Willa Cather American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3889

Cather is a rarity among writers: a woman who has managed to escape classification as a “woman writer.” As a novelist, she is closely identified with a particular region but has nevertheless avoided the label “regional writer.” It is the depth and universality of the themes that run through her work that have allowed Cather to transcend such limiting definitions of her voice as a writer, permitting its individuality to achieve full critical recognition.

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Central to much of her work is Cather’s fascination with the men and women who struggled to build lives for themselves and their families in the sometimes hostile environment of the American frontier. As the daughter of a farmer and, briefly, a homesteader, Cather was intimately acquainted with the conditions faced by the pioneers, many of them immigrants adjusting to new lives far from their native lands and the level of courage, endurance, patience, and strength that was demanded of them in their efforts to tame the frontier. In books such as O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Cather creates vivid fictional portraits of the individuals who peopled the world of her Nebraska childhood. Her sensitivity to the problems faced by the immigrant homesteaders is especially acute, and her admiration for their ability to outlast the difficulties awaiting them in their new land is boundless.

In Cather’s world, the pioneer experience draws on the depths of an individual’s character. Cather’s particular talent lies in her ability to translate this experience into universal terms, turning a pioneer woman’s simple life into a glowing tribute to the human spirit. Cather sees in her characters—as she did in the figures surrounding her in her youth—people whose individual stories of courage and endurance form a heroic pattern that changed the face of a nation.

Cather also recognizes, certainly to some extent from personal experience, that a life tilling the soil can be restrictive and unfulfilling for anyone whose aspirations lie beyond the horizons of the Midwest’s farms and small towns. Claude Wheeler, the central character in One of Ours, is ill-suited to the life of a farmer and finds his escape in the battlefields of France. Jim Burden, the narrator of My Ántonia, is impatient to leave his small community for the larger world.

Cather also deals in her work with the passing of the frontier spirit as larger communities draw an influx of people to the region. There is a strong nostalgia for times past in many of her novels and an increasing dislike of modern society and modern ways that sometimes drew critical fire later in her career. In A Lost Lady, the charming Marian Forrester—a gracious, aristocratic presence in the small town of Sweet Water—gradually enters a decline that leads her to an affair with her husband’s friend and an association with the town’s unscrupulous lawyer. The book is sympathetic in its portrait of Marian, who represents the fading past, and harsh in its portrayal of Ivy Peters, the attorney whose ways represent a break with traditions such as honor and respect.

Hand in hand with Cather’s reverence for the pioneer spirit is her admiration for individuality. One of the recurring themes in her work is that of the individual whose dreams and ambitions place him or her at odds with society. The choices a person makes, and the repercussions those choices have, is the theme of both The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House. In the former, a singer sacrifices everything for her career, leaving behind her midwestern home and family and relegating her social life to secondary status in order to pursue her dream. When she has achieved her goals, she is able to look back, clear-eyed, on the decisions she has made along the way and accept that they were necessary in obtaining her goal. For Cather, this was a highly personal subject, and the novel’s story line has many similarities to her own life.

The Professor’s House examines the life of a man who has not made such a decision and who reaches the beginning of old age only to come face to face with the unique individual spirit he suppressed years ago. Although outwardly successful, he feels less and less at home in the life he has gradually allowed to become his own. He at last releases his connection to his earlier self and resigns himself to living out what his life has become. His own choices are contrasted with his reminiscences concerning a former student, Tom Outland, whose ability to live in harmony with his own spirit reminds the professor of what he has lost.

Cather also had a strong feeling for the land itself, both the midwestern prairies and the more dramatic landscapes of the southwestern region she later came to love. The land is an intrinsic part of several of her best works, and it was frequently the inspiration for the poetry she wrote earlier in her career. It is in her descriptive passages that Cather’s prose style is at its most eloquent, capturing with vivid imagery the colors, physical features, and shifting moods and impressions that a particular landscape evokes in its human inhabitants. In O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, the unique and subtle beauty of the prairie landscape is strongly felt throughout the stories, while Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor’s House both offer striking portraits of the Southwest.

The latter two books also draw on Cather’s fascination with Indian culture and the history of the land prior to the arrival of white settlers. Tom Outland’s discovery of the cliff-dwelling Indian ruins in The Professor’s House and his complete absorption in them over the following year of his life provide the book with its most compelling segments. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a historical novel that brings to life the missionary work of two priests whose lives span the dramatic changes in the southwestern frontier that took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The love they come to have for the land and its people reflects Cather’s own feelings, even as the book gives voice to a unique period in American history.

