Skip to main content

Spring 2006

Mowers' Tree logo

Not Under Sixty: The Treatment of Old Age in Cather's Works

In the Prefatory Note to her collection of essays, Not Under Forty, Willa Cather expresses her belief in a distinct break between the interests of youth and middle age, stating that "the persons and prejudices" in the book "will have little interest for people under forty years of age" (v). A similar break seems to occur in Cather for people over sixty: the interests, life views, and way of being in the world are markedly different for Cather's seniors than they are for the young or middle aged. It first appears that old age simply continues a negative slide from the idealism of youth to a loss of vitality and health in middle age, yet a close examination of her novels shows that a joyless existence is much more a part of middle age than of old age. Those fortunate enough to reach old age experience a time of esteem, interest in others and in nature, being valued and protected by others, and - for a few - even gaining Divine wisdom.

Sentiments expressed by characters who initially seem old make the elderly first appear to be a cranky, tired, bitter group. For example, St. Peter tells us that he will learn to live without delight; Myra Henshawe bitterly denounces her lessening abilities; Sapphira is guilty of great cruelty in attempting to set up the rape of her slave girl. Yet, the characters we associate with what initially seems to be old age - a "diminution of ardour" (PH 5), or the loss of "everything; even the power to love" (ME 72) - actually are in middle age or late middle age: the Professor is 52; Myra is 55 at the end of the book; Sapphira is in her late fifties; Dona Isabella is about 52. If one defines old age as over sixty or assigns it only to those so designated by Cather (Old Mahailey, Old Appelhoff), a far different portrait of old age emerges, one of depth and both engagement and detachment.

Only a few characters in Cather actually reach old age by the end of their novels. Many are still middle aged at the close of the works, but many are also dead. The list of the important characters who die in youth or middle age in Cather far exceed numbers one might statistically expect. Many of these people have died because of violence: Bartley Alexander has drowned; Emil and Marie have been murdered; Ray Kennedy has been killed in a train wreck; Mr. Shimerda has committed suicide or has been murdered; Claude Wheeler and Tom Outland have been killed in World War I; Clement Sebastian and Lucy Gayheart have drowned. Additionally, there are those who die before the end of a normal lifespan from disease or disability: Myra Henshawe is dead of cancer; Amédée has had an appendicitis attack; John Bergson dies from an unstated illness, of perhaps a tiredness from making so many mistakes (OP 15). Only a few people, most of them minor characters, reach old age, but those who do present a remarkably positive portrait of the last part of life.

If Cather wants us to place someone in the category of "old," she tells us to do so, directly and unmistakably. While several short stories feature old people as main characters, not one of the old people in a novel is a main character. Some of the old people are so minor that their characterizations are remarkably brief; still, Cather is very definite in assigning ages to them, either by number or by placing "old" in front of their names. Some are simply called old: old Wilson, old Captain Forrester, old Mrs. Ramsay. For others, age is such an integral part of their being that "old" is capitalized and placed as part of their names: Old Mahailey, Old Jezebel, Old Henry, Old Sada. In addition, Cather frequently mentions ages, even in fairly brief portraits: Mrs. Ramsay and Lucius Wilson are seventy; Jezebel is over eighty. When Cather wants us to see someone as old, she is direct in saying so.

The world in which these people have grown old is a difficult one. Mr. Shimerda has left Ántonia alone "in a hard world" (MA 64); Henry has "managed to . . . keep alive in a world as hard as this" (PH 176); "old people," the future Archbishop tells us, "have known the world's hard hand" (DCA 216); Mahailey has endured "a hard life" (OO 20); Lucius Wilson tells us that it is a "brutal and stupid world" (AB 138). This hardness derives from environmental, social, and divine forces: Myra believes God permits "hideous injustice in this world" (ME 55); the Archbishop believes there are "such cruel [women] on earth" (DCA 217); Winter in My Ántonia is the "light of truth itself," a "bitter song" that sings "'This is reality whether you like it or not . . . . This is the truth'" (MA 111-12). In such a harsh place, growing old at all seems something of an accomplishment; still, most of Cather's old people live with considerable wisdom and empathy.

Many of Cather's old characters show remarkable insight about how to deal successfully with the harsh world while still maintaining a spirit of optimism or acceptance, even though significant losses could have destroyed them. For example, Mrs. Alec Ramsay, "the widow of one of the founders of Haverford," had been a "commanding figure" in the life of Haverford for many decades. "Regal" and "handsome," her neighbors "did remark that she had softened with time, had become more reflective and sympathetic" (LG 121). While she moves more slowly now, Mrs. Ramsay is "more interested in other people, all people, than she used to be" (LG 122). She invites Lucy in and offers her sage advice, telling her: Life is short; gather roses while you may. . . . Nothing really matters but living . . . . Accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second. Sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint ourselves, but the thing is, to go right on living. . . .Don't let a backward spring discourage you. . . .Everything rights itself in time. (LG 139)

While this may simply be "small-town commonsense wisdom" (Skaggs 156), there is a depth in Mrs. Ramsay's words that seem to be the result of time. While the elderly certainly have faced loss, they have dealt with it with dignity and have become wise from their experiences.

