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From Cather Studies Volume 9

Changing Trains

Metaphors of Transfer in Willa Cather

From the beginning truths of the unconscious belie circumstantial surfaces of things. Susan Rosowski, "The Voyage Perilous"

It seems almost silly to write that during all of Willa Cather’s life, trains were the primary mode of transport between cities. Even towns of modest size—for example, wayside Red Cloud—might have at least one eastbound and one westbound trunk-line stop each day. Yet the fact that trains are casually omnipresent, as routine as windows, walls, and doors are to rooms, does not make them non-essential. Rather, they are key elements of what Guy Reynolds characterizes as the “shifting historical matrix” of Cather’s rural Nebraska childhood, and “it would be a patronizing mistake” to assume that the elements of this matrix are “inevitably quiet or conservative or . . . insignificant” (19). Indeed, Cather’s trains “narratively” move much like Melville’s Pequod, the Rouen diligence in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or Kerouac’s motorcars in On the Road. They travel the edge between the naturalist’s environmental machinery and the romantic idealist’s impulse to essentialize, however subtly, our second nature. Famously, in “The Novel Démeublé” Cather looked to retire Balzac’s aged “property man” because for too long the novel had been “over-furnished” (5) and, as realism exhausted its momentum in romantic novels or naturalism, “the city . . . on paper [was] already crumbling” (6). For a model she instead chose Tolstoy, in whose writing “the clothes, the dishes, the haunting interiors of those old Moscow Houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author’s mind” (or in physical reality) “as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves” (emphasis added, 6). Cather reminds her reader that “the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification” and, referring to The Scarlet Letter, she comments, “the material of the story is presented as if unconsciously” (6).

As if. The author’s challenge is not to invest the fictional world with a clutter of verisimilar accoutrements, as if there can be no reference to the world without “red meat thrown into the scale to make the beam dip” (6), nor is she obliged to brashly allegorize. Her poor “drudge, the theme-writing high school student,” cannot go to The Scarlet Letter for “information regarding the manners and dress and interiors of Puritan society” (6), and the meanings of the rattlesnake and the plow in My Ántonia, unmistakably metaphoric though they are, depend on circumstances and landscape inhabited by Jim and Ántonia. They are not there for the herpetologist and the ironmonger. They are bursts of literary light on the ordinary topography of the narrative, wholly teachable moments most of us theme-writing drudges can grasp. However, if asked to choose, Cather prefers a more discreet luster, “whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named . . . the inexplicable presence of the thing not name, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed” (6).

Cather’s railroads are eloquent examples of what she means by this superbly enigmatic comment. At once they reveal her subtle attention to the emergence of Chicago as “second city” and the broader historical transformation of the upper Midwest; they reiterate her own experience of moving out of a hostile landscape into the civilized comforts of New York and France; and, most suggestively, they consistently lay down lines of nuance and metaphoric transfer across her midwestern and southwestern landscapes. Trains, not barbed wire or property deeds, redefine Cather’s Midwest and West. The new American second nature, according to Cather, is less about the use and ownership of the land than it is about movement across the landscape.

In 1893, during the Columbian Exposition, the American Historical Association heard from Frederick Jackson Turner that the essence of the American story was in the union of the ideas of wilderness and westward settlement. Chicago was the city through which the mineral, agricultural, and human wealth of the West moved in direction of the industrial, financial, and cultural centers of the East. Thus Chicago became “nature’s metropolis,” as William Cronon aptly dubbed it, in effect the hub city of a new American mythos because “Turner’s frontier, far from being an isolated urban society, was in fact the expanding edge of the boosters’ urban empire” as “frontier and metropolis turned out to be two sides of the same coin” (51). In material terms, Chicago was originally dependent on its geographical relationship to waterways—lakes and rivers, later the canal—and it continued to thrive when as a major rail center it became a twentieth-century metropolis. Nineteenth-century Chicago, in other words, was a city of profound adaptations to environment and events. For example, at midcentury it was a dank and sprawling shantytown of wooden structures, but after the fire in 1871 Chicago rebuilt as a city of stone and steel; architects vied to endow the ambitious capital of the heartland with unique and ever more imposing buildings.

Cronon argues that the rise of the rail network of which Chicago was a hub is more than a merely economic narrative. “Wherever the rails went,” he writes, “they brought sudden sweeping change to the landscapes and communities through which they passed”; their “power to transform landscapes partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy that was beyond human influence or knowledge” (72). Indeed, the railroads, and the telegraphs the wires of which ran along the tracks, “shrank the perceptual universe of North America” (76). In fact, trains made the Midwest inhabitable for the new settler population; they were means of moving safely in the cold of winter and the heat of summer, and of moving at all in the muds of spring. Within a generation of the Civil War, settlement and social patterns in the upper Midwest depended entirely on the railroads. For Cronon, “the railroad left almost nothing unchanged,” and “to those whose lives it touched, it seemed a at once so ordinary and so extraordinary—so second nature—that the landscape became unimaginable without it” (73). Railroads quickly became second nature, fundamental structures in the midwestern conception of time and space, or “the unnatural instrument of a supposedly ‘natural’ destiny,” one that defines Chicago as if it were “an artificial spider suspended at the center of a great steel web,” for to grasp the city and its relation to the West “one must first understand the railroad” (74).

