Willa Cather

by Lionel Trilling | February 9, 1937

 

In 1922 Willa Cather wrote an essay called “The Novel Démeuble” in which she pleaded for a movement to throw the “furniture” out of the novel—to get rid, that is, of all the social facts that Balzac and other realists had felt to be so necessary for the understanding of modern character. “Are the banking system and the Stock Exchange worth being written about at all?” Miss Cather asked, and she replied that they were not. Among the things which had no “proper place in imaginative art”—because they cluttered the scene and prevented the free play of the emotions—Miss Cather spoke of the factory and the whole realm of “physical sensations.” Obviously, this essay was the rationale of a method which Miss Cather had partly anticipated in her early novels and which she fully developed a decade later in “Shadows on the Rock.” And it is no less obvious that this technical method is not merely a literary manner but the expression of a point of view toward which Miss Cather had always been moving—with results that, to many of her readers, can only indicate the subtle failure of her admirable talent.

If we say that Miss Cather has gone down to defeat before the actualities of American life we put her in such company that the indictment is no very terrible one. For a history of American literature must be, in Whitman’ phrase, a series of “vivas for those who have failed.” In our literature there are perhaps fewer completely satisfying books and certainly fewer integrated careers than there are interesting canons of work and significant life stories. Something in American life seems to prevent the perfection of success while it produces a fascinating kind of search or struggle, usually unavailing, which we may observe again and again in the collected works and in the biographies of our writers.

In this recurrent but heroic defeat, the life of the American writer parallels the life of the American pioneer. The historian of frontier literature, Professor Hazard, has pointed out that Cooper’s very first presentation of Deerslayer, the type of all pioneers, shows him a nearly broken old man threatened with jail for shooting a deer, a pitiful figure overwhelmed by the tides of commerce and speculation. In short, to a keen observer, the pioneer’s defeat was apparent even in 1823. The subsequent decades that opened fresh frontiers did not change the outcome of the struggle. Ahead of the pioneer there are always the fields of new promise, with him are the years of heartbreaking effort, behind him are the men who profit by his toil and hope. Miss Cather’s whole body of work is the attempt to accommodate and assimilate her perception of the pioneer’s failure. Reared on a Nebraska farm, she saw the personal and cultural defeat at first hand. Her forebears had marched westward to the new horizons; her own work is a march back toward the spiritual East—toward all that is the very antithesis of the pioneer individualism and innovation, toward authority and permanence, toward Rome itself.

The pioneer, as seen by a sophisticated intelligence like Miss Cather’s, stand in double jeopardy: he faces both danger of failure and the danger of success. “A pioneer…should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves,” Miss Cather says; disaster comes when an idea becomes an actuality. From “O Pioneers!” to “The Professor’s House,” Miss Cather’s novels portray the results of the pioneer’s defeat, both in the thwarted pettiness to which he is condemned by his material failures and in the callous insensitivity produced by his material success. “The world is little, people are little, human life is little,” says Thea Kronborg’s derelict music teacher in “The Song of the Lark.” “There is only one big thing—desire.” When there is no longer the opportunity for effective desire, the pioneer is doomed. But already in Miss Cather’s Nebraska youth the opportunities for effective desire had largely been removed: the frontier had been closed.

“A Lost Lady,” Miss Cather’s most explicit treatment of the passing of the old order, is the central work of her career. Far from being the delicate minor work it is so often called, it is probably her most muscular book, for it derives power from the grandeur of its theme. Miss Cather shares the American belief in the tonic moral quality of the pioneer’s life; with the passing of the frontier she conceives that a great source of fortitude has been lost. Depending on a very exact manipulation of symbols, the point of “A Lost Lady” (reminiscent of Henry James’s “The Sacred Fount”) is that the delicacy and charm of Marian Forrester spring not from herself but from the moral strength of her pioneer husband. Heavy, slow, not intelligent, Forester is one of those men who, in his own words, “dreamed the railroads across the mountains.” He shares the knightly virtues which Miss Cather unquestioningly ascribes to the early settlers; “impractical to the point of magnificence,” he is one of those who could “conquer but not hold.” He is defeated by the men of the new money interests who “never risked anything”—and the perdition of the lost lady proceeds in the degree that she withdraws from her husband in favor of one of the sordid new men, until she finds her final degradation in the arms of an upstart vulgarian

