The phrase quoted in my title, “the nude had descended the staircase,” comes from Katherine Anne Porter’s essay “Reflections on Willa Cather.” Its allusion is of course to the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) by Marcel Duchamp, first exhibited in the United States at the 1913 Armory Show in New York. In making her passing reference, Porter assumed that readers would recognize the allusion and understand its significance. And it was a good assumption. Duchamp’s cubist nude has long served as an icon of modernism’s break with traditional concepts and praxis in art.
I have argued elsewhere that “Reflections on Willa Cather” is an essentially duplicitous essay in which the ever insecure Porter, herself an icon of literary modernism but fearful that her halting production would erode her future place in literary history, sought to strengthen her position in that prospective history by weakening that of her slightly older contemporary. Invoking the nude on the staircase as a touchstone, she sought to position Cather outside the project of modernism altogether where, she strongly implied, Cather persevered in a stodgy and backwardlooking aesthetic (Stout, “Porter’s ‘Reflections’”). Porter’s essay on Cather was first written as a book review of the posthumous collection of essays and aesthetic statements Willa Cather on Writing. Published in the New York Times in 1949, it was titled “The Calm, Pure Art of Willa Cather.” When it reappeared in greatly expanded and revised form three years later in Mademoiselle, it bore the title “Reflections on Willa Cather”—a title that well describes both the loosely associative form of the essay and its shift in emphasis from appreciation to assessment. It appears under this latter title in Porter’s Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1970).
The passage in which the nude makes her appearance asserts Cather’s indifference to
modernism in music and literature as well as visual art:
Stravinsky had happened; but she went on being dead in love with Wagner, Beethoven,
Schubert, Gluck, especially Orpheus, and almost any opera. She was music-mad, and even Ravel’s La Valse enchanted her; perhaps also even certain later music, but she has not mentioned it
[in the essays collected in On Writing].
The Nude had Descended the Staircase with an epochshaking tread but she remained faithful
to Puvis de Chavannes, whose wall paintings . . . inspired the form and tone of Death Comes for the Archbishop. . . . She loved Courbet, Rembrandt, Millet and the sixteenth-century Dutch and
Flemish painters, with their “warmly furnished interiors” but always with a square
window open to the wide gray sea. . . .
Joyce had happened: or perhaps we should say, Ulysses. . . [but] that subterranean upheaval of language caused not even the barest tremor
in Miss Cather’s firm, lucid sentences. (37–38)
Stravinsky had happened; but she went on being dead in love with Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, Gluck, especially Orpheus, and almost any opera. She was music-mad, and even Ravel’s La Valse enchanted her; perhaps also even certain later music, but she has not mentioned it [in the essays collected in On Writing].
The Nude had Descended the Staircase with an epochshaking tread but she remained faithful to Puvis de Chavannes, whose wall paintings . . . inspired the form and tone of Death Comes for the Archbishop. . . . She loved Courbet, Rembrandt, Millet and the sixteenth-century Dutch and Flemish painters, with their “warmly furnished interiors” but always with a square window open to the wide gray sea. . . .
Joyce had happened: or perhaps we should say, Ulysses. . . [but] that subterranean upheaval of language caused not even the barest tremor in Miss Cather’s firm, lucid sentences. (37–38)There can be little question that Porter genuinely admired the “firm, lucid sentences” that characterized Cather’s style and paid tribute to her as a stylist and a formalist in her review-turned-essay. At the same time, she reinforces her own position of prominence as a “writers’ writer” admired within a circle of other literary modernists—Glenway Wescott, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Eudora Welty—while removing Cather to a different category altogether. As a result of such mixed purposes, her “reflections” are skewed, partly right but often very wrong.
Much of the evidence that it is wrong is provided by Cather’s letters, which were of course unavailable to Porter. Since the time of her writing, however, hundreds of Cather’s personal letters have become available at university libraries. Today’s scholars are privileged to read Cather’s own expressions of her likes and dislikes, experiences and goals. In contesting Porter’s construal of Cather as a writer whose “plain” face was turned squarely toward the past (“Reflections” 30), I will draw freely on these materials and on Cather’s nonfiction. Moreover, the enormous theoretical and historical literature on modernism of recent decades has enriched the definitional basis for revisiting the issue of Cather’s relationship to modernism in the arts. Three works in particular seem to me both exceptionally cogent and directly pertinent to my discussion here, in that they form linkages among the arts. They are Martha Banta’s “The Excluded Seven: Practice of Omission, Aesthetics of Refusal” (1995), Joyce Medina’s Cézanne and Modernism (1995), and Marc Manganaro’s Culture, 1922 (2002).
