Conjunctions:29 Tributes

My Willa
I have been tracking her for well over fifty years, since the good sisters instructed me that there lived somewhere—in Maine or was it New Mexico?—a wonderful lady who wrote stories for Catholics. In their zeal to lure us away from comics, movies and our favorite radio shows, they elevated Willa Cather to the state of blessed, never suspecting that in Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, it was the culture of Catholicism in America that interested her, the organizing drama of its rituals, the missionary’s overlay of European morals and manners on native life. And—shocking to say—Cather, with renewed desire (the secular desire of most writers), was, in these late works, finding her way into new forms:
     In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives, it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on. I felt that such writing would be a kind of discipline in these days when the “situation” is made to count for so much in writing, when the general tendency is to force things up.
—Letter to Commonweal, November 23, 1927
     I see now that Cather was finding her way further into legend, for her novel she would claim as her first real work, My Ántonia, is partitioned into tales that have become legendary to the narrator, but I hadn’t a clue when I borrowed that novel from the public library and never thought why my Ántonia? Because she is the girl, the woman that Jim Burden makes into legend. Because the teller of the tale lays claim, possesses his material—or hers—and this burden may, or may not, be unburdened by the telling. Fitzgerald, who admired Cather, was drawn to this narrative frame when giving Nick Carraway the first and last say in his Gatsby. Nick’s performance in these passages is grandiloquent. He speaks a rhetoric at once beautiful and defensive. Jim Burden, Cather’s early narrator of what is actually a disturbing American pastoral, cannot import his romantic view into the present.

     But already I’m writing of rereadings, reevaluations of Cather’s sturdy, or was it inspired, career. When I was a kid I would have called her Miss Cather if granted an audience, but in truth she would not have welcomed me in her parlor. Privacy was sacred to her in her later years. No longer William, the flamboyant crossdresser at Lincoln University, nor Willa of the girlish middyblouse, nor the celebrated Willa Cather of the velvet opera cape, she wanted no intrusions into her life and very little into the life of her art. In her will she forbade the use of her work in movies or television, so there is no point in discerning the dandy script in Lucy Gayheart or the possible docudrama of My Ántonia. Cather closed down: nothing mean spirited, just a reaffirmation that good work must be valued for its own sake, honored in its original form like a fine Mimbres pot or the Dutch landscapes she so admired, or like magnificent landscape itself, not sold to the highest bidder.

     From her earliest novel, Alexander’s Bridge, she wrote about the dream of artistic accomplishment, the talent which elevated the artist yet often diminished the human response. The trade-off was real to her. She made it so pressing to the men and women of her invention that the Yeatsian dilemma—“perfection of the life, or of the work”—seems removed by the eloquence of its beat from the compromised lives of her characters. There is no wonder that Cather was rediscovered in our time by feminist critics, or, let’s say less academically, by women readers made newly aware of the counterdemands of family and work, of the liberation of self and the loss that it might exact. Who better than Cather to turn to—a woman writer, reputation in decline, misread as schoolroom genteel? Yes, Miss Cather, the poet of passion and accommodation, endurance and loss, yet she has been scolded for her male narrators, for not outing, for a conservative bent that blossomed as the American audience grew, to her mind, vulgar in its tastes.

     Does anyone pretend that if the Woolworth store windows were piled high with Tanagra figurines at ten cents, they could for a moment compete with Kewpie brides in the popular esteem? How old-fashioned her complaints in “The Novel Démeublé” (1922), perhaps even a dated view in that year, the year in which she won the Pulitzer for her war novel, One of Ours, a lesser work, a willed work. A bumper crop that year: Ulysses, The Wasteland, Women in Love. D. H. Lawrence arrived in Santa Fe, Cather territory, in September of 1922, quite unaware that in April she had gone after him in this essay on the impoverishment of “realism” for depicting the behavior of “bodily organs under sensory stimuli.” Can anyone imagine anything more terrible than the story of Romeo and Juliet rewritten in prose by D. H. Lawrence? Yes, that can be imagined, as well as the fact that she quite liked Lawrence when they met and that they both were moved by the grandeur of the Southwest to write powerful romantic tales of retreat from the Woolworthian goods of society.

     To be fair, though Cather’s famous essay is more writer’s jotting than theory of the novel, it can be read as a modernist proclamation, a call to move away from verisimilitude and clutter to suggestion. She puts forth the example of modern painting, abstraction, understatement—a more telling simplicity. Art must unfurnish, discover “the emotional aura of the fact or the thing.” All of her work has a surface simplicity—she was, we must recall, a popular novelist—all, that is, except her masterpiece, The Professor’s House, which is intricate, bold in its construction and furnished. In the novel, Professor St. Peter refuses to write in his new house, though his writing of history has paid for all its splendid conveniences. A trophy house, we might call it in current lingo: it is literally and newly furnished. Published in 1925, the novel can be read as working through the prescriptions of “The Novel Démeublé.” The furnished fiction, that is, the recognizable bourgeois novel of the opening section, “The Family,” with its intricacies of plot and politics of family, class and money, is rendered in detail, adorned with many things—bathtubs, lamps, jewelry, clothes—which tell of a worthy past and a fashionable present. “The Family” is not so much concluded as abandoned, just as the Professor has departed emotionally from wife, children, affairs of the university—and Cather turns to a simple tale—“Tom Outland’s Story.”

