Sunday, 29 November 2015 03:33

Writers for Conservatives: 24 -- Willa Cather: A Quiet American Voice

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Writers for Conservatives: 24 -- Willa Cather: A Quiet American Voice

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The premise of this series of essays is that conservatives can expand their mental horizons, enrich their lives, by reading the kind of books that are rarely written or published today. The goal of life is consciousness and literature is an excellent way to increase it. These essays are not reading lists; they are extended analyses intended to arouse your interest in books. I enjoy writing them because they are a challenge, and I increase my own consciousness by learning more about writers and writing. In this case, for instance, I thought I'd reread a couple of Willa Cather's (1870-1947) books to see if they'd be suitable for the series. I'd read them decades ago and wasn't impressed, but now I'd try one I hadn't read, My Antonia. When I was done I was bowled over, and I saw how unusual her writing was. So I reread her novels, and this is the result, which I hope will inspire my readers to appreciate this fine writer.

Consider American imaginative writers. In the first rank: Melville, Twain, James, Hemingway. In the second rank: Hawthorne, Faulkner, Dreiser, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Norris, Crane, Howells. If you think about their work, they are all dramatic writers. They come to us bearing urgent messages about sensational matters, soul-searching quests, struggles between good and evil, stirring revelations, stories of profound and wrenching truth, tales of the darkest shades and brightest lights. Howells, least dramatic of them all, would have been dramatic if he could, but his imagination was dim. Willa Cather is the great exception. Although there is some drama in her novels, it is the subtle working-out of man's relation to the overpowering presence of place, of the land, that is the theme of her fiction. What "happens" in her books is not very important in itself, and she was not very good at writing a story in the conventional sense. Critics consistently underrated her because they could not really grasp what she was dong; they could only see that by their usual standards she failed.

Now let me tell you what she could do. No other writer has such an acute perception of landscape. Think back for a moment to the seventh essay, "Huck Finn and Friends" in which I discussed Hemingway's great story, Big Two-Hearted River.

The river was there. It swirled against the log spikes of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

His descriptions of the natural world as perceived by a character are instinct with life, unsurpassed, beyond praise, but they are not, nor are they intended to be, portraits of a landscape, of the essence of a whole region. They are artifacts of the character's consciousness, just as Huck's description of the Mississippi at dawn tells us more about Huck than it does about the river. In Cather's best work the landscape is present in itself. What she does is to bring landscape and character together in a moving, satisfactory way with a quiet intensity that gives her books great emotional power.

Her progress can be chartered by the gradual jettisoning of conventional plotting. Her first novel of any distinction, O Pioneers! (1913), is about the lives of immigrants who settled the Nebraska prairies in the last decades of the 19th century, and the beginning, describing the early struggles of Alexandra Bergson with her stupidly conventional brothers and with the land and climate, is good, but then the book jumps ahead to a time when the struggle is over, Alexandra is prosperous, and the prairie becomes nothing more than a backdrop for an absurd plot. Although the book put her on the literary map, it must be judged a failure. Her next novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), is much better, although it, too, is marred in its later part by intrusive plotting. It is the story of Thea Kronborg, a child of Swedish immigrants raised in semi-desert Colorado, who becomes a great opera singer. The book centers on Thea and her development, by no means easy, and the Colorado landscape influences the girl all her life. The early years are the best part of the book, but Thea's artistic struggles are fascinating throughout the book. Cather was an idealist about art, as these quotations show.

. . . what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself -- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? . . . Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist the great artist, knows how difficult it is.

My Antonia (1918) followed, and this is a triumph, the novel which a first-time reader of Cather should start with, the story of a Czech farm girl growing up on the Nebraskan prairie. Look at this description:

All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death -- heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of the day.

The first sentence announces the subject plainly, but the last clause suggests something striking. The next two sentences vividly describe the simple elements of the scene, grass, cornfields, haystacks, a colorful description that begins to stir the reader's feelings. The fourth sentence, with its Biblical reference to the appearance of God to Moses, endows the scene with momentous significance, and the last two sentences with their rich language complete the intimation that the physical world is a manifestation of meaning beyond itself. It looks simple, but it takes great artistry to write so effectively.

At the end of the book the narrator explicitly defines Antonia's significance.

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

There is a key phrase there whose significance may be missed: "the meaning in common things." That was one of Cather's great gifts, to see those meanings and express them, as in the previous passage about fall afternoons. It is a rare gift for any artist, and it is not appreciated enough.

Five undistinguished books followed, and then in 1927 Death Comes For the Archbishop, her masterpiece, was published. A fictionalized account of the career of Archbishop Lamy, who from 1851-1889 ran the diocese, centered in Santa Fe, that covered the whole southwest, it is essentially plotless. It tells of the trials of the Archbishop and his vicar, traveling hundreds of miles on horseback, dealing with refractory priests, building a cathedral, planting fruit trees, civilizing the area, but as much space is given to the Archbishop's observations of the Indians, to his retelling of miracles observed by Junipero Serra, to his memories of his youth in France, and his friendship with the man who became his vicar, and permeating everything is the presence of the desert landscape of the southwest. Cather's skill is so developed by this time that she does not really describe the scene -- there are no set pieces -- but she creates an unforgettable impression of the landscape by little touches here and there, so you are always aware of where you are: you feel the heat, you note the ever-changing colors of the rocks, you breathe the clear air, you feel the sand as it is blown against you. This is a book in which nothing "happens," but when you are done you know you have been privileged to be in the presence of a man's life, an uncommon man, one of those who have made life sweeter by their presence. The book is very moving.

Willa Cather was a writer with an unusual gift, a quiet voice full of passionate intensity. *

"Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a State than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters." --Samuel Adams

Read 1342 times Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2015 09:33
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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