My purpose is only secondarily, however, to dispute Porter’s contention that Cather was no modernist. She has long since lost that argument as scholars such as Richard Millington, Phyllis Rose, Jo Ann Middleton, and myself, among others, have demonstrated Cather’s place within modernism. More important, Porter’s argument relating to Cather and modernism provides a useful point of reference for sharpening our own definitions and perspectives. In any event, the comments of one writer on another are almost always of interest, especially since both were women writers at a time when it was still a real struggle to achieve parity of attention with males. Neither Porter nor Cather was eager to make claims based on gender, but both left passages in their letters indicating their awareness that literary publication was very much a man’s business. Porter experienced gender exclusivity as a writer primarily as a matter of genre (the short story or sketch versus the more “masculine” novel), while Cather experienced it most directly with respect to admissible or inadmissible subject matter, in reviews of her war novel One of Ours. For all these reasons, I find it both interesting and beneficial to place the two in conversation as modernists by way of Porter’s truly intriguing essay and to use her essay as a springboard for exploring what we can know of Cather’s interest in modern art, especially visual art.
At the time she wrote “Reflections on Willa Cather,” Porter was well established as a master of the short story and a stylist whose elegantly crafted sentences and rich symbolism placed her among an elite of contemporary writers. Her stories had appeared in, for example, Century, Transition, Hound & Horn, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. But she had yet to achieve a wide popular following; it would be another decade before the publication of Ship of Fools (1962) brought her that. She used her essay, then, to reinforce her position as a high-art modernist writer by invoking the names of celebrated modernists in literature, music, and visual art and linking them anecdotally with her own life and artistic maturation. It is a rhetorical strategy implying that the aesthetic represented by this litany of names is to be taken as a measure of artistic status. And by this standard she finds Cather wanting—a kind of mirror reversal of herself. Indeed, we might read the word “reflections” in the title as having dual meanings, referring both to Porter’s process of reflecting on (thinking about) Cather and to the likeness or unlikeness between the two of them. The primary unlikeness suggested in the essay, other than an ad feminam sniff that Cather was not glamorous (Porter most assuredly was), is that she was not truly modern.
Porter was not alone in thinking of Cather in that way. By 1940, largely through the efforts of Marxist critics such as Granville Hicks, she had been relegated to a kind of pleasant literary backwater. Yet one would think that Porter might have recognized in Cather’s work some of the principles and techniques that characterized her own and which, in various combinations, have come to be seen as defining attributes of “high” modernism. These would include gaps and fragmented surfaces, minimalist sculpting, resistance to conventions of form or manner, and a conception of art as a reality of its own counterpoised against an outer world drained of meaning. Readers both then and now would be likely to associate such characteristics with the names Porter invokes in her “Reflections”: Henry James, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce; in the visual arts, Klee, Gris, Modigliani; in music, Bartók, Poulenc, Stravinsky. Keeping the focus as much on herself as on Cather, she reminisces about her own first encounter with Stein’s Tender Buttons and the “great day” (33) on which she picked up a copy of Joyce’s Dubliners, and recalls her years in Paris during the 1930s as the time when she encountered the work of painters such as Modigliani and became mad for “music hot from the composer’s brain.”
She associates a very different set of names with Cather. It is true, as she states, that Cather turned to Shakespeare and Beethoven as exemplars of the highest achievement in art. She did so in several of the essays in On Writing, the volume Porter was initially reviewing, and had been since her earliest days of newspaper writing. But when Porter goes on to mention Cather’s “lov[ing]” Shelley, Wordsworth, and Walter Pater, the accuracy of her assessment becomes problematic. Cather’s references to Shelley in involvement in politics (20), and at another simply mentions his name along with Wordsworth’s in making the point that writers can treat traditional subjects without imitating traditional styles such as theirs (27). Cather makes a similar point in praising Sarah Orne Jewett, a writer Porter might well have cited, but did not, as evidence of a premodernist aesthetic taste. Cather praises Jewett, though, not for being traditional but for being independent. Young writers and visual artists alike, she says, should be faithful to their own vision, as Jewett was, not model their work on what has already been done, however fine (51). None of these passages indicates a retrograde devotion to past masters.