     Or not so simple, for the idyll lived by Tom Outland on the Blue Mesa of Old Mexico is a boy’s adventure that is ruined by money and politics, the very stuff of novels, not heroic tales. Tom Outland had appeared at Godfrey St. Peter’s house, the old house, the shabby house, to propose himself as a student. One of the notes touched on is the irony that the Professor, who has earned his laurels by writing about the Spanish adventurers in America, has never been to the land they explored, has never gone beyond the European story, his material researched in European libraries. In “The Family,” the appearance of Tom Outland is magical, the gifts which he brings princely—turquoise stones, ancient pots with the black fire marks still on them. Cather is setting the reader up to witness a rotten deal: Tom’s things with their pure aura traded off for the family’s things weighted with envy and a smug, even hilarious display of upward mobility. 

     Troubled by the present, the Professor is drawn to recollection, not only to discover the lost record of Tom Outland’s story, but the lost boy and the ambitious young man in himself. All of Cather’s novels are narratives of recollection. The Professor’s House is her one indulgence in, or confrontation with, the present; perhaps even in part Cather’s novel is an admission of her disappointment in Isabelle McClung, the great love of her life, who married a middling musician, Jan Hambourg.
     The Professor believes:
     Desire is creation, is the magical element in that process. If there were an instrument by which to measure desire, one could foretell achievement. He has been able to measure it, roughly, just once, in his student Tom Outland—and he had foretold.
It is reductive to read the displacement of sexual desire for artistic achievement, to take God-free Saint Peter, a man of diminished ardor whose best work lies behind him, for a wounded Cather. The biographical note is a footnote, as it is so often to great fiction. What’s more, the Professor, in voluntary exile from his family, sees that “the design of his life had been the work of this secondary social man, the lover.” Second billing was not a role Cather would easily take on. In writing her most complex, to my mind, her great novel, she recollected herself camping in the Southwest with her brother where she was as overwhelmed as Tom Outland by the landscape and exulted in the discovery of the layered history that was still its secret. Look up, look out, increase the field of play. Turn to another less familiar, less familial story. Tom Outland’s story (oh, the Bunyanesque names, Cather’s draw to tale, to parable) is that of the adventurous orphan, who, to remain our hero, is killed off in the First World War. Though he is engaged to the Professor’s most worldly daughter, the design of his life is neatly cut off before marriage.

     The Professor’s House was out of print when I first read it in the early sixties. So was the novella which followed, the brilliant My Mortal Enemy, a love story that is richly spare and brutally antiromantic. I remember writing against the loss of these works which were quite forgotten while the prairie novels of Miss Cather, as I would properly have called her, were still in textbook editions. And later, having misread, I wrote with some petulance of Willa throwing over the real thing for her “piously researched later works,” Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. Misreading Death Comes, indeed, for the novel of the two French priests who go from the seminary to the Spanish Southwest is a risky work that finds its structure in tales within tales, nonlinear as the fables of Márquez or Calvino.

     The narrative of Cather’s great novel of the Southwest is worked like a tapestry or a quilt to tell its many stories. There is, of course, the inevitable chronology—both Father Valliant and Archbishop Latour grow old. The railroad reaches Santa Fe. There’s gold discovered in them thar hills and now ... now I see that it’s only my Willa who was smart enough to juxtapose landscape of the tertiary social man, the prospector, with the golden yellow hill in the Rio Grande Valley that will yield the stone for Bishop Latour’s ambitious European cathedral bringing two cultures together, chipping away at the land for God and Mammon. A chapter, toward the end of the novel, is titled simply “Cathedral.” This is a story of male friendship: Bishop Latour is more attuned to beauty than Father Valliant, the plainer man of the cloth and the more spiritual. Raymond Carver must have read these pages with care, with as much care as he read D. H. Lawrence’s “The Blind Man” before writing his “Cathedral.”
      Father Latour laughed, “Is a cathedral a thing to be taken lightly, after all?”

     “Oh, no, certainly not!” Father Valliant moved his shoulders uneasily. He did not himself know why he hung back in this.
How smooth the surface of this interchange, how subtle Willa’s instruction that Latour’s aesthetics, or even the sacred edifice of cathedral, does not quite win the day. At my parochial schools, the nuns’ adulation of Willa Cather seemed to me, even in adolescence, an embrace that would not be returned, that she was given more to the manner of storytelling than to the subject matter of Catholic missionaries. That was perhaps my first understanding of desire as creation, and of the magic that must bring together what medievalists term the matière and the sens, the material and its meaning. She was rightly annoyed with reviewers who could not classify her late work, the forms which she went on to invent. When she wrote of her writing at all, it was with brief clarity and brought to our attention not the work, but the paintings, music, legends, contes, lay of the land and recollections of her Nebraska childhood as well as her European travels, which brought forth her own desire.

     I have made her up, my Willa, though I offer no narrative frame to my view of her work. Reading, rereading a writer who has opened the schoolroom window has no end, not even an elegiac—So long! She died when I was seventeen and had outgrown her, then turning the page, a printed page, I see that I called her my mentor. Now, though I am happier than she would ever be to work with the popular goods in the dime-store window, Willa speaks more as my familiar: “The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability” [1920]. A tough statement, something of a burden: all passion not spent.

Maureen Howard’s novels include The Rags of Time (Viking Penguin).