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My Mortal Enemy

Willa Cather


  Alexander’s Bridge

  Death Comes for the Archbishop

  Five Stories

  A Lost Lady

  Lucy Gayheart

  My Ántonia

  O Pioneers!

  Obscure Destinies

  The Old Beauty and Others

  One of Ours

  The Professor’s House

  Sapphira and the Slave Girl

  Shadows on the Rock

  The Song of the Lark

  The Troll Garden

  Uncle Valentine and Other Stories

  Youth and the Bright Medusa


  Copyright 1926 by Willa Cather

  Copyright renewed 1954 by Edith Lewis and The City Bank Farmers Trust Co.

  Excerpt from The Selected Letters of Willa Cather copyright © 2013 by The Willa Cather Literary Trust.

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1926.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Cather, Willa, 1873–1947.

  My mortal enemy/Willa Cather–1st Vintage Books classics ed. p. cm.–(Vintage classics)

  eISBN: 978-0-307-80524-9

  I. Title. II. Series.

  PS3505.A87M9 1990 90-50169





  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  Part One

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Part Two

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Excerpt from The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

  About the Author


  After My Mortal Enemy the next novel was to be Death Comes for the Archbishop, that most fluent and serene of Willa Cather’s elegies. Before it, by a handful of years, there had been the radiance and the supreme ease of My Ántonia. In the years between there was a gathering darkness of which My Mortal Enemy, in form the most severe and in its implications the most furious of Willa Cather’s novels, was the crisis.

  Or it is to be seen that the same forces of darkness had been gathering from the beginning and that a series of holding visions culminating in My Ántonia had given way. Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912, a story of a hubristic hero who reached beyond convention for a new freshness and an extra intensity in life and who overreached himself, and then O Pioneers! and then The Song of the Lark, all quite different in their circumstances and occasions, had all struggled toward an image of poised and indisputable greatness, by which everything that cluttered, everything that was tawdry and cheap and small and restricting, would be subdued. The dark enemy was whatever clutched the individual, and heroism was in dominating it or living through it, enduring at the cost of any personal sacrifice to the point of absolute and untouchable equability. They are austere heroes and heroines of those early novels. The metaphor of striving varies—Alexander is an engineer, Alexandra Bergson of O Pioneers! is a pioneer, Thea Kronberg of The Song of the Lark is a singer—but the goal is the same. They are in pursuit not of happiness but success. They are in pursuit not of an ideal—ideals contain ideas, and Willa Cather was not an idealogue—but of an integrity, the feel of purity and finality and permanence, beyond all pettiness.

  The striving in the early novels is sometimes shrill. “If you love the good thing vitally,” Thea Kronberg says, “enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard! I tell you there is such a thing as creative hate!” The shrillness measures the severity of the striving, and compromises it. But then, after striving, there was no such desperation or struggle at all to Ántonia Shimerda, whose success is simply the endurance of her vitality. Because she is, because she exists, the enemy is routed. The novel is her magnificent stillness—there is in her commonest gesture, the narrator says, something immemorial and universal and true, and that really is the case—and the enemy is reduced by her to scampering trivialities. There is a melancholy always just behind her, a suggestion of cultural riches lost in her transplanting from Bohemia to this new country, of trials imposed by a capricious fate. But nothing really can hurt her. Not her toil, not the townsmen who exploit her, least of all the mechanical little man who seduces her. Not love, either, nor hate. Her domain for creation is the Nebraska soil that she makes into a farm, and she is its equivalent in her lastingness and her gift of life and her incorruptibility. And Ántonia is absorbed, indeed, in the huge, solid, still image to which all the novel comes, to which Willa Cather after many trials had come, of a plow silhouetted against the setting Nebraska sun.

  It was an image of unimpeachable grandeur. But then it was as well apparently anachronistic. The day of greatness on the Nebraska frontier, that last of the agricultural frontiers, had lasted only a moment of the mid-1880’s, and had been suddenly eclipsed by drought and depression and finance capitalism. Or perhaps it had never been at all. Nothing in Willa Cather’s own early life on the Nebraska frontier suggests the possibility of Ántonia’s elemental piety. Everything, to the contrary, suggests that she found her few years in Red Cloud, Nebraska, population in the 1880’s about 1,000, unbearably constricting. Allowing even a great deal for normal youthful rebelliousness—she was eleven years old when she was taken from a farm in Virginia to Nebraska, and seventeen when she left Red Cloud for the University at Lincoln—she was markedly defiant, markedly bent on escape. Her companions in the village were the old men and women, anyone whose real life had been elsewhere. Her allegiances were to the Europeans scattered among the population, whose lives hinted a substantial and ancient and nonproscriptive culture. The village in all her Nebraska novels was to be the source of all corruptions, its dominant Anglo-Saxon inhabitants narrow, ignorant, imposing, convention-ridden, and exploitative, and she had herself opposed it in what ways one supposes she could. She wore her hair assertively short and wore clothes assertively mannish. She held unconventional ideas about religion, and she lectured her Baptist neighbors on the necessity of scientific investigation over their superstition. And most significantly, in that squeezing village she bent herself to a notion of greatness.

