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Burden, St. Peter, and Latour: cather's modernist traditionalist personae.


The three novels you've been assigned are the most representative of Cather's general work--twelve novels and more than fifty stories. Once popularly known as a prairie writer, primarily for My Antonia (1918), Cather's contribution to modernist fiction is dramatically illustrated in The Professor's House (1925), and the universality of her writing is most evident in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). I have reconsidered all three for this seminar and hope that some of my ideas will help us talk about the many more they contain. All three are particularly rich novels.

Cather encapsulated her Nebraska experience in My Antonia--her introduction in 1883 at the age of nine to the treeless open spaces of a new country after an uprooting from the green, mountainous enclosures and an old society in Virginia, the process of acclimation to Nebraska, which seemed as barren as sheet-iron. Through narrator Jim Burden, the novel reveals the growth of Cather's love for this new place--its rugged grasses, muddy rivers, animals, birds, insects, flowers, sunsets, rich brown soil, and its changing seasons and interesting people (especially those from foreign countries, like Antonia's family). But there is a growing negative strain in the book that most first-time readers neglect--an impatience with and distaste for the society developing in this new country. Cather detests its growing materialistic values, its small-mindedness and bigotry. Through Jim, she expresses her disappointment and claustrophobia, her need to escape, to get to a larger world offering other values, other ways of life besides the stifling commercial ones of the developing cities and small towns of the Midwest--small towns like Jim's Black Hawk, a mask for Cather's own Red Cloud. My Antonia, then, contains the essential themes and contents of her other Nebraska novels: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), One of Ours (1922), and A Lost Lady (1923)--the Nebraska novels that define Willa Cather for many readers.

The Professor's House is set in the early 1920s, about forty years after the setting of the first book of My Antonia. If Jim Burden had become a historian (I'm reminded of hired girl Tiny Soderball's words to him: "Maybe you'd like to be a professor" [209]) rather than a railroad lawyer, and had a more fruitful marriage and become a father, and if we were reading about him subsequent to World War I rather than immediately prior to it (when he supposedly writes his memoir of his childhood and Antonia), he might, indeed, be Godfrey St. Peter. But we have in the Professor's story some added components that represent Willa Cather's post-Nebraska experiences: her acquaintance with France, which began in 1902 and continued throughout her life; her familiarity with the American Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado), which began in 1912 and continued into the late 1920s; her interest in religious culture, especially Roman Catholicism. We quickly learn in this novel that the Professor is as disillusioned with the post-war world--and especially his own country--as Jim Burden was with Black Hawk in the 1890s. Like Jim, the Professor is being smothered, in his case by his family and the narrowing of university life. There seems to be no escape for him, at least no physical one. When in My Antonia Jim promises his grandmother to stop going to the dances with immigrant girls like Antonia and her hired girl friends and admits to us, "I wanted to get away as soon as possible" (220), the university in Lincoln and eventually Harvard and the East offer him places to escape to. But there are no physical alternatives, really, for Godfrey St. Peter. The key passage of the first book comes at the end of chapter 13:
   The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him; the
   lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton [the city where he
   teaches and lives] small and tight and airless. The university, his
   new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed
   insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a
   sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its
   voyage among all the stars, might become like that; a boat on which
   one could travel no longer, from which one would no longer look up
   and confront those bright rings or revolution. (148-49)

