Cather, Willa 1873-1947
Willa Cather 1873-1947INTRODUCTION
The following entry presents an overview of critical commentary on Cather's work through 2002.
Sometimes referred to as "The Voice of the Prairie," Cather is honored as one of the most influential American authors of the early twentieth century. A prolific writer, her novels—particularly O Pioneers! (1913), My Ántonia (1918), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)—have become American classics that are frequently taught in high school and junior high school English courses. In her fiction, Cather strove to depict a realistic picture of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, emphasizing artistic simplicity as a necessity for lasting quality. Identified often as a "regional" writer because of her frequent use of western and midwestern backdrops in her stories, Cather is equally identified with women's issues because her works foreground the experiences of American and immigrant women on the prairies and in the towns of a burgeoning country.
Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. After a fire destroyed their sheep barn, Cather's father auctioned off his remaining assets and moved the family to the Great Plains, where his parents and brother had already established a homestead. Arriving in 1884, the Cathers joined the ethnically diverse group of settlers in Webster County, Nebraska, but establishing a farm on the prairie proved a more difficult task than Cather's father was willing to undertake. One year later, the family moved to the nearby town of Red Cloud. Once settled there, Cather began to attend school on a regular basis. Like other girls of the time, Cather was home-schooled prior to attending public school. She rapidly distinguished herself as a brilliant, though somewhat temperamental, student. Although her primary interest was science, Cather displayed a talent for acting. She performed plays she composed for the entertainment of her family, gave recitations, and participated in amateur theatricals staged at the Red Cloud opera house. Planning to become a physician, Cather also accompanied a local doctor on his house calls and was eventually allowed to assist him. Sometime shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Cather adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male and began signing her name "William Cather, Jr." or "William Cather M.D." While some commentators suggest that this behavior can be construed simply as one aspect of Cather's blanket rejection of the strictures placed upon women in the nineteenth century, others contend that Cather's masculine persona was an authentic reflection of her identity, citing as proof her consistent use of male narrators and her strong attachments to certain female friends, with whom Cather may have had romantic relationships. In either case, Cather was eventually persuaded by friends to return to a more conventional mode of dress and later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing. Although she intended to study medicine when she entered the University of Nebraska, Cather reconsidered her career choice when an essay she had written for her English class was published in the local newspaper, accompanied by lavish praise from the editor. Thereafter, Cather pursued a humanities curriculum, studying primarily English, French, German, and classical literature. After graduation, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women's magazine called Home Monthly. Continuing to write and publish stories, Cather made her living as a journalist and teacher for the next seventeen years. In 1906 she moved to New York City to assume the managing editorship of the influential McClure's magazine. Her association with that publication brought Cather national recognition, and it was S. S. McClure, the dynamic, iconoclastic publisher of the magazine, who arranged for the release of Cather's first volume of short stories. While on assignment in Boston in 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, an author whose work she greatly admired. After reading Cather's fiction, Jewett encouraged her to give up journalism to write fiction full-time. Cather was profoundly influenced by Jewett's opinion, and shortly afterward she relinquished her responsibilities at McClure's. After one unsuccessful novel—Alexander's Bridge (1912)—Cather found her stride with subject matter drawn from childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of remarkably well-received novels published between her retirement from journalism in 1912 and her death in 1947.
Though Cather first published collections of poetry and short stories—April Twilights (1903) and The Troll Garden (1905)—O Pioneers! was the work which first brought Cather to the public eye as an important American author. Based on stories Cather gleaned from her neighbors in Nebraska, the novel recounts the life of Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. When her father dies, Alexandra takes over the running of the family farm and, through a business acumen far superior to that of her brothers, not only manages to keep the farm going during difficult times, but increases the family lands and fortune. The cost of this work is her youth, although in the conclusion, Alexandra is finally able to marry the man she has loved her whole life. O Pioneers! also features a subplot concerning Alexandra's youngest and favorite brother, Emil, who becomes romantically involved with a married neighbor and is murdered, with his lover, by her jealous husband. Using a setting inspired by a trip to the Southwest, Cather explored one of her primary themes, the artist's place in society, in Song of the Lark (1915). The story is loosely based on the life of Minnesota soprano Olive Fremstad, whom Cather had interviewed for an article. It follows the career of young Thea Kronborg, a Swedish girl from Colorado, who develops a love for singing and pursues studying voice in Chicago. In need of physical recuperation from her intense practices, Thea spends a summer at Panther Canyon in the Southwest, reflecting deeply on life and art, influenced by the spirits of Native American women who once lived in the region. Thea decides to devote her life to her art, setting aside the potential joys of a private life and becoming a famous Wagnerian soprano. The longest of Cather's novels, Song of the Lark makes a strong case in favor of women finding their own ways in the world unencumbered by relationships or marriage.
By far Cather's most popular and enduring novel, My Ántonia is often paired by critics with O Pioneers! because of their Nebraska settings and hardy pioneer women characters. Inspired by the life of Cather's Red Cloud neighbor Annie Sadilek, the novel begins with the narrator meeting an old friend, Jim Burden, who later sends her the manuscript of a book, his recollections of their mutual childhood friend, Ántonia Shimerda. The reader meets Ántonia at the age of fourteen when her Bohemian family immigrates to Nebraska. Her father, devastated by the difficulties of farming on the prairie and languishing from homesickness, commits suicide in the first year. The family subsequently sends Ántonia into town to work for Burden's neighbors, where she discovers dancing and develops a social life. Burden leaves town to attend college, but he hears from his family that Ántonia has had an affair with a railroad worker who deserted her when she became pregnant. With typical fortitude, Ántonia not only delivers her illegitimate child, but displays her offspring proudly. When Burden finally sees Ántonia again twenty years later, she is still undefeated, happily married to a farmer and contentedly raising her large brood of children. Written in a realistic and romantic style, My Ántonia exhibits Cather's theory that prose should be stripped bare of unnecessary furnishings to leave what remains in a minimalist spotlight. Instead of using a plot to elucidate characters, Cather draws portraits through a collection of smaller stories, recollections, and impressions—a gathering of memories meant to convey a feeling rather than to tell a story or posit a social philosophy. Although One of Ours (1922) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, it was not a critical success. Set during World War I, the novel concerns a young farmer who, disillusioned by the materialistic values of his Nebraska family, yearns for a better life. As a soldier he is shipped to France where he discovers a world worth living for just before he dies in battle. The dark thematic material of One of Ours was a turning point for Cather, displaying a mood of hopelessness, defeat, and disappointment with a materialistic society. Cather's second most widely-read and lasting work is Death Comes for the Archbishop. Set in the territory of New Mexico, the work presents a fictionalized history of Archbishop Lemy, the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed to the Southwest territory. Cather took creative license with the particulars of the Archbishop's life, creating an episodic survey of four decades in the Southwest territory.
Critical reception of Cather's work has varied widely since its initial publication. Her early fiction was greeted with enthusiasm by critics, and the publication of My Ántonia brought Cather enormous recognition for her creative talent and innovative prose style. Her later work, however, beginning with One of Ours, became darker and more despairing in character, receiving mixed and frequently negative assessments from reviewers. For example, Death Comes for the Archbishop was derided by some critics for Cather's eschewing of high drama, questioning the value of a work of fiction that explored neither conflict nor overt emotion. Recent critical attention has placed Cather's undocumented lesbianism in the foreground. Whether or not she was in fact a lesbian, most critics have agreed that Cather's fiction displays a marked discomfort with female sexuality. Cather's frequent use of male narrators to tell the stories of women, as well as her archetypal treatment of the women themselves, has led scholars to link her works with her life, particularly her early cross-dressing phase. Despite her apparent difficulties in dealing with sexuality in her writings and her penchant for using male narrators, Cather and her works have remained a subject of great interest for feminist academics into the twenty-first century.
Cather received the Pulitzer Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1922 for One of Ours. In 1930 she received the Howells Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Death Comes for the Archbishop. She was honored for distinguished literary accomplishment in 1932 by the Prix Femina Americaine and with the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944. Cather was also the recipient of many honorary degrees.
April Twilights (poetry) 1903
The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905
Alexander's Bridge (novel) 1912
O Pioneers! (novel) 1913
The Song of the Lark (novel) 1915
My Ántonia (novel) 1918
Youth and the Bright Medusa (short stories) 1920
One of Ours (novel) 1922
A Lost Lady (novel) 1923
The Professor's House (novel) 1925
My Mortal Enemy (novel) 1926
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
Shadows on the Rock (novel) 1931
Obscure Destinies (short stories) 1932
Lucy Gayheart (novel) 1935
Not under Forty (essays and criticism) 1936
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (novel) 1940
The Old Beauty and Others (short stories) 1948
Willa Cather on Writing (essays and criticism) 1949
The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (essays and criticism) 1966
Uncle Valentine and Other Stories (short stories) 1973
Karen A. Hoffmann (essay date winter 2002)
SOURCE: Hoffmann, Karen A. "Identity Crossings and the Autobiographical Act in Willa Cather's My Ántonia." Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 58, no. 4 (winter 2002): 25-41.
[In the following essay, Hoffmann analyzes Cather's use of cross-gender identity in My Ántonia.]
Willa Cather'sMy Ántonia has prompted considerable debate over its representation of identity, its relationship to feminism, and its uses of the first-person narrator.1 Especially given its framing,My Ántonia offers a conception of identity that is far more complex than some critics have claimed. This complex treatment of identity calls for a reconsideration of Cather's place in a feminist literary tradition as well as recognition of her importance to theorists of autobiographical practice.
ThroughMy Ántonia, Cather implicitly comments on social identity, addressing particularly the extent to which identity categories can be crossed. Cather explores crossings of identity both by writing as a female author who speaks in the voice of a male narrator and by depicting characters, especially the narrator Jim Burden, crossing back and forth between feminine and masculine and immigrant and American-born positions. Indeed,My Ántonia offers a particularly complex case of crossings; because Jim has been created by a female author, his "authorial" position is already cross-gendered even before he tries to occupy Ántonia's position.2 Some critics, such as Deborah Lambert, have interpreted Cather's use of a male voice as Cather's alliance with masculinity, as her desire to be a man. Lambert claims that "as a professional writer, Cather began, after a certain point in her career, to see the world and other women, including her own female characters, from a male point of view. . . . In her society it was difficult to be a woman and achieve professionally. . . . She responded by denying . . . her womanhood" (676-77). I would argue, however, that Cather's use of a male narrator inMy Ántonia may be read not so much as a desire to be a man as a resistance to restrictive categories of gender that would lock her into a feminine position. By signing the name "Willa" to her novel, thus marking her feminine position, yet writing in a masculine voice, Cather neither renounces her feminine position nor treats masculine positions as inaccessible to her. Instead, she tries to have it both ways. Cather suggests that masculine positions, and thus, masculine privilege and power, are not necessarily beyond her reach even though her culture assigns her and she also claims a female subject position.3
Cather's cross-gendered narration (signing her name Willa yet writing most of the novel in the voice of a male narrator) as well as her depictions of Jim's and Ántonia's identity crossings carry significant ramifications for feminism. These crossings unsettle the traditional distributions of power along gender lines. In other words, Cather represents subjects culturally defined as female (such as Ántonia) having access to masculine positions and subjects culturally defined as male (such as Jim) having access to feminine positions; by doing so, Cather explores the possibility of circulating power and privileges between male and female subjects. As I will argue, however, Cather also suggests the barriers in her culture to these crossings and the difficulties of redistributing power. Certainly, in a number of ways, Cather cannot be termed a feminist. Asserting that "Cather's misogyny was not merely a transitory attitude confined to her college years," Jeane Harris points out that Cather's acceptance and praise of women writers were rare and that more than one piece of her short fiction from the late 1890s can be read as demonstrating a disdain for female characteristics (83, 85, 89).4 Moreover, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, Cather "[found] it necessary to separate herself from the di-dacticism of the feminist movement and from what she viewed as a fatally feminized literary matrilineage" (174). While Cather demonstrates in these ways an antagonistic relationship to feminism, her exploration of identity crossings offers a less obvious contribution to feminist goals by implying that masculine privilege need not be limited only to subjects culturally defined as male.5
Cather's resistance to subjects being locked into one gender position can also be found in her depiction of the unnamed narrator in the introductory frame of My Ántonia. A comparison of the introductory frames of the 1918 and 1926 editions ofMy Ántonia highlights the curious omission in the latter of any reference to the unnamed narrator's gender. In the 1918 edition, the narrator of the frame states, "[Jim] had had opportunities that I, as a little girl who watched [Ántonia] come and go, had not" (xii-xiii). Neither this line nor any other phrases that mark the narrator's gender exist in the 1926 edition. The introductory frame of the 1926 edition adds to the novel's unsettling of gender categories by presenting a narrator whose gender is not defined. Perhaps the favorable reception of the 1918 edition accounts in part for this change; with the 1926 edition, Cather may have been willing to take more risks, albeit subtle ones, in terms of gender.6 While David Laird, among others, assumes that the narrator of the frame of the 1918 edition is Cather, I see the narrator of the 1926 edition as Cather's construction of a figure who eludes gender—to an extent that Cather herself was not able to do, despite her unorthodox approach to masculine and feminine categories in many aspects of her life.7 Thus, from the outset of her novel, Cather prompts readers to imagine the gender of a subject as not definitively fixed.
Not only does the introductory frame further the novel's questioning of fixed gender identities, it also establishes the novel's focus on the autobiographical act as a means of performing identity crossings and as a means of negotiating ambivalence about such crossings. In the introductory frame, Cather draws attention to Jim Burden's position as a fictive autobiographer. She portrays Jim with his "manuscript" in hand, and she primes readers to view the pages that follow with an eye toward Jim's autobiographical act—his construction of his identity through narrative.8 Indeed, Cather highlights as central to the novel Jim's use of narrative to construct his identity. Even though Ántonia and other characters play significant roles in Jim's manuscript, the text is foremost a story about Jim, because he repeatedly constructs accounts of topics or other characters in terms of their relationships to his identity. Furthermore, the introductory frame points to Jim's needs at the time that he writes. Thus, his "manuscript" offers a study of the autobiographical process in action. Like critics of autobiography such as Paul John Eakin, Cather emphasizes the crucial role of the autobiographer's present consciousness.9 Jim's "manuscript" is as much about his grappling with his self-definition during the moments that he "writes" his text as it is about his identity in the fictional past during his "childhood" and "young adulthood." That is, through Jim Burden's fictive act of writing, Cather draws attention to the autobiographical act as an ongoing performance of identity at the time of composition.10
The focus inMy Ántonia on the autobiographical act in relation to identity crossings carries a curious twist, because Cather herself was exceptionally cautious about writing in personal terms. Destroying her personal letters and asking her friends to do the same, Cather left behind very little of the autobiographical (O'Brien, WCV [Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice] 3).11 Cather did write a text in 1912 calledMy Autobiography, but ironically enough, it was an account of S. S. McClure's life that she ghostwrote (295). In a letter to Will Owen Jones in 1919, she explicitly made a connection betweenMy Ántonia and the text on McClure. She defended her ability to write convincingly in the voice of a male narrator inMy Ántonia, claiming that she had "practiced assuming a male persona in McClure's autobiography" (296). The fact that Cather ghostwrote McClure's autobiography is significant in relation to my argument, because we can safely say that Cather's ghostwriting brought her face to face with questions about the genre of autobiography. Cather's implicit commentary on the autobiographical act inMy Ántonia six years after she ghostwrote McClure's autobiography does not seem coincidental.
As part of this commentary, Cather explores the construction of her "male autobiographer's" masculinity. Like Lindemann, who argues thatMy Ántonia "broods upon and elucidates profoundly feminist issues" particularly by "analyzing a man's power to 'figure' a woman" and silence her, I seeMy Ántonia doing feminist work through its reflection on Jim's narrative control (116, 128).12 Cather's novel not only offers "an examination of the limitations placed upon" women by men's "power to transcribe, interpret, and render judgment upon [women's] words" (Lindemann 130);My Ántonia also considers the discourse of masculine autonomy and its role in masculine control of narrative. Moreover, the novel addresses the questions: How do subjects in a masculine position profit from the discourse of masculine autonomy and how, in other ways, is this discourse detrimental to them? Why might subjects in a masculine position be inclined to step out of this position? On the other hand, why might they feel threatened by taking such a step? How does the autobiographical act come into play in negotiating these conflicting responses to the discourse of masculine autonomy? As a result of exploring these questions, Cather's novel makes possible further thought on destabilizing rigid identity borders and loosening male subjects' control of narrative.
Suggesting the importance of cultural narratives in an autobiographer's construction of identity, Cather includes inMy Ántonia the cultural narrative of masculine autonomy. She portrays, for instance, the young Jim consuming The Life of Jesse James, which the adult Jim remembers "as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read" (4). Cather suggests the formative influence upon Jim of this kind of narrative—a narrative which serves as a conduit for American constructions of masculinity as rugged individualism set apart from women. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, Jim's reading material is representative of the (male) literary tradition of the American frontier from Cooper to Twain, and it is in keeping with the discourse in publications by the prominent turn-of-the-century historian of the American frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner. Gilbert and Gubar state, "Praising the heroic ideals—'grim energy and self-reliance'—of the pioneer who is always assumed to be male, Turner's essay functions as a gloss on . . . the pages of The Life of Jesse James that Jim Burden brings with him to Nebraska at the beginning ofMy Ántonia " (183). This cultural discourse conveys that men should identify themselves as autonomous and in particular, markedly distinct from the feminine.
In the introductory frames of the 1918 and 1926 editions, Cather depicts Jim grappling with his self-definition in terms of autonomy.13 Jim chafes against the confines and isolation of the current definition of his identity, which conforms, to a great extent, to the discourse of masculine autonomy—in this case, a burden. Particularly in the 1926 edition, Jim's adult life is defined more in terms of his career than in terms of connections with other people; cut off from his wife, a woman who is irritated by his "quiet tastes," he devotes himself to his work as legal counsel for the western railways (ii). Jim's longing for the past can be interpreted most obviously as his desire to leave behind his adult life and his residence in the city in order to return to his unstructured childhood on the open plains. But embedded in this longing is Jim's desire to define himself as integrally related to others even to the point of crossing over into the position of "the other." It is Jim's writing of his manuscript that offers him a chance to define his identity as more explicitly intertwined with the identities of others; in the position of autobiographer, he can write the narrative of his identity as different from the cultural narrative of masculine autonomy. Like the railroads for which he works so devotedly, the lines of his manuscript lead him from the east of his present residence back to the west of his past. Whereas many male characters in American literature, such as Huck Finn, try to escape society by moving west, Jim Burden tries to escape his isolation in the east by moving, via his writing, to a west that he constructs as accessible through his relations to others. Jim's effort to return to his past through his bonds with others becomes clear in his interaction with the narrator of the frame, as they jointly participate in a verbal reconstruction of their shared childhoods. The narrator even states, "We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said" (x). Jim's impulse to place himself explicitly in relation to others in the process of reminiscing about the past becomes most evident in terms of Ántonia. His oral and written accounts of the past enable him and the narrator to "see Ántonia again, feel her presence," and to construct Ántonia's identity as intertwined with their own identities (xii). Jim and the narrator define Ántonia as so closely bound up in their backgrounds that she functions as a symbol of their origins: "this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood" (xi-xii).
This focus on Ántonia is significant in terms of Jim's narrative enactment of identity crossings. Cather presents Jim's socially constructed position as an American-born, middle-class male and Ántonia's social construction as an immigrant (from Bohemia), rural, working-class female. Indeed, at many moments in the manuscript, Jim romantically constructs Ántonia as an "other"—he constructs her "difference" as appealing and alluring. At the moments in his manuscript when he identifies himself with Ántonia, he enacts a crossing into her identity positions—feminine, immigrant, and working class.
Throughout the novel, Cather depicts Jim as highly ambivalent about his crossings of identity borders. The scene in the introductory frames of the 1918 and 1926 editions when Jim entitles his manuscript encapsulates the complex dynamic of Jim's crossing, showing how Jim's position of having "the pen in his hand," so to speak, allows him to negotiate his ambivalence. The narrator of the introductory frame describes Jim's entitling of his manuscript: "He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote across the face of the portfolio the word 'Ántonia.' He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it 'My Ántonia.' That seemed to satisfy him" (xiii). Jim's initial choice of "Ántonia" as the name of this manuscript, which recounts his own life far more consistently than it follows Ántonia's life, signals his inclination to inhabit or cross into Ántonia's position: a document that is most accurately his autobiography receives as its title Ántonia's name. The initial title "Ántonia" does not even mark an identity of Jim's own in relation to Ántonia. With this title, he identifies himself with Ántonia and aligns himself with the identity categories that she inhabits.
Jim's subsequent decision to prefix "My" to "Ántonia" indicates a quite different response. This revised title may be read most obviously as Jim's acknowledgement that the manuscript contains his own biased account of Ántonia. It also marks, however, an act of possession.14 Cather shows that for this fictional, male autobiographer the act of crossing into the position of the "other" does not lead to peaceful alignment with femininity and Bohemian ethnicity but, rather, to possession. The very phenomenon that Jim desires (identifying with Ántonia) appears to threaten him, and he wields his pen to exert control over the "other" whose position he inhabits. While Cather does not write explicitly of masculine autonomy in this section of the novel, other passages such as the reference to The Life of Jesse James, as well as the snake scene and the Wick Cutter scene (both discussed below) reverberate back through the novel and suggest that the discourse of masculine autonomy plays a role in Jim's efforts to control Ántonia. As Jessica Benjamin asserts, "One-sided autonomy that denies dependency characteristically leads to domination. Since the child continues to need the mother, since man continues to need woman, the absolute assertion of independence requires possessing and controlling the needed object" ("Desire" 80).15
Jim's enactment of identity crossings and his negotiation of his ambivalence about such crossings appear not only in his entitling of the manuscript but also through the act of narrating the manuscript. Cather draws attention to narrative, and specifically the autobiographical act, as ideal sites for performing identity crossings. Unlike a static art form, such as a visual image of a single scene, narrative represents events over time; thus, Jim is able to shift continually among different positions, as he sometimes tries to occupy Ántonia's position of the feminine and ethnic other and sometimes disidentifies from her. Unlike a narrative told in the third-person, the autobiographical act positions the autobiographer as the one who controls his or her own crossings of identity in narrative. At times in his manuscript, Jim identifies himself with Ántonia and the other immigrant girls, such as when he casts himself and Jake (his father's farmhand) as immigrants voyaging to a "new world" (3). Cather suggests that identifying with "the other" appeals to Jim not only because he wishes to escape the isolation of his current "autonomous" identity, but also because he wishes to align himself with the spontaneity that he romantically constructs in Ántonia and the other immigrant girls. However, at the moments when Jim moves back out of these identifications with "the other," he does so, Cather implies, because he is reluctant to align himself with the vulnerability of less empowered positions and he does not wish to forfeit the privileges of his socially-constructed identity—privileges such as the access to education that his class position grants him or a claim on the role of heroic protector that his culture associates with a masculine position. While Cather presents Jim fairly sympathetically, she ultimately offers implicit critiques of the discourse of masculine autonomy that influences him and of the rigid identity borders that this discourse promotes.16
In the scene of the snake slaying, Cather explores the appeal of the masculine position for Jim, particularly that of the masculine hero who protects women from danger. Directly prior to this scene, Ántonia reports to Jim that her father has said, "when you are big boy, he give you his gun" (40). This promise seems to convey to Jim a sense of entitlement to power by virtue of his masculine identity, for in the subsequent scene, he reports, "I hated a superior tone that [Ántonia] sometimes took with me. She was four years older than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner" (41).
Cather, however, presents masculine power and particularly masculine heroism not as a given for men nor as always a product of a man's actual accomplishments, but rather, as a narrative construction, frequently one to soothe a man's vanity. It is Ántonia who constructs Jim as the masculine hero. Jim quotes Ántonia narrating the snake slaying scene: "'I never know you was so brave, Jim,' she went on comfortingly. 'You is just like big mans; you wait for him lift his head and then you go for him'" (45). Even though he claims that Ántonia no longer takes "a supercilious air" with him after the snake slaying, he recognizes the precarious nature of his masculinity constructed by her narrative (48). Remarking that the snake was old, the adult Jim as autobiographer admits, "In reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was for many a dragon-slayer" (48). Furthermore, by noting Ántonia's "comforting" tone during her narrative, he acknowledges that she has not dropped her "protecting manner" completely—that she too views his masculine heroism as a construction. Recognizing the power of narrative to construct his masculinity only leaves him aware of the instability of this identity: if his masculinity is not a given, if it is merely constructed by narratives told, significantly, by a woman, then it can also be torn down by narrative.17
Moreover, through the use of narrative, female subjects may potentially claim masculine power for themselves. Cather depicts Ántonia doing exactly this in the scene when Jim encounters her working in the fields. Even though Jim attempts at certain moments in the manuscript to cross identity borders himself, he becomes uneasy when Ántonia moves out of her socially-assigned position. Jim initially perceives her plowing in the fields as a "tall, strong young girl." On closer examination, however, he wavers between viewing her as a working-class man ("her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor's") and a working-class woman ("One sees that draught-horse neck among the peasant women in all old countries") (117). Jim uses particularly derogatory terms when he compares her to a peasant woman. Ántonia constructs herself, however, in masculine terms that are empowering: "I can work like mans now. My mother can't say no more how Ambrosch [her brother] do all and nobody to help him. I can work as much as him" (118). Once Ántonia defines herself in empowering masculine terms, Jim adopts these terms and expresses his displeasure: "Everything was disagreeable to me. Ántonia ate so noisily now, like a man . . ." (120). Jim's grandfather is the only member of the Burden family who does not express displeasure at Ántonia's attempts to inhabit a masculine position. His relative acceptance of her identity crossing seems dependent, however, on his fixing her in a heterosexual position. Jim narrates, "Grandfather was pleased with Ántonia. When we complained of her, he only smiled and said, 'She will help some fellow get ahead in the world'" (121). Jim only lets go of this distaste when she steps into a feminized position in the domestic sphere, such as when she moves in with the Harling family in town to work as a cook and to help care for the children. Jim even constructs her at this point in his manuscript as similar to the mother of the family, Mrs. Harling. He writes, "They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them" (174).
In showing Jim's displeasure when Ántonia narrates herself into a masculine position, Cather suggests some of the social censure that may follow such identity crossings. But Cather goes further than that in exploring the difficulties that Ántonia faces in enacting these crossings. When Ántonia comments on the economic disparity between her own family and Jim's with the words, "Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us," Cather emphasizes the material constraints on Ántonia (135); Cather also depicts the role of economic constraints when Ántonia must work on her family's farm rather than go to school. Ántonia cannot simply narrate her way into a middle-class position as she wishes. In addition to depicting economic constraints, Cather suggests the limitations that the body, in particular the culture's interpretations of the body, can pose for identity crossings. Ántonia's sexual relations with Larry Donovan lead to her pregnancy—a consequence of sexual relations that his body, obviously, does not experience. In some ways, Ántonia is able to cross out of her socially-assigned position despite this change to her body; for instance, she continues to plow in the field (a man's job on a farm) while she is pregnant. Her culture, however, interprets her pregnancy out of wedlock as socially unacceptable, which has the potential to limit her prospects for marriage, and consequently, limit one of her means of crossing into a higher economic class.18 While Cather acknowledges the psychological and social hurdles that someone in a privileged position (like Jim) faces when crossing identity borders, she shows the far greater challenges that confront someone trying to move out of a socially-assigned position of little power.
At the same time, Cather shows that someone like Jim in a more privileged position can face significant dangers by crossing into less powerful positions, as demonstrated in the scene with Wick Cutter, after Ántonia has gone to work for him. Jim agrees to sleep in the bed at the Cutters' in place of Ántonia because he wishes to reclaim his masculine position as her protector; this frees her to sleep safely at the house of Jim's grandparents. In this instance, Jim really is being heroic, rather than acting out a mock adventure. But instead of affirming his masculinity, the arrangement blurs the distinctions between himself and Ántonia. When Wick Cutter sneaks into Ántonia's room with the plan to rape her, he mistakes Jim for Ántonia. Jim's feminized position becomes one of extreme vulnerability—victim of attempted rape. After this traumatic encounter with femininity, he turns away abruptly from any previous desire to enact crossings of identity categories. He asserts, "I hated [Ántonia] almost as much as I hated Cutter" (242); thus, he rejects the feminine figure as well as the feminine position (242).
His one consolation lies in maintaining some control over the narrative of his trauma—taking control as an autobiographer. Jim states that while recuperating from Cutter's attack, "My one concern was that grandmother should keep everyone away from me. If the story once got abroad, I would never hear the last of it. I could well imagine what the old men down at the drugstore would do with such a theme" (242).19 Jim's anxieties may be caught up in homophobia as well, since the old men at the drugstore may mock him as a man being sexually assaulted by another man. Thus, while Jim uses the autobiographical act to explore crossing identity borders in some parts of his manuscript, he also employs it in this instance to shut down any narratives that might circulate about his less-than-fixed gender and sexual identity. Of course, the adult Jim does let the story "get abroad" by conveying it to us through his "manuscript." Perhaps in the positions of a married man and a lawyer, he feels less vulnerable about giving voice to the tale. Cather plays with the potential that the act of writing has both to reveal and conceal. The autobiographical act may give the autobiographer a sense of control over shaping the construction of his or her identity, but once the autobiography is circulated, it is no longer within the autobiographer's control. We could even speculate how this awareness might account, at least in part, for Cather's reluctance to leave behind autobiographical accounts of herself—she recognized that she would lose control of the constructions of her own identity.
Thus, with the Wick Cutter scene, Cather shows how Jim's traumatic encounter with femininity results in his reactive renunciation of femininity and ambivalence about telling the tale. Jim's reactions against identifying with Ántonia are also apparent in his choices to "write" long sections of his manuscript that virtually ignore Ántonia, such as the book entitled "Lena Lingard," set in Lincoln when Jim attends the university. Notably, this book follows directly after the Wick Cutter incident. Of course, Jim's representations of his interactions with Lena also constitute encounters with "otherness," since he writes of Lena's immigrant origins and humble childhood. But the "grown" Lena, who occupies much of the third book, is "conventionalized by city clothes" and has picked up enough "conventional expressions" that her speech is far less "impulsive and foreign" than Ántonia's (257, 273). Also, less maternal than Ántonia and therefore, less prone to Jim's mythologizing, Lena does not function so much as an "other" for Jim at this point when he wishes to retreat from the mythic other. He does, however, eventually retreat as well from Lena and his sexual attraction to her; he transfers to Harvard, since, as he explains, she distracts him from his studies.
