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Willa Cather

Willa Cather

  Copyright © 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

  Introduction copyright © 2014 by Maureen Howard

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

  ISBN: 978-1-62873-787-5

  eISBN: 978-1-62914-160-2

  Printed in the United States of America



  O Pioneers!

  One of Ours

  The Song of the Lark

  My Ántonia


  In 1922 Willa Cather’s novel, One of Ours, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Many in the literary establishment had misgivings. Cather had rendered the Prairie world she came from with authority and depth of feeling in O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. Now she had taken it upon herself, somewhat in the manner of an assignment, to write a war novel. It was to become a difficult journey into the life and death of Claude Wheeler, a lieutenant from Nebraska who dies a hero in France. The blood dripped down his coat, but he felt no weakness. He felt only one thing; that he commanded wonderful men.

  It took Cather four years to earn Claude’s closing scene of bravery and personal triumph in the trenches. One of Ours is a long and mighty novel in five books, the writer setting the pace for her readers. The journey begins with a boy’s story, Claude Wheeler at home on the farm, each family member brought on in a brief, defining appearance: Bayliss, the older brother, cleverly steps ahead of Claude, then the caring mother—a scene in which her beloved cherry tree is cut down by her husband, a cool customer. If Book I: On Lovely Creek reads like a fable, it was surely the writer’s intention: her introduction to a character she would come to see as worthy of legend as the years progress beyond boyhood through Claude’s dissatisfaction with his second rate education. It’s worth lingering on Willa Cather’s Book I to observe that an automobile and an injured mule take their places in a precise reckoning of historical time that she would control throughout the novel. Claude might enjoy the elevated moment of his mother reading Paradise Lost: No light, but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe. Tracking time Cather counters that lofty pleasure with a stark judgment: He was twenty-one years old, and he had no skill, no training,—no ability that would ever take him among the kind of people he admired.

  The reader must know that Willa Cather’s cousin, Grosvenor P. Cather, was killed in action in France, May of 1918. He is, and is not, the model for Claude though they share a belief, much like the writer’s, that there were aspirations beyond the flourishing wheat crop and whatever comfort may be gleaned from family. Cather knew her cousin when they were children, even knew that his wife had “a habit of locking him out,” much as Claude, her storybook hero, would be turned away on his wedding night in Book II: Enid. Reading the novelist’s large vision of One of Ours, often faulted for its reach, its ambition, I came to believe that by Book IV: The Voyage of the Anchises, Claude Wheeler is only in part a character in a historical novel of the Great War. He is more a figure in a Romane who must prove himself, find his mission, much like Percivale or the untried youngster of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His story may be read as a spiritual biography, the test of one Prairie boy living through his time, the writer’s time in which she will record the influenza epidemic of 1918, the new technology of The War to End All Wars, a young Lieutenant on board the troop ship sailing beyond Miss Liberty: But the scene was ageless; youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . . and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea.

  In March of 1922, Willa Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, that Claude had given her three lovely, tormented years. And again to her friend, who had just read the proofs of One of Ours, she wrote that the novel “gave my publisher a shock.”

  I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn. If they did, it wouldn’t be much more interesting than bookkeeping. I knew when I began this story that it was, in a manner doomed. External events made it, pulled it out of utter unconsciousness, and external events mar it—they run through it ugly and gray and cheap. Like the flaws in a turquoise matrix.

  I take it upon myself to disagree with Cather who I have upon occasion called My Willa. She delivers so truly in One of Ours: Claude discovers the very lives and comfort of the French who he is defending. In Book V: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On,” he comes into, is rewarded with an extraordinarily rich friendship with David Gerhardt, a violinist of note, who will die with him. He has lived within and beyond admiration for the kind of people he once admired. The writer’s screen is now much larger in Claude’s last view: That line of faces below. Hicks, Jones, Fuller, Anderson, Oscar . . . Their eyes never left him. With these men he could do anything. He had learned the mastery of men. Willa Cather invented the form of her war novel, discovering each move forward as it took on life, not unlike her Lieutenant from Nebraska. It is an appropriate year, to look back to the meritorious career of one soldier, his story not lost to us in a brave novel.

  Writing of her early work, Willa Cather tells us “O Pioneers! interested me tremendously, because it had to do with a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it.” Cather had gotten on fairly well. She had left Nebraska, gone east to become an editor for McClure’s Magazine, traveled to Europe, immersed herself in the art and culture of great cities. She had published a book of poems and a collection of stories. Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, set in London, which she had recently visited, now seemed to her “shallow” and “conventional.” Willa Cather had learned to judge her work with an honesty that is not given to many writers.

  In discovering the material that would be most natural to her, Cather went back to the American Plains, to Nebraska’s sod huts and bleak prairie towns, to the sweeping vista of the grasslands with their promise of the good life and their disappointment unto death. Stories were abundant in this place that she knew so well in childhood. It would seem, from her somewhat ingenuous “interest” in O Pioneers!, that all she had to do was harvest them. But as I read her bold and appealing prairie novels once again, I was struck by the intricate forms she devised to elevate both landscape and old neighbors to mighty legends. What interests me tremendously is the mature artistry (even at times artifice) that she brought to the structure of each of these early works. Willa Cather, unlike Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, made it to University, prepping in the classics so that she might enter the freshman class in Lincoln in 1890.

