Willa Cather’s subject was America. The country “works on my mind,” she said in 1925, “like light on a photographic plate.” But even in one of her most beautiful “photos” of our young country, her novel of the Nebraska pioneers, My Antonia (1918), the subject induced grief as well as fascination. The title page of My Antonia expresses that grief in its invocation from Virgil: “Optima dies . . . prima fugit—The best days are the first to flee.”
For Cather, writing itself was the solution. At a dark point in the novel the narrator, Jim Burden, ponders another line from Virgil: “I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” This is glossed by the English critic Hermione Lee, in her new biography of Willa Cather, as follows: “Cather as Jim consoles herself for her lost youth (and for the lost golden age of American pioneering history) by turning the figures of her local past into an American pastoral.”
Catcher’s pastorals sought to bestow on the extension of the American enterprise across the West the stature it deserved. One part of that enterprise in particular attracted her: not so much the American political system as the American people and the way they were cultivating and inhabiting a new and wild land. She seems to have been attached to America largely because it was new, and hence presented the opportunity to civilize, order, and create. For her, the taming of the wilderness was a moral enterprise.
Loving a country because it is new creates a problem: every generation cannot be the one to civilize the wilderness. How can a proper drive to make and build persist amid the change which these same impulses bring about? In a 1923 essay Cather wrote of the “generation that subdued the wild land and broke up the prairie”:
With these old men and women the attainment of material prosperity was a moral victory, because it was wrung from hard conditions, was the result of a struggle that tested character. They can look out over those broad stretches of fertility and say, “We made this, with our backs and hands.”
What, Cather went on to wonder, would replace them? The question animates more than one of her novels.
Hermione Lee’s book is a thorough and useful work of criticism, made up mostly of analysis of Catcher’s works rather than straight biography. As her life waned, Cather thwarted future biographers by burning her letters and declining interviews. We do learn here, though, that she was born in Virginia in 1873 to a sweet-natured and gentlemanly father and a remote, discontented Southern mother. At age nine, she moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, a physical and spiritual journey she gorgeously recreates in My Antonia. Provincial Red Cloud frustrated the young Cather. As soon as she had the means she escaped, first to college in Lincoln, Nebraska, then into journalism, and ultimately to New York City, where she became managing editor of McClure’s magazine.
In 1908, Lee tells us, a crucial letter from Sarah Orne Jewett persuaded Cather to abandon the grinding responsibilities of producing a magazine and dedicate herself to fiction. Catcher, says Lee, later felt grateful that she had escaped journalism at the right moment: after she had learned what it had to teach her about factuality and concision and before it could crush her spirit and imagination.
Beginning her novelistic career as a mature woman, Cather soon found her subject and her voice. The breakthrough was a great short story, “The Enchanted Bluff.” In this work, a band of Nebraska schoolboys is mesmerized by the story of a high, remote desert bluff inhabited in ancient times by a since-destroyed tribe of Indians. “The paradox of her life and work,” writes Lee, “is that the place they escape from [Nebraska] is the place she had to get back to for her true subject.”
Catcher did not develop with her times, to her sorrow. In 1922 she wrote disconsolately to Dorothy Canfield, “We knew one world and what we felt about it, now we find ourselves in quite another.” Lee tells us that Cather rejected “economic and social reform, psychoanalysis and Marxism.” She spurned “O’Neill, Cubism, Pound, and Stein,” bemoaned Futurist painting, wide-open art forms, and the “disappearance of the concept of sin.” Ultimately (and notwithstanding her many writings about Catholicism), Cather was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
Lee handles Cather’s apparent lesbianism with tact and perspective. I say “apparent” because, as Lee stresses, a “fact” which Cather herself never acknowledged or even discussed, however undeniable it may seem, must remain in the category of speculation. Lee notes that in her youth Cather called herself “William,” cropped her hair, and dressed in men’s clothing. But Lee also says that Cather “outgrew” these ostentations, and notes that she wrote in 1896, “Bohemia is preeminently the kingdom of failure.”
While other biographers have read Cather closely for homoerotic tendencies, Lee disdains this as “patronizing and narrow. . . . It makes her out to be a coward (which was certainly not one of her failings); and it assumes that ‘openness’ would have been preferable.” Lee appears to understand the potential power of repression to heighten sensuality in art. Catcher, she concludes, “was a writer who worked, at her best, through indirection, suppression, and suggestion, and through a refusal to be enlisted.”
Unenlisted, indeed. Catcher, writes Lee, did not “have the slightest interest in political support among women.” In fact, Cather disdained most women writers, blasting them for having “a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable. They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that.” (She exempted George Eliot, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters from this attack.) In this context, as Lee correctly observes, Cather’s most autobiographical character, Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark (1915), differs from the usual heroines who, in Cather’s words, “really expect the power of love to fill and gratify every need of life.” Thea says she longs to be “waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent is your own; that you’re all there, and there’s no sag in you.”
Most women, Cather complained, “are so horribly subjective and have such scorn for the healthy commonplace.” It is not a failing she shared. The strength of her writing derives from her ability to reveal the subjective through the meticulous use of the commonest kind of observed detail. Few other writers can match her power of description—or her power to illuminate the transcendent meaning of what she describes.
In Willa Cather: Double Lives, Hermione Lee works carefully through each of the major novels and stories, documenting the knowledge and discipline behind the apparently artless texts she recognizes as the “sophisticated grafting of an American subject onto a classical form.” Her discussion of Wagnerian themes and references, and her comparisons of Cather’s pastorals with other works in that tradition, are well-substantiated and interesting.
Yet in one respect the book grates. While Lee admires the skill with which Cather deploys allusions and executes certain classical forms, and while she will grudgingly admit that “in fact, the settling of the old West was an amazing process,” she does not share Catcher’s belief in the grandeur of her subject. This leads her to read as metaphor or even delusion material Cather might well have wanted read straight.
In particular, Lee candidly acknowledges a preference for Cather’s more troubled works; she remains relatively detached from the few that frankly glorify and celebrate. Thus Lee criticizes Cather’s World War I novel, One of Ours (1922), for “completely failing to take on the disillusioning process of the war itself (as Dos Passos and Hemingway so passionately do).” And in her discussion of Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), “the most appeased and celebratory of all [Cather’s] novels,” Lee writes that “readers like myself who admire that dark phase of Cather’s writing above all the rest” might miss the “something ferocious and unreconciled” to be found in her other works.
Others, however, might not. A passage from Death Comes for the Archbishop captures well the spiritual source of Cather’s passion, her troubled passion, for America. Here the archbishop, Father Jean Marie Latour, reflects on why he has decided to die in New Mexico where he has lived and worked as a missionary instead of in France, his home. The reason, he concludes, has to do with the “peculiar quality in the air of new countries” that “vanished after they were tamed by man.” Cather writes:
Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those lighthearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again. . . . He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!
Art, Cather once observed, “is an effort to make a sheath, a mold, in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself.” What one wants from the biography of any artist is to learn how that mystery is achieved and by what creature. That is a distant goal and Lee does not reach it. But, reservations aside, she is a helpful guide who respects her subject, and her book provides a welcome occasion to revisit some of our most beautiful American fiction.