Cather, I believe, had an entire and intuitive grasp of this transformation, as the railroad became a ubiquitous and unobtrusive trope for narrative effects as varied as transfer, estrangement, correspondence, serendipity, and fate in her works, up to and including Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and, arguably, Lucy Gayheart (1935). My thesis is consistent with Joseph Urgo’s premise that “migration is the keystone of American existence,” for our “picture of life in the United States is a moving picture; our sense of community is in transit; the consciousness we share is migratory” (13). The integument of Cather’s fiction is largely made of iron rails, for by train we make the journey by which, as Urgo argues, “the past is no burden on the present; the burden comes from the future, where migrants must utilize what they have that is portable to make the journey in the world” (37). I would add that with trains Cather implies a network of journeys and transferences, such that “her novels provide a way of seeing American society and history as spatialized phenomena, countering many of the dominant myths that have sustained the culture in this century” (Urgo 39). Or, to embellish my analogy, as tracks are laid and trains move over them, so moves the mythos. Enclosing us in darkness as we cross great spaces in search of new “temporary permanence,” trains are uniquely capable of shifting us into new forms of being, and as Urgo demonstrates, Cather’s “emphasis on transit—including the great fact of migration—reinforces the idea that the past must often be forgotten if one is to succeed in transferring self and value to a new environment” (39).

Moreover, the historical context for trains is as complex as the already rich narratives of migration. In Memorial Fictions, Steven Trout comments that Cather’s “seventy-four years extend from the final volleys of the age of black powder to the detonation of the atomic bomb—from the last of Indian wars to the beginning of the Cold War” (1). The limits of her life also correspond to the age of rail. Cather was born four years after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and by the time she died the railroads were already beginning to wane, giving way to highways, and even air travel was becoming commonplace in the late 1940s. In arguing that the Great War is pervasive and a surreptitious presence in The Professor’s House, Trout reminds readers that “Cather herself encourages in ‘The Novel Démeublé’ . . . a definition of literary achievement that holds subtlety and suggestion over ‘mere verisimilitude’” (151). As an example of such he mentions the Professor’s houses as “point[s] of interchange between Europe and America” (159). What comparable freight or passengers might not a train carry? Trains, not wagons, bring Cather’s migrants westward to the prairie; eastward, trains take them to education, careers, money, war, and European culture.

A peripatetic midwesterner with cosmopolitan ambitions, Cather traveled much and her letters often refer to train travel, which almost invariably includes a change of trains—with its challenges to comfort and tranquillity—in Chicago. As early as 1896, only a few hours after arriving in sooty Pittsburgh, she writes to Mariel Gere about how she began to feel happy once her train was east of Chicago and she saw hills, streams, and trees (Jewell and Stout 0025). Later in life, when established as editor and novelist, Cather traveled more. Letters ran ahead of her travels, as when, for example, in summer of 1916 she wrote to Charles Cather from the Brown Hotel in Denver to ask that a deposit check be sent ahead to the La Salle Hotel in Chicago, adding that her night on the train was pleasantly cool (Jewell and Stout 1907). In October 1918 she wrote from Red Cloud to Irene Miner Weisz with the information that she would arrive in Chicago midmorning on Thursday and leave that afternoon at four for Toronto, presumably on the Grand Trunk Railway (Jewell and Stout 0436). These are details of a sort that anyone traveling in that day might have reported. Judging from numerous references to train travel in her letters, Cather’s pattern is the same as anyone’s who traveled beyond Chicago. Indeed, when Cather traveled to Red Cloud or points further west, invariably she would have traveled by the Pennsylvania Railroad or New York Central to Chicago and there changed to the Burlington (through Nebraska) or the Santa Fe (to the southwest). For example, on 9 June 1927 she wrote to brother Roscoe to say she soon was leaving Chicago on the Burlington no. 1, would pick up Helen Louise in Hastings, and arrive in Denver that day, spend the night, and go on to Casper the following morning (Jewell and Stout 2088). After the change in Chicago, travel was slower, grimier, noisier, smellier, and—for the storyteller—more portentous.

From the moment of her earliest stories, Cather was able to exploit the metaphoric resonances of the railroads. The early story “A Death in the Desert” (1903) opens with Windermere Hilgarde “conscious that the man in the seat across the aisle was looking at him intently” on board the “High Line Flyer, as this train was derisively called among railroad men, . . . jerking along through the hot afternoon over the monotonous country between Holdredge and Cheyenne” (109). Windermere, with his Wildean name (when the story appears in The Troll Garden, he is less-obtrusively named Everett), is the spitting image of his brother, Adriance, a celebrated pianist whose student and paramour, Katharine Gaylord, is dying. She is utterly dépaysée outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming; ill with consumption, she has been taken in by her prosperous and kind but mildly rustic brother. When the story opens she can still ride in a phaeton about the high plains, or else she would not have seen Windermere, whose resemblance to his brother readers have already learned. Katharine otherwise lives sequestered in a music room packed with memories of a brief and brilliant European career. Susan Rosowski characterizes “A Death in the Desert” as a story about “the seductive power of illusion over mortals who can never enter the rarified realm of great art” (25).

