Getting the Undulation

Benjamin Lytal

  • The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
    Knopf, 715 pp, £24.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 307 95930 0

In her work Willa Cather celebrated heroism; in her life she collected honorary degrees, told her publishers which typeface to use, and stayed out of politics. When Sinclair Lewis won the first American Nobel Prize he said she should have got it instead. She was read by H.L. Mencken with ‘increasing joy’. She was also lampooned for writing in the style of the Ladies’ Home Journal, dismissed by modernist-minded critics like Edmund Wilson, and accused in 1933 by Granville Hicks, a ubiquitous critic then in his Marxist phase, of falling ‘into a supine romanticism because of a refusal to examine life as it is’. She received buckets of mail from priests who saw themselves in Death Comes for the Archbishop, from doughboys grateful for One of Ours, and what Cather called ‘love letters’ from young men struck by the September-May romance of A Lost Lady. And she lived, according to some posthumous critics, as a closeted homosexual. Cather had many potential reasons for forbidding publication of her letters.

Willa Cather in New Hampshire in 1917.
Willa Cather in New Hampshire in 1917.

Reading them suggests a more general anxiety. ‘There is just a terribly low streak of something both ill-tempered and ill-bred that comes out in me,’ she wrote apologetically to a friend she had been on holiday with, in 1904. Knopf brought out the letters last spring and since then many people have offered reasons why it was right to overrule Cather’s wishes. She died in 1947. It was time. But what exactly was Cather’s problem? There aren’t any sensational revelations here. What there is, however, is evidence of a much loved writer’s vexed and only partially self-aware personality.

The pioneer woman is meant to be a silent type. In the 1910s Cather was a minimalist from the cornfields, a bright spot in the long shadow of Henry James. Her sentences were lucid, patient, imagistic. Like her contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson, she picked a fight with smalltown America. But smalltown America has always forgiven her, because Cather always also wanted to celebrate its positive ideals. Her three great heroes, Alexandra Bergson of O Pioneers!, ‘Tony’ Shimerda of My Ántonia and Bishop Latour of Death Comes for the Archbishop, are practical-minded immigrants who survive in Nebraska and New Mexico because they see their very European sense of legend and personal nobility reflected in the potential of the land. Gradually they develop American ideals of fortitude and personal sovereignty. All of Cather’s best books contain huge leaps in time, which are intended to illustrate this. Her American readership is like Robert Frost’s: read by every American schoolchild, both have to be rescued from the flag-wavers with strenous reminders of their ‘dark’ seriousness and formal excellence. In Cather’s case, there is also the rich and bedeviling problem of how to frame her very pointed belief in heroism: is it feminist, populist, elitist, silly, tragic?

Maybe Cather thought she owed it to her fans to keep her image clean and simple. Her letters show her to be, like everyone else, less than heroic, and Cather was herself the type of reader who liked to put her favourite authors on a pedestal. As a young woman she had called on A.E. Housman and been so disappointed by the visit that she burst into tears. ‘He is the most gaunt and grey and embittered individual I know,’ she wrote to her colleague Viola Roseboro a year later. Badgered late in life to tell the story of the encounter, she always put it off. Perhaps she decided that a writer’s personality, if it’s unattractive, shouldn’t impinge on his reputation. She had readily composed an essay about a much more encouraging encounter, with Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Grout, whom she met on holiday in Aix in 1930: ‘No one could fail to recognise her distinction and authority; it was in the carriage of her head, in her fine hands, in her voice, in every word she uttered in any language, in her brilliant, very piercing eyes.’ Cather compares Grout’s way of speaking about Sentimental Education to Garibaldi rallying his soldiers on the retreat from Rome. A less heroic treatment of Flaubert’s niece would not have interested her.

There has always been something gloomy about liking Willa Cather, a fatalistic, defensive idealism, itself learned from her fiction. I liked her only once I was old enough to feel that her celebration of the American West was actually a lament, and loved her only after I realised the stubbornness of that lament, across her many books. Bitterness was part of what kept her writing. Her best characters are celibates or would-be hermits. Her nostalgia has grit. Americans taught as schoolchildren to think of Cather as a nice lady writing about the Nebraska prairie might be intrigued to read what she wrote about Prosper Mérimée: ‘I like his pride, and his contemptuousness.’ Or that her favourite Flaubert books were Salammbô and Hérodias, ‘those great reconstructions of the remote and cruel past’. Or that her motto at the age of 14 was ‘Enjoy, let others weep.’ (In the same keepsake album, Cather signed her name ‘Wm. Cather, MD’, declared her favourite trait in women to be ‘Flirting’, in men to be ‘An Original Mind’, her favourite amusement ‘Vivisection’, her favourite flower the ‘Cauliflower’ and her favourite trait in a matrimonial partner ‘Lamb Like Meekness’.)

But it isn’t enough, any longer, to set the vinegary Cather against the naive. Her letters at their worst are needy, high-handed and reactionary (her extraordinary injunction against publishing them is the most self-aware thing about them). They disappoint and they disenchant. Reading a writer’s correspondence needn’t be an excuse for vulgar biographical criticism: who cares if a writer was unpleasant? But because Cather courted heroism and dignity in her work, and then tried to fence off her own everyday shortcomings, one can’t help but see the letters as deflating. Critically, they force the reader to think through the self-deception inherent in Cather’s heroic view of history.

