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From Cather Studies Volume 8

From St. Joan to Madame Joubert

Pilgrimage and Ethnic Memory

It has gone unobserved in Cather studies that in 1920, just as Willa Cather was preparing in her Greenwich Village apartment to sail for France, Joan of Arc had in effect come to New York. Three days before Cather and Edith Lewis boarded the Royal George for France, New York was celebrating the Vatican’s canonization of Joan almost five hundred years after her martyrdom.[1] On 16 May the New York Times reported a Hassam-like tableau of joyful civic confusion: fifteen thousand people led by two men in armor and three girls representing Joan of Arc, France, and Columbia marched to the strains of the New York Catholic Protective Band down Amsterdam Avenue from Ninety-sixth Street to Ninety-third and Riverside, where Anna Hyatt’s monumental bronze Joan had been installed in 1915. “The various divisions were led by sisters and members of the clergy of New York parishes. The little girls wore bands of robbon [sic] of the colors of France and carried the American flag. Mingling with the colors was the khaki uniform worn by three companies of Boy Scouts.” After a twenty-one-gun salute from the battleship Pennsylvania, anchored in the Hudson, “the assembly sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and a score of morning pigeons [sic], lent by the military for the occasion, were liberated and flew away with messages to the French Ambassador, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy in Washington” (“15,000 at Statue”).

Foremost on Cather’s mind, some eighty-five blocks downtown on Bank Street, was the work in progress begun late in 1918 that she was calling “Claude,” the novel that would become the Pulitzer Prize–winning One of Ours (1922). It is impossible to know when Cather first imagined Joan of Arc as the heroic figure whose story suggests to Claude that “there ought to be . . . something splendid about life sometimes,” something worth dying for (79), but any New York reader might have thought of Joan occasionally during the time Cather was working on “Claude.” During 1918 and 1919 alone, the Times had printed seventeen articles on Joan—and this is quite aside from the use of her image on military recruitment and war propaganda materials. Cather might have read about the canonization in any of five separate articles printed in the Times during the thirty days prior to her departure for France.[2]

In One of Ours, Joan of Arc’s heroic example contributes to Claude Wheeler’s decision to enlist as a doughboy in an attempt to satisfy his yearning for “something splendid,” for the “something outside themselves” that had prevented the Christian martyrs from becoming too “comfortable with little things” (79). His transport to France in effect becomes a pilgrimage, and the plotline of One of Ours a reversal of the immigration plotline of Cather’s earlier fiction. Rather than depicting the hopeful European immigrant’s journey to the American continent and his or her efforts to contribute to what Cather saw as the great project of western settlement, she depicts a disillusioned American traveling back to Europe in search of what he can no longer find at home. Claude Wheeler, Nebraska farm boy, has fallen victim to the modernist malaise. His life has become “a sleeping sickness,” as Victor Morse puts it to him in the novel (408); one thinks of Eliot’s “patient etherised upon a table” (l. 3). Among all those voicing consternation on the issue of early-twentiethcentury American culture—from Van Wyck Brooks’s lament over the “vast, inert, nerveless body” of America (147) through H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos, to Ezra Pound’s disgust with the “old bitch gone in the teeth” (l. 90)—Cather is unique in attributing this malaise to the degeneration of domestic culture, and especially to its disconnection from ethnicity. Everything that is wrong with Claude is wrong at home. In contrast to the Swedes, Bohemians, French, and Russians of O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, for example, Claude’s family does not identify itself ethnically; his parents only know they came from Maine and Vermont. Claude must go outside his own home, to the German Erlichs, to be invigorated by a sense of the European past. Watching Mrs. Erlich bake German Christmas cakes, he can imagine the “almost holy traditions that governed this complicated cookery. . . . the fragrance of old friendships, the glow of early memories, belief in wonder-working rhymes and songs” (69).

