Music, silence, and the spirituality of Willa Cather (1).
Nothing really matters but living ... Accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second. Sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint ourselves; but the thing is, to go right on living. (Lucy Gayheart) Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalm 51:6)
We can now say with confidence that Willa Cather numbers among the enduring writers of the recent century. Her name evokes the courage of immigrant farmers struggling with the raw American plains, and her reputation rests secure on her frontier masterpieces, which with miraculous economy and stylistic excellence capture a defining moment in the American experience. All of this is true, but not the deepest truth. For Cather's soul one must look elsewhere. Within her accounts of breaking fresh ground in a strange land stirs a search for the source and meaning of life. That pursuit gathers momentum through an inner negotiation, before and beneath the crops, that accounts for the harvest accomplished in the soil. Here in the quiet realm behind the brow lies the agency generating Cather's celebrated dramas. This power goes far and deep, for the passage that Cather's foreigners make is not simply a crossing from an old world to a new but an advance from an old state of things to a new one. Visible as crops and hidden as freedom, this newness is the founding condition that undergirds the diverse experiences of belief in Cather's writing.
Mindful of the subject's intricacy and aware that any assessment of an artist's inner life is necessarily provisory, imperfect, and beset with partisan engagement, in this essay I present Willa Cather as a writer of faith. The argument is selective, somewhat discursive, and, in the final section, personal. The exploration begins by observing two convergent habits of mind, aesthetic and religious, that Cather uses to grasp the ultimate ground of our being. To gauge their relation to each other as modes of belief, this discussion pairs The Professor's House (1925), Cather's challenge to the tenets of organized religion, with Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her celebration of creedal truth. After suggesting in Death Comes for the Archbishop certain qualities of the American desert that epitomize for Cather the inner trials of belief, the essay takes up Lucy Gayheart (1935) to study the nature of faith. Lucy Gayheart, Cather's penultimate novel, neither questions nor foregrounds the precepts of religion and thereby allows us to see what holds true when skeptical probing and established explanations do not avail.
Lucy Gayheart is the culminant interest of this essay. My approach to this book is eclectic. Because faith is inevitably a response to how the divine plan works in time, I include a reminder of the dismal historical condition of 1935 when Lucy Gayheart appeared. And because Cather invariably speaks from and to her own situation when telling a story, I also give passing attention to the personal gloom out of which Lucy Gayheart emerges. Darkness exerts a fruitful pressure on Lucy Gayheart. By telling a somber story of youthful death, Cather navigates public and private shadows to find hope. The essay, however, does not seek to offer either a new historical or biographical account of Lucy Gayheart. The trust that Cather comes to avow reaches the reader mainly through music--mainly, but not ultimately. In relation to faith, music in this novel has an added dimension, and I want to revisit Cather's reliance on music to show its service to belief. That aim entails going beyond sound to resonance. This supplementary vibration of the operas and songs Cather held dear leads to my eventual, true topic: silence and endurance. With stillness and survival uppermost in mind, the argument turns to Harry Gordon, that isolated and lonely figure of failure and authority upon whose sturdy shoulders Cather lays the burden of maintaining certainty in spite of fundamental uncertainties that characterize our period in religion as well as in all other realms of life. In tracing the movement of Harry Gordon's introspection, I consciously move away from the cool detachment expected of literary commentary to participate in Cather's presentation of faith that sustains one in present grief and allows one to face whatever is to come.
IF we step back to take a canonical view of Cather's fiction, we can see that in story after story, novel after novel, whatever the protagonist's gender or class, nationality or individual gift, whatever the particular aspiration, whether the struggle occurs in the grassy culverts of Shenandoah Valley or on parched stretches of New Mexico, whether the character is a person of action or of contemplation, whether the outcome of that endowment lifts or sinks the heart, two modes of creativity operate. Invariably, an aesthetic and a religious power shape the inner workings of the protagonist's spirit, with the balance between these forces varying according to the character's temperament.
The aesthetic takes the form of an ability to appreciate the idea of things as well as the material things themselves. Unlike their relatives and neighbors who look for immediate tangible results of their labor, Alexandra Bergson and Antonia Shimerda, Cather's fabled heroines, intuit an unseen, far-ranging new beginning that taps the perpetuity of life in long tracts of empty plains. When wheat finally rises and corn rustles, the waves of yellow and green signal a physical survival that calls up a heightened consciousness. In this mindful state, all of nature comes to life and helps to define the heroine's individual identity. Each woman gains a union and a communion with the world. Insofar as the experience embraces the transcendental in the phenomenal, the perception, I submit, is mystical. This unitive contact with the imperishable energy at the heart of the prairie goes to the inmost center of the protagonists' work and hope. Even in times of calamity, the aesthetically gifted homesteaders can discern the fire of life in the heat of loss and death. They apprehend an underlying principle of vital order in nature and place their trust in it. No religious language is needed to propose that such a way of looking at the physical world attends a belief in the hidden source of life.
The way in which Cather's protagonists perceive the world is like a spiritual seed that germinates. With Alexandra and Antonia, whose intuitions prompt forceful action, the burgeoning outgrowth conspicuously changes the terrain. Sometimes, however, the seed pushes downward to produce an imperceptible growth, a darker understanding that reconfigures one's mood. Professor Godfrey St. Peter, the hero of The Professor's House, is a case in point. Though born of a Methodist mother and a "gentle weaned-away Catholic father" (30), St. Peter is an atheist (a-theos--without-God or God-free). At fifty-two, his solidly constructed world of family and scholarly research has collapsed. He is left with and in solitude. For St. Peter, aloneness is the radical truth beneath all truths of personal success, community, and social history. This truth expands to the greater truth: the God of his imagination and of his Christian past have died for him. In that loss, St. Peter comes to a vital belief. The death of the God of his projections makes room for the God who stands infinitely transcendent, above and below human reach. In the shaking of the foundations of St. Peter's universe, Cather gives us a powerful devastation, for the God who has died is the God of the human Ego deified. That God must die, St. Peter realizes. In his bleak withdrawal from human and ego-centric affairs, the professor calls the death of this God "the truth of the matter ... Truth under all truths" (265). A chasm opens, a longing emanates. His desire "under all desires" (265) is trying to believe. With unsparing candor, he realizes that he cannot place his trust in created things. It seems that is the case. No wonder, then, that "all these recognitions give him a sad pleasure" (266). St. Peter has found truth in not finding.
The correlative to aesthetic intuition is seeing by faith. Religious perception is really aesthetic response in another key, not necessarily higher so much as redirected toward a revealed absolute. Religion in Cather's writing is another, but not the sole, way of responding to the true source of life. For that reason Cather can have St. Peter profess to his students that "[a]rt and religion ... are the same thing, in the end" (69). For Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, art and religion are identical not only in the end but at the very beginning of reflection and life. Creation, through this prelate's eyes, is the work of an artist. All matter enjoys the indwelling of that divine initiative. In its genesis and evolution, the entire world is sacramental. Latour's aesthetics, then, is his theology. Seeing and believing are reciprocal as faith and sensitivity refine and deepen each other at every turn along the missionary's long, divagating journey in an America that is alive with providential manifestations. Signs of God's presence abound. A two-parted juniper tree with intersecting branches manifests the cross. Interminable pathless deserts are for Latour the direct way to draw closer to God. In the vast barrenness of the Southwest, a subterranean stream produces a miraculous stream to sustain him on his pilgrimage to God. Exilic solitude he accepts as the condition to be a man for others and the world. Like his kind down the ages, Cather's priest is part of God's direct revelation in the concreteness of human conduct.
