The importance of the Midwestern Settingin Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark and her other novels.
For Willa Cather, the place where she spent her childhood-the American Midwest-was both her inspiration and an abundant source of her art. She felt touched by the countryside the same way Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of The Song of the Lark, was moved hearing Dvorak's "New World Symphony" for the first time in her life,
When the first movement ended, Thea's hands and feet were cold as ice [...] Here were the Sand Hills, the grasshoppers and locusts, all the things that wakened and chirped in the early morning; the reaching and reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands. There was home in it, too; first memories long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old, that had dreamed something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born. (The Song of the Lark 174)
When Cather was only ten years old, her family moved from Virginia to Nebraska. Having seen only the lush, verdant, forested hills of Virginia, Willa was shocked when she first gazed at the flat, treeless plains, but almost immediately the vast open spaces of this land mesmerized her, becoming an intrinsic part of her mind just as the lark's song took hold of Thea: "It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang--and one's heart sang there, too [...]" (The Song of the Lark 191-192).
The Song of the Lark is a story of a little girl who comes of age in a pioneer town in the West and gradually develops into a mature woman and an artist. Even though Cather based the character of Thea Kronborg on famous opera singer Olive Fremstad, Thea's story contains a lot of elements of Cather's own life. The action takes place in Moonstone, Colorado, a town closely resembling Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up. Both the fictional and the real settings portray busy railroad towns in the heart of a desolate, wide-open countryside.
Just like Cather, Thea is a courageous girl who adores exploring the land surrounding her town: creeks, canyons, gullies and sand hills all appeal to her. On her thirteenth birthday she wanders about the sand ridgesfor a long while, picking up crystals and examining yellow prickly pear blossom with thousands of stamens. She looks at the sand hills until she wishes she were a sand hill herself (The Song of the Lark 79).
Thea lives in a white frame house similar to Cather's own house in Red Cloud, down to the details of her loft room with low slanted ceilings and flower print wallpaper. Thea spends entire days and nights in her room, reading and thinking, her body "pulsing with ardor and anticipation" (The Song of the Lark 140). It is during these intimate moments that Thea feels she carries within her another as yet unborn self: "How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely. It was to music, more than anything else, that these hidden things in people responded" (217).
Thea spends much of her life struggling to bring to life the artist within her through hard work, discipline, determination and fervor. Numerous adults pass through Thea's early life; they are all aware of and eager to help her hidden self to come out. All these characters are based on people Cather actually met in Red Cloud. Early on, Dr. Archie cures Thea from a case of pneumonia, just as Dr. McKeeby cured Willa. When Thea gets old enough, Dr. Archie often brings her along on his trips, introducing her to a part of life that she would otherwise never see. In Mexican Town, for instance, she meets Spanish Johnny, a traveling musician given to bouts of drinking and insanity, and his long-suffering wife, Mrs. Tellamantez. It is when she sings in a duet with Spanish Johnny during a dance in Mexican Town that she realizes her voice can truly dazzle with its natural tones and sensual depths. The drunken Professor Wunsch, who teaches Thea to play the piano and inspires her love of music, is based on the wandering German musician Schindelmeisser, who gave Cather music lessons. Thea's friend, Ray Kennedy, also draws on a real life character. He introduces Thea to the world of nature lying outside the town by taking her on long journeys deep into the sand hills where she can collect "bits of brilliant stone, crystal and agates and onyx, and petrified wood as red as blood" (The Song of the Lark 48). Ray, an uneducated man who had run away from home as a boy and had been to Mexico and the American Southwest, stirs Thea's imagination with his stories about cliff-dwellings, burial mounds with caches of pottery and feather blankets, and a completely preserved corpse of a woman wearing a string of turquoise around her neck.
