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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Postlude: The Green Vase, the Yellow Orange, and the White Chapel

Trying to Define an Art

A few years ago I visited Avignon with another Cather scholar who was gathering information for a book. As we sipped Kronenbourgs at a sidewalk café in Villeneuve across the Rhône, the question of greatness came up. My friend felt that Cather lacked greatness as a writer, and responded to my question about why then she was worth a book by claiming that hers was an interesting case. This conversation haunted me as I vetted proposals for the seminar in France. I wondered how many hopeful participants delving into Cather correspondence, apprenticeship writings, prototypes, and friendships, or mutilating Cather texts on the racks of various theories, were convinced of or concerned about her significance relative to the development of prose fiction or general human awareness. Piecemeal criticism may increase knowledge of and interest in Cather, although its seriousness, really, will depend upon its pertinence to consequential aesthetic and human concerns as well as on self-effacing enthusiasm for the principal, the texts of the writer. While issues like Cather’s contributions to the art of the novel, American culture, “to the world, even!” (to use a construction from Shadows on the Rock) still occupy comprehensive critics and biographers, editors of the Cather Scholarly Editions, and novelists like A. S. Byatt, the critical horizon has somewhat clouded since the days of early reviewers, the work of readers such as E. K. Brown (whose biography deserves a reread), Bernice Slote, and Eudora Welty.

Perhaps those of us caught up in the Cather industry need to pause at times in order to examine the quality of our products and remind ourselves about what they should reflect. Guilty of forgetting this myself, I tried on the eve of this first Cather seminar in Europe to consider the importance of the subject, even during a time of financial crises, melting icecaps, terrorism, genocide, and military occupations. The effort of co-directing such a seminar, I thought, might lead to a reassessment of the power of these fictions to (in the words of Kentucky novelist Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Cather’s contemporary) “enlarge [our] experience, . . . increase [our] hold on to all the out-lying spaces which are little realized in the come and go of every day” (qtd. in Rovit 8). What follows is an attempt to suggest Catherian qualities I associate with “greatness” and to support this subjective claim with evidence. The vase and the orange of my title are from the 1921 interview Cather gave to Latrobe Carroll of the Bookman, in which she explains how through juxtaposition a story can be told without analysis, observation, description, or explanation: “Just as if I put here on the table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now those two things affect each other. . . . [T]hey produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone. . . . I want the reader to see the orange and the vase—beyond that, I am out of it” (Bohlke 24). Like much of what Cather tells us about her writing, the statement is intriguing but playful (“I’m out of it”) to the point of suspicion. As for the white chapel of my title, more about that later. But the juxtaposed orange and vase of contrasting color and shape do reveal, on multiple levels, essential elements of the Catherian novel in structure and setting, characterization and thematic content.


Concerning structure, one thinks immediately ofThe Professor’s House, the insertion of the nouvelle “Tom Outland’s Story” into the roman of Godfrey St. Peter—the nouvelle in this case involving the legendary long ago of ancient peoples, and the roman, a realistic domestic drama. Their difference and thus their effect on each other become startlingly clear if while reading Tom’s first-person account of the death of Henry Atkins, we recall the roman’s third-person account of Professor St. Peter discovering his wife and son-in-law Louie Marsellus seated at tea and admiring an emerald and gold necklace. “[A] snake struck [Atkins] from the ledge—struck him square in the forehead,” says Tom. “It happened in a flash. He came down and brought the snake with him. By the time we picked him up and turned him over, his face began to swell. In ten minutes it was purple, and he was so crazy it took the two of us to . . . keep him from jumping down the chasm. He was struck so near the brain that there was nothing to do. It lasted nearly two hours. Then we carried him home” (215). This has the straightforwardness of a cowboy yarn, but the necklace scene is cunningly woven of delicate sensibilities: Godfrey’s contradictory feelings about Louie, his disappointment in Lillian, his growing fatigue, and so forth. The scene is Jamesian, an aesthetic arrangement adumbrated in the drawing-room floral display the Professor contemplates through the window prior to seeing the seated figures: “It struck him that the seasons sometimes gain by being brought into the house, just as they gain by being brought into painting, and into poetry. The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed—it was that which made the difference. In Nature there is no selection” (74–75).