Turning next to music, Porter reports that Cather was “dead in love with Wagner, . . . Schubert, Gluck . . . and almost any opera” (37). This is essentially correct; she loved opera. In an undated 1913 letter to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant she stated (with possible hyperbole) that she was attending operas more often than weekly. To be sure, she was beginning a novel about an operatic singer at the time, and her statement to Sergeant may have been meant as an indication of how devotedly she was preparing for the book. As to Wagner and Schubert, she refers to them with a frequency that does indicate particular preference. But where Porter got the idea, as she goes on to assert, that Cather was “enchanted” with Maurice Ravel’s La Valse—by which I believe she meant to suggest deplorable taste—I am unable to determine. I have found no reference to Ravel either in On Writing or in any of the letters, and Ravel’s name is not indexed in either The World and the Parish or The Kingdom of Art, which reprint much of Cather’s newspaper commentary on the arts. As for Porter’s musing that Cather may even have liked “certain later music” than Ravel but if so “has not mentioned it in these papers” (37), that too is true, strictly speaking. But with increased availability of her letters we know that in 1934 she attended and enjoyed the New York premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts, with text by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgil Thomson (Cather to Luhan).
In the visual arts, my primary emphasis here, Porter was entirely correct in recognizing Cather’s great affinity for the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. She clearly indicates that affinity in “On Death Comes for the Archbishop,” one of the most frequently cited of the pieces in On Writing (9). Porter does not seem to have recognized, however—as I believe Cather did— that Puvis, with his stylized flattening of figures, was a significant precursor of modernism. In The Louvre: French and Other European Paintings, Michel Laclotte and Jean-Pierre Cuzin write that Puvis’s The Poor Fisherman (1881, purchased by the Louvre in 1887) “shows how great an innovator” he was. They see in “the subtle arrangement of the simplified and rather stilted forms and the limited range of low-keyed, soft colours” an anticipation of “the young Picasso a few years later” (126). Porter may also have been correct in stating that Cather “loved Courbet” (38), but the only reference to Courbet in the pages of On Writing comes in a paragraph deploring the notion that an artist should be so committed to a political cause as Courbet was (20)—one of Cather’s most firmly held ideas and one that she in fact shared with Porter, at least so far as politically oriented fiction was concerned. I find no reference to Courbet in any of Cather’s letters, nor in either The Kingdom of Art or The World and the Parish, as indexed.
When singling out Jean-François Millet as an indicator of Cather’s aesthetic, Porter is on firmer ground. Cather had in fact expressed an admiration for Millet as well as Jules Breton long before she wrote “On the Art of Fiction,” one of the essays Porter was reviewing in her first version of “Reflections.” Cather particularly admired the representation of ordinary life in the works of these painters, and as early as January 1898, in a column in the Lincoln Courier, she praised their “technical mastery” and “elemental power” (World and Parish 2: 574–75). She singled out Breton’s The Song of the Lark in a column of 10 August 1901 for its affective power and its appeal to ordinary museumgoers who saw it at the Art Institute of Chicago (World and Parish 2: 843). She was still thinking of the broad humanity of Millet’s work the following year, 1902, when she made her first trip to Europe. In one of the travel pieces she sent back to the Nebraska State Journal she observed that women working in the fields near Barbizon appeared tired toward evening and “grew to look more and more as Millet painted them, warped and bowed and heavy” (Willa Cather in Europe 123).
It is surprising that the travel reports Cather sent back to the State Journal did not mention going to art museums. Yet we have to believe she did. Indeed, James Woodress points out that her claim in “On Death Comes for the Archbishop” to have seen Puvis’s “frescoes of the life of Saint Geneviève in my student days” actually refers to her 1902 trip (399). We know from numerous letters that she was a frequenter of museums and galleries throughout her adult life, and her trip in 1902 was her first opportunity to enjoy a European museum. In addition to visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, to be examined more closely below, her letters record museum visits in Pittsburgh (Cather to Ellen Gere); in London, where she more than once stayed across the street from the British Museum (Cather to Hueffer); in Paris, where she stayed near the Louvre (letters in 1923 and 1930, cited below); and in New York, where she was particularly fond of the Frick Collection (Cather to Menuhin).