Claude’s experience of ethnicity mediated through Mrs. Erlich’s baking is consistent with Cather’s use, throughout her fiction, of food preparation to suggest the aesthetic and intellectual experience provided by ethnic culture. Among dozens of examples, we might remember especially Father Latour’s appreciation of “the thousand years of history” in his Christmas soup (Archbishop 41), but nowhere in Cather’s fiction is the aesthetic value of domestic ritual, including food preparation, felt as deeply as in the immigration novel Shadows on the Rock, published nine years after One of Ours. Although Cather uses Virgil’s words—“inferretque deos Latio” (116)—to praise the Ursuline nuns who have helped to civilize Quebec by transplanting their religious faith there, the most important gods in this novel are the household gods. Despite the authoritative presence of Bishop Laval and the Count de Frontenac, representing the collaboration of church and state in the French colonial project, the novel contends that the essential civilization of Quebec is manifest in its kitchens and gardens. It is through cooking and raising the food typical of French cuisine that the colonists remain civilized and French. In October, Euclide Auclair and others buy boxes of what Latour calls “that blessed plant, the lettuce” (Archbishop 38) to maintain in their cellars through the winter. Pigeon, the baker, grows carrots and spinach in his warm cellar, and the “great vaulted cellars of the Jesuits and the Récollet friars looked like kitchen gardens when the world above ground was frozen stark” (57). These efforts, aesthetic as well as practical, are contrasted with the heedlessness of settlers who get by on smoked and frozen food and generally capitulate to colonial hardship. Cécile Auclair has accepted her French mother’s housekeeping instructions so conscientiously that she breaks down weeping at the domestic depravity of the Harnois family, who cook with grease and sleep in dirty sheets (221). The domestic rituals Cécile’s mother transmitted to her before she died are like the “almost holy traditions” that Mrs. Erlich follows in her Christmas baking, and the implements of Cécile’s household routine become sacramental articles with which “one made life” (227). Without their domestic rituals, the colonists would be no different from “the poor savages,” Madame Auclair tells Cécile. “[I]n France, we have learned to do all these things in the best way . . . and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe” (32). In Shadows on the Rock, Cather’s central symbol for all of French civilization in Quebec is the Auclair hearth, the fire that transforms food as well as the mysterious concoctions in Auclair’s apothecary shop. Cather juxtaposes food preparation and “military glory” in her letter on the novel to Wilbur Cross: You can’t mix champagne and salad dressing, she writes; “[a]nd really, a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages” (“On Shadows” 16).

No such traditions have been transmitted through Claude’s family. Although there are references to Claude’s mother cooking and baking “plain fare,” the only person in Claude’s home who relies on domestic folk traditions is Mahailey, the household servant, who gathers dandelion greens and has inherited her mother’s quilts. In contrast to Ántonia’s fruit cave, the Wheeler cellar holds “electric batteries, old bicycles and typewriters, a machine for making cement fence-posts, a vulcanizer, a stereopticon with a broken lens” (35). In contrast to the witty, fluent exchange of ideas and gossip in the cultivated Erlich home, which seems to Claude “like talk in a play” (64), the Wheeler family thinks it un-American to talk very much, “unless you were a stump speaker. . . . Since you never said anything, you didn’t form the habit of thinking. If you got too much bored, you went to town and bought something new” (68). Claude finds it stimulating to be in the Erlich home, where the six sons “argue hotly” and with “zest” (63–64); in the Wheeler home, where family gatherings are characterized by a “poisonous reticence” (64), “stimulant” is a “noxious” word, applied to coffee and alcohol (130). Like Mrs. Erlich’s lentil soup, potato dumplings, and Wiener schnitzel, which “only made the plain fare on the farm seem the heavier” (120), the Erlichs’ lively ethnic culture intensifies Claude’s dissatisfaction with American banality at home.

