Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4025
Willa Cather once said in an interview that the Nebraska landscape was “the happiness and the curse” of her life. That statement reveals the ambivalence in Cather that produced in her a lifelong tug-of-war between the East and the western prairie. That ambivalence is the central tension in her novels. As long as her parents were alive, she made repeated trips back home to see them, and each time she crossed the Missouri River, she said, “the very smell of the soil tore [her] to pieces.” As a young woman in Red Cloud and Lincoln, however, she was chafed by narrow attitudes and limited opportunities. She knew that she had to leave the prairie in order to fulfill her compelling desire for broader experiences and for art. Like Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark, Cather knew she would never find fulfillment unless she left her home. At the same time, however, she also discovered that her very being was rooted in the landscape of her childhood. Thus, going back to it, even if only in memory, was essential and inescapable.
Cather once remarked that the most important impressions one receives come before the age of fifteen, and it seems clear that she was referring particularly to her own experiences on the Nebraska prairie. She did use some Virginia memories in her work, but only sporadically, in a few early short stories, before turning to them in her last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In her “Nebraska works,” it is not only Nebraska that Cather evokes, but it is, also, what Nebraska symbolizes and means, for she is not simply a regional writer. The range of her work is as broad as the range of her experience, and Nebraska represents the westward necessity of her life. Wherever in her work the pull of the landscape is felt, there is NebraskA&Mdash;whether the setting is Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, or even rural Pennsylvania or frontier Quebec.
As has been suggested, her life had an eastward necessity too. The raw hardships of prairie life could sometimes mutilate the body and drain the spirit, and a human being often needed something else. A man of genuine sensitivity and culture, such as Ántonia Shimerda’s father, for example, could not survive in a hard land. Cather’s awareness of this fact made a great impression on her. One of the first stories she heard after arriving in Nebraska was the account of Francis Sadilek’s suicide, an event that she reconstructed in My Ántonia. Not only could the beloved land be killingly cruel, but it also failed to provide the environment of training, discipline, and appreciation so necessary for the growth and development of an artist. Although the land provided the materials for memory to work with and the germinating soil for the seed of talent, it could not produce the final fruit.
Then, too, part of the Nebraska Cather experienced was small-town life and the limited opportunities it offered the artistically ambitious. Throughout her life, she felt misunderstood by some of the townspeople who had known her as a youngster. Letters to her lifelong friend in Red Cloud, Carrie Miner Sherwood (from whom she drew Frances Harling in My Ántonia), indicate how sharply Cather felt their disapproval of her. She rebelled against their codes and refused to remain among them but was stung by their criticism.
Tension between East and West
Thea Kronborg is not the only Cather character to be torn, like her creator, between East and West, civilization and the land. In My Ántonia, the young Jim Burden expresses Cather’s own feelings of awe and fear upon his arrival in Nebraska. Later, when he goes to school in Lincoln and eventually leaves for a career in the East, the Nebraska landscape of his past stays with him, just as it stayed with Cather, even after long absences. Claude Wheeler, in One of Ours, also has a good deal of his maker in him. Much as he loves the beauty of the Nebraska landscape, he cannot find himself until he leaves it. Like Cather, the ultimate in civilization for him is France.
The opposing aspects of Cather’s desire, the land and civilization—or, more specifically, art—were of equal value to her. She could never entirely give up one for the other or value one above the other. Thus, the land was “the happiness and the curse” of her life. She might well have said the same thing about her art. Ironically, however, at least according to her friend, Elizabeth Sergeant, it was not until Cather made her feelings for the land a part of her art that she truly realized her potential as an artist. Though East and West, civilization (art) and the land—the very foundations of Cather’s work—are sometimes at opposite poles in terms of the choices one must make, they are both positive values to her. The greatest threat to each is not the other; the greatest threat to each is an exploitative materialism that has no appreciation for the innate value of the land or of art.
In Cather’s work, the same impulse that exploits the land is also destructive to art and the best qualities of civilization. The author’s most despicable characters are those such as Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady and Bayliss Wheeler in One of Ours, who have no feeling for the land or for the past that it harbors. All that interests them is making money, as much as possible as quickly as possible. Cather had great admiration for the early railroad pioneers, wealthy men of immense courage, vision, and taste, as she pictures them in A Lost Lady. In too many people, however, the lust for wealth and the acquisition of it are destructive to character. They subvert what are for Cather some of life’s most positive values, a relationship with the earth and an aesthetic sensibility.