Taken to Katharine by her brother, compassionate Windermere lengthens his stay while she declines. Unlike his celebrated and narcissistic brother, who “usually did the right thing, the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing—except when he did very cruel things,” Windermere, according to Katharine Gaylord, is “the kindest man living” (117). Adriance is a genius, however; Windermere is, by contrast, merely moral. Yet Windermere brings new memories of his brother, and even performs Adriance’s newest sonata, music that provokes a rush of confession and feeling in the dying woman. He gives Katharine occasion for a torrent of memory, characterized by its similarity to “that prelude of Chopin’s with the ceaseless pelting of rain-drops in the bass,” which Chopin wrote “when George Sand carried him off to Majorca and shut him up in a damp grotto in the hill-side, and it rained forever and ever, and he had only goat’s milk to drink” (119). Thanks to her chance visitor, in a high dry place and at the threshold of death, Katharine rides back on the strength of Windermere’s agency to the stormy defining moment of her life when “somehow the wind with all its world pain had got into the room, and the cold rain was in our eyes, and the wave came up in both of us at once—that awful vague, universal pain, that cold fear of life and death and God and hope—and we were like two clinging together on a spar in mid-ocean after the shipwreck of everything” (119).

For subtlety of construction and pathos, Cather soon exceeded “A Death in the Desert” in three other “train” stories—“A Wagner Matinée” of 1904 and “Paul’s Case” and “A Sculptor’s Funeral” of 1905—yet while “A Death in the Desert” is an overwrought story, more feverish than even the topic of tuberculosis warrants, in many respects it shakes out the impulses of the Europhile and the aesthete as surely as Alexander’s Bridge (that other early Cather fiction which includes a train that lets off passengers at a significant moment). Written the year after Cather’s first European travels, “A Death in the Desert” suggests a struggle to find an aesthetic equilibrium between the landscape and ethos of her youth (as well as the heady precepts of aestheticism) and the seductions of classical and romantic music. In this respect, Katharine Gaylord is surely a predecessor to Thea Kronborg, whose talent is comparable and whose self-reliance and luck are far greater. She is also a predecessor to Lucy Gayheart, whose last name is remarkably similar and whose inability to get to New York, much less establish herself in Europe, proves fatal. Similarly, Windermere, in his capacity for self-effacement and in his life as an itinerant witness who gets off the train where the story happens to be, prefigures the more developed Jim Burden. Less obviously, Windermere prefigures the generous Augusta in The Professor’s House, a mater dolorosa who uncannily appears, narrative alpha and omega, with a measure of comfort during St. Peter’s melancholic flirtation with suicide. More broadly, “A Death in the Desert” announces some of Cather’s durable metaphors; for example, the Gaylord house outside of Cheyenne is an outpost of gentility, its inhabitants struggling for dignity, much like the Forrester place outside of Sweet Water in A Lost Lady. Similarly, the idea that one can hear an air from a cantata based on the spring song of “Proserpine” “on guitars in Old Mexico, on mandolins at college glees, on cottage organs in New England hamlets, and . . . on sleighbells at a variety theater in Denver” (109) turns up again in O Pioneers! and Song of the Lark, in which European music is played on squeeze-boxes and pianolas, and most pathetically in My Ántonia, in which Shimerda’s silent violin could play the folk tunes and classical airs of Europe but never does.

For such reasons the train in “A Death in the Desert,” as narrative device and as an independent trope, is particularly interesting. At the beginning we learn that Windermere’s coach is also occupied by “bedraggled-looking girls who had been to the Exposition at Chicago, and who were earnestly discussing the cost of their first trip out of Colorado” (109). There are another “four uncomfortable passengers . . . covered with a sediment of fine, yellow dust” that “blew up in clouds from the bleak, lifeless country . . . until they were one color with the sage-brush and sand-hills” (109). The train emerges within a natural horizon on which the human hold is fragile, requiring constant grip to prevent the shifting ground from obliterating all effort: “The gray and yellow desert was varied only by occasional ruins of deserted towns, and the little red boxes of station-houses, where the spindling trees and sickly vines in the blue-grass yards were kept alive only by continual hypodermic injections of water from the tank where the engines were watered, little green reserves fenced off in that confusing wilderness of sand” (109). Perhaps this is landscape as disease pathology. One could be tempted to conclude that the moral is that Katharine Gaylord, whose tuberculosis delivers her to the desert, finds that nature first coats, then desiccates, and finally obliterates her talent and her passion. However, the story ends with Windermere “pacing the station siding, waiting for the West-bound train” (121). Katharine’s brother waits with him, though neither has anything left to say, and they actually look forward to the “wrench of farewell” (121). When the train at last comes in, it lets off a German opera company, an arrival even more improbable even than Windermere’s, and from the troupe emerges a stout woman with a lascivious south German accent, whose “florid face was marked by good living and champagne as by fine tide lines rushed up to him, her blond hair disordered by the wind, and glowing with joyful surprise she caught his coat-sleeve with her tightly gloved hands” (121). This grotesque embodiment of insatiable appetite believes Windermere to be his brother, the second crucial misidentification of the story. Appalled, Windermere tells her that she has confused him with Adriance, “and turning from the crestfallen singer he hurrie[s] into the car” (121). In other words, this chance arrest at rail-side in Wyoming only seems to be about nature and chance; more deeply, and pessimistically, it is about human inability to travel beyond the reach of the necessity imposed on us by our character and circumstances.

