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From Cather Studies Volume 8

The Prophetess and the Professor

Rescuing Cather from the Past

Author’s note: The structure of this essay is intended to mirror the three books of The Professor’s House. Given the rather torturous critical history of this novel, something might be gained from a discursive approach to help us read it and Cather’s other works on their own terms.


A recent development of “spectral deconvolution software” by a corporation called Platinum Blue offers a significant insight into appreciating Cather’s prescience as a thinker and writer. This computer program measures the mathematical relationships among the structural components of a song—melody, harmony, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, pitch, and so forth—to predict whether it will be a hit. Malcolm Gladwell places this technology within the long-standing debate in aesthetics between David Hume (that beauty is a matter of perception) and Lord Henry Home Kames (that beauty is reducible to a rational system of precepts). Platinum Blue’s Mike McCready applied the program to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” affirming that such an analysis “can predict whether a song is likely to become a hit with eighty-percent accuracy” (Gladwell 141). McCready’s rationale as to why the program works, namely, that the computer cared only about . . . underlying mathematical structure” in producing a “Periodicity Grade” (indicating “that, at any given time, only twelve to fifteen hit clusters are ‘active,’ because from month to month the particular mathematical patterns that excite music listeners will shift around”), is pertinent to my point about Cather. McCready comments: “If you go back to the popular melodies written by Beethoven and Mozart three hundred years ago . . . they conform to the same mathematical patterns that we are looking at today. What sounded like a beautiful melody to them sounds like a beautiful melody to us. What has changed is simply that we have come up with new styles and new instruments. Our brains are wired in a way— we assume —that keeps it coming back, again and again, to the same answers, the same pleasure centers” (Gladwell 141–42).

A reader might note such amazing resonance in the following passages from novels as apparently disparate as My Ántonia and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). After Lena Lingard’s first visit to his rooms in Lincoln, Jim Burden reflects that she had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight. How I loved to hear her laugh again! It was so soft and unexcited and appreciative—gave a favourable interpretation to everything. When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughing—the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. (262) In Byatt, Roland Mitchell is reading from the journal of Ellen Ash, the overlooked wife of poet Randolph Ash. In this entry Ellen Ash is reflecting on her own early ambitions, ambitions set in the context of the male world of British romanticism of which her husband has been a major figure:

I remember at sixty the lively ambitions of the young girl in the Deanery, who seems like someone else, as I watch her in my imagination dancing in her moony muslin, or having her hand kissed by a gentlemen in a boat.
I hit on something I believe when I wrote that I meant to be a Poet and a Poem. It may be that this is the desire of all reading women, as opposed to reading men, who wish to be poets and heroes, but might see the indicting of poetry in our peaceful age, as a sufficiently heroic act. No one wishes a man to be a Poem. That young girl in her muslin was a poem; cousin Ned wrote an execrable sonnet about the chaste sweetness of her face and the intuitive goodness shining in her walk. But I now think—it might have been better, might it not, to have held on to the desire to be a Poet? I could never write a well as Randolph, but then no one can or could, and so it was perhaps not worth considering as an objection to doing something. (136)
I do not think, whether consonant or dissonant, such resonances as these connections of young girls to poetry are coincidental, nor are they always best explained as intertextuality, but rather as twin glimpses of something deeper, of the Word that was from the beginning, a word (as Faulkner might have put it) out of the old “original” language, of two writers who had learned to listen to similar songs.