The old are interested in others, but they also have a certain detachment from the world. In Cather's novels, they care about others and offer their wisdom, but they then back off and allow others to lead their own lives. Lucius Wilson "knew that Hilda had loved [Bartley Alexander]; more than this he had not tried to know" (AB 133). While Mrs. Ramsay has her piano tuned just for Lucy, invites her in, and is very concerned about her welfare, she nonetheless does not interfere in the younger woman's life more than to offer a single piece of advice. Madge Norwall, Mrs. Ramsay's daughter, observes that her mother is now "less personal, [and] more ethereal. More like Divine compassion. And her mother used to be so stormy, so personal! If growing old did that to . . . . one's understanding, one need not dread it so much" (LG 124-25). Captain Forrester lets Niel know that he realizes Marian is having an affair simply by commenting on her penmanship (LL 98-99). The ability to be both very much engaged by others and yet detached from them is a quality of Cather's seniors.

The elderly are sought out not only for their wisdom but also because they are treasured, caring, interesting people. Lucy has "loved and admired Mrs. Ramsay all her life" (LG 125); Alexandra seeks out Ivar's wisdom about farming; Myra covets time with Madame Modjeska; Claude seeks out Mahailey and Mrs. Voigt. Hilda so treasures Lucius Wilson that she entreats the seventy-year old to live for her; she has missed him in his absence (Stouck 16) and appreciatively says that "[he's] got to hang around" for her since he is "the realest thing [she] has" (AB 134). Many elderly are dearly prized because they simply are great people.

Absolutely every old person in Cather's works has a protector, someone who deeply values the old person and who cherishes and provides for the elderly. Interestingly enough, the old are rarely cherished by family but rather by someone who comes into the life of the old person at a late date. Not only do protectors befriend the wise and regal; eccentrics and outcasts also gain protectors. For example, Crazy Ivar loses his land and is taken in by Alexandra, and the mentally slow Mahailey is dearly beloved and protected by Claude and Mrs. Wheeler. Henry Atkins, a "pitiful wreck of an old man" becomes the cook for Tom Outland and Roddy Blake, and "was such a polite, mannerly old boy; simple and kind as a child. [Tom] used to wonder how anybody so innocent and defenceless had managed to get along at all, to keep alive for nearly seventy years in a world as hard as this" (PH 176). Henry and Tom and Roddy "made a happy family," and the two younger men were "downright fond" of their father-cook (PH 176). The aged captive Sada is protected, on a divine basis, at least, by the Bishop and certainly by Christ and the Virgin Mary (DCA 217). Even the aged cannibal Jezebel, who asks to eat a little pickanniny's hand as she is dying, is under the care of Sapphira. And the person entering the elderly character's life is never a con artist out for the old person's life savings, or a tedious drone that would make the old person wish for an imminent death; the new person is instead someone the elderly character would name as one of the most caring friends of her or his life. To reach advanced maturity to be granted acceptance, perhaps to provide divine inspiration, and to find sufficient protection against a harsh world, even when one is disabled or odd in some way.

The old also may develop a relationship with the earth. The Archbishop returns from France to the Southwest because of a "feeling that old age did not weigh so heavily upon a man in New Mexico" (DCA 272). He has a deep appreciation for "the sky! The sky!" and for the air in the Southwest: He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free,something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly,softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning! (DCA 273)

Similarly, Euclide Auclair is happy to spend his old age in Quebec where nothing changed and the evils of society would not touch him (SR 280); Ivar has a lifelong love of the land.

The only person to reach an old age and be presented negatively is John Bergson's father. In a brief portrait of him, Cather tells us that he had been a "shipbuilder, a man of considerable force and some fortune" (OP 14). "Late in life," he married a woman of "questionable character, much younger than he, who goaded him into every sort of extravagance." He "speculated, lost his own fortune and funds entrusted to him by poor seafaring men, and died disgraced, leaving his children nothing" (OP 14). Although John Bergson's father had formerly been a person of excellent character, a person of "skill and foresight," with a "strength of will, and [a] simple direct way of thinking things out" (OP 15), his fear of old age destroyed him. "His marriage," we are told, "was an infatuation, the despairing folly of a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old" (OP 14).

If the shipbuilder would have had the benefit of reading Cather's novels, he would have known he had nothing to fear. Although the world is a hard place and not everyone makes it to old age, those who do find human or divine protection and are beloved and sought out by others. The old exhibit a deep interest in people but do not force their views on others. They are wise, and their wisdom is appreciated. There is an engagement with the world and yet a detachment from it. The feeblest of the old are protected; and the best, like Mrs. Ramsay, become "ethereal," and develop something "more like the Divine compassion" (LG 124). As readers, we may be like Madge Norwall, Mrs. Ramsay's daughter, who observes that "if growing old did that to one's voice and one's understanding, one need not dread it so much" (LG 125) - and not only not dread it, but embrace it with both fortitude and contentment.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. Alexander's Bridge. 1912. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1977.
-----. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage, 1990.
-----. A Lost Lady. 1923. New York: Knopf, 1972.
-----. Lucy Gayheart. 1935. New York: Vintage, 1995.
-----. My Antonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
-----. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. Vintage, 1990.
-----. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936.
-----. One of Ours. 1922. New York: Knopf, 1979.
-----. O Pioneers! 1913. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995
-----. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage, 1990.
-----. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. New York: Vintage, 1975.
-----. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1971.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1990.
Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination . Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.