The Western frontier was already closing when the Cathers left Virginia for Nebraska in 1884. Willie, as she liked to be called, was nine years old. Everywhere in her early novels about the West are wagon ruts, left by forty-niners and Mormons. The ruts have softened with time, grown over with grass. Even the railroads are already an old story. In 1946 Cather remembered seeing the railroad-builder James J. Hill: as a girl she had ‘stood respectfully listening to him as he talked to a group of Burlington operatives. I think he was a great dreamer and a great man’; she said so to her biographer E.K. Brown, who she thought had discounted her investment in this dream of the past.

Cather was in her early thirties, on the verge of moving to New York to become an editor at McClure’s, an ambitious monthly magazine, when she published her first story collection in 1905. ‘A Wagner Matinee’ is about a former teacher at the Boston Conservatory who, after making a foolish marriage, spends thirty years as a frontier wife in Nebraska. Returning to Boston, she hears a matinee concert and realises that she has wasted her life. Asked by a correspondent where she got her information about Western life, Cather replied: ‘I lived there for ten years.’ Compared to Virginia, she wrote, the Nebraska of her teens had been ugly and treeless.

There was one miserable little sluggish stream about 18 miles from our ranch. It was perhaps ten feet wide in the spring, and in the late summer it was no more than a series of black mud holes at the bottom of a ravine, with a few cottonwoods and dwarf elms growing along its banks. I remember that my little brothers and I would do almost anything to get to this creek.

Cather’s ‘mystical conception of the frontier’, as Granville Hicks would call it, wasn’t yet in place. It came to her only after she had travelled to Europe: the first landscape she ever responded to may have been the Gulf of Salerno. Writing to the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, her literary mentor, in 1908, Cather compared several books she had read on Italy, and picked her favourite:

But Miss Meynell tells the truth – How beautifully truthful she is about all this pale-coloured lovely earth, and how her words show the frugality and temperance that it ought to teach one. What a coarse and stupid conception of Italy we have all been reared upon! A tufted Monte Carlo palm garden sort of country.

Frugality, temperance: these would be the keys to writing about the wheatfields of Nebraska.

Cather would disown her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912): belatedly coming into her own in her forties, she regretted that ‘like most young writers, I thought a book should be made out of “interesting material”.’ By ‘interesting’ she meant human: psychological character drama. Alexander’s Bridge was an Ibsenish, Jamesian love triangle set in London and Boston. Cather pretended to be surprised when McClure’s offered her $750 for another of her long stories, ‘The Bohemian Girl’, about Czech farmers in Nebraska. ‘Everyone in the office was enthusiastic about the story – in the name of goodness why, I wonder.’

With Jewett’s encouragement, Cather left McClure’s. She went to visit her brother Douglas, who was working for the railroad in Winslow, Arizona. The South-West – former Spanish territory, more rugged and sublime than Nebraska – thrilled her. She wrote that Albuquerque was ‘like the country between Marseille and Nice only much more brilliant’. She was circling Nebraska, tuning in to the power of landscape. She finally put her finger on what was so successful in her $750 Nebraska story: ‘It really is like the people, it gets the undulation of the ground.’

The ground and the people were the same thing, even though the people had been there for less than a generation. Reinterpreting people as part of the landscape gave Cather her task as a writer. ‘People are the only interesting things there are in the world,’ she wrote, ‘but one has to come to the desert to find it out.’ All her life she would try to insist that she cared most about people. But that’s not what she discovered in the South-West. ‘I really learned there what Balzac meant when he said “in the desert there is everything and nothing – God without mankind.”’ She would say of her next novel – the one that made her famous, O Pioneers! – that ‘the country itself is frankly the hero.’ She let herself begin to turn people into legends. While still in Arizona she had written to her friend Elizabeth Sergeant, a critic for the New Republic:

Dear Elsie:

I’ve been hard hit by new ideas of late and am as happy as possible. I’ve caught step at last. Am just back from a long overland trip with the priest out to his Indian missions. A string trio of Mexicans come often to play for me – one a bartender, two are section hands. They play divinely, and there is a boy of unearthly beauty who sings. He is simply Antinous come to earth again!

W.

So much of Cather is contained in this postcard from 1912 (it pictures a pueblo): the seed for later novels like Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927); the classicism; the tourist’s way she had of making real people into figures from history. As she said of the French and Bohemian farmers of Nebraska: ‘All those people are like characters in a book to me. I began their story when I was little and it goes on like War and Peace.’ She never seems to hear the patronising note in her own voice. ‘I have known but one really dull Bohemian, and I have known a great many clever ones. You know Richard Wagner said that whenever he got dull he went to Prague. “There I renew my youth,” he wrote, “in that magical and volcanic soil of Bohemia.”’