Through Cather's sustained attention to the interior growth of Jean Marie Latour, Death Comes for the Archbishop shows us how basic spirituality is to her writing and how deep it takes her story. So extensive is her chronicling of the renewal of Christianity in the American Southwest that the events go further back than nineteenth-century religious and social history to dramatize the fourth-century story of the great ancient desert. In fact, the chaotic territory where the two French priests are sent is highly charged with the spiritual hostilities and possibilities animating the legendary desert adventure in late antiquity. The alien crags and sandy expanses of the ancient desert elders abut the "canyons and arroyos" of New Mexico and Arizona (Archbishop 3). Along the endless "succession of pathless deserts, yawning canyons" (40-41) of the new world one finds all the trials of thirst, hunger, and surrender that were played out in the primitive wastes of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Surrounded by perilous rocks and gloomy steppes marking the Mediterranean basin, men and women struggled to reach God through a self-sacrificing discipline that would help them wage war against demonic powers. That war rages amid the caves at Pecos and along Latour's extensive trek across the Painted Desert and Hopi villages to Navajo country. Mexicans, Indians, Americans, and French, all are embattled by evil. Many, such as Scales, Friar Balthazar, Father Lucero and Father Martinez succumb to the malevolent forces. Others, namely Magdalena, Sada, Father Latour and Father Vaillant struggle against evil; and in fighting the good fight, they find the peace that comes to allies of virtue.
If one pauses to consider the relation between the American desert and that of the fourth century where strange solitaries worked out their arduous religious search, one can only be struck by how subtly Willa Cather incorporates the themes of that remote world into the spiritual reformation of the Southwest. The evils that lurked in the ancient desert reappear with startling frequency and unsurprising familiarity. Cather may not have been familiar with patristic texts, but by sheer power of insight and feeling she succeeds in giving new guises to worn iniquities: pride, greed, ecclesiastical abuse of power, lust, wrath, gluttony, and of course murder, all show their baleful faces. In the writings of antiquity, these enemies of good are to be conquered. To overcome evil one must first battle against one's own inclination to self-interest. Accordingly, the central emphasis in desert writings falls on overcoming the promptings of personal will in favor of doing God's will. Given that the cross for Christians expresses the axial divine command, the conflict is heart-rending and body-shattering. That call is Latour's struggle, and Vaillant's as well. By taming will and body, both men gain a fine measure of success.
That the French priests succeed in their joint apostolic effort reiterates another great theme of spiritual life--that of friendship. Ancient masters, such as the desert elders and then Augustine, treat brotherly love with particular reverence. It is fair to see the French fathers as modern abbas (or desert-dwellers), fathers of the desert whose relationship fosters their desire to draw close to God in service. Their bond of love assists them in serving their vows and other people. To be sure, Latour and Vaillant, unlike their fourth-century predecessors, do not choose initially to inhabit the desert. Vaillant would prefer a French monastery and Latour is best suited for an academic appointment. Still, they are summoned to hardship, and they accept the call. Their assent expands an unchosen solitude into a new community. Time and again in the desert writings, the great Abba Anthony reminds his brethren that their life and death are with their brothers and sisters. Latour and Vaillant live out that desert imperative. They heal, they bless, they bear witness, and they pray--pray always, as the elders urge. Their bodies too become forms of prayer through renunciation, suffering, and death.
Inspiring vignettes of devotion recur in the sayings and lives of the ancient desert-dwellers. Those tales of spiritual guidance reappear in Death Comes for the Archbishop. The edifying story of Sada, who kept faith during eighteen years' bondage with the Smiths, bespeaks a persevering devotion that challenges credibility. One can only marvel at the old woman clinging to her belief under grievous duress, yet such a prodigious spiritual feat goes with the extreme nature of desert existence. In keeping with the hagiographic tenor of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Sada's piety comes to us as a gesture toward an ideal. Her self-emptying, in fact, expresses to Latour, no stranger to religious ideals, the highest perfection of the "Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ" (217). Cather describes a response in the archbishop that is nothing short of what the ancient desert-dwellers understood as catanyxsis, an experience so decisive that it cuts down to the innermost self to alter the direction of one's inner life. Sada, we read, embodies in her devotion to Mary a commiseration that "pierced the priest's heart like a sword" (217).
This sketch of holiness impinges on the underside of the desert struggle for belief. Cather, always the realist of the soul's strife, links Sada's story to one such moment of enervating letdown in her heroic priest. Vaillant is absent again in Arizona, and Latour is alone with his thoughts on a wan December night. The desert winter dark invades his mind to bring back an old sense of "coldness and doubt" that "settled on his spirit and made him feel an alien, wherever he was" (210). A placeless and timeless misgiving overtakes him. Failure grips his heart. Prayers are "empty." His work feels overwhelming. In Latour's hour of defeat, Cather precisely captures the state of acedia or dejection of spirit (accidie) that the ancient solitaries knew all too well as sapping the soul's strength. Dry and exposed and thorny, Latour has become the New Mexico desert in human form. The remedy that the ancient teachers offered for acedia was encouragement. Cather, touching that venerable wisdom, sows the seed of hope in the despondent priest by having him encounter Sada, the old Mexican woman who has transformed bitterness and sorrow into "the holy joy of religion" (216) through tears (penthos or the godly weeping for the possible loss of salvation). If shrouded in secrecy, the passion of the moment is tangible. Sada's tears melt Latour's coldness. His heart lifts through this living reminder of love.
Love is the origin and goal of Latour's call to the desert wilds. Waste, danger, and exilic poverty are his school for love. The ancient explorers of the desert understood that hard training. In the end, the solitaries went to the desert to live to the fullest, which is to say, in union with God. There in chosen aloneness they could be free to love and in so achieving become free to find rest in God. That end comes to Jean Marie Latour on his death bed. He who is never too much at home in America receives the exile's grace gift of being at home in the wilderness of God.
There is more to say about Willa Cather's use of desert spirituality in Death Comes for the Archbishop and her other writings, but at this point I want simply to sum up a few introductory resemblances to serve as background for an understanding of solitude and friendship amid the desolation in Lucy Gayheart. First, Cather by intuition comes to think and feel so deeply about the workings of the inner human world under the condition of hardship that she brings the still voice of ancient desert solitude into the modern century. She does so with a freshness that amazes. The theme of inner ascesis arises not from allied texts but naturally from the well-spring of her characters' truest nature. Nothing is forced. No allusion or esoteric word is laid on the narrative to evoke larger meaning. Far from being conspicuous, such spirituality, as with the Indians who move through the air like birds without leaving a trace, emerges from a fine, shadowed anonymity. One can sense in its capacious ease of expression that spirituality in Death Comes for the Archbishop is a constitutive quality of Cather's faith that goes beyond the hero's Christianity. Not through institutional teaching but in the thick of things Cather offers hope. Hardship brings her adventurers of the spirit to ask how they ought to live their lives, where, in what manner, and for what purpose.
NOWHERE are those questions urged more bleakly and insistently than in Lucy Gayheart. Lucy Gayheart emerges from depletion, authorial and historical. Cather began the novel in 1933 when personal losses made her acutely aware of life's sad limits. Her father died in 1928 and her mother, in 1931; and the Nebraska home with all its supportive ties was sold in 1933. Her extended family too was breaking up as friends were scattered. Medically, her painful swollen right wrist took its toll and sapped her artistic self-confidence. These weaknesses made Cather withdraw into more than her usual privacy. From that retreat and out of that strain, she began Lucy Gayheart, which was published two years later in 1935.
