Willa Cather invented a new sort of novel, as innovative as anything by her modernist peers, and distinguished from theirs in several ways—including, I think, how much her novel lets her successfully do.
She has more than two great novels, but two of the indisputably great ones, Death Comes for the Archbishop and its precursor in publication and preoccupation The Professor’s House, stand apart and together for their scope and strengths.Here I will try to set straight my sense of what Cather does well, and how, without giving away too much of the novels themselves.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor’s House, she figures out how to write historical novels for the North American continent, achieving an American equivalent of the great nineteenth-century European genre; she is able to imagine, as Scott was, as Tolstoy was, not only the past, but what history felt like for those living in it: the personal and private experience of historical time, history as it was conceived and comprehended by those in the past, and the turbulences and confluences between currents of private and public lives. Concerned as she is with her characters’ experiences of diverse and interfering temporalities, she does not give history as a frame, or offer history as one plot, set against scenes of domesticity, or a private-life plot. In any character’s experience, from any character’s perspective, the historical might graze fleetingly where we would expect it to weigh most heavily; it might manifest most clearly in a peripheral incident, or else a small feature of life, or small object of a characters’ world, might bear the deepest traces of history; likewise, we might find that character do not think of history as or when we would expect; The Great War is all around The Professor’s House, and likely all around the professor’s mind, but he does not think on it much at all.
Both of the novels espouse less a faith in civilization than a faith that sensitive, humane, and necessary individuals might possess a faith in civilization that is good in itself. They admire, and dedicate careful description, to those who aspire to order and rightness in their lives; but they do not honor such order and rightness as essentially true or good in whatever form or sphere, impressed instead with the drive for it, across civilizations, across individuals in varying capacities. It is all contingent, all ephemeral, but admirable nonetheless.
Each is a regional novel—the region not being Nebraska, but instead New Mexico—but the regions are experienced and described by those who are devoted also to other landscapes, distant people and alien customs. In each, the landscape becomes a foundation and occasion for the imagining of historical time, the civilized and public worlds, and the inner life of characters–and yet the landscape never represents, reflects, or registers these. Her lyrical descriptions of the landscape are for the landscape; the landscape is not a character (more on this later); nor is it a symbol; it is nonetheless inseparable from human lives, from human understanding.
Each is a story of deeply passionate and unarticulated love between men, call it homoerotic or homosocial or queer. But women are not excluded from either story; The Professor’s House, especially, is tenderly aware of what it is for a man to have loved, and no longer love, a woman. One of the jokes of the novel is that the professor, in his study, is kept company by two female-figured mannequins, whose presence he finds disconcerting and comforting:the family’s maid, Augusta, who revives the professor late in the novel, is admired for “somehow” making “those terrible women entirely plausible.” Cather indirectly shows women who are entirely plausible, by way of men who are not capable of seeing for themselves the full plausibility of those women’s lives.
Each is an attempt at presenting the experience of memory across time, across distances, shared by and coming between friends; in each, memory intercedes without announcement, often precipitated by a single object.
Over the compote of dried plums they fell to talking of the great yellow ones that grew in the old Latour garden at home. Their thoughts met in that tilted cobble street, winding down a hill, with the uneven garden walls and tall horse-chestnuts on either side; a lonely street and nightfall, with soft street lamps shaped like lanterns at the darkest turnings. At the end of it was the church where the Bishop made his first Communion, with a grove of flat-cut plane trees in front, under which the market was held on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Second-rate historical novelists make the mistake of cluttering their worlds full of objets in order to clamor on behalf of their veracity; but so often, these object never rise above kitsch souvenirs of a false past. Cather lavishes attention to objects, but does so for the reason that her characters do the same, sometimes consciously, and sometimes in the form of reverie–about which I will say more later.
Each is a spiritual novel: though Godfrey St. Peter is God-free, his name hearkens to the Catholic church (though he was raised Methodist) in which Father Vaillant and Father Latour are priests. It might even be that Cather sees the civilizing mission of the university as a secular institutional alternative to the Church. Catholicism fascinates Cather because of its constant balancing of the universal and the local, civilization and culture, because its rituals and creeds must be bent to the particularities of many times and many places, and because they are themselves reminders of evolution over thousands of years; most powerful in her novels is where Catholicism encounters, and is unable to bend to, or accommodate or move, and yet does not bristle at, but wonders admiringly at, similar products of deep history and long time.
But most poignantly, each is a novel that faces death, and the possible dissolution of identity, to reckon with the unity of the self and the shape of a life over time. About this, I will say more later.
She calls out for comparison with one great contemporary. Her talent reached white-heat a few years earlier than Faulkner’s, but the two are roughly contemporary and because both of them are regional, because both explore “forbidden” realms of desire, and because both care about History, it would be easy to see them as belonging together. But the comparison between them shows how different they are in their manner of writing. Unlike Faulkner, she does not insist on significance in her narration; it emerges within it. She does not break language; she tames it. She feels her way into the tonally variegated inner lives of men; his men are wrenched by primary feelings. There is a further ground for comparison, too: in his portraits of grotesquely petrified human life, Faulkner, like Cather, senses how people not only become, but always are, extensions of the same gross substance as the rest of the world.
She proclaimed the intention to write a novels that were not dependent on “situation.” We might wonder what she means, since each novel has a situation (what novel doesn’t?). But the word is a sign that she is bucking against Henry James and the tight circling of four-top drama; she wants to free herself from James’ novelistic translation of the Classical unities.