Cather’s method of structural juxtaposition is as clear (if less celebrated) in other novels. If Tom’s Blue Mesa story corresponds to the blue smear of Lake Michigan seen from the Professor’s attic window, the turquoise set in the dull silver of Rosamond’s bracelet, and the sky-blue door in the adobe wall of Roddy Blake’s room, “The White Mulberry Tree” section of O Pioneers! is the violent red streak on the grass staining Alexandra Bergson’s story, that “slow-moving” one “without ‘action,’ without ‘humour,’ . . . concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards” (Willa Cather on Writing 94). The nouvelle of Marie and Emil spatters the “white book” of “clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things” (O Pioneers! 185) defining Alexandra’s mind and corresponds to the treatment of color and form in an abstract painting. In One of Ours, the fourth and fifth books stand in contrast to the realistic Nebraska farming section: “The Voyage of the Anchises” is dreamlike, almost surrealistic, and “‘Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On’” is a warrior’s romance. And however we construe Lucy Gayheart, whether as a dance of death, Gothic intrigue, or dismissal of careerism and matrimonial formulae, the story is transformed by the third book. The novel could easily end without it but would tell a very different story. Separated from the other two books by twenty-five years and shifted in focus away from the title character, it almost stands on its own, “Harry Gordon’s Story”—a nouvelle sequent rather than inserted. Cather uses a similar experiment in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, separating the short, final book from the others by twenty-five years, changing the point of view to the autobiographical first person, and revealing what has gone before as a family memoir. Toni Morrison denigrates this as Cather’s escape from a “meditat[ion] on the moral equivalence of free white women and enslaved black women” that is “impossible [to strategize] in the event” (27), but it well might be regarded as a prism from which to reconsider the preceding text. The third book of My Ántonia represents a similar strategy; in it, Jim Burden is primed to view his formative years and those who participated in them as products of his own imagination. While in Lincoln, studying at his desk by a window that looks out over the prairie, he finds himself “thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past. . . . They were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how” (254). In each of these novels, the strategy involves what one part of the text does to the other, the effect of the orange on the vase, and vice versa.

Cather’s is an understated art, at its best creating essences “felt upon the page without being specifically named there,” achieving “overtone,” “verbal mood,” and “emotional aura” (Willa Cather on Writing 41–42) largely through juxtaposition. During a recent visit to Denver’s new art museum, I was reminded of the aesthetic principles articulated in “The Novel Démeublé” by a six-paneled Japanese painting from the early Edo period (c. 1640) titled Spiritual Exercises of Zen Monks. The painter, Hasegawa Sakon, and calligrapher, Takuan Soho, juxtapose apparently disconnected scenes in each panel. The fifth panel is particularly interesting. It depicts a human figure praising a bird bringing a flower and alongside this the bloody decapitation of a cat by another human; beneath these images the text reads: “What is here is what is not here; do not misuse, therefore, the sword in your hand.” Such sequential panels define Cather’s method in Death Comes for the Archbishop, in which the narrative moves from one event to the next with little apparent connection beyond the routine of the missionaries. “The essence of such writing,” Cather explains, is to create a mood, “not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on,” thereby avoiding “the general tendency . . . to force things up” (Willa Cather on Writing 9–10). This effect is achieved through two kinds of juxtaposing: the first, by simply placing incidents side by side, like Bishop Latour’s discovery on a hillside near Santa Fe of golden stone for his cathedral and the finding of gold deposits in Colorado at Pike’s Peak; and the second, by offering the reader the opportunity to place separated incidents side by side, like Latour’s scene with the bondwoman Sada and his visit to Isabella Olivares to persuade this vain woman to admit her true age.