Jim's ambivalence not only takes the form of stepping into the position of "the other" and then reacting against it, but also the form of flirting with crossings yet not actually stepping into the position of "the other." Cather shows that the autobiographical act can play a crucial role in enacting ambivalence in this form as well. For instance, Jim constructs himself in his autobiography as "a sly one," since he defies social expectations during his adolescence in Black Hawk by spending considerable time with the young immigrant women, such as Lena and Ántonia, who come in from the countryside to work in town (209). He describes them as "unusual and engaging," as having "vigor" and "freedom of movement" that the American-born, town women lack (192). This alliance with "the other" only amounts to flirtation, however. Jim not only keeps the immigrant women at a safe distance by never eventually marrying any of them, but he also makes "authorial" decisions, such as entitling the second book of his manuscript "The Hired Girls," that mark their class identity as distinct from his own. Similarly, after Ántonia's illegitimate pregnancy, Jim feels "bitterly disappointed in her," since she has become "an object of pity" and has not fulfilled his glorified image of her (290). He utilizes his authorial position both to draw closer to her yet keep her at a distance. He records Ántonia's story through the words of the Widow Steavens, thus focusing on Ántonia yet keeping her at a distance by denying her an opportunity to tell her own tale within his manuscript; essentially he denies her a position of autobiographer within his autobiography.20
This use of the autobiographical act to perform an ambivalent flirtation with crossings can also be examined in Cather's treatment of Jim's relationship to the land. As we have seen, much of Cather's treatment of identity crossings inMy Ántonia takes the form of exploring specific categories of social identity and the potential to cross back and forth between these categories. In Cather's depiction of Jim on the open prairie early in the novel, she carries out a more abstract exploration of the possibility of breaking down categories altogether. The passages about Jim in relation to the land raise the question: Is it possible to unsettle categories to the point that no categories exist? Jim faces a sensation of virtual absence of otherness, virtual absence of difference, when he first arrives on the Nebraskan plains. With that sensation comes a suggested but unarticulated terror, as Jim describes feeling his own subjectivity nearly annihilated by the empty landscape.21 "Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out" (8). Significantly, the "autobiographer" Jim uses metaphors associated with writing ("erased," "blotted out") to convey the power of the open prairie. By implication, Jim draws a sense of security from his position as an autobiographer: he constructs the landscape's overwhelming power as similar to the power of a writer, and then he can draw on this same source of power for himself. He can use his autobiographical act as a means of resisting the sense of annihilation. Only with difficulty does Jim use words to describe his experience on the plains; he resorts to writing mostly in terms of negatives: "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" (7). Thus, Jim constructs the Nebraskan plains as a world without divisions, a pre-oedipal world, prior to difference. Yet, the very fact that he performs this construction of negation through language—which, by its very nature, creates divisions—reveals that it is impossible for a world without categories to exist for anyone functioning within a world of language, within the oedipal.22 In her novel, Cather presents a world in which identity borders need not be rigid, a world in which characters, especially privileged ones, can move in limited ways across identity borders, but she does not portray a world with no categories at all.
The image of "nothing but land: not a country at all" nevertheless holds a certain appeal for the "autobiographer" Jim. He turns his close encounter with self-erasure into a chance to tap into the empowering potential of the autobiographical act: if he can erase his subjectivity by perceiving the western land as obliterating, then this prepares the way for him to construct a new self through the narrative of his manuscript. Through his writing in the present, he establishes himself as a clean slate, like the land: "I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. . . . I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there" (7-8). Like many American pioneers, Jim expresses here the idea of leaving behind civilization; the pioneers' wish to leave behind the past goes along with their hope to create themselves anew. This is analogous to Jim's autobiographical act: more than enabling him to recapture the past, the act of writing the manuscript allows him to define himself through narrative according to his present needs.
The idea of a world without categories, impossible as it may be for anyone who uses language, also captures Jim's imagination as he pictures a unified world. When Jim construes this imagined world without divisions as a peaceful merging of himself with the expansive landscape, it becomes more of a fantasy than a nightmare of self-annihilation. Jim explores this fantasy from the setting of his grandmother's garden—a setting, of course, suggestive of the Garden of Eden, which, like psychoanalytic discourses of the pre-oedipal, offers a myth of original unity. Jim writes, "I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep" (18).23 As in the scene on the open plains, Jim's expression of this fantasy in language ensures that the fantasy is not being realized. Thus, the autobiographical act allows Jim to flirt with this fantasy of unity without "experiencing" annihilation, just as the autobiographical act allows him to flirt with crossing identity borders without suffering the consequences of stepping into the positions of "the other."
This passage from the garden is particularly interesting because of the switch in verb tense. Jim has been narrating his experience in the garden in the past tense, but then he writes: "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great" (emphasis added). Most obviously, the passage records a fantasy about dissolving into "the sun and air," but this shift in verb tense implicitly redirects the reader's attention to Jim in the present: Jim as an adult writing his manuscript—a manuscript entitled "My Ántonia." With this shift, Cather suggests that the very action that Jim is undertaking at the present time, writing his autobiography, provides him with this happiness. Through his narrative act, Jim fantasizes about dissolving into the "complete and great" mythic west, mythic past, and mythic Ántonia. The sudden shift into the present tense combined with his shift into interpretive language ("At any rate") may also suggest his need to assert his position as interpreter/autobiographer. At the moments when his fantasy of "dissolving into something complete and great" feels threatening, he can remind himself of his safe position as manipulator of language. Cather implies here an argument similar to that of Sander L. Gilman who asserts that art, with its inherent boundaries, functions as an "icon of our control of the flux of reality" (2), and specifically of "the fear of collapse, the sense of dissolution" (1). Gilman builds on Bakhtin to argue that "the fixed structures of art provide us with a sort of carnival during which we fantasize about our potential loss of control, perhaps even revel in the fear it generates within us, but we always believe that this fear exists separate from us" (2).24
The consequence of Jim's fantasy of wholeness, however, is that it denies multiplicity and therefore shuts down the possibility of crossings among multiple subject positions. Jim may feel that he is in communion with a mythic other, such as Ántonia, yet he cannot actually experience otherness because he has created a static and unitary world, one in which he has the sole, defining voice. Even though he set out to construct the West as communal, as a place where he could define his identity in relation to others, he now imagines himself recovering an undivided subjectivity. At this juncture, he follows the pattern that Leslie Fiedler describes of male characters in American literature fleeing civilization in favor of a "union with the wilderness itself" (210), or, as Annette Kolodny puts it, an "engulfment . . . fantasy," an "infantile regression" (90) into an "enclosing . . . environment of receptivity" (4). Rather than being engulfed, however, Jim becomes the one who engulfs the mythic other, because in his position as autobiographer, he defines the oneness into which everything has dissolved.
At the end of the novel, Jim's impulse as an autobiographer to create "something complete and great" and to shape and control it to meet his needs becomes particularly strong. Cather shows in this last section that the autobiographical act may function as more than a seemingly innocuous vehicle for enacting ambivalence. The autobiographer's control over narrative can potentially do more than just shut down the autobiographer's own crossings of identity borders at moments of vulnerability. In an effort to fix identity positions, the autobiographer may also try to contain "the other." Jim is torn between trying to assert his autonomy (for example, his staying away from Ántonia for twenty years), yet confronting the impossibility of this autonomy, given his needs for "the other" (thus, his return visit). As in the introductory frame when Jim "possesses" Ántonia through his title, he resorts at the end of his manuscript to fixing Ántonia in a position that meets his needs—the position of the mythic earth mother. He describes her many children running out of the womb-like fruit cave as a "veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight" (328) and asserts, "It is no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (342). Even more significantly, Jim constructs himself as a kind of son of hers—a construction that brings him a sense of security, especially given his pronouncement early in his manuscript that he was an orphan by age ten.25 He tells Ántonia that he "would like to sleep in the haymow, with the boys," and he writes, "I felt like a boy in [the] company" of her sons (334). He feels that "everything was as it should be" once he is back in the country, with Ántonia no longer stepping into threatening masculine positions, and with himself having reclaimed a mother-figure to fill the lack that initiates his narrative act (336). "Battered but not diminished," Ántonia is both unthreatening and mythic (321-22). Even though Ántonia expresses and demonstrates her pleasure in her position of motherhood, despite its hardships, Cather does not indicate that Ántonia wishes to be constructed as a mythic mother nor as a mother to the adult Jim. Not concerned with needs that Ántonia may have, Jim uses his narrative to represent her in ways that will best serve him (and by extension, will best serve patriarchy).26
Such a construction of Ántonia is obviously at her expense;27 perhaps not so obviously, this construction also limits Jim. Having made her a one-dimensional "other," he greatly restricts possibilities for himself to enact a variety of identity crossings through identification with her. Furthermore, by objectifying Ántonia, he cannot experience what Hegel calls the "satisfaction" of "mutual recognition" between equal subjects (Kojève 50). According to Hegel, the slave's recognition of the master can never be satisfying because humans want to be recognized by their equals (43); so too, Jim's self-definition in relation to Ántonia can never be satisfying if he has objectified her.28 As I have argued already, Cather, among others, exposes masculine autonomy as a fiction, since all subjectivity is relational and since attempts to claim masculine autonomy generally lead to the relationship of domination/possession of feminized others. Thus, masculine autonomy does not result in isolation in the way that the term might suggest upon first consideration. Instead, the male subject whose masculinity conforms to the model of autonomy suffers from isolation because his objectification of feminized others closes off the potential for mutual recognition. Jim's writing leaves him in a final position of isolation despite the promise that the autobiographical act held for him to define himself in relation to others even to the point of crossing into others' identity categories.
Thus, an author who neither aligned herself with feminism nor wished to preserve her own personal writing has much to offer to studies of identity, feminist thought, and theories of autobiographical practice. InMy Ántonia, Cather's play with gender crossings as she writes in the voice of a male narrator as well as when she depicts Jim and Ántonia's crossings underscores the performativity of identity. Despite various ways in which Cather cannot be considered a feminist, her emphasis on these crossings in My Ántonia suggests a circulation of power among male and female subjects that is in keeping with feminist goals. Her examination of specific barriers to identity crossings as well as her critique of the discourse of masculine autonomy also addresses feminist concerns. She presents the autobiographical act as an ideal means of performing these crossings and negotiating ambivalence about them. She exposes, however, that the autobiographical act, particularly when coupled with the discourse of masculine autonomy, can turn a crossing of identity borders into an act of domination.
1. See O'Brien's introduction to New Essays on "My Ántonia" and Dyck's "Willa Cather's Fiction: A Review Essay" for overviews of critical work on My Ántonia.
2. Lindemann makes a similar argument with a different emphasis as she discusses the presentation of Ántonia as "a figure made of words" (115). She asks, "What does it mean that the novel Cather identified not only as her best but as a real contribution to American letters is the story of a woman ('Cather') figuring a man (Jim Burden) figuring a woman (Ántonia)?" (116).
3. In her reading of My Ántonia, Butler also emphasizes Cather's ambivalent position, though she sees Cather not so much inhabiting simultaneously masculine and feminine positions as creating an impression of a hand-off of authorship to a masculine figure. The nameless narrator who 'authors' the introductory frame vanishes with the start of Jim's manuscript, at which point Jim, as the masculine figure, takes over the position of 'author.' This hand-off is revealed ultimately to be fraudulent: "Jim's title . . . converges with Cather's, and the repetition displaces the act by which Jim appeared to have supplanted the narrator in the text" (148). This apparent hand-off allows Cather to construct the 'I' of My Ántonia as a site in which the conventions of anonymity are negotiated with the conventions of traditional masculine authorship (146). Butler reads Jim as "represent[ing] the law." Not only does the nameless narrator remark on Jim's position as "legal counsel for one of the Western railways," but Jim's "legal status returns at the end of the introductory frame when he arrives at the narrator's apartment with the manuscript encased in legal cover, wearing the stamp of the law, with Jim as the signatory, carrying the weight of legitimation" (148). According to Butler, Cather "stages the laying of the claim to authorial rights by transferring them to the one who represents the law [Jim], a transfer that, in its redoubling, is a kind of fraud, one which facilitates the claim to the text that she only appears to give away" (148).
4. For instance, in a review published in The Pittsburgh Leader on July 8, 1899, Cather critically calls Kate Chopin's novel a second Madame Bovary; she goes on to write: "An author's choice of themes is frequently . . . inexplicable. . . . It is governed by some innate temperamental bias that cannot be diagramed. This is particularly so in women who write" (WCW 170).
5. Given its radical ramifications for gender politics, this presentation is in keeping with Cather's personal resistance to rigid constructions of gender. Certain activities in Cather's own life, such as cross-dressing and "baptizing herself 'William Cather, Jr.' in adolescence," suggest the kind of impulse to subvert fixed identity categories that can be found in My Ántonia (O'Brien, WCV 11).
Cather's consideration of the instability of identity may arise not only out of her interest in defying rigid gender identities, but also out of her untraditional sexuality. Questions concerning Cather's sexual identity and its implications for her work have figured prominently in scholarship on My Ántonia. (See: Butler, Dyck, Fetterley, Lambert, and O'Brien). O'Brien especially offers convincing evidence that Cather's romantic attachments were primarily to women. She also explores Cather's conflicts and ambivalence around these attachments, given the increasingly common view by the 1890s in Britain and the United States that such attachments were deviant. Fetterley argues that, among other pressures, "homophobic . . . pressure . . . converted Willa Cather into Jim Burden" (56), and Lambert states, "Cather was a lesbian . . . who, in her fiction, transformed her emotional life and experiences into acceptable, heterosexual forms and guises" (676). While these readings hold some interesting potential, I agree with O'Brien's assertion that these readings have the danger of leading to "a rigid and reductive view of [Cather's] fiction" ("The Thing" 597).
More complex analysis of the relevance of Cather's sexuality to her fiction can be addressed by considering Cather's critiques of heterosexuality in My Ántonia. For example, Fetterley addresses how "destructive marriages abound" in the novel, and she reads the story of Peter and Pavel throwing the bride and groom to the wolves as a "hatred of marriage" (48). At the same time, as Irving claims, the story of Peter and Pavel, whose relationship hints at homosexuality, also suggests anxieties that Cather may have had about homosexuality, including a fear that it would lead to the kind of severe ostracism that Peter and Pavel experience (98-99). Jim and Ántonia, however, respond to Peter and Pavel sympathetically and do not condemn them; rather, they retell their story about the wolves with "a painful and peculiar pleasure," and Jim even identifies himself with the two Russian men (59).
6. Citing Houghton Mifflin records, Schwind discusses economic and artistic motivations behind the revised edition of My Ántonia (53-54). Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical citations to My Ántonia are to the 1918 edition.
7. Laird writes, "Cather was at great pains to distance herself from Jim's historical reconstruction, telling us, in her introduction, that she had failed to write her own account and was substituting for it the one that Jim had brought to her" (248). Schwind, Lindemann, and Orvell designate the unnamed narrator "Cather"; as Lindemann states, the quotation marks "distinguish Cather the person from 'Cather' the persona" (131).
8. Soon after the novel's publication, the New York Sun carried an anonymous notice that, according to Woodress, "particularly pleased Cather because the reviewer really understood what she was doing and made all the right comments" (386). The notice in the New York Sun stated, "The most extraordinary thing about My Ántonia is the author's surrender of the usual methods of fiction in telling her story. . . . You picked up My Ántonia to read a novel (love story, of course; hope it's a good one) and find yourself enthralled by autobiography" (1 cited in Woodress 386).
9. For example, in Fictions in Autobiography, Eakin explores the way that "adventurous twentieth-century" autobiographies "express the play of the autobiographical act itself, in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness" (5).
10. Construing My Ántonia as Jim's fictive autobiographical act may seem at odds with some traditional definitions of autobiography, such as those offered by Georges Gusdorf and Lejeune. The difference does not only exist in terms of fictiveness. Gusdorf presumes a model of "separate and unique selfhood" in autobiography (Friedman 34), and Lejeune describes autobiography as "focus[ing]" on the writer's "individual life" (4). Given the prominent presence of Ántonia and the significant role of other characters in Jim's manuscript, the text may not immediately appear to be Jim's fictional autobiography. Some critics, such as Lambert, propose readings that place Ántonia at the center of the novel, while Goodman views the novel as a "double bildungsroman" of Jim and Ántonia. I disagree with these readings not only because Jim places most events and other characters in relation to his identity, but also because Ántonia drops out of the account in some sections. Furthermore, Goodman's claim does not sufficiently acknowledge the imbalance created by Jim's narrative control. Jim's ultimate use of his authorial position to objectify and possess Ántonia certainly prevents the novel from being a "double bildungsroman." If the text can be construed as Jim's fictional autobiography because his consciousness remains most consistently at the center of the manuscript, however, it best fits this classification according to more recent definitions of autobiography. Moving away from Gusdorf's model, critics of autobiography such as Eakin, Stanton, and Hooton argue that definitions of autobiography should encompass works of first-person non-fiction that present the self as relational—works that emphasize that the "self is defined by—and lives in terms of—its relations with others" (Eakin, How Our Lives 43).
11. Cather's writing about her first trip to Europe, in 1902, focuses on visual images and accounts of events, with only passing references to her own feelings and memories. She sent articles about her trip back to Lincoln to the Nebraska State Journal in 1902; they are collected in the volume Willa Cather in Europe. While Cather addresses issues of identity in the articles, such as French nationalism or the definitive characteristics of the people living on canals in France, she never dwells in these articles upon her own identity.
12. Lindemann also discusses various ways in which Cather cannot be considered a feminist. She notes that despite My Ántonia's elucidation of feminist issues, "its author almost certainly did not intend to create a self-consciously 'feminist' work" (116).
13. Discussions about "relational identity" in the past two decades in the field of autobiography studies have focused especially on questions of gender. In the 1980s and early 1990s, feminist critics of British, American, and Australian autobiographies such as Stanton, Hooton, Friedman, and Smith asserted that for women "relatedness [to others] is inseparable from a sense of self" (Hooten 91); they argued, therefore, that much autobiographical writing by women, because of its presentation of the self as relational, had been excluded from the field of autobiography studies, which had been shaped by Gusdorf's and Lejeune's definitions. As Eakin points out in How Our Lives Become Stories, in the process of distinguishing women's autobiographies from men's, these arguments aligned men's autobiographies with Gusdorf and Lejeune's definitions and asserted that men's selves were autonomous rather than relational. Benjamin, among other analysts of developmental psychology, argues that "at the very moment of realizing our independence, we are dependent upon another to recognize it" (Bonds 33). As Eakin suggests, "the criterion of relationality applies equally if not identically to male experience"; "the fact that a case . . . [that] all self-hood . . . is relational . . . should need to be made in autobiography studies shows just how profoundly the myth of autonomous individualism has marked the thinking of autobiographers and their critics" (How 50-51). Eakin sees the field of autobiography studies poised for further analysis that questions "the inadequate model [of] . . . men's autobiographies . . . that has guided our reading to date" (49). My Ántonia, when viewed as Jim's fictive autobiography, contributes to current discussions in autobiography studies by addressing the relationship among masculinity, autobiography, and relational models of identity as well as the role of the discourse of masculine autonomy in autobiographical writing.
14. Schwind (55, 58), Jones (95), O'Brien ("Introduction" 17), and Lindemann (117) discuss these two connotations of "my" in the manuscript's revised title. They do not, however, address Jim's initial title for his manuscript nor his use of "my" as a sign of his reaction to the initial title. Rosowski discusses the shift from one title to the next, though not with an emphasis on Jim's vacillation between conflicting desires. She claims, "As his title indicates, My Ántonia is about neither Jim nor Ántonia per se, but how the two, mind and object, come together . . ." (76).
15. In her non-fictional work, Cather also addresses some of the elements of this kind of struggle. In an essay on Katherine Mansfield, Cather praises Mansfield's ability to conjure up the feelings of this internal struggle; Cather writes, "Every individual in . . . [a] household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. . . . One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them" (WCW 108-9). Cather's reference to the "household"—the domestic, feminized sphere—as the site of this terror is particularly interesting given Jim's focus on Ántonia as a maternal figure and his ambivalence about losing his identity in hers.
Lucenti also focuses on Jim Burden's conflicted responses throughout the novel, though she emphasizes "Jim's fear of being essentially homeless and his simultaneous but conflicting desire to escape domestic regulation" (197).
16. One of the most notable exceptions to Cather's implicit criticism of rigid identity borders in My Ántonia is her treatment of race in the scenes with Blind d'Arnault, the pianist who visits Black Hawk. Jim constructs the pianist as fixed within racist stereotypes of African Americans: for example, Jim describes the "grinning" d'Arnault as "never having acquired any finish" and playing "barbarously" (183). Granted, Blind d'Arnault's position as a mulatto blurs boundaries between black and white. But beyond this point, Cather does not question Jim's constructions of race in the way that she does critique the moments when Jim attempts to fix class and gender positions. See Ammons for a more extensive discussion of My Ántonia in relation to African American culture.
17. Paniccia-Carden emphasizes that Cather "writes about the frontier in an era infused with nostalgia for a mythologized American past and with anxiety about America's post-frontier purpose" (277). Placing the snake-slaying in this context, Paniccia-Carden asserts, "The snake episode finally serves to underline [Jim's] distance from the frontier experience glorified in the dominant narrative of national history and to suggest the inconsequential nature of his own experience in comparison. This lack in his identity leads him to simplify and romanticize the frontier, and to associate it with his simplified and romanticized vision of Ántonia" (288).
18. Ántonia's pride in her illegitimate daughter indicates her resistance to such social criticism. Moreover, Cather depicts Ántonia marrying Cuzak. As Orvell argues, "Cather was also, of course, revising Hester Prynne's story, showing us a 'ruined' woman allowed to lead a socially approved, fulfilled life without having to sublimate her revolutionary impulses into a socially acceptable penitential role, as did the Puritan woman" (48). Though given that Cuzak was poor at the outset of their marriage and more inclined toward city life than hard work on a farm, marriage does not bring Ántonia much economic advancement. Significantly, Cather presents the "hired girls" who neither marry nor become pregnant as the ones who rise most in economic class—Lena through her dressmaking and Tiny Soderball through her investments in the Klondike.
19. Lucenti reflects upon Jim's urgent desire not to be seen after the assault: "Keeping the story contained is Jim's primary motivation: since it is written across his face, he must keep that very literal materialization of narrative quite hidden" (201).
20. Millington asserts that Jim gets over his disappointment in Ántonia because of Widow Steavens's storytelling: "the crucial moment in this piece of the narrative is not Ántonia's deflowering but the Widow Steavens's storytelling, which saves Jim from his disposition to take the novelistic view of Ántonia's life" (707).
21. Gelfant sees the fear of losing the self as a major factor in the overriding theme that she reads in My Ántonia: Cather's and Jim's fear of sexuality. "Sex unites one with another. Its ultimate threat is loss of self" (95).
22. Like constructions of the pre-oedipal, which necessarily are constructed from within the oedipal, the representation of the West as an engulfed vacancy that is pre- or extra-cultural is always constructed from a position within culture.
Fischer exposes another erasure, emphasizing the need "to see in a new light Cather's repeated description of the Nebraska which preceded white settlement as a prairie that was 'empty.'" He writes, "My Ántonia is a story of origins for whites only; its account of conflicts between various selves and their others—an important theme in the novel—ignores the most significant Other in Nebraskan history: the Native Americans whose removal was seen as a sine qua non for a successful white settlement" (31).
23. O'Brien argues that the difference between Jim's response to the vast prairie during his wagon ride and his response while he is in the garden lies in his different location in space. The womb-like, "sheltered draw bottom" of the garden makes Jim feel safer psychologically than he did while riding across the prairie; consequently, he is able to move outward imaginatively, longing to merge with the world. His location "paradoxically allows him to be independent while attaching him to something larger than the self" (WCV 69-70).
24. Another instance of this dynamic occurs in Jim's treatment of Peter and Pavel and their story about the wolves. Peter and Pavel are constructed as "others" not only because of their ethnicity ("Russia seemed to me more remote than any other country—farther away than China, almost as far as the North Pole"), but also because of their misfortune ("The Russians had such bad luck that people were afraid of them and liked to put them out of mind"), and most importantly, because of their act of throwing the bride and groom to the wolves, which most everyone they know responds to with horror (32, 49). Jim imagines himself as Peter and Pavel, acting out their story in his native lands: "At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia" (59). Lucenti notes, "The 'painful and peculiar pleasure' of this repetition is a particularly Gothic combination of fear and desire, repulsion from and attraction to the transgressions that the story embodies" (200). Jim simultaneously enjoys identifying with Peter and Pavel and fears losing himself in them and their horrifying story. Significantly, it is the narrative act that allows Jim to feel safe with such a threatening fantasy. As Gelfant argues, Jim keeps the narrative about the wolves at a safe distance by presenting it so many stages removed—"It is told to him by Ántonia, who overhears Peter telling it to Mr. Shimerda" (75). Furthermore, Jim and Ántonia's activity of telling and retelling the story to each other makes the narrative familiar, thus creating a sense of safety through a narrative act.
25. Jim opens his manuscript with the lines: "I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then: I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska" (3). These lines point both to Jim's focus on Ántonia and his awareness of his parents' absence. To some extent the middle of the text, with its description of Ántonia's tenure at the Harlings, and especially the end, bring together Jim's focus on Ántonia with the absence of his parents; in both cases he constructs his relationship to Ántonia as that of a boy to his mother.
Even though he does not construct Ántonia as a "mother" early in his text, his authorial decision to do so later, especially at the end, resonates back throughout all of the manuscript. Brooks discusses the role of an ending in shaping a narrative's overall meaning. He writes, "[Walter] Benjamin . . . advances the ultimate argument for the necessary retrospectivity of narrative: that only the end can finally determine meaning, close the sentence as a signifying totality. Many of the most suggestive analysts of narrative have shared this conviction that the end writes the beginning and shapes the middle: Propp, for instance, and Frank Kermode, and Jean-Paul Sartre, in his distinction between living and telling, argued in La Nausee, where in telling everything is transformed by the structuring presence of the end to come, and narrative in fact proceeds 'in the reverse' . . ." (22).
O'Brien also reads My Ántonia as a search for a maternal figure, though she views the mother-son bond in the novel as Cather's disguised treatment of a mother-daughter bond, particularly Cather's own relationship with her mother. While this reading may be suggestive, I believe that accepting Jim's relationship with Ántonia as a representation of the mother-son bond has important consequences, since it opens up My Ántonia in terms of Cather's study and critique of the construction of masculinity.
Fisher-Wirth also reads "Jim's orphanhood" as "a powerful subliminal pressure throughout the manuscript." She argues that because "its specific events remain shadowy . . . Jim's orphan-hood suggests a condition beyond its specificity, loss itself as an origin" (47).
26. I agree with Romines that Jim's "final account" of Ántonia "blurs the outlines of her individuality and suppresses much of the particularity and potential conflict of her life, to make of her that overpowering symbol." I do not, however, share Romines' view that "on these pages, Jim and Cather seem co-conspirators in the mythologizing of Ántonia" (67). Nor do I agree with Orvell's claim that "far from critiquing Jim's romanticism, [Cather] is showing . . . [Jim] returning to a reality that is itself taken up with the changing rhythm of seasons, life, growth, birth, and death" (45-46). I read Cather as standing at a critical distance from Jim's narrative acts, here at the end of the novel as well as earlier. The critical distance from Jim's romanticism and from his possessive impulses in the introductory frame continues in the final book of Jim's manuscript. Granted, Jim acknowledges the passage of time in Ántonia's aging process and the creation of a new generation, but by mythologizing Ántonia, he continues to confine her within his romantic vision.
Schwind further strengthens the argument for Cather's critical distance by discussing Cather's commission and close supervision of W. T. Benda's "stark black-on-white sketches" (53). "While Jim's narrative ends as it begins, with an assertion that art is a means of fixing or 'possessing' reality (Jim's final words return us to the curious possessiveness of his title: 'My Ántonia' allows its author to 'possess . . . the precious, the incommunicable past' [emphasis added]), Benda's art evolves in recognition of a world 'outside man's jurisdiction'" (62).
This critical distance does not so much lead to a condemnation of Jim as a character, particularly since Cather presents him fairly sympathetically, but rather to the exploration and critique of the cultural discourses, pressures, and benefits that can lead someone in Jim's position to respond as he does.
27. While writing My Ántonia, Cather commented to Elizabeth Sergeant about her wish that Ántonia be viewed from all angles. Sergeant recalls that Cather "leaned over . . . and set an old Sicilian apothecary jar of mine, filled with orange-brown flowers of scented stock, in the middle of a bare, round antique table. 'I want my new heroine to be like this—like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides'" (Woodress 379). Jim makes such a viewing impossible at the end of the novel, however, by trying to view Ántonia only as the "battered but not diminished" mythic mother.
28. Jones makes a similar claim by stating: "If [Jim's] resistance to phallic power and his identification with the position of 'other' had been resolved more fruitfully, perhaps he would have found a new language for himself, one whose power lay not in the inherited binaries of violation and violated, but in an erotics of equal relation, mutuality, and dialogue" (105).
Ammons, Elizabeth. "My Ántonia and African American Art." O'Brien 57-83.
Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
——. "A Desire of One's Own: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space." Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 78-101.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention In Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Ed. Charles Mignon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
——. My Ántonia. 1926. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1954.
——. Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey. Ed. George N. Kates. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
——. Willa Cather on Writing. Ed. Stephen Tennant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
Dyck, Reginald. "Willa Cather's Fiction: A Review Essay." Women's Studies 22 (1993): 263-79.
Eakin, Paul John. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
——. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Fetterley, Judith. "My Ántonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer." Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Judith Spector. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986. 43-59.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.
Fischer, Mike. "Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 23 (1990): 31-44.
Fisher-Wirth, Ann. "Out of the Mother: Loss in My Ántonia." Cather Studies 2 (1993): 41-71.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice." The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. 34-62.
Gelfant, Blanche H. "The Forgotten Reaping Hook: Sex in My Ántonia." American Literature 43 (1971): 79-97.
Gilman, Sander. Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Goodman, Charlotte. "My Ántonia as Double Bildungsroman." Approaches to Teaching Cather's "My Ántonia." Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989. 134-39.
Harris, Jeane. "A Code of Her Own: Attitudes toward Women in Willa Cather's Short Fiction." Modern Fiction Studies 36 (1990): 81-89.
Hooton, Joy. Stories of Herself When Young: Autobiographies of Childhood by Australian Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Irving, Katrina. "Displacing Homosexuality: The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Ántonia." Modern Fiction Studies 36 (1990): 91-102.
Jones, Anne Goodwyn. "Displacing Dixie: The Southern Subtext in My Ántonia." O'Brien 85-109.
Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Assembled by Raymond Queneau. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ed. Allan Bloom. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.
Laird, David. "Willa Cather's Women: Gender, Place, and Narrativity in O Pioneers! and My Ántonia." Great Plains Quarterly 12 (Fall 1992): 242-53.
Lambert, Deborah G. "The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Ántonia." American Literature 53 (1982): 676-90.
Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Lindemann, Marilee. "'It Ain't My Prairie': Gender, Power, and Narrative in My Ántonia." O'Brien 111-35.
Lucenti, Lisa Marie. "Willa Cather's My Ántonia: Haunting the Houses of Memory." Twentieth-Century Literature 46.2 (2000): 193-213.
Millington, Richard H. "Willa Cather and 'The Storyteller': Hostility to the Novel in My Ántonia." American Literature 66 (1994): 689-717.
O'Brien, Sharon. Introduction. O'Brien 1-29.
——, ed. New Essays on "My Ántonia." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
——. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 9 (1984): 576-99.
——. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Orvell, Miles. "Time, Change, and the Burden of Revision in My Ántonia." O'Brien 31-55.