  She did not take her education lightly. Her immigrant heroines who stay on the farm may lack formal education, but they are clever managers of property and money, and Cather makes sure they are literate, at time
s even bookish, reading Hans Anderson, Scandinavian sagas, and The Golden Legends in what little leisure time was granted them. Her heroines may be seen as models for the sophisticated writer who joined their practicality with the poetic: Cather would now use her love of music, art, literature, and history to inform the seemingly simple tales of the heartland. In the episodic stories that make up O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia she was fully aware of Ovid’s gathering of myths into the Metamorphoses; of pastoral as a form in Spencer, Shakespeare, and Keats; of the magic of fairy tales; and she was aware as well that all these forms—high and low, classic and folkloric—might be woven into the novel. In O Pioneers! we have a literary reference to begin with as well as the novelist’s own Whitmanesque poem, “Prairie Spring,” which she placed as prologue to her story.

  Evening and the flat land,

  Rich and somber and always silent;

  The miles of fresh-plowed soil,

  Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;

  The writer’s project was to dig in, let her stories flourish and define the landscape of her fiction, much as the Czech, Swede, and German settlers claimed their acres of the wild prairie. She must make song out of the silence of the land, record the impermanence of the rickety main street of a Nebraska town and immigrant life. Landscape is never picturesque in Cather’s work, never mere setting: It is mighty, dominant, eternal, yet its grandeur must be conquered to sustain the passing human story. Both Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! and Ántonia Shimerda in My Ántonia give themselves fully to the land, a mating more passionate than the friendly marriages of reconciliation Cather provides for them in the muted denouements of their stories. These women, who sacrifice their personal lives to nourish the land, are not unlike the writer, who had discovered the price she must pay for her art. Cather’s great theme of loss, loss of home and of the “once very dear” in order to get on in the world, was now established.

  Relinquishment, the painful trade-off of intimacy for the public arena of art, is seen clearly in The Song of the Lark (1915), the story of a gifted child who makes it out of a prairie town to become an opera star. It is often considered to be Cather’s most autobiographical work, but I believe O Pioneers!, the first of the prairie novels, is closer to the bone, more revealing of a wrier who wished never to solve the puzzle of herself for her readers. Alexandra Bergson is first seen as a young woman of twenty. With “Amazonian fierceness” she takes down a foolish itinerant salesman who compliments her on her beautiful hair while she is comforting her little brother, Emil, and engineering the rescue of his kitten from a tree. Carl Linstrum, a young German (delicate, sensitive) is the savior in this sentimental scene as he will be at the end of the novel, rescuing Alexandra from loneliness and correcting her harsh moral judgment of Marie Tovesky. In the opening pages of the novel, Marie is a Shirley Temple-like seductress, an enchanting Bohemian child with a “coaxing little red mouth,” surrounded by “her lusty admirers,” the men who buy her candy and favors in the general store. At the end of their story, Marie and Emil, illicit lovers, will come to a sad end. Cather’s frame for O Pioneers!, vignette to operatic tragedy, is sexually charged.

  Hermione, Lee, in her splendid literary biography Willa Cather, Double Lives, does not buy a reductive view that equates silence, whether of “rich and sombre land” or of youth’s insupportable sweetness, with the writer’s sexual concealment. Silence, or “the thing not named” in Lee’s reading, “remains unnameable—that is the point. It is not a buried bone to be dug up, but the ‘luminous halo, the semi-transparent envelope’ of atmosphere and feeling evoked by the writing.” Silence in Cather, as in Henry James, is a transaction between writer and reader—the moment of wonder, horror, awe—which we imagine together. To hold the transparent envelope up to a shadowless psychological light turns character to case study. And the luminous halo that makes Alexandra Bergson a heroine is brushed away if the reader is too literal in tracking Cather’s concern with again, her backing away from passion, leaving it to the young. Let us go back to what is not said in the prologue to the novel:

  Youth with its insupportable sweetness,

  Its fierce necessity,

  Its sharp desire,

  Singing and singing,

  Out of the lips of silence,

  Out of the earthy dusk.

  Throughout the novel, the writer is aware of the sexual tension between song and silence.

  Willa Cather is almost never given credit for her range of tone in the prairie novels. Surely, it is a comic scene in which Alexandra’s brothers, insensitive dolts, confront her with their outrage at Carl Linstrum’s living in her house when he returns from the big world, a failure. Their concern is more for the possible loss of their inheritance than for their sister’s loss of virtue. Nor has the notion that Alexandra possesses a sexual nature occurred to Emil, the beloved younger brother, educated at the University. Absorbed in his ill-fated love for Marie, he is taken aback that his sister might contemplate marriage. Emil calculates that she is forty—Willa Cather’s age at the completion of O Pioneers!, but that correspondence is too simple a story.