Years later, after Ray's death in a heartbreaking accident, when Thea leaves Moonstone and moves to Chicago, hoping to make it as a singer there, she visits the Southwest and lives in a cliff dwelling herself-an essential experience for her artistic awakening. Willa also made a trip to the Southwest that marked a crucial milestone in her life as a novelist. At that time, she enjoyed a flourishing career in New York as a writer and editor but it wasn't until she returned to the West she had known and imagined as a child that she was ready to become a great writer. After the journey she wrote her greatest works of fiction: O 'Pioneers!, My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark. All these novels, at least some of the time, take place in the American West, and draw on Cather's memories of the place and the splendidly different lives of the people she encountered throughout her life.
Likewise, Thea does not become a famous singer until she gets back to the land she knew and dreamed of as a kid. Thea abandons Moonstone because she feels constrained by the stifling, local rules imposed upon women at the time. In Chicago, she has difficulties supporting herself while stubbornly pursuing her singing career. Feeling worn out and disheartened, she makes a journey to Panther Canyon, Arizona. It is there that she awakens to her true self as a woman and an artist. She falls in and loses her love and in experiencing this emotional sadness she discovers her strength as a woman, and eventually as an artist. Thea finds power in the raw but stunning scenery of the wilderness and the canyons. The ancient crafts of the Native American Indian women inspire her. Thea recalls her childhood in Moonstone and understands that her memories of places and people make up a profound part of her, something that she will never lose. In this deep recognition, the artist inside her is born.
Ten years later in New York, Thea lives in a high rise which looks like a "perpendicular cliff' overlooking a sharp drop-off to the river-a modern parallel to cliff dwellings. At the height of her artistic powers, she sings with a "deep-rooted vitality", her voice brimming with the power of her memories of the place-"the light, the color, the feeling. Primarily, the feeling". The spirit of the place has become a part of the spirit of her song.
At the age of nine, Willa Cather was uprooted from everything she knew and loved at her hometown near Winchester, Virginia, and taken to the plains near the emergent town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. The well-known, green, encroaching Virginia scenery was replaced by an apparently never-ending undulating countryside of bushy red grass, "not a country at all", says Jim Burden in My Antonia,"but the material out of which countries are made" (My Antonia 36). The uprooting marked a cultural surprise of Cather's life, shaping her attitude and fiction. The historically rich and complex South-the fruitful burden of William Faulkner's characters, which provides the context for their tragedy, was abruptly swept away from Cather. The tragic context for her characters, in contrast to Faulkner's, is that they are always from "someplace else", defined rather by creating a country and attempts to connect to a long-lost past. They carry their molding burden of remembered gods into remote and savage places. In Cather's portrayal, such uprooting produces simplistic attitudes that alienate the sensitive and the creative, aggravating even more their difficult adjustment.
For Cather, her childhood in Red Cloud proved to be both successful and suffocating. Red Cloud gave her a setting (Black Hawk in My Antonia, Moonstone in The Song of the Lark, and all the little towns she wrote about are different versions of her native land) and inspiration for the characters. A Bohemian acquaintance, Annie Sadilek Pavelka, became the model for Antonia Shimerda Cuzak, and the family of Red Cloud miners turned into a source for the Harlings of Black Hawk. But as productive as this material was, Red Cloud could not survive unblemished, and sanity demanded access to a wider world. There, Cather's activities and achievements were remarkable; she worked at everything: from teaching at school to book and drama reviewing; to serving as managing editor of McClure's Magazine to being a prize winning author. The land itself offered Cather an essential theme and defined her as a Western writer. The land seemed an enormous feature in Nebraska: uncultivated, barren and breathtaking. A girl from Virginia, Cather felt nostalgic, lost, and culturally ravenous. To overcome the sadness of estrangement, she "had it out" with the country, "and by the end of the first autumn", she wrote, "that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life" (The World of Willa Cather 140).