Paniccia-Carden, Mary. "Creative Fertility and the National Romance in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and My Ántonia." Modern Fiction Studies 45 (1999): 275-302.
Romines, Ann. "After the Christmas Tree: Willa Cather and Domestic Ritual." American Literature 60 (1988): 61-82.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Schwind, Jean. "The Benda Illustrations to My Ántonia." PMLA 100 (1985): 51-67.
Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Stanton, Domna C. "Autogynography: Is the Subject Different?" 1984. The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Domna C. Stanton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 3-20.
Woodress, James. Historical Essay. My Ántonia. By Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 361-93.
Lisa B. Hughes (essay date spring 2002)
SOURCE: Hughes, Lisa B. "Gender, Sexuality, and Writing in Plato and Cather.1 " Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 22, no. 1 (spring 2002): 49-60.
[In the following excerpt, Hughes discusses classical allusions and structure in Cather's works, noting several parallels between how Cather and Plato portray gender and sexuality.]
Willa Cather expressed her frustration in trying to find female models and a tradition in which to write, and she mentions Sappho explicitly as one of the few artists who offer her a voice to engage.2 Cather's familiarity with the literature of Greco-Roman antiquity is well documented, and numerous critics have shown how our awareness of that familiarity enhances our reading of many of her works, especially My Ántonia. 3 Her discussion of the classical tradition in her nonliterary writing provides the context in which to read the numerous explicit and implied classical allusions throughout her literary corpus. The uses of antiquity in her fiction comprise a diverse spectrum of types of allusiveness. She quotes classical texts verbatim and refers directly to characters and events from ancient literature, as well as creating characters who study and engage the classical literature themselves. Other forms of allusiveness are more difficult to pin down conclusively but are therefore often more enriching in their discovery. Cather customarily uses images that suggest some character or setting from previous literature, requiring that we make the final associations ourselves, finding images and meaning beyond what is on the page.
The entire range of allusive possibilities is present in the classical references inMy Ántonia. Literally, an epigraph from Vergil's Georgics introduces the work that follows and identifies it definitively as part of a long-standing pastoral genre. When Jim Burden goes to college, he studies Vergil, prompting us to remember the classical tradition when reading literature. On an unarticulated, imagistic level, Jim's slaying of a serpent early in the novel reproduces Apollo's slaying of the female Pytho at Delphi. He recognizes the gender implications of this archetype when he observes that after he acquires the standing of "dragon slayer," Ántonia is no longer supercilious with him. Ultimately, Ántonia achieves an apotheosis and comes to function as a rustic goddess figure.4
I would like to suggest a deeper level of allusiveness, which, when understood, elucidates some of the issues raised in the more overt references to classical literature. For although Cather's frequent invocation of classical texts serves the broader function of admitting her to the world of the "western literary tradition," as one critic has said, of makingMy Ántonia, "Our Ántonia,"5 at the same time she interrogates that very system. She does this by embedding in her allusiveness those texts that even in antiquity stood apart somehow from the traditional voices and contested accepted notions. Plato's Symposium is such a text, one that seems to conform to accepted conventions and yet in some way challenges them. In this paper I will explore how Cather's choice of the Symposium as a recurrent image and point of reference throughoutMy Ántonia offers a rival counterpoint to the conventions she otherwise incorporates. First, I will show the many subtle features, formal and thematic, that identify the novel with Plato's Symposium, an extended encomium on Eros. Then I will argue that Cather uses the Symposium as her framework because it is a locus of intersection for her concerns with the problems and the interconnectedness of gender, sexuality, and writing.6
The Symposium is the description of a drinking party at the home of Agathon, an Athenian man of letters who is hosting a two-night gala to celebrate his recent victory at a dramatic competition. Owing to their hangovers from the partying of the previous night, the guests, all male, banish the flute-girl there for their entertainment, so that instead each person in attendance might, in turn, give his own accounting of the nature of Eros. We are not present at the actual event, which had occurred in the narrator's boyhood, but rather we hear about it much later as he, Apollodorus, recounts it for his unnamed traveling companion. Apollodorus and his companion provide a narrative frame in which the symposiasts' accounts are remembered.
The opening ofMy Ántonia depicts a similar situation, an unnamed speaker traveling across the mid-west with Jim Burden as his companion. The narrator's introduction to the 1918 edition of Burden's manuscript had been omitted from the work since its original publication and only recently restored in publication.7 The preface is important to my reading, for it provides formal and thematic grounds for associating it with the Symposium. Both have a structural framework that makes the actual narration contemporary, while setting the events themselves in the past. Two important visual images in the preface link it vividly with the Symposium. The first is the parallel sets of traveling companions telling a story. The second is the figure of a symposium itself.
After Plato's framework is constructed, we immediately enter the literary celebration of Agathon, as the second night of his party unfolds. Cather's narrator begins by identifying the source for the story, an old friend, Jim Burden. She explains that she has lost touch with Burden because of disliking his wife, Genevieve Whitney. In describing Whitney, she curiously places her in a symposiastic setting.
Like Agathon, Genevieve Whitney herself has produced a play, and she surrounds herself with a literary crowd much as Agathon had, but a degraded one. For the narrator says of her, "she finds it worth while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters of advanced ideas and mediocre ability" (2). Jim Burden's wife is constructed as the antithesis of Ántonia—just as Ántonia unites Burden and the narrator, Burden's wife divides them.8 Her symposium is accordingly described as negative and inferior to the one Ántonia will inspire.
The immediate motivation of Plato's collection of encomia on Eros strikingly resembles the motivation for Burden's encomium of Ántonia. His companion is a writer, who had apparently written a great deal of other things, but Burden implores, "I can't see . . . why you have never written anything about Ántonia" (4). With this, he restates the observation that gives rise to the narratives of Plato's Symposium. Eryximachus, one of the guests, suggests that the evening not be devoted to drinking contests, but rather to speeches. He says:
. . .
My friend Phaedrus here is continually coming to me with the following complaint. Is it not, he asks me, an extraordinary thing that, for all the hymns and anthems that have been addressed to the other deities, not one single poet has ever sung a song in praise of so ancient and powerful a god as Eros?
The question is the same as the one that Burden asks his companion, and both will be answered with laudatory narratives. Burden's companion says that she will write down all she remembers of Ántonia if Burden himself will do the same, and in that way they can get the most accurate picture of her. Likewise in Plato, the symposiasts agree with Eryximachus that they can get the most accurate picture of Eros if they all give their personal accounts. With this having been decided as the governing principle of composition, both works begin.
Apollodorus recites, as accurately as he can, the encomia offered at the party. First Phaedrus praises Eros as the oldest of the gods and one who inspires lovers to courage and great deeds. He makes clear the distinction of the Lover (ὁ ἐραςτής) and the Beloved (ὁ ἐρώμϵνος) as separate sexual and emotional roles. Phaedrus introduces a notion that will be questioned throughout the Symposium and inMy Ántonia, the necessity in our thought and in our vocabulary of polarities and mutually exclusive opposites. Pausanias reinforces the binary approach as he distinguishes between a Heavenly Eros and a baser, Common Eros. Then the physician, Eryximachus, expands the notion of Eros to include all of the human body and, in fact, all of nature and the whole universe. The earlier speakers take homosexuality for granted; then the comic playwright Aristophanes offers a story that explicitly addresses the question of sexuality, explaining the origins of both gender and sexuality. He posits a time when there were three sexes, Male, Female, and Hermaphrodite. Every creature comprised two halves: the one with two female halves was Female, the one with two male halves was Male, and the one with a female and a male half was the Hermaphrodite. Early in our history the gods split these creatures (us) in two, to keep us from becoming too great. Human sexuality, or Eros, according to Aristophanes, is our search for that missing half. His is the first attempt to mediate between polarities.
The inserted narrative, or story-within-a-story, is an important aspect of composition forMy Ántonia also. Jim's narrative is in itself supposed to be one of a collection of remembrances of Ántonia; then within his story he includes a number of tales in which he simply lets the narrator speak. Most of these inserted tales are of a highly erotic nature, and like the Symposium's, they cover the spectrum of sexual desire, from the basest to the sublime. Early in the novel, Ántonia tells the story of the most grotesque experience of Eros. In her story, a wedding is consummated in a grim and bloody death. Peter and Pavel, two men from the old country, were driving a sled in a wedding party. The party is beset by wolves, and eventually Pavel tosses out the groom who takes the bride with him to a horrible death (49-52). In another inserted narrative, a young Dane tells Jim an erotic tale, again, one whose eroticism is closely associated with depravity. In this story, a woman called Crazy Mary takes a sharp knife and wildly pursues Lena Lingard as punishment for having an affair with her husband (134-6). Later, Burden gives us explicit details of a cycle of erotic stories centering on three Mary's, as circulated by a group of old men (161-2). Ántonia's son tells the tale of the vile Eros of the Cutters, another grotesque story associating sex and death. These stories all offer an accounting of the base elements of Eros that will be contrasted with stories told about Ántonia.
Though the larger narrative is Jim's recollection of her, Ántonia herself is also the subject of a number of inserted stories. Within the collection is the story Ántonia's husband tells of his love with her. Jim also includes a tale about Ántonia he had heard from a Widow Steavens on the occasion of his first return to Nebraska. All of the stories of Ántonia present a vital and fecund eroticism distinguished from those negative ones.
Both works are filled with subordinate narrations, but all of these erotic tales do not carry equal weight. Socrates' speech in praise of Eros is the climax of Plato's Symposium, and it is likewise, of those encomia, the one most important to Cather's project. The speech falls into two parts. First, he describes Eros; then he explains the function Eros performs among humankind. Socrates' accounting of the god diverges from most of the earlier speeches in how they continually characterize Love in polarized opposites: Lover and Beloved; Base Love and Heavenly Love. Socrates takes up Aristophanes' attempt to bridge the absolutes, and he continues the interrogation of the possibility of discovering any truth by restricting oneself to the binary mode of expression. Whereas Aristophanes used his speech as a means to introduce the Hermaphrodite into the Male/Female dichotomy, Socrates blends and confuses masculine and feminine in his speech. His narration is distinguished from all the other overwhelmingly masculine voices in the remarkable fact that he attributes everything he knows to his female teacher, Diotima (who is assumed to be invented by Socrates).10 Even the presence of Diotima's voice begins to undo the gender polarization begun early in the night, with the banishment of the flute girl.
Diotima tells the story:. . .
On the day that Aphrodite was born the gods were feasting, among them was Contrivance the son of Invention; and after dinner, seeing that a party was in progress, Poverty came to beg and stood at the door. Now Contrivance was drunk . . . and was overcome by sleep. So Poverty, thinking to alleviate her wretched condition by bearing a child to Contrivance, lay with him and conceived Eros . . . having Contrivance for his father and Poverty for his mother, he bears the following character. He is always poor, and, far from being sensitive and beautiful, as most people imagine, he is hard and weather-beaten. . . . So far he takes after his mother and lives in want. But, being also his father's child, he schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good; he is bold and forward and strenuous. . . . He is neither mortal nor immortal . . . neither rich nor poor, neither wise nor ignorant.
Diotima describes an Eros that has the characteristics of the Socratic daemons, those creatures whose task it is to negotiate the space between humans and gods. The erotic impulse in all of us, according to Socrates' teacher Diotima, is a procreative impulse and aims to effect our happiness by securing our immortality. We can achieve this physically, through the begetting of children, or spiritually, through the begetting of wisdom and beauty. The Iliad, for example, is said to be Homer's child, and just as Solon procreated in instituting his Laws, writing is a (pro) creative activity originating in an erotic impulse, and so it is tied up with gender and sexuality. Physical children and spiritual children alike secure our immortality, though the spiritual ones are superior because of their permanence.
As she grows and develops, it becomes clear that Ántonia is to be equated with the divine Eros that is celebrated in the encomia. She is associated with Diotima's Eros in numerous ways, beginning with their parentage. When Jim Burden describes the parentage of Ántonia, he uses much the same imagery. In fact, the descriptions could hardly be more similar. Like Poverty and Contrivance, Ántonia's mother is far different from her father, and we are often told of her great need. First, Jim's grandmother says that they are "wanting in everything" (66). Shortly thereafter, still on the subject of Ántonia and her mother, she says: "But you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em. It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things" (75). As Diotima's Contrivance relieved Poverty, so Ántonia's father is depicted as a relief to her mother's need. We are told that he had always been "fixy," and even when he died, he took care that he was bathed and dressed out neatly, saving his family from the trouble of his death (79). Much later, even more to the point, Ántonia describes the circumstances of her own conception, which turn out to be remarkably like those of Eros:
You know Jim, my father was different from my mother. He did not have to marry my mother. . . . They said he could have paid my mother money, and not married her. But he was older than she was, and he was too kind to treat her like that . . . she was a poor girl come in to do the work.
Diotima's description of Eros rings oddly true of the grown Ántonia later when Widow Steavens describes her physically to Jim. She tells Jim that when she first saw her, though she was not actually homeless, she was living in a brick block, without proper conveniences. Her face was perpetually swollen with toothache, and, just as Eros was unshod, Ántonia seemed to have no boots of her own. That winter she began to wear a man's long coat and boots. This is noticeable because it is in contrast to our earlier description of the young girl as beautiful (24). When Jim sees her himself, he agrees with the Widow that she looks "worked down"; still, as Eros is strenuous, despite being "weather-beaten," so Ántonia retains a look of "deep-seated health and ardour" (249). This is an important passage because it furthers her identification with Socrates' Eros. Though Jim is initially disappointed in her looks, still, Ántonia is neither beautiful nor ugly, and so like Eros, she occupies the space in between.
The erotic component of the subordinate tales reinforces the structural similarities between the two works constructed by the narrative frames. The visual suggestions and actual occurrences of the Symposium in Cather further link them. The image of the symposium appears three times inMy Ántonia, all in highly strategic places—the beginning, the middle, and the end. The careful symmetry in the placement of these descriptions must govern our thinking about them. First, as we have noted, the anonymous narrator of the introduction uses the image to denigrate Burden's wife in contrast to Ántonia. Halfway through the novel, precisely in the center, comes the next description of an event with a strong suggestion of a symposium. The centerpiece of the novel is the appearance of the mulatto pianist Blind d'Arnault at the hotel in Black Hawk (147-154). And finally, at the end of the story, music and story-telling together fill Jim's time at Ántonia's.
The episode with Blind d'Arnault in Black Hawk is reminiscent of Greek sympotic literature in a variety of ways. The evening begins with the rigid and conspicuous observation of gendered space common in Greek life and literature. Music, drinking, and separation of the sexes figure prominently in the Symposium, but they also reference the image of Sappho's lyric poetry, known from its setting as sympotic poetry.11 The innkeeper of the Boys' Home Hotel, Mrs. Gardener, departs the hotel, like the flute-girl at Agathon's party, leaving the men alone to enjoy the entertainment. The women of Black Hawk are at the hotel segregated into another room, which may remind us of the women of Agathon's household. But they are not simply absent, for we see them enjoying the music, more like the female guests at Sappho's gatherings. Aspects of Eros, as described by both Aristophanes and Socrates, are shown at work during the night in Black Hawk.
First, just as the god Eros dominated Agathon's symposium, Blind d'Arnault dominates this evening like an "African god of pleasure." Diotima had explained that Eros was of a mediating nature, between absolutes; and the same is pointedly made apparent of d'Arnault. As a mulatto, he is neither black nor white, but something in between. When he was a child, his mother had feared that he was "not right," recognizing, still, that he "wasn't all wrong." Again, he is something in between, like the Socratic daemon. Coupling with the piano is said to make him whole, much like Aristophanes' divided creatures in search of their other halves. Further, this liminal figure senses the presence of the absent women, dancing behind the door in the other room. At his urging, the men invite them to join the party, again enacting the reunion of the male and female halves as described by Aristophanes. Their entry into the male space marks Cather's mediation and integration of the polarized spaces.
The third sympotic setting comes at the end of the novel, giving the antithesis of Jim Burden's wife's crowd, as depicted in the introduction. Burden is a dinner guest at Ántonia's, and along with the rest of her family, they make a lively tableful. All eyes are on Ántonia, at the center, much as Burden's wife was said to have dominated her symposia. The entertainment at Ántonia's is twofold, following the pattern of Agathon's party and lasting for two nights. On the first night, there was music, with Ántonia's sons and daughter sharing equally in the performance, continuing to deny the either/or of gendered roles in conventional thought. Then, just as at Agathon's celebration, the music of the first night is put aside and the second night is devoted to story-telling.
Dinnertime is the occasion for Ántonia's son Rudolph to tell Jim the horrific tale of Wick Cutter and his wife, the final representation of debased Eros. This instance of death, sterility, and hatred provides a contrast for the final tale of Jim's book, Cuzak's own tale of himself and his life with Ántonia. During a postprandial stroll, he tells Jim the story. Ántonia's fecundity, in contrast to Cutter's barrenness, ultimately identifies her with the lovers of Socrates' speech, for whom procreation is a form of immortality and a means of happiness.
Finally, the novel follows the structure of its model in closing. Plato's Symposium does not end with the final encomium on Love, but in the morning after the festivity, as the guests who had fallen asleep wake up and leave. Aristodemus, the guest who related the whole tale for our narrator Apollodorus, awakens to find that Socrates had stayed up all night talking, and the two of them leave together and begin their days. My Ántonia ends the morning after the second night Jim spent with Ántonia's family. Like Aristodemus and Socrates, he wakes up and leaves the house where he had been a guest, and in the morning he heads into town to await a train home.
According to Cather, inKingdom of Art, Eros, or Love, is the principle that motivates women's artistry and creativity, and in this they are different from men.12 Taken without proper context, Cather's assertion seems to ghettoize the creative realm of women, to make it restrictive, and perhaps lead a woman to write only second-rate romances. Except for its restriction to women, however, this conception of the effects and the realm of influence of Love is essentially similar to Diotima's view, expressed by Socrates in the Symposium. Love motivated Homer's Iliad and Solon's Innovations in Law. Read in the context of a rare female voice from antiquity, the statement elevates the aims and the potential of the female voice. Susan Rosowski shows how Cather worked with the conviction and cultivated it, in two steps, to make something of value.13 First she redefined women's sphere of loving, and then, having redefined the object of women's love, she finally redefined its weight, showing it to be a source of strength.14
Eros and its effects are shown to be highly subjective and personal. Eryximachus, the physician, decides in his discourse that Eros is primarily a metaphor for medicine; Aristophanes, the comic playwright, sees Eros as the occasion for the production of comedy; and Socrates, the philosopher, sees it as our path to wisdom. Even Jim Burden says that his story of Ántonia will be, essentially, a story of himself. It is perfectly consistent then that for Cather, the writer, Eros, which is more self-evidently concerned with gender and sexuality, should be intimately tied up also with writing. So we shall see thatMy Ántonia shares many thematic concerns with the Symposium as well as the many remarkable formal ones.
Absent Diotima, Cather has only Sappho to make her, as a woman, a legitimate heir to the classical tradition, and therefore to the western literary tradition as it existed in her lifetime, and she makes use of both voices. Sappho enrolls herself in an archaic Greek male literary tradition, both epic and lyric, demonstrating her ability to write of erotic or martial themes.15 But while Sappho added her voice to the mix, ultimately her sympotic poetry was for a symposium of women. The divide persisted. The most important legacy that Cather inherits from Diotima is the prior instance of a woman's voice speaking among men and speaking with authority on questions that matter. The next important legacy, here originating with Diotima, is the interrogation of the system of binary opposites assumed to govern most aspects of life. Diotima has us look instead at the places in between so many polarities; between poverty and contrivance, ignorance and wisdom, beauty and ugliness, male and female. Diotima suggests that it does not always have to be one or the other. InMy Ántonia the prairie becomes the physical place where Cather can put forth her female voice, and also exploit these in-between places to negotiate the oppositions by which she is constrained as an American woman writing in the early twentieth century.
The conflict between the masculine and the feminine voices, and the authority they derive from their gender, is a compelling invitation in itself to read these two works together. Critics have observed that for Cather's narrators and characters, the masculine realm controls verbal expression, while the feminine is more commonly expressed in nonverbals, such as music. Insofar as women do participate in the verbal realm, they are restricted to oral expression, while the written word is the purview of the men alone.16 The beginning of the Symposium implies the division recognized by Cather, where the men control the verbal realm and the women the nonverbal. For the only woman who is present at the start of the evening is the flute girl, who is conspicuously banished in favor of verbal amusement. The primary narrator ofMy Ántonia attributes her narrative to the masculine pen of Jim Burden, nearly erasing herself from the creative realm. In this she seems to reenact the gender division that led the Greek symposiasts to banish all females from the gathering at which they would compose their panegyrics.
Actually, however, in this reattribution Cather begins her subtle subversion of the code by which she so clearly finds herself constrained. The gender divide, to Cather's mind, reserves the written texts for the masculine realm while assigning the spoken word to the feminine. She seems to conform to the standards in effect, banishing the female narrator and listening instead to Jim's voice. She destabilizes the divide by embracing the Symposium as a recurring subtext, a work from the male classical tradition where the spoken word is the domain of men. Confounding the prevailing discourse all the more, that subtext is male-authored, male-narrated work, whose ultimate authority is derived from the female voice of Diotima. Even Socrates' modern reputation as a philosopher is curious in this light since he rose to such prominence never having written a word himself. His method of discourse is only spoken, and we owe the preservation of his actual words to his disciples Plato and Xenophon. While Cather's narrator attributes her story to the pen of Jim Burden, Jim's authority is made suspect twice. First, his picture of the adult Ántonia is shaped to a large extent by what he hears from Widow Steavens, a female authority for his ultimate reflections. Then, there is a gap between the time Jim records his reflections and the time we read them. Ultimately, we must trust the female narrator to represent Jim accurately.
When Diotima had first started teaching Socrates, the only way he could think was in antitheses. Eros is not a god, she said. What is it then, mortal? he asks. Eros is not beautiful. What is it then, ugly? Cather faced the same rigidity and binary categorizations in entering the literary landscape, and she uses the prairie as a place to disturb the assumed polarities of race, gender, and sexuality. Her characters are akin to the Socratic daemon in its ability to permeate oppositions. Cather uses the prairie as a place to exploit the in-between places, much like Eros.
In a world that is conceptualized in binary oppositions, one element is always necessarily privileged over the other. For Phaedrus, the Beloved is superior to the Lover. For Pausanias, Heavenly Aphrodite is superior to Common Aphrodite. But throughoutMy Ántonia, Cather argues implicitly for the collapse of the polarities. InMy Ántonia, she offers a piece that is not "authoritative male writing," but one must not assume it is therefore "unauthoritative female writing." Blind d'Arnault is neither black nor white. Ántonia's daughter born out of wedlock (one is reluctant to say "illegitimate") is neither of the old country or the new, yet somehow that makes her truly American.
Gender and sexuality, as questions of the Symposium, become for Cather a metaphor also for writing. She becomes a part of the literary tradition that would marginalize her, breaking down the rigid boundaries that would lead to her exclusion. So whileMy Ántonia is like so many other Cather works that are significant for showing strong female characters, it offers much more. She illustrates the breakdown of the binary conceptualization of gender and writing, which necessarily privileges one element over the other. With the binary opposition proved illusory, our attention turns from the poles to that space between them. With this, Cather secures a space for her own voice and the many whose exotic accents have come to comprise American literature.
1. My warm gratitude goes to Geoffrey Becker and the other attendees at the 1999 Willa Cather on Mesa Verde conference for their enthusiasm for the paper and their comments by which it was improved. Thanks also to the editors of this journal for comments on this revision.
3. See, for instance: C. Dahl, "An American Georgic: Willa Cather's My Ántonia," Comparative Literature 7 (1955): 43-51; E. Helmick, "Myth in the Works of Willa Cather," Midcontinent American Studies Journal (1968): 63-69; L. Jacks, "The Classics and Willa Cather," Prairie Schooner 35 (1961): 289-296; S. Rosowski, "Willa Cather—A Pioneer in Art: O Pioneers! and My Ántonia," Prairie Schooner 55 (1981): 141-154; M. Ryder, Willa Cather and Classical Myth: The Search for a New Parnassus (Lewiston: Edward Mellen Pr, 1990).
4. A comprehensive argument for Ántonia's ultimate association with Demeter and the Eleusinian mysteries is found in E. Helmick, "The Mysteries of Ántonia," in My Ántonia, ed. H. Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987).
5. M. Ryder, "Our Ántonia: The Classical Roots of Willa Cather's American Myth," Classical and Modern Literature 12 (1992): 111-117. Ryder certainly makes a strong case that Cather has a place in "Western Literature" but perhaps overlooks how contested that place is.
6. Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (New York: Knopf, 1953), 155, describes the aspect of Cather's fiction that allows for the felt presence of the unnamed Symposium thus: "occasionally she outlined beforehand her plan for a novel; but she always left out its real theme, the secret treasure at its heart, the thing that gave it its reason for being." A useful discussion of how to approach what Cather leaves out and to construct meaning in her omissions is found in J. Middleton, Willa Cather's Modernism (London: Associated U Pr, 1990).
7. All of my references to the text come from the edition that first restored the introduction, My Ántonia by Willa Cather, Bantam 1994.
8. J. Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 146.
9. All translations of the Greek are from Plato's Symposium, or the Drinking Party, trans. Michael Joyce (London and New York: Everyman's Library, 1935).
10. K. Dover, Plato. Symposium (Cambridge: Cambridge U Pr, 1980), 136-138.
11. For descriptions of the gendered symposia, see E. Stehle, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece: Nondramatic Poetry in its Setting (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1997).
12. She says: "When he came to woman he had nothing of that kind left to give, so he gave her the power of loving. . . . A woman can be great only in proportion as God put feeling in her." Cather (above, note 2), 348-349.
13. Contra Nettels, Language and Gender in American Fiction (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), 123, who cites this tenet as a lapse by Cather into sentimental cliché.
14. Rosowski, K. "Willa Cather's Visions and Revisions of Female Lives," in Images of the Self as Female, ed. Benzel and L. De La Vars (Lewiston: Edward Mellen Pr, 1991): 108, describes Cather's concern to find a legacy of female voices to guide her own artistic endeavors.
15. L. Rissman, Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho (Köningstein, 1983); L. Wilson, Sappho's Sweetbitter Songs: Configuration of Female and Male in Ancient Greek Lyric (London: Routledge, 1996) provides an excellent discussion of various gender dynamics, and she provides a number of texts to describe them.
16. Nettels (see above, note 13), 125.
Caroline M. Woidat (essay date spring 2002)
SOURCE: Woidat, Caroline M. "The Indian-Detour in Willa Cather's Southwestern Novels." Twentieth-Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 22-49.
[In the following essay, Woidat examines The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop in light of the contemporary attitudes of non-Native Americans toward Native American culture, artifacts, and traditional homelands.]
If Willa Cather's adopted Nebraskan prairies constitute the homesteads of her Western literature, the Southwest qualifies as her favorite travel destination. Cather returns to treasures hidden in the area's majestic mesas in three narratives of discovery:The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, andDeath Comes for the Archbishop. 1 In considering the reasons why Willa Cather and so many other women writers and artists were attracted to the Southwest, critics have most often noted the allure of the region's striking landscape.2 The canyons and crevices depicted in Cather's fiction have been called the "most thoroughly elaborated female landscape," rich with erotic and maternal imagery (Moers 258). Also in the Southwest are stretches of open land that seem to have played a key role in drawing Cather to the area and inspiring her art, as Judith Fryer argues:
in the wide, flat, empty landscape it is possible to re-experience, to re-enter another space, another time. . . . To find the center of one's boundless desire, to give it form, is to begin in a space that is felicitous, one that frees the imagination.
While the beauty of the "empty" landscape was certainly responsible in part for luring outsiders to the region, many other factors contributed to this phenomenon. In exploring Cather's relationship to the Southwest, we must recognize that the Southwest was not empty—as Fryer suggests by adapting Henry Nash Smith's rhetoric of a "virgin land"—but in fact populated by a culturally diverse group of people. The region's Native American heritage was itself a considerable drawing card for Cather, as was its Hispanic community. It is also crucial to remember that the Southwest was perceived as an escape from the pattern of life somewhere else, thus offering certain boons to newcomers that native inhabitants could not enjoy. Cather's experience of the area was shaped by her identity as an outsider and her willingness to "go native" by vicariously living as both cowboy and Indian.
In order to explore the effect of these influences on Cather, I would like to reexamine the context in which her Southwestern fiction has been discussed. Critics have noted the connections betweenThe Professor's House and the "true" story of Mesa Verde's discovery,3 but Cather's work also reflects the experiences of early twentieth-century tourists visiting the Southwest. Although Tom Outland's archeological discovery is portrayed as an unique historical event, his encounter also represents the experience of many visitors to the ruins, including Cather herself. Cather admits that she consciously tried to capture the moment that Mesa Verde was discovered by a cowboy, but she likewise reconstructs a narrative told by many visitors to the ruins in the early 1900s. In other words, Outland's story depicts the tourist's sense of awe in confronting the Southwest's ancient cliff dwellings; Outland enacts the role that Cather and other tourists assume upon gazing at the ruins—that of a discoverer. By the time thatThe Professor's House was published, travel advertisements for the Southwest lured potential customers with stories echoing the observations made by early visitors to Mesa Verde such as Cather. Together with articles published on the cliff dwellings in popular magazines, these advertisements suggest that Cather was experiencing and writing about the Southwest in ways typical of tourists of her day.
Because Cather's own response to the cliff dwellings intersects with the discourse of railroad advertisements for the "Indian-detour," I will use this paradigm in reevaluating Cather's position as a woman writer and tourist in the Southwest and her relationship to the Indians she encountered there. Indian-detours took tourists on a side trip away from civilization as they knew it: they were offered a chance to gaze upon the Indian "other" and temporarily enter into cowboy and Indian life through an elaborate masquerade. The promise of the Indian-detour responds to the complex and often contradictory desires of Americans in confronting racial difference and the legacy of a pre-Columbian past.
Although Cather was writing after the "official" closing of the frontier noted by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, the Southwestern landscape still held the promise of architectural and archaeological discoveries for adventurers like Tom Outland.4 The Southwest was a sort of detour from the main routes taken in the course of empire described by Turner. Just as Outland's story is a narrative inset, America's exploration of these cliff dwellings unfolds within the larger story of "the West." The enthusiasm with which Outland and Rodney Blake excavate the cliff city has a historical counterpart in the expeditions conducted by Richard Wetherill after his "discovery" of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in 1888.5 In the summer of 1915, Cather visited with Wetherill's brother Alfred during a trip to Mesa Verde and listened to his account of the adventure. She later claimed to have "followed the real story very closely in Tom Outland's narrative" (Willa Cather in Person 193). Cather's version of the Wetherills' discovery does not, however, record the historical details of this event so much as it preserves the myth that these brothers embraced—the ideal of a frontier that was still uncharted and full of promise. With Tom Outland's story, Cather embraces the popular sentiments of archaeologists and tourists at the turn of the century by turning to the Southwest as a means of living this myth and experiencing a frontier still "open" to discovery.