Indeed, domestic banality, driven by an economics of greedy consumerism—essentially, the cultural crisis of the post-settlement era in the United States—leaves Claude with few options as he enters adulthood. He is flatly uninterested in farming for big financial gain, the drive that replaced the more creative impulse to transform the land as Cather recorded it in O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. He cannot strike out for the frontier, as “there was no West, in that sense, any more” (165). He is spiritually adrift after having undergone a crisis of faith and will never be the minister his mother imagined he might. His parochial education at Temple has left him unprepared for serious intellectual life. When his father, about to go out West to close a land deal, determines that Claude will manage the family farm in his absence, Claude “feels like a trap had been sprung on him”; his mother, too, feels that circumstances have conspired to ensnare her son in “a net” (99–100). To Abe comforted with the economic security of his father’s prosperous farm is “like being assured of a decent burial,” he thinks (146). At twenty-one, he has “no friends or instructors whom he can regard with admiration” (53), “no skill, no training” (145). He feels “out of it . . . lost in another kind of life” (120). Visiting the neighboring Royces, “his energy always deserted him” (149); he looks to a stranger like a figure in “arrested action” (165). His mother thinks of him as a “perturbèd spirit” (102), and he describes himself as “an awfully discontented sort of fellow” who has “been sulking all winter” (172–73). “What was the matter with him?” he asks himself (164; emphasis in source).

A resolutely pragmatic man like his father might reply that Claude simply lacked focus, and focus—Latin for “hearth,” used by Virgil among others—is what Claude hopes his marriage to Enid Royce will provide. He builds a house hoping it will contain a domestic life more refined and more beautiful than what he was raised in. Having no household gods of his own to carry into the new country of married life, he borrows some: he proposes planting a gourd vine that will climb up the front porch, for example, as he has seen at the home of the German restaurant owner, Mrs. Voigt. Enid is from a family like his own, however, and is thoroughly Americanized, unencumbered by ethnic memory. Her mother, who frequents “a vegetarian sanatorium in Michigan” (169)—surely Dr. Kellogg’s at Battle Creek—has no “almost holy traditions” to transmit to her daughter. In fact, living on nuts and seeds, wearing a beaded dress that rattles and “makes her seem hard on the outside, like an insect” (175), Mrs. Royce appears inhuman, biologically incapable of maintaining a hearth fire. Enid prefers clematis to gourd vines and, designating the best room in the house as the guest room, demonstrates a taste for the middle-class gentility that Cather decries in My Ántonia: “best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used” (195). Like the homogenized Black Hawk establishment, Enid derives her aesthetic from the marketplace, not from ethnic culture. She is an earnest practitioner of the new domestic ideology that was transforming early-twentieth-century kitchens into laboratories and housekeepers into home economists, and manages her new home with a businesslike efficiency that excludes anything sensual. Neighbors laugh at her newfangled method of raising poultry without roosters; but to represent the depths of Enid’s domestic apostasy, Cather describes a supper she leaves for Claude in the icebox—canned salmon with white sauce (269). No vestal fire burns in Enid’s linoleum-and-stainless-steel hearth, and when she heads out to yet another temperance meeting in her motor car, she is driving through the valley of ashes as surely as if the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg from Fitzgerald’s incipient The Great Gatsby were upon her.

Looking for something he cannot find at home, Claude enlists as a doughboy and ships to France on board the Anchises. His journey is a dramatic reversal of Virgil’s Aeneid, Cather’s prototypical immigrant narrative, in which Aeneas leaves Troy with his father Anchises on his back, carrying their lares and penates. Like pilgrims of old, Claude divests himself of his material properties, putting his furnishings in storage, for Enid has turned missionary, determined to take God into China. Unlike Aeneas, Claude has no household gods to take with him.