After an apprenticeship in Pittsburgh and New York writing short stories (many of them about artists) and her first novel, "Alexander's Bridge", which takes place in London and Boston, she turned to her Nebraska experience for material and wrote a "novel of the soil", before it became fashionable (Willa Cather on Writing 93). A long holiday spent in the West in 1912 wrought a great impact on her work. Her brother Douglass was working for the Southern Pacific at Winslow, Arizona, at the time and while visiting him she traveled to Indian missions, Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings, and the Grand Canyon. Her experience of this western setting offering more than just a geological past, with historic treasures comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome, made her see her own grassland country in a new light when she stopped there on her way back to the East. A year later, in 1913, she published O Pioneers! ,which she considered her first original work, "the first time I walked off on my own feet" (Willa Cather on Writing 200).
In The Song of the Lark, Cather once more used the Western land to create a Swedish-American female protagonist. Thea Kronborg, like Alexandra, is a self-conscious, even backward girl until she finds her goal in life: to draw and entertain people, bringing them joy through her singing. Early on she senses the idiosyncrasy that sets her apart from her family and most of the other people in her Colorado prairie town, Moonstone. She finds there is another primitive and ferocious self inside her soul that emerges through vocal training and emotional and physical growth, at one point struggling to break out of her shrunken white organdy dress. In conclusion, when she becomes a successful opera singer, the demands on Thea's personal life impoverish and curtail her relationship with people. When she finds out, too late, that Fred Ottenburg, a St. Louis beer prince she is fascinated with, has been trapped in an unhappy marriage, she becomes persuaded that her bed has become her Waterloo, and realizes how vulnerable she is to a need she barely suspected when her father said she would never get married. Although Thea finally marries Fred, she cannot avoid the damage caused by sacrificing her personal life for her career. To her sensitive best friend, Dr. Archie, who feels anxious about it, Thea explains,
Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does. It is like being woven into a big web. You can't pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture. It takes you up and uses you, and spins you out, and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you. (The Song of the Lark 455-6)
The situation is reminiscent of the sacrifice of personal life demanded of Alexandra when she devotes herself to the Bergson farm. Cather combines frontier and artistic elements as Thea listens to Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and imagines grass-overgrown wagon trails that brought tears to her eyes the day she visited the high tablelands above Laramie. Finally, Thea's stay in Panther Canyon, Arizona, sets her free "from the enslaving desire to get on in the world" (The Song of the Lark 296), and puts her, like Alexandra, at sexual risk. She turns strangely passive in the canyon, capable of converting the tactics of art into constant sensation, and to "become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a color [...] or [...] a continuous repetition of sound [...] " (The Song of the Lark 300). Following in the footsteps of Indian women and exploring shards of their pottery, Thea recognizes "a long chain of human endeavor" (380), as she compares the Indian women's effort to embrace life-giving water in aesthetically pleasing jars to her own singing. In spite of her inclination to compete with men and the fear of losing her freedom, Thea now admits she needs Fred, she wants him "for everything" (403). As in O Pioneers! the female protagonist must develop a personal component, become dependent and show sexual need whereas satisfaction remains suspended in both novels because self-sufficiency of female protagonists was clearly too difficult for Cather to give up.
Throughout her life, Willa Cather was an eager traveler; she planned summer vacations and visited tourist attractions. Her trips often provided important locations for her novels and stories: London, France, New England, the American Southwest, Quebec, Virginia. Furthermore, tourists themselves become critical characters in Cather's fiction. Despite her well-known use of the classical motifs of displacement, exile and migration, her characters also travel simply for pleasure. Her favorite tourists neither natives nor immigrants, but visitors-observantly move through foreign places gathering impressions. They are intelligent, curious, courteous to their environs, and not averse to souvenirs, or detours. They pursue an interest in finding a significant reflection, in discovering some creative kinsmanship to a strange landscape. Cather's tourists include, among others, Thea Kronborg in Arizona, Claude Wheeler in France, and Jean Latour visiting pueblos and missions of New Mexico. Occasionally, she also creates exquisitely bad tourists who blunder around insensitive to their surroundings, like "Marge" and "Jim", the chattering, smoking, dirty-knickered American motorists of "The Old Beauty".