In his autobiography, Alfred Wetherill attributes their father's decision to move westward to either "the pioneer instinct, or the 'Go west, young man, go west' advice of Horace Greeley. . . . Or, it may have been the dreams of perfect health under the invigorating skies of the Golden West that induced him to be a would-be pioneer" (31). Wetherill's westering narrative leads to the story of his family's exploration of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, which is also colored by the theme of Manifest Destiny. He confesses that it is not clear how they "graduated from ranching to archeology" (94) but expresses a conviction that the Wetherills were perhaps "predestined" to take charge of the ruins (104):
It was so much like treading "holy ground" to go into those peaceful-looking homes of a vanished people. It is something you have to experience to appreciate. It recurred again and again as we found new houses, untouched through all those long years. We knew that if we did not break into that charmed world someone else would, sometime—someone who might not love and respect those emblems of antiquity as we did. It was a strange feeling: perhaps all this had been given into our keeping until someone else might do it more capably than we.
Cather's rhetoric is striking in its similarity to Wetherill's as Tom Outland describes a sense of "a special kind of solemnity" in the ruins (Professor's House 180) and his own "duty" to take care of them (202). The cliff dwelling here and in Cather's fiction provides a stage for discovery even after the alleged closing of the frontier: its invasion parallels the settling of the land from which it was carved, the ruins being merely the last nooks and crannies of the West left to "conquer." Wetherill's family and Tom Outland follow the narrative of Manifest Destiny by assuming the role of chosen people who have been granted guardianship over the land.
The cliff dwellings offered a new frontier to archaeologists and tourists alike, and the distinction between tourists and amateur archaeologists was often blurred. Discoveries of American Indian ruins stimulated the country's imagination and renewed the spirit of exploration that had originally animated the settling of the West. In 1900, six years before Mesa Verde became a national park, George Wharton James encouraged readers of the Scientific American to join in the effort to locate hidden ruins by offering this tantalizing promise:
I am satisfied there are scores of cliff dwellings in Arizona and New Mexico yet to be found, and I am glad to have the opportunity the wide and thoughtful clientage of the Scientific American affords me to urge upon all travelers into this region the most thorough and careful search for places and dwellings of the prehistoric peoples regardless of the assertions made that such search will be in vain.
Once a cliff dwelling was discovered, it did not cease to offer rewards to those adventurous enough to undertake a visit. As "virgin" sites of ruins became increasingly rare, explorers could no longer be guaranteed archaeological "finds." Yet the rhetoric of discovery continued to provide an incentive to visit the Southwest by emphasizing the need to experience the cliff dwellings firsthand. Writing in 1919, nearly 20 years after James, Charles D'Emery made a different type of appeal to the Scientific American's subscribers:
With all the different means of transportation, this world has become a maze of highways and byways, more or less traveled. Beyond these, even a few miles beyond, there may lie treasures and sights that would bring us thousands of miles to see, if we but knew where to find them. When someone stumbles across one of these wonders, he may find it too awesome, too impressive in its grandeur to describe. No words are descriptive enough, no photographs realistic enough, to give someone else the feeling of sublime grandeur that we experience when we first look down upon the vale of the Lost City.
Even in the 1920s, those who were adventurous enough to wander off the main roads could still make "discoveries" that most travelers missed. D'Emery asserts—as Tom Outland will—that the sight and experience of these ancient cities cannot be translated, that verbal or photographic images fail to convey the "sublime grandeur" of the actual landscape. Outland endures the dangers of a difficult river crossing and a steep, rocky path to be rewarded with a view of the Blue Mesa's secret, one which is not easily expressed in words: "I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it," he recounts, but admits that he can't describe the sight or experience, that we will never be able to see it "as" he saw it (179). Like D'Emery, Outland insists that the ruins must be viewed in person, and he influences St. Peter to travel through the Southwest in the same way that Cather's own novel has inspired readers to make such a trip.
While archeological discovery was one channel by which the Southwest's secrets were revealed to white Americans, these treasures were also being discovered as objects of the tourist gaze. As early as 1895, the Wetherills began guiding visitors through the Mesa Verde dwellings. Alfred Wetherill describes the family's continuing rise from "dirt farmers" to tour guides:
We had thoroughly explored the entire region, mapped it, named the cañons, ruins, and water-holes—perhaps not to the satisfaction of anyone else—to meet our own requirements. So, managing for a limited amount of publicity, we commenced catering to the tourist trade.
Outland resembles the Wetherills in his amateur attempts at archeology, describing how he and his comrades performed "what we called excavating" and how they "numbered each specimen" (189). Although Outland resists sharing the site with a larger public, explaining that they "were reluctant to expose those silent and beautiful places to vulgar curiosity" (183), he recognizes the historical significance of the mesa for all Americans and thus seeks out specialists in Washington, D.C. As we have seen, the Western landscape already embodied a national moral—the ideology of Manifest Destiny—but the ancient ruins added new cultural meaning to the West. Because they were the first "Americans," the cliff dwellers and their accomplishments—the ingenuity of their architecture and sophistication of their art, for example—could be (re)claimed along with their mummies and potsherds.
Stories of unexpected archeological discoveries such as Wetherill/Outland's were not limited to scientific journals, but often took the form of adventure stories in popular magazines. Travel narratives written by "tenderfoots" detailed the hardships and rewards of visiting the ruins in these early days of tourism. In spite of the arduous trails and humble lodgings, one visitor to Mesa Verde in 1908 looked skeptically toward a future in which guests might make the ascent in "a touring car with obsequious porters" and spend the night in an "up-to-date hotel." "When that day comes," she wrote, "I shall be glad I made my visit before all the romance was taken out of the trip" (Anderson 206). Horseback riding and camping out were part of the Western experience, and early tourists appreciated the relatively "unspoiled" state of the already finely combed ruins. Although the site of the cliff dwellings would always be of interest to tourists, its attraction was originally enhanced by the lack of development, which would eventually occur and taint the "virgin" beauty of the canyon.
The paradox that emerges is similar to the one that plagues Outland: exposing the secrets of the mesa cannot be done a "right" way, for proclaiming the value of the cliff dwellings does not guarantee their preservation but rather makes them vulnerable to exploitation. David Lowenthal describes the dilemma when he observes that "protecting historic sites and artifacts may equally doom them beyond recognition" (215). Despite his best intentions, Outland could not prevent the relics and ruins from becoming commodified and open to theft and erosion.6 Likewise, a visitor to the Southwest who discovered a hidden treasure could not draw attention to it without destroying an important element of its beauty: the absence of hordes of other tourists. The same predicament held true for the Western landscape at large in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This irony is also apparent, for example, in John Muir's struggle to win governmental protection for wilderness areas. By encouraging more people to visit the nation's forests, Muir hoped to preserve many of the lands, but he was unable to prevent the types of destruction that would inevitably result from this increased human impact on nature. Transforming Mesa Verde and these various wilderness areas into national parks did not "preserve" the landscape but rather changed it into a site/sight that had to be experienced, objectifying the land by submitting it to the tourist gaze.
At Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Mesa Verde landscape was literally objectified, recreated in an elaborate diorama that intrigued visitors and contributed to the Southwest's tourism boom. In 1897, the rush of tourists to Mesa Verde prompted a local newspaper to dub these pilgrims "knights of the grip"—that is, the suitcase (qtd. in Duane A. Smith 36). With improved roads and railways, the number of visitors multiplied. Although the Southwest was already drawing tourists to the cliff-dweller ruins at the time Cather was writing,7 in her fiction she creates an idyllic escape in a "private" canyon. InThe Song of the Lark, Thea's stay enacts the fantasy of any tourist—perhaps even Cather's own—as she enters the simple life of a cliff dweller. Ironically, her novel became one of the many travel narratives that enticed the "knights of the grip" to visit the Southwest, making a solitary encounter like Thea's or Tom's increasingly unlikely. Cather did, in fact, overtly encourage travelers to visit Mesa Verde in an essay published in The Denver Times on January 31, 1916 (rpd. in Rosowski and Slote).8 In this essay and in her fiction, Cather's romantic depictions of the cliff dwellings appeal to readers as a travel advertisement would, stimulating the desire to see the ruins first-hand.
By the 1920s, advertisements enticing readers of travel magazines to visit the Southwest urged them not to miss the "Indian-detour." Travelers on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads were offered the chance to take side trips by motor car to see the cave dwellings and other Indian attractions. Although Cather tries to distinguish her characters from mere tourists, the rewards they discover in the Southwest are similar to the ones promised by these advertisements. Likewise, the adventures of Thea and Tom resemble dozens of travel narratives recording experiences among the cliff dwellings in which visitors embrace the ancient people as their own relatives. These sites appeal to white visitors because the empty dwellings allow them to escape their own country's history of conflict with Native Americans; here tourists can enjoy a fanciful escape from racial politics and imagine their own affinities with romanticized Indians.
One feature of the ruins used to lure tourists was "an undreamed-of American History, romance and antiquity" (Southern Pacific, Sunset Nov. 1928). A Harveycar advertisement for the Indian-detour asks, "What do you know about the Forgotten Peoples of Pu-yé and Ci-cu-yé—of Pueblo Bonito and Penasco Blanco—of Aztec and Mesa Verde?" When Thea spends time in Panther Canyon, she too learns about these "Forgotten Peoples," whom she sees as her own ancestors: "The Cliff-Dwellers had lengthened her past. She had older and higher obligations" (243). Although Thea visits ruins that are privately owned as a "guest" rather than a common tourist, she discovers the same "undreamed-of American History" described by the advertising copy, accepting the cliff dwellers as her own forerunners and drawing inspiration from their achievements in the way that customers were encouraged to do.
In a spirit of rivalry with Europe, travel advertisements boasted of these accomplishments in "American" history. The same Harveycar ad proclaims: "While Western Europe was yet a wilderness prehistoric American peoples wove fine cotton cloth, built great irrigation systems, reared many-storied cities." Challenging the idea that American culture remained in its infancy, another Harveycar advertisement for the Indian ruins describes "a treasure of romance, archaeology and history such as many have supposed existed only abroad" and offers an alternative historical perspective by asking, "Is this really the New World?". To promote the Apache Trail side trip, a Southern Pacific advertisement praises the "Vanished Peoples" for their "cliff dwellings, adobe castles, and strange forts and apartment houses" (Sunset Nov. 1928), reminding the reader that "Their remarkable civilization flourished long before Columbus discovered America. It was already in ruins when Coronado's Spaniards of the sixteenth century rode by." Along the Apache Trail, "you will have a good opportunity also to marvel at the New West—gigantic irrigation works of which the Roosevelt Dam is but one example." The cliff dwellers were thus ennobled as the forerunners of American civilization, the continent's first artists and master builders. Their work was understood as part of a continuous history of human achievement that culminated in a New West, including dams, railways, and highways.
Whereas the Indians of the Old West first had entered American history as "savages," the cliff dwellers earned respect for their prehistoric "apartment buildings" and various industries. The achievements of the cliff dwellers were thus linked to modern American rather than Native American culture. An article written in 1910 described the conclusions of archeological research as follows: "In art and industry, the modern Hopis are notably inferior to their remote progenitors, so that there has been degeneration, rather than development" (Cowan 342). American tourists could take pride in the prehistoric ruins of the Southwest because the Ancient People seemed more "civilized" than their descendants, the tribes who later defended their land against European invaders. The cliff dwellers had "vanished" mysteriously, whereas the Indians of the Old West were part of a legend of bloodshed, and modern tribes still posed sensitive political dilemmas. The Indian-detour was, after all, part of a vacation package that promised pleasure: it had to offer an idealized version of the Southwest and its native people, and thus it set out to glorify this "vanished" civilization.
In bothThe Song of the Lark andThe Professor's House, Cather also characterizes the ancient cliff dwellers as a community of artisans and architects who might be considered superior to Native Americans living in the twentieth century. Thea is inspired by the cliff dwellers' pottery, which she describes as "an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself" (240). The gracefully designed pottery and sheltering walls of the ruins give form to human desire and thus symbolize the artistic process itself, which Thea enacts with her own singing by making a "vessel" of her throat, nostrils, and breath (240).9 Tom Outland likewise sees in the cliff dwellings a testimony to the creative spirit. Describing the tower on the mesa, he remarks, "I had been to Acoma and the Hopi villages, but I'd never seen a tower like that one. It seemed to me to mark a difference. I felt that only a strong and aspiring people would have built it, and a people with a feeling for design" (182). Tom's praise for the Mesa Verdeans does more than recognize their talents; it implies that they were more admirable than the Acoma and Hopi of Tom's own day. Father Duchene likewise considers the cliff dwellers a "superior people," telling Tom that "their life, compared to that of our roving Navajos, must have been quite complex." Duchene sees similarities between their designs and the pottery of ancient Greece; by contrast, he declares that "the shapes and decoration of the water jars and food bowls is better than in any of the existing Pueblos I know" (197). Cather's fiction, like the travel advertisements of her day, preferred vanished Native Americans to those still living.
Contemporary Native Americans did play a role in tourism, but only insofar as they enabled visitors to step into a life-size tableau of the Old West and meet the type of traditional Indians popularized as a vanishing race. Tourists sought contact with costumed Indians who fulfilled their aesthetic ideals of "primitive" clothing, dance, and artwork. The Indian-detour offered the chance to observe "colorful and unusual Indian ceremonies" (Harveycar), performances catering to tourists' desire for the exotic and their concept of the "noble" Indian. Trading posts sold Indian goods such as blankets, jewelry, and pottery, which varied from expensive collector's items to cheap souvenirs. Surrounded by trappings that signified their Indianness to outsiders, the Native American people were themselves transformed into aesthetic objects by the tourist's camera. Just as visitors hoped to see the Mesa Verde ruins before they became too commercialized, tourists to the Southwest were interested in encountering "authentic" Indians rather than "modern" ones. They did not want to confront the poverty and injustices facing twentieth-century Native Americans, preferring to indulge in nostalgia by seeking out apparitions of the past.
For this reason, the cliff dwellings were especially appealing as a blank page of a history that the tourist could imaginatively recreate. The Ancient People seemed removed from the political ideology of westward expansion that had polarized whites and Native Americans in terms of "civilization" and "savagery." While admitting that they were a "primitive" people, accounts of the cliff dwellers compared them to modern architects, farmers, and apartment dwellers—even to modern industrial workers.10 Because of the cities and artifacts they left behind, scientists and tourists felt that it was possible to get to know them. While archaeologists formulated their theories through excavation and research, everyone could create visions of the cliff dwellers' lives by using their imagination.
"Not the least joy of Mesa Verde is that here all are privileged to dream," wrote one visitor. "It is a haven for poets as well as scientists. The latter's theories do not hamper imagination so much that it may not rise on many a charming flight" (Spencer 287). This observation is corroborated by the publication of poems and stories about the cliff dwellers that were inspired by visits to the ruins. A poem appearing in 1918 illustrates the personal relationship with the cliff dwellers that visitors often felt: "I touch your pictured stones, walk your small city with / its myriad broken cells, and I believe I know you just / a little as you were . . ." (Henderson). The author of a travel narrative published in 1923 described a similar sense of "knowing" the people who built Cliff Palace:
As I sat of nights, my legs dangling over the rocky edge on the opposite side of the cañon it did not take any second sight to behold these ruins quivering with life. They seemed so homy [sic], so hospitable, so much used and made to be used! . . . You have a sense that these were a happy people; those crumbling walls seemed soaked with laughter, with simple longings fulfilled, with innocent sociability.
While the modern Native American was in many ways "other" to the tourist, visitors to the cliff dwellings thought they could identify with the Ancient People whose homes they wandered. Like Cather, they were inspired to claim Native America as a part of their own historical past.
Similar sentiments are expressed in Cather's stories of the cliff dwellings. As Thea scrapes at the carbon left by the cliff dwellers' fires, she senses that "They were that near!" (238). The first time she uses the ancient path to the stream, she begins "to have intuitions about the women who had worn the path" (238). To her, the empty city is haunted by the spirit of the Ancient Ones:
It seemed to Thea that a certain understanding of those old people came up to her out of the rock-shelf on which she lay; that certain feelings were transmitted to her, suggestions that were simple, insistent, and monotonous, like the beating of Indian drums.
As Thea envisions the lives of the cliff dwellers, their sensibilities are "transmitted" to her so that she can in fact become one of them. As she uses their well-worn path,
She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and loins which she had never known before—which must have come up to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed.
Throughout her stay in Panther Canyon, Thea feels like a cliff dweller, and such feeling as hers was part of the tourist's experience of the West. While playing cowboy certainly appealed to children, adults also joined in reliving the days of the Old West. An advertisement for the Southern Pacific's Golden State Route tells travelers that they can "follow the Longhorn Trail" (Sunset Sept. 1928) as the cowboys did, without having to leave the comfort of their railway cars. Even after motoring replaced traveling by covered wagon on the Santa Fe Trail, the journey was still considered a "pioneer" undertaking by tourists venturing west. One account of traveling the Santa Fe Trail by motor car in 1911 described the trip in terms of Western adventure. Following the trail, the party "came to some realization of the ardor of the pioneers as they marked out their course in the memorable gold rush to California" (Drum 678).
Filled with nostalgia as they neared Dodge City, they were "almost ready to dodge bullets [them]selves," and "therefore somewhat disappointed to find a prosperous and peaceful city" (679). Camping out at night, the author wrote, "we heard the coyote and the wild animals howling at our door, and not one of us slept without a gun under our pillow" (684). The dangers and misadventures in such travel narratives are actually relished by those who experience them because they add romance to the trip. By connecting their hardships to those of the past, tenderfoot tourists of the early twentieth century imagined themselves as American pioneers.
Visitors to Mesa Verde certainly illustrate a wish to step into the past, and especially to escape the present. The thrill of this escape might be attributed in part to the possibilities of experimenting with new identities. Paul Fussell writes: "The escape is also from the traveler's domestic identity, and among strangers a new sense of selfhood can be tried on, like a costume" (13). Granted this freedom, tourists at the cliff dwellings could perform Western cross-dressing, alternating between the characters of cowboy and Indian. The Indian-detour thus offered tourists an opportunity to transcend political and cultural conflicts between whites and Native Americans and identify with cliff dwellers as their "own" ancestors and fellow citizens. Likewise, Cather's characters enjoy assuming the role of early European "discoverers," yet perceive themselves as descendants of Native Americans. The cliff dwellings allowed visitors such as Cather to envision a sanitized version of America's history in which Native Americans simply "vanished" rather than being killed or forced to assimilate and relocate.
Critics considering Cather's relationship to the Southwest tend to share an understanding of the region as her "spiritual center," for this is how the characters in her three Southwestern novels seem to respond to the landscape. Tom Outland, Thea Kronborg, and Father Latour are all moved by the landscape of the Southwest to various spiritual awakenings. The Indian-detour promises an unknown world in which tourists can explore the depths of American history, and Cather's narratives show how this can lead to a new sense of identity. We have seen how her fictional accounts of the cliff dwellings reflect the responses of the Wetherills, scientists, and tourists upon encountering the ruins. It is my contention that Cather's relation to the Southwest as an artist embodies the same contradictions inherent in the tourist/discoverer's experience of the land, and that these contradictions are revealed in her treatment of the cliff dwellings as a kind of "detour" in the texts. However the cliff dwellers may have been reclaimed as twentieth-century visitors' own ancestors, the visitors' adoption of these Native American ghosts must be recognized as a manifestation of class anxieties and racial tensions.
Cather herself has generally been exempted from the status of a tourist to the Southwest not only because of the frequency and length of her visits to the area but also because it was assumed that she had been there before it was "discovered" by travelers. In 1931 Louise Bogan writes about Cather: "She went each year, for rest and refreshment, to Santa Fe or Quebec. Taos and Santa Fe she has known well since 1912, long before the days of motorbuses and nationally advertised Indian Detours" (qtd. in Cather, Willa Cather in Person 114). The implication that Cather is not a mere tourist is clear. Cather did, however, travel to the Southwest for the same reasons most Americans did: she reveled in the exotic and "primitive" landscape and cultures of the area. At that time the dry climate was considered ideal for one's health, and Cather was recovering from an illness at the time she first visited the Southwest (O'Brien, Willa Cather 403). The purpose of her trip, she insisted, was to rest, not write. Although she would draw upon her experiences there in three of her novels, Cather did not actively work at "collecting material" during her stay.
In spite of the ways that Cather's relationship to the Southwest has been idealized, then, her experiences there reflect her identity not only as an artist but also as a tourist/discoverer. Like other visitors, Cather sought different forms of escape in her trips to the area. On the one hand, she was able to experiment with various roles and identities, trying on "costumes" that she could discard at will. Cather indeed "threw herself into selecting the khakis that she and Edith Lewis would wear at the Mesa Verde," choosing "some that she thought resembled those worn by Kurt in Fidelio" (Sergeant 132). By imitating soprano Melanie Kurt in the part of Leonore—a character who disguises herself as a man—Cather consciously adopts the role of a cross-dressing woman. In a photograph at a cliff dwelling, Cather wears a cowboy hat that her friend Elizabeth Sergeant later thought created a resemblance to Tom Outland himself (132). Like the children in the Indian-detour advertisements, Cather engaged in various forms of historical and racial cross-dressing. In the role of cowboy, she enjoyed riding horseback on the rugged trails that led to the cliff dwellings. As tourist "pioneers," Cather and Lewis took delight in the hardships of such travel. As Cather told Sergeant, they "had a rugged, scary, but magnificent experience of getting lost afoot by night in a canyon. But both of them enjoyed it . . ." (132).11 In the Southwest, Cather could fulfill a longing for the earlier days of the frontier, and she herself could be reborn as a pioneer.
Cather also found herself crossing ethnic boundaries, something she could do more freely there than back East. While visiting her brother in Winslow, Arizona, Cather spent much of her time with a young Mexican singer named Julio. With Julio as her escort, she attended a Mexican dance where she was the only Anglo woman present (Sergeant 82-83), an experience recreated inThe Song of the Lark (181-83). The intensity of Cather's relationship with Julio also suggests that she enjoyed staging a heterosexual fling despite her lifelong attachments to other women. The nature of her attraction to non-Anglo men, however, is not unlike the tourist's response to Native Americans. Based on one of Cather's letters, Sergeant explains Julio's appeal as follows: "His golden skin, his ancient race, his eyes with their tragic gleam—well, he reminded Willa of some antique sculpture in the Naples Museum. Being with him was like living in a classic age" (80). Cather could appreciate Julio as an aesthetic object: like the ruins and relics, he was a remnant of another age. Cather's reaction to Mabel Dodge Luhan's Pueblo husband, Tony, also acknowledges the allure of non-Anglo men. When asked why Mabel would marry an Indian, Cather replied, "How could she help it?" (Sergeant 206).12
Like many of the tourists to the Southwest, however, Cather did not concern herself with political and economic issues of Native American life. According to Sergeant, Mabel Luhan's efforts to gain supporters for the movement to protect Pueblo lands and ceremonies made no impression upon Cather, for "the tribal side of the Indian meant little to her" (207). Sergeant, who was an activist for Indian rights, had disagreements with Cather on this subject. As they discussed one of Sergeant's visits to New Mexico, Cather remarked that escaping the urban setting must have done her friend good, and enumerated the benefits of returning to "ancient America" by leaving "world problems" behind. Sergeant gives this account of her response:
But, I retorted, world problems exist in the Southwest in microcosmic form. Primitive man, in New Mexico, a state three fifths the size of France, is living in a stratified society. The few whites—"Anglos"—on top, the native Mexicans, on the next layer, and the Indians at the bottom of the heap. The classes and the masses, as in Europe or in a French or British colony. What is the Pueblo Indian's relation to American democracy?
Willa did not ask herself such questions.
Cather connected the native peoples of the Southwest to the past, maintaining a separation between their world and modern America. In her fiction, she romanticizes Native and Mexican Americans, creating portraits not unlike those of photographers Edward Curtis and William Henry Jackson, pictures that preserve the "authentic" Indian as a "remnant of another age." In his photographs of the West, Curtis dressed and posed his subjects carefully, guided by his own aesthetic ideals and racial stereotypes.13 Cather's stories of the cliff dwellings also blur questions of ethnicity by claiming these "ancestors" for all Americans. As Walter Benn Michaels has observed, such a descent is "not only false but on her and [Tom's] own terms impossible; since the cliff dwellers were 'utterly exterminated,' no one is descended from them" (221). Tom's willingness to claim the Mesa Verdeans as his own relatives depends upon the fiction that the Pueblo people still inhabiting the Southwest are not themselves the true descendants of these ancient people. By embracing a faulty tribal genealogy, Cather's narrative can overlook the connection between these Pueblo tribes and the cliff dwellers whom Tom and Father Duchene consider a separate, "superior" civilization.
As a fiction writer, Cather was not concerned with the twentieth-century Indians and social issues that engaged Sergeant as an activist: her Southwest would be constructed out of the past rather than the present. Some tourists did seek contact with "real, live Indians", and Sergeant and Luhan's attraction to the political affairs of the area reflects this common impulse to become involved in the local culture. The pride they take in their activism is not unlike the excitement of the young girls who exclaim, "Gee! we are going to see real, live Indians!" Personal contact with flesh-and-blood Indians is for some tourists a thrilling way to try on a new identity and claim a connection to Indian people. Cather herself preferred to explore the region's ideal landscape, however, and the position she takes as a tourist who wants to escape rather than confront current politics is consistent with her own vision of the artist's role. When asked what she thought about "the Art of 'Escape'"—a term applied disparagingly to her own work by critics in the 1930s14 —Cather responded:
Isn't the phrase tautological? What has art ever been but an escape? To be sure, this definition is for the moment used in a derogatory sense, implying an evasion of duty, something like the behaviour of a poltroon. When the world is in a bad way, we are told, it is the business of the composer and the poet to devote himself to propaganda and fan the flames of indignation.
But the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters—except escape.
(["Escapism: A Letter to The Commonweal. " ] 18-19)
Cather then uses the example of the cliff dwellers' pottery as art: the intricate decorative patterns on the jars have a value all their own that has nothing to do with improving the material conditions of the tribe. The jars were not created out of an interest in "promoting tribal security," but rather from "an unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man" (19). This statement might be read as Cather's own "retort" to criticism such as Sergeant's: the art of "escape" is a response to rather than an evasion of the world's problems.
The Indian-detour provides a metaphor for Cather's novels of the Southwest, which offer an escape to her readers in the form of "detours" to the cliff dwellings. Together, Cather's three Southwestern novels form a trilogy that offers such a retreat into the past. In "Tom Outland's Story" and "The Ancient People," Cather conjures up not only the history of the cliff-dweller people but also the beauty of the cliff-dwelling sites as they were before being developed into tourist attractions. Likewise, inDeath Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour becomes the first white man to visit the sacred cave. Despite Cather's contention that her art embraces escapism, and despite her unwillingness to engage in racial politics, her novels do illustrate the tourist's mistake of believing that the past can be successfully preserved and relived. She depicts these retreats to the past not as veritable escapes, but rather mere detours that must return us to present realities.
While Fryer describes the Southwest as a spiritual "center" (293) for Cather, Cather's writing and experiences in many ways exemplify the spirit of the Indian-detour: the Southwest is a mere side-trip in a larger story grounded in the perspective of her own class and ethnic prejudices. Thea herself is a tourist on a sort of Indian-detour: Fred persuades her that the trip will provide the "tonic" she needs as a sunny escape from the Chicago weather that is wearing her down. Like the narrative inset of Outland's story in The Professor's House, Cather's chapter on "The Ancient People" is a detour in the story line of the novel.The Song of the Lark is one of Cather's most heavily plotted novels, yet this chapter is in many ways self-contained. Thea's rejuvenation in Panther Canyon may seem necessary for her career, but this is because it allows her to return to the true site of her artistic development in her own hometown. Speaking of memories of Moonstone, she tells Dr. Archie, "They save me: the old things, things like the Kohlers' garden. . . . A child's attitude toward everything is an artist's attitude. I am more or less of an artist now, but then I was nothing else" (351). Thea does not become an artist in Panther Canyon but as a child in Moonstone; her vacation merely provides a retreat into those days: "Here everything was simple and definite, as things had been in childhood" (241). Her time at the cliff dwellings is ultimately an escape from her everyday existence that allows her to play different roles—cliff dweller, cowboy, Fred's lover—and to reflect in solitude. Realizing that they cannot suspend time indefinitely, however, Thea and Fred leave the Southwest because they are "tired of the desert and the dead races, of a world without change or ideas" (258-59). Their departure mirrors Cather's own epiphany in the desert: after two months she felt the need to return to civilization, imagining she heard a voice warning "the West is consuming you, make tracks for home" (Sergeant 84). The seemingly "empty" landscape recalls Cather's description of Nebraska's prairies as Jim Burden first perceives them inMy Ántonia : "I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. . . . Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out" (7-8). In the same way that the Southwest connects Thea to Moonstone, it allows Cather access to the spiritual center of her own childhood by way of the Indian-detour.
Cather's second novel of the Southwest,The Professor's House, also constructs an Indian-detour in the narrative. "Tom Outland's Story" is told within the frame of Godfrey St. Peter's story, as a flashback to the night that Outland first gave an account of his six months on the Blue Mesa. For St. Peter, Outland's journal provides an escape into the past, returning him to the days when Outland was still alive. Within Outland's own life, the days on the mesa are also a sort of detour. He begins his story by explaining the adventure as "the thing that side-tracked me and made me so late coming to college" (159). By an unusual string of events, Outland winds up a cowpuncher and discovers the cliff dwellings. His experience on the mesa is "the story he had always kept back" from St. Peter (155), a "side-track" from the path to the accomplishments that would make him famous.
Richard Wetherill, the model discoverer on which Outland is based, did not win the same kind of admiration Outland receives in Cather's narrative. In fact, the guides at Mesa Verde often represented the Wetherills as vandals, if they gave them any mention at all. Outland's own activities—digging through the dwellings, documenting his findings, keeping "only a few" relics for himself—are justified by his good intentions. Sergeant relates how Cather herself had "rather shamefacedly" displayed the potsherds she brought back from her trip: "It had seemed a sacrilege to take anything for oneself from those cliff dwellings that hung along Walnut Canyon, on 'streets' that were hewn from the chalky rock" (123). This type of souvenir hunting can be excused, whereas Rodney Blake commits a crime against his country. When Outland learns of the sale to the German collector, he admits he had hoped to make money from the government for his time and labor, but insists upon his innocence in the matter of auctioning off the relics:
But I never thought of selling them, because they weren't mine to sell—nor yours! They belonged to this country, to the State, and to all the people. They belonged to boys like you and me, that have no other ancestors to inherit from. . . .
Outland's rhetoric is reminiscent of advertisements, articles, and travel narratives that honored the achievements of our American "ancestors" and reclaimed a past that would compete with Europe's. By casting Outland in a sympathetic role, Cather idealizes her character, but not the story of the desecration of the ruins; she allows Blake to shoulder the brunt of the blame. With his romantic attachment to the ancient people, Tom is representative of white Americans who lament the loss of Native American cultural treasures without fully recognizing their own role in the process.