The use of historical material in such juxtapositions in both the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock reveals a technique of collage, a cutting and pasting of ready-made texts from various sources on the extended canvases of these narratives. In Shadows, Mother Juchereau’s life of Catherine de Saint-Augustin borrows details from Paul Ragueneau’s 1671 biography of the nun and other sources (see Murphy and Stouck 425–29); the Noël Chabanel story is lifted verbatim from the Jesuit Relations of 1649–50 (494, 496–97), and most of the details of Jeanne Le Ber’s life, even to the angelic repair of the spinning wheel and Pierre Charron’s spying on the recluse, owe to Francis Parkman’s The Old Regime in Canada (480–82, 507). In the Archbishop, the miraculous legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe is lifted verbatim from The Catholic Encyclopedia (see Murphy 411); Father Junípero Serra’s miraculous stories of the river crossing and the Holy Family are taken from Francisco Palou’s 1787 Life of Fray Junípero Serra (497–98); and “The Legend of Fray Baltazar” is a compilation of details taken from historians George B. Anderson, Charles Lummis, Adolph Bandelier, Hubert Bancroft, George W. James, and Ralph Emerson Twitchell, who includes a 1681 funeral oration that Cather used commemorating Franciscans martyred during the Pueblo Revolt of the previous year (434–35, 438). However, it is the dynamics Cather achieves through this material rather than the plagiarizing that is of chief concern. In both novels the borrowed episodes interact with each other and other parts of the text.

In the first book of the Archbishop, the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego on a hillside near Mexico City presents the kind of direct and spectacular miracle Bishop Latour contemplates subsequent to his own unspectacular discovery of Agua Secreta after praying to the Virgin at the cruciform tree. Junipero Serra’s Holy Family story occupies the exact place toward the end of the last book that Guadalupe does toward the beginning of the first and more directly parallels Latour’s rescue at Agua Secreta. In it, two missionaries without water and food are about to lose heart while crossing a desert when they discover the fertile oasis of a Mexican family later revealed to be the Holy Family. This second direct and spectacular event further elevates Latour’s Hidden Water experience. The two legendary miracles not only transfigure the surrounding text but help establish Christianity as indigenous. However, the Acoma legend of Fray Baltazar functions in a contrasting and negative direction; it depicts a gourmet who is the antithesis of Father Vaillant and contains a sumptuous clerical dinner that, placed beside “Prologue. At Rome,” “produce[s] a reaction [related to clerical privilege and exploitation] which neither of them will produce alone.”

In Shadows, through the stories of Catherine de Saint-Augustin and Noël Chabanel, Cather offers a pair of baroque lives, female and male versions of Counter-Reformation religious devotees, that interact with each other and have an impact on other episodes: Chabanel becomes an inspiration for Father Hector Saint-Cyr, and the fanaticism of young Catherine anticipates the radical vocation of recluse Jeanne Le Ber. Miracles link the lives of all four: the sinner Marie appears to Catherine from purgatory requesting masses; angels visit Jeanne’s cell to mend the spinning wheel on the night after Epiphany; and on the following day, Father Hector, lost in a blizzard and out of food while carrying the Sacrament to a dying man, is rescued by a mysterious Indian with food and directions. As in the Archbishop, legendary miracles elevate an unspectacular but fortunate event. The Blessed Sacrament, instrumental in Father Hector’s rescue, is the object of devotion for both Jeanne Le Ber, whose cell abuts the tabernacle where it is kept, and for Chabanel, who makes his vow of perpetual stability on Corpus Christi Day “in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed” (178). Cather places this scene within a page of the priest’s discovery that he had partaken of the flesh of an Iroquois prisoner, a jarring reminder of the cannibalistic implications of the Sacrament: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53). Historian Thomas Cahill notes that in the early days of the church Christians were slandered as “cannibals (because of the Eucharist)” (24). These are a few examples of the way juxtaposed episodes work in Cather to replace conventional plot strategies and specific naming.