My Ántonia

First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

An immigrant pioneer woman’s life is recalled by her childhood friend.

One of Cather’s best-loved novels, My Ántonia is a moving tribute to the spirit of the pioneers whose strength and endurance made possible the settlement of the American frontier. In its portrait of its title character, the book gives an individual face to the myriad experiences facing the immigrants who composed a large portion of the Midwest’s early homesteaders.

The story is told from the point of view of Jim Burden, a young boy from Virginia who has lost his parents and travels to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. On the same train as Jim is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, whose oldest daughter, Ántonia (pronounced in the Eastern European manner, with accents on the first and third syllables), will become the companion of Jim’s childhood days. Through Jim’s eyes, the reader sees the family’s early struggles as they suffer cold and deprivation in a dugout house, lose the sensitive Mr. Shimerda to suicidal despair, and gradually begin to pull free of hardship through diligence and hard work.

Ántonia Shimerda is an intelligent girl who must forgo any thought of serious study in order to work for her family. First in the fields and later as a “hired girl” in Red Cloud, she is cheerful and uncomplaining, shouldering her share of the backbreaking work required to support a family farm. Ántonia’s patient, gentle spirit stays with Jim long after he has left his small community, coming to represent for him the very best of what the pioneer experience can draw from the individual.

Ántonia is not, however, a simplistic character or a lifeless symbolic figure. Cather brings her fully to life, flawed and warmly human, and her story is both specific in its details and universal in its larger themes. A practical, sensible girl, she is nevertheless passionate in her love of the dances that provide all the hired girls with one of their few pleasures, and her trusting nature leads her into trouble—in the form of an illegitimate child—when she is unable to recognize dishonesty, so foreign to her own nature, in the man she loves.

My Ántonia draws its inspiration from Cather’s own childhood memories, and Ántonia herself is modeled after a woman named Annie Sadilek, who worked as a maid for the Cathers’ neighbors in Red Cloud. Like Ántonia, Annie’s father had tragically committed suicide when faced with the hardships and cultural deprivations of his new home, and Annie’s strength and perseverance left a deep impression on Cather over the years. The book’s narrator, Jim Burden, who leaves his small community first for college and then to become an attorney for the railroad, is essentially Cather herself, and Jim’s growing understanding in the book’s later passages of the importance of those early years parallels Cather’s own.

My Ántonia is also filled with a wealth of memorable supporting characters: Jim’s strong, loving grandparents, the family’s colorful farmhands, Ántonia’s friends, Lena Lingard, who becomes a successful dressmaker, Tiny Soderball, who makes her fortune in the Alaska gold rush, and Cuzak, the good-hearted immigrant who marries Ántonia and makes his life as a farmer although he longs for the city life he knew as a boy. The novel is peopled with a rich cast of characters culled from Cather’s memory and transformed by her writer’s imagination.

There is perhaps no other book that captures quite as well as this one does the look and feel of the prairie. An eye accustomed to more spectacular landscapes may miss the subtleties of the land’s beauty, but Cather’s deep feeling for the Midwest, with its rolling plains, wildflowers, and open sky, creates an almost palpable picture of her story’s setting—one that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of the characters and their lives. In the beauty of its language and the humanity of its characterizations, My Ántonia remains a major achievement among Cather’s work.

A Lost Lady

First published: 1923

Type of work: Novel

An aristocratic woman’s gradual decline mirrors the changes in the life of a small midwestern town.

A Lost Lady is Cather’s elegiac portrait of the spirit of an earlier age. In her depiction of Marian Forrester, the much-admired figurehead of culture and society in the town of Sweet Water, Cather evokes a quality of life that began, for her, to vanish sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century. To Cather, much of what was wrong with twentieth century life was the absence of those qualities that Mrs. Forrester embodies: charm, warmth, and a certain graciousness of manner that has no place in the harsher climate of an industrialized society.