Where might the Professor escape to in this crisis? There is the world of Blue Mesa presented four chapters later in "Tom Outland's Story," but this mesa world (which no longer exists in its pristine state) is merely a fantasy escape, not a solution, and, besides, Tom, his former student and best friend, is dead. The Professor's great scholarly opus, Spanish Adventurers in North America, is finished; thus the prison boat his world has become cannot be exchanged for that earlier boat off the coast of Spain upon which he had the great epiphany of his career, when "the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges [of the Sierra Nevadas] themselves" (105). His only escape is the spiritual one personified in his family's dull seamstress Augusta. Her religious worldview is one Professor St. Peter can intellectualize to his students in the first book (chapter 5) but one he is essentially ignorant of and incapable of fathoming until the final chapter of the last book, which leaves this novel open-ended. As Cather's most inconclusive work The Professor's House has attracted her contemporary critics, although its rather obvious religious direction seems to be as ignored as a serious factor by most of them as Augusta generally is by St. Peter until the very end--secularism being the fashion and the reality of most contemporary criticism. This novel not only develops the social criticism of the Nebraska novels (especially One of Ours [1922] whose hero experiences in a church in France a fleeting insight into something beyond the stifling world of the Professor) but contains the seeds of My Mortal Enemy (1926) and anticipates Death Comes for the Archbishop and the works of Cather's later career.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is the culmination of Cather's achievement as a writer; that is, it is her most comprehensive, complete, happiest novel, containing her most well-rounded and fully adjusted protagonist, Jean Marie Latour. We might speculate that if Godfrey St. Peter had come from an unlapsed Catholic family (he tells Augusta, "there was no Catholic church in our town in Kansas, and I guess my father forgot his religion" [98]) and become a priest he might have been a twentieth-century Archbishop Latour--the temperaments of all three men (Burden, St. Peter, Latour) are similarly Jamesian (sensitive, meditative, reserved) but placed in the provinces rather than in Paris or London, provincial to a degree. At the end of The Professor's House, the Professor, in the company of Augusta, feels the ground under his feet. Finally, there seems something supportable in his world, something to buoy up the boat that has become his prison: "Seasoned and sound and on the solid earth [Augusta] surely was...." And he begins to feel responsibility to a community larger than the small world of this boat, larger than his family and university: "There was . a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound" (281). At the beginning of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour meets fundamental people like Augusta at Hidden Water--in fact they rescue him when he wanders lost in a desert. Like Augusta, these Mexicans are people of deep faith, which they guard jealously from the inroads being made by American invaders. Cather has moved her fictional world from the twentieth century and from the Midwest to a place more conducive to the faith of such people, to where they can pray to the Virgin, honor images of the saints in their homes, and believe in miracles: "The grandfather [Benito] declared that the Blessed Virgin must have led the Bishop from his path and brought him here to baptize the children and to sanctify the marriages" (26). Bishop Latour spends his entire life in New Mexico outward bound to such people. He is at once their father and their servant, as in the scene "December Night" with the old slave woman Sada, who calls him Padre but whose deep faith renews his own challenged faith: "He received the miracle in her heart into his own, saw through her eyes, knew that his poverty was as bleak as hers." When Christ brought the Kingdom of Heaven into a world of slaves and masters, he had said, "'And whosoever is least among you, the same shall be first in ... Heaven.' This church was Sada's house, and he [Bishop Latour] was a servant in it" (228-29).

What Cather creates in the Archbishop is a fulfilled life, one not without struggle, of course, but always with hope enough to conquer depression and despair. The Archbishop leaves behind him a Midi Romanesque cathedral of native stone that represents his achievement as a missionary but even more the destiny of the multi-racial people with whom he shares his faith. Toward the end of his life, he is comforted by "a grateful sense of nearness to his cathedral--which would also be his tomb." Cather's nautical image later in this passage echoes the one describing St. Peter's imprisonment in a boat. Latour "felt safe under [the] shadow [of the cathedral]; like a boat come back to harbour, lying under its own sea-wall" (285). He has a destination, whereas Professor St. Peter lacks one or is left to contemplate an indeterminate one and the return of another boat, the Berengaria, bringing his wife, pregnant daughter, and son-in-law home from France. Death Comes for the Archbishop provides the key to viewing Cather's subsequent fiction: the stories in Obscure Destinies (1928-31), especially "Neighbour Rosicky," about a natural father with a life as fulfilling as Latour's; Shadows on the Rock (1931), portraying a French-Canadian counterpart to the faith community of the Archbishop; Lucy Gayheart (1935) and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), both painful sortings out of guilt; and, finally, the story of rebirth, release from bondage after harsh punishment, set in medieval Avignon, France, that Cather left unfinished at her death in 1947. We might apply to all these works what she said about writing the Archbishop, that she wanted to accomplish a narrative in which "all human experiences" are "measured against one supreme experience" (On Writing 9). What that supreme experience exactly is we are left with the task of figuring out. It might be death, human survival, God, love, faith--perhaps anything ultimate providing our existence with significant meaning and purpose.