The timing of Cather's fifteenth book further darkens the picture. Her losses partake of the havoc dominating the 1930s. Born of Cather's diminished physical stamina and ebbing artistic momentum, Lucy Gayheart was published at the same time that Adolph Hitler assumed the chancellorship of Germany and Mao Zedong led the six-thousand-mile Long March in China in 1935 and also when America endured its most dire moral and economic collapse, the Great Depression. Nature added to the misfortune as dust storms wracked the Southwest, sending hundreds of thousands of destitute refugees from the dry plains to the valleys of California. Withal, the country was losing the last vestiges of wilderness and frontier, the very locales that Cather had made her artistic own. To Cather and the nation, the natural order of things seemed shattered. Within this state of international upheaval and national disaster Lucy Gayheart was initially read and summarily dismissed with disapproval verging on condescending hostility. The novel seemed fated to gather opposition. In 1935, when all civilization was in a grave peril and America in economic shambles with millions looking for work and scrounging for food, Willa Cather writes about the romantic aspirations of a young female piano student. To the leftist critics who were in ascendancy at the time, Cather had firmly turned her back on the massive social anguish demanding redress. Readers, with some reason, had expected her to speak directly to their prevailing apprehension, as she had previously caught and resolved a moment of anxiety. When the country was struggling to assimilate waves of foreign newcomers, the public of 1918 welcomed Cather's celebration of a Bohemian immigrant girl. Antonia's struggle condensed the nation's predicament, and her success in overcoming poverty and exile expressed America's hope for the future.
Lucy Gayheart is an entirely different matter. The heroine is not a foreigner. She is an artistically talented young woman, privileged by small-town Nebraska standards, courted by the town's rich bachelor, but falls in love with an acclaimed singer. The world's ills seem not to encroach upon Lucy's story. The gist of the tale resembles more the stuff of a Hollywood escapist musical than that of a Depression novel. Many still feel that the ground of struggle has contracted for Cather from the formidable great plains to a cozy Chicago rehearsal studio. With a turn of the human adventure from the gritty land to the airy environs of art, Cather's drama relaxes its large cultural tensions. By these lights, the basic conflict is not to secure a foothold in the earth but to win the fragile tokens of aesthetic desire. Beauty is Lucy's way of seeking the absolute. This spiritual verisimilitude gives Cather's narrative a different accent than that marking her pioneer woman's story. Whereas My Antonia details the onerous labor required to cultivate the prairie, Lucy Gayheart dilates on the fine points of singing. Again, Lucy Gayheart would not be a Cather novel if it didn't consider the heroine's relation to nature. Lucy Gayheart does explore the heroine's bond with the physical world and does so with telling nuance. For both Antonia and Lucy, the land provides more than nourishment, but the later novel emphasizes what remained implicit for Antonia. Lucy Gayheart pays sustained attention to flowers, coruscating sunsets, and darkening swirls of water to celebrate the physical world as an aspect of the heroine's inner life. Earth, air, fire, and water compose the soul mate in whom Lucy seeks union and consolation. Those elemental forces are the wings carrying Lucy into her high romance, a soaring that leaves the ordinary world--Antonia's farming domain--behind. In keeping with the despondent tenor of the era and Cather's own dour mood, Lucy's flight precipitates death.
Death, so pronounced in the crushing social world of the 1930s, asserts itself throughout the novel. The recollection of Lucy's accidental death twenty-five years earlier sets the narrative in motion. Looking back on Lucy's brief life, the choral voice of an elder townsperson telling the story inevitably recalls Lucy's bodily rhythm, talent at the piano, and musical connections. Music for the narrator marks the course of Lucy's fate and subtly resounds in the destiny of all those touched by her vibrant spirit. Music is inseparable from her life. Hence its place in the novel; simply stated, the world of Lucy Gayheart is the world of music. There are singers, pianists, choral societies, music teachers, music students, composers, operas, oratorios, song cycles, folk songs, even a concert agent, and lest we forget those for whom all this talent and work are expended, there are audiences and listeners. Listeners of all kinds abound. There are reluctant and eager listeners, unknowing and trained listeners. Some sit in a formal audience or alone in a studio; others lend an ear to another character or to their solitary heart. Always Cather positions her characters in attitudes of attentive listening to music, to quiet, to story. The first words of the novel tell us that the townspeople "still talk about Lucy Gayheart" (3), and we the readers are invited to overhear what is said in their collective memory of Lucy. The stance of listening for Cather is not a mere description of sensory response or a trope for sensitivity; it represents how she wants us to enter into her writing. There is always more to remembering and more to reading Cather than meets the eye. Reading Willa Cather calls for listening. All writers inevitably address an implied reader; Cather adds to that connoted activity the intimate appeal to the implied listener, one attuned to the inner life of her art and that of the characters portrayed. Cather's spare and elegantly cadenced prose creates such an ear for the felt but unstated meaning, "the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura" (On Writing 41-42). So enveloped, Cather's implied listener will catch her truest counsel about how to live well and meet hardship at a time of grave loss. Therein lies Cather's soul and most powerful spiritual resource--the creative, inexplicable engagement of alert listener with the overtone divined.
Lucy is Willa Cather's ideal listener. Lucy has the capacity to turn herself over to music. This ingenuity to yield to a larger rhythm runs from her feet as she gracefully ice-skates, through her fingers' deft touch at the piano keyboard, to her ear and brain. The effect of this surrender on Lucy comes to the reader when she first hears the renowned baritone Clement Sebastian sing in Chicago during October 1901. As befits a novel published at the nadir of the Great Depression about braving serious misfortune, Sebastian's performance is a benefit for survivors of a mine disaster. The program immediately takes up the theme of distress with a song that quietly gives thanks for anguish overcome. At this moment, Lucy herself is not in distress; she is, on the contrary, enjoying her independent life as piano student in Chicago. Sebastian's opening number, nevertheless, seizes her. The arresting piece is Schubert's song about a Greek sailor in the porch of a temple offering thanks for his safe return. The seaman's gratitude strikes a chord in the baritone. Subject and singer merge; Sebastian delivers the song "as a religious observance ... a rite more than a prayer" (25). Even more affecting than Sebastian's "remarkable diction" (24) is the elevating power of his artistry. Three forces coalesce in Lucy's response: the experience in the song of gratefulness, its rhythm, and Sebastian's virtuosity. Together they transfer Lucy with the invocatory mariner of the song to her own sacred porch where dwells the fresh knowledge about life and art that is sacred to her. Lucy learns because Lucy listens well. As a result, she enjoys music's deep, hidden experience which, although obscure, makes her feel that her soul is living in contact with a higher life. At the recital that communion remains inchoate. The lesson of sorrow conquered is yet to be applied. Still, Lucy experiences at this juncture a confidence in the source of life that she can draw upon when she needs hope most.
Far from being a sign of faint-heartedness or escapism, to be so open to music's message requires inner strength. The human inclination is to be afraid of tenderness, as we see when Harry Gordon, the novel's hero, attends an opera with Lucy in Chicago. One of Lucy's virtues is that she has the courage to bear gentleness. And she holds firm as her heart expands under the burden placed on her consciousness by Sebastian's exceptional artistry. Exciting to begin with, his vocal power intensifies as the recital comes to an end, for which Sebastian has chosen five additional Schubert songs. Schubert's unadorned vocal settings of open-hearted poems perfectly suit Sebastian's austere talent and somber disposition. Composer, lyrics, and interpreter together find their fit audience in impressionable Lucy. The lieder send melodic wave after melodic wave of their dark male beauty over this young woman. To keep her heart from sinking, Lucy must struggle: but the music overcomes her resistance. Schubert's songs immerse Lucy in "a discovery about life, a revelation of love as a tragic force ... of passion that drowns like black water" (26). For the mature Cather, suffering is found at the heart of love and is its hidden face, agonized and abandoned. If unnerving, the disclosure that love wounds and destroys nevertheless orientates Lucy's soul toward a new beginning.