Of Cather’s twelve novels, only three, Alexander’s Bridge, My Mortal Enemy, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, do not deal centrally with the tension between East and West, with civilization and the land as values threatened by the spirit of acquisitiveness; yet even those touch the latter point. For example, Myra Henshawe’s harshness of character comes partly as a result of her need to live in a style only money can provide; the desire to possess that style leads to the buying and selling of human beings, a central issue in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Cather’s second novel, O Pioneers!, her first to use Nebraska materials, presents the conflict between the land and civilization and the threat of destructive materialism as its major concerns. The novel’s principal character, Alexandra Bergson, is something of an earth mother, a being so closely linked with the soil and growing things that her very oneness with the earth seems to convert the harsh wild land into rich acreage that willingly yields its treasures. From the first, she believes in the land and loves it, even when her brothers and neighbors grow to despise and curse it. Two of Alexandra’s brothers have such a fear of financial failure that they cannot see the land’s potential.
Cather, however, does not simply present Alexandra’s struggle and eventual triumph. There is another value, opposed to the land but equally important, with which Alexandra must contend. Her youngest brother, Emil, is sensitive in a way that does not lend itself to life on the Continental Divide, and she wants him to have opportunities that are available only in centers of civilization. His finely tuned spirit, however, leads him to disaster in a prairie environment where passions can run high, untempered by civilizing influences. Emil falls in love with Marie Shabata, a free, wild creature, and both of them are killed by her enraged husband. The book’s final vision, however, returns to an affirmation of the enduring qualities of the land and the value of human union with it.
The Song of the Lark
The conflict between the landscape of home and art is played out dramatically in the central character of The Song of the Lark. Thea Kronborg is in many ways the young Willa Cather, fighting the narrowness of small-town life on the prairie, needing to leave Moonstone to develop her talent, but needing also to integrate the landscape of home with her artistic desire. Thea has to leave home, but she also has to have her sense of home with her in order to reach her potential as an opera singer. Much that she has set aside in her quest for art she must pick up again and use in new ways. In fact, Cather makes it clear that without the integration of home, Thea might never have become an artist. Moonstone, however, also has its materialists who obviously stand in opposition to the enduring, if sometimes conflicting, values of earth and art. The only villain of the piece is the wife of Thea’s best friend and supporter, Doctor Archie. She is a mean, pinched woman, shriveled with stinginess.
Once Thea has left Moonstone and gone to Chicago to study music, the killing pace and the battle against mediocrity wear her to the breaking point. In an effort at self-renewal, she accepts an invitation to recuperate on a ranch near the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. There, she spends many hours lying in the sun on the red rock, following the paths of ancient potters, examining the broken pieces of their pottery that still lie in the streambeds. It is there that Thea has the revelation that gives birth to her artist self. These ancient potters made their pottery into art by decorating it. The clay jars would not hold water any better for the artistic energy expended on them, but their makers expended that energy nevertheless. This revelation comes to Thea out of the landscape itself, and it gives her the knowledge she needs in order to continue her studies: Artistic desire is universal, ageless, and she is a part of it.
The eponymousprotagonist of Lucy Gayheart is not so hard and indomitable a character as Thea, nor is she destined to become a performing artist in her own right. Nevertheless, Lucy is much like Thea (and the young Willa Cather) in her need to leave the prairie landscape and pursue art in the only place where such pursuits are possible, the city. Lucy is, however, in many ways a child of the earth—she loves skating on the frozen river, and she begs for the preservation of an orchard that her sister Pauline, a plodding materialist, wants to cut down because it is no longer productive. Given her nature, it is no surprise that Lucy falls in love with the singer for whom she plays accompaniments at practice. He is the embodiment of the art for which her soul yearns. After his accidental drowning, Lucy returns home and she herself dies in a skating accident, her death a final union with the earth. There is also a “Doctor Archie’s wife” in Lucy Gayheart. Ironically, she marries the one man in Haverford that Lucy might have married happily, the one man with the capacity to appreciate what a rare and lovely phenomenon Lucy was.
Something of an earth mother like Alexandra Bergson, yet more malleable and human, Ántonia Shimerda of My Ántonia is for many readers Cather’s most appealing character. She becomes a total embodiment of the strength and generosity associated with those who are one with the land and the forces of nature. Unlike Alexandra, her capacity for life finds expression not only in the trees and plants she tends but also in her many children, who seem to have sprung almost miraculously from the earth. It is in Jim Burden, who tells the story, and to some extent, in Ántonia’s husband, Anton Cuzak, that the conflict between East and West occurs. Jim, like Cather, comes to Nebraska from Virginia as a youngster, and though he has to seek his professional life in eastern cities, he never gets Nebraska out of his soul. Even as a student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, he gazes out his window and imagines there the landscape and figures of his childhood. Ántonia represents for Jim, even after twenty years of city life, all the positive values of the earth for which no amount of civilization can compensate. At the end of the book, he determines to revitalize his past association with the land and yet still tramp a few lighted streets with Cuzak, a city man at heart.