Cather would obviously have singled out the Louvre as a destination in Paris. We can only wish we knew how many times she went there, how long she stayed, and what pictures stopped her in her tracks, to stand and look. But we do have two letters that give clues. In 1923 she wrote to Edith Lewis that she had stayed for an entire morning and mentioned two seventeenth-century paintings as favorites, a Murillo Virgin and a Ribera Nativity. She might well have singled out different ones on another day, and indeed she made that point herself in a 1940 letter, saying that we all know our responses to art vary continually from one time to another (Cather to Keppel). In 1930, in the other letter referred to above as having a bearing on her preferences at the Louvre, she felt familiar enough with its vast collection to give Carrie Miner Sherwood some advice on how to see it. Don’t try to do it all, she advised, but stay mainly in the Grande Galerie to see the best of the collection. Which of the many paintings exhibited in the Grande Galerie she numbered among the very best we cannot know. Historical records indicate, however, that there would almost certainly not have been any from the nineteenth or twentieth century. A guide to the Louvre published in 1927 gives detailed indication of what was to be found in the various bays of the Grande Galerie and shows that the few impressionist works owned by the Louvre, along with paintings of the Barbizon school so loved by Cather, were hung on the third floor (Heywood xv–xvi, 333–54; see also Laclotte and Cuzin 103).
The interest in Millet and Breton that Cather expressed in newspaper columns around the turn of the century and in her musings while in Europe in 1902 would have begun at the Art Institute of Chicago in either 1895 or 1896. The Institute had opened in its present site at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street in 1893. With a bequest from Mrs. Henry Field in 1894, consisting of a collection of French paintings, primarily mid-nineteenth-century landscapes and genre paintings, it quickly gained the foundation of a developing strength in French art. This early bequest, designated the Henry Field Memorial Collection, included Breton’s The Song of the Lark as well as two paintings by Millet and one by Corot (Wounded Eurydice). The Breton painting would have a major impact on Cather’s career when she borrowed its title for her third published novel and used its image on the cover. She would later regret having done so, but her choice reflected a genuine liking for the painting and more generally a belief in the importance of hearing the voice of beauty and inspiration (“the song of the lark”) whatever one’s circumstances. It is one of the great themes of her work.
Cather made her first trip to Chicago in April 1895, at the age of twenty-one. It is reasonable to suppose that the young Nebraskan, intent on absorbing as much high culture as possible, would have made time in her schedule to see the new museum, which had opened to considerable fanfare sixteen months earlier, but I have found no record that she did. There is definite record, though, that only a little over a year later, in 1896, she visited the Art Institute when she passed through Chicago on her way to Pittsburgh to begin her job at Home Monthly. Writing to her college friend Mariel Gere in July of that year, she says that she saw a Gustave Doré exhibit. She dismissed it as a splashy extravaganza on the order of billboards for The Last Days of Pompeii. Even at that date, to have admired Doré, a French romantic artist of the nineteenth century, would not have indicated avant-garde taste. But her letter did not indicate admiration.
Fortunately, as we have seen, the Institute had much to offer in 1896 besides splashy romantic canvases like Doré’s. It also had available for viewing the more realistic and restrained paintings of Millet, Breton, and others of the Barbizon school that would remain favorites of Cather’s over the years. In columns published in the same turn-of-the-century years when she was praising Millet and Breton, she also called her readers’ attention to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1796–1875, generally regarded as a transitional figure, an anticipator of impressionism, and Alfred Sisley, 1839–1899, who belongs solidly among the impressionists (World and Parish 2: 761, 808). For her to have noticed and praised the play of light in Corot’s and especially Sisley’s paintings by 1900 and 1901 (the dates of columns she published in short-lived Pittsburgh periodicals, reprinted in The World and the Parish) was by no means to turn her back on what was new in visual art.
Writing almost half a century afterward, Porter may not have recalled that the works of truly innovative and demanding painters like Cézanne had not even been shown in the United States at century’s end. In any event, she took Cather’s fondness for Breton and Millet as an indicator of a conservative taste. But Cather’s comments on Millet in On Writing do not so much emphasize either his realism or his accessibility as his simplification of the field of vision by eliminating extraneous reportage—a characteristic of decided pertinence both to her own work and to modernism itself. Porter either missed or chose to ignore this when writing her review and essay.