Cather's reconstruction of Wetherill's discovery offers an escape into a prelapsarian world but also depicts its fall. By 1927—and the age of the Indian-detours—Cather's last Southwestern novel retreats even further into the past. At a time when it is no longer possible to escape the encroachment of modern life by journeying to the Southwest, Cather sets Death Comes for the Archbishop in the Old West, using a sweeping landscape as a backdrop for the action of characters out of Western legends: noble but fierce Indians, childlike Mexicans, and colorful heroes such as Kit Carson. Unlike Thea and Tom, Father Latour does not travel into the past and enter the lives of "vanished" Americans but rather is involved with the indigenous people of the Southwest still living. Although Latour's story is written as a type of travel narrative,15 he cannot be relegated to the status of a tourist. The desert is not a detour for the priest; he spends most of his life in this adopted country, working among the Mexican and Native Americans.
Consequently, Latour's experience of the ceremonial cave differs from that of the tourist/discoverer. Latour does not visit the dwelling by choice but of necessity: his guide, Jacinto, leads him there as a last resort when they are caught in a snowstorm. Jacinto is uneasy about bringing the French priest into the cave, which is known only to members of his tribe. Latour assures his guide that he will "forget" the place as soon as they leave, a promise reinforced by Latour's dread of his surroundings. Whereas Thea and Tom felt at home in the cliff dwellings, Latour is "struck by a reluctance, an extreme distaste for the place" (127). Listening to the underground river that resonates through the cave, Latour comments, "It is terrible" (130). Latour's discomfort highlights the difference that exists between these two men and their cultures; in this tribal cave, the priest is clearly out of place.16 By juxtaposing his experience with the adventures of Thea and Tom, we can understand why the cliff dwellings of "vanished" peoples are more congenial to the tourist/discoverer: their disappearance predates the struggle between Native Americans and white settlers. If Tom and Thea were to consider these settlers as their ancestors rather than claiming the heritage of the cliff dwellers, they would perhaps find themselves in an uneasy relation to the spirits they befriend and whose homes they invade. Cather's last Southwestern novel alludes to "the thing not named" in the tourist's act of escape—the cultural differences and conflicts that Thea and Tom only appear to transcend.17
Through Tom and Thea's experiences at the cliff dwellings, we see Cather herself in complex roles as author, discoverer, and tourist. If she was able to "discover" the cliff-dweller ruins before the age of Indian-detours, her own novels played a role in attracting tourists.18 In Cather's fiction of the Southwest, she creates a romanticized version of the cliff dwellings and their visitors, the ideal of any tourist seeking solitude and wonder. In these charmed, sleeping cities, white visitors may be lulled into an escape from racial issues by adopting an "innocent" past. But Cather also provides careful readers with traces of the troubling details that have been airbrushed from the scene, evidence of American materialism and cultural conflict. Tom's role in the commodification of the cliff dwellers' pottery and bones, Thea's urge to flee the world of "dead races," and Father Latour's anxiety in the sacred cave suggest an uneasy relationship between white tourist/discoverers and the indigenous people of the Southwest. In her three novels we witness the unfulfilled desire of sympathetic white Americans who want to believe that they can make peace with their nation's violent history of exploiting Native Americans, ancient and living.
1. Cather also wrote a short story about the cliff dwellings in 1909, before her first visit to the Southwest. In "The Enchanted Bluff," a group of young boys are enthralled by the story of a cliff city and make plans to travel there and be the first to enter the dwellings. The boys never realize their plans, although they continue to dream about the ruins into their adulthood. Cather's later novels thus fulfill this earlier fantasy of discovery and entry into the ruins.
2. In addition to Cather, women such as Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mary Austin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Laura Gilpin demonstrate a strong sense of connection to the Southwest. For a collection of essays on this theme, see Norwood and Monk.
3. The origins of Cather's The Professor's House at Mesa Verde have been examined by David Harrell and by Susan Rosowski and Bernice Slote.
4. The Southwest was likewise seen as a land of promise for settlers, who also flocked to the area. The rhetoric of Manifest Destiny was applied to this microcosm of the West, as the titles and content of these articles suggest: "Southward Ho! America's New Trek to the Still-Open Places" (Kaufman), and "The Newest Land of Promise: Exodus of a Million Farmers Annually into the Southwest" (Ogden).
5. The date and credit for this discovery are a point of controversy in the history of Mesa Verde. Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, were allegedly the first whites to explore the Cliff Palace, which had already been spotted by Alfred Wetherill although he did not enter it at that time. Official guides at Mesa Verde have offered several variations of the story, which Alfred Wetherill and his family contested through his dying days (see Wetherill 110, 285-88). Harrell has noted that such disputes over the actual discoverer are left out of the novel, arguing that "Cather rejected these complications of Richard Wetherill's story because they did not fit into her artistic design"
6. Cather's story of Tom Outland grows out of the ironies and conflicts that eventually raised questions about the Wetherills' environmental and archaeological ethics. On the one hand, the Wetherills were lauded for bringing ancient Pueblo and cliff dwellings to the attention of the public, allowing scientists, tourists, and museum visitors access to a valuable national history that was previously unknown. Their commercial interests and methods of excavation, however, drew criticism from laypersons and professionals alike. According to David M. Brugge, Professor Edgar L. Hewett, a prominent archaeologist, "protested that the archaeological work done in 1900 was mere vandalism," and Catholic priests in the area complained of the family's dealings with Navajos who worked for them and with whom they competed for range rights (82). Hewett and many others advocated government protection of the ruins and their artifacts; this was granted in 1906, when Congress passed the Antiquities Act and the Mesa Verde National Park Bill. See both articles by Hewett.
7. At the time Cather finished The Song of the Lark (1915), the number of visitors to Mesa Verde was estimated at 663 for the year and 2,476 since the opening of the park in 1906. By the time Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, these numbers were placed at 12,005 for the year and a cumulative total of 65,867 (Duane E. Smith 211).
8. After writing The Song of the Lark, Cather also considered writing a travel book on the Southwest, but the work did not materialize (O'Brien, Willa Cather 419). Perhaps this impulse was channeled into the Mesa Verde essay and her later Southwestern novels. Rosowski and Slote identify the many similarities between this account of Mesa Verde and the one Cather later created in "Tom Outland's Story."
9. For a discussion of the ways the cliff dwellings represent the artistic process for Cather, see Fryer, especially 289-318; and Eudora Welty.
10. Frederick Hoffman compared the cliff dwellers to modern stonecutters.
11. Edith Lewis offers another account of their adventure; see 93-99.
12. Lewis writes:
Willa Cather was very much impressed by Tony Luhan, and felt an instant liking and admiration for him. He was a splendid figure, over six feet tall, with a noble head and dignified carriage; there was great simplicity and kindness in his voice and manner.
13. See Peter B. Hales and Christopher M. Lyman.
14. For an account of the critical response to Cather in the 1930s see Sharon O'Brien, "Becoming Noncanonical."
15. See David Stouck.
16. The novel's other references to cliff dwellings and ruins are equally ominous, for they are the sites of clashes between Anglos and Native Americans. When Friar Baltazar's tyranny over the people living atop the Acoma mesa culminates in the careless murder of one of his own servants, they finally revolt and throw him over a cliff (109-14). Cather also includes the story of an assault led by Kit Carson—Latour's "misguided friend"—against the Navajos at Canyon de Chelly (293).
17. In her essay "The Novel Démeublé," Cather writes:
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact of the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
18. Even Cather's archbishop became a kind of advertisement: the Bishop's Lodge Hotel at Santa Fé enjoyed such rich profits from his story that the managers offered her unlimited free accommodation (Lee 1).
I am indebted to all those who have provided direction along the winding detours. For generous assistance with the illustrations, I would like to thank Marilyn Berg Callander, Carmella Garman Orosco, Merrill Skaggs, Julie Walinski, and Laura Winters. I am especially grateful for the guidance and dedication of Ken Cooper, Jim Martin, Lee Zimmerman, and the readers at Twentieth-Century Literature, whose comments and support inspired my revisions of the manuscript.
Anderson, Eva Mills. "A Tenderfoot at the Cliff Dwellings of the Mesa Verde." Chautauquan 51 (1908): 194-206.
Brugge, David M. "The Chaco Navajos." New Light on Chaco Canyon. Ed. David Grant Noble. Santa Fe: School of American Research P, 1984. 73-90.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Vintage, 1971.
——. "Escapism: A Letter to The Commonweal." Willa Cather on Writing. 1920. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 18-29.
——. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton, 1977.
——. "The Novel Démeublé." Not under Forty. 1922. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 43-51.
——. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage, 1973.
——. The Song of the Lark. 1915. New York: Bantam, 1991.
——. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cowan, John L. "Prehistoric Apartment Houses of the Southwest." Overland Monthly 55 (1910): 341-46.
D'Emery, Charles. "Lost City: The Forgotten Dwellings of a Forgotten People in New Mexico." Scientific American Supplement 87 (1919): 216-17.
Drum, Harry C. "Motoring on the Santa Fe Trail." The World Today 20 (1911): 677-87.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
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Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.
Harrell, David. From Mesa Verde to "The Professor's House." Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992.
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Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. New York: Knopf, 1953.
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Susan Kress (essay date summer-fall 2002)
SOURCE: Kress, Susan. "Who Stole Willa Cather?" Salmagundi, nos. 135-136 (summer-fall 2002): 90-102.
[In the following essay, Kress objects to the opinions expressed by Joan Acocella in her 1995 New Yorker essay "Willa Cather and the Academy" and argues against post-feminist readings of Cather's works.]
In 1995, the noted dance critic, Joan Acocella, published an essay in The New Yorker, "Willa Cather and the Academy." According to Acocella, Cather had been seized by feminists, queer theorists, and multicultural critics, and released only after, like Patty Hearst, she had been appropriately punished and made over to the satisfaction of her kidnappers. I take the highly charged language of abduction (though not the reference to Hearst) from Acocella herself, who speaks of Cather as "abused" and "captured" by critics and of torturous (and tortuous) critical essays in which "Cather's text lies bound and gagged." What we have in Acocella's critique is yet another version of Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism? with its polemical subtitle, How Women Have Betrayed Women. Not surprisingly, Acocella's story of the stealing of Cather was published by the New Yorker always hungry for a controversy and for another jab at academic feminists. Now Acocella has enlarged her essay, though not by much, and the University of Nebraska Press has published it as a very slim book, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Acocella's primary goal is to rescue Willa Cather from the feminists and queer theorists and set the record about her straight.
At stake in Acocella's book is a provocative challenge about the nature of reading and the proper function of literary criticism. Acocella gives us the troubled history of the critical reception to Cather's work, arguing that Cather has always been misread by her critics. At first, Cather was appropriated by critics of the Left, who saw her books about immigrants as "antiestablishment, democratic," but then she was summarily dumped by them in the thirties because she paid no attention to urban ills and the struggles of workers. Even as the Left dismissed her, Cather was taken up by the Right and promoted as a celebrant of religious piety. Then, in the fifties and sixties, Cather was again captured by the Right and portrayed as a purveyor of affirmation and religious idealism. But in terms of real critical discussion, Cather was left to languish. Sidelined, she was perceived as an odd, interesting writer, always with a few champions but most having nothing much to say about her. She was not, as Acocella correctly puts it, a "subject"; she was not taken seriously in the academy or taken up by the critics. Along came the feminists of the seventies. Wanting to expand the canon, hunting for lost women writers, exploring the existence of a female tradition, and later, searching for hidden lesbians, they, according to Joan Acocella, seized upon Cather, distorted her life and her record, and made her "pay." Indeed, while Acocella's book poses as an indictment of political critics and political criticism throughout Cather's career, its real target is academic feminists. This book is a case study not so much of Cather's career and reputation as of the heinous crimes of feminist criticism, with Cather as the prime exemplar.
READING AND WRITHING
To those crimes, I will return in due course; for the moment I want to focus on the question of reading. Implicit in the assertion that critics have misread Cather is, of course, the assumption that there is a right (lower case r) way to read her. Acocella insists Cather must not be sentimentalized; she is complex, she is tragic. But she is not as complex as the feminists have made her. In order to solve the "Cather problem" (that Cather was not sufficiently "feminist"), feminist critics sought a "subtler reading," one "that would both acknowledge Cather's endorsement of unfeminist values and yet show her in conflict with those values." Quoting Elaine Showalter's assertion that "women's fiction was 'a double-voiced discourse, containing a "dominant" and a "muted" story,' which oscillated back and forth before our eyes," Acocella backs herself into a rather surprising critical corner:
But Cather's prose did not look oscillatory. Plain and pure, it rose like a cliff wall in the face of the conflict seekers, denying them access, insisting it really did mean what it said. Something was needed, some stick of dynamite to blow Cather's world open.
This passage is worth pausing over. Note first the vocabulary of violence. Feminists smash things up. Like anarchists and irresponsible revolutionaries, they use weapons of destruction for their own political ends. And as a result, Cather's world is blown apart, unalterably damaged. But such drastic means are fruitless because Cather's prose really "did mean what it said." Surely, we're behind Alice's Looking Glass here, where, in Humpty Dumpty's famous pronouncement: "when I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Does Acocella intend to say that critical scrutiny is futile, that a writer's words must be taken at (cliff) face value? Elsewhere she describes Cather's prose as "pure, classical, like something carved from white marble." What can we make of critical terms like "plain" and "pure"? Is Acocella really talking about prose—or is she communicating something about Cather herself? And if she is talking about prose, are those terms precise enough to tell us anything interesting about Cather's style? Ironically, in lamenting the view of Cather in the fifties and sixties, Acocella wittily sums up: "This was her Rushmoresque period. She became a great white monument, looming in isolation. People seeking to describe her often compared her to some distant, immovable shape." Acocella seems to be throwing her hands up here at the antics of dullard critics, but why, then, does she insist on comparing Cather's prose to cliff and marble?
Perhaps because such statements about Cather's work banish criticism, leave no space for analysis. Keep off this land, they seem to say, for Cather's prose is solid, unyielding, opaque—not evanescent, shifting, elusive, deceptive. Meaning is explicit, definite. Feminists and other trespassers seeking "gaps" or "fissures" will be prosecuted. Readers (as opposed to critics) are allowed on Cather's turf, but reading becomes an act of spectatorship, of admiration and wonder. Presumably, Acocella's ideal reader would respond in the manner of Keats's Cortez and his men, "silent, upon a peak in Darien."
Acocella's invocation to landscape is telling. It reminds us that Cather herself wrote about, and loved, the stark rocky landscapes of the southwest, but such a setting is also far from the urban to and fro of ideas. In Acocella's terms, Cather is a force of nature, immune from the forces of culture. Nostalgia is palpable here for a time when readers could just read, a time when academics were well mannered, reading to celebrate literature not to deconstruct texts, investigate writers, and raise intrusive, impudent questions about their politics.
In the beginning of chapter seven, Acocella raises the point about politics explicitly:
Should politics be left out of literary discussion? How can it be? It is part of the critic's intellectual world. If it is not there explicitly, it will be there implicitly, as today's critics have repeatedly pointed out. The problem with these critics' writings, however, is not that they contain politics, but that they contain almost nothing else. Cather might as well have been a journalist, or indeed a politician, for all that the literary qualities of her work are noticed.
It is time to ask what, exactly, feminist critics have done. Well, Acocella argues that feminists have tried to make Cather a feminist when she wasn't by twisting the analysis of her work and perverting the story of her life.
As Acocella tells it, feminists intent on including women writers in the canon seized upon Cather only to find that she did not precisely fit their requirements. Cather openly disdained women writers, created female protagonists who did not always lead exemplary lives by feminist standards, and even went so far as to adopt male protagonists. So some feminists wrote her off, but others, in a series of ever more absurd readings, ranging from the invention of unreliable narrators to the identification of gay characters everywhere, tried to claim that she was, really, a feminist after all.
But are the issues quite so clear cut? Acocella insists on a reading of Cather that focuses on exile, transcendence, and Platonic idealism—all filtered through a tragic vision. Cather "wrote about the great subject of early twentieth-century literature," says Acocella, "the gulf between the mind and the world." Fair enough. But this approach (very fifties, we might add), does not exhaust what can be said about Cather. It leaves out, for example, all the ways Cather writes about love—love lost, failed, and forbidden. It leaves out the ways Cather scrutinizes relationships between the sexes. It leaves out Cather's invention of feminized male characters—such as Paul from "Paul's Case" and Jim Burden fromMy Ántonia —and masculinized female characters such as Tommy the tomboy in "Tommy, the Unsentimental." It leaves out, for example, a story like "Coming, Aphrodite!" whose center of power lies in a scene where a male character secretly peeks through a knothole in his closet (no less) to observe the resplendent naked body of Eden Bowers, his next door neighbor. It patently leaves out the fact that Cather would not have been a subject for feminists and queer theorists if she had not provocatively opened up these questions of sexuality and identity.
As for distorting the story of Cather's life, Sharon O'Brien takes the brunt of Acocella's condemnation for her biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Intent on establishing Cather within a network of female influence and tradition, O'Brien and others have made the case that she was closer to her father at first but then became closer to her mother. She started to write under the influence of James but then met Sarah Orne Jewett and followed her advice to write what she knew. She thus found a tradition of women writers. But she was also, claim these critics, a lesbian. In her youth (from age 14-18) Willa Cather dressed as a boy, cut her hair and insisted she be called William. In college, she had a crush on Louise Pound, who would become the first woman president of the Modern Language Association. Later, she met and fell in love with Isabelle McClung (into whose house she moved over the McClung parental objections). Her letters to Pound, her devastation at McClung's marriage, and her subsequent life-long companionship with Edith Lewis make the case for her homosexuality. In this reading, Cather is seen as woman-identified in her sexual and artistic choices.
And what is the portrait of Cather that emerges from Acocella's reading? That she was closer to her father than her mother, that the four year "so-called William Cather period" is an irrelevance, that her model was not Sarah Bernhardt (gregarious, sexual) but another actress, Eleanora Duse (who had no husband, no friends and lived utterly alone). That her writerly mentors were Vergil and Henry James not Sarah Orne Jewett. That her protagonists were both male and female. That she was a lonely, hard-edged woman, never fully appreciated by her critics, one who wanted to transcend the boundaries of conventional womanhood and write as she wished. She started out with a sense of possibility, but middle and later Cather are tragic; Acocella accounts for this as a result not of her loss of McClung (though the timing fits) but of her increasing age and experience: "do we need a theory to explain why a person in her forties might cease to believe that the race is to the swift?"
It isn't my purpose to champion one or the other of these readings. The point is that biography is the art of marshalling evidence to tell a story. That story, as Carolyn Heilbrun has taught us in Writing a Woman's Life, is guided by the evidence and by the conscious and unconscious assumptions we hold about what makes a life story and about what range of stories exist for the particular life to be depicted. Are we more persuaded by Acocella or the feminists she decries? And if, as Acocella argues, there is strain in the feminists' argument to situate Cather as woman-identified, do we not equally feel the strain in Acocella's oppositional reading?
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
What seems to bother Acocella most is the fact that Cather has been described as a lesbian without actual proof that she slept with McClung or, indeed, with Lewis. She dismisses the fact that Willa Cather dressed as a boy, cutting off her hair in a crew cut and calling herself William for four years. Such male identification is common, she says, in young girls, and quotes a psychologist in a footnote. Well, yes. I remember sometimes wishing to be a boy myself, but I didn't dress as one or call myself by a boy's name. And such an action would have been considered extremely strange in the world in which I grew up. Was this not the case for Cather? Acocella offers two contradictory conclusions: that such behavior was "not that remarkable"; and then, less than two paragraphs later, that it was remarkable—that it took "extraordinary" courage to act as she did.
As for Cather's feelings toward Louise Pound, Acocella responds, "Crushes were common among college girls in Cather's day"; she does, however, acknowledge that McClung was "the love of Cather's life" and that she was devastated when McClung married. Acocella even quotes Elizabeth Sergeant, a friend of Cather's, who reported Cather's reaction to the marriage: "Her face—I saw how bleak it was, how vacant her eyes. All her natural exuberance had drained away."
Still, Acocella asserts with reason that "the lesbian argument is not airtight." She argues that Cather "knew about the stigmatization of homosexuality—and endorsed it," writing that Wilde "deserved to be in prison," and "Verlaine was a 'dirty old man.'" Acocella's summary of the reasons why the lesbian case is shaky deserves to be quoted in full:
Of course, it is not unknown for undeclared homosexuals to decry homosexuality, but if Cather had been an anxious closet lesbian wouldn't she have been careful, in her writing, not to say things that could have been viewed as evidence of homosexuality? She wasn't. In her art reviews of the 1890s she gushed over female beauty. In 1907, she published a love poem, "The Star Dial," based on Sappho and with an epigraph by Sappho. In her fiction, same-sex couples are common, and sometimes they share a bed. These facts, which are often cited as evidence of her homosexuality, are more logically interpretable as evidence that she was not homosexual, or not in her actions. Clearly, she felt she had nothing to hide. This is true of her life as well as her writing. When Isabelle McClung married, she grieved openly, told her friends how crushed she was. . . . What the evidence suggests is that Cather was homosexual in her feelings and celibate in her actions.
What a queer dance this is: the adoption of the William Cather persona is both remarkable and unremarkable. Crushes in the nineteenth century were common and "not necessarily sexual." Because Cather endorsed the stigmatization of homosexuals she was not one; because she "gushed" over female beauty, and wrote as with the voice of Sappho about unrequited (female) love, and grieved openly about the loss of McClung, it proved she had "nothing to hide." All this Acocella claims as "logic" and such logic drives her conclusion that "Cather was homosexual in her feelings and celibate in her actions." Several things must strike the impartial reader. That Acocella certainly has quite a lot to explain away and that such efforts hardly conform with her dismissal of "spun from nothing hypotheses about [Cather's] lesbianism." Further, that her concluding sentence about Cather's divided nature is fascinating. She goes on to assert that "Many of the notable women writers of the nineteenth century were celibate. . . . If Jane Austen and Emily Bronte managed without having sex, why not Cather?" Well, sure. But the point is that we do not make an elaborate case that Austen and Bronte, because they were celibate, were therefore not heterosexual. In fact, we quite comfortably assume that they were. And if Louise Pound were Louis and Isabelle were Isadore would we be exercising all this ink to prove (logically, of course) that Cather was heterosexual in imagination but therefore not (really) heterosexual?
Why do we require such a heaping up of evidence to prove homosexuality? Presumably because—even though now legal—it is still not universally acceptable to be gay. And so it becomes little short of outrageous to "accuse" someone of homosexuality (as if of some dreadful crime) unless we have absolute, incontrovertible proof—proof plain and not so pure. Homophobia still has its way with us. But such confirmation is hard to come by precisely because the history of homosexuality has been a secret one, revealed, if at all, through codes and masks. In an anthology of fiction entitled Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English, 1748-1914, the editors, Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt, point out that readers and critics of 1914 are "so unfamiliar with the signs that they can hurry through an account of a homosexual love affair . . . and not ever register what it means." And so, yes, critics look for gaps and fissures, seeing not the smooth cliff face but its cracks and crevices.
Why does it matter if a writer is or is not homosexual? In part, of course, such critical attention to a writer's sexuality is a reaction to the practice of the New Critics who sometimes snipped texts out of their biographical, historical, and cultural contexts and declared nothing but the text relevant to making meaning. But later critics believed that only through ever richer contexts could texts be coaxed to reveal their implications. And gays and feminists, hungry for a history, wanted to know more about the lives of women writers, both for the light biography could cast upon their works and for the ways their biography itself could be instructive.
And does such criticism cast a new light? Surely, the energy of queer studies has propelled new readings of old texts, testing the conventions of character, plot, and landscape. Such readings have challenged our construction of the heterosexual marriage plot, expanded our understanding of the complexity of sexual identity, provoked questions about a gay sensibility, a homosexual tradition. Such readings have pressed us to ponder whether and how concealment, the need to hide and keep secrets, might shape the writing imagination and inform literary structures. Boundaries that were fixed have become fluid, questions that were out of bounds have become imaginable. Even Acocella, despite her protests, is somewhat persuaded. "This was not entirely farfetched," she says of Ellen Moers' claim that inSong of the Lark Cather offers an example "'of the most thoroughly elaborated female landscape in literature.'" Then (in a footnote, mind) she admits that Judith Fetterley's "bold" assertion "that in Cather's descriptions of nature we hear 'a woman's voice making love to a feminine landscape' . . . does help to account for the uniquely rapturous quality of those passages." In Acocella's penultimate chapter, Acocella offers her own reading of Cather. Reflecting on the haunting dominance of exile in Cather's work, Acocella tells us: "Art . . . is a journey into thin air, a walk into whiteness, where you lose everything but yourself. It is possible that for Cather adult sexuality fit the same pattern. She was normal to herself as a child. Only once she became an adult, presumably homosexual, did she become a stranger among natives—an exile." How Acocella knows that Cather was "normal to herself" is a mystery; surely, queer theorists could do no better.
Acocella insists that writers have a right to their privacy. Like New Critics, we should let the books speak and keep the author's life out of it. Well, we can argue back and forth about the ethics and propriety of digging into writers' lives but the fact is that writers are public figures. They may go to extraordinary lengths to burn letters (as Cather did), to order friends and relatives not to cooperate with would-be biographers, to bury their secrets with them, but there is only so much control they can exercise. And all the "Keep Off" signposts in the world won't restrain us from the irresistible urge to speculate.
THE AVENGING ANGEL
Acocella begins her book with Cather'sSong of the Lark, proposing that it is the "first completely serious female kunstlerroman." Cather's novel tells the story of Thea Kronborg's rise to success as a singer; that ambitious struggle is the center of the book, while love and marriage, women's usual occupations, hover somewhere on the periphery. Thea's single-minded attention to art and inattention to personal emotion echoes Cather's choices, argues Acocella, but, she goes on to declare, "for this lordly action, she [Cather] has been made to pay, mostly by women." But would Acocella's reading of the heterosexual politics ofSong have been possible if the ground had not already been worked by feminist critics? Later in the book, Acocella describes feminists as performing their criticism on Cather with a "certain vengeful glee." Note the language. Because Cather refused to fit tidily into the feminists' notion of a feminist writer, those feminists turned on her, took their revenge, and made her pay. And on behalf of Cather (or herself), Acocella, in turn, will take her revenge.
Joan Acocella is very good at melodrama. In her characterization, feminists are dynamite-toting coconspirators who will stop at nothing to get what they "need." She gives an occasional nod in the direction of the differences among feminist critics, but her primary strategy is polemical caricature. She quotes from the extremes and uses such instances to typify the field. Instead of focusing on the lively ongoing debates within the ranks of feminist criticism, she prefers to blot out the lights and shades and portray a bold-pencilled cartoon. Let me illustrate with a footnote from the book:
A typical, though higher-quality, sample of current Cather criticism is the third volume of Cather Studies, edited by [Susan] Rosowski (1996). Of the fourteen essays included, only five—that is, a little under 40 percent—are forthrightly political. But 40% is a great deal for one political perspective. More important is the fact that there is no single competing perspective.
Well, if we are counting, then note how the "little under" 40% becomes actually 40% in the next sentence; but, in fact, the five political essays come to a little over 35%. So the great majority are not political; rather, there is a debate, a series of debates, about Cather precisely because the feminists have made her a subject. And what single perspective would Acocella like to see as competition? Hasn't her whole campaign in this book been directed against such single perspectives?
In the "Author's Note" that opens the book, Acocella acknowledges the work of Nina Baym, Lillian Faderman, Ellen Moers, Joanna Russ, Elaine Showalter, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, whose work "gave [her] hope for a sane feminist criticism." But not much in the book celebrates a sane feminist criticism; instead, Acocella launches attack after attack on critics like Elizabeth Ammons, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. She purports to censure political criticism, but her book is emphatically political and insistently one-dimensional in its portrayal of feminist criticism. Now whose vengeful glee are we talking about? Acocella, avenging angel, will make those feminists pay.
A final passage from Acocella:
[Cather] is a rebuke to the feminists. All the things they say a woman writer can't do—learn to write from men, create a life centered on writing, with no intrusions—she did them, and with very little wear and tear. No alcoholism, no abortions, no nervous breakdowns. She jumped the gate, and therefore she makes the gate look not so high after all.
This, of course, is known as Tokenism or The Queen Bee Effect. One woman has made it and thus no one else need apply and/or anyone else with her will and credentials can make it. It follows, therefore, that there is no discrimination, no problem with the sexual, social, and economic power arrangements; after all, this woman has demonstrated that success is achievable. Feminism is only necessary for victims, weak women. Cather is not a "rebuke" to "the feminists"; indeed, she is an inspiration. But critics who tell us that because an exceptional woman has overcome the odds there is no reason for feminist analysis must expect to raise a few incredulous eyebrows.
And what is the proof that Cather suffered very little "wear and tear"? When the serious reviews came in for her war book,One of Ours, the book that would finally prove she could do anything the men could do, she was "deeply wounded," as Acocella records. Increasingly, she withdrew, restricting the stories that could be anthologized, refusing interviews. And at the end of her life, she was writing a book called, tellingly,Hard Punishments about two boys, one with paralyzed hands, the other without a tongue. Acocella herself says "Did not this bespeak some Lear-like rage?" Another might call such suffering wear and tear.
Once upon a time in the sixties, I attended a large British University, where I "read" English Language and Literature. One of my "Special Subjects" was American Literature. When we read the great works of American creative imagination, the only woman allowed in was Emily Dickinson, though we did not, at the time, register that as in any way remarkable. Edith Wharton appeared on the "Recommended" list, but my professor confided that she was just watered down James (as, on yet another list, Woolf was watered down Joyce). No one even mentioned Willa Cather. She was a lost lady.
And so came the seventies and the second wave of the feminist movement. Feminist critics rearranged the literary canon, making room for many who had hitherto been excluded. Did they try too hard to make those writers feminists? Did they write them into icons? Perhaps, but the most astute feminist critics looked not for stereotypes but for complexity, for emotional and structural range and depth. And is Acocella right to accuse feminist critics of a failure of "historical understanding" because they find the writings of an earlier time shaped by sexism, heterosexism, and racism? But the intent is not to excoriate writers of another age but to understand them more fully: how are we to grasp the assumptions and persuasions inherent in our culture if we do not examine them? How are we to know ourselves if we do not know our history?
Acocella would like to travel back in time, her boat against the current, but even she, as witness the influence of feminist and queer critics on her readings of Cather, can't get all the way back. She keeps bumping up against the contradictions of her position. Willa Cather is now a subject and there is a lot of interesting and lively talk about her. I, for one, am grateful to have her back in circulation.
Christine Dunn Henderson (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Henderson, Christine Dunn. "Singing an American Song: Tocquevillian Reflections on Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark." In Seers and Judges: American Literature as Political Philosophy, pp. 73-86. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002.
[In the following essay, Henderson argues that Cather should be included among those writers who are renowned for creating a distinctively American literature, noting the particularly American themes in The Song of the Lark.]
Observing nineteenth-century America in his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, "The Americans have not yet, properly speaking, got any literature."1 This assertion was precisely meant: Tocqueville believed that existing American literature was derivative of European—and particularly British—literature. American authors had yet to discover a distinctive national "voice"; thus, no works of literature which were particularly American in form and/or in character had emerged from the pens of those writing in the United States at the time Tocqueville wrote the Democracy. Since then, however, our country's literature has come into its own, and authors such as Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald come to mind as creators of a distinctive American voice and literary form. Willa Cather, too, deserves inclusion in any listing of American writers who emerged after Tocqueville's observation and whose works reflect what might be called an American voice.