At that October recital in Chicago, an ingenuous Nebraska woman of twenty has the first flush of her enthusiasm for life obliterated by a worldly voice laden with personal Weltschmerz. The gloom is tangible. During the performance, Lucy draws near to the vortex of what Joan Acocella, who has brought us back to our critical senses, calls Cather's tragic sense of life (77-89). Yes, this music jolts Lucy into a maelstrom of emotion. The disturbance is seismic on impact, glacial in outcome. Sebastian's singing causes a shift in Lucy's inner world that alters her perception of the "outside world" (26). Once bright and welcoming, reality becomes "dark and terrifying, full of fears and dangers that had never come close to her until now" (26). That foreboding occurs in October 1901. In September 1902, Sebastian accidentally drowns in northern Italy. Then in December of 1902, the perils that first approached Lucy and subsequently killed Sebastian overtake Lucy in Nebraska by chance. Just as Sebastian's songs predicted, Lucy dies heavy-hearted in black water. Over fourteen months, she crosses from spiritual insight to physical death. Cather dramatizes the high point of Lucy's wrenching passage with a performance of Michael William Balfe's The Bohemian Girl, which marks the climax of the novel and awakens in Lucy the faith that sees one through disaster.
At this point in the story, Lucy is mourning the death of Clement Sebastian. Balfe's opera cheers Lucy. The reciprocity between the music and Lucy is deeply felt but unseen, and the mutuality is all the more remarkable because of the "humdrum" (153) context. Apart from Lucy's fine new dress and Mr. Gayheart's festive sense of the occasion, everything about the evening is mundane. A road company with an undistinguished roster is stopping off in Haverford for one performance on its way to Denver for the holidays. The performers are over the hill, and they bring but a reduced version of Balfe's score, which is already six decades past its heyday. This is 1902, and the modern century has begun. Wagner's Die Walkure premiered in 1870, Verdi's Otello in 1887, and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande in 1902, the year Lucy hears the opera. (Cather reminds us of these musical currents by having Sebastian mention the ascendancy of Debussy and his knowing the great French composer [35 and 43].) Although the lyric theater has taken revolutionary turns since Balfe's work charmed the public, the old-fashioned The Bohemian Girl brings a much needed lightness and diversion to Haverford's bleak winter.
The Bohemian Girl will probably strike contemporary audiences as even more fusty than it seemed to the 1902 Haverford listeners. Nevertheless, Balfe's masterwork provides melodrama through a rich rousing score with choruses and touching ballads. If this music of 1843 does not ignite Verdi's fire or Wagner's combustion or Debussy's exquisite smoldering, Balfe's harmonies do generate warmth. One would not expect dramatic truth in The Bohemian Girl; yet one would discover melodic and theatrical effectiveness within a contrived verisimilitude. What Cather presents is an evening of passe opera sung by a fatigued cast in a backwater town to a prosaic audience. However unpromising, the performance with all its diminishments brings a distinct pleasure that works perfectly to make Cather's point, for the night at the Haverford opera house recapitulates the motifs of depletion to pose the spiritual question: is there meaning in human labor if all striving leads to loss and death?
One answer to this quandary comes from the soprano who sings Arline. Nearly everything about this artist implies a falling off and a shadowed life. She is unnamed, "far from young," slight, and fair. "Her voice was worn, to be sure, like her face, and there was not much physical sweetness left in it" (152). These losses are all the more noticeable because she is an older woman singing the role of an eighteen-year-old daughter of an Austrian count. (Act I calls for a child Arline who does not sing, but this road company performs an abridged version.) What is striking about Cather's middle-aged soprano is the way in which her shortcomings serve her artistically. She does not deny or cover her age and vocal loss as she sings; instead age and lessened power reshape her vocalism with "another kind of sweetness" that expresses "a sympathy, a tolerant understanding" of the words (152). The listener-is aware of her quest for excellence because she sings with absolute humility and thereby attains a particular refinement. She does all this alone. Voice is the fullest sign of interior life, and the soprano's compassionate voice reveals an artistic practice that preserves her youthful vitality. Again, her voice is gone but not from lack of care, for she conscientiously protects her interior life. Her singing Arline's famous second-act (in the original) ballad "I Dreamt That I Lived in Marble Halls" epitomizes her genius, which is at once vocal and spiritual, a habit of art that has deepened into a habit of being now that her art has faded. What abides in the soprano's voice bears the imprint of the spirit that is always young. The spirit in the melody washes over her; she brings it to a peak and then, seems to say to the audience, "Here it is, for you!"
"I Dreamt That I Lived in Marble Halls" is a story song. It tells in reverie of Arline at six being wounded by a wild deer and then kidnapped by Devilshoof, the gypsy chief. But Arline has another self. She is the daughter of Count Arnheim. Arline in childhood inhabited the splendor of ancestral and familial grandeur among vassals and serfs. After being abducted, she lived for twelve years among the gypsies. Both her vagrant and patrician selves greet each other in her song. When she awakens from sleep, her dream gives her hints of lost nobility. As is the case throughout Cather's fiction, dreaming is a way of knowing, for dreams hold truths about history and the heart. Here as elsewhere in Cather's writing, the cardinal truth for her dreamers is that they are outlanders. Arline has been separated from her true country and true self. The message of this vision can bring the past in living form into the present to unite Arline's divided self. That union depends on Thaddeus, whom Arline hopes will still love her despite her aristocratic heritage.
Balfe skillfully sets Arline's story in haunting music that fits the obviously contrived story. The melody of "I Dreamt That I Lived in Marble Halls" stays in the listener's ear as the past abides in Arline's dream. One can no more forget the ballad than Arline can forget the truth of her ancestry. That recollection carries the risk of losing her lover, and the end of the ballad musically captures that ambivalence. The final phrase "That you loved me still" extends the vocal melody in so gentle a way that the listener cannot be sure if there will be a further scale before the last note is attained, just as Arline cannot be sure of the effects of her revelation. The repetition holds the singer and listener between desire and apprehension. With the right soprano, as we have on the Haverford stage, the lulling pulse could be hypnotic. Who would not want the soprano to bring the first phrase back again?
Arline's ballad actually weaves its way through Cather's entire novel and then the whole spiritual web of her fiction. Balfe's Irish music with Italianate accents reconfigures in a romantic Austrian setting the outcast state in which Cather heroines and heroes live. All are outlanders. Tom Outland, Alexandra Bergson, Neil Herbert, Antonia Shimerda, Jean Marie Latour, Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert all live in places not their own. In novel after novel, the protagonist yearns with the soprano in Lucy Gayheart (and previously with the soprano in The Professor's House who sings Mignon's immortal aria "Connais tu--le pays") for a world elsewhere where one belongs and yet can revisit only in reverie. Balfe, like Cather, offers repeated evidence of the exilic condition as the human condition. Balfe has his leading tenor, Thaddeus, a proscribed Pole lost in Austria, sing an aria that brings Balfe's music and Cather's fiction into close thematic alignment. When Thaddeus enters fleeing from Austrian soldiers, he sings: "Without friends, and without a home / my country! I'm exiled from thee; / what fate, what fate awaits me here, now!" The outburst rises to a grieving refrain: "'Tis sad to leave our Fatherland" (Act I). For all the sense of loss, the aria offers in compensation a fine cadenza elaborating a musical if not an emotional freedom for the tenor.
Thaddeus's entrance aria bears on Lucy's plight. Lucy too is proscribed. Dispossessed, she is not at home at home. In Haverford, she feels cut off from Chicago and the world of desire in which she felt at home. Although Thaddeus voices Lucy's distress, it is the woman singing Arline who reaches her soul. Whereas at Sebastian's recital a baritone voice opened her consciousness to suffering, during The Bohemian Girl a soprano shows Lucy the way to heal the pain. The soprano on stage is Lucy's doppelganger in mature form; she is the musical counterpart to old Mrs. Ramsay, Cather's wisdom figure. The soprano conspicuously reflects Lucy's sense of loss and displacement. But if the singer has lost her youth, range and force, and if her vocal grace deserves a better context, she nevertheless evokes the greater world from which she has fallen by addressing the ideal to which her faith cleaves. She "sang so well that Lucy wondered how she drifted into a little road company like this one" (152). Lucy at twenty naturally equates achievement with successful living and love with protection against loss. The older and wiser narrator knows otherwise, and the reader as listener has heard in music the hard answer to Lucy's musing. The tide carrying the soprano down from the larger musical world is the fearsome black water of mutability running through Schubert's music. Still, the soprano holds her own against that dark tide of tragic loss. This woman is right for the part. Her artistic integrity says: do what you have to do to the best of your ability and go off the stage satisfied with yourself. There is always somebody listening to you alone. Lucy is that lone listener.