The vase and the orange of the Carroll interview recall a less formal exchange Cather had with Elizabeth Sergeant. Cather placed a Taormina jar of flowers in the middle of a table and said she wanted her heroine (Sergeant was unsure whether Ántonia or Mrs. Forrester) “to be like this . . . rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides” (Sergeant 139). The comment informs characterization, primarily character development and interaction. There are several varieties of foil characters in Cather: major characters that help define main characters through the course of a novel, like Marie Shabata and Joseph Vaillant; others that do so in segments, like Lena Lingard and David Gerhardt; and lesser characters that reflect aspects of major ones and/or each other, like Enid and Gladys in One of Ours, Professor St. Peter’s daughters and their husbands, Martinez and Lucero, Laval and Frontenac, and so on. The strategy involves juxtaposition and encourages readers to discover less obvious combinations, like Lou or Oscar Bergson and Crazy Ivar, ’Toinette Gaux and Jeanne Le Ber.

But the character juxtapositions that most define Cather are those that involve certain characters in a kind of painter’s, sculptor’s, or photographer’s dance around other characters as subjects, viewing them from various perspectives. For this metaphor I am indebted to photographer Lucia Woods Lindley: “The photographer moves around her subject, and that motion ‘causes’ motion in the subject as spatial relationships and angles of light change. This is like the relationship between a pair of dancers, each one affecting the other, each one reacting to the other. Thus any subject of a photograph is as active as the photographer. The idea that the photographer ‘takes’ or ‘makes’ the photograph is undermined. The subject and the photographer create the photograph together. Each mirrors the other” (Lindley 144). Jim Burden depicts Ántonia in a succession of pictures: kicking her legs against the sides of his pony after the snake killing, in an old cape and fur hat comforting her sister at their father’s grave, leading her work-team along the evening skyline, standing in her orchard and putting her hand against a crab tree. Niel Herbert captures the course of Marian Forrester’s career at least as graphically: as a white figure moving beneath leaf shadows, alighting from her carriage in a swirl of white petticoats, drunken in a mud-spattered dress while berating her lover, as a heavily rouged hostess ingratiating herself to young rustics, and, finally, with Ivy Peters behind her and his hands meeting over her breast. Nellie Birdseye begins her dance with Myra Henshawe through a guitar-playing figure catching Nellie’s reflection in a mirror, then depicts a portly figure swathed in furs and capped with a jaunty red feather. Framed with her mate in a window, Myra becomes dovelike; during the “Casta Diva” aria she is a crouching figure, her head in her hands. At the end of the first book, she displays a scornful, serpentine smile. In the second book, she is reduced, crippled in a wheelchair and surrounded by decaying possessions; vindictive but penitent, she laments her uncle. Nellie’s final “take” is of a corpse on a headland above the sea, propped against a cedar and clutching a crucifix. The Professor’s House can also be viewed as a dance around a character subject—in this case Tom Outland, glimpsed through Godfrey St. Peter’s memory, his mesa narrative an echo in the Professor’s head. In each of these novels but the last, the identification of the protagonist is questionable. The title characters in My Ántonia and A Lost Lady reveal the narrator and point-of-view character, respectively, and the portrait of Myra exposes the naïveté of Nellie. The apparent subjects haunt the consciousnesses of those telling their stories. In all four novels, the strategy involves juxtaposition, the teller and the apparent subject of his or her tale “produc[ing] a reaction which neither of them will produce alone.”