The conflict between the harshness of life on the prairie and the cultural advantages of civilization is also presented in Ántonia’s father, who had been a gifted musician in Europe, but who now, poverty-stricken and overworked, no longer plays the violin. Ántonia’s deep appreciation for Cuzak’s quality and for his gentle city ways and her pride in Jim’s “city” accomplishments, bridge the gap between prairie and civilization.
The materialists are also evident in My Ántonia. In fact, one of Cather’s most memorable villains is the lecherous and greedy Wick Cutter, Black Hawk’s nefarious moneylender. His last act is to devise a scheme whereby he can kill himself and his equally greedy wife and at the same time guarantee that her relatives will not get a cent of his money.
One of Ours
Claude Wheeler, the main character of One of Ours, is torn, like so many of Cather’s young people, by the need to go and the need to stay. Claude is filled with yearnings he does not completely understand. All he knows is that he is burning to fulfill some inner desire, and everything he does seems to go wrong. Much as he loves the rivers and groves of his own landscape, he feels like a misfit there. His father’s hearty, nonchalant materialism is only slightly less distressing to him than the hard, grasping greed of his older brother Bayliss, the bloodless, pious parsimony of his wife Enid, and the cheerful selfishness of his younger brother Ralph. The world begins opening to him during the short period when he is allowed to attend the university at Lincoln, but Claude completely finds himself only when he enlists in the army and begins fighting in France. There, he meets Lieutenant David Gerhardt, a musician, and encounters a gracious cultural climate to which he responds with all his heart.
There is, however, a troubling aspect to this novel. Claude’s real fulfillment comes in the midst of battle, surrounded by death and destruction. Only then does he feel at one with himself and his surroundings; only then is the old anguish gone, the tension released. In the end, he is killed, and his mother feels some sense of gratitude that at least he does not have to face the disillusionment of returning to a country that has given itself over to material pursuits. With the exception of Alexander’s Bridge, this is probably Cather’s least successful novel, perhaps partly because she was emotionally very close to her central character. Cather stated publicly that she modeled Claude after a young cousin of hers who died in World War I, but in a letter she indicated that Claude was, in fact, an embodiment of Cather herself. The novel is a poignant portrayal of the central tensions in her work between the land and civilization, and it also describes the ever-present threat of spiritually damaging materialism.
A Lost Lady
In A Lost Lady, Cather again shows a character’s need for civilization’s amenities, in spite of the appeal of the Western landscape. Here too, though the reader may fault Cather’s main character for her sometimes expedient morality, Cather has publicly expressed her affection for the woman on whom she based the character of Marian Forrester. Further, the ruthless, materialistic mind-set that nearly always characterizes “the enemy” in Cather’s work is graphically portrayed in the coarse figure of Ivy Peters. As a boy, Ivy cruelly blinded a bird and then set it free, and as a man he drained what was once the Forresters’ lovely marshlands in order to make them yield a profit. Unscrupulous and shrewd, he manages to compromise the beautiful Marian Forrester with as little conscience as he showed toward the helpless bird.
Until her husband’s decline, Mrs. Forrester managed to have the best of both worlds, East and West, spending her summers in the beautiful countryside outside Sweet Water, on the Burlington line, and her winters in the lively social atmosphere of Denver and Colorado Springs. Captain Forrester, much her elder, had made his fortune pioneering Western railroad development. When the novel opens, the Captain’s failing health has already begun to limit Mrs. Forrester’s social and cultural opportunities, though she still enjoys visits to the city and entertains important guests at Sweet Water. It becomes apparent, however, much to the dismay of Marian Forrester’s young admirer, Niel Herbert, that Marian’s passion for life and high living has led her into an affair with the opportunistic, if handsome, Frank Ellinger even before the death of the Captain. This affair foreshadows her later desperate sellout to Ivy Peters. It is significant, however, that Cather never judges Marian, though the prudish Niel does. It is not the life-loving Marian Forrester whom Cather condemns, but the grasping Ivy Peters and the unprincipled Frank Ellinger—and perhaps even the unforgiving Niel Herbert. The novel’s hero is Captain Forrester, who willingly relinquishes his fortune to preserve his honor.