It is easy to understand that the representational canvases of Breton and Courbet, Corot and Millet would have been more readily accessible to an early-twentieth-century viewer such as Cather, while the more obviously challenging and nontraditional works of the postimpressionists, futurists, and abstract painters would have been less readily appreciated. Even the late-nineteenth-century impressionists were more challenging for earlytwentieth-century museumgoers than the narrative realists who came only slightly earlier. They demanded a real readjustment of appreciative vision. Clearly, though, Cather’s liking for the Barbizon painters was not exclusive; she did not refuse to make that adjustment or to appreciate other styles. When she bought prints for her brother Roscoe and his wife, Meta, in 1908, for their house in Wyoming, her selections were fairly eclectic. We know this from a letter to Roscoe in which she dutifully lists her purchases and what she paid. They included prints of Breton’s The Song of the Lark, two by N. C. Wyeth (then only five years past his first commission), one by Remington, two eighteenth-century Dutch paintings, and an illustration by Maxfield Parrish, The Dinkey Bird Is Singing in the Amfalula Tree—all narrative works, none of them very innovative, but her selection was, after all, designed for a domestic space, and not her own.
The familiarity with the Art Institute of Chicago that Cather initiated in 1895 or 1896 was almost certainly maintained in subsequent years. She had reason to travel between New York and Nebraska or destinations farther west with some frequency, and Chicago was a major rail center. Letters show that after 1896 she either visited or passed through Chicago a minimum of ten times (in 1897, 1921, twice in 1924, in 1926, 1927, 1931, twice in 1932, and in 1935). Many of these visits were motivated by the need to make train connections, but she sometimes stopped off for a day or more to visit friends, and these stays would have provided opportunities to drop in and see what was being featured at the Art Institute or to revisit her favorites.
By the late 1920s, as a result of deliberate decisions about collection development, the Art Institute of Chicago was a major center of modern art. In 1913 it had been the only American museum to host an exhibition of a large subset of the Armory Show paintings. Indeed, its hosting of this controversial show had produced an outpouring of newspaper commentary, much of it negative. Nevertheless, the Institute not only exhibited the show but purchased several of the works. Additional investments in modern art followed, as well as such major bequests as fifty-two paintings given by Bertha Honoré Palmer in 1924 and the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection in 1925–27. We do not know to what extent Cather was aware either of the Institute’s exhibit of the Armory Show or the arrival of these later major bequests. Given her habit of voracious newspaper reading and the presence of friends in Chicago, it is hard to imagine she did not see the reports, but that is of course conjectural. In any event, we do know that she continued to visit Chicago and that during the years she did, the Institute came to house a permanent collection strong in impressionists and other moderns. Which of these she particularly liked or disliked we do not know.
We do, however, have one very strong indication—a letter stating her wish to see a particular show there that she was unfortunately missing. Her express wish to see this specific exhibit suggests, then, the direction in which her interest was turning in her later life—a direction that included the moderns. On 16 May 1941 she wrote to her longtime friends Irene Miner Weisz and Carrie Miner Sherwood, jointly, lamenting that she had not been able to join them in seeing a major exhibit of French paintings about to close at the Institute. That same exhibition had earlier visited New York, she said, but due to illness and matters of business she had not been able to see it there either.
The show she was referring to was “Masterpieces of French Art Lent by the Museums and Collectors of France,” exhibited by the Art Institute from 10 April to 20 May 1941. By consulting the catalog of this exhibit, still available from rarebook dealers or at the Institute itself, we learn what it was that Cather so wished she could have seen. It was indeed a feast of modern art: 170 paintings plus 100 drawings and watercolors that collectively constituted, according to Daniel Catton Rich’s introduction to the catalog, “an unforgettable picture of the background and development of modern art.” Among the artists represented were Braque, Cézanne, Corot, Courbet, Degas, André Derain (then still living and active), Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Millet (Cather’s old favorite), Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes (whose presence in such company testifies to his status in relation to modernism), Renoir, Seurat, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vuillard. Obviously, we have no way of knowing which of the paintings in this challenging modern mix Cather would especially have liked, since she never got to see it. But the very fact that she expressed a wish to see this “great” (as she called it) exhibit, almost the whole of it given to recent art, indicates that her interests were not at all so focused on the past as Katherine Anne Porter believed when she wrote “Reflections on Willa Cather.”