An essential component of Cather’s vision involves juxtaposition of spaces. O Pioneers! shifts in the second chapter from “the great fact [of] the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the . . . human society that struggled in its somber wastes” (21) to the Bergsons’ log house, where Mrs. Bergson reconstructs her former life in Sweden, stocks her kitchen shelves with jars of preserves, and keeps sheets in the press. Such spaces alternate in the opening of Shadows on the Rock: the apothecary stands on Cap Diamant, and the reader’s eye is directed from the cluster of spires and slate roofs of the Lower Town, northward along the course of the river, past the island, toward the Laurentians and Cap Tourmente; then Auclair returns to his living room with its partitions and cabinets, set table, and fireplace, and to the lowroofed kitchen protected by four-foot-thick double walls. Such alternation is reflected in Cather’s sentence structure. Janet Giltrow and David Stouck apply linguistic analysis to a variety of grammatical strategies Cather employs “to describe an aboriginal relationship to the universe that was pre-speech, that was more directly approached through the emotional resources of painting and music” (11). Expansion from contained to limitless spaces is approximated here through staccato words and phrases alternating with longer clauses in crescendo patterns. Again, the opening of Shadows contains a distinctive example, which the addition of slashes clarifies: The forest was suffocation, / annihilation; / there European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, / distance, / mould, / black mud, / and the stinging swarms of insect life that bred in it. / The only avenue of escape was along the river. / The river was the one thing that lived, / moved, / glittered, / changed—a highway along which men could travel, / taste the sun and open air, / feel freedom, / join their fellows, / reach the open sea . . . reach the world, / even! (11) The most memorable of such constructions occurs in the final book of the Archbishop, where Latour contemplates his return from France to die in exile in New Mexico for the sake of the lighthearted air of the desert: Something soft and wild and free, / something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, / lightened the heart, / softly, / softly picked the lock, / slid the bolts, / and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, / into the blue and gold, / into the morning, / into the morning! (288)

In juxtaposing spaces, Cather incorporates the psychological and cultural as well as the physical. Early in My Ántonia, when Jim Burden sits within the protected enclosure of his grandmother’s garden surrounded by a sea of red grass and considers “dissolv[ing] into something complete and great,” “whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge” (18), the expansion is within the mind and obviously indebted to Emerson and Whitman. In The Professor’s House, after the departure of Roddy Blake, when Tom Outland has his “high tide” on the mesa and becomes “a close neighbour to the sun” and “full to the brim” with “that consuming light,” his experience as well is instigated by literary culture—Tom has been reading the Aeneid. While he reclines on a rock in the canyon floor and gazes upward, there are echoes of Dante’s celestial wheels: The heavenly bodies look so much more remote from the bottom of a deep canyon. . . . The climb of the walls helps out the eye, somehow. . . . The grey-sage-brush and the blue-grey rock around me were already in shadow, but high above me the canyon walls were dyed flame-colour with the sunset, and the Cliff City lay on a gold haze against its dark cavern. In a few minutes it, too, was grey and only the rim rock at the top held the red light. When that was gone, I could still see the copper glow in the pinons along the edge of the top ledges. The arc of sky over the canyon was silvery blue, with its pale yellow moon, and presently stars shivered into it, like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water. . . . [T]hat was the first night I was ever really on the mesa at all, . . . the first time I ever saw it as a whole. . . . Something happened in me that made it possible for me to coordinate and simplify, and that process . . . brought with it great happiness. . . . For me the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion. (249–50) Guy Reynolds argues that Cather “could envisage landscape acting upon the human, rather than the more familiar model, which tended to reverse this process” (180), that her southwestern landscapes “produce . . . states of consciousness [self-mastery] that balance . . . the desire to drift through the natural world” (186). As Tom exclaims, “It was possession” (250).


As a product of the mind responding to space, liberating vision such as Tom’s—what Emily Dickinson repeatedly refers to as “Circumference”—occurs in contained interior spaces; Tom is within the walls of a box canyon. Reynolds notes this kind of juxtaposition as well, emphasizing the dynamic in My Ántonia of creating “an environment of privacy” “amidst the vastness of the prairies” (178), but what intrigues me is a reverse dynamic well beyond the landscape of the American West. In One of Ours, immensity is experienced by Claude Wheeler as he stands beneath the Gothic arches of St. Ouen’s in Rouen, gazes up at the rose window, hears a great bell striking, and “recollections of old astronomy lessons brushed across his brain, something about stars whose light travels through space for hundreds of years before it reaches the earth and the human eye” (452). InShadows, when Cécile and Jacques seek refuge in Notre Dame des Victoires on a rainy day too dark to see the Blessed Mother and Child high above them among the shadows, “the children thought they saw her, because they knew her so well. . . . Each of them took a fresh taper . . . , lit it, and . . . . [a]fter saying a prayer . . . returned to their bench to enjoy . . . the two bright spots in the brownish gloom” (78–80). Here Cather introduces the power of faith as an expanding vision, a liberating force, which in later novels she increasingly juxtaposes against the suffocating effects of materialistic culture in earlier ones.

