As a second-generation American from a blue-collar family, whose parents never graduated high school, I found college to be emancipating. Thus I became a teacher to share the far-reaching world the arts and humanities offer. Our society, our country, might be better if we in the humanities would “shout, and . . . draw large and startling figures”1 as Flannery O’Connor said in her defense of the Christian vision. During a recent symposium in Rome to promote novelist Willa Cather in Europe, I was dismayed to find that the conference yielded little evidence of the author’s significance and was more or less limited to esoteric presentations by scholars devoted to their pet interests. There was little awareness of the need to shout, to describe Cather’s bold European immigrants, colonists, and missionaries.
Cather once told an interviewer that “descriptive work” is “the thing I do best,” which first attracted me to her fiction. Her landscapes generate what Emily Dickinson called circumference, expanding vision as a stone tossed in water expands circles. Inspired by a diverse set of exemplary writers and artists, Cather’s Nebraska prairie and Southwest become magical. In Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), rain glittering on mesas and sunrise in distant mountains hearken “the first Creation morning . . . when the dry land was drawn up out of the deep, and all was confusion.” My introduction to the undulating prairie of Cather’s Nebraska was Homeric, as in My Ántonia (1918); its grass, “the color of wine stains,” became “the country as the water is the sea.”
Circumference in Cather, like all good things in the humanities, expands vision because it is informed by extensive knowledge. Bernice Slote described it as “apparent simplicity, actual complexity,” moving “outward from this time and place.” Slote referred to a “secret web” threading American writers like Emerson and Henry James to Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and to Flaubert, Daudet, Tolstoy, Turgenev.2 Jim Burden in My Ántonia dissolves into nature like an Emerson persona; the lovers’ story in O Pioneers! (1913) owes much to Dante and Keats; “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909) is a variation on Turgenev’s “Bezhin Meadow.” A Latinist, Cather repeatedly refers to Virgil’s Aeneid, and adapts the worldview of Dante’s La Divina Commedia to both the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock (1931). Cather collapses disciplines, grouping Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Leonardo as equal players in “the game of make-believe.” The influence of great works of art and music on Cather’s texts is a wellspring for Cather scholars.
Likewise, spiritual mystery, explored later by O’Connor, beckoned Cather. In Shadows, Count Frontenac, contemplating death, believes that “his spirit would go before God to be judged . . . because he had been taught it . . . and because he knew that there was something in himself . . . that this world did not explain.” The ongoing offering of grace and vision, what theologian Karl Rahner describes as “God’s self-communication to man as a free being,” complements Cather’s characterizations. In My Mortal Enemy (1926), Myra Henshaw is transformed when seated against a cedar on a headland above the Pacific. The afternoon light beats down “as if thrown by a burning glass,” and Myra’s sense of guilt and hope for forgiveness seems to intensify in the setting sun, which like the cedar is a Crucifixion symbol. Cather was not without strong opinions on the movements of her day. In a 1923 essay, Cather denounced “Americanization,” discrimination against immigrants, suppression of foreign languages, decline of cooking and craft, and the “eclipse” of humanities by the contemporary pressure to study “mercantile processes.” Claude Wheeler, the doughboy hero of One of Ours (1922), who escapes to war (and death) in France, assumes that Americans “were always buying and selling, building and pulling down,” and were “a people of shallow emotions.” In The Professor’s House (1925), protagonist Godfrey St. Peter mourns society’s obsession with science, arguing that “art and religion . . . have given man the only happiness he has ever had.” In a 1945 letter to a friend, Cather comments that “the atomic bomb has sent a shutter of horror (and fear) through all the world.”
Willa Cather’s world is populated by large and startling figures illuminating life in meaningful ways. If you aren’t familiar with her, I highly suggest you give her works a try; if you know her already, she’s worth further exploration.
This article was included in the Fall 2021 issue of the Humanities alumni magazine.
1. O’Connor, Flannery, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, NY, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
2. Slote, Bernice and Richard Giannone, “Willa Cather: The Secret Web,” Five Essays on Willa Cather, ed. John J. Murphy, North Andover Massachusetts: Merrimack College Press, 1974.