In O Pioneers! Carl Linstrum says, “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years” (110). It is my contention, as readers can no doubt already tell, that Cather’s lifelong work was to capture not the Nebraska Prairie, not the Southwest of America, not the outpost of Quebec, not the South of France. (A work of art must have its setting, its locale, to be sure, and those were hers, to be rendered artistically as opposed to shoddily, and significant in their own right.) But her work, her art, was to capture those eternal and universal notes and, rendering them anew, to give them new life. Evelyn Funda speaks precisely to this point when she demonstrates that Cather’s Nebraska, indeed Cather’s “West,” is defined “by [a] ‘West in a world context’ theme” (43). Elaborating on this, Funda writes of Cather’s difference from other western authors “because she moves from an us/them, East/West dichotomy . . . to this theme of finding a ‘voice’ in a larger world” (44). This is also what is called to our attention when critics such as Phyllis Rose comment on Cather’s primitivism, her recourse to a more ancient wisdom than ours. The work of her individual talent was to chart a way to and through the ancient traditions that would allow readers to take what Paul Olson calls their own “journey to Wisdom.” Yet, as this very primitivism implies, terms such as ancient or traditional may be misleading. Indeed, Rose indicates that reading Cather as “traditional” accounted for her being overlooked or misinterpreted (123). Perhaps, then, “transplantable” or even “timeless” would be better terms, not timelessness in an ahistoric sense but in the sense of the discovery of common elements between ancient and modern cultures. Cather had an “instinct” for the timeless” (Rose 135) that allowed her art “to suggest the eternal through the particular” (124). Olson’s concept is pertinent here, as it is founded in extensive reading of the Odyssey as allegorical of the journey to wisdom, recast in each succeeding age to shape or challenge the “place” given to the soul and its search in the new culture.

Rose’s formulations are on the mark when she relates Cather’s “aesthetic of the archetypal” (131, alluding to Jung) to modernism’s “persistent urge to see the here and now in the light of, united to, all of human history” (142), and of our call “to search through the historical and accidental to the fundamental” (144). Dorothy Van Ghent, too, grasped this concept of timelessness in Cather, that “her best work reaches into human truths immeasurably older than the historical American past from which she drew her factual materials, truths that provide the essential forms of experience and . . . cannot become ‘past’ truths” (44). Rose continues: “Cather’s imagination craved and fed on large scale, both in time and space, and her books repeatedly struggle to break outside the confines of town or city life and make their way, quite against the grain of the narrative, back to the wilderness” (127). She connects Cather in this regard not only to her fellow modernist writers but to major figures of visual art like Picasso and Matisse, associating their work with the “frieze-like entablatures that have the character of ancient ritual and sculpture” detected in My Ántonia by Van Ghent (23). And Cather was primed to capture the timeless precisely because she was, as Guy Reynolds has shown in his analysis of The Professor’s House (127–45), deeply involved not only in modernist aesthetics but in the philosophical discourse of thinkers like John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, and through them, Darwin, establishing the very paradigms that linked the modern world with its ancient and primitive foundation.

That much-forgotten American essayist Philip Wylie seems to capture a view that Cather well understood, that “In order to perpetuate upon ourselves the monstrous half-consciousness by which we have been living,” Americans in the twentieth century “have, perforce, developed bastard legends” (46). As an example, Wylie gives us the American version of Cinderella: “Our rags-to-riches theme gives scant attention to the virtues rags may conceal; it deals mainly with the lucky escape from rags. The American version of the Cinderella story . . . puts all its emphasis on the reward” (47). Thus we draw the conclusion that failure “isn’t just lacking in good fortune, [it] is being cheated out of [our] true deserts” (49). It strikes me, then, that much of what we see in Cather is the subtle exposure of something false in order to clear our way to see something truer. Into this analytical frame, read Jim Burden, Claude Wheeler, Myra Henshawe, Niel Herbert, Sapphira Colbert, Flavia Hamilton, and a host of others deceived by bastard legend, blinded by the illegitimate at least for a time from seeing the legitimate story, deafened from hearing (as do those, in contrast, such as Father Latour, Alexandra Bergson, Ántonia Shimerda, and Cécile Auclair) the five true notes of the lark.