  In a remarkable short chapter—luminous, semitransparent—at the end of the section “Winter Memories,” Cather draws back to a cool essay on Alexandra’s blindness to matters of the heart: “Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields.” The self, the female self, is submerged, as wedded t the landscape as the writer is committed to her field of work now that she has returned to native ground. “Her mind,” Cather notes of her heroine, “was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things.” That is Willa Cather’s mind, or that part of her mind she could now tap into, with stories that appeared to be unadorned by the literary, free of sophisticated references and deft narrative manipulations. But Cather’s book is not as virginal: It is striking that this short chapter in “Winter Memories,” so plainspoken in its assessment of Alexandra, should also include the most literary underpinnings of the novel, the image of a wild duck, which Cather took from Ibsen.

  There is so much of Ibsen’s demonic drama, The Wild Duck, in O Pioneers! Carl’s profession—engraver (copiest of others’ art), retoucher of photographs—is the occupation of the doomed family in Ibsen’s play. Cather’s argument, that Alexandra is more attuned to nature than to her own sexuality and the wiles of the human heart, is as direct as Ibsen’s staged discourse, but the novelist moves on to poetic devices. As a young woman Alexandra drove out on the Divide to visit a strange old recluse, Ivar, one of Cather’s many outsiders. A mystic, a perpetual penitent, Ivar is happier living with the beasts and birds than with men. In “Winter Memories,” Alexandra recalls a lone wild duck on his pond as “a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.” Her image is fixed, protected by a pastoral memory, but Carl Linstrum has witnessed a hunting scene in which the wild ducks are killed by Emil, mourned by Marie. The lovers’ sexual attraction is apparent to him in a foreshadowing of their ruined paradise. The interlude in “Winter Memories” has yet another writerly passage, a dream recalled by Alexandra “of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew.” She is carried like a “sheaf of wheat” and he smells of “ripe cornfields,” but when the reverie ends she “prosecutes her bath with vigor.” Desire and guilt are joined as completely in this maidenly fancy as win the doomed lover’s highly charged hunting scene, a bloody idyll.

  The end of Ibsen’s early play is brutal. Willa Cather moved beyond the harsh tragedy of her two beautiful young people to the elegiac. Hearing of their deaths, Carl Linstrum returns and, in an odd betrothal scene, instructs Alexandra in mercy for Marie, who possessed a destructive beauty through no fault of her own, and in the lovers’ passion: “My de
ar it was something one felt in the air, as you feel the spring coming on, or a storm in summer. I didn’t see anything. . . . I felt—how shall I say it?—an acceleration of life. After I got away, it was all too delicate, too intangible, to write about.” We come to that semitransparent envelope again, the words unwritten, unread, that preserve the wonder of the all too human, the mythic story of adulterous love.

  The Song of the Lark (1915) tells all. There is very little silence, of the inexpressible in art, to be found in this big novel. In fact, I believe it is an attempt to describe the process of artistic accomplishment, that point in performance when technique is unconscious, incorporated into feeling. In later years, Willa Cather found The Song of the Lark wanting, “over-furnished” was the term she used to describe novels awash in realistic detail and psychological motivation that did not rise to a purer line of poetic invention. Even her admiring critics tend to agree. I am more lenient toward this darn good read, and find the narrative maneuvers inspired, bold strokes in taming the beast of the bildungsroman. In one way it is, to use a phrase I don’t quite believe in, a book she “had to write,” making direct use of the material of her childhood and imagining a future in which she might become the public’s property as Cather. Thea Kronborg’s journey from talented small-town tomboy to diva of grand opera is the rags-to-riches story we thrill to. The added satisfaction, somewhat tabloid, is in the bittersweet note that grandeur removes the star from the precious dailiness of life.

  The town of Moonstone, Colorado, is Cather’s Red Cloud, Nebraska, mapped in all its details of class—from the airs of backwater bourgeoisie to the struggles and energy of immigrant life. “Friends of Childhood,” a somewhat to-heavy section, opens the novel. Each of Thea’s friends—whether it’s Dr. Archie, who brings her into the world, or Fred Wunsch, the inebriate piano teacher, or Spanish Johnny with his natural gift for music—comes to the big story with his dossier. Cather’s technique in drawing character is to fill in each history. So we learn that Dr. Archie, the most generous of men, has married a mean, cheese-paring woman; that the Kohlers’ pleasant house where Wunsch boards is Thea’s haven of culture; that Ray Kennedy, the railroad man, has lived an adventurous life down in the Southwest. Like Thea, these friends are “different,” a whole subculture of charming misfits living outside of Moonstone’s code of deportment. Cather is full of nice touches: The Kohlers live at a distance from town; Dr. Archie’s reading list is escapist, highly romantic. Thea’s own family, save a deeply understanding mother, is narrow, squeaky-clean poor, her father a dour Methodist preacher. The reader may wonder why there is so much background, so much village gossip as it were, before the heroine is launched in the world. Because this accumulation is Thea’s history. Cather poses the old question: You can take the girl out of Moonstone, but can you take Moonstone out of the girl? Not likely, for Thea will draw on her recollections of home and later on the landscape of the Southwest, though “in Chicago she had got nothing that went into her subconscious self and took root there.”