In the 1904 story “A Wagner Matinée,” Cather leaves no doubt of the physical and emotional toll a train from the heartland to the east coast can inflict. The narrator’s Aunt Georgiana arrives in Boston looking “not unlike one of those charred, smoked bodies that firemen lift from the débris of a burned building,” a consequence of her having “come all the way in a day coach” (325). Georgiana’s transfer emphasizes the cruel consequence of being stuck in the hinterland. The trains that can carry the body do not, tragically, carry one back to youth or into gentler and more prosperous lives. For most people, the train reiterates the cultural poverty of the wayside stations that are their origin or destination, towns like the little Kansas town where the train will stop in deepest darkness for a brief moment to drop off the body of native son Harvey Merrick in “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” In that story, the train appears in “the snow [that] had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky” (329). Into this lyrical landscape the casket of Merrick is tugged from the train by “a number of lanky boys of all ages [who] appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder” (329); to these blighted fellows, the palm fronds on the black lid are inscrutable irrelevancies. In other words, when it comes to trains Cather’s attitude is at best ambivalent. Indeed, at moments the train is radically destructive. In “Paul’s Case” it enables the scandalous escape, and, as Paul discovers in the last instant of being, the train also obliterates the self that anxiously wonders if anyone is watching: “He stood watching the approaching locomotive, his teeth chattering, his lips drawn away from them in a frightened smile; once or twice he glanced nervously sidewise, as though he were being watched” (83). When he jumps he is for an instant aware of “the vastness of what he had left undone” and then he drops “back into the immense design of things” (83).

Could not a train deliver one to a richer story, if not to a more optimistic one? In the prologue to My Ántonia, Cather’s alter ego chances to meet Burden on a train in Iowa in weather hot enough to wilt oaks. In what appears to be a unique instance, Cather does not allude to the direction the train is moving when they meet. Is the conversation thickened by recently refreshed memories and does the change to a more comfortable express in Chicago await? Or have they already shifted to slower and rougher track, are they trying to contain their dismay at the approach Black Hawk by imagining a story larger and more compelling than the ordinary and cramped existence they may soon need to endure? The reader can only guess. Months later Burden comes east with a manuscript. Remarkably, this narrative travels in two directions; first, west through nostalgia and compromise into the past, from the prairie town that Burden long ago escaped to a place in the here and now, Ántonia’s garden. Second, once the story is vivid and coherent, it moves east and penetrates through the geographical, social, and class distances that separated Burden from Ántonia.

Scott Palmer, in his essay on the relation of class and nationality to train travel in My Ántonia, treats the novel “as a travel narrative of sorts, one that emerges from the reverie of railway travel to consider the intersecting discourses of nationality, class and gender within the settlement of the American West” (239). Jim, Palmer concludes, is “a product of the retrospective and introspective condition of rail travel”—especially as experienced in the red plush of a Pullman coach—and so “Jim’s narrative instinctively embeds itself within the vanishing, nostalgic landscape of Black Hawk because the economic and social forces of class inhibit a shared future for him and Ántonia” (248). Palmer’s interpretation begs the question of why Jim writes the narrative, not the author whom he encounters in the observation car somewhere in Iowa. Presumably that anonymous author is a woman (as she was explicitly in early edition), herself a native of Black Hawk, and a rail traveler as well. Yet she writes nothing.

Jim is the “ticket,” the narrator and agent of Ántonia’s story, and while perhaps Ann Romines is right that the novel is to some extent “the triumph of the written male story, finding its way into print with facilitating female support” (149), it is more importantly true that “Cather makes a housekeeping woman the center of a fiction or the first time” (149). This focus of Jim’s narrative can only happen because Ántonia trusts him in her home, then at the urging of the children shows him her cellar, and takes him even to the fruitful center of her fertile metaphor, the grape arbor at the heart of her garden. As a result of this openness of spirit, the Ántonia story comes to Jim in a rush. In other words, the railroad is more than a rigid and flat line of masculinity and bourgeois capitalism that a virile manifest destiny lays across the “feminine” divide and undulations of the frontier. Nothing that reductive—nothing that binary—is at work. Jim, in spite of being encumbered by a law degree and a trophy bride, does get back to Ántonia by train, wagon, and force of good will. He grasps who she was and who she has become, comprehends her essential virtuousness, and, and in spite of differences of gender and class, renders her in a prose adequate to the task of carrying her story intact from Webster County to New York City.

By contrast, in most other Cather narratives, eastbound trains tend to exhaust, corrupt, vitiate, or even annihilate the traveler, making Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark or Cather herself stark exceptions to the rule. The westbound journey is usually more promising. For Jim Burden, the orphan, the journey is a rich, if anxious, adventure: I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with lanterns. I couldn’t see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow from the firebox, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform, encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. (5–6) Here is a moment of visual arrest somewhere far west of Chicago. Both Jim and Ántonia stand in the same place and moment, the Black Hawk station in deep night, each in the empty heartland. As soon as Jim and Ántonia move, the place will begin to fill with their life stories. For an instant, the surrounding darkness is complete; the light is red and creates deep shadows. The narrative momentum that drove Ántonia out of Europe and Jim out of Virginia comes to a standstill. Red shapes against a black background, the family presents an image that forever will mark the beginning of Jim’s relation to his Ántonia. Later, the image of the black plow against the red horizon will demonstrate the completion of their arrival in the new country.