To read Cather is to see her probing the interaction of American myths, of different versions of personhood evolving from the contact zone of Old World tradition and new American experience. The myths Cather explored include the southern, the midwestern, the southwestern, and the northeastern: the one into which she was born and returned to in her last completed novel, the one she was introduced to at the age of nine and spent her life identifying with, the Pueblo and Hispanic ones of the “land of little rain” where she experienced her aesthetic epiphany, and the competing ones of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony and those of French Catholics in their Quebec outpost. Cather moved, sometimes easily and sometimes uneasily, among them all, never quite at home, never quite alien, finding her energy in the spaces between them, the borders where versions of reality came into contact and conflict. Joseph Urgo calls for us to attend to how Cather’s work arises from and manifests a history of movement, of transplantation, that has affected our personalities, our characters, and our institutions. Cather is “the one major American writer whose body of work is substantial enough to redirect American literary history in the twenty-first century by showing how thoroughly transit has marked Americans” (5). Similarly, John Murphy has noted the consistent process in Cather of “the development” as well as “accommodation . . . of culture and society” (“Escaping” 6) from tension between the Old World and the New, of finding a place in the Nativity scene for the Canadian beaver, of attempting to establish a foothold in our origin myths to accommodate new experiences.

We can lay out, as Robert Brinkmeyer has started to do in a recent conference paper, the essentially contradictory versions of personal and national character embodied in each of our foundational myths.[1] If our Puritan forbears had left us in a noman’s-land between a theology of each believer’s direct access to God and a theocracy of tutelage by the church, the later myths of the South and West would resolve the contradictions in contrary ways. The South championed a localism that emphasized place and within which it was natural for there to be a resistance to time and progress. The past would assume a privileged place, and one’s material and cultural inheritance would become cardinal virtues. Manners, whether in commerce or community, would establish a method by which those counted “in” (whites connected to the plantation) would exclude those counted “out” (blacks and others disconnected by race, creed, or gender). Western migration grew both out of the stifling conditions of a community-driven culture (the “push” factor) and the possibilities of the frontier (the “pull” factor). In the mind-set that sanctioned and developed this myth, space replaced place and motion displaced rootedness. If in the South there was resistance to time and change, in the West there was an embrace of the “ever” new, Fitzgerald’s “green light, the orgiastic future” (180). The moving wagon train would replace the stationary fort as an emblem, the early pioneer would school himself in native lore, and if there was to be a social contract, it would be a new one of his own making. As Garry Wills has indicated, this man would be a loner, suspicious of legal authority, living violently on the edge, and rejecting adult experience and caution in his attempt, often desperate, to cling to a childlike innocence whose vocabulary would color even the extremes of his behavior.

My interest here is in none of these myths themselves but in Cather’s interest in the interfaces, the frontiers where each myth touched, challenged, and altered the other—the borderland where we become aware what creatures of myth and mythography we really are, the frontier where Cather examined and debunked the forgotten rationales behind our behavior and institutions. These interfaces are the sites of what Steven Trout terms Cather’s “contradictory discourses” (148), and it is because of the contradictions that we sense in Cather an artist’s reconstruction of survival possibilities following the collapse of the supposed verities. It was not backward but, rather, forward (upward?) to a meta-country, a meta-culture, that Cather forced herself to move after her world broke in two in the early 1920s. Shaped as she was by her art, one could say of her what she said of Mr. Rosen in “Old Mrs. Harris”: “All countries were beautiful to Mr. Rosen. He carried a country of his own in his mind, and was able to unfold it like a tent in any wilderness” (Obscure Destinies 102), a project that shapes both Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. To be sure, we see a linkage of the local and universal in this meta-country, but a linkage in which both are transformed into something new, something both foreign and recognizable. Perhaps it is not outlandish to associate part of Cather’s reconstruction and even Cather herself with that prophetess anticipated by Hester Prynne at the end of The Scarlet Letter, who, “when the world should have grown ripe for it,” would “establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (344).