But though the best of the pioneer ideal is defeated by alien forces, the ideal itself, Miss Cather sees, is really an insufficient one. In her first considerable novel, “O Pioneers!” she already wrote in an elegiac mood and with the sense that the old ideal was not enough. Alexandra Bergson, with her warm simplicity, her resourcefulness and shrewd courage, is the essence of the pioneering virtues, but she is distinguished above her neighbors because she feels that, if she is to work at all, she must believe that the world is wider than her cornfields. Her pride is not that she has triumphed over the soil but that she has made her youngest brother “a personality apart from the soil.” The pioneer, having reached his goal at the horizons of the earth, must look to the horizons of the spirit.

The disappearance of the old frontier left Miss Cather with a heritage of the virtues in which she had been bred but with the necessity of finding a new object for them. Looking for the new frontier, she found it in the mind. From the world of failure which she portrayed so savagely in “A Wagner Matinee” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and from the world of fat prosperity of “One of Ours,” she could flee to the world of art. For in art one may desire illimitably. And if, conceivably, one may fail—Miss Cather’s artists never do—it is still only as an artist that one may be the eternal pioneer, concerned always with “the idea of things.” Thea Kronborg, of the breed of Alexandra Bergson, turns all the old energy, bogged down in mediocrity, toward music. Miss Cather rhapsodizes for her: “O eagle of eagles! Endeavor, achievement, desire, glorious striving of human art.”

But art is not the only, or a sufficient, salvation from the débâcle of pioneer culture. For some vestige of the old striving after new worlds which cannot be gratified seems to spread a poison through the American soul, making it thin and unsubstantial, unable to find peace and solidity. A foreigner says to Claude Wheeler of “One of Ours,” “You Americans are always looking for something outside yourselves to warm you up, and it is in way to do. In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that, and we learn to make the most of things.” And with the artists, Miss Cather puts those gentle spirits who have learned to make the most of things—Neighbor Rosicky, Augusta and, preëminently, My Antonia. Momentarily betrayed by the later developments of the frontier, Antonia at last fulfills herself in child-bearing and a busy household, expressing her “relish for life, not over-delicate but invigorating.”

Indeed, “making the most of things” becomes even more important to Miss Cather than the eternal striving of art. For, she implies, in our civilization even the best ideals are bound to corruption. “The Professor’s House” is the novel in which she brings the failure of the pioneer spirit into the wider field of American life. Lame as it is, it epitomizes as well as any novel of our time the disgust with life which so many sensitive Americans feel, which makes them dream of their pre-adolescent integration and innocent community with nature, speculate on the “release from effort” and the “eternal solitude” of death, and eventually reconcile themselves to a life “without delight.” Three stories of betrayal are interwoven in this novel: the success of Professor St. Peter’s history of the Spanish explorers which tears him away from the frontier of his uncomfortable and ugly old study to set him up in an elegant but stifling new home; the sale to a foreign collector of the dead Tom Outland’s Indian relics which had made his spiritual heritage; and the commercialization of Outland’s scientific discovery with its subsequent corruption of the Professor’s charming family. With all of life contaminated by the rotting of admirable desires, only Augusta, the unquesting and unquestioning German Catholic seamstress, stands secure and sound.

Not the pioneering philosophy alone, but the whole poetic romanticism of the nineteenth century had been suffused by the belief that the struggle rather than the prize was admirable, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Having seen the insufficiency of this philosophy Miss Cather must find another in which the goal shall be more than the search. She finds it, expectably enough, in religion. The Catholicism to which she turns is a Catholicism of culture, not of doctrine. The ideal of unremitting search, it may be said, is essentially a Protestant notion; Catholic thought tends to repudiate the ineluctable and to seek the sharply defined. The quest for Moby Dick, that dangerous beast, is Protestant; the Catholic tradition selects what it can make immediate and tangible in symbol and Miss Cather turns to the way of life that “makes the most of things,” to the old settled cultures. She attaches a mystical significance to the ritual of the ordered life, to the niceties of cookery, to the supernal virtues of things themselves—sherry, or lettuce, or “these coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes” which are the tools for making life itself. And with a religious ideal one may safely be a pioneer. The two priests of “Death Comes for the Archbishop” are pioneers; they happen to be successful in their enterprise, but they could not have been frustrated, Miss Cather implies, because the worth of their goal is indisputable.