  The village commanded defiance and Ántonia’s easy supremacy had not been available to her. The village was not strictly the frontier, but one may doubt that there was really much distance between only just enough, perhaps, for Willa Cather to make a heroic myth of the frontier. But in any event by 1918, when she published My Ántonia, the great frontier had really and clearly long ago been captured by the village. The pioneers had not endured. Their great achievements had been inherited by the lesser men who were their sons, whose natural home was the village. Everything subversive of greatness had won out. The degeneration of the frontier was to be the explicit theme now of her next few novels, treated in each successively with more reserve, the terms of the defeat seen in each novel successively to be of greater dimension.

  In One of Ours in 1922 the hero does escape the Nebraska farm and village, both now populated by prohibitionists and farm implements salesmen and prim evangelists, but only by the miraculous and ironic intervention of the World War. More than that, though he
dies for it on the Western Front, he becomes a hero of sensibility. His war is for the greatness that is in European culture and that was once in the frontier, and so he has opportunity to be a last pioneer. But he is the last. The next novel, A Lost Lady, is the unmitigated process of degeneration itself. The lady is a great lady while she is married to one of the great pioneers, in this case one of the men who had built the railroad. She is lost when he dies, and what she loses is not merely sensibility, which in fact she preserves, but the nerve and the moral rectitude and the courage without which her ladylike sensibility is merely prettiness. She becomes the property of the next generation in the person of a manipulating lawyer who had once not dared to walk in her garden. And the next novel, The Professor’s House, brings this corroding malignity of modernism into the most normal domestic affections. The professor has a wife, a good wife, and a daughter whom he loves, but they are of the present, adepts of easy comforts. Their skill is in spending money. His own proper life is in the heroic frontier past. It is that which sustains him, and when his great scholarly study of it is finished, he is finished. The love of his family notwithstanding, their life in this time is not his life, and he is ready for death.

  In her prefatory note to a book of essays in 1936, a book she belligerently called Not Under Forty because it was not to be read by anyone under forty, Willa Cather was to say that “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” and she made it clear that she had made her own house in the world before. The year of One of Ours was 1922. It was also, it happened, the year that T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land, and it was the year of E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room and of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, and it was just a couple of years after Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and H. L. Mencken’s The American Credo, and a couple of years before Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground—all of them assaults on modernism, in various tempers and modes, more or less explicit, by persons of a series of generations. Nothing would have pleased Willa Cather less, certainly, than to have found herself part of a literary movement. Or she would have found the fact irrelevant. Her way was absolutely independent devotion to her art. Her great masters were Shakespeare and Flaubert, and she had taken practical lessons from Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett, never from any of the excited literary factionalists. But in fact what she observed was being observed by most serious writers. In 1922 or thereabouts some personal possibility of grace, of coherence, of achievement, or personal heroism had been defeated in America—that was, for instance, what Ezra Pound, the most clamorous factionalist of them all, had meant when in 1920 he said of his Mauberly that his true Penelope was Flaubert. There was a rigor and an austerity and a dedication missing from this modern America. The defeat surely had something to do with the sudden new wealth of a country suddenly beyond its youth. It had something to do with the happy post-war disillusion that was the philosophical basis for iconoclasm, hedonism, and that literary fiction, the Younger Generation. But whatever it had to do with, not only the conservatives of an older generation, but the young radical iconoclasts themselves agreed on the wasteland as the image of modern times. What Willa Cather’s Professor St. Peter discovered in the present is very much Babbittry, or the same thing made more intimate and therefore more crushing. Or her Professor who discovered that the present is the time of death, was not very different from the protagonist of The Waste Land whose true life was in a medieval legend.

  And the three novels of the 1920’s in which Willa Cather tracked the decline of the Nebraska frontier made still another instance, recorded in another parish, of modern degeneration. That last agricultural frontier had also become a wasteland. That was the objective fact, and the fact had social and political and cultural implications. But still the mode of her apprehension of it is everything, and her response to it was unique. It had no public implications for her. The tone of the new generation was by and large irony, or outright shock that such Babbittry or such a wasteland could be, and despite the negatives in which it spoke, its purpose was forward-looking and progressive. It meant to stir things up, to effect reforms, to set society and politics and culture right. Or the tone of such a writer as Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather’s exact contemporary, was by and large romantic irony. Ellen Glasgow’s aristocrats had declined into the time of modernism, and she exposed their decline but loved them nevertheless. Or the searching vision of an elder, Edith Wharton, had come to rest, in The Age of Innocence, in retrospective affection, just bolstered by a modern sharpness. The new generation was censorious, with a purpose. The older generation watched the passing of the old with nostalgia, just made a bit acid by a sense of the new.