As they move away from the station in the farm wagon, the boy Jim crawls from beneath the buffalo skin and looks out to see “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made,” and this under “the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it” (8). Young, an orphan, coming to the still place at the end of a long, jolting journey, he experiences a complete sense of tranquillity that comes from his sense of effacement. Much later, when the memory of Ántonia will swamp his memory with its plenitude, he will recall this moment as one in which “between that earth and sky I felt erased, blotted out,” and he neglected his prayers that night for “here . . . what would be would be” (8).

In Jim’s case it would seem that the train delivers the boy to a still center, a place at which he conceives of the utter absence of being, as if the train could still bring one to a threshold of wilderness. By contrast, A Lost Lady (1923) tends to suggest that Cather understood the closing of the prairie, its domestication and degradation, as one and the same with the growth of the railroads, or a process the traces of which lie adjacent to the rails. The story begins, “Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer to-day than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere” (7). The house is Captain Forrester’s, and its chatelaine his wife, who regularly entertains the passing “railroad aristocracy of that time; men who had to do with the railroad itself, or with one of the ‘land companies’ which were its by-products” (7). From the start, readers know that the railroad divides the population of the prairies into two classes, “the homesteaders and the hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentleman ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money” (7). As a result of the growth of the railroad, the character of rural life begins to change. Rather than a society of families whose lives passed in a relatively narrow range of wealth between subsistence and modest plenty—an agricultural economy for which the tidy farm and amply stocked cellar of Ántonia represents the ideal—rural society begins to divide between haves and have-nots, though to the urbanite the distinction might seem relatively indistinct; the Forrester place in Sweet Water a mile east of town “was not at all remarkable,” though “the people who lived there made it seem much larger and finer than it was” (8). To the locals, however, especially the youths for whom Mrs. Forrester is nearly a paragon, the house represents a magnificence and intimacy the interior of which they long to inhabit.

Yet by eastern patrician standards the dwelling might appear squat and pretentious, froufrou carpenter’s gothic, much lathing and modest scale, a house best kept covered with vines. A mile outside of a town that for the railroad was nearly a jerkwater town, the Forresters’ outpost scarcely appears to represent the suburban colonization of the frontier. To the Captain’s credit, he does not drain marsh below the house because he admires the natural and “artless loops” (9) of the creek’s meander. Mrs. Forrester is the maven of enchantment, a woman who is most alluring when not fully dressed, which is to say when midway between two states, for “she was attractive in dishabille, and she knew it” (10), even to Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado and Utah Railroad. Here, in a place that might well have been written up as “Prairie Home” in Good Housekeeping or Ladies’ Home Journal, the Captain retires after his fall from the horse prevents him from laying more track, and he grows fat, fiddles with flowering shrubs, and against the background of crop failures the Burlington begins to reduce its service. Ironically, as life becomes more limited in Sweet Water, the Forresters actually spend more time there. The Captain putters and the lady of the house entertains locals; it would appear that the plains were destined to impose their slow regularity of life upon the fancy house and its owners.

For a moment the story is about idle boy stuff—cookies, water snakes, and talk of the poisoning of Judge Pommeroy’s spaniel. In comes “Poison Ivy,” or Ivy Peters, about eighteen years old, who walks “as if he had a steel rod down his back” (18). He is meanness personified, and he looks like a lizard: “He was an ugly fellow, Ivy Peters, and he liked being ugly” (19). After he drops the female woodpecker with a slingshot he takes out tiny instruments for cutting and sewing—some from a taxidermy kit he purchased by mail order from Youth’s Companion. He plans for such vileness. The trains bring his tools to him. The bird struggles as the other boys watch, appalled: “There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat its wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when it is drinking. Presently it managed to get its feet on the same limb where it had been struck, and seemed to recognize that perch. As if it had learned something by its bruises, it pecked and crept its way along the branch and disappeared into its own hole” (22). Niel tries to go up to put it out of its misery, but he falls and hurts himself. For the rest of the novel his efforts to intervene in the corruption of Sweet Water are comparably futile. When in the arc of the novel Ivy Peters supplants the Captain, the once virile builder of railroads who went flabby and died, Niel Herbert reckons the end of the transformation of the pioneer prairie. The modern world has settled in. Meanness, once an emotional hazard of hanging on when the prairie was newly settled, becomes—now that the railroad is an ordinary fixture of life—a permanent quality that defines people who get what they want.