I subtitled this talk "Cather's Modernist Traditionalist Personae," which I think requires some explanation. Jim Burden is the only one of these three protagonists who approaches the conventional persona. He tells a story that is largely Cather's own, even if at times he is an unreliable narrator--and intended to be so, as Cather recreates her own adolescence from the perspective of being forty-something. But the Professor and the Archbishop are personae as well, for they represent Cather at later stages of her life. While fictional characters, they are also masks Cather used to resolve her own struggles. To a certain extent, they are as much about Cather as Latour is about Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and Antonia Shimerda is about Annie Pavelka, their historical, real life prototypes. Since you will be reading Faulkner in this class, and Faulkner will seem so much more complex and difficult than Cather, I suggest you consider the following observation made by critic Bernice Slote back in 1972:
   Cather's art, it seems to me, is apparent simplicity, actual
   complexity. Books, when read for all nuances, all allusions and
   implications (and with a writer like Cather whose fierce
   intelligence and comprehensive knowledge suggest that she is
   capable of many complexities, indeed)--these books show many
   strains, chords, counterpoints. They come from an intricately
   civilized mind, and when taken all together in one movement they
   comprise a kind of new, and subtle, imaginative world. (9)

Thus there are various kinds of complexity. Let me take Jim Burden's story as an example, for he tells Cather's own story in an extremely complex way. Like Cather, Jim leaves Virginia for Nebraska as a child, lives on a prairie farm for a year before moving to a small town, befriends an immigrant girl, attends the University of Nebraska, and then heads east to a larger, more sophisticated world, and many years later renews his friendship with the immigrant girl, now in her forties and the mother of a large family. The complexity begins to emerge when we realize that the writing of this story by Jim (and by extension Cather) represents a survival tactic, his need to reflect on and re-create his childhood in middle age, after a childless marriage to a cold woman. The writing will be a form of therapy for Jim and largely about himself, even though "this girl [who] seemed to mean . the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of [his] childhood" is the apparent subject. "'I should have to do it in a direct way,'" he says, "'and say a great deal about myself '" (xi-xii). When he completes the memoir he's written, he says, "'I didn't arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Antonia's name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn't any form'" (xiii). This is how Cather hides the complexities Bernice Slote began to uncover some forty years ago. Cather constructs the narrative as if written by an amateur writer, which is perhaps what she was referring to when she told an interviewer in 1925 that in this novel she had rejected the conventional patterns of fiction writing:
   If one is going to do new business the patterns cannot help.... My
   Antonia, for instance, is just the other side of the rug, the
   pattern that is not supposed to count in a story. In it there is no
   love affair, no courtship, no marriage, no broken heart, no
   struggle for success. I knew I'd ruin my material if I put it in
   the usual fictional pattern. (in Bohlke 77)

What Cather doesn't tell us, however, is that her strategy in the book involves a process of immersion in literature and the arts that transforms the materials that make up the story.

The key to what I'm trying to say lies in the first chapter of the third book, "Lena Lingard," where Jim's vision begins to be transformed by his teacher Gaston Cleric, who introduces him to Dante's Divine Comedy and the tribute in it to the "divine flame" from Virgil's Aeneid that had enkindled Dante's own masterpiece. While Jim realizes that his own career will not be an academic one, he is deeply affected (expanded) by the world of classics and history that delivers him not only out of the provinces but enables him to see his Nebraska experience from a universal perspective:
   While I was in the very act of yearning toward the new forms that
   Cleric brought up before me, my mind plunged away from me, and I
   suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of my own
   infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified
   now. (254)

What we have in My Antonia is provincial material viewed through experiences of world literature, history, and travel--the experiences Jim shares with Cather herself, whose survival struggle to establish herself as a novelist (and not merely a disciple of Henry James and imitator of Edith Wharton) and find her own subject is revealed in this novel.