Such a prophecy resonates in The Professor’s House, specifically in Augusta’s puzzling dressmaker dummies. The Pygmalion myth of perfection in women (retold by Hawthorne in “Drowne’s Wooden Image” and made into complex moral allegories in “The Birthmark,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”) comes to mind, as does the Winged Victory, the sculpture of Nike of Samothrace created sometime between 220 and 170 bc, whose outstretched arms would have held a trumpet to signal martial victory or a laurel to bestow it. In its present form, it lacks both arms and head like the dressmaker dummies and, as an emblem transposed to the Professor’s workroom, suggests both the possibility of victory and victory’s absence in St. Peter’s conception of his life situation. These female forms stand in the attic study with its “single square window, . . . the sole opening for light and air,” and beneath them lies “a dead, empty house” (16). One of them, “‘the bust[,]’ . . . a headless, armless female torso” that “presented the most unsympathetic surface imaginable” (18), is surely a metonymy for St. Peter’s lost vitality and present fear of it. The other, “a full-length female figure” with “no legs, . . . no viscera behind its glistening ribs, and its bosom resembl[ing] a strong wire birdcage,” implicitly contrasts the vitality of, say, the lark with this prison from which no song will proceed. “But,” Cather continues, “St. Peter contended it had a nervous system” (19), adding yet another ambiguity in the adjective. Though the site of the dressmaker’s art, such dummies are not art but artifice, and by their shape artificial women.

That there are two such forms suggests what Trout identifies in the Professor as “a man whose life and consciousness are split” (148), and together with their setting, the dummies suggest a radical inversion of the Pygmalion story, with St. Peter avoiding the misanthropy of Pygmalion by avoiding relationships altogether and the mythic sculptor’s “re-mantling” project by resting content with dismantled forms of art and life.[2] Perhaps with Pygmalion and/or Winged Victory in mind, Cather emphasizes dismantling at the outset: “Professor St. Peter was alone in the dismantled house” (11) and looked into his garden from “one of the dismantled windows” (14). The dismantled forms point to a man traumatized by the loss of his intimate friend Tom Outland, unable to cope with even the minor complexities of his family, and finding himself comfortable only with that which won’t grow, won’t rebel, won’t confront him with anything more than its own unsympathetic outer aspect. St. Peter has no use for the patterns that might have “dressed” the dummies, even assisting Augusta to take them away. “Desire is creation” (30), indeed, and both have come to be lacking in St. Peter. And are not these dummies occupying St. Peter’s “mesa” positioned in the novel for us to recall them in the mummified figure of Mother Eve on Tom

Outland’s mesa? Guy Reynolds reads Mother Eve as one of the “intimations that the idyll, the vision of the ideal . . . will . . . vanish” (15). They are for him the dystopian element in the idyllic story, the sign that the idyll’s own internal contradictions would be its undoing. Mother Eve (significantly named) represents the marginalized, abused, and misunderstood in an apparently integrated ancient culture. Symbolic of that culture’s downfall, the parallel between Mother Eve and the dummies suggests that we ignore to our peril what the forms signify in our own culture.

Tom Outland’s narrative links the competing narratives that “jostle together,” while Godfrey St. Peter’s significantly fails to do so. Ann Moseley argues that “Tom’s orality resembles the primary orality of preliterate civilizations in which tribal wisdom was preserved in the stories of the ‘folk’” (“Concentric” 42)—yet another instance of Cather accessing the timeless. Concerning the diary, Moseley notes (40) Tom’s explanation, “I didn’t feel the need of that record. It would have been going backward. I didn’t want to go back and unravel things step by step. Perhaps I was afraid that I would lose the whole in the parts” (251). However, Cather’s narrative depicts St. Peter as indeed going backward, unraveling things, losing the whole in the parts—even after his supposed rejuvenation. Glen Love sees in the style of the last section “utterances . . . drawn from a kind of primal language” (305), but he means that the Professor “speaks . . . to himself . . . in virtual grunts” that Love terms a “rhetoric of obliteration” (306). St. Peter ends feeling he has lost everything, whereas Tom “wakened with the feeling that . . . [he] had found everything” (250).