  The tone of Willa Cather’s apprehension was neither ironic nor nostalgic. And in fact her purpose was just the opposite of, say, that of T. S. Eliot. Eliot made a wasteland populated by bored, sterile, desiccated, valueless automatons and submitted it, by a process of interweaving myths, to the criticism of the heroic past. Willa Cather had from the beginning made heroic myths—myths rescued from the crushing clutter of the present, or myths of the heroic past which, it happened, could not prevent what she was to call “the noisy push of the present.” It was the past she looked at, and not the present at all except where some value of the past miraculously could spring out of it, or where it intruded. The past was, simply, where she located greatness, and greatness was her constant subject, and not degeneration. It was not even actual, or her personal history that she recorded—she was not, after all, a “historical novelist”—but a country that her imagination could conceive to contain images of greatness. The three Nebraska novels of the 1920’s track degeneration, and their effect is not of the rush of the new mediocrity, not of degeneration, but of the quantity of the loss. The Waste Land discovered the present and was hortatory. Willa Cather created a past and was elegiac.

  Those three Nebraska novels record, in a way, her loss of a subject. The frontier had in fact yielded to the obtrusive present, and it must have been as difficult for Willa Cather to locate again its greatness as it would have been inconceivable for Sinclair Lewis to imagine the pioneering days of Gopher Prairie. And so she was put to the critical labor of finding a purer past, one that would stay past and not decay into the present, one that could propose images that would last forever. Like Eliot, ironically enough, and at about the same time, she discovered an aesthetic proposed by Catholicism. She was not a Catholic. It was not the doctrinal Church that attracted her. But there was a magnitude in Catholicism that was sufficient to her, and a tradition in it that had preserved itself whole through much change, and a tradition so ancient as to be effectively out of time.

  Death Comes for the Archbishop, the first of her two novels of Catholic inspiration, is a novel without plot, and the plot of the other, Shadows on the Rock, is the merest sketch. Plots occur in time, depend on change, and it was precisely an image of changelessness that she wanted. And not that image that Eliot came to name “the still point of the turning world,” but something that would clearly dominate the turning world—the aesthetic that Henry Adams had developed out of Catholicism was much closer to her own—something with landscape to it. And the vast landscape of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the deserts and mountains and mesas of the Southwest, is scarcely so much the setting of the novel as it is the condition of the two emissaries of the Church who are set to move through it. As there is in the priests, there is change, even fluidity within, a varying distribution of accents and light. But its aspect as a whole, as it is that of the priests, is of a largeness and solidity and serene fixity. The novel, indeed, isn’t a novel at all, but a legend or a vision of a great, severe quietude, quite removed from and superior to all mortality.

  For it was not after all the peculiar historical circumstances of the present that constituted the enemy. Willa Cather’s mode was elegy, and as it must be for all elegists, the enemy was time, mortality, itself. The enemy, therefore, was everything that is a part of mortality, including that modernism that had sapped the frontier and includi
ng as well all domestic, mortal feelings. Professor St. Peter had discovered himself wishing for death when the emphasis of his life shifted from the past to the prospect not only of mean present-day commercialism, but to the prospect also of his being merely a husband and a father. There is destruction in such mortal love. It is antagonistic to grandeur. There is in Death Comes for the Archbishop a libertine priest, a remarkably good man, who argues the needs of the flesh, and the Archbishop, rather than punish what he perceives to be unworthiness and uncleanliness, can wait for the priest to die. It is the success of the Church that it survives mere mortal goodness, as it is the success of the land that it is unmarked by human habitants. Love, charity, goodness, kindness—they are as much in time as modernism and therefore equally corrupting, only perhaps more insidious because not so apparently evil.

  In an essay of 1936 on the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather was to remark 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.” And it is the struggle to get beyond the necessity of human relationships that is the secret history of all Willa Cather’s novels, only as time went on, as the struggle turned, one supposes, more desperate, its nature became more apparent. After My Ántonia there is a gathering darkness of which My Mortal Enemy is the crisis, and in each of the novels between those two the enemy is, successively, a more intimate part of the hero. In One of Ours the particular enemy is still for the most part the aggressively ignorant village, and One of Ours is still for the most part one of those 1920’s novels of the “village virus.” In A Lost Lady the enemy is the village, but it is also the modern life that the heroine after all must live. In The Professor’s House it is the family, and the Professor is put to the altogether impossible choice between his artifice of the past and the wife whom he does love. In My Mortal Enemy, then, it is friendship and love, human relationship itself.