To do so, she expands and what is meant by “situation”: it is the situation of being in a place, over years, and accepting also that that is the last place one will be, with the losses it entails. For the Bishop and the Professor, the amount of work remaining to be done in that place, and the past that grows from it, is very different; but nonetheless, a defining moment of each novel is the acceptance that they will not leave. For the Bishop, the place is Santa Fe; for the Professor, the place is Hamilton, but more specifically the attic in his former house. The basic situation of the books is attachment to a place, with a life there, with work to do, but with no place to go next.
Her conception of situation demanded an appropriate formal response. How to best describe and classify the structure or governing principle of novels that dissolve strong narrative arcs, that conform to characters’ irregular, organic experiences of time, that both digress through parabolic courses of memory and also—and here she is most impressive—present incidents of life as something that readers are always aware is becoming, and will become, the substance of memory and forgetting? To restate that last point—how to describe and classify the governing principle of novels that records flashes of a present that always seem to be primed for, yielding themselves to, the powers of memory and forgetting, even as they happen?
The description I’ve just offered might seem more at home for one of her contemporaries: Proust. And here, despite all of the differences, is a genuinely useful comparison for understanding the principle by which Cather organizes her novels. For Proust and Cather alike, the essential organizing and constructive principle is “reverie” or what Cather, at the end of The Professor’s House, calls day-dream.
When the first of August came round, the Professor realized that he had pleasantly trifled away nearly two months at a task which should have taken little more than a week. But he had been doing a good deal besides–something he had never before been able to do.
St. Peter had always laughed at people who talked about “day-dreams,” just as he had laughed at people who naively confessed that they had “an imagination.” All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion. When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep. He had no twilight stage. But now he enjoyed this half-awake loafing with his brain as if it were a new sense, arriving late, like wisdom teeth. He found he could lie on his sand-spit by the lake for hours and watch the seven motionless pines drink up the sun. In the evening, after dinner, he could sit idle and watch stars, with the same immobility. He was cultivating a novel mental dissipation—and enjoying a new friendship. Tom Outland had not came back again through the garden door (as he had often done in dreams!), but another boy had: the boy the Professor had long ago left behind him in Kansas, in the Solomon Valley–the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter.
Day-dream, reverie, surrenders the will to the attention–granting to the attention a will of its own, and the attention, of its own devices, traverses time, place.
“A novel mental dissipation” is not, in Cather, a pun: but it might have been. For the mental dissipation of day-dream is how her novels move. She does not day-dream, as the passage shows, with or through her characters; St. Peter does not day-dream until this point. But she day-dreams the characters’ lives.
For this reason, their presents, as she writes them, feel immediately given to the retrospective mental faculty; when they are experienced in memory, if they are experienced in memory, this is how they will be experienced. But because she day-dreams the moments of her characters’ lives, we do not know whether those moments will be remembered by the characters themselves. Though memory would look like this, we also remain aware that she is not in the world with them, that what she presents of their lives might be lost to their, and others’, forgetfulness.
There are times when the Bishop enters into a state of reverie—namely, when he imagines his old life in France. And the poignancy at the end of that novel coincides with a final reverie, as it does in The Professor’s House, where the Professor lets himself day-dream.
Reverie leaves things untouched, as it moves over them; it accepts what it comes across, does not try to, cannot if it is to be sustained, make or find its way; it is directionless, but rich nonetheless. Genuine reverie accepts gaps, accepts lacunae, without even registering that there are absences; absences are the condition of reverie, necessary if not sufficient for that state of mind. In light of which, the gaps in Cather’s novels, between chapters, between events, between promises of events and their unstated fulfillments, conclusions or consequences, can be appreciated for what they are.
Not life as a dream, but life as a day-dream.
But most crucial to reverie is the ethos implicit in it (in Proust too): because it does not will, seek, strive, or shape its materials, but relishes them as they are, reverie represents an acceptance of things that are (and might be, and might have been). The suffering, pain, cruelty of life is not abnegated by reverie, but they are not something to be stoically withstood or passionately recalled; they are like elements of the landscape. Human experience, the subjective fact of life, is itself, in the course of reverie, another aspect of the landscape—the landscape of existence, and sometimes, of the earth.
The Professor’s day-dream leads him:
He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine-trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely: ‘That is right.’ Coming upon a curly root that thrust itself across his path, he said: ‘that is it.’ When the maple-leaves along the street began to turn yellow and waxy, and were soft to the touch,–like the skin on old faces,–he said: “that is true, it is time.” All these recognitions gave him a kind of sad pleasure.
He is led away from his circumstances–husband, father—and returning to that early self, the unencumbered child that Wordsworth would have recognized, he is able to perceive all of these circumstances as so many more facts belonging to a person whose life had passed, who was not him, who simply was another element in flux and change on earth; he is, for a moment, persuaded by his sense of release (Cather must have been reading spiritualist writings from India) from his own life, persuaded by his vision of the world’s passing state of things that simply are.
I imagine it is sometimes said of Cather that the landscape is a character. But it would be much more right to say the inverse: that the characters are landscapes. Human particularity, ambition, action, desire, even, are all made to seem as inevitable and beautiful as the natural world; and also as taken for granted, available to appreciation in the right light only.
On the one hand, then, human life as a solid, spectacularly wide landscape; on the other, human life as a reverie.
But the one only possible thanks to the other: the reverie that of an eye wandering without searching (or without even looking) over a hazy expanse with features more or less defined, more or less visible; the landscape itself composed of the stuff of life that, by the unwilled process of day-dreaming, acquires passivity, distance, and dimmed and unexpected hues.
Along the way, the eye focuses on an outline of friendship, uncertain in so many respects, but distinctly that; and losing focus, a figure alone; but that is what happened, the love in the friendship having affected both, having effected change; it is part of the landscape now, a figment of the reverie, and so neither tragic, nor comic, nor even, in itself, history.