Again, one writer’s comments on another are almost always of interest. Certainly that is true of Porter’s essay on Cather. Contemporaries at a time when women writers were struggling for recognition on a par with men, both were serious artists determined to be recognized as such. Both had emerged from social situations that might not have seemed conducive to literary eminence. Such commonalities might well have positioned them for mutual understanding and appraisal—indeed, for fruitful discussions of technique or of how the fact of gender had affected their experience of the literary profession. Yet so far as I have found, Cather never commented on Porter at all, the two never exchanged letters, and as we have seen, Porter’s “reflections” on her sister writer’s aesthetic affinities are marred by misunderstandings, perhaps even willful ones. If she had not been so eager to think of Cather as a rival for a position of future eminence, Porter might well have discerned, out of her own practice as a literary modernist, the aspects of Cather’s work that share an affinity with that same movement in the arts.
What we see in the varied and complicated record provided by Cather’s journalism, literary essays, and letters is not a regressive taste but an eclectic one. At various times Cather expressed a liking for religious art of the Renaissance, realism, and impressionist innovations, and at least an interest in postimpressionism. True, she once expressed to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant the idea that cubist painting was not comfortable to look at (26 May ), and conveyed to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in a letter of 1922, a negative reaction to the futurists. On the other hand, she used the word “modern” with no trace of pejorative implication in a letter to Irene Miner Weisz explaining her choice of León Bakst as her portraitist. And as David Porter has demonstrated, she admired the stylized, fully modern paintings of Edith Lewis’s friends Earl Brewster and Achsah Barlow Brewster, whose work has been described as having “eliminat[ed] . . . 19th century ‘realistic, romantic, sentimental, literary, and scientific’ accretions” in favor of “austere, formal, understated” images (149–50). If not an outspoken advocate of the nude who descended the staircase, she was in any event responsive to modern art and recognizably modernist in her own work.
In 1896, when, twenty-three years old and a year out of college, Cather went to Pittsburgh to accept her first job, stopping on the way at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was feeling bedeviled by a label that would not occur to us: her friends were calling her a bohemian. And with good reason. She had exhibited “bohemian” irregularities in her personal life (she smoked, drank cocktails, and sometimes dressed oddly), and her columns in the Nebraska State Journal had expressed enthusiasm for the expatriate American painter James McNeill Whistler as well as British aestheticism. To us, the kind of friendly name-calling she experienced as a result may not seem like a very dire problem, but it is clear from her letters that she did not want to be labeled in that way—or indeed, in any way. She is still resistant to labeling. It is useful to identify the traces of particular aesthetic systems in Cather’s (or any other writer’s) work, as I have sought to do here, but we err when, in the effort to define a Catherian aesthetic, we try to place her in one and only one category, for whatever reason.
Katherine Anne Porter, in her “Reflections on Willa Cather,” did not seek to place her in a category but to exclude her from one. She did so by construing the evidence of Cather’s artistic vision selectively, choosing to mention some expressions of her taste but to omit contrary evidence even within the few pages of the book she was initially reviewing, On Writing. I think, for instance, of Cather’s tribute to Katherine Mansfield’s “virtuosity” (107), her discernment that certain aspects of Stephen Crane’s work made him “one of the first post-impressionists” (69), and most of all, her insistence that, even while revering the Beethovens and the Wordsworths of our heritage, art should not perpetuate “conventional poses” (51). Porter noted none of these in her review. Nor did she recognize in print any of the abundant evidence of Cather’s engagement with the very modernist project of reconceiving the nature of the novel, even though that engagement is evident in her experiments with form throughout her career. It was evident too in the On Writing essays Porter was reviewing, in her repeated questioning of the definition of the novel as a genre.
Even with the resources we have available today which Porter did not—some three thousand letters and the collected, albeit fragmented, journalism—it is not possible to know precisely what Cather thought of the nude’s descending of the staircase. She apparently did not go on record about that “epoch-shaking” event. Yet we have other good reasons to believe that she listened attentively to the nude’s tread on the stairs and did not find it unwelcome. Katherine Anne Porter’s construal of her as a kind of premodern, not so much hostile as immune to the new in the arts, may well have been influenced by the fact that Porter did conceive of herself in modernist terms. Granted that the space among the serious moderns open to occupation by women was limited (though unless they became too successful in the marketplace they were welcome to take as much space as they wanted among the middlebrow writers), and granted that Porter fully meant to reserve space there for herself, she had every motivation, conscious or not, to position Cather elsewhere. A zerosum game enforces competition, and Porter was a fairly devious competitor. She had no intention of giving up her seat.