That Cather'sThe Song of the Lark is a distinctively American work of literature in any Tocquevillian sense is by no means an obvious argument. The novel, after all, traces the rise of Thea Kronborg from Moonstone, Colorado, to her triumphs as a world-renowned Wagnerian soprano. In many ways, Thea's rags-to-riches story might be thought to epitomize the American Dream. On the other hand, though, it would seem that any novel whose heroine possesses talents which distinguish her from and place her in opposition to average or "more equal" citizens could not be truly American or democratic fiction, and surely, no democratic literature could focus on opera, a musical form which Tocqueville would undoubtedly consider aristocratic.2 Nevertheless, my argument is thatThe Song of the Lark is a decidedly American novel. Not only do many important aspects of Thea's personality and approach to life correspond to Tocqueville's observations about the American character, but in the novel's Panther Cañon sections which chronicle Thea's artistic coming-of-age, Cather develops the same themes which Tocqueville believed might eventually fuel a nonderivative American literature.
Tocqueville observes, "It is in the West that one can see democracy in its most extreme form" (DA [Democracy in America], 55); thus, it is appropriate that Thea is born and reared in Moonstone, a tiny railroad town in the heart of the American West. In the West, distinctions of class, wealth, and family are forgotten; an individual possesses the maximum freedom to rise to the limits of his or her own talents, abilities, and ambitions. As Dr. Archie observes, "Here, it's all like the sand: blows north one day and south the next."3 In the West, as in any extreme democracy, nothing of human creation seems or is permanent; eventually, the winds of the prairie efface all but the distant sand hills. Awareness of the impermanence and insignificance of the human things in the face of the sand hills and prairie winds might frighten individuals and deter human endeavor. Conversely, though, recognizing that the same winds which efface traces of human activity also present each individual with a vast and clear ground upon which to erect monuments of his or her own might actually inspire extraordinary individuals to undertake great efforts. Moreover, such individuals find that the clean slate offered by the West provides a most effective background against which their own achievements and endeavors may be showcased. Thea, of course, falls among the class which sees possibilities in the West's impermanence, as her early music teachers immediately recognize, and her talent and dedication enable her to attain operatic stardom and to rise to heights previously unheard of in Moonstone.
Professor Wunsch, her Moonstone piano teacher, is struck by her "dogged industry, so unusual in this free-and-easy country." He finds Thea to be an atypical American, "because she had both imagination and a stubborn will, curiously balancing and interpenetrating each other" (SOL [The Song of the Lark ], 85). Stubbornness of this type is essentially an individual's assertion of his or her own will; such emphasis of the individual (rather than family or class) is characteristic of democratic ages. Yet Thea is an uncommon product of a democracy, inasmuch as she is extraordinarily talented and almost single-mindedly dedicated to her goal. The focus Thea exhibits runs counter to the restless spirit Tocqueville observes in Americans. "They clutch at everything but hold nothing fast," he notes, "and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight" (DA, 536). Wunsch finds the extent of Thea's determination unusual, and he observes, "She had a kind of seriousness that he had not met with in a pupil before. She hated difficult things, and yet she could never pass one by" (SOL, 85). Andor Harsanyi, Thea's first teacher in Chicago, puts it directly: "She will do nothing common. She is uncommon in a common, common world" (SOL, 186).
Her childhood in Moonstone brings Thea in contact with some of democracy's best and worst impulses. On the positive side, she is treated as an equal and as an individual. She is also accorded a great degree of freedom, for despite a certain military order necessary in a house of eight children, Thea's mother "respected them as individuals, and outside of the house they had a great deal of liberty" (SOL, 16). Her mother's recognition of Thea's individualism makes it possible for Thea to study music with an unusual degree of seriousness, and the young Thea enjoys a great deal of personal liberty. Not only does Thea possess personal liberty in that she is free to roam the outskirts when not occupied with school or chores, but even as a child, she is also given considerable control over her own destiny. By age fourteen, Thea has decided to leave school to begin teaching piano lessons at seventy-five cents an hour. Her new status as financial contributor to the family merely increases her personal autonomy. "She liked the personal independence which was accorded her as a wage-earner" (SOL, 92) or as an individual who asserts control over her own life.
Fiercely independent even as a child, Thea is also fiercely democratic in her friendships and attachments—an admirer of talent, beauty, and ambition, completely irrespective of conventional distinctions of race, gender, age, or economic class. The world of friends created by Thea is a microcosm of the American melting pot, and her assimilation of Moonstone's diversity and of "a broad cultural tradition of music, literature, and art" contributes to her artistic formation.4 Throughout the novel, Thea's friendships—especially with Dr. Archie, Fred Ottenburg, Spanish Johnny, and Andor Harsanyi—epitomize the spirit of equality by breaking traditional boundaries of age, class, race, and gender. Importantly, each of these friendships provides vital support (financial, emotional, or artistic) in Thea's artistic development. In the rigid class system of an aristocracy, it would be unthinkable for the young daughter of a middle-class minister to form friendships with these men (or with any man, for that matter), but democracy's removal of political barriers is accompanied by a removal of social distinctions and bars.
Precisely speaking, though, it may be incorrect to call these relationships "friendships," for they are one-sided affairs in which Thea takes much and appears to give little. In short, Archie, Ottenburg, Spanish Johnny, and Harsanyi are friends to Thea, but it is not clear that she is a friend to anyone. Her self-absorption seems to render her incapable of the generosity friendship requires, and her strongest and most enduring erotic yearnings are not directed toward people, either as friends or as lovers. Instead, she hungers for her art as that which will complete her.
But this may be judging Thea too harshly, for while her selfish nature appears to prevent her from being a proper friend to anyone, she does make possible other friendships, most notably that of Fred and Dr. Archie. The love of Thea, or of the beauty and art she embodies, serves as the medium which facilitates and sustains friendships between individuals who might not otherwise find common ground. Moreover, to say that Thea gives nothing to others may be an overstatement, for while she appears to invest little of herself into her relationships, she does nevertheless give to those who surround her. For example, Harsanyi finds his own creativity fueled by his contact with Thea. Cather writes,
After Miss Kronborg left him [following a lesson], he often lay down in his studio for an hour before dinner, with his head full of musical ideas, with an effervescence in his brain which he had sometimes lost for weeks together under the grind of teaching. He had never got so much back from any pupil as he did from Miss Kronborg. From the first she had stimulated him.
To her audiences, too, Thea gives of herself unstintingly. Having seen Thea sing in New York, Spanish Johnny is described as rejuvenated, "wearing a smile which embraced all the stream of life that passed him" (SOL, 399). Thea, on the other hand, is characterized as worn and haggard after a performance, "used up" in her words. But Thea's giving of herself is not the generosity of friendship; not only does she give to an impersonal audience rather than to individuals, but she seems almost compelled to give. Rather than generosity, her giving is a form of the self-absorption which results from an excess of democracy's individualism. Her inability to be a true friend to the various characters with whom she associates, then, is a consequence of democratic principles, and results in the individual isolation against which Tocqueville warns.
Throughout the novel, Thea manifests the democratic ideal of treating equal talents equally. She also treats unequals unequally, disdaining the pleasant and the popular as counterfeits of the true talent and beauty she loves. She rejects what Tocqueville calls the "middling" effect of American knowledge which can be approached by all minds, "some by raising and some by lowering their standards" (DA, 56). This middling effect leads to the mediocrity of taste, talent, and thought which is epitomized by Thea's sister Anna and by her childhood rival, Lily Fisher. Thinking of Lily Fisher's musical success at a town concert, Thea vows that "She would rather be hated than be stupid, any day" (SOL, 56). Thea's hatred of the mediocre is visceral; stupidity, she says, "takes the shine out of me" (SOL, 224), and she finds something "shameless and indecent" about "not singing true," or not putting forth one's best effort (SOL, 228). Instinctively, she recognizes her "natural enemies" (SOL, 91) in the mediocre, the "Stupid Faces" who seek to affirm their own equality by dragging superior talents down to their level.5 The animosity Thea feels for the average is reciprocated by the middling element itself, as evidenced in Anna Kronborg's dislike for her sister (SOL, 193). Thea's disdain for the mediocre might initially appear an aristocratic prejudice, but since she disdains the upper-class and lower-class mediocre equally, there is almost a democratic spirit to her judging. Thea, then, is a natural aristocrat rather than a conventional one; as such, she is the object of the envy which the people too frequently feel for those whose natural superiority reminds them of the limits of equality. The reciprocal animosity between the mediocre and the superior reflects the gap between the true meaning of equality and its imperfect realization through democratic egalitarianism.
Thea also struggles against another of democracy's unhealthy characteristics: the tyranny of the majority over thought. In the United States, the majority's authority extends beyond the most powerful despot's, for not only does it dominate the political structures, but it also possesses a potent "moral authority." Tocqueville observes that those dissenting from the majority are excluded from the benefits and pleasures of society and treated by the majority as strangers. He calls this a despotism "perfected by civilization," for it "leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul" (DA, 255). The extent of the majority's power forces individuals to capitulate to majority opinion. More ominously, though, it enables the majority to prevent even the formation of dissenting thought or opinion, for the individual's fear of complete isolation within society leads to self-censorship. As Tocqueville explains, "The majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer [or any individual] is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it" (DA, 255). Thus, the appearance of wide-reaching freedom in America is illusory. Tocqueville notes, "I know no country in which there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America" (DA, 254-255). Significantly, the majority's control over thought is also cited by Tocqueville as the reason America has not produced great writers, for "literary genius cannot exist without freedom of the spirit, and there is no freedom of the spirit in America" (DA, 256).
In Thea's case, the majority attempts to assert its power by dictating what she should sing and with whom. As a child, Thea wants to conform to the pressure of the majority, singing in the choir at her father's church and preferring to play a popular recital piece she knows "will take" in Moonstone rather than the more challenging work upon which her music teacher insists. Aware that she is different from others, the young Thea briefly attempts to mask her unconventionality and to thus remain within the bounds of what the majority deems acceptable. This early attempt at conformity is intentional on Thea's part, for she is wholly aware that her nature and talents separate her from greater Moonstone. Of Thea's consciousness of her difference, Cather writes,
She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different. But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. She brought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself. The something came and went, she never knew how. Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out-of-doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there—under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast—a kind of warm sureness. And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people.
Yet she still desires conformity, and as a young girl, "Thea was still under the belief that public opinion could be placated; that if you clucked long enough, the hens would mistake you for one of themselves" (SOL, 111).
By age eighteen, though, Thea has spent a year studying music in Chicago and she no longer wishes to masquerade as a "hen." She asserts her independence and her disregard for the majority's control, first refusing to tax her voice by singing at Moonstone funerals, then further flouting the majority's racism by attending a Mexican ball, singing late into the night, and sleeping through church the following morning. The Mexican ball marks Thea's open breach with the majority and her own bold assertion of individuality and freedom. Importantly, her performance of "Rosa de Noche" at the ball also provides the reader with the first glimpses of the vocal power and sensuality of the diva later known simply as "Kronborg."6
After the summer of the Mexican ball, Thea's rupture with Moonstone is complete, and she returns to Chicago, knowing she will not go home again except for brief visits. Certainly, this is a rejection of Moonstone, and thus in some sense, of democracy, too. It is, however, only a rejection of some of democracy's unsavory aspects—in particular, its middling effect and the tyranny of a jealous majority. Late in the novel, Fred observes that Thea's values "will always be on the Moonstone scale" (SOL, 316). Despite its ignorance, intolerance, and jealousy of difference and superiority, there is good in the American democracy Moonstone represents. Just as her speech remains "Moonstony" (SOL, 314), Thea's early years in this Western town have fundamentally shaped her personality.7 Like the pioneers who settled the region, Thea is determined, a lover of challenge, and an optimist; these qualities fuel her as she struggles to rise to the top of the opera world. Other, positive aspects of Moonstone which correspond to key qualities observed by Tocqueville—tempered equality, freedom, honesty, religious values, and individualism—form the core of Thea's value system, protecting her as she ventures beyond Moonstone and remaining with her long after she has escaped the town itself and the narrow-mindedness of its majority.8
Independence and individualism are perhaps Thea's strongest character traits. Harsanyi, her first teacher in Chicago, observes that "she has a quality—very individual" and compares her to "a fine young savage, like a book with nothing written on it" (SOL, 178). But Thea is not a blank page for someone else's use; she will write her own book and author her own destiny. Like democratic man whose life station in life is not predetermined by birth, rank, or wealth, Thea is completely free to chart her own course, and to enter what Cather calls "the general scramble of American life, where everyone comes to grab and take his chance" (SOL, 160). Thea seizes her chance at life, with her success or failure stemming from a combination of talent, work, and chance. Certainly, Thea receives assistance from Ray Kennedy, Fred Ottenburg, and Dr. Archie at crucial moments in her career, but she is ultimately a creature of her own making, dependent upon and answering to no one. Cather's preface to the 1932 edition of the novel emphasizes Thea's independence and self-determinism. She comments that Thea's apparent vulnerability to chance and fortune is deceiving, for "to persons of her vitality and honesty, fortunate accidents will always happen."9
Thea's worldview is echoed in the lyrics of a Grieg song which she sings to Fred:
Thanks for your advice! But I prefer to steer my boat into the din of the roaring breakers. Even if the journey is my last, I may find what I have never found before. Onward must I go, for I yearn for the wild sea. I long to fight my way through the angry waves, and to see how far, and how long I can make them carry me.
In Cather's view, such radical individualism characterizes all great artists. As Thea's Chicago teacher tells her, "Every artist makes himself born" (SOL, 153). In its most positive light, such individualism carries with it a consciousness of one's own ability and power. Thea describes this feeling as "waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own . . . and there's no sag in you" (SOL, 274). On the other hand, making oneself born implies a rejection of the natural birth process and, thus, of one's natural parents in favor of what might be called "self-parentage." In her refusal to leave her training in Germany to return home to her mother's deathbed, Thea rejects even the most natural and strongest ties in favor of her own goals. No emotional bond or obligation—neither friendship, nor love, nor filial duty—is more important to Thea than her own talent; everyone is merely an instrument in her rise, and she is willing to sacrifice anything to attain her own ends. Her rejections of Ray Kennedy's and Fred Ottenburg's marriage proposals indicate that Thea ultimately belongs to no one but herself. Like the democratic peoples who are only truly interested in themselves (DA, 484), the only things that really matter to Thea are "herself and her own adventure" (SOL, 138). Mrs. Nathanmeyer observes to Fred that Thea "is very much interested in herself, as she should be" (SOL, 241).
If the example of Thea offers a political lesson to Cather's readers, it certainly seems to be one of individualism and a life governed by self-interest and calculation. For Tocqueville, though, such extreme individualism poses a danger to healthy democracy. Because individualism leads "each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends," it threatens democracy to the extent that citizens prefer private ties and private life to the life of the community. Freedom and equality are the goals in pursuit of which aristocracy is overthrown, but if carried too far, the individualism they breed endangers political life and becomes both isolating and unappealing. When ties no longer bind individuals together, Tocqueville finds that "Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart" (DA, 508). Such isolation is danger for the political order because it opens the way for the "soft despotism" of a paternalistic state. It is also dangerous for the individual, if we believe that some concern for others is a desirable human quality or productive of desirable human qualities. It would appear that Cather's portrait of the successful Kronborg implicitly criticizes such extreme individualism, for in the latter parts of the book, Thea's determination appears colder, more selfish, and egotistical both to the novel's other characters (SOL, 226) and to its readers. Fred judges her "equipped to be an artist, and to be nothing else" (SOL, 292), perhaps suggesting that the price of artistic greatness is a loss or a deformation of full humanity. As one critic observes, "Thea in triumph is nowhere near as engaging as Thea in struggle."10 The extent to which readers find the later Thea—the diva Kronborg—to be less attractive and even repulsive, then, stands as a critique of the idea of extreme independence and an avowal of the naturalness of human ties and affections.
Just as key aspects of Thea's personality reflect democratic impulses, her approach to singing also suggests several traits consistent with Tocqueville's analysis of democratic peoples. Although she possesses great vocal talent, her voice is untrained until she begins her studies with Harsanyi, and Cather describes Thea's voice as having "found its own way" (SOL, 165). Thea is a surprisingly average music student, one who might be called a "hard worker" rather than a "natural." As one teacher observes, "In spite of being so talented, she's not quick" (SOL, 168. See alsoSOL, 179). Moreover, until Thea arrives in Chicago, her education has been entirely democratic in that it has been a "middling" education, geared to practical concerns and virtually devoid of the fine arts. Thea applies herself to her music but, evincing something like the democratic individual's preference for general ideas (DA, 2.1.3), she is not a particularly careful student. Thea is a doer rather than a thinker; she is profoundly "incurious" (SOL, 169. See also 156) and wholly unconcerned with understanding her way of life or her place in a greater scheme of things. This lack of reflection and analysis spills over to her music, for the essence of Thea's artistry lies in almost ignoring the musical details and simplifying "a character down to the musical idea it's built on, and mak[ing] everything conform to that" (SOL, 356). As Fred explains, "She seems to sing for the idea" (SOL, 337), and this ability to move to general ideas makes her artistry unique. It is noteworthy, I think, that the idea which explains a piece to Thea is a highly personal and often experiential one; what clarifies a musical piece to Thea does not always illuminate it for others. Thea's musical understanding is entirely self-generated and experiential. Thus, as Demaree C. Peck observes, Thea's slowness in learning "reflects not a lack of intelligence but a deliberate resistance to unfamiliar ideas," i.e., to those things with which she lacks personal experience or identification.11 This emphasis on the individual's experience, judgment, and effort recalls Tocqueville's discussion "Concerning the Philosophical Approach of the Americans" (DA, 2.1.1).
After an exhausting and disappointing two years of musical study in Chicago, Thea spends a rejuvenating summer at the Ottenburg ranch in northern Arizona. Entitled "The Ancient People," part 4 of The Song of the Lark describes Thea's musical coming-of-age during that crucial summer amidst the ruins of the ancient Cliff-Dwellers. This section of Cather's novel is striking not only because it portrays Thea's artistic emergence, but also because in it, Cather develops many of the themes which Tocqueville believed could fuel a uniquely American literature. In his discussions of poetry, Tocqueville seems to envision American literature beginning with descriptive poetry, then moving to develop themes of national identity and national destiny. Because thoughts on democratic national experience are easily extended to the human experience, universal human themes would characterize a third stage. Finally, American literature might hope to ascend to considerations of the eternal and the divine.
POETIC INSPIRATION FOR A NONDERIVATIVE "AMERICAN VOICE"
Tocqueville's treatment of "some sources of poetic inspiration in democracies" (DA, 2.1.17) provides an exploration of the directions in which American literature might develop. Just as democratic revolutions completely change a country's political and social structures, it is also true that "the spread of equality over the earth dries up the old springs of poetry" (DA, 484). Although democracy destroys the old, aristocratic sources of poetry and of literature such as heroes and the gods, it also reveals new, untapped springs which are the sources of democracy's "true" poetry and also, perhaps, of its other forms of literature.
Tocqueville rejects the theory that the "descriptive poetry" which depicted natural beauty and which enjoyed its heyday in the eighteenth century is democracy's authentic poetry. It is true, he says, that the skepticism and the sense of the individual's insignificance which reign in democracies turn poets' thoughts away from the themes of great individuals and of the gods which characterize the poetry of aristocracies; it does not, however, follow that in turning their eyes away from these aristocratic poetic concerns, democratic writers will come to focus on what is left to them—descriptions of nature. Instead, descriptive poetry is but an initial phase through which democratic poets pass, before they find their true source of poetic and, I believe, literary inspiration: themselves.
Noting that "it is about themselves that they [democratic peoples] are really excited," Tocqueville concludes that "here alone, are the true springs of poetry among them" (DA, 484). The sense in which democratic peoples (and especially Americans) are interested in themselves is, however, a precise one. The prosaic existence and practical concerns of the individual citizen provide little literary inspiration, but the democratic penchant for general ideas12 and the rough equality of condition among all citizens lead democratic man to universalize his own experience with little difficulty or effort. For poets and authors, this generalizing tendency causes them to focus on the entire nation, rather than on the individual who is but one among infinite equals. Although its individual citizens are largely interchangeable, the same is not true of the nation, which possesses an identity that is greater and more vivid than the sum of its almost non-descript parts. Democratic nations thus possess a more "coherent" and "vivid" concept of themselves than do other nations, and it is this understanding of the country as a "place" or an "ideal" which provides ample literary and poetic inspiration to a democracy's writers.
Above all, this theme of democratic national identity is oriented toward the future of the country or toward the notion of its destiny. The American experience, indicates Tocqueville, confirms this general observation about democracies. As the embodiment of modern science's project, the Americans and their poets turn their eyes and thoughts away from nature, instead focusing on its taming or conquest by humans. Unlike European visitors, Americans are unmoved by their country's natural wonders. Instead, they are transfixed by the wonder of themselves subduing the untamed wilderness stretching before them. Americans
do not see the marvelous forests surrounding them until they begin to fall beneath the ax. What they see is something different. The American people see themselves marching through wildernesses, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature.
Walt Whitman, one of America's great poetic voices, illustrates this tendency of democratic poets. His "Song of the Broad Axe" celebrates human power over nature in the settlement of America and the westward expansion of Americans. He writes, "The axe leaps! / The solid forest gives fluid utterance, / They tumble forth, they rise and form, / Hut, tent, landing, survey, flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade / . . . Citadel, ceiling saloon, academy, organ, exhibition house, library, / . . . Capitols of States, and capitol of the nation of States."13
According to Tocqueville, democracy's constant, restless movement often enables its writers to extend their vision beyond national identity or destiny, and they find fertile literary themes in the idea of a single human race. Always seeking to improve his condition, democratic man is constantly in motion, encountering people of different countries and cultures. Through this mingling, peoples of different countries come to recognize certain similarities uniting them, despite the cultural forms which superficially separate them. This understanding of human likeness transcends the idea of national identity, and democratic authors begin to "form the picture of one vast democracy in which a nation counts as a single citizen. Thus, for the first time all mankind can be seen together in broad daylight" (DA, 486). This broadening from a national to a universal perspective might, perhaps, occur most easily in the United States, for the phenomenon of the American "melting pot" permits this perspectival transformation to transpire on American soil and almost without notice.
Tocqueville hopes that democratic authors' understanding of the common threads uniting all humans and their exploration of humanity's progress may lead them to move beyond earthly themes and to divine ones. He believes that in contemplating the fate of humankind, some democratic authors will begin to "conceive that its destinies are regulated by the same design and are led to recognize in the actions of each individual a trace of the universal and consistent plan by which God guides mankind" (DA, 486). The religious point of departure which is such an important factor in the formation of American national character might make U.S. writers particularly predisposed to develop such themes; Tocqueville believes ideas about the divine may be "a rich source for the poetry about to blossom in democratic times" (DA, 486).14
PANTHER CAÑON: CREATING AN AMERICAN LITERATURE AND AN AMERICAN ARTIST
Following Tocqueville's predictions about the sources of democratic poetry, part 4 ofThe Song of the Lark begins with the prose equivalent of descriptive poetry, then proceeds to treat the ancient Native Americans, a variant on the theme of national identity. From these beginnings emerge Thea's consciousness of the human race and, finally, her understanding of the relationship between the human life and the divine. Thea's concepts of her own artistry and art are fundamentally shaped by and tied to an understanding of self and life which she acquires during that summer.
Virtually every page of "The Ancient People" contains a lengthy description of Panther Cañon, the part of the Ottenburg ranch in which the ruins of the Cliff-Dwellers are located and in which Thea passes her days. The physical aspects of the canyon's landscape gradually exert their force upon Thea, until her consciousness is dominated by sensory perception rather than thought. This shift in sensibilities opens new possibilities for Thea: "She could become a mere receptacle of heat, or become a color, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas" (SOL, 259). It also brings with it a new relationship with her music, one in which music comes to her in a "sensuous form" and is "much more like a sensation than like an idea" (SOL, 259).
Panther Cañon permeates Thea both physically and psychologically. An awareness of the canyon's original inhabitants—"a timid, nest-building folk, like the swallows" (SOL, 261)—accompanies Thea's new sensitivity to her physical environment. The physical aspect of the canyon is bound up with Thea's sense of its previous occupants, and her conception of her surroundings "was of yellow rocks baking in the sunlight, the swallows, the cedar smell, and that peculiar sadness—a voice out of the past, not very loud, that went on saying a few simple things to the solitude eternally" (SOL, 261). Spending days alone in the Cliff-Dwellers' ruins, Thea experiences no loneliness. Instead, she begins to sense her place within a much broader cycle of life. In particular, she grows cognizant of the similarities connecting her to the ancient women, and she begins an unconscious imitation of them, "trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before" (SOL, 261). Thea's absorption into the canyon and its history is not, however, a forgetting of herself or an assimilation of the self into the rocks and the heat. Rather than being absorbed by the elements, Thea's self is reunited with them, and the creative process made possible by her sojourn in the canyon is an aggrandizement of the individual self and ego.15
The Ottenburg's ranch manager teaches Thea about the Cliff-Dwellers' way of life, explaining especially the importance of gathering water and "how all their customs and ceremonies and their religion went back to water" (SOL, 262). With this new knowledge, the stream at the canyon's bottom takes on particular significance as a symbolic stream of life, and Thea's daily baths there assume a "ceremonial gravity" and become almost ritualistic (SOL, 263). The fragments of pottery she finds in the canyon also become more important once she understands the role of water in the lives of these early Americans. The pieces of pottery represent the strongest human need—the need to survive. Through earthernware jars which served both a utilitarian and artistic purpose, the Cliff-Dwellers attempted to capture the essence of life and also to assert the power of the individual mortal in the face of nature's force and eternity. This realization about these ancient artisans leads Thea to an epiphany about her own art, and she asks herself,
What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself . . . ? The Indian women had held it in their jars. . . . In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.
Just as the Cliff-Dwellers sought to capture water—nature's life force—in the earthenware crafted through the skill of their artisans, Thea attempts to capture and channel her artistic "life force" through her craft, singing. By containing the canyon's waters, the Cliff-Dwellers were able to temporarily impose their own order on the natural world, albeit in a small way. It is unclear, however, that Thea's artistry ought to be understood as the human shaping of a natural force. Instead, the beauty of her singing seems to lie in her voice's ability to faithfully represent the natural force itself.
As her awareness of the emotions of the canyon's original inhabitants heightens, Thea becomes especially attuned to their overwhelming sadness, a muted despair resulting from the constant struggle to survive in the desert's hostile environment. In considering this sadness, Thea's thoughts again move from that which is specific to the Cliff-Dwellers to some general observations about human life. She senses the "hardness" of the human struggle and the "sadness" of history in which the futility of so many efforts is revealed in the potsherds scattered on floors of the Cliff-Dwellers' deserted abodes. Rather than providing discouraging reminders of human weakness and of the transitory character of the human things, the pottery fragments strengthen Thea, and she resolves to travel to Germany to begin serious training for the opera. Cather writes, "These potsherds were like fetters that bound one to a long chain of human endeavor" (SOL, 264), and Thea's sense of her place in the line of human endeavor inspires her to take the risk of pursuing an opera career.16 While Thea's independence liberates her from traditional obligations such as familial ties, Panther Cañon reminds her of "older and higher obligations" (SOL, 266)—obligations to ensure that her own artistic dedication and endeavors are of the same caliber as the Cliff-Dwellers' efforts to collect and preserve the life-giving waters of the canyon's stream.
Moving from descriptions of nature to a sense of a people, and then to general themes about humankind, part 4 ofThe Song of the Lark indeed touches upon the same motifs which Tocqueville felt might fuel a truly American literature. At its highest development, Tocqueville hoped American literature would move from the recognition of human commonality to a contemplation of the divine. During her summer in Panther Cañon, Thea's thoughts do move to the final plane Tocqueville envisioned, but her conclusions are fundamentally different than Tocqueville's. Tocqueville hoped that a recognition of a shared human experience would lead democratic authors to an awareness of "the universal and consistent plan by which God guides mankind" (DA, 486). Thea, however, arrives at a different conclusion concerning the divine. The understanding she acquires about "the inevitable hardness of human life" (SOL, 386) turns Thea away from the notion of a divine author, instead reinforcing her individualism, her ambition, and her determination. From the ruins of the Cliff-Dwellers, Thea draws the conclusion that "There was certainly no kindly Providence that directed one's life; and one's parents did not in the least care what became of one. . . . One's life was at the mercy of blind chance. She had better take it in her own hands and lose everything than meekly draw the plough under the rod of parental guidance" (SOL, 266).
In Tocqueville's view, this type of radical individualism poses a grave threat to a healthy democracy, for as individuals withdraw from the public sphere into private circles or family and friends, the way is paved for the soft despotism of a paternalistic state. For Cather, such radical individualism may be linked to democracy's greatest promise, for the extreme individualism Thea learns in and from Panther Cañon inspires her to risk all for her art, and she ascends to an operatic greatness which seems boundless, subject only to the limitations of her own talent and her own will. This greatness, though, comes at the cost of Thea's attractiveness and perhaps even her humanity. Through her unsympathetic portrait of a cold, mature Thea, Cather is able to indicate the costs of the extreme individualism which democracy fosters. Both Tocqueville and Cather offer criticisms of democratic individualism, but Tocqueville primarily emphasizes its harmful effects on American politics, whereas Cather's portrait of Thea Kronborg subtly draws our attention to individualism's deleterious effects upon human beings.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence and ed. J. P. Mayer (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 471. All subsequent references to Democracy (hereafter DA) will be parenthetical, with page numbers corresponding to this edition.
2. While opera may be an aristocratic art form, it is Thea's profession rather than her hobby. As Tocqueville observes, "There are very few rich men in America; hence almost all Americans have to take up some profession" (DA, 55).
3. Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (New York: Signet Classic/Penguin Books, 1991), 72. All subsequent references to The Song of the Lark (hereafter SOL) will be parenthetical, with page numbers corresponding to this edition.
4. Demaree C. Peck, The Imaginative Claims of the Artist in Willa Cather's Fiction (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1996), 109. Music and the appreciation of beauty are the links binding Thea to others. In his Music in Willa Cather's Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968), Richard Giannone argues that for Cather, music is democratic and inclusive, extending "beyond the post confines of the Met" to all strata of society (85).
5. See DA, vol. 1, pt. 2, chapts. 5 and 6. Subsequent references are in the text in this fashion: (DA, 1.2.5-6).
6. In preferring to sing with Mexicans rather than in her father's Swedish church, Thea certainly defies the majority's prejudices. But Thea's selection of "Rosa de Noche" as her first solo marks a greater break with convention and, thus, a greater assertion of her own individualism and freedom. As Spanish Johnny tells her, "Rosa de Noche" is ". . . more for married ladies. They sing it for their husbands—or somebody else, may-bee" (SOL, 197), yet the still-virginal Thea sings it so well that her male audience is worked to a frenzy before succumbing to a quasi-post-coital exhaustion, dropping to the ground and seeking cigarettes. Conquering her male audience in this almost sexual manner also indicates Thea's rejection of traditional gender boundaries, an idea again reflected in her choice of song, for "Rosa de Noche" is for a low voice—the voz contralto, which stands at the bottom of the female range, closest to the highest notes in the male range. See John H. Flannigan, "Thea Kronborg's Vocal Tranvestism: Willa Cather and the 'Voz Contralto,'" Modern Fiction Studies, 40, 4 (1994): 750-751.