This softly charged atmosphere created by Balfe's music embraces Lucy to teach her much about art and life. The lessons get to the root of things where for Cather art and religion form the ground of our being. On stage as the soprano sings, Lucy sees and hears how art teaches us how to live wisely and generously. The soprano's love of her art consists in giving invisible things--the fruits of her training, a silent and expressed sympathy for the text, and an understanding and respect for her audience. In fine, this soprano sings with her entire being. With no less allegiance to her aspiration, Lucy listens with her entire being. We can sense in her response a soul groping for bearings. As Balfe's music can create a world, Lucy by entering that sphere can live with every pulsing beat to regain her moral direction. Again, on the singer's side of the stage, we can only imagine how the soprano must feel to have communication with Lucy in the audience. With such responsive support, the singer need not and does not push hard, but rather she simply brings Lucy closer, gliding "delicately over the regular stresses, and subtly varied rhythm." The effect endows "foolish old words" with "freshness" (152). Her voice breathes new life. Art experienced from within, in which personality plays a creative role, can be of lasting value, and Willa Cather is testament to this fact. The soprano's style makes her audience know it is hearing the song sung as if for the first time. Performers either have this gift or they do not. This soprano does. She has the genius to sing the most familiar song as if it were new and unusual. On Lucy's side, there is a deep intimacy as Balfe's music guides the lost Lucy back to her marble halls of noble purpose. Once there, Lucy's decision to resume her musical work in Chicago begins to take hold. That covenant with her talent marks the new beginning of Lucy's spirit.
The rejuvenation sparked by Balfe's music builds inwardly. On Christmas Eve, two weeks after hearing The Bohemian Girl, Lucy's excitement leads to illumination. The setting is pure Cather, arranged in the preferred minor key of her descriptive scale. It is winter dusk, Cather's hallowed moment when light and dark conjoin in tragic richness. This cold sundown is integral to a beautiful day. In scripture, which Cather knew well, the day begins when the sun sets. This twilight is Lucy's new day. It is as though Lucy is experiencing life for the first time. "What if," it crosses Lucy's mind, "what if Life itself were the sweetheart?" All the sinews and air passages in her body say yes to the question. She assumes a reverential posture akin to Sebastian's vocal stance when singing, akin to the mariner when offering thanks, and akin to the soprano when performing. Lucy opens her bedroom window "softly" and kneels "down beside it to breathe the cold air" (155). Latour's invigorating cold December night returns. Without intermediary Lucy inhales the primal power, takes in the source of life. The keen gust clears the atmosphere of her mind. Soon the lingering darkness of Schubert's music recedes from Balfe's reconfigured marble halls as the prophetic strain of Mendelssohn's Elijah elevates Lucy's mood with prayerful reassurance: "If with all your heart you truly seek Him, you shall ever surely find Him" (155). Again words raised into melody grant moral guidance. This time the musical exultation takes her toward action: "Now she knew what it meant" (156). Seeking the source of life means resuming her music studies in Chicago. Lucy's feeling is her form of knowledge. She is committed to pursue the way of desire to its term. By seeking she will find a certain ideal in art that brings her close to the fullest life. Immediately, her pliant body is swept up into her search. That superaliveness attending contact with the divine takes hold. Lucy stretches her arms outward to greet the winter storm and "whatever might lie behind it." With every physical fiber, she bids: "Let it come!" (156).
What comes to Lucy lies in the wake of all human experience. Not a day goes by, we all know, that does not bring enigma and contradiction. A peak experience such as Lucy's can only be momentary. As day leads to night, Lucy's illumination falls into darkness. Lucy quarrels with her sister Pauline over money, a treasured trifle. More excitable than ever, Lucy dashes with her ice-skates into the cold storm. Fighting strong wind, she heads west to the old skating-place in the country, not knowing that the shallow spot was made deep by a spring flood. Impulse is a stern and fallible guide. The cold bluster proves to be too much even for Lucy's driven heart. Harry's cutter comes by; Lucy asks for a ride and is turned down. Still agitated by the argument with Pauline and now infuriated by Harry Gordon's refusing her a lift home out of the heavy snowfall, Lucy skates into deep, dark ice water where she drowns.
Cather of course does not end the novel with Lucy's death. Like Arline's ballad, Lucy's story is not about annihilation but rather about facing out her "world destroyed" (131). That confrontation is the first step toward wisdom. Music, we saw, offers a way to meet that urgent challenge. The meaning that Cather previously set in motion in Balfe's music and amplified when Lucy genuflects to "Life itself' (155) is for me emotionally satisfying but intellectually elusive, not so much obscure as inexhaustible. At the bedroom window, Cather brings Lucy to draw from being itself. Lucy's encounter strikes me as religious in a way that profound moments are when not categorized as religious. Mystical is the word that I would apply to Lucy's direct contact (through music and air [Latin spiritus]) with the source of courage and being. Her lover is Hewho-is-being itself. This fleeting union is like a pebble dropped in water that ripples into ever-expanding circles of spiritual implication.
With her usual poetic deftness, Willa Cather quietly underscores the spirituality of Lucy's pivotal moment in the natural flow of time. The road company comes to Haverford to perform The Bohemian Girl two weeks before Christmas, a hard and bitter season on the prairie. So sharp is the frigidity that its harshness seeps into Lucy's being; she feels her "heart frozen" (131). But December is also the liturgical season of Advent, and Lucy enjoys a personal arrival of new life amid numbing cold. Two weeks after the performance, at the window she calls in the spirit which she experiences both as an eternal reality and an interior presence. The result is a new knowledge of herself. She feels part of the whole. As partaker of divine nature, she knows for the moment that she is one with the world through receiving the principle of life at its source. And so Lucy's name becomes her being as she becomes transparent to the spirit of joy. Music, in Cather a two-way bridge for the creative spirit, can accomplish this porosity because it issues from and returns to being's source.
Cather appropriately has Sebastian, the preeminent musical artist in the novel, explain the value she finds in music. His observation comes to us in a typically calm moment when an impromptu remark conveys an exceptional truth. After returning to Chicago from engagements with singing societies in Minnesota, Clement Sebastian tells Lucy about the pleasure he gets when performing with local choruses made up of people from all walks of life. The baritone feels a power in their avocation beyond exuberance and fine vocal technique. These amateurs (plumbers, bank clerks, dressmakers), true lovers of music, derive from singing a readiness, an aptitude for living. They "really get something out of music," Sebastian maintains, "something to help them through their lives..." (57)--a fund of experience, we might note in passing, that receives fullest expression twenty-five years later in the narrator's own choral, mature perspective on human affairs. The choristers sing from and to that inner place where the soprano magically possesses Lucy. Their collective voice is their truest selves alive. Sebastian's delight expresses the inner value in music for Cather. Music revives him; it bears the divine influence that helps him move on through his many personal tribulations.
That was in 1902. Then in 1935, when the public had a desire for something politically heroic, Cather, never one to call us to the barricades or to issue a manifesto, presented her Depression-era readers with an assurance of life renewing itself. In writing counter to expectation or convention, Cather continues to speak to us. The power she represents in the soprano's gift of breathing life into Balfe's opera doubles as a salute to Cather's own writing. Artists either have the talent to communicate the presentness of old dilemmas or they do not. The aging soprano does. She has the ability to sing the most familiar song as if it were original and exceptional. Everything she does is contemporary. Willa Cather the aging novelist does the same thing. She has the amazing genius of turning the tragic story of a young heroine's loss of life into a lesson in enduring all things. At a time such as the Great Depression or now of sundering terrorist attacks, when spiritual capital is draining away, the music in Lucy Gayheart and the music of Cather's translucent prose issue a powerful invitation to respond to life by witnessing to the Giver of being.