One begins to sense that these dressmaker forms play a role in the tensions in Cather’s work. Reynolds notes tension on an American level among “the competing . . . tendencies in her culture . . . : the Pueblo’s ancient culture and modern science; business and art; religious ritual and pioneer settlement” (124). In her Guardian essay “American Pastoral,” A. S. Byatt suggests a more universal tension between mortality and sublime spiritual experience. Clearly, Cather uses such tensions (reconciled or not) to suggest on the one side our panic over own vulnerability and concomitant compulsion to manipulate the world and wrest from it the happiness that eludes us, and on the other side the majesty of the unseen soul, the manna from heaven, the glimpses of eternity that, in the end, are our only real youth, only real security, the notes of our only real story. In that light, I would propose that Cather herself is to be gathered up in The Professor’s House, that she has cast herself in the story through those dummies, those forms, of which the Professor makes . . . nothing. The text itself establishes them as metonymies in Godfrey’s remarks to Augusta, remarks she takes to be risqué because they refer to busts. Moseley suggests that “these forms represent St. Peter’s wife and daughters,” adding that, in the Platonic sense, they are “like shadows of Lillian St. Peter and her daughters” and calls them lower or “imperfect” forms (“Spatial” 207). Since the dummies are metonymies for the clothing to be shaped and sized on them, clothing intended for the daughters whose dresses were stitched on these “archaic” (33) forms but principally for their mother, they are primarily metonymies for Lillian, their “unsympathetic surface. . . . somehow always fooling you again” (18–19) very much like Lillian’s nature, which Godfrey St. Peter conceives as “a stamp upon which he could not be beaten out any longer” (274). They connect, then, to Lillian’s impending return at the end of the novel and in that return to Cather as well. Just prior to the ending, Godfrey St. Peter has supposedly moved from the dis-ease of his aging into a rejuvenated state, a resurgence of his youth. That is, as did America (unlike Europe) after the Great War, he assumes he can cast off his adult malaise for a return to innocence. What if the woman returning were to take a dim view of this very American naïveté? What if, like many men of his times and ours, Godfrey St. Peter just doesn’t get it?[3] this point, it is not St. Peter that we should be focusing on but rather Cather, who did get it.

Writing recently about Cather’s passport, Robert Thacker notes the similarity in voyages and dockings between the anticipated return of Lillian at the end of The Professor’s House and Cather’s own return to America from Europe. Citing Woodress (367), he notes that Cather had this passport “when she returned home in November on the Berengaria to begin The Professor’s House, the ‘nasty, grim little tale’ of ‘letting go with the heart’ . . . that features most of Professor St. Peter’s family returning home on the same ship as the novel closes” (44). This was “her first trip to France after ‘the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts’ ( Not Under Forty v)” (44). These parallels suggest what I am really after: read Godfrey St. Peter after his crisis and awaiting the return of his wife and family as literate America caught within its own romantic myths and about to be confronted by the return of a new Cather. This reading seems wholly justified to me. Robert Miller’s reference to The Professor’s House as “the novel in which Cather engages most fully with the subject of the life of the mind in America” (37) justifies such a reading. Embodied in St. Peter is this life of the mind in the literate public that Cather must address. Joseph Campbell’s synopsis of the stages of the heroic quest (separation, initiation, and return) is applicable: if we take the world breaking in two to be Cather’s separation, her 1923 stay in France to be the initiation, then we may see Cather’s return as the return of the poet as hero, as the prophetess of the new world order that Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne predicts.

Cather had made a niche for herself in American letters with what are often taken to be affirming stories of the prairie pioneer. There is, of course, continuity between the earlier and the later stories; in all of them Cather was probing the reality of which Patricia Limerick writes: “We live on haunted land, on land that is layers deep in human passion and memory” (73). This, however, is not always how Cather’s earlier stories have been perceived. After the reception of O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Cather must have wondered if readers would receive a new Cather, a matured Cather, a Cather now set to debunk the myths she had once been construed to have celebrated. Such a shift in an author’s art always raises the question Trout does regarding St. Peter’s plan to publish Tom Outland’s diary: who will read it? We could adapt Trout’s question to Cather’s new direction: “Is there really an audience for [such] a book?” (152). Would crisis or even life itself have given America a sufficient shakedown to prepare us to reexamine our foundations, to reassess the usability of our past? If Godfrey St. Peter’s readiness for accommodation is real, perhaps it is a hopeful sign. But this hopeful view rests on whether we can dismiss the notion St. Peter advances that one’s youth can return or provide a framework for moral vitality, act as a substitute for either primal energies or the sophistications of a technological age. Frankly, I don’t think Cather is buying that snake oil; and, as St. Peter entertains doubts that a living Outland could Fhave negotiated either aging or the new age, I’m not sure St. Peter is buying it. Perhaps, having reconciled himself to the loss of “the sacred oak of absolute permanency,”[4] the Professor is ready to move ahead, to acknowledge that the Great War blew up the notion that one could find the way forward in returning to childhood. These speculations suggest, rather, that St. Peter in particular and the confused times in general are the “Outland vacuum” of the postwar world.