Writing about Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather pitied the denatured modern New Yorker, "knowing no more about New England (or country folk anywhere) than he has caught from motor trips or observed from summer hotels" (Not Under Forty 93). Yet, after she moved away from Nebraska, motor trips and summer hotels were her own main way of exploring many of her settings. Like her contemporary and friend, D.H. Lawrence, Cather was a fast student of place; as with Lawrence, her friends always noticed the focused intensity of her curiosity, her quick impassioned identification with people and places. Even on a Manhattan bus ride in 1910, Elizabeth Sergeant could see Cather's
vigor, her authenticity, her delight in the landmarks. There was so much she did not want to see and saw not. What she did see she selected instinctively and made it so her own that her impulsive sharing of it gave it a sort of halo of brightness. (Willa Cather, A Memoir 46)
In the Southwest, a few years later, Edith Lewis described her as "intensely alive to the country--as a musician might be alive to an orchestral composition he was hearing for the first time" (Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record 101). In all her holiday itineraries she solicited and listened enthusiastically to the stories of natives and of other tourists (her creative writing is filled with "chance meetings" in hotels and on trains and boats). She visited a number of museums and galleries, and she read (to her own advantage) old books she picked up in hotels.
Cather's particular talent as a tourist-the source of the "halo of brightness" that pervades her narrated landscapes-was a skill enabling us to discover her worlds through story and history, as meaningful texts, framed, annotated and revived by an immense literary record of human endeavor. Landscapes and high culture (usually European) were inseparable. To give just a small example, in My Antonia, the muddy prairie beyond Jim Burden's rooming-house window is illuminated by an evening star hanging "like a lamp suspended by silver chains-like the lamp engraved upon the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men" (My Antonia 298). Such a vivid "textualizing" habit left its traces everywhere in Cather's work, inextricably entwining writing and scenery, converting a world of inert things to readable text and assimilating it to the great glittering continuum of human ideas.
From its first appearance as a romantically impossible destination in her 1909 short story "The Enchanted Bluff", the American Southwest had a special fascination for Cather as a writer. It also posed a special challenge to Cather the tourist because it resisted her propensity to cultural assimilation. To her friends she described her first encounter with a sense of big strangeness and vacancy, when in 1912 she had spent several weeks with her brother Douglass in Flagstaff, Arizona-through fearful images of human smallness, of "hanging on by one's fingertips, measuring oneself with that ancient image, Death, which so easily overpowered a white man in this environment" (Willa Cather, A Memoir 123). Her late vision in Death comes for the Archbishop of the desert as incomplete and unassembled, a "country [...] still waiting to be made into a landscape" (Death Comes for the Archbishop 95), echoes Jim Burden's anxiety upon arriving on a Nebraska prairie that was "not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" (My Antonia 8). In 1912, she summoned her literary resolve to "read" the desert and recalled an impressively austere image of human absence from Balzac: "Dans le desert, voyex-vous, ily a tout et n 'y rien; Dieu sans les hommes" ("In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing; God without men") (Willa Cather: A Literary Life 11). It is not surprising that she was grateful to return to the conventional civilities of upper-middle-class New York.
However, in Arizona, in response to the land's oppressive emptiness, she began the project of textualizing and humanizing the Southwest: of finding art and culture in Walnut Canyon's cliff dwellings; of learning about missionary and Indian legends from the Flagstaff priest; and of falling in love with her Mexican "Antinous", the beautiful singer Julio, who allowed her to visualize a high Aztec civilization that could rival that of the classical Europe she loved, and from which she drew his nickname. This difficult project continued through four more visits to the Southwest and was memorialized in three novels that energized Cather's career. Struggling to find human significance in an apparently indifferent and apparently barren landscape, she began to articulate a set of metaphors for cultivating the wild that characterized all her works after 1912 and culminated in Death comes for the Archbishop and in Jean Latour's restored garden: the triumph of a simultaneously literal and allegorical familiarization.