7. Sally Peltier Harvey, Redefining the American Dream: The Novels of Willa Cather (Rutherford, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995), 42.
8. Rosowski, Susan J., The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 73. See also Elsa Nettels, Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 133.
9. Preface, xxxii. Quoted in Peck, 108.
10. Linda Huf, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: The Writer as Heroine in American Literature (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983), 94. Huf also notes that this sentiment is echoed by Dr. Archie, who "finds her 'harder and more self-contained'; 'she chilled his old affection'" (95).
11. Peck, 112.
12. Democracy 2.1.3.
13. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, John Kowenhoven, ed. (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 154-155.
14. This possibility should be considered in light of Tocqueville's analyses of philosophy and religion in the United States, especially, perhaps the discussion of pantheism (DA, 2.1.7).
15. Peck, 16 and 137. Sharon O'Brien, however, argues the reverse, that the creativity of Cather's female artists is possible only when they lose themselves in something larger (Sharon O'Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], 423).
16. Thea's success is due to talent, hard work, luck, and her willingness to take great risks. In risking much for great rewards, Thea seems to embody the commercial spirit Tocqueville observes in American sailors (DA, 1.2.10).
Heidi N. Sjostrom (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Sjostrom, Heidi N. "Willa Cather's Nebraska Prairie: Remembering the Spirit of its Land and People." In Issues in Travel Writing: Empire, Spectacle, and Displacement, edited by Kristi Siegel, pp. 197-211. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang Publishers, 2002.
[In the following essay, Sjostrom considers Cather's use of personal recollections of people, places, and events to evoke the spirit of the early Nebraska settlers.]
As Jim Burden is leaving Black Hawk atMy Ántonia 's end, he stumbles on a fragment of the old tracks that used to lead from town to his grandfather's farm. He describes the tracks as, "mere shadows in the grass" (418). Those symbolic indelible tracks in the landscape are what Cather leads readers along, back to the scenery and attitudes she learned to value when she traveled at age nine from Virginia to Nebraska in the late 1880s. The people and land of Nebraska so impressed Cather that, to her, what was "true" and "good" was embodied there. Cather catalogues weather and terrain, animals and plants, and many different prairie travelers in order to illuminate and enrich readers with the strong spirit she found when, in 1883, she first entered that country. Both Cather and her fictional alter ego, Jim Burden, left Nebraska for college and a life in New York City; therefore, Cather is clearly not requiring that people stay on or return to the prairie. However, she is celebrating the prairie values that enriched the rest of her life. Like Cather, the characters inMy Ántonia (published in 1918) travel away from the Nebraska prairie, either permanently or for a time, and they come to value the prairie's spirit in a new way as they contrast it with the city.
Book I ofMy Ántonia, which contains two-fifths of the novel's total pages, fascinates readers with descriptions of the landscape and climate of 1880s Nebraska, a multicultural cast of characters with speech and stories from differing lands, and female characters strengthened by that land. However, Cather's aim in Books II through V is to show that her characters learned not only from their journey into the Nebraska prairie, but also from their journeys out of it. As Alfred Kazin has said of Cather, "She did not celebrate the Pioneer as such; she sought his image in all creative spirits—explorers and artists, lovers and saints, who seemed to live by a purity of aspiration, and integrity of passion or skill, that represented everything that had gone out of life or had to fight a losing battle for survival in it" (19). When immigrants and pioneers first traveled to Nebraska, they found a flat and unforgiving land that required all their integrity, passion, skill, and creativity. When their children left the prairie for the town, they found they most valued the virtues and stories of those prairie days. It is of that spirit and how the Nebraska landscape called it forth that Cather sought to remind My Ántonia 's readers.
Cather clearly endorsed a realm of the spirit, but she did not endorse a specific religion. She was interested in the spirit carried in the landscape and its people. Harold Bloom notes that, evenDeath Comes for the Archbishop, a novel about Catholic priests, is "easily misread as a growing religiosity by many critics. . . . Cather emulated a familiar pattern of being attracted by the aura and not the substance of Roman Catholicism. New Mexico, and not Rome, is her place of the spirit, a spirit of the archaic and not of the supernatural" (2). Cather's spirituality is illustrated by her insight as she looked at Dutch paintings. She wrote that in the detailed Dutch domestic scenes, there was often "a square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships or a stretch of gray sea" (qtd. in Seaton 5). Cather thus began to see how she could use everyday events and landscapes to evoke the spirit of something greater. The prosaic events, words, and sights of 1880s Nebraska are in the foreground of Cather's painting, and the spirit that pioneers discovered in the landscape and climate to which they traveled shines through the window.
Like her characters who leave the prairie and live in towns, Cather herself lived many years in cities. However, her mind had been teased by the spiritedness of a Czech girl she had known in Nebraska, and she wrote,
One of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl [Annie Pavelka] of one of our neighbors [the Miners], who was so good to me. She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains . . . Annie fascinated me and I always had it in mind to write a story about her.
(qtd. in Bennett 46-47)
Most of the events inMy Ántonia did actually occur among Willa Cather's neighbors in Nebraska. For example, Annie Pavelka did follow a railroad man who deserted her, and Annie's father committed suicide and was buried at a crossroads (Bennett 48-51). Wick Cutter was modeled after Red Cloud's lascivious Mr. Bentley, who shot himself and his wife to prevent her from inheriting his money-lending fortune (84-85). The Harlings were directly modeled on the Miner family, to whose daughters Cather dedicatedMy Ántonia. Additionally, "a crayon enlargement of Annie Pavelka's . . . first daughter recalls the one that Jim Burden sees of Ántonia's baby Martha" (Rosowski and Mignon 3). Cather seems to have followed the method of writing that Jim Burden describes in the introduction ofMy Ántonia (xi). Cather wrote down her memories and then selected and arranged them to emphasize the importance of the prairie spirit.
When Cather herself traveled to Nebraska as a child, she found a landscape foreign to her previous experiences in Virginia. However, as critic Laura Winters has noted, Cather's books are often about characters traveling to "the place of exile that they make their own" (5). The young Jim Burden seems exiled but curious in passages like the one where he meets Otto Fuchs upon his arrival at the Nebraska train station. Otto asks Jim if he is afraid to have come so far west, and Jim looks at him with eyes wide with as much curiosity as if Otto were Jesse James (My Ántonia 6). Jim's excitement about being on the prairie is revealed in a passage where Jim thinks that the Swiss Family Robinson had no more exciting adventures than did early prairie settlers (74). The concomitant fear of the traveler who is first exposed to Nebraska is shown in passages like the one where, having just left the train station with Otto, Jim feels that this empty landscape cannot even be affected by the human heart. He says, "Between the earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night" (8). Jim felt his old spiritual ways rendered him a stranger on these blank and empty prairies. Cather's biographer postulates that, while Cather loved the open spaces of Nebraska, she retained an ambivalent fear of them because there was "no place to hide" (qtd. in O'Brien 69). For Cather and Jim Burden, this feeling of fear and emptiness in a wide, flat landscape forms an opening through which a new kind of neighbor- and land-centered spirituality, unlike what might have been found in a Virginia church building, can come in. When Jim moves to town three years after being transplanted to the prairie, he again realizes he must learn many new things. The contrast between the old and new landscapes opens him to find new spirit and energy.
In her books, Cather emphasized story and memory, rather than drama, because she felt they could bring important strengths and values into the present. Richard Millington quotes Fredric Jameson's remark in Marxism and Form: "[T]here is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present on the grounds of some remembered plenitude, cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other" (714). Cather's revolutionary critique was to point out that many city dwellers had lost the spirit available on the prairie. Unlike several people writing near the 1918 publication date ofMy Ántonia, Cather did not want immigrants to lose their native stories and memories. She hoped they would mix their past stories with those of the landscape to which they came. At the same time, Cather did not despair of a fulfilling life in the modern times developing around her.My Ántonia has "a characteristic Cather dual perspective: one eye lovingly, almost elegiacally, on the past, and the other—usually a hopeful eye—on the future" (Harvey 3). The plow silhouette is a strong reminder of the farming past, but it shrinks as the girls and Jim watch (My Ántonia 279). Like Jim, who goes away to college, then to the big city and an important career, Cather looked back to the spirit of early Nebraska to find sustenance: "[She found] in her present day some of the enduring values from earlier days . . . Cather seems to have remained hopeful that these values would continue to endure for future generations" (Harvey 5). In fact, Jim Burden's success as a New York railroad executive is attributed to strengths gained in his prairie days (My Ántonia x). Indeed, Burden and Ántonia function together to show how the blend of prairie strength and town polish is the ideal. Patrick Shaw writes, "by juxtaposing this idealized frontier female [Ántonia] with Jim, the successful capitalist who incidentally is articulate enough to write a book, Cather managed the . . . truly spiritual marriage, the integration of selves that was in fact impossible" (67). Impossible or not, writingMy Ántonia was Cather's way of transmitting her feelings about Nebraska to future readers.
Instead of a driving plot, the substance ofMy Ántonia is Cather's memory of a new land and the stories that travelers to and from there made and told. The Bible is largely composed of stories and parables because of their powerful ability to affect faith, emotions, and values, and that is howMy Ántonia passes on its truths, also. Walter Benjamin cites as characteristics of "the story" its usefulness and practical interests, its freedom from explanation of the story as it is being told, and its mingling of a religious view with worldly accuracy (86, 89, 96). The stories inMy Ántonia use these characteristics effectively. It is when the people of Virginia, Austria, Bohemia, Russia, and other places tell stories from their home regions that the spirits of all those settling on the plains are enriched.
The mixing of languages is important to defining the culture of the prairie. For example, Jim Burden is interested to hear Ántonia's family speak at the railway station and says it was the first time he had heard people speaking a language other than English (My Ántonia 6). Soon he shows interest in his grandfather's use of an unknown word during devotional time: "Selah." Jim says, "[As] he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words" (14-15). Even the word "Selah" shows Cather's interest in mingling spiritual resources: "Cather shows how a commonplace devotion, a cornerstone of Protestant daily life, turns on a word [Selah] that is unknown. Domestic religious life is made strange and made sacred by the admission of the foreign" (Reynolds 82). Cather included much of the everyday, immigrant-enriched language people spoke in the Nebraska of her girlhood. She was a great observer and champion of this kind of talk:
The language people speak to each other is the native tongue. No writer can invent it. It is made . . . in communities where language has been undisturbed long enough to take on colour and character from the nature and experiences of the people. The "sayings" of a community . . . imply its history, suggest its attitude toward the world, and its way of accepting life.
(CatherOn Writing 56)
The mix of foreign and domestic is what travelers to the town missed when they left the prairie. Jim comments on how amusing it is to hear Lena Lingard speaking in formal phrases, making commonplace remarks (My Ántonia 318). Jim is better pleased with Ántonia's broken, though honest, English when he returns to her at the book's end.
The strength of the prairies is personified in the character of Ántonia, who traveled to Nebraska from eastern Europe. A vital part of Ántonia's strength remains her Bohemian origins. Quite late in the book, when she is working for the Harlings, Ántonia tells Jim that she remembers even the forest paths of her own country (271). Ántonia's solidity helps Jim come to terms with the prairie in which they are both aliens: "Jim uses Ántonia to make the vast, threatening expanse of the prairie into a manageable, valuable, memory-laden place" (Winters 12). With Ántonia, Cather created a character who was marginalized by her immigrant status, female gender, and reduced economic class, but Ántonia's spirit is shown as unbowed: "[T]hroughout the novel, [Ántonia] 'tries on' various selves, and makes choices that extend her limits" (Harvey 52). Ántonia makes choices about her life rather than allowing her voice to be silenced and her spirit to be constrained. When the Harlings tell her to choose between being their hired girl and dancing at the tent in town, Ántonia chooses not to define herself as a lower-class, immigrant, female worker with no options. Instead, she quits so that she can enjoy the good times and the tent while they are present (My Ántonia 237). This spirited refusal to bow to convention foreshadows the courageous and forthright way Ántonia handled having a baby, although its father abandoned her. Ántonia is Jim's source of enlightenment because of her close connection to the earth's energy. Mrs. Harling says that, after Ántonia has worked for her in town a while, she will forget the hard days of farmwork (175). However, Ántonia herself says, when her railway fiancé wants her to live in Denver that she is not sure how well a country girl like herself can manage in a town without chickens and a cow (349). The town contrasts with the country, and Ántonia knows where her heart truly lies. Her repetition, near the novel's end, of her connection to the land reveals that her travels to town have sharpened her insight into her dependence on the earth's energy: "I'm never lonesome [on a farm] like I used to be in town" (387). Having weathered the difficult journey from prairie to town and back again, Ántonia finds she belongs on a Nebraska farm, where her strength and spirit are both required and fed.
Some readers feel that Ántonia's power as a symbol of earthy life force and spirit is weakened by her aging appearance when Jim travels back to revisit her. Most critics agree that "Cather's primary sexual attraction was to other females and . . . such attraction perplexed her throughout her life because homoeroticism clashed with her strong sense of social propriety" (Shaw 2). Whether or not Cather's disinterest in men meant that "lying at the heart of her design is the theme of submergence-emergence—an artistic manifestation of her personal conflicts and contradictions" (Shaw 58), Cather was perhaps more aware than some writers of alternative purposes for women's lives, beyond beauty and marriage. Ántonia's loss of teeth, gray hair, flat chest, and "battered" look in her mid-forties is not a particularly happy ending for the book, but Cather makes a point of contrasting how much better Ántonia looked than society women "whose inner glow had faded . . . as if the sap beneath [their skin] had been secretly drawn away" (My Ántonia 379). It was that sap, not sexual attraction, that Cather wanted to show as valuable. Certainly, Cather did not think writing about love relationships was the best route to the universal spiritual truths she was seeking. "She considered the vicissitudes of sexual passion a 'trite' and 'sordid' theme, which a writer as talented as Kate Chopin would do well to avoid in favor of 'a better cause'" (Seaton 1). Eudora Welty saw Cather's women refusing marital entrapment for the sake of Art. Welty insisted that "What [Cather's] characters are mostly meant for . . . is to rebel. For her heroines in particular, rebelling is much easier than not rebelling, and we may include love, too, in not rebelling . . . It is rebelling . . . for the sake of something a great deal bigger—for the sake of integrity, of truth, of art" (Welty 155). Integrity, truth, art—those universal truths interested Cather much more than sex and beauty. Ántonia is perfectly able to embody those truths and remind Jim of the land's lessons even when, or perhaps especially when, she is nearing the end of her life's journey.
Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia's father, also seems to have represented special spiritual truths to Cather. He is second only to Ántonia in emotional importance to Jim, and we realize that if Jim and the Shimerdas had not moved to a new homeland, they never would have met. Several times, Jim mentions how unforgettable Mr. Shimerda's appearance or words were. When Ántonia nestles a late summer katydid in her hair, Mr. Shimerda listens, and Jim says that he will never forget Mr. Shimerda's sad and pitying smile (My Ántonia 47). When Mr. Shimerda comes to visit the Burdens in their airy house that contrasted so sharply with his dark sod cave, Jim notices how Mr. Shimerda's spirit, so starved for culture and beauty, is fed (My Ántonia 98-99). Jim also remembers Mr. Shimerda when he writes his high school graduation speech. Jim tells Ántonia that he dedicated the speech to her father (My Ántonia 263). However, Mr. Shimerda is one traveler to whom the Nebraska prairies do not give strength. Instead, they exhaust him so that he finally shoots himself. Critic Patrick Shaw writes, "the motifs may be summarized thus: The mysterious prairie grows wheat, corn, wild flowers, and pragmatic people aplenty, but it cannot nurture artistic sensibility, sexual unorthodoxy, philosophical diversity, or idealists" (Shaw 22). Jim makes a similar interpretation. He feels that Mr. Shimerda's spirit was more suited to the refined culture of his native Bohemia than to the rough energies of the prairie. Jim admires Mr. Shimerda's cultured refinements and entertains the appealing fantasy that Mr. Shimerda's soul has returned, after his death, to Bohemia's woods and fields, where he was happy. The people of the prairie vote with Jim on whether Mr. Shimerda should suffer judgment for his unhappiness. Just as Jim's grandfather predicted, future prairie travelers never drive over the long red grass on Mr. Shimerda's grave. They drive around and leave a little island in the prairie. Jim says, "Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper" (My Ántonia 136). The travelers who come after Mr. Shimerda seem to understand how the sometimes brutal landscape of Nebraska could exhaust one's hope, and they honor his spirit.
Cather sometimes evoked the spirit of Nebraska's pioneers by using traditional religious symbols. On the way to Peter's house the night Pavel dies, Jim and Ántonia look up at the night stars from the back of the wagon, and Jim reflects that, although he and Ántonia originally came from different continents, they both feel that the stars have a divine influence on their lives (59). In addition to stars seen by travelers all over the world, Cather uses Jim's grandparents' Christianity to illustrate the good of the people who came together in Nebraska. Grandmother visits the Shimerdas, and Jim notices that both she and Jake take so seriously their Christian responsibility to their fellows on life's journey that, on the way home, they discuss at length how easy it is for good Christians to forget that they are their brothers's keepers (84, 89). Grandmother even models inclusivity in her attitude toward the farm's badger, who occasionally kills a chicken. Grandmother will not let the farmhands hurt him, however, because "In a new country a body feels friendly to the animals" (19). In contrast to the Shimerdas, who condemn Mr. Shimerda to lie buried at a crossroads and are sure he will go to hell for committing suicide, Jim's grandfather shows compassion with his prayer at the graveside, saying that they were leaving Mr. Shimerda at "Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat" (134). Traditional religion has a place on Cather's prairie.
Most often, however, Cather shows readers that travelers to Nebraska saw the earth itself as a spiritual presence. Religious imagery is present in this description of fall afternoons on the prairie: "The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory. . . . It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day" (44-45). In addition to religious allusion, there is the vibrant life of Nebraska's earth itself. Critic Laura Winters says that "Cather's spaces . . . become transformed into sacred spaces when characters so identify with their resonance that the line between self and environment begins to dissolve" (8). The most famous passage in which this dissolving happens is when Jim Burden is lying in the sun with the pumpkins in the pumpkin patch one afternoon. He says, "[That] is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great" (My Ántonia 20). This quotation appears on Willa Cather's tombstone, a fitting tribute to her use of things such as pumpkins and sunshine to evoke spiritual truths. The earth seems to be a mothering spiritual presence several times inMy Ántonia. The first is at Jim and Ántonia's initial meeting, when they nestle down in the grass, out of the wind, so that Jim can begin teaching English words to Ántonia (28-29). The spiritual energy and sustenance of the plains are in direct contrast with the deadness Jim perceives in the town of Black Hawk. There people try mainly to economize and prevent gossip (249-50). In town, even the daring of the marriageable young men has been depleted. The mothers worry their sons will marry the energetic immigrant girls who dance at the tent downtown, but Jim realizes that the sons are far too concerned about respectability to allow themselves to be carried away by desire (229). This lack of strength that results from not having grown up on the prairie lands themselves is a repeated theme inMy Ántonia. Cather's view that pioneering travels created better people than days of relative ease is clear when Jim reflects that the younger brothers and sisters in immigrant families—the ones who did not have to struggle as hard—are not as interesting as their older siblings, who had come "at a tender age from an old country to a new" (225). The spirit and strength of having been pioneers in the land is clearly something Jim and Ántonia share. Still, drawn by the changing American economy, which was becoming more urban-centered, and Gaston Cleric, a teacher he respects, Jim leaves the plains and even Black Hawk to seek happiness and fulfillment as a lawyer married to a society lady, but it is not until he travels back to Ántonia and her family on their farm that he has the spirit to hope for good in the future. After visiting Ántonia's family, he can say, "I had escaped from the curious depression . . . and my mind was full of pleasant things" (417). The contrast between town and prairie has shown Jim how much he learned when he came to the Nebraska prairie. Having traveled to Nebraska's plains, to town, and then back to Ántonia's farm, Jim is stunned by a visible, not traditionally religious, expression of the strength Ántonia has drawn from the earth and made manifest in her life. After Ántonia's children show Jim their new fruit cellar, they all come running up from the cellar into the sunshine (382). Cather used no religious terms, but in her description she clearly shows the lifeforce of the children emerging from the earth where the family's preserved produce is stored. The Nebraska earth itself has spiritual and physical energy if the traveler is open to seeing it. Journeys to town create the contrast that makes this obvious.
In the following passage, Cather's Nebraska landscape is again shown to be a living presence, with its own spirit—symbolized by wine, the ocean, and spirited movement: "The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of winestains; or of certain seaweeds . . . the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running" (My Ántonia 16). In a later passage, Jim notes about this new landscape, that here the earth and sky seethe with the energy of spring, but not with the signs of spring he knew in Virginia. Here, spring's energy is in "the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind" (137). Indeed the spirit of the land often seems stronger than that of the people in the first two-thirds ofMy Ántonia. Critic James Miller notes that "Almost every detail in 'The Shimerdas' [Book I] is calculated to shrink the significance of the human drama in contrast with the drama of the seasons, the drama of nature, the drama of land and sky" (53). Still, Books II-V show that most of the Nebraska settlers were not overwhelmed by nature; they benefited from the community it forced them to form and the strengths they had to develop to make the land productive.
The mothering earth is certainly not always sentimentally kind inMy Ántonia. Jim notices, "The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself" (197). The truth was hard for the Nebraska pioneers. The Shimerdas have already been overcharged for their land and implements by Krajiek when they arrive in Nebraska, and then Krajiek parasitically lives with them. When the hired girls are cutting elder blossoms and drowsing in the sun after playing tag, they list many of the hardships of prairie life: worn-out and ill-fitting clothes and shoes, no money for toys, missing the food of their homeland, too many babies, sick mothers, dark houses made of sod, sleeping with three in a bed, and no time for school when farmwork needed doing (272-75). Likewise, early on, Ántonia enlightens Jim about the difference between coming to Nebraska from Bohemia with little money, and coming from Virginia speaking English and carrying money (My Ántonia 159). But losing one's feeling for others and grasping for material success are never shown as the remedies for prairie life's difficulties. Wick Cutter is, of course, the most evil character in the book, with his plot to rape Ántonia, his fleecing of immigrants, and finally his shooting his wife and then himself. Mr. Harling, the autocratic grain and cattle merchant, is another unlikable, mercenary character. Interest in the details of people and landscape is the antidote to despair over Nebraska's hardships. If settlers can maintain their sense of community, they retain hope and build strength of spirit from their adversities. Grandfather perhaps illustrates it best when, during the feud between Jake and the Shimerdas, he goes to help his neighbors with a sick roan (151). Sick animals, bad weather, injuries—prairie settlers had to help each other with the harsh realities of settlement. That community is where Jim and Ántonia find strength.
Cather's work has been criticized at times for not dealing directly with the painful side of life, but tragedy is part of the experience for travelers to Nebraska. InMy Ántonia, Jim's journey is, indeed, forced by the death of both of his parents, and part of his feeling of exile when he moves to live under the total blank of the Nebraska sky is his feeling that "I did not believe my dead father and mother were watching me" (8). Most striking is Mr. Shimerda's suicide, of course. Mr. Shimerda's loss of music, culture, and his beloved homeland are some of the most painful moments in the novel. When he comes to visit the Burdens, Jim thinks that Mr. Shimerda may have decided, after living in the dark, crowded sod hut with his quarrelsome wife and several children, "that peace and order had vanished from the earth" (98). Mr. Shimerda is as demoralized as Jim thinks the brown owls living in holes near the prairie dog town must be: "winged things that would live like that must be rather degraded creatures" (33). Jim realizes that Mr. Shimerda died of homesickness (115), but he is happy to think that the soul of the man he admired might be stopping off in his grandparents' kitchen on its way back to Bohemia. There is suffering on the prairie, but also much of the sacred.
The pluralistic community Cather advocates is also not without its tensions. Otto says, "Bohemians has a natural distrust of Austrians" (23) and later is not surprised when the Shimerdas and Burdens have a brief feud. Jake says at one point during the feud, "These foreigners ain't the same. You can't trust 'em to be fair" (148). Grandmother voices her irritation at foreign settlers' mutual distrust when she says about the Norwegian church's refusal to bury Mr. Shimerda that they will have to create a "more liberal-minded" American graveyard if the different nationalities will not accept each other's dead (127-28). Even Jim is irritated that Ántonia can't speak English when a snake behind him terrifies her. He says, "What did you jabber Bohunk for?" (51). Later he adds to Ántonia, "People who don't like this country ought to stay at home" (101-02). Although Jim never truly wished that Ántonia or her family would go home and only made his cruel comment out of disappointment and anger, Cather is fair in presenting the tensions present in a journey like the one to Nebraska's prairie. However, it is in dealing with these tensions and showing compassion for those defeated by them that Cather's characters grow in spirit.
Other travelers besides those from Europe enrich the prairie's spirit inMy Ántonia. Early Spanish explorers are mentioned as the ones who perhaps began the non-Native culture of the region. A farmer breaking sod finds a buried Spanish stirrup and a sword with a Spanish inscription on the blade (277). African Americans are present on the plains, too, and they contribute their spirit to its culture. A black piano player comes to town, and Jim notes about him that he has the happiest face he has seen since leaving Virginia, and that he played the piano terribly but with wonderful energy (209, 215). Non-European characters are essentialized in Cather's book, but their spirits add to the prairie in a way that cannot be ignored.
In her famous essay "The Novel Demeublé," Cather wrote about selecting details that evoke rather than catalogue emotions: "Whatever is felt on the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (On Writing 41-42). Cather selected everyday events and details of 1880s Nebraska to evoke the spirit or emotion she wanted the reader to experience, much as did French symbolist poets of her time: "Like them, she viewed art as a religion. Like them, she felt that literature should focus not on reality but on 'something else'—some ineffable emotional truth lying between the mind and the world" (Acocella 60). By finding the right physical image or shared story, Cather hoped to produce in her readers a sensation similar to that felt byMy Ántonia 's Jim Burden as he left the theater after watching Camille. Although the actress was getting old and the play was from a different time and country, it still spoke deeply to him (My Ántonia 314). Similarly, Cather no doubt hoped that whereverMy Ántonia was read, the universal truths she valued from her prairie days would live again. Literary theorists have problematized the term "universal," but Cather identified with dominant beliefs of her time and felt that "the themes of true poetry, of great poetry, will be the same until all the values of human life have changed and all the strongest emotional responses have become different—which can hardly occur until the physical body itself has fundamentally changed" (On Writing 28). Cather selected details to evoke these human responses.
Cather carefully noticed not only the spirit of the landscape but also its specifics so that "flora and fauna are described in detail sufficient to identify plant and animal species" (Rosowski and Mignon 4). Jim both notices details and responds with a traveler's emotion in this passage about how roads lined by sunflowers along cornfields always seemed to lead to freedom: "I used to love to drift along the pale yellow cornfields, looking for damp spots one sometimes found at their edges, where the smartweed soon turned a rich copper color and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like cocoons" (My Ántonia 32). Cather's feeling for individual specifics of this landscape resonates so clearly that readers see its spiritual meaning: freedom, coppery richness, life force. Trees, also, have deep meaning inMy Ántonia. Jim tells readers that, on the prairie, trees were so rare that the settlers used to visit them as though they were people (32). Once Ántonia has her own farm and family, she too feels protective of her apple trees, to the point that she would worry about them at night and even get up to carry water to them (383). Cather's detailed depiction of trees and their care is not for the purpose of local color. She used details of nature to evoke the feelings of travelers interacting with a new landscape, caring for strengths and spirit they felt were vital.
Women, inMy Ántonia and Cather's other novels, are uniquely connected to the earth and strengthened by it. Critic Beth Rundstrom suggests the reason may be biological: "Cather portrays harmonious relationships between women and the land. This connection is partially inherent, because women and the earth experience similar seasonal-menstrual rhythms and reach out to and are responsive to others . . ." (3). In any case, Ántonia, Grandmother Burden, the Widow Steavens, Mrs. Harling, and even Mrs. Shimerda are shown as hardworking, practical women who work the land and are part of it economically, spiritually, and finally physically. "Cather portrayed women as the solid, stable base for a growing nation . . . prairie women knew they were figuratively and would become literally, dust of the earth. . . . Women would eventually be sustenance for the very earth from which they humbly sustained their households" (Rundstrom 6). The following admiring description of Ántonia and Mrs. Harling shows how much Cather valued their earthy spirit: "They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and see people eat it; to make up soft white beds. . . . Deep down in each of them there was . . . a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating" (My Ántonia 205). Over-delicacy was not part of the spirit that Cather valued in memories of journeying to Nebraska. Similarly, Frances Harling is another not overly delicate, spirited woman of the prairies. She has such business talent that she and her husband eventually run her father's grain and cattle trading firm, but Frances also continues to care about the souls of the people with whom she deals (171). The Widow Steavens moves into Jim's grandparents' former white house and from there continues caring for Ántonia, helping her sew for her wedding and then helping with the baby's birth when Ántonia returns. She is earthy enough to see the good in Ántonia and is not bothered by the scruples that give Jim Burden pause when he hears how Ántonia fared with marriage. Jim Burden's grandmother is a more traditional prairie farmwife to whom Cather gives a voice, not without having undergone some inner struggle, according to Cather's biographer: "[Female] realms at first seemed limited and oppressive to Willa Cather. . . . But by the time she created the portrait of Grandmother Burden in My Ántonia she regarded women's traditional tasks with respect" (O'Brien 24). Cather recognized that prairie women, despite being marginalized, were economically and socially central to travelers into the frontier landscape. Indeed, when prairie women's lives are in the foreground, the spirit of helping neighbors, finding a place in a strange land, and relishing children and food shines through the window like the aforementioned light in a Dutch painting.
The daughters who go to town have reserves of the same strength possessed by the women who remain on the prairie, but the hired girls seem to lose their prairie spirit as their separation from the land lengthens. Lena Lingard, for whom Book III is named, says emphatically that she is through with the work and troubles of the farm. She will be a dressmaker (My Ántonia 183). In fact, she becomes a very successful dressmaker, traveling from Black Hawk to Lincoln and on to San Francisco. But when Jim spends his first Lincoln evening with her, his happiest thoughts are not of the scholarly life he is planning with his teacher, Gaston Cleric, but of the people he and Lena knew on the prairie (297). Lena reminds Jim of images in his past, but she does not have the strengthening effect of Ántonia, who had told Jim when they lived in Black Hawk, not to waste his life in the little town but to go away to school and make a life for himself (255). Lena, the girl converted to town life, distracts Jim, and finally he must leave her and travel again to Harvard if he is to acquire the polish needed to be successful and not lose his own prairie strengths under Lena's tempting influence. In a similar vein, Ántonia rejected those "glittering and reckless" (313) ways, but is glad of having learned from her town years so that she raises her children knowing so much more about cooking, housekeeping, and "nice ways" (387). Tiny Soderball, another one of the hired girls, also contrasts with Ántonia, because Tiny learned from town but never found her way back. Tiny Soderball is a warning against unfeeling materialism and traveling too far from one's prairie strength. She made a fortune with an Alaskan gold mine, but Jim says, "She was like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out" (341). Tiny Soderball never came back to experience that feeling of coming home to oneself that Jim had when he left Ántonia's farm at the novel's end (419).