The Professor’s House
There are two plot lines in The Professor’s House, one centering on the growing life weariness of Professor Godfrey St. Peter and the other on the experiences of his student, Tom Outland, on a faraway desert mesa. Both sets of experiences, however, illuminate the tension between civilization and the open landscape and focus on the destructive nature of materialistic desire. St. Peter, a highly civilized man with refined tastes and a keen appreciation for true art, loses heart at his daughters’ greed and selfishness and his wife’s increasing interest in what he regards as ostentatious display. Near the end of the book, he focuses his imagination on the Kansas prairie, on his solitary, primitive boyhood self. He wants to recapture the self he was before he married and before his family and his colleagues began conjugating the verb “to buy” with every breath.
Tom Outland, the one remarkable student of St. Peter’s teaching career, becomes equally disillusioned with society and its greed. Cather spares him from living out his life in such a society, however, by mercifully allowing him to die in the war in France as she had allowed Claude Wheeler to die. Ironically, it is Tom’s invention of a new engine, bequeathed in a romantic impulse to one of St. Peter’s daughters, that makes her and her husband rich. While herding cattle on the great Western desert, Tom Outland and his partner Roddy Blake explore the great Blue Mesa across the river from their summer grazing range. On it, they find the remnants of ancient cliff dwellers, including many beautifully decorated jars. These jars provide for Tom, as they had for Thea Kronborg, a priceless link with the art and people and landscape of the past. In these jars, the tension between land and art is erased. While Tom is away on a fruitless trip to Washington, where he had hoped to interest someone in his find, Roddy Blake misguidedly sells the relics to a European art dealer. Recovering from two heartbreaking disappointments, the loss of the relics and the loss of Roddy, Tom makes his spiritual recovery through union with the mesa itself. He becomes one with the rock, the trees, the very desert air.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Even though Death Comes for the Archbishop is not Cather’s final novel, it is in a very real sense a culmination of her efforts at reconciling the central urges toward land and toward art, or civilization, that are the hallmark of her life and her work. Selfishness and greed are a threat in this book too, but their influence is muted by Cather’s concentration on Father Jean Latour as the shaping force of her narrative. He is Cather’s ideal human being, by the end of the book a perfect blend of the virtues of the untamed landscape and the finest aspects of civilization.
As a young priest, Latour is sent from a highly cultivated environment in his beloved France to revitalize Catholicism in the rugged New Mexico Territory of the New World. Learned in the arts, genteel in manner, dedicated to his calling, this man of fine-textured intelligence is forced to work out his fate in a desolate, godforsaken land among, for the most part, simple people who have never known or have largely forgotten the sacraments of the civilized Church. His dearest friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, works with him—a wiry, lively man, Latour’s complement in every way. Latour must bring a few greedy, unruly local priests into line, but his greatest struggle is internal as he works to convert himself, a product of European civilization, into the person needed to serve the Church in this vast desert land. In the end, his remarkable nature is imprinted indelibly on the barren landscape, and the landscape is imprinted indelibly on his nature. Instead of returning to France in his official retirement, he elects to remain in the New World. His total reconciliation with the land is symbolized in the fulfillment of his dream to build a European-style cathedral out of the golden rock of New Mexico. In that building, the art of civilization merges gracefully with the very soil of the Western landscape, just as Jean Latour’s spirit had done.
Shadows on the Rock
Shadows on the Rock, a lesser book, takes for its landscape the rock of Quebec, but the tension is still between the old ways of civilized France and the new ways of the Canadians of the future, children of the uncharted, untamed land. It, too, focuses on the efforts of the Catholic Church to bring spiritual civilization to the New World, but its central character is not a churchman. Rather, it is young Cécile Auclair who values the old ways, the civilities taught her by her mother and still priceless to her father, but who also responds to the wave of the future and marries a Canadian backwoodsman whose deepest ties are to the uncharted landscape.
Cather’s work stands as something of an emotional autobiography, tracing the course of her deepest feelings about what is most valuable in human experience. For Cather, what endured best, and what helped one endure, were the values contained in the land, and in humanity’s civilizing impulses, particularly the impulse to art. What is best in humanity responds to these things, and these things have the capacity to ennoble in return. Sometimes they seem mutually exclusive, the open landscape and civilization, and some characters never reconcile the apparent polarity. Cather says, however, that ultimately one can have both East and West. For her, the reconciliation seems to have occurred mainly in her art, where she was able to love and write about the land if not live on it. A conflict such as this can be resolved, for it involves a tension between two things of potential value. Thus, in her life and her art it was not this conflict that caused Cather to despair; rather, it was the willingness of humanity in general to allow the greedy and unscrupulous to destroy both the land and civilization. At the same time, it was the bright promise of youth, in whom desire for the land and for art could be reborn with each new generation, that caused her to rejoice.
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