Although all of Cather's encounters with the Southwest brought out the double modes of humanizing it, as her 1912 attraction to Julio "Antinous"--importing and imposing an orderly European tradition while at the same time "discovering" a mirror image of an existing indigenous American tradition-her August 1915 visit to Mesa Verde, Colorado, dramatically clarified these contrasts. The trip replaced an ambitiously planned tour of wartime Germany with S.S. McClure and Isabelle McClung, a tour derailed by the strong objections of McClung's father. Instead, Cather took Edith Lewis west, choosing the remote new Mesa Verde National Park with its famous cliff dwellings as their holiday destination. At Mesa Verde, she found (at least in her imagination) not some scattered mysterious remains, shards of culture that sometimes surface on the American soil, but whole cities of stone: complex architecture that you could touch, proof of a noble human history, replete with technology, science, art and religion. In Cather's 1925 dramatization of this discovery in The Professor's House, her archeologist-priest Father Duchene speaks words of cultural reassurance to Tom Outland: "Your tribe", he says, "were a superior people [...]. In an orderly and secure life they developed considerably the arts of peace" (The Professor's House219). Their pottery is identical to artifacts found in by-gone Crete. By the end of his stay on the mesa, the Virgil-student Tom has so thoroughly annotated and assimilated its landscape to the classical high culture that
When I look into the Aeneid now, I can always see two pictures: the one on the page, and another behind that: blue and purple rocks and yellow-green pinions with flat tops, little clustered houses clinging together for protection, a rude tower rising in their midst, rising strong, with calmness and courage--behind it a dark grotto, in its depths a crystal spring. (Willa Cather, A Memoir 252-253)
Such a mingling of place and text is literate tourism at its most ambitious and audacious. Not yet itself wholly allegorical, it anticipates Cather's victorious allegories of Death comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock.
The essays themselves are very literal attempts at "literate tourism", the results of a self-conscious experiment in the relationship between language, culture and place. Cather's recreational travel and the centrality of visited landscapes in her fiction have combined since her death to create a kind of sacred itinerary for her readers: Red Cloud, Grand Manan Island, Avignon, Aix-les-Bains, Santa Fe, Quebec, and the Shenandoah Valley. More than other writers, Cather readers and scholars have become tourists themselves. Since the early 1970s they have met periodically in these places and in her "home" cities, Pittsburgh and New York, to share re-evaluation of her work.
In late October 1999, under the auspices of the Occidental College and the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, a group of approximately one hundred gathered at Mesa Verde-more accessible this time than in 1915, but for most it still represents a far departure from familiar landscapes. For three days the visitors stayed at the Far View Lodge on the mesa top, simultaneously conducting conventional academic meetings and unabashedly collecting impressions and mementos of the cliff dwellings, along the canyon rims among the pinion pines, in the National Park Service museum, and in the lodge stores. From its inception, the symposium organizers intended to use tourism-the transient, curious association of the individual to some important land-as a paradigmatic structure to develop a new understanding of Willa Cather's intricate connection to the American Southwest.
The American Southwest was unequivocally as formative a countryside for Willa Cather's artistic vision as was her beloved Nebraska. Both sceneries elicited in her a sense of unrefined incompleteness. They appeared not so much as finished places, but as things unassembled, like countries "[...] still waiting to be made into a landscape" (Death Comes for the Archbishop 95). Cather grew so fascinated with the Southwest that it turned into a fixed presence, an important element in three of her greatest novels: The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. rev. ed., Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1961.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage, 1990.
--. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
--. Not Under Forty. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
--. The Professor's House New York: Vintage, 1995.
--. The Song of the Lark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943.
--. Willa Cather on Writing. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. Athens: Ohio UP, 1953.
Sergeant, Elizabeth. Willa Cather, A Memoir. Athens: Ohio State UP, 1992.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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