Importantly, Joan of Arc returns at this point as an unnamed presence in the novel. Having landed in France, Claude’s company makes its way to Rouen, where “everybody knew what had happened” (448), meaning, of course, the burning of Joan at the stake in 1431. The narrator goes on to state, somewhat dramatically, the men’s intention of paying homage at this site: “if anyone didn’t [know], his neighbors were only too glad to inform him! It had happened in the market-place, and the marketplace was what they were going to find” (448). This dramatic lead, however, is left curiously to dangle. Claude separates from his men to search for the well-known cathedral, and finds instead the abbey church of St. Ouen, whose soaring Gothic vaults and rose window allow him a glimpse into that something splendid outside himself for which he has been searching. When he catches up again with his men, there is no description of the marketplace nor any record of a response to the site of Joan’s martyrdom. The “harsh Norman city presented no very cheering aspect,” the narrator states (448), and the men, looking forward to going on to Paris, “were all glad to leave Rouen” (452). What has happened here?

Claude’s world seems to have broken in two. For, once in France, he discovers, not the icon of French nationalism, but the French household gods. In French history, Joan of Arc belongs to the political world: her achievement is to have unified France under a duly anointed monarch. When the young Claude first learns of Joan, it is through a picture of her “in armour” (92)—as a political figure rather than a mystic or a shackled girl brought before the church doctors. The bronze Joan at Ninety-third and Riverside is an equestrian statue—by its very nature military and political—again, in armor. The Joan of World War I propaganda, like Haskell Coffin’s well-known poster urging American women to buy “war stamps,” is also in armor, wielding a sword. But what Claude comes to venerate is French domestic culture—in other words, French ethnicity rather than French nationality. He begins to realize that what Frenchmen thought was worth dying for—what kept them civilized and French, as Cather puts it in Shadows on the Rock—had little to do with the politics of national government as reported in his hometown newspaper, and everything to do with gardens of espaliered pear trees and climbing roses, with houses and vineyards and “little white cheeses that lay on green leaves” (427). At the Joubert farm, a domestic haven presided over by Madame Joubert, whom he first sees sitting under a cherry tree and sewing, and whose eyes haunt him with “an old, quiet, impersonal sadness” (458)—she has lost both of her sons in the war— Claude falls asleep in lavender-scented bed linen after sharing an omelet stuffed with bacon and potatoes and drinking a glass of brandy. Claude thinks, “Perfect bliss. . . . To be so warm, so dry, so clean, so beloved! . . . this beautiful land, this beautiful people, this beautiful omelette” (532). He tells David Gerhardt, “I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition” (552). The Great War, of course, did prove itself a business proposition to the U.S. government, but Claude seems not to have internalized a genuine sense of the Germans as the official enemy of his own nation, nor does he seem embattled against the kaiser’s empire, only against inhumanity. He is fighting to make the world safer for a Frenchwoman who has been raped and is now nursing a Boche baby, for a little French girl who is shot as she eats chocolate in the street—not “pro patria,” but in the words of Ezra Pound’s poem, “pro domo, in any case . . .” (63, Pound’s ellipsis).

Claude’s experience of a world fragmented between patria and domo illuminates Cather’s lament that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” (Prefatory Note v). The break in Cather’s world after 1922, the year One of Ours was published, thus becomes a break between official America—a monolithic nationality—and the diverse ethnic communities that had captivated the imagination of the younger Cather. After 1922, Cather could no longer pretend that “American” is anything but a political identity, increasingly determined by an economic agenda that specifically excluded the aesthetic qualities she found most valuable in the ethnic culture of European immigrants. The fact that Claude’s immigrant friends in Nebraska are German indicates that Cather is deliberately problematizing the distinction between nationality and ethnicity. Mahailey, the Wheelers’ old housekeeper, simplifies the question when she asks Claude why all the Germans in the newspaper are so ugly, whereas their German friends at home are so nice. Her confusion is a response to American public discourse at the time of World War I, which grew increasingly critical of German immigrants’ perceived failure to assimilate. The July 1916 issue of Atlantic Monthly featured both Randolph Bourne’s “Trans-National America” and an essay by Reinhold Niebuhr titled “The Failure of GermanAmericanism,” in which he argues that the German-American represents the worst case of what he calls “the problem of the ‘hyphen’” (13) and that he is “indifferent to our ideals” (14). The German-American, Niebuhr continues, seems “to be individualistic rather than social. . . . He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years” (14–15). Bourne’s essay, of course, criticizes antiimmigrant sentiment, arguing that there has never been any authentic process of Americanization in the United States, that assimilation is but a subordination to the Anglicized culture that is the official U.S. culture. Anti-German-American feeling deeply stirred the Midwest, with its large German immigrant population. The Indiana writer Theodore Dreiser, of German extraction himself, echoes Bourne’s sentiments in an essay titled “Life, Art, and America,” published the following year in The Seven Arts. Almost a century later, Indiana native Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview shortly before he died in 2007, described his grandfather’s immigrant family in Indianapolis as “German-Americans in a British colony” (13).

