At least in her four masterpieces–My Antonia, The Professor’s House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