In Willa Cather and Others, Jonathan Goldberg writes of the “dense transfer points and occlusions around race, gender, and sexuality that link” characters to their narratives, and the narratives of each to the narratives of others (119). The blinded female bird that first links Ivy Peters to Mrs. Forrester is one of many clear examples of his point. As tropes, trains provide similar density but are scarcely occluded; rather, they represent a differently lucid vehicle for Cather, for trains tend to represent the acceleration of the actual. They may redirect or re-pace the story. For example, in Song of the Lark, when a train kills Ray Kennedy, Thea sets on her way. In O Pioneers! a train brings Emil back to this fate and carries Alexandra to the interview in the penitentiary. In One of Ours, in a Pullman car Enid crushes Claude’s foolish expectations. Hence, in their metaphoric quietude, trains are comparable to Cather’s skies, prairies, horizons, and dwelling places. There is never a Moonstone, Black Hawk, Hanover, or Sweet Water that does not hinge to the rest of the world by its train station, and in this respect the local and literal actuality of her characters’ lives links them, by rail, to broader and distant tropics of meaning. In other words, trains are not just the way her people come and go from their small western towns; banal modern trains also convey her fiction to places as distant as the cultural threshold of New York, the opera houses of Paris and Berlin, and, at the limit, the Virgilian landscapes that adorn My Ántonia and One of Ours.

Tellingly, most of these trains begin or end in Chicago. Making a transfer in Chicago, an unavoidable hassle one hopes to survive, tests the traveler, who must muster much stoicism, or have a dear and accommodating friend like Irene Miner Weisz. Chicago is the site of crucial symbolic transferences. For example, in Song of the Lark (1915), the “lay-over” in Chicago defines the destiny of Thea Kronborg, and after surviving its challenges she can go on to New York and the capitals of Europe. Danielle Russell, in her book on Cather and Toni Morrison, Between the Angle and the Curve, conceives of the city—any large city, not merely Chicago—as “masculine space” and a “place of distinct boundaries” (65). Acknowledging the oversimplification, she recalls that in Cather’s work, “the city . . . is often treated with ambivalence or outright hostility” (66). Particularly for Thea, Chicago was “simply a wilderness through which one had to find one’s way” (Song 169; Russell 66), and it represents a set of conundrums that “must be deciphered in order to be navigated” (Russell 68). Nevertheless, Russell concedes, Thea’s Chicago experience “is as close as Cather comes to an endorsement of urban life” (68). Thea has talent, voice, and a native shrewdness and pragmatism that keep her unsentimentally focused on her goal. For her, Chicago is hornbook and preparation.

By contrast, in The Professor’s House (1925) Chicago embodies St. Peter’s paralysis, engulfing his cosmopolitan yearnings in a detestable mire of Carson, Pirie, and Scott, whose shabby midAmerican novelties beguile his daughters. This is the Chicago of Louis Marcellus—nouveau riche and nouveau gout; crass, vigorous, and often inanely eclectic, like the big Spanish-Norwegian house named Outland. Cather makes the metaphor of the city darkest for Godfrey St. Peter, her one character who actually settles nearby, though given his attitude toward his increasingly vulgar university it might be appropriate to say he misses his train and gets stuck there. In this respect, the geography of Hamilton is especially interesting. Somewhere on Lake Michigan, well south of Milwaukee and a bit north of Chicago, Hamilton is home to a burgeoning and crass state university; it connects to the rest of the country and world by rail. In “The Family,” the opening section of the novel, the first reference to Chicago is as a source of hardware fittings for the new house. Next, Cather mentions Chicago as the city where, after winning his award, the Professor splurges on a luxury hotel and a night at the opera, awakening tender memories of Lillian while listening to “Connais-tu le pays” from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon (1866), an aria in which the soprano bemoans her exile from the distant shores and country of youth. Finally, Chicago is the nearby metropolis where in a fictionalized Blackstone Hotel the Professor looks out over Lake Michigan and gloomily recognizes the materialism of one daughter and the bitterness of the other. The city, in other words, is not merely a large industrial, commercial, and cultural center; it is also a metaphor for an exsanguinating new nature that the Professor cannot resist and which worsens his nostalgia and melancholy. Even in Hamilton, at the far margins of the metropolis, he must go to the top of his house and stare toward the distant horizons to get a sense of where he is from or where he would prefer to be.

Hamilton, then, is unlike any other midwestern town in Cather’s novels. Moonstone, Hanover, Sweet Water, Haverford, Skyline—all the other remakings of Red Cloud—are remarkable for their quality of clinging to the slender line of rails and the defining and enormous nearness of the prairies. Hamilton, though planted near the place where in earliest childhood Godfrey St. Peter experienced an archetypal vastness of lake and land, is becoming suburban, its relation to its outside horizons newly irrelevant. Rail connects it to Chicago and irresistibly links it to the dehumanization of modern American life. Perversely, towns like Hamilton remind their aging romantics of what they have lost, promoting as they do an unnatural pastoralism and sybaritism as compensation for the ravages of industrial progress. A twelveminute train ride takes the Professor to his lake where he can sail or immerse himself in the water, staring east across vast openness toward France. Hamilton is also where the Professor once planted a half-acre imitation of the gardens of Versailles. Like the enormous grounds of the palace of Versailles at the limit of the Parisian metropolis—where the he lived as a student—the Professor’s puny imitation of the Sun King’s landscape looked west onto the uninterrupted prairie and was itself entirely free of grass. By contrast, the thousands of acres of royal land at Versailles are a national treasure the horizon of which has long been protected from development. The Professor’s garden, once a little folly at the edge of the prairie, will become an absurdity, first isolated and then abolished by the spread of the metropolis. That fate is ironclad, so to speak. It matters only to him, and it will soon disappear.

