciousness before death, and Cather insists upon the main lines of the scene: “he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains . . . trying to forge a new Will” in Vaillant, “and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge” (315). With repetition, these spare details gain symbolic force: the priests are at a juncture in history, the thundering diligence is time’s chariot, and the “tip-tilted green field,” murky at daybreak, is an outpost of decision braced to the mountain steepness, time’s passage. This roadside decision typologically empowers the careers of both priests, leading ultimately to Latour’s cathedral—funded partly by his benefactress Madame Olivares of the “tip-tilted canary head” (196)—and to the aging Vaillant’s indefatigable journeys through the Rocky Mountains, undeterred even when his wagon “slipped off the mountain road and rolled down the gorge” (271).
The specific detail of the mountain gorge does not appear in Howlett’s biography of Vaillant prototype Joseph Machebeuf, Cather’s main source for the departure scene and for Vaillant’s wagon accident. Topographical description in the departure story that Howlett quotes is limited to “open country” (43), and his account of Machebeuf’s mountain accident does not mention a gorge by name (310). However, the image of a diligence in a mountain gorge does appear in Ruskin’s important chapter “Of Turnerian Topography” in volume 4 of Modern Painters, where he analyzes Turner’s 1843 depiction of the Pass of Faido in the Alps. Ruskin, with his father, commissioned the watercolor from Turner and was therefore familiar with its genesis. Turner had made the initial sketch of the pass immediately after descending the “narrow gorge above Faido” in a diligence. His representation of the scene is therefore tinged with the lingering effect of the gorge, “still not well out of his head when the diligence stopped at the bottom of the hill” (4: 23). Compared to Ruskin’s “Simple Topography” of the scene (fig. 1), Ruskin’s “Turnerian Topography” (fig. 2) based on Turner’s finished watercolor is more vertical, fierce, and kinetic, reflecting the extremes of the unseen geography Turner had just crossed; it modifies the scene “into something which is not so much the image of the place itself, as the spirit of the place” (4: 23). Describing the alpine experience that gave shape to Turner’s depiction, Ruskin dwells on a road: “One of the great elements of [Turner’s] sensation, all the day long, has been that extraordinary road, and its goings on, and gettings about; here, under avalanches of stones, and among insanities of torrents, and overhangings of precipices, much tormented and driven to all manner of makeshifts and coils to this side and the other, still the marvelous road persists in going on” (4: 25). I view this road, persistent but circling back on itself (both physically and in the traveler’s consciousness), as a source for a motif running through the Archbishop and elsewhere in Cather’s fiction. It links the journeys of Latour and Vaillant (who calls “the mountain torrents . . . the first road builders” ) to those, for example, of Jim Burden, who on arrival in Nebraska seems to detect the lingering “glide of long railway travel . . . still with me” (15) and who finally encounters the “little circle [of] man’s experience” (360) in a remnant of the old road that, shadowing the erratic nature of Turner’s, “used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie, clinging to the high places and circling and doubling like a rabbit before the hounds. . . . For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny. . . . Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again” (359–60).
From Turner’s rendering of the mountain gorge, Ruskin concludes that the realism of great artists is filtered through memory. Ruskin likens Turner to other creative geniuses for whom everything they “had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and, with the painters, down to the minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones,” is an “unindexed and immeasureable mass of treasure” over which “the imagination [broods and wanders] . . . so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other” (4: 28). This account of imaginative labor bears a dual relation to the Archbishop, explaining how Ruskin’s reference to the diligence in a mountain gorge might become Cather’s, summoned from early study, and how the dying Latour accesses and pieces together his own storehouse of memory: “He was soon to have done with calendared time. . . . He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible” (305).
A.S. Byatt notes perceptively that Cather, more than any other novelist, “sees her people’s lives as whole and finished— they feel stress and passion, they discover and lose, but they are bounded by birth and death, by nothing and nothing, and they move between the two, adjusting their consciousness as they go. The writer always sees the people’s lives whole and complete, wherever the story is along their line.” In view of the typological structures examined here, I would add that for some of Cather’s characters the outer frame of birth and death is not nothing and nothing, but something and something. Erich Auerbach argues in Mimesis that figural typology established the basis of realism in Western literature by lending breadth, projection, and durability to events. In a figural conception, Auerbach writes, “The connection between occurrences is not regarded as primarily a chronological or causal development but as a oneness within the divine plan, of which all occurrences are parts and reflections” (555). Figural typology is among those mythic structures through which the deep realism known as modernism operates, achieving in the words of Michael Bell, “not a withdrawal into . . . the timeless but a recognition of the intrinsic and foundational import of . . . [such] values for the given community or ‘world’” (15). Cather’s portrayal of personal memory moored by history and typology is one of her accomplishments as a modernist—and one of her debts to Ruskin, whose “end” she anticipated at the outset of her own career. Cather personalized figural history, reconciling it with Michelet’s statement, “The end is nothing, the road is all” (qtd. in Cather, “Old Mrs. Harris” 131).
There are of course other roads running from Ruskin to modernism. In fact, Ruskin’s typological reading of Tintoretto’s Annunciation (1563) in the second volume of Modern Painters was an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, according to painter William Holman Hunt, who was seeking to reconcile detailed realism with a symbolic dimension (Landow 4, 121–23). Cather herself wrote appreciatively of the Pre-Raphaelites, and she acknowledged the inspiration on the Archbishop of their French contemporary Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the symbolist painter and forerunner of postimpressionism (Cather, “On Death” 376–77). The French symbolists were themselves connected to the Pre-Raphaelites by none other than Ruskin’s nemesis Whistler, whose work even Cather grudgingly saluted as “ravishingly beautiful” but deficient in “the power or the greatness of the old faded frescoes that told roughly of hell and heaven and death and judgment” (World and Parish 1: 37). Cather’s schooling in Ruskin, then, was not a swerve from her modernism but a phase of its circuitous advance.