What is particularly complex is the difference in approach (or the degree of difference) between the two books of the novel that precede the third one and the two books that follow it. In the first two Jim reflects on his story from the perspective of his worldly experiences; in the final two books he seems to experience life from an excessively romantic literary stance that distances him from reality. From the arrival of Lena, through his emotional reaction to the performance of Dumas' Camille, and to Lena's "slow, renunciatory kiss" (284), Jim seems to be living his own fantasy. As he had previously explained, "the places and people of my own infinitesimal past .. were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how" (254). One need only compare the picnic scene with the hired girls at the end of the second book to the sunset scene at the end of the fourth book to discover the corruption of Jim's vision from a healthy worldly perspective to one of sentimentality. The entire final (fifth) book of My Antonia, "Cuzak's Boys," might be intended by Cather to be read as the product of a sentimental mind, just as "Tom Outland's Story" might be read as a sentimental, therapeutic escape story lingering in the mind of a man somehow at the end of his rope.

What Professor St. Peter shares with Cather is a crisis of conclusion rather than beginning. By the writing of this book Cather had finished with Nebraska as a literary topic, just as the Professor had finished with the Spanish conquistadores. But the crisis in each case is that of a world in decline more than the personal dilemma of a protagonist or an author. Professor St. Peter needs a refuge, and in the midst of this need contemplates his lost companion, Tom Outland, whose account of Blue Mesa is remembered in his own words. Cather claimed in a 1938 letter that she inserted Tom's story into the novel as an escape from the claustrophobia of the Professor's world:
   ... I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded
   and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs,
   petty ambitions, quivering jealousies--until one got rather
   stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the
   fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of
   trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour.
   (On Writing 31-32)

Tom's story does affect readers in this way through its easy narrative style, open spaces, and adventure. If it is structurally an example of Cather's modernism, it is doubly so because this feeling of release is short-circuited by careful reading. Cather warns us ahead of time that this is "a story of youthful defeat" (174). It ends in a heartless violation of friendship Tom feels he'll be punished for: "I'm not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I'll be called to account when I least expect it" (252-53). Perhaps death in the war is being "called to account." In any case, Tom's mesa adventure, even if it could be relived (and it can't be) amounts to a bogus relief from the chaotic morality and materialism of the 1920s.

Earlier in the novel, Cather has St. Peter articulate another possibility, one equally impossible to relive and in a past few would want to return to, but one containing essentials that will dominate Cather's subsequent fiction and that she took seriously enough to make personal. Responding to a student obviously defending science, the Professor explains that science has diverted the human mind from "the real problems" and "the old riddles," diminishing the mystery of human existence. He continues:

"As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and revelations. And that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives." (68)

It should matter to readers trying to understand her later fiction that on 27 December 1922 Cather was confirmed with her parents in the Episcopal Church in her Nebraska hometown, Red Cloud. As her earliest and probably best biographer, E. K. Brown, put it: "She had set her foot on the way that led to Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock; and in the books that intervened [7he Professor's House and My Mortal Enemy] she touched more and more closely on religious issues" (228).

This brings us back to Archbishop Latour, who doesn't write up a refuge like Jim Burden does in "Cuzak's Boys," nor relive like Godfrey St. Peter the adventures of another. Rather, Latour becomes what Jim depicts in Antonia, a begetter and founder of a community modeled on the worldview St. Peter professes to his students but cannot participate in himself. While it is true that Cather has to change the setting of her fiction to Hispanic New Mexico and step back seventy-five years from St. Peter's story, and while it is also true that this might be (and was) construed by many of her critics as escape, it was not a personal one but one shared by a community of believers. And rather than a flight from contemporary problems, the Archbishop and subsequent novels become social commentary, represent formulae for values contemporary society has relinquished but badly needs. What is modern about Father Latour is his concept of belief, church, and community. Cather is not in need of religion indiscriminately; it has to be on her own terms. Latour is not the historical Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe, nor is his Catholicism the Catholicism of New Mexico; both Latour and his Catholicism are idealized creations, and the first (like Cather) creates the second. Bishop Latour, like Antonia in her intimate way, is the artist redefining a culture to satisfy his criteria and Cather's.