The soprano on the road, Sebastian in Chicago, and Lucy in the Haverford opera house come to this doctrine of living through a knowledge of their deficiencies. In their struggle to attain a certain ideal, each enjoys some victories, but in pushing their endeavor still further, they know more and more the immense task that remains ahead for them to carry through. It is then, at last, they turn to the motive force of being itself, convinced that of themselves they are insufficient, merely a part of something larger, abandoning themselves to this all-powerful and beneficent action. Aware of the want, they can lose themselves in the certitude of life itself. Even their failures and faults will thus become cause and occasion for victory in life.
BUT to trace the full trajectory of the faith that helps us through our lives we must turn to Book Three and Harry Gordon twenty-five years after Lucy's death. Through Harry, Cather dramatizes the act of the spirit that loses a lot and gains a subdued triumph. Again the crucial moment comes with a confrontation with death. Cather chooses the occasion of Harry's greatest psychological loss, as she did when Lucy was mourning Sebastian's death, to reveal the spirit's new beginning. Harry's thought-flow pulses with death. Death challenges him as a mystery to be confronted, as a question to be pondered. It is the winter of 1927, twenty-five years after Lucy's death. Back in 1902 when Lucy drowned, the world began to founder for Harry. Over the intervening years, Lucy remains a source of energy. She continues as a dying star that gives off energy after death; and the posthumous issue of Lucy's life is a stabilizing influence on Harry as he negotiates the violent tides of the early modern century. Those portentous events come to a financial shipwreck in October 1929. Just before that disaster, in the narrative present of 1927 while the country rides a final rush of prosperity, Jacob Gayheart, Lucy's father, dies after "a long and useful life" (173).
Since Mr. Gayheart embodies an aspect of Cather's faith, we might pause, as does Harry, to reflect on the long span of the old man's life. What makes it noteworthy is that he has made a difference in the day-to-day existence of many people in Haverford. He taught them the clarinet, flute, and violin and brought enthusiastic joy as leader of the local band. It is no accident that he also repaired their watches. Time, with all its toil and success, pain and joy, was Mr. Gayheart's ally and mentor. He kept timely order of change and lived out its vicissitudes. Like the clarinet he practiced on Sunday in the old orchard, the clock reminded him that it is good for us to enjoy life as it is given from hour to hour. What else is music but sound formed in time for our pleasure? As Jacob Gayheart enjoyed and taught music, so he lived wisely in the moment. He exemplified the message of the fulfillment of time that Willa Cather, always mindful that the best days are the first to flee, sees as giving eternal significance to our timed life. Such care and liberality of spirit is Mr. Gayheart's gift to Harry. He teaches Harry what finally matters--living well with and for others. That lesson sums up Mr. Gayheart's "happily" enduring "misfortunes" (174).
At the end, death is close to life as the burial of Jacob Gayheart calls Harry to face his own insulted and outraged ideal of himself. Because of the way in which Mr. Gayheart gave himself to life in friendship, with his death Harry could at last discover the destiny--until now, hidden from him and the reader--of the figures of Lucy and himself that haunted the fringes of his moral imagination so many years before, when he was first struck with the promise of life with Lucy. A hearse takes Mr. Gayheart's body from the railway station to the Lutheran church. There is a short service. The grave is filled, flowers are piled on the site. The sun sets. Harry abandons the crowd, quits the beaten path, and walks back alone to his office in town. This crossing evinces Harry's leaving the worn way of his life to take a new direction. With Jacob Gayheart's death, Harry's private world definitively crumbles to dust, and the remains expose the hard lines that are laid out for his stark, friendless future. Once again, as when Lucy at the window experienced the universe as most alive, it is a cold winter evening. From sundown to midnight, Harry reflects on his guilt and on Lucy. Something of an epilogue follows when the next day Harry and his cashier revisit the Gayheart place so that Harry can hand over the keys to his associate with the understanding that Harry will retain guardianship of the property while he lives, his gesture of familiar love. Harry grasps life's tragic fragility. Death, that of Lucy in the past, that of Mr. Gayheart before him, and the inevitability of his own, schools the man of many possessions in watchful stewardship and detachment.
A reflection and surrender--that is all there is to the ending of Lucy Gayheart. And yet, for all the limited dramatic range of the book's closing movement, there is nothing quite like these fifteen or so pages in all of Cather's writing. Her non-dramatic method makes room for the action of the soul. As Harry comes to terms with sorrow, his nocturnal mind goes back to the source of life. His reflection brings a certain contentment, even pleasure, to his mourning. The evening begins somberly, develops quiescently, and concludes magnanimously, even hopefully. In this, her penultimate novel, Cather strikes with an arresting simplicity the note of transcendence that marks her best endings. Her confident prose forsakes any added dimension of myth or allusion that typically amplifies her narratives. Tellingly, the novel may celebrate music, explore the lives of musicians, and repeatedly underscore the story with musical compositions; but there is not a single reference to music in Book Three, not even passing mention of a hymn that must have been sung at the Lutheran service for the town's music teacher. The absence of music in Book Three is not due to Harry's inability to respond to music. With Lucy at the opera in Chicago, he took pleasure in music. Although years of blighted hopes have quelled whatever music was in him, self-forgiveness and compassion release that still internal resonance. Silence serves a spiritual end to chasten Harry's soul. By refocusing the expression of her art, Cather's modulated style bids us to listen closely so that we can feel what we cannot hear in Harry's hushed voice. In Book Three, Cather is after not notes but an interior strain, the music in Harry's soul that arises from the harmony he eventually strikes with the eternal rhythm of loss and life, of love and spite, and all other contrasts in the rhythm of life.
In my reading of Cather, neither the overdue gladness of Jim Burden recovering his friendship with Antonia, nor the elegiac satisfaction of Godfrey St. Peter finding his boyhood, nor even the prayerful gratitude of Jean Marie Latour as he draws closer to God can match Harry Gordon's concluding deliberation. The drama is inward, played out in the "twilight melancholy" Cather so admired in The Scarlet Letter (On Writing 41). Cather gives us a flawed hero taking control of his life, an evildoer who is also a man of certain ideals working through his moral debts to find faith. Moreover, Harry comes to this trust without the grandeur of Jim Burden's Virgilian pastoralism, without St. Peter's intellectual training, and without the doctrinal support of Latour's faith. Harry is on his own. He has only the resources of "loneliness and strength" (175) to draw upon. These virtues are enough. The self-scrutiny enforced by his solitude and the strength seasoned by his trials sustain him. In fact, Harry's final convictions impress me as all the more authentic for his independence from established guides to certainty. One can hear in the voice, softened by years of thwarted searches and thoughts of mortality, the ring of truth. His deep simplicity born of a plain trust in life condenses Cather's canonical representation of spiritual exploration. Cather wants us to know that loneliness can be conquered and faith can be forged to endure all things only by those who can bear responsibility and solitude. Her many narratives prove that there are countless ways in which pensive solitude can be chosen and experienced. Each for Cather is religious when it brings one to the ground of being. Through Harry's open-heartedness Cather brings her readers to the foundation upon which her other protagonists build their faith with their materials of romance, tragic resignation, or Christian hope.
