I got my master’s degree in literature at a university in Nebraska, which means that I came of age, intellectually, in an environment in which Willa Cather was seen as a sort of goddess. Having dozed through My Antonia and The Song of the Lark, I was for some time inclined to see the respect accorded to Cather in her home state as a sort of regional, parochial bigotry: After all, Cather was Nebraska’s single major writer. Who could blame Nebraskans for pretending that she was a better writer and a more interesting thinker than she actually was? The Professor’s House and “Paul’s Case” were both on my reading list for my comprehensive exams, and I saw their inclusion as of a piece with the presence of a novel by Central City’s favorite son, Wright Morris—a novel that made so little impression on me that even now, looking at Morris’s bibliography, I have no idea what it was called.
Half a decade later, I am prepared to admit I was wrong, about Cather if not about Wright Morris. My mistake was that I expected the wrong things from Cather’s fiction, which, though the best of it appeared during the era of High Modernism, is never flashy or ostentatiously experimental the way Faulkner’s or Joyce’s fiction is; neither is it remarkable for its pared-down quality, like Hemingway’s or Anderson’s. Cather did not wish to tear the literary world apart; she did not wish to start new schools or to conceive a new way into the human psyche. Her wish—which I can discern from her work alone—was rather clearly to continue the nineteenth-century realist tradition, which she did with style, grace, and understatement.
It is the profound understatement of her prose and (most of) her plots that led me, at 25, to dismiss her as boring. It is true that most of her work lacks the bombast of her Modernist peers; it is also true that her worldview is much rosier and thus less exciting than that of her friend and idol Stephen Crane. But her work is not boring; she has merely pushed the tension of everyday life so far under the surface of her plots that it is almost entirely internalized. A novel like The Song of the Lark does not have a clear antagonist: Thea Kronborg sheds friends as the Künstlerroman develops, but she does so from a tragic necessity rather than from the knowledge that they mean to hold her back. And in her best novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather so sublimates her dramatic tension that the novel is less a fiction than a painting from an era before impressionism, expressionism, and other shattering modernist techniques.
She would, I suspect, approve of the comparison, for—especially early in her career—Cather was very interested in the plight of the artists of all media. Her initial collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, contains pieces about painters, sculptors, composers, and, most famously, appreciative outsiders to the artistic community. The two best-known pieces from this collection are “A Wagner Matinée,” in which a downtrodden Nebraskan farmwife visits New York and can hardly bring herself to return to her pathetic life on the prairie, and “Paul’s Case,” in which an artistic (and less-than-clandestinely gay) young man is driven to suicide by the smallness of his life in a coldly practical Pittsburgh. These two pieces have in common (and share with several other stories in the collection, particularly the brutal “The Sculptor’s Funeral”) a certain contempt for the world from which Cather came, the world of poor Midwestern farmers, largely ignorant of the high culture she loved so much.
These early pieces are interesting enough—certainly they demonstrate the degree to which Cather follows in the line of Henry James—but Cather did not find her voice until she learned to love Nebraska. She’d left the Midwest for good in 1896, and in 1906, she moved to New York permanently. By all accounts, she loved the city, but something about it clearly awakened in her a new appreciation for its opposite, the life she had known as a child. The result was the so-called “Prairie Trilogy” of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark—still her best-known trio of novels. Of the three, The Song of the Lark is the best: It combines the sort of Künstlerroman that the stories of The Troll Garden had hinted at with her newfound concern and affection for the quiet and often unnoticed people of the prairie and the plains. It also includes a set piece in which Thea visits the American Southwest—clearly the germ of her late masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in which the Southwestern scenery, acting as a kind of apotheosis, functions almost as the main character.
After the Prairie Trilogy, Cather’s novels largely, though not entirely, stayed in the Midwest, though her novels of the 1920s seem to have less of a documentary purpose than her earlier books. The Professor’s House deserves special attention; the overwhelming sadness of this story sneaks up on the reader so quietly that he finds himself, like Godfrey St. Peter, suicidal without even realizing it. It is a novel without sharp edges—but neither does Cather wield it like a blunt instrument. It is as subtle, beautiful, and heartbreaking as any novel in American literature.
My favorite piece of Cather’s is a rather late short story called “Neighbour Rosicky,” in which Cather returns to both Nebraska and New York City. It appeared in 1930, after all of her greatest novels had been published, though she still had seventeen years left in her career. “Neighbour Rosicky” tells the story of an immigrant Nebraskan farmer, one who perplexes his neighbors by his absolute lack of interest in material success. He makes enough to get by but devotes himself to his work and to his family.
We find out late in the story that Rosicky is what he is because he had spent the bulk of his youth in New York, a city which he loved but which he eventually experienced as a set of walls closing in on him. As he walks through Lower Manhattan one Fourth of July, he is moved by the phantom city:
The emptiness was intense, like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running. It was too great a change, it took all the strength out of one. Those blank buildings, without the stream of life pouring through them, were like empty jails. It struck young Rosicky that this was the trouble with big cities; they built you in from the earth itself, cemented you away from any contact with the ground. You lived in an unnatural world, like the fish in an aquarium, who were probably much more comfortable than they ever were in the sea.
So Rosicky heads to Nebraska and attaches himself to a piece of land and to a family. He lives his life in humility, gratitude, and devotion. As the story opens, however, he receives a death sentence: If he does not stop working on his farm, his heart is going to give out.
This is more than Rosicky can promise, however—the work is in his blood, and a Rosicky who does not give himself to the land is a Rosicky who has lost sight of himself. And so he continues to work, doing chores for his new daughter-in-law, Polly, who is depressed by the slow pace and dearth of sophistication in the country. Rosicky collapses one day as he rakes hay for Polly, and as he lies in her bed, recovering, she has an epiphany:
She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone, really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there.
This is a remarkable description. If you have read the story up to this point, Polly’s realization is extraordinarily moving—and yet it is so matter-of-fact and down-to-earth that Cather manages to avoid sentimentality. What’s more, her portrayal of Rosicky paints him as an actual and concrete person—but when I taught this story, each of my students reported that he reminded them of their father or grandfather. Rosicky is simultaneously a type and an individual—no mean feat for a writer.
“Neighbour Rosicky” is everything Cather does best: It is quiet but not without tension. It has no villain—even the steady march of time that eventually buries Anton Rosicky is praised. It is grounded in Cather’s childhood and the people she knew in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and yet it is instantly relatable even for city dwellers. The story ends with a description of the physical land, at which Cather excelled: The town’s doctor stands at the cemetery on the outskirts of Rosicky’s farm, thinking about the quiet beauty of the scene: “Nothing could be more undeathlike than this place; nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last.” This is Cather’s work in a nutshell: The beauty and desolation of the landscape rests in a stillness that masks the quiet tension beneath the surface. Cather is not the only author who operates in this milieu, but I don’t know of another who does it as well as she does.