The novel traces the fortunes of the Forresters from their position in the book’s opening chapters as wealthy and prominent citizens who divide their time between Sweet Water and the more sophisticated society of Denver, to their financial ruin and the decay of spirit that it precipitates. As in My Ántonia, the title character is seen through the eyes of a young man, Niel Herbert, although the voice here takes the form of a third-person narrator. From the time he is twelve and is nursed by Mrs. Forrester after a fall from a tree, Niel regards Marian as the standard against which all other women are measured. His devotion to her continues throughout his teenage years until the morning when he becomes aware that she is involved in an affair with a friend of her husband. For Niel, the shock is overwhelming. As Cather phrases it, “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal.”

The revelation of Mrs. Forrester’s secret life coincides with the Forresters’ financial ruin, brought on, in large part, by Captain Forrester’s sense of honor. The captain had made his money in railroads and is serving on the board of directors of a bank when the bank’s failure threatens to wipe out the savings of many investors for whom the captain’s name has been an important draw. Determined not to let his investors down, Forrester liquidates his own fortune and pays it out to the investors. The strain brings on a stroke from which he never fully recovers.

The change in their fortunes quickly takes its toll on Marian Forrester. Ill-equipped to cope with a life uncushioned by her former wealth, she quickly declines to the point where Niel returns from school to Sweet Water to stay with the couple and see them through their difficulties. No longer able to travel, Marian soon feels the narrow constraints of small-town life and begins to drink. As time passes, she comes to rely more and more on Ivy Peters, an unscrupulous lawyer with a longstanding grudge against the Forresters, who takes advantage of Marian’s helplessness.

It is clear that, for Cather, Marian Forrester represents a way of life that has been lost in the face of changes in modern society. Ivy Peters personifies those changes, emerging as an unsavory representative of an age in which money has replaced loyalty and honor as the standards by which a man is judged. The contrast between Captain Forrester and Peters is stark and not at all favorable to the latter, making the reversal in their fortunes—one beginning the novel in a position of wealth and authority and the other having seized the reins by its close—all the more painful. In an episode that saddens Niel greatly, Marian invites several of Ivy Peters’s group of friends to dinner for an evening which seems to Niel a coarse mockery of the earlier days when an invitation to the Forresters was a much-sought-after prize.

Marian Forrester rallies, surprisingly, at the book’s close, leaving Sweet Water and marrying again, to a husband who treasures her as Forrester had. Ultimately, however, she remains for Niel—and for Cather—a figure from a lost era and a reminder of the ways in which the world has changed.

The Professor’s House

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

An older man reassesses the choices he has made in his life, comparing himself to a former, much-loved student.

In The Professor’s House, Cather explores the thoughts and emotions of a man making the difficult transition from middle to old age and finding, as he looks back over his life, that he has lost sight of the person he once was. The first symptom of Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s growing internal crisis is his reluctance to leave his attic study when he and his wife move to a new house. For St. Peter, the study—uncomfortable and inconvenient as it has always been—represents the constancy of his working life and the years devoted to his massive history of the Spanish explorers in North America. Unwilling to relinquish this tie to the past, the professor continues to rent his old house and visit it when he works.

As time passes, however, a growing sense of alienation from his family and even his work seems to overtake St. Peter. His two daughters have grown and have developed qualities with which he is impatient, and his relationship with his wife has become a matter of habit rather than interest. Questioning whether he has followed the right path in his life, he finds himself thinking that he has lost the boy he once was, opting instead for a set of social conventions. The spiritual malaise that has seized hold of him very nearly brings the professor to tragedy when he realizes that his life is in danger from a gas stove and he chooses to do nothing. Saved by the family’s longtime sewing woman, St. Peter finds that he has somehow let go of those remnants of his boyhood self and is now able to resign himself to the years ahead of him.

Many critics feel that The Professor’s House is Cather’s most revealing book in terms of her state of mind and her own conflicts regarding the artist’s uneasy relationship with society. For Cather, it was essential that her work remain the top priority in her life, and she was prepared to make whatever sacrifices that decision might require. For the professor, social obligations in the form of a family have deflected him from the path he originally set out to follow.

Although they make up the greater portion of the book, Godfrey St. Peter’s self-doubts and psychological quagmire are not the most memorable segments of The Professor’s House. The remarkable section of the novel titled “Tom Outland’s Story” comes alive in a way that the longer sections dealing with St. Peter never do. Indeed, Outland’s presence—or memory—is the spark that enlivens even those sections of the book in which he does not play a prominent role.