Put another way, we can say that Harry's thoughtful penetration of his condition reveals Cather's radical and creative talent for gauging the boundaries of our being. The survey begins as Cather sets the scene with more than her usual austerity. Here the mistress of the novel demeuble scales down the coordinates of time and place to the unfurnished minimum for personal security. She situates "tired and beaten" (176) Harry in the safe harbor of his private study from which he surveys the wreckage in the roiled waters of his past. His wide world has shrunk to the bank office, and the measurement of this change contracts to a few hours. In this interval, we sense that time stands still. Time for Harry is no longer a river running but a deep, still pool. It is enough for him to immerse himself in it, and not struggle any more. Whereas cowardice and vanity had wings back on that fatal cold night when he denied Lucy a lift, "on this occasion for remembering" (180) in the winter of 1927 humility provides staying power. He admits the soft impeachment of his heart and gains a certain freedom that calms his soul. The past was done, and the future will take its own course. Detachment readies him for what is next.
This poise comes about as we see Harry at fifty-five through the ruin of his pride. Harry does not look the part of a pensive man nor does he play to character, at least not the touchy, self-protective, complex one we saw in Chicago and on that cold night in Haverford. Like Lucy on that fatal night, Harry skates on thin ice--for twenty-five years. As handsome banker, he sought a highly stereotypical personal relationship with Lucy, himself, and the world that only served to mask his deep sense of incompleteness. Fine clothes tailored in Chicago do not cover his deficiencies. Blooded horses drawing his carriages and sleighs convey neither status nor contentment. When the automobile appeared (Ford brought out the Model T in 1907), Harry was the first in the county to buy one, and then he bought car after car; but the American icon of freedom and fortune failed to satisfy whatever he sought, failed to sustain the hope he placed in it. Advancing technology brings him nowhere. He may impulsively take off to drive "like the devil" to Denver, but the machine does not release him from his "life sentence" (186) of self-reproach and suffering for refusing Lucy a ride in the cold. The numerous scattered farms that he has accumulated offer him neither comfort nor stability. He is lost, rootless, constrained. Money leaves him feeling poor. With others of his era--the decades of Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding that defined the virile expectations of such a male in that flourishing modern capitalist society--Harry tried to revive a "dull and empty" (177) life by answering the public calls to service. He went aboard to support the noble cause of the war to end all wars. He helped pay for the Red Cross, Food Conservation, and a hospital unit in France. After returning from France, he devoted himself seriously to the bank. So occupied, he also became less distant from his wife Harriet Arkwright. But neither business nor social relations helped Harry. The routine of finance and the formality of marriage were and remain merely the latest in a long series of endeavors that do not satisfy. His life amounts to a history of what Cather believes does not work for Harry and, in her grimmest thought, for most others as well. Though valuable in themselves, material and social connections, if taken as absolutes, leave a sense of deprivation. They devise for Harry a fabricated self to stave off contact with his true self buried beneath resentment and fear.
His essential self, the passionate "part of himself that Harry was ashamed to live out in the open" (90), comes out of hiding to greet him in Book Three. To deal with decades of loss, now that he is alone and mourning Mr. Gayheart's death, Harry has the company of his true self. This self-communication is all the more healing because it is unexpected either from his psychological makeup or from the novel's preceding narrative. After all, Harry, is only a secondary character until this final book when he suddenly assumes the position of structural determination and moral focus. Everywhere else in Cather's writing, heroines and heroes become more and more of what they initially are. In Lucy Gayheart, Harry's shift is nothing less than radical. Unaccountably, the "sharp and tricky" (177) financier makes lenient deals. He can even be compassionate. When the inebriated Nick Wakefield strikes Harry's heart with the accusation of cowardice in not attending Lucy's funeral, Harry answers emotional violence with gentleness. On this occasion, he for once does not seek to overcome insult or injury by imposing his will on the situation. In this volatile moment, the checking of his personal will hints of a hidden vigor. He is no longer so weak as to need to control. Harry's new strength is surrender. His will bends to the need of another person, however painful that submission feels or however diminished that capitulation may make him appear. He can even be sentimental over Lucy's three footprints left in the sidewalk cement outside the Gayheart house. In startling her readers with this turn in Harry, Cather suggests that the spiritual power to respond to life ranges freely along a continuum of personalities and cannot be contained within established norms or be limited by formal belief. Harry's wide-opened heart exposes a root of wisdom.
Again, the man who was animated by cheers of admirers in the bleachers as he pitched a good game and welcomed the regard of a socially prominent woman from Kansas City, in the end, requires no more attention than that given by his true self through introspection. Freed from the need to keep up socially, Harry now touches on the effort to catch up spiritually. Settled in a "dark place of his mind" (187) furnished sparsely with distant remembrances, Harry realizes that he has looked outside himself for what he must seek within. This shift to the resources of the interior realm will allow him to face out what history holds. As is typical of Cather's middle and later novels (from One of Ours ), that outer world is demolished: "Kingdoms had gone down and the old beliefs of men had been shattered since the day when he refused Lucy Gayheart a courtesy he wouldn't have refused the most worthless loafer in town" (185-86). Harry's accepted aloneness provides a condition in which to bear the burden of rejection, which he willingly endures. The dregs of failure hold the particles of change. A frank admission of humility lets in a higher guidance that shows the way to reparation. A future of guilt and sorrow opens before him, and he enters it. He, not the world, not Harriet, not Lucy, is to blame for his defeats. Candor makes him likable. We sense also in this honesty a capacity for rigorous self-examination that will help Harry lead his life.
Harry once believed that Lucy deserved to be punished for lying to him and that she should suffer, but it is he, not intending to do himself in, who continues to suffer by punishing himself. Acknowledging his faults brings a reward. Gordon has long kept his experience guarded, for safety, privacy, or emotional self-keeping. He has been the master of the measured self. After Mr. Gayheart's death, he abandons his game face--to the astonishment of his cashier for a moment and more dangerously and permanently to himself. Cather submits her hero to her sharpest test: Harry is tried by his own heart. Our first glimpse of him had revealed something in his outer cast, something caught in his fine pitching and skating, to suggest a grace within. Even the line along his strong stubborn back turned against Lucy hinted of an inner fitness needing correction. And so the remedy comes about through his affection for Lucy and Jacob Gayheart as it encompasses his deepest sorrow. The "most self-centered of men" (178) emerges as tender. The catalyst for change is self-scrutiny. Cather spares Harry none of the pain that attends the grace of self-reflection. His very acknowledgment of failure offers hope, a faith, as the knowing Mrs. Ramsay assures Lucy, that "everything rights itself in time" (139). The time of Lucy's death, the time of Jacob Gayheart's burial, and the disastrous time of the novel's publication in 1935 become, among others things, a collective education--one that also applies to those of us sorting through the smashed ruins of downtown New York, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania countryside, and adjacent remains in the heart.
THE struggle to endure all things defines Cather narratives from her first to last book. Her protagonists invariably must work out their lives during trying times and in harsh, perilous places. Over the course of Cather's long career, the trial that tests the protagonist's faith shifts. In her early pioneer novels the challenge is mainly physically and cultural, a confrontation with ultimates occasioned by establishing a home and making resistant soil fruitful. As Cather's art evolves, that initial condition of hardship moves progressively toward the inner workings of the mind and heart. Whereas the early novels move from struggle to success, the later novels move from a certain position of settlement and security to struggle. This inward emphasis expresses a darkening of Cather's moral gaze. The initial challenge defining the frontier novels becomes that last condition of her tragic writing in the middle and late years. Harry Gordon's predicament epitomizes this development. Lucy Gayheart leaves Harry on a spiritual edge comparable to the divide to which cultural forces bring her immigrants. Of all the barren places in the fiction, Harry's soulscape most resembles Latour's Southwest desert that "is cracked open" with "a peculiar horror" (Archbishop 8). Such dread faces Harry down.