From the first of her novels the Church had occupied a special and gracious place in Willa Cather’s mind. She now thinks with increasing eloquence of its permanence and certainty and of “the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change.” The Rock becomes her often repeated symbol: “the rock, when one comes to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need.” For the Church seems to offer the possibility of satisfying that appealing definition of human happiness which Miss Cather had made as far back as “My Antonia”—“to be dissolved in something complete and great,” “to become a part of something entire, whether is sun and air, goodness and knowledge.”

It is toward that dissolvement that Miss Cather is always striving. She achieves it with the “sun and air”—and perhaps few modern writers have been so successful with landscape. She can find it in goodness and in society—but only if they have the feudal constriction of the old Quebec of “Shadows on the Rock.” Nothing in modern life, no possibility, no hope, offers it to her. She conceives, as she says in the prefatory note to her volume of essays, “Not Under Forty,” that the world “broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” and she numbers herself among the “backward,” unaware that even so self-conscious and defiant a rejection of her own time must make her talent increasingly irrelevant and tangential—for any time.

“The early pioneer was an individualist and a seeker after the undiscovered,” says F.J. Turner, “but he did not understand the richness and complexity of life as a whole.” Though Miss Cather in all her work recognized this lack of understanding of complexity and wholeness, and has attempted to transcend it, she ends, ironically enough, in a fancier but no less restricted provincialism than the one she sought to escape. For the “spirituality” of Miss Cather’s latest books consists chiefly of an irritated exclusion of those elements of modern life with which she will not cope. The particular affirmation of the verities which Miss Cather makes requires that the “furniture” be thrown out, that the social and political facts be disregarded; the spiritual life cannot support the intrusion of all the facts the mind can supply. The unspeakable Joubert, the extreme type of the verity-seeker, says in one of his pensées: “‘I’m hungry, I’m cold, help me!’ Here is material for a good deed but not for a good work of art.” Miss Cather, too, is irked by the intrusion of “physical sensations” in the novel.

Miss Cather’s later books are pervaded by the air of brooding ancient wisdom, but if we examine her mystical concern with pots and pans, it does not seem much more than an oblique defense of gentility or very far from the gaudy domesticity of bourgeois accumulation glorified in The Woman’s Home Companion. And with it goes a culture-snobbery and even a caste-snobbery. The Willa Cather of the older days shared the old racial democracy of the West. It is strange to fined the Willa Cather of the present talking about “the adopted American,” the young man of German, Jewish or Scandinavian descent who can never appreciate Sarah Orne Jewett and for whom American English can never be more than a means of communicating ideas: “It is surface speech: he clicks the words out as a bank clerk clicks out silver when you ask for change. For him the language has no emotional roots.” This is indeed the gentility of Katherine Fullerton Gerould, and in large part the result, one suspects, of what Parrington calls “the inferiority complex of the frontier mind before the old and established.”

Yet the place to look for the full implications of a writer’s philosophy is in the esthetic of his work. “Lucy Gayheart” shows to the full the effect of Miss Cather’s point of view. It has always been a personal failure of her talent that prevented her from involving her people in truly dramatic relations with each other. (Her women, for example, always stand in the mother or daughter relation to men; they are never truly lovers.) But at least once upon a time her people were involved in a dramatic relation with themselves or with their environments, whereas now “Lucy Gayheart” has not even this involvement. Environment does not exist, fate springs from nothing save chance; the characters are unattached to anything save their dreams. The novel has been démeublé indeed; but life without its furniture is strangely bare

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