She dramatised the South-West breakthrough in her 1915 novel, Song of the Lark, a book that shed light on her way of turning away from the world to make novels that were neither externalised and character-driven nor internalised and psychologically modernist. It tells the story of Thea Kronborg, a young girl from Moonstone, Colorado, who becomes an international opera star. With determination and luck, she manages first to get to Chicago, where she studies with several very serious instructors. But something is lacking; Thea suffers depression. A wealthy admirer sends her to his ranch outside Flagstaff: there Thea rises every morning and goes to sit in silence in the remains of a Native American cliff dwelling. ‘Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind – almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas.’ In a later essay on Jewett, Cather wrote:

Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure … a quality which one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden.

Frugal and temperate landscape writing leads to atmosphere writing, which in turn becomes solemn and mythological. Song of the Lark would be a parody of a certain kind of vacation story – throwing out the mental clutter, resolving never again to be a drudge, relaxing, soaking up the heat like a lizard on a hot stone – were it not for the visionary historical dimension of Thea’s breakthrough. In a letter to her publisher, Cather referred to the way the cliff dweller ruins ‘first awoke’ Thea’s ‘historic imagination – so necessary to a great Wagnerian singer’. Alone in the ruins, Thea learns how to have, or pretend to have, a certain kind of inspiration:

On the first day that Thea climbed the water trail she began to have intuitions about the women who had worn the path, and who had spent so great a part of their lives going up and down it. She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before, which must have come up to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed.

Cather habitually equates white American dreamers with vanished Native Americans. In A Lost Lady young Niel Herbert observes the decline of Mrs Forrester, the grande dame of Sweet Water, Colorado and retroactively lionises her first husband, the rich old Captain Forrester, who ‘dreamed the railroads across the mountains’ and who, late in life, is portrayed as akin to an Indian betrayed by the forces of commercialism: ‘Something forbidding had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians.’

For Cather, history was not a matter of change or progress, but a visionary connection to the past, one that united explorers and priests, rail barons and Mexicans. It excluded non-visionary businessman and most of the middle class, as well as cubism and free verse. The historical imagination became both her subject matter and her philosophy of art, working in tandem to reinforce her personal prejudices. Expressed positively – in the arid, gracefully episodic Death Comes for the Archbishop, a story about French missionaries in New Mexico – Cather’s withdrawal from modern life made for great books.

But expressed negatively, as in her letters, it’s chilling. It was an exclusionary aesthetic, and after one hears Cather describe her friend’s new husband as ‘a perfectly poisonous Jew’, or crow in 1943 that ‘I’m delighted that Ezra Pound is a “traitor”,’ it’s harder to enjoy the proud ennobling portrait of the Bishop of Santa Fe and his Indian guide. Even during the Second World War, when Cather was quite right to decry the way the world was going, her emphasis sounds self-aggrandising: ‘Why should the beautiful cities that were a thousand years a-making tumble down on our heads now, in our short lifetime?’ She could be plain nasty: ‘I was pleased that a Nebraska boy had brought down four Jap planes on Christmas day … We have millions of boys like Bob, but not in big cities.’ You see that, sometimes, she fuelled her loves with hates.

*

Alice Munro, writing in 1980, laid her finger on the sore spot of Cather appreciation in a short story called ‘Dulse’. The narrator, a 45-year-old woman, encounters an 81-year-old Cather devotee at a country inn – a deliberate echo, perhaps, of Cather’s essay about meeting Flaubert’s niece. The narrator learns that Cather summered nearby, and that the man regularly goes and sits under the window where she wrote. He seems pathetic to the woman, and ‘his adoration of the chosen writer was just as out of date … as his speech.’ He has just talked to an 88-year-old woman who used to cook for Cather and reports that apparently she would sometimes send her meals back down to town and ask for another to be sent. ‘Willa could be imperious,’ he says. ‘She was not perfect. All people of great abilities are apt to be impatient in daily matters.’ ‘Rubbish,’ the narrator thinks. ‘She sounds a proper bitch.’ She comes to see that the man’s love of Cather is a protective form of self-deception: ‘What a lovely, durable shelter he had made for himself.’ Would any other American writer – Twain or Hemingway or even James – have served so well? Isn’t there something uniquely crooked here, a dynamic by which the reader flatters himself that he knows how to forgive Cather’s faults, a dynamic bolstered by her own resentful idealism, her insistent defence of old-fashioned heroism?

Munro’s portrait of a Cather admirer may be more devastating than all the critical attacks mounted against her. It’s one thing to damn an author. It’s another to damn her fans. The man’s way of speaking about Cather, Munro writes:

made me think of a time when a few people had not concerned themselves with being democratic, or ingratiating, in their speech … they spoke in formal, well-thought-out, self-congratulatory sentences, though they knew they lived in a land where their formality, their pedantry, could bring them nothing but mockery. No, that was not true; it brought mockery and uncomfortable admiration. What he made me think of was the old-fashioned culture of provincial cities long ago: the high-mindedness, the propriety, hard plush concert seats and dim libraries.

His vision of the past is a choice, lonely and a little too resolute. It’s a mistake. And it could be a portrait of Cather herself. It might be the most forgiving one possible.