Now to the white chapel of my title—it is the “Old Chapel” of Pope Benedict XII in Avignon’s Palace of the Popes, a long, rectangular contained space with broken barrel vaulting and Gothic windows, the setting of the surviving scene of “Hard Punishments.” In it, the two boys—André, whose tongue has been torn out for blasphemy, and Pierre, whose hands have been mutilated for thievery—attend Christmas mass with blind Father Ambrose, the old priest who befriends them. The scene is presented from the impaired visual perspective of Ambrose, who senses the conversion experiences of the boys and the liberating effect of spiritual vision. Note Cather’s juxtaposing of “littleness” and “immensity” as well as the action uniting them: Father Ambrose from his place near the choir could see very little of the splendor in that marvelously white rectangular chapel. But the lights from many candles he could see—bright points in darkness and about each a haze like a halo. And the choir he could hear, with an ear sensitive and trained. . . . While the tenor priest from Toulouse was singing the Mass, Father Ambrose closed his eyes and shut off even such poor sight as he had, to rest the more wholly upon the music and the beautiful words. And in the cadences of the priest he seemed to feel the awe of the close-packed crowd around him—like a heart beating under his hand. . . . That wave of emotion which is both exaltation and humility, humbleness and triumph—triumph over we know not what. Were there in the systems of stars, other creatures who could feel the heavens with the heart, with the mind, and, in such littleness, rejoice in such immensity? The angels, perhaps. . . . The priest from Toulouse sang the last beautiful words: Natus est—here among them, within them. In his own heart Father Ambrose knew. And beside him he felt the shudder of delight that ran through his pupil, André, and a sob he heard from that unfortunate creature with the useless hands. Yes, He made the blind to see, the lame to walk, the dumb to speak, and to all the generations of the future he left the hours of release from bondage, that moment of becoming truly a living soul. (“Avignon”) Bishop Latour defines such triumph to his friend Joseph as “human vision corrected by divine love,” as the refinement of our perceptions, “so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always” (53–54).

Perhaps this mere reminder is Cather’s greatest contribution. Hardly unique, such vision was once called “universal.” What is unique is the combination of places, experiences, and people Cather utilized to develop it. For me, its most emphatic expression occurs in Shadows during the general gloom of All Souls’ Day. The nuns of Quebec, in spite of ill fortune, physical hardship, constant danger, and separation from their French homes, maintain “high spirit,—with humour, even” (114). They can do so because the realities of their belief are “about [them] always”: They were still in their accustomed place in the world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world), and they had the same well-ordered universe about them: this all-important earth, created by God for a great purpose, the sun which He made to light it by day, the moon which He made to light it by night,—and the stars, made to beautify the vault of heaven like frescoes, and to be a clock and compass for man. And in this safe, lovingly arranged and ordered universe (not too vast, though nobly spacious), in this congenial universe, the drama of man went on at Quebec just as at home, and the Sisters played their accustomed part in it. (115)

Cather’s superlative juxtaposition places the physical, the material, against the mental, the spiritual, allowing them to “produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone.” Emily Dickinson made the same one: The Brain—is wider than the Sky— For—put them side by side— The one the other will contain With ease—and You—beside— The Brain is deeper than the sea— For—hold them—Blue to Blue— The one the other will absorb— As Sponges—Buckets—do— The Brain is just the weight of God— For—Heft them—Pound for Pound— And they will differ—if they do— As Syllable from Sound— (598)


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