Tragically, in a place defined by the capacity of the railroads to transport people, goods, and such cultural benefits as opera, paintings, and books, the grim Professor waits. More than his anomie, his alienation from his family, and his disdain for the commercialization of intellectual life at his university, St. Peter suffers from an inability to move. He cannot budge from the old house much less from the pernicious gravitational pull of Chicago. Outland had to take him into the Southwest and lead him about—never mind that the region was central to the Professor’s historical studies—and his family’s trip to Europe is not enough to induce him to return to the places that were important to him when he was a young student. Finally, with the family returning relentlessly on the Berengaria, there comes a point when nothing moves—no schedules are kept, no transfers occur east or west.

For Tom Outland, Chicago is also a transfer point on his way to Europe, but, unlike Thea, or unlike Jim Burden, who travels east of Chicago to mere prosperity and empty marriage, Outland’s alacrity in joining the cause of embattled Belgium proves lethal. The fate is similar for idealist Claude Wheeler when he journeys east of Chicago, boarding there the troop train that carries him across the Meadowlands near Hoboken to the ship Anchises. For these two rustic Parsifals, rising in the west and looking to the east, Chicago is the cusp of the wasteland of ruined European reason and light, and the Chapel Perilous is somewhere on the other side of the western front. For both Claude and Tom, the abundance of character they draw from the West sustains their enthusiasm but fails to fully protect them. Travel east has become physically easy, but no less deadly than it was for Paul from Pittsburgh decades before. In other words, not everyone who escapes survives, much less thrives.

For the westerner seeking to escape the labor on farms and the tedium of small towns, passage through Chicago, for however many hours or years it took to change trains, involved considerable risk. As William Cronon points out, the countryside “had no wealth to match Potter Palmer’s, but it also had no poverty to match the slum neighborhoods that encircled Chicago” (351). For the millions who came to the Columbian Exposition in 1893, the year Cather turned twenty, the trip to the city left them with powerful images of an alabaster city and distressing glimpses of fleshpots, tenderloins, shantytowns, rail yards, and stockyards. It is toward this seductive and dangerous city that Theodore Dreiser sent, by slow train, eighteen-year-old Caroline Meeber with some shoddy luggage and four dollars in 1889. One of two fates, neither very happy, will occur, the narrator of Sister Carrie tells us, as “either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtues and becomes worse” (1). In leaving the small town, young people like Carrie leave behind the possibility of an “intermediate balance” (1), for in the city, “half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman” (1–2). The rest are corrupted by ordinary falsehoods, for “beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions” (2).

In fact, Thea Kronborg may be the most successful eastbound transit in Cather’s fiction, because few of her characters are as successful in bending the world beyond Chicago to their desire and will. Chicago is the place where Thea sheds her rusticity and gains a degree of education and clarity that eventually allow her to thrive in New York and even Europe. Her trajectory in The Song of the Lark (1915) makes the novel Cather’s anti–Sister Carrie: if Dreiser’s Caroline Meeber is absorbed, perverted, and sent east first as a morally crippled woman and finally as a wholly depleted soul, an object lesson about the invincibility of the urban environment, Thea thrives and moves on. By contrast, years later, Cather sends Lucy Gayheart to Chicago with similar intentions but far different results. Lucy does not quite have the talent of Thea, and even if she had, she still lacks the temperament to live as austerely as the divine Kronborg, and she can be victimized by her own sentimental attachments. Lucy’s return to Haverford, where she pines for a cad and lets her talent languish, eventually plunges her through the ice. Here is an unambiguous ending, a waste of a dream, and perhaps the cruelest moment in Cather. This is what happens to girls who do not quite have what it takes to change to eastbound trains in Chicago.

After 1902, when the introduction of the Twentieth Century and Broadway Limited made travel between New York and Chicago a luxurious twenty-hour trip, most travelers to or from the West would change only in Chicago. Even so, an astonishing number of Cather’s characters change there, explicitly or implicitly, and often before or after the story. Alive, Harvey Merrick went through on his way to Boston and France; his coffin would have transferred at the same junction. Émil in O Pioneers!, had he not been murdered, would have changed trains there on his way to law school in Ann Arbor, and we are sure that after the end of “Old Mrs. Harris” young Vickie will make exactly the trip that Émil should have made. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, when young Latour first set out on his mission, he needed a year of river travel and horseback to reach his destination; by the time the Archbishop is ready to die, he reflects that “he had come with the buffalo, and he had lived to see railway trains running into Santa Fe. He had accomplished an historic period” (273). In fact, when Latour’s friend Jean Vaillant dies, Father Revardy, who in returning from France is waylaid by a terminal illness in a Catholic hospital in Chicago, sees report of the death, and Revardy need only to be driven to a railway station to make his painful way to Vaillant’s funeral and die himself a few days later in Denver.