An outstanding student and self-made scholar, Outland has already invented a lucrative engine when he is killed in World War I. The money from the invention leaves his fiancé, St. Peter’s daughter Rosamond, a wealthy woman, yet it is a source of great strife within the family. A close friend as well as a student, Outland has come to represent for the professor a man who followed his natural inclinations wholeheartedly. At the time of his own turmoil, St. Peter is editing Outland’s journal account of a year spent exploring and excavating Indian ruins. Outland is from Cather’s beloved Southwest, and his discovery of a long-vacant village of cliff-dwelling Indians has a transforming effect on his life, one which illuminates his segment of the book and gives it a tone of energy entirely different from those devoted to the professor.

It is a difference that captures the contrast between the way in which the professor has lived and the total absorption that marks Outland’s own approach. Recalling his young friend, St. Peter cannot help but find his own life pale and unfocused by comparison, and Cather illustrates this contrast with the marked shift in tone that characterizes Outland’s segment—and, indeed, his every appearance—in the book. Whereas the novel as a whole needs the segment to balance and inform its story line, “Tom Outland’s Story” could stand alone as a novella.

The Professor’s House is interesting both for its insights into Cather herself and for its reflective quality, which marks its author’s approaching later years. Yet it is Tom Outland that one remembers—a fact that eloquently bears out Cather’s premise regarding the merits of each person’s chosen path.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Two missionary priests, sent by Rome to bring order to the American Southwest, experience a growing love for the land and its people.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is the book that Cather believed to be her finest work. Like The Professor’s House, it is a novel that explores the life of a man and draws on the American Southwest for its setting. Here the similarity ends, however, as the tone of the two books is quite different.

Unlike the earlier books, Death Comes for the Archbishop celebrates the life choices of its central characters, finding in the lives of Father Joseph Vaillant and Father Jean Marie Latour a simple dignity and extraordinary fulfillment.

Cather based her story on William Howlett’s account of the life of Father Macheboeuf, vicar to Archbishop Lamy of New Mexico. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the book follows the fortunes of Father Latour and his assistant and friend, Father Vaillant, as they organize the disjointed religious structure of the southwestern missions. The two face a formidable task, made more difficult by powerful priests long in control of the area who are loathe to abandon the corruption into which they have fallen. Working together diligently and with an unshakable faith, Father Latour and Father Vaillant eventually reclaim the region and bring its far-flung communities under the guidance of a single diocese.

The actual course its story takes, however, is less important than the novel’s moving exploration of the human spirit as it is revealed in the two priests. Father Latour and Father Vaillant, both men of deep faith and dedication, willingly sacrifice much in the way of personal desires for the sake of the mission they have undertaken, and the book shines with the integrity and nobility of their efforts.

Cather was often asked how much of the story of the two priests was based on historical fact. Perhaps the most accurate answer would be that the skeletal outline of the book is drawn from reality, but everything else is what Cather referred to as a “work of the imagination.” The book could be described as historical fiction, or perhaps fictionalized history, but whatever term one chooses to apply, it is clear that those elements that make Death Comes for the Archbishop remarkable are Cather’s. Her extraordinary prose style is much in evidence, painting vivid literary portraits of the southwestern landscapes and bringing to life a chapter in frontier history.

Cather’s love for the Southwest is evident throughout the book, and it reverberates in the love the two priests come to feel for the land and its people. Father Vaillant, in particular, is a man of the people—a dedicated priest who is happiest when he is able to minister to those cut off from the Church by distance or circumstance. Father Latour is a reflective man who sees his greatest dream accomplished in the building of a stone cathedral in Santa Fe, a building that combines the Romanesque architectural style of the Old World with the raw building resources of the New. In the novel’s moving final image, it is at the altar of this cathedral that Father Latour is laid after his death.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is rich in unforgettable set pieces and unique secondary characters. Among the book’s most memorable segments is the priests’ encounter with a dangerous man who offers them shelter for the night, fully intending to murder them and steal their mules. They are warned by his Mexican wife, whom they later assist after she, too, has fled. This event leads to an encounter with frontiersman Kit Carson, in an effective blending of fiction and history that typifies the skill with which Cather brings the past to life.

Ultimately, Death Comes for the Archbishop is, like much of Cather’s work, a tribute to the courage and perseverance of those who settled the American frontier. What Cather evokes so well in her depiction of Father Latour and Father Vaillant is the depth of purpose that led these men, and so many others like them, to leave behind the world they knew and undertake a mission that would transform their lives into an act of faith.

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