Cather's work has been criticized for lacking plot. We can see the influence of regionalist writer Sarah Orne Jewett both in Cather's undramatic plotting and in her decision to write about the prairie. Cather said, "Miss Jewett wrote of the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment" (On Writing 55). Jim, coming from Virginia, can explore this new place—Nebraska—and novelty can substitute for drama in piquing his curiosity and ours. As narrator, Jim can write down little scenes and occurrences that evoke the spirit of the prairie for him, and avoid sensationalism. Indeed, Cather wrote about not wanting to sensationalize her memories of Annie Pavelka, Ántonia's prototype, "There was material in that book for a lurid melodrama. But I decided that in writing it I would dwell very lightly on those things that a novelist would ordinarily emphasize, and make up my story of the little, every-day happenings and occurrences that form the greatest part of everyone's life and happiness" (qtd. in Bennett 47). Unlike most novels,My Ántonia does not end with all the plot lines neatly tied up in a marriage or a death. Instead, we hear many different stories from and about characters originally from many different regions, coming together on the blank slate of the Nebraska prairie.
Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather's childhood home, was truly a pluralistic community. "In 1884 . . . approximately 10 to 15 percent of [Red Cloud's] immigrant population was foreign born" (Rundstrom 2). Jim gets a glimpse of what the Old World was like when he sees how differently Mrs. Shimerda reacts to being relieved of her obligation to pay his grandfather for a cow. She kneels to kiss his hand (My Ántonia 154-55). However, Jim does not condemn Mrs. Shimerda's show of gratitude, perhaps because his grandparents have welcomed their immigrant neighbors. Indeed, Jim's grandfather is even able to accept Catholic, Bohemian religious traditions in a passage where Mr. Shimerda crosses himself and kneels in front of the Christmas tree. Jim is worried because his grandfather is a staunch Protestant, but "Grandfather merely put his fingertips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere" (99). Later, Grandfather tells Jim that "The prayers of all good people are good" (100). Jim's cooking ideas are even expanded when Russian Peter gives Ántonia a sack of cucumbers and a pail of milk in which to cook them. Ántonia assures Jim that cooked cucumbers taste very good (41). However, not all the American-born citizens of Nebraska are as accepting as the Burdens. At one point inMy Ántonia, Jim repeats and counters arguments he has heard voiced in town: "All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English. [However] there was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the distinction of Ántonia's father. Yet people saw no difference . . . they were all Bohemians, all 'hired girls'" (228). In contrast, Jim admires what he learns from his immigrant neighbors, and Cather's readers learn to celebrate the spirit of those travelers as well.
If Cather's Nebraska novels have any political effect, it is in showing that a pluralistic society of travelers from different landscapes can succeed. In the Burdens's own household, Otto and Jake come from Austria and Virginia to combine resources and make the Christmas tree a sacred space using Otto's Austrian colored paper figures and Jake's pocket mirror for an ice-covered lake (94). Even in town, the dancing tent that so clearly shows the superior energies of the hired girls is brought by the Italian Vannis.My Ántonia is not the only place where Cather's pluralist sentiments can be seen.
[Cather's] 1923 essay on Nebraska in The Nation, with its criticism of the "Americanization" of the richly cosmopolitan culture that immigration produced in the rural Middle West and its worries about the effects of a generational shift from makers to buyers suggests that for Cather . . . "progress" toward a triumphant, homogenous middle-class culture amounts to a kind of regression, a narrowing of experience against whichMy Ántonia registers an elegant protest . . . directing its celebration of the past toward the refreshment of a worn-out present.
In that same 1923 essay for the Nation, Cather celebrated how the European immigrants "spread across our bronze prairies like the daubs of color on a painter's palette" (qtd. in O'Brien 71).My Ántonia is the manifesto of an author who felt that a mingling of spiritual resources was what gave the prairie settlers their strength.
Although Cather did not endorse rampant urban-style success as it began to be manifest in the early 1900s, she did not oppose all change on the Nebraska prairie, as is clear in these lines from Book IV ofMy Ántonia : "[A]ll the human effort that had gone into [new houses, wheat and cornfields, and big barns] was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me" (346). However, a character like Wick Cutter, so corrupted by his desire to amass his own fortune that he self-destructs, is a clear sign that Cather preferred another set of land-centered values. With Wick Cutter and other avaricious characters, Cather defines her prairie region of community against "the other" of heartless urban materialism. "In her fiction Cather seems to work toward a redefinition of success that sees a fulfilled self grounded in community" (Harvey 6). The region whose stories Cather tells inMy Ántonia is definitely one to which the typically marginalized travel and where their spirits join together and are shown to be strong and valid, more valid in most cases than urban materialism.
Like Mr. Shimerda, the Widow Steavens, and Jim, who all say "My Ántonia" at some point, the reader is meant to say "My Ántonia" and gain strength from knowing her "look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things" (My Ántonia 398). The common things in Cather's life on the Nebraska prairie were the open sky and rushing grass, the snakes and prairie dogs, the blizzards and illnesses, and most importantly the people who she met on the plains. Though Cather and many of her characters left the prairie for a life of education and culture in cities, she clearly recalled the strength of spirit that was held in the land and sky and shared among the travelers who came to that land.
Acocella, Joan. "Cather and the Academy." The New Yorker, 27 November 1995: 56-71.
Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968. 83-109.
Bennett, Mildred. The World of Willa Cather. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1951.
Bloom, Harold. Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House Press, 1985.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. New York: Quality Paperback Bookclub, 1995.
——. On Writing. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Hamilton, Kristie. (kgh2[@000c]sd.uwm.edu). "Re: a chinatown: a region?" E-mail to Theorizing Regionalism reflector (region[@000c]sd.uwm.com). 5 Dec. 1998.
Harvey, Sally Peltier. Redefining the American Dream: The Novels of Willa Cather. Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 1995.
Kazin, Alfred. "Elegy: Willa Cather." Willa Cather. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Press, 1985. 15-23.
Miller, James E., Jr. "My Ántonia: A Frontier Drama of Time." In Harold Bloom. Ed. Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House P, 1985. 51-59.
Millington, Richard. "Willa Cather and 'The Storyteller': Hostility to the Novel in My Ántonia." American Literature 66.4 (Dec. 1994): 689-715.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Reynolds, Guy. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, and Empire. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Rosowski, Susan J., and Charles Mignon. "Editing Cather." Studies in the Novel 27.3 (Fall 1995): 387-401.
Rundstrom, Beth. "Harvesting Willa Cather's Literary Fields." Geographical Review 85.2 (April 1995): 217-39.
Seaton, James. "The Prosaic Willa Cather." American Scholar 67.1 (Winter 1998): 146-51.
Shaw, Patrick W. Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict. Troy, NY: Whitston Press, 1992.
Welty, Eudora. "The House of Willa Cather." Willa Cather. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Winters, Laura. Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1993.
Stephen Trout (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Trout, Stephen. "Introduction." In Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War, pp. 1-12. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Trout provides a historical reading of Cather's novels One of Ours and The Professor's House from a literary perspective.]
Military conflict frames and in many respects defines Willa Cather's life and career. Born in 1873 into a family that included numerous Confederate veterans, Cather spent her childhood in Frederick's County, Virginia, a region of divided loyalty (in some cases brother had literally fought against brother), and her adolescence in Webster County, Nebraska, where the rites of the local GAR Post ensured that the War between the States remained a source of legend and high ideals. By the time of her death in 1947, one year after the demise of her futurist contemporary H. G. Wells (1866-1946), Cather had witnessed two world wars and seen a host of technological horrors unleashed against modern armies and civilian populations. The novelist'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 the Indian wars to the beginning of the Cold War.
Transformed during Cather's lifetime by applied science and the emergence of "total warfare" (the practice of mobilizing an entire population to defeat the enemy by any means necessary), military violence held a lasting appeal to her artistic imagination. For example, long before Cather examined the "War to End All Wars" inOne of Ours andThe Professor's House, she produced two works inspired by her maternal uncle William Seibert Boak, who at age nineteen was mortally wounded at the battle of Manassas. In "The Namesake," a poem Cather composed in 1902 that was subsequently included in her first book, April Twilights (1903), the male speaker offers a Housemanesque meditation on his dead uncle, a "lad" who "flung his splendid life away / Long before I saw the day," and in lines that anticipate Claude Wheeler's libidinous zest for battle, gushingly declares his desire to join the fallen:
I'd be quick to quit the sun
Just to help you hold your gun,
And I'd leave my girl to share
Your still bed of glory there.
Cather's short story, also titled "The Namesake" (1907), focuses on an expatriate sculptor who becomes cathartically reconnected to his homeland while studying an ancestor's heroism in the American Civil War. Captivated by the memory of his boy uncle, who died while leading a charge on an enemy fort, the story's Jamesean protagonist, Lyon Hartwell, shakes off his earlier indifference to "race and blood and kindred" (146) and dedicates his artistic career to the production of patriotic war memorials. Reminders of the Civil War, whose commemorative culture Cather experienced in both its pro-Southern and pro-Northern manifestations, also appear throughout her mature fiction. There is the coroner inMy Ántonia, "a mild, flurried old man, a Civil War veteran, with one sleeve hanging empty" (73), and of course Captain Forrester inA Lost Lady, who presumably earns his memorable title while "serving in the Civil War" (42). Even inThe Song of the Lark, a text that seems far removed from the world of Grant or Lee, the conflict makes its inevitable appearance as the Moonstone Drama Club stages The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, part of which "took place in Andersonville prison" (86).
But it was the First World War, a now mostly forgotten conflict (at least in the United States), that had the greatest impact on Cather, both artistically and emotionally. Already colored by her intense affection for France and her conviction (shared by millions of Americans at the time) that Imperial Germany threatened to destroy "Civilization," the war became even more personal for Cather when her first cousin Grosvenor P. Cather was killed at the battle of Cantigny on 28 May 1918. Feelings between the two cousins had never been particularly warm. Cather found G. P. inarticulate, unsophisticated, and openly jealous of her success. However, as an escapee from Red Cloud, now settled (more or less happily) amid the whirl of New York City, Cather could identify with the desire for wider experience that G. P., once a sailor in the U.S. Navy, expressed during their last meeting in 1914. Seemingly condemned to an obscure destiny in the Webster County hamlet of Bladen (population: 498 [Faber 81]), the thirty-one-year-old Nebraskan represented the kind of failed adventurer Cather herself might have become had her flight from Nebraska depended less on formidable talent and unyielding willpower. Despite the dislike Cather apparently felt for her cousin, she nevertheless felt a connection to him, a sensation that intensified tenfold following his death as a volunteer officer in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). In the summer of 1918, she stayed with G. P.'s mother, Franc Cather, and read the wartime letters that Lieutenant Cather had regularly sent home, first from stateside training camps, then from the dugouts and trenches of the Western Front.1 Fascinated and moved by the sense of exuberant self-fulfillment that her cousin described, Cather decided to write a novel about a young man, a similarly dissatisfied Nebraskan, who finds release and then death amid the Great Adventure. Nearly four years of agonizing writing and rewriting followed as Cather struggled to complete the bulkiest of her major works and fact-check each and every detail in her rendering of the AEF at war, a subject Cather knew she would have to capture with absolute plausibility or risk offending Army veterans and offering an easy target to book reviewers.
The work of fiction that finally emerged from this long and difficult creative process stands among the most controversial American novels of the 1920s. Thus, before outlining my own interpretation of Cather's contribution to the literature of the Great War, a brief history of the critical debate overOne of Ours —one of two novels Cather wrote in response to the conflict—is in order. From the beginning,One of Ours touched a nerve. H. L. Mencken blasted the book's allegedly fanciful depiction of military heroics. Sinclair Lewis bemoaned its descent into sentimentality. And Ernest Hemingway even coined an especially cruel term to capture the novel's supposed failings as a portrayal of war. InOne of Ours, he wrote to Edmund Wilson (who also delivered a negative notice of the novel), the Great War had been "Catherized" (105)—in other words, distorted and romanticized by a woman writer hopelessly out of her depth. Until fairly recently academic evaluations have not been particularly kind either.2 In his 1960 study of Cather's fiction, The Landscape and the Looking Glass, John H. Randall III asserted that the novel had dated quickly, like a Jazz Age Victrola, and appeared embarrassingly "overblown to a reader who has lived into the nineteen-fifties" (171). Four years later Dorothy Van Ghent confessed in an essay on Cather that she wishedOne of Ours could be "quietly buried without remark" (99). And finally, in perhaps the most damning evaluation of all, Stanley Cooperman's 1967 study of American World War I literature cast One of Ours as the literary equivalent of a Liberty Loan poster from 1917. Unable to confront the anti-heroic realities of the Western Front, the novel falls back on "the stereotypes of war rhetoric, the picture of clean-cut American boys marching to save the world" (30). Nor was it possible, Cooperman claimed, to read this distasteful element of the novel ironically: "[W]here the naïveté of [John Dos Passos's] Three Soldiers represents dramatic irony, the naïveté inOne of Ours represents Miss Cather herself" (188). According to Cooperman, only the link between Claude Wheeler's sexual frustration and his appetite for battle, a presumably unconscious connection on Cather's part, made the novel worthy of study.
Cooperman's influential appraisal ofOne of Ours, with its patronizing references to "Miss Cather" and echoes of the scathing contemporary assessments offered by Mencken, Lewis, and Hemingway, faced little opposition until the publication in 1975 of David Stouck's Willa Cather's Imagination. At this point, one might say, the world of criticism onOne of Ours broke in two. For Stouck, the novel denounced by so many as a work of naive patriotism represented a sophisticated, even cunning piece of "satire" aimed at both the shallow values of contemporary Middle America and the militaristic delusions of its protagonist. As for the novel's allegedly preposterous treatment of the First World War, "The author's stylistic intention," Stouck contended, "was not to describe the war in a realistic manner, but to reflect the romantic aura that for so many men gathered around the experience" (92). As Cather studies exploded in the 1980s, ignited by feminism and the proliferation of new theoretical approaches, other critics reached similar conclusions. For example, two major articles in 1984—Frederick T. Griffith's "Woman Warrior" and Jean Schwind's "Beautiful" War inOne of Ours "—helped bolster Stouck's argument that Claude Wheeler's vision of the "War to End All Wars" was most certainly not Willa Cather's.3 Griffith placed the second half of the novel "within the realm of Claude's illusions" (265) and explained that Cather could not have provided the unbroken string of naturalistic horrors that critics such as Mencken and Lewis expected of war fiction without being unfaithful to her chosen point of view. Similarly, Schwind argued that "[f]ar from extolling Claude's 'fulfillment' on the battlefield, [One of Ours ] insists that Claude dies doubly duped . . . the boy who has been 'terribly afraid of being fooled' all his life is as fatally 'fooled' by his romantic ideals as he is lovingly 'fooled' by Sergeant Hicks" (56).
Still more support for the ironic reading ofOne of Ours came in 1987 from James Woodress, Cather's foremost biographer. In Willa Cather: A Literary Life, Woodress claimed that the harsh response by many reviewers (and subsequent critics) stemmed from inattentive reading: such reviewers "did not read carefully to see that Cather had no illusions about the war" and "simply ignored the fact that the novel is told mostly from Claude's point of view" (326). In her influential study of Cather's romanticism published one year before Woodress's widely read biography, Susan J. Rosowski likewise added to the growing body of criticism bent on resuscitatingOne of Ours. Her discussion of the novel stressed Claude's "willed blindness" and noted constant ironic discrepancies between the protagonist's enthusiasm and the often horrific scenes that confront him on the battlefield. For Woodress and Rosowski,One of Ours focuses not on the Great War but on Claude's limited perceptions of his quixotic experiences, which reach their climax in his mock-heroic journey over there.
Typical of what Joan Acocella has described as "the unreliable-narrator school of Cather criticism" (41), the readings put forward by defenders ofOne of Ours hinge on the assumption that throughout the text Claude serves as an ironic center of consciousness, one whose misjudgments and romantic excesses are simply passed along to the reader, without explicit judgment or commentary, by the limited third-person narrator. Not everyone shares the view, however, that Cather's sentiments toward the First World War bear little or no resemblance to Claude Wheeler's. Not everyone perceives the ironic subtext that David Stouck first unveiled. Indeed, in criticism published since the mid-1980s, opinion on the novel remains as starkly divided as the opposing trenches on the Western Front. Among the naysayers, for example, we find Hermione Lee, who considersOne of Ours a "painful and unsatisfying book" (179), due largely to its unsuccessful mythologizing of the Great War, and Guy Reynolds, who contends that after loading the novel with a number of shockingly gory scenes, Cather then seemingly felt entitled to "present the idealistic glory of war without apology" (121). In contrast, Merrill Maguire Skaggs emphatically asserts that "the central fact aboutOne of Ours that one must see in order to read it intelligently at all is that the book is bathed and saturated in irony" (40). Clearly, as students of Cather's fiction, we have not yet agreed whether this troublesome novel is one of ours or not. Despite Skaggs's enviable confidence, there are still plenty of readers (including, I suspect, some who have read the text "intelligently") who would eject it from the Cather canon as a hopelessly dated period piece, one whose portrayal of personal liberation through war, if read without the expectation of irony, is entirely offensive.
Given Cather's current stature as a major American writer, one might assume that the eighty-year-old debate overOne of Ours matters little to our general understanding of her achievement. Yet Cather's creative encounter with the First World War differed sharply from those of other famous literary noncombatants, the vast majority of whom—including Edith Wharton, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells—wrote of the conflict long after producing the works upon which their reputations rest. In 1918, when the American military presence on the Western Front reached its peak, Cather was already an established, critically acclaimed author generally recognized as one of the premier literary talents in America. Behind her stoodO Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, andMy Ántonia. But her greatest works—A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop —were still to come. And all would appear less than ten years after the armistice. Thus, the First World War intersected with Cather's career at a critical moment.One of Ours was not in any way peripheral to her artistic and professional development: the novel took her nearly four years to write; demanded more painstaking research than any of her earlier works; won her a wider audience than she had previously enjoyed (as well as the Pulitzer Prize); earned her a considerable amount of money; and placed her, a woman writer trespassing on the supposedly masculine territory of war fiction, at the center of a longstanding debate over what constitutes, to quote Tim O'Brien, a "true war story" (76). In short, Cather's most problematic and perhaps least popular novel stands at the very center of her oeuvre; it cannot be "quietly buried without remark."
Nor, as I will argue in the following chapters, should we wish to do so. This study offers an extended reexamination ofOne of Ours andThe Professor's House and, in regard to the former, attempts to explain why such a serious and sophisticated work falls so far afield of what readers have come to expect of modern war fiction. By placingOne of Ours within a number of hitherto unfamiliar contexts, I have tried to occupy a critical no-man's-land between Cooperman's interpretation and that of Stouck. The divergent, even diametrically opposed readings thatOne of Ours has accommodated during its critical history suggest that the novel is far more modernist than most critics have assumed and therefore largely indifferent to the rhetorical strategies whereby more traditional novels communicate their themes. Indeed, with its plethora of internal contradictions, unstable point of view, and overall thematic nebulousness, the text has much in common with a Conrad novel. Ultimately, the novel neither glorifies American participation in the Great War nor consistently satirizes martial idealism. Rather, the text engages the reader in a complex and unsettling analysis that simultaneously conveys the attractions of military conflict (especially for a now frontierless America) and its dehumanizing barbarity. Like Conrad, whose modernist fictions generate more questions than answers, Cather demonstrates that the "truth" about war is more elusive than we think, its motivations and satisfactions more deeply rooted in the American psyche than we would care to admit.4
The quietly avant-garde nature ofOne of Ours becomes especially clear when we consider the wealth of cultural references in the text and the ambiguity-generating purposes for which Cather uses them. The novel achieves its disturbingly conflicted treatment of the First World War in part by summoning other cultural responses to the conflict that the text seemingly endorses one moment and jarringly subverts the next. Thus, my reading links the novel to an eclectic assortment of cultural artifacts drawn from its milieu including war memorials, unit histories, panoramic photographs, military citations and awards, and World War I-era postcards. By the same token, the analysis ofThe Professor's House that concludes this study argues that Cather's 1925 novel—or, more specifically, its sweeping evaluation of the First World War as "the great catastrophe" (236)—is no less tied to now forgotten contexts, especially the debate among postwar historians over historical relativism (a theoretical orientation produced partly by an unthinkable world war) and the controversy sparked in the early 1920s by so-called living memorials (functional structures such as the Marselluses' "Outland") that supposedly honored the dead by benefiting the living. Like Joseph Urgo and Guy Reynolds, whose studies have so effectively illuminated the presence of distinctly American myths in Cather's introspective art, I prefer to regard Cather as a writer not in retreat from her age but deeply, if ambivalently, connected to its ideological preoccupations and material culture.
Focused on what I have termed the iconography of remembrance—a pattern of imagery embraced by millions of Americans in the 1920s in order to produce an uplifting interpretation of the nation's one hundred thousand war dead—chapter 1 situatesOne of Ours within the culture of American military commemoration and argues that the text represents, at least on one level, a war memorial in prose—a memorial both to its hero and, less directly, to G. P. Cather. In particular, I parallel Cather's cathartic struggle to complete the novel with several equally urgent commemorative efforts from the same period: the construction of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the most elaborate World War I monuments in the United States; the interment of the original Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, a ceremony that subtly revealed a lack of consensus in America over the true meaning of the Great War; the reburial, amid considerable military ritual and fanfare, of G. P. Cather in Bladen, Nebraska; and finally, the activities of the Society of the First Division, an organization devoted to memorializing, in concrete and in print, the more than four thousand First Division soldiers (including Lieutenant Cather) who died on the Western Front.
In chapter 2 I seek to contextualize a much different dimension of Cather's text—Claude Wheeler's progress from miserable Nebraskan to exuberant American, a transformation that reflects Cather's prescient awareness that the Great War signaled, especially for the carefully indoctrinated citizen soldiers of the AEF, the advent of a more homogenized American worldview. The chapter begins with a discussion of Claude's infatuation with France, then considers how his cross-cultural yearning ultimately gives way to an over-whelming sense of solidarity with other Americans. Drawing on the reenvisioning of the AEF recently offered by historian Mark Meigs in Optimism at Armageddon, I suggest thatOne of Ours, not unlike Dos Passos's U.S.A., adroitly analyzes the intersection of the Great War, which brought millions of American soldiers into a shared vision of their homeland, and the emergence of a truly national culture, a phenomenon made possible not only by the military melting pot of the AEF but by technological advances in media (such as cinema), ubiquitous consumerism, and the new science of public relations as practiced in both the government and private sector.
For Cather's harshest critics in 1922 (all of them male), whatever insightOne of Ours offered into the cultural dynamics of America's first world war mattered little given the sheer preposterousness of the novel's scenes at the front lines. But is Cather's portrayal of combat, or of World War I Army life in general, truly as distorted as these early critics claimed? James Woodress has already provided an effective rebuttal to attacks on the novel's verisimilitude by citing numerous similarities between the protagonist's adventures in France and those of Harry S. Truman, another discontented farm boy who found the First World War exhilarating (see "A Note on One of Ours " 4). Claude Wheeler's idealism, it would seem, was hardly anomalous. Building on this argument, I contend in chapter 3 that Cather not only captured in Claude a sensibility shared by many enthusiastic doughboys (thousands of whom later became members of the ultrapatriotic and anything but disillusioned American Legion) but also managed to evoke, through the combat situations that Hemingway found so laughable, many of the most famous legends of the war. Indeed, a careful reading of the war chapters inOne of Ours reveals that Cather calculatingly drew on situations that were part of almost any front-line soldier's experience—entering the trenches for the first time, liberating a French village, tracking down a sniper, joining the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (where more than one million Americans saw action), and so forth—and those that became the inspiration for popular folklore, especially the ordeal of the Lost Battalion, which is echoed throughout the final battle in which Claude loses his life. Here again One of Ours emerges as an expansive examination of then-recent history and the cultural myths used by Americans to understand it.
In chapter 4 I shift the focus fromOne of Ours to The Professor's House and argue that the First World War stands much closer to the thematic center of this cryptic text than most critics have acknowledged. Indeed, the nihilistic "vacuum" into which Outland vanishes constitutes "the thing not named" inThe Professor's House. In keeping with the artistic practices outlined in Cather's essay "The Novel Démeublé," the war haunts the text as an all-important but nearly invisible phantom whose ghostly significance extends even to scenes that do not contain any references to the conflict itself. Thus, I argue that St. Peter's encounter with Horace Langtry, for example, evokes professional disagreements that indirectly have their origin in the Great War. Likewise, the professor's lecture on the role of science and technology in modern history (in a scene that similarly avoids any explicit mention of modern warfare) reveals a host of sinister implications once placed alongside Tom Outland's disturbing journey from the Blue Mesa to the Western Front. WhileOne of Ours explores the complexity of martial idealism, and so vacillates in its depiction of the Great War,The Professor's House offers a vision of the conflict uncompromising in its bleakness.
In addition, I contend that ifOne of Ours represents, at least on one level, a war memorial in prose, then The Professor's House trenchantly analyzes the activity of memorializing itself. Cather's most intensely studied novel can be seen, in this respect, as a sequel to her most disparaged one.One of Ours focuses on a young man moving ever closer to his fatal destiny on the battlefield.The Professor's House, on the other hand, probes the aftermath of such a destiny (almost as if Cather had taken the final chapter of One of Ours and expanded it into an entire novel) by examining the multiple, often ironically conflicting legacies left by a lost youth for his survivors. How, the novel asks, are the war dead, those permanently in the Outland, to be commemorated by the living? Ultimately, the characters' inability to agree on an answer to this question—or to conceive of a stable myth that explains Tom Outland's extraordinary life and shadowy death—reflects the failure of American culture in the 1920s to assimilate the contradictory realities of the Great War into a coherent pattern of meaning.
For too long bothOne of Ours andThe Professor's House have received only passing mention in studies of World War I literature. Lingering doubts about the artistic merits ofOne of Ours, traceable to the animosity it provoked in influential male reviewers (most of whom, ironically enough, had never been to war), have largely prevented its serious consideration alongside World War I "classics" such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Good-bye to All That, Testament of Youth, A Farewell to Arms, Three Soldiers, and The Enormous Room. Indeed, for evidence of the tenacity with which the novel's contemporary reception still clings to its reputation even after two decades of sympathetic revision, one need only consult Patrick J. Quinn's recent article, "The Experience of War in American Patriotic Literature." Here one reads thatOne of Ours represents a belated variation on the "formulaic romanticism" (760) used by wartime writers such as Arthur Guy Empey to stir up hatred for the Hun and to boost enlistment. In the case of The Professor's House, generally regarded as one of Cather's finest novels, different obstacles have thwarted a full appreciation of the work's richness as a statement on industrialized warfare. In particular, the way Cather establishes the First World War as a spectral presence in her text—as "the thing not named"—threatens, at times, to obscure its significance altogether. One often wishes, for the sake of Cather's war-related themes, that fewer "furnishings" had been hauled out of view. When examined more closely, however, Cather's analysis of the First World War in these two novels emerges as a major achievement, one worthy to stand beside her groundbreaking treatment of Nebraska settlers inO Pioneers! and My Ántonia and her haunting evocation of a more remote and less personal past inDeath Comes for the Archbishop andShadows on the Rock. In a paradox of the kind that abounds inOne of Ours, the ugly "catastrophe" of war inspired some of Cather's most beautiful, if unsettling, art.
1. According to Bennett, Cather became so "aroused and interested" by G. P. Cather's letters that she remarked to friends, "I never knew that he was that kind of fellow. He revealed himself to me in his letters, and let me tell you, he's going to be my next book" (15). The forthcoming Willa Cather scholarly edition of One of Ours, edited by Richard Harris, contains an extensive discussion of G. P. Cather's wartime correspondence, a collection of materials never before made available. All serious Cather scholars will wish to consult this edition.
2. For the most complete survey of criticism on One of Ours for 1922-70, see Prendergast, "One of Ours: Willa Cather's Successful Failure."
3. Other notable articles written or published in the 1980s are Gelfant, "'What Was It . . .?'"; S. O'Brien, "Combat Envy and Survivor Guilt"; Ryan, "No Woman's Land,"; and Yongue, "For Better and for Worse." All of these analyses (except O'Brien's) essentially advocate an ironic reading of the novel.
4. Of the now numerous articles and book chapters devoted to One of Ours, Stout's discussion of the novel in Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World comes closest to offering the kind of reading I have in mind. Stout writes, "Claude is fooled in his entire attitude toward the war. But the diffuse irony of Cather's writing does not allow us to say what a correct attitude would be. Clarity is exposed as reductive. Unwilling as she was to adopt the view of modernists who wrote of a world lacking all meaning, she instead created a succession of limited and illusory meanings, false floors that keep dropping us, if not into the nihilism of a Hemingway ('Our nada who art in nada . . .'), at least into radical uncertainty. A single meaning may be there somewhere at the bottom, but we cannot detect what it is. And so the irony that surrounds Claude's more general misconceptions is less crisp, less clear in its import, that the limited ironies of his 'foolings'" (176). While I do not agree that Claude's entire view of the war is delusional—too much of Cather herself finds its way into Claude's romanticizing of wartime France and into his seductive vision of military comradery—I do concur with the assertion that "Clarity is exposed as reductive" in One of Ours and that the text offers no "single meaning."
Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, 127 p.
Acocella explores how various branches of literary criticism, including feminist criticism, have at times claimed Cather as their own for political reasons.
Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992, 198 p.
Carlin argues that Cather's later works have been ignored due to her unconventional use of fictional forms and unsettling questions raised about sex, power, race, and class.
Gelfant, Blanche H. "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia." American Literature 43, no. 1 (March 1971): 60-82.
Gelfant views Jim Burden as an unreliable narrator in My Ántonia, arguing for a new reading of the novel that includes discussion of Cather's ambivalence about sex.
Kaye, Frances W. Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang, 1993, 204 p.
Kaye characterizes Cather's portrayal of women's experiences with men as mostly negative.
Motley, Warren. "The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman's Success." Women's Studies 12 (1986): 149-65.
Motley argues that Alexandra must become isolated and "psychologically deadened" in O Pioneers! to achieve success as a female pioneer.
O'Brien, Sharon. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." Signs 9, no. 4 (1984): 576-99.
O'Brien examines evidence of Cather's lesbianism and explores how her need to hide her sexuality affected her fiction writing.
Additional coverage of Cather's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 128; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 54, 78, 256; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement 1, Part 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 50; Something about the Author, Vol. 30; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 11, 31, 99, 132; Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; and World Literature Criticism.
"Cather, Willa 1873-1947." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/cather-willa-1873-1947
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