One of Ours exposes the German-American “problem” in two incidents in which German folk culture is repressed in the interests of American nationalism. In the earliest days of American involvement in the war, two older German immigrants are brought to court in Claude’s hometown for publicly defaming the United States for having been “bought over by England” to join the Allied effort (322). The immigrants are unrepentant; one of them has declared that “everything was better in the Old Country” (319), illustrating Niebuhr’s contention that “America’s frank sympathy for Germany’s enemies has transformed the natural sympathy of the German-Americans for their bloodrelatives into a bitterness against this country and its people” (13). The grandmother of one of the immigrant families does not speak English and is so afraid to be caught speaking German that “she don’t talk at all and hides away from everybody” (340). Claude remembers playing with the children, and that the grandmother made shadow-pictures and taught them a German rhyme. Rather heavy-handedly, the narrator jokes that the rhyme “would probably be considered as dangerous propaganda now!” (340), implying the absurdity of sacrificing ethnic culture to the nationalist cause. In the second incident, the restaurant owner Mrs. Voigt is harassed by local children simply because she is German, the official enemy. She confides to Claude that “it ain’t all so bad in de Old Country like what dey say. . . . dem wooden shoes, what dey makes such fun of, is cleaner dan what leather is” (329). In both cases, the American national political interests in the Great War demand the repression of German ethnicity.

In her 1923 essay “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” Cather reminisces about being able to hear sermons in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, French, Czech, and German on any given Sunday when she was a child. She laments that Americanization has eliminated, for example, the beer garden theater where children performed plays in Czech and the small-town pastry shops that were the equal of any in Prague and Vienna. Typically, she praises Bohemian immigrant culture in terms of food: “The American lard pie never corrupted the Czech” (237). She elaborates on the importance of domestic culture in a 1924 New York Times Book Review interview: “the Frenchman doesn’t talk nonsense about art, about self-expression; he is too greatly occupied with building the things that make his home. . . . Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, do not make for beauty. Other things must come first; good cookery, cottages that are homes, not playthings; gardens, repose” (11).

In these statements and in the pilgrimage trajectory of One of Ours and the post-1922 novels that follow, we can see that Cather begins to heroize the domestic as a meaningful manifestation of ethnic culture, in response to the claims of the nation-state; and further, that ethnic culture produces art, whereas national culture, predominantly economic, produces only commodity. Cather’s view throughout her elegiac essay on Nebraska is that the golden age of American history was defined as a time when ethnic culture was in concert with the national project of western settlement.