What could easily descend into superstition becomes a matter of vision: "Where there is great love there are always miracles," he tells Father Vaillant, the zeal of whose faith often borders on superstition. "The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always" (53-54). And he is respectful of other religious visions, like the creation myths of the Navajo, so integral to the landscape of their homeland--Shiprock and the Canyon de Chelly, "an Indian Garden of Eden" (313). He realizes the limits of his own belief, sensing during the Mass at Acoma "that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far," and dismissing the congregation "with a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat" (106). Seeing the huge mission church at Acoma, he recognizes that missionaries have often been exploitive, "not altogether innocent of worldly ambition" (107), and he will prohibit this in the church he is rebuilding. His initial worldly ambition to build a cathedral that "might be a continuation of himself and his purpose" (183) is transformed after a night of crisis into a project "for the future" (254) that will make Catholicism "part of [this] place" (284), as indigenous to the landscape as are the Navajo beliefs.

The crisis Latour experiences resembles that of Professor St. Peter at the end of his story; both are crises of deep discouragement experienced while lying on a bed. To Latour, on a cold December night,
   [h]is work seemed superficial, a house built upon the sands. His
   great diocese was still a heathen country. The Indians traveled
   their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and
   ancient shadows. The Mexicans were children who played with their
   religion. As the night wore on, the bed on which the Bishop lay
   became a bed of thorns; he could bear it no longer. (221)

When he gets up to pray in the church he meets the old Mexican slave Sada, who not only belies his fears about the faith of her people but reminds him through her example of his own role as their servant, that "[t]his church was Sada's house, and he was a servant in it" (229). As for the faith of the Indians, there is a suggestion of sympathy in the final picture Cather gives us of the old Archbishop "[w]rapped in his Indian blankets" as in his vestments and contemplating for the last time the golden face of the cathedral (283). The essence of Latour as persona lies in the estimate of Father Vaillant before his departure for Colorado:
   To man's wisdom it would have seemed that a priest with Father
   Latour's exceptional qualities would have been better placed in
   some part of the world where scholarship . and delicate perceptions
   all have their effect; that a man of much rougher type would have
   served God well enough.. Doubtless Bishop Latour's successors would
   be made of a different fibre. But God has his reasons.... Perhaps
   it pleased Him to grace the beginning of a new era and a vast new
   diocese by a fine personality. (265-66)

In the confrontation of a crude frontier by a fine sensibility we can detect a faint echo of Cather's own uprooting from the Virginia mountains and relocation to Nebraska, as she described it in a 1913 interview:
   I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon,
   holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself--the roads
   were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass.... The land was open
   range.... As we drove ... farther out into the country, I felt a
   good deal as if we had come to the end of everything--it was a kind
   of erasure of personality. I would not know how much a child's life
   is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had
   not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country
   as bare as a piece of sheet iron.... I would have got on pretty
   well during that ride if it had not been for the larks. Every now
   and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down
   into the grass. That reminded me of something--I don't know what,
   but my own purpose in life just then was not to cry, and everytime
   they did it, I thought I should go under. (in Bohlke 10)

Consider now the opening of the first chapter of the Archbishop:
   One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman... was
   pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New
   Mexico. He had lost his way.... The difficulty was that the country
   was so feature less--or rather, ... crowded with features, all
   exactly alike. As far as he could see ... the landscape was heaped
   up into monotonous red sand-hills.... They were so exactly like one
   another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical
   nightmare .... As those conical hills pressed closer and closer...,
   he began to wonder whether his long wayfaring from the mountains of
   Auvergne were possibly to end here. (16-19)

The first of these passages anticipates Jim Burden's "feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it" (7); the second passage echoes it. Taken together, all three show how Cather's story is woven through the Archbishop's as well as Jim's. Indeed, the books she left us might well be the cathedral Cather built.

[Received 8 Nov. 2008; accepted 21 Jan. 2009]

Works Cited

Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Brown, E[dward] K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Completed by Leon Edel. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. John J. Murphy and Charles W. Mignon. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.

--. My Antonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress and Charles Mignon. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.

--. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. 1949. New York: Knopf, 1962.

--. The Professor's House. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress and Frederick M. Link. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.

Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather: The Secret Web." Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium. Ed. John J. Murphy. North Andover, MA: Merrimack College, 1974. 1-19.
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Author:Murphy, John J.
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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