The way to meet this menace comes to us in Mrs. Ramsay's statement about what "really matters" (139) quoted in the epigraph of this essay, in Lucy's reaching out to the wind on that winter night, and in the soprano's performance in The Bohemian Girl--when the world or others or oneself disappoint us, as all will, then seek the source of life that is within us. Waste no time in getting there and then take full measure of joy in the limpid purity of that primal agency. The Giver of life must be Harry's sweetheart as it is Lucy's. In everything it is true wisdom to seek the source. Harry can only draw free breath at the source of inspiration. If this be true of the air we inhale in our lungs, if this be true in the realm of art, it is more so in the domain of grace where forgiveness has brought Harry. In learning this lesson, he reaches for another kind of love than that which society or humanity offers, a love that frees him from attachment. Just as Lucy understood that the riches of the world "were hers to live among" (73) and not merely wrap up to take home, Harry is learning how to let go with his heart so that he can savor the abundance of life around him. We can sense in the calm of Harry's self-investigation, of his aloneness with a sadness that feels like joy, that Harry is making a good beginning toward this freedom. He escapes the narrow limitations of Haverford and a dead marriage in the only way that is ever really available to him, by achieving an inner peace that transcends time and place and death altogether. The solution of the problem of life is life itself for Cather. She begins the novel with Lucy's dynamic flights in skating and journey to Chicago, and she ends the novel with a complementary apostrophe to Lucy's delight in being alive--more tranquil and private through the male tenderness of Harry's reminiscence that reenacts Lucy's love of life.
From Lucy's all too short life, Harry can draw certain moral guides. Loss and death, he accepts, as part of life. When things go of themselves, let them go, for they leave one with life itself, which is to say, with God. Success, art, love; they are good, but not the whole good. They live only to die. They are given only to be taken away again, that we may be free. Life is the supreme good. The soprano incarnates things taken away in the cause of joy. Her gift of voice is the proclamation of our eternal beatitude. Her poverty is the measure of our receptivity to this blessing. That unremarkable evening at the Haverford opera house holds a memorable experience of hidden truth. Singing accomplishes the mysterious gift of voice, here and then gone. And so with life.
The ending of Lucy Gayheart anchors this celebratory disclosure in an interior openness rare in Cather's fiction. Like her narration, Harry is stripped to the soul. His thoughts are both a meditation on guilt and loss and a preparation for them. Every real life, he has come to understand, involves compromises and relinquished hopes. Things that were taken away from him, he can let go. In letting go, Harry is released from wanting, liberated from the tyranny of the clinging. He longs only for that which he already has. The working out of Harry's finely honed conflict comes to a transcendent expression of the inexhaustible and eternal reality of life. The result is prayer. The prayer comes not in the form of Sebastian's exalted singing of Schubert as a gesture toward an ideal; nor as the soprano's devotion to her conception of art. Music may permeate Lucy Gayheart, but silence defines Book Three. Harry does not speak; he does not move. He does not have to. He acts with his soul. This kind of language puts spoken words and musical sound to rest. Harry achieves another kind of harmony--a deep stillness through which time seems to flow with a perpetual rhythm and pause. And never described as a conventionally religious person, Harry's thoughts in the music of his mind compose another kind of prayer, that of his being, for when a man knows when he has found that his vocation is to love life, he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live. Now that Harry is no longer involved in the measurement of life he is involved in living it. Being's source begins to flow in him. This inner vitality experienced in the ordinary course of the night does not bring Cather to exalt Harry, but she does make him special, aware of an inner transcendence. The divine in Harry is not the God of Latour's Christianity. The divine is his consciousness of his bond with other persons and the vast created world around him.
To understand Willa Cather's doctrine of faith in life is one of the greatest favors we can receive from the liberality of her writing. The decisive conflict in her fiction between the spirit of life and our own spirit takes place in our heart, and its issue, favorable or otherwise, will fix our destiny, as it does the fate of her heroines and heroes. All of them undertake this struggle. The combat is humbling in bringing her characters and readers to a knowledge of human exiguity before the ultimate design of things. That large view also consoles. Harry "looking up at the bright winter stars" sees that what he "had been remembering mattered very little when one looked up at eternity" (185). The inner voice expressing what Harry recognizes in the luminous winter sky has a rare quality. He is by no stretch of the imagination a lyric artist, but Cather's implied listener can catch in the words describing the power of Harry's all-registering eye a spiritual version of perfect pitch. Cather endows her silent hero with the ability to recognize by his soul's ear the height and depth of the providential plan for the universe. Harry's perception is in tune with an understanding that vibrates throughout Cather's writing. On this frequency, the eternal stops the flux of time. From a plain window in a dull bank office, Harry commands a view of "the bright winter stars" (185) that suggest the condition "safe from time or change" (63-4) that Lucy believed in and sought and that Cather herself trusts to resolve all things into a noble simplicity.
In this moment, stargazing receives a new function of belief. Faith for Cather is looking beyond oneself to that which is greater than one. Such seeking can afford a glimpse into the eternal from which we come, in which we live, and to which we return. Death fits in this order. Harry Gordon knows his finitude as well as that of others, but he also senses a power shattering limits to resolve all disruptions and hidden enmities. An awareness of the eternal dimension of time grants the possibility of resting in the present. Such repose is not so much a freedom from care as it is a freedom to care. Harry can throw off petty anxieties to take upon himself the anxiety that belongs to life itself. This apprehension comes with the tragic sense from which Cather writes. If loss and death produce a feeling of distress, the acceptance of these inevitable diminishments as part of a timeless mystery opens Harry to a future of reconciliation. Such awareness is faith, and faith gives freedom and life.
The freedom of faith forges a courage that keeps the spirit alive to new beginnings. In the struggle with ourselves there will always be some victories, but if we push our endeavors further, we shall understand with Mrs. Ramsay the inadequacy of our conquests. It is then, at last, that we turn utterly to life, certain henceforth that of ourselves we can do nothing, abandoning ourselves, as Lucy does and as Harry does, to life's all-powerful and mysterious action. Convinced of our share in its splendors, we can genuflect with Lucy great-heartedly bidding, "Let it come!" (156). Cather need not call attention to the anguish of Harry's inner transformation, but his dignity and absolute sincerity where it really is not expected could be counted as signs of sorrow and loss overcome. That quiet sagacity comes to the reader in an energized silence appropriate to Harry's peace with himself.
Coming in 1935, so near the end of Cather's career and when the country was assailed by the Great Depression, Lucy Gayheart is without doubt an attempt at a summary that speaks to overcoming sorrow and death. The novel is not a farewell; Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) comes closer to an adieu. Nor is it an unbosoming. Rather we have here Cather's culminating expression of the human spirit that has learned to explore its own loneliness. That contest is the torment of the novel; and that strain is the condition from which faith arises. Vulnerable aloneness issues a call to confront the significance of life in the context of human limits, the greatest being that of death, the inevitability that drives the action of Lucy Gayheart. After first having found love and friendship and the pleasures of the physical world, and then purging himself of nagging disappointments and false attachments, Harry's undertaking yields a trust in the power of life to give and take away those securities and bonds. Such a faith heals and illuminates the heart. All of these riches come to us unabashedly. Lucy Gayheart is exquisitely undemanding, as Cather is content to present no new conflict, no surprise. Whatever the greatness of her later writing may be called, it is present in this book; and as is so often, that power lies in concealed spiritual extensions that touch us.
(1) I am deeply grateful to Joseph Sendry for his critical reading of this essay and his suggestions to improve the argument.
Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000.
Balfe, Michael William. The Bohemian Girl. Libretto by Alfred Bunn. 2 CDs, Argo 433 324-2.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage, 1990.
--. Lucy Gayheart. New York: Vintage, 1995.
--. My Antonia. Ed. Charles W. Mignon and Kari Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
--. O Pioneers!. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski and Charles W. Mignon with Kathleen Danker. Lincoln: U of Nebraska E 1992.
--. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
--. Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Foreword by Stephen Tennant. New York: Knopf, 1949
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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