The mythic urbis that depended on tropes of the Phoenix, competition, commerce, and transportation—all archetypal forms of metamorphosis or transit—shuts down in Cather’s imagination. When she stopped concerning herself with afflictions of contemporary life—tantamount to saying she stopped writing about trains—for obvious reasons she also stopped sending characters through Chicago. By the mid-1930s, when passenger trains west of Chicago were not noticeably different from those east of the city, and Cather herself had recognized her own sense of being out of step with the postwar world, Chicago no longer “figured” as Cather became interested in the Montreal of Shadows on the Rock, the old Virginia of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, or the long ago and far away of Avignon in her final and unfinished project. There was no longer need for a significant boundary, not in her art or, for that matter, in American life. The geographical or metaphysical severity of the frontier was passing out of memory. History was shortening the distance between the industrial East and a prairie of farms, immigrants, and stories of dauntlessness in a harsh climate.

Journeying with Isabelle McClung on French trains in 1902 (Woodress 162), Cather would have seen signs in the train stations marked “Correspondances,” which at a literal level means simply the direction one goes to change trains. But, inescapably, in French the word also refers to the fundamental operation of metaphor, or the correspondence between vehicle and tenor. In other words, in France, Cather encounters in the most banal of situations the double entendre of thing and idea that characterizes metaphor. In going somewhere, you cannot move through space or language without passing through the point—for example, the iconic moment at the Black Hawk train station—at which the thing named becomes the unnamable idea. This is the sense of the word in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” in which nature figures as “un temple où de vivants piliers / Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles,” a temple from the pillars of which come confused, and confusing, words. Through this sacral space, vital and artificial, we pass as if “à travers des forets de symbols,” through a forest of symbols, the trees of which watch us with friendly insolence. Among distant echoes, in a “ténébreuse et profonde unité,” in a deep and shadowy coherence, big as night and all light, we experience things not named but known by fragrances as fresh as the bodies of children, as sweet as oboes, and as green as prairies. Baudelaire’s images expand as similes for “des choses infinis,” or infinite things, as if things can be infinite, without particularity, limit, or horizon. This happens in a song of the transport of “l’esprit et les sens,” a final phrase impossible to tidily translate for the French word esprit can as immediately mean spirit or soul as it means mind or wit. Moreover, senscontains the same indissoluble pun as in the English “senses,” which can refer either to our five means of perceiving the physical world or, thereafter, the senses or meanings that we make of the world.[1] Furthermore, the French word sens, unlike the English, can have a third meaning, specifically, “direction,” as in what direction one takes to change trains for one’s next destination. Hence, changing trains, one follows the signs that say correspondances.

I do not know how attentively Cather may have read Baudelaire. Yet, her literary use of trains suggests that she would have understood the point of the title and poem, especially the implied parity of correspondence with transfer, or the sense of the metaphor that making meaning means changing trains. Wherever there is a topography cut by rails, there will also be a cusp, a threshold, a horizon, a salience, or a moment in the darkness when a family is momentarily still in the light of a locomotive’s fire, or perhaps a transfer as prosaic as a cab ride from LaSalle to Union Station as one changes from the Twentieth Century to the Burlington no. 1. This transfer marks the point at which words stop referring to ordinary matter and become, through the simplification or higher processes of art, the “emotional penumbra” of people made out of words. So Cather’s trains, particularly those that arrive or depart from Chicago, make lines across a tropic of meaning that are remarkably like other lines Cather draws across the imagined planes of her novels—for example, the Divide in O Pioneers!, Panther Canyon at the edge of the wilderness in Song of the Lark, or the tops of mesas against the horizons of The Professor’s Houseor Death Comes for the Archbishop. In this respect, Cather’s technique is true to her understanding, as she puts it in “Light on Adobe Walls,” that “at bottom all [an author] can give you is the thrill of his own poor little nerve—the projection . . . of a fleeting pleasure in a certain combination of form and colour, as temporary and almost as physical as a taste on the tongue” (976). Or as fleetingly real as a story glimpsed in the landscape one sees from the moving train.


 1. “Correspondances” appears in Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 Les fleurs du mal. Readers can find it conveniently at, where it is accompanied by half a dozen attempts to translate it. (Go back.)


Baudelaire, Charles. Les fleurs du mal. Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1857.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage, 1971.
———. “A Death in the Desert.” Scribner’s Magazine 33 (January 1903): 109–21. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
———. “Light on Adobe Walls.” Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. Ed. Sharon O’Brien. New York: Library of America, 1992. 976–78.
———. A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.
———. My Ántonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
———. One of Ours. New York: Knopf, 1922.
———. “The Novel Démeublé.” 1922. Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. Ed. Sharon O’Brien. New York: Library of America, 1992. 834–36.
———. The Professor’s House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
———. “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” McClure’s MagazineJan. 1905: 329–33. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
———. The Song of the Lark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.
———. “A Wagner Matinée.” Everybody’s MagazineMar. 1904: 325–28. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991.
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Doubleday, 1900.
Goldberg, Jonathan. Willa Cather and Others. Durham nc: Duke UP, 2001.
Jewell, Andrew, and Janis P. Stout. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather: An Expanded, Digital Edition. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Palmer, Scott. “‘The Train of Thought’: Classed Travel and Nationality in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.” Studies in American Fiction 29.2 (2001): 239–50.
Reynolds, Guy. “Willa Cather a Progressive: Politics and the Writer.” The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. Ed. Marilee
Lindemann. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 19–34.
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Russell, Danielle. Between the Angle and the Curve: Mapping, Gender, Race, Space and Identity in Willa Cather and Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2002.
Urgo, Joseph. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1987.