In an essay that illuminates this distinction, James Hersh examines the consequences of the 1915 Turkish massacre of the Armenians to answer the question, “How does ethnic memory survive in the modern nation-state?” Hersh uses the Oresteia, depicting a series of personal sacrifices made to political ends, to demonstrate the cultural devastation that ensues when patriarchal political structures (polis) increasingly repress the matriarchal expression of kinship and ethnicity (ethnos). What happened during Cather’s lifetime was an enactment of the competing claims of polis and ethnos. The treaties that concluded the Great War exacerbated ethnic conflicts by redrawing geopolitical boundaries and, although the great German and Austrian dynasties had been vanquished, a new imperialist scenario was being waged within the United States—the economic conquest of ethnic culture, which Cather outlines in the Nebraska essay and to which Claude had fallen victim. As citizens concentrate more and more on the demands of polis, Hersh reports, “the social contract, the marriage contract, constitutions, manifestos, amendments, writs of habeas corpus, mortgages,” the “nonverbal contracts” ofethnos, “understood in the blood” (59), like Mrs. Erlich’s remembered recipes and the immigrant grandmother’s songs and folktales, are neglected. The Oresteia demonstrates that neglect of this matriarchal material comes at a price—the revenge of the Furies, which, Hersh contends, expresses itself in the modern world as terrorism. He points out that the Oresteia finally presents a right-minded polis, in which the Furies, transformed into the Eumenides, are enthroned under the hearth.

Cather’s despondency after 1922 reflects a deep and feeling comprehension of this dynamic, and is expressed in her increasing heroization of the domestic in the face of the political. In other words, the post-1922 novels that convey what Lionel Trilling called a “mystical significance [attached] to the ritual of the ordered life, to the niceties of cookery” (152) represent Cather’s wishful depiction of the enthronement of the Furies under the hearth. Critics of the 1920s and 1930s who disdain the post- 1922 Cather as dégagé, nostalgic, and escapist misunderstand the deep significance of the domestic culture she portrays. It is far more accurate to see Cather as someone who declines the discourse dictated by the polis and turns to the more profound conversation of the ethnos. To assert that “a new society begins with the salad dressing rather than the destruction of Indian villages” (“OnShadows” 16) seems then a rather radical notion, both ancient and modern—as ancient as the Oresteia and the Old Testament, as modern as Bosnia and Gaza.

In 1936, Cather wrote a review of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers at the request of her publisher, Alfred Knopf. Published in Not Under Forty, the review is actually one of the most cogent statements of her mature years. In it, she lingers on the character of Jacob, Joseph’s father, who, like Abraham before him, undertakes a “quest . . . out of a stupefied materialistic world” (106). He, as we know, immigrated into Gilead with Rachel, bringing her father’s stolen household gods, and understands the cultural power of food, having bought his older brother’s birthright for a bowl of porridge. She muses on the great historical responsibility of Jacob, who understood that his destiny was to nurture Joseph, the dreamer—the dreamer always being an artist figure for Cather. She praises Mann’s “backwardness,” meaning his capacity to get behind the ancient people he was writing about and imagine them in relation to what lay before them. Mann himself was thinking along similar lines that same year. Speaking on the public occasion of Freud’s eightieth birthday celebration, he exhorted his audience to live “open behind,” “treading in footprints already made” (39), drawing upon the myth and history that had come before them and shaped them. After 1922, Cather’s fiction demonstrates, myth and history can be accessed most meaningfully through domestic culture informed by ethnicity. It is this world of ethnos—hearth inextricably linked to history—from which Cather’s immigrants come and to which Claude returns as a pilgrim, discovering that what maintains ethnicity—what keeps one French or Bohemian or German—is the splendid thing worth dying for. After Claude’s death, Mahailey would seem to understand perfectly when she pictures Claude in heaven, “not so very far above the kitchen stove” (606).


 1. Although Lewis recalled that they left for France in June (119), Cather wrote to Ferris Greenslet on 24 March 1920 that she intended to sail on 19 May if she could get a passport. A 19 April 1920 letter to William Allen White confirms that she had “obtained a passport and will sail on May 19” (Stout 78). (Go back.)
 2. See, e.g., another article on the same day, “From Sorceress to Saint” (VII, 6), as well as articles on 17 April, 9 May, and 17 May 1920. (Go back.)


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