So there stand those limbless dummies which St. Peter finds somehow strangely comforting but of which he makes nothing. Faltering in the attempt to find his life and his world meaningful, St. Peter repairs to a room dominated by these signs of, at best, unrealized potential. But as they stand St. Peter makes nothing of them, thus they cannot signify to him what Reynolds calls “a progressive image of human potential” (139), especially as that image in Reynolds’s view rests on a revision of “masculine narratives” (145), a revision that St. Peter, caught in his own binaries of youth and age, science and humanities, male and female, seems incapable of entertaining. The dummies stand as mute reminders of confusions between art and life, failed attempts at heroic resuscitations, and patriarchal manipulations of women and the poetry springing from them. If we address these and other shapes Cather presents to us, not as we would remember them, not as provinciality would construct, then we can see how Cather, unlike the static dressmaker forms, moved out beyond our control, and we can journey with her in fascination toward the mysterium tremendum, can become a fit audience for books like hers. Cather would have gone down as a good writer even if she had stopped with the prairie novels, but without The Professor’s House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock, would she have gone down as a great one? My point is that by struggling through the world broken in two (perhaps not in person but on the page), she came to do what Marilyn Nelson Waniek calls “owning the masters.” Waniek explains that labor as twofold: “there is the labor of studying the literature, then there is the additional labor of rising above its time-bound limitations. . . . [T]hose of us who come from traditions of oppression find ourselves estranged from canonical texts and must fight—against them and against our arguments with them—to possess them” (206). Waniek is writing with specific reference to African American writers, but the point she makes easily extends to Cather, who for different reasons was in something of their same position. With her later novels, she comes to “own” James, Flaubert, and others of those who taught her.

Readers, then, ought not allow either idolatry or mythography to do to Cather what Godfrey St. Peter does to these forms: to keep them stripped of their vitality and purpose, to render them of purely pragmatic function in a space of nostalgia. Cather compared the structure of The Professor’s House to Dutch paintings in which interiors are lighted (and shadowed) from windows looking out to seas and ships ( Willa Cather on Writing 30–32), but the window view of a world broken in two did not offer the elation felt in the paintings. From Cather’s window in 1922 could be seen contradiction, fissures, disconnection. Whatever its scene, however, the window is still our only avenue for light, our only portal to a world outside ourselves. For Susan Rosowski, St. Peter’s workroom window is one of Cather’s “narrative . . . windows which promise something real, but which once entered reveal disorder and emptiness” (131). Looking out on what is nearly his last night, the Professor sees only that “a storm was coming on. . . . [T]he sky was black” (275–76). Such windows, whether in the Dutch paintings or in St. Peter’s study, suggest potentiality; they are what Mary Chinery considers “liminal sites.” But when St. Peter comes close to dying, it is not the window in his study that Augusta first opens; rather, she drags him into the upstairs hall, opening windows at the head of the stairs. The text makes it difficult to agree with Rosowski that the workroom window “opens inward” to allow “St. Peter . . . to revel in his imaginative life” (133). The quotations Rosowski selects as evidence of this release, “that he was solitary and must always be so. . . . He was earth, and would return to earth,” and that his recognitions of himself in “pine-trees turned red in the declining sun” provided him with “a kind of sad pleasure” (265–66), do not sound to me like the discourse of one reveling in imaginative life. We simply do not know from the ongoing narrative that “St. Peter is saved” (135). His near death/suicide provides a vivid demonstration that neither inward retreat nor the “long, blue hazy smear” of “the inland sea of his childhood” (30) that Moseley associates with release (198) and the Professor sees from his window will take him or any of us forward, regardless of the fact that what lies ahead is shrouded in uncertainty. The forest-track Hester Prynne contemplates as escape leads onward only if we take it, through the disorder, in a forward direction. Despite much critical opinion to the contrary (and some earlier remarks of her own), Cather found that she could not continue in her life and growth as an artist by taking refuge on the far side of the broken world. The words of the Norwegian song Thea Kronborg sings for Fred Ottenburg in The Song of the Lark might well describe Cather: “Thanks for your advice! But I prefer to steer my boat into the din of roaring breakers. Even if the journey is my last, I may find what I have never found before” (338).


In his preface to the 2007 special edition of the Cather Newsletter and Review, John Murphy refers Cather’s case to Milan Kundera’s challenge to modern readers to shed provincial attitudes in reading literature (1). Kundera argues that “Geographic distance sets the observer back from the local context and allows him to embrace the large context of world literature—the only approach that can bring out a novel’s aesthetic value—that is to say, the previously unseen aspects of existence that this particular novel has managed to make clear, the novelty of form it has found” (30). It seems clear that he does not find the local context deficient in itself, but rather by itself. Of course, there will always be students of Czech descent who appreciate Cather for the understanding she gives them of their personal history; there will always be visitors to Red Cloud, Acoma, and Santa Fe who exclaim “there it is”—the house, the mesa, the Cathedral, the elusive quarry from which its rock was drawn. These are all well and good, but there is an even more elusive quarry of greater rock from which Cather drew her own aesthetic as an artist, and it is this we must seek. She is, of course, a Nebraska writer, an American writer, and belongs within these canons as well. But, Kundera again: “A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism that reduces the entire meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland” (31). It is my argument, then, that it is our task as readers not to abandon the small context but to open it up to the large, to resist readings that reduce Cather to those dressmaker dummies, limbless and mute fragments of a parochial past, that gather dust in the Professor’s study.


 1. Brinkmeyer omits the earlier Puritan myth from his discussion of the South and the West and the myths that sustained them and interfaced on the frontier, although that background is implicit in his discussion. (Go back.)
 2. I am indebted to Mario Materassi for his treatment of the Pygmalion myth in a paper delivered to the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, July 2006, forthcoming in the series of conference publications from University Press of Mississippi. (Go back.)
 3. I would not be taken to be too hard on poor Godfrey. As Richard Millington has pointed out, “Cather’s work is distinguished in part by what, as readers practiced in the interpretation of more intensely thematic fiction, we feel it to refrain from, by what it neglects to espouse— the moral plot line the dots of which it fails to connect, the form of judgment we come to feel as not worth applying” (45). Because Cather presents “character as a particular strategy of response or tactic of expression rather than a teleology,” we do not feel like judging St. Peter, any more than we did Ántonia or would the foibles of Father Vaillant or Bishop Latour (45). Cather herself noted that the world was not made by a moralist but by an Artist. (Go back.)
 4. Reynolds alludes to this phrase in drawing attention to Cather’s connection to John Dewey’s thought, most specifically in Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (130). (Go back.)


Brinkmeyer, Robert. “South x West: Faulkner and Twain at the Crossroads.” Faulkner and Twain Conference, Center for Faulkner Studies, Southeast Missouri State U, 19 Oct. 2007
Byatt, A. S. “American Pastoral.” The Guardian 9 Dec. 2006.
Byatt, A. S. Possession. New York: Vintage International, 1990
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Charles W. Mignon and James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
Cather, Willa. Obscure Destinies. 1932. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Frederick M. Link and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Charles W. Mignon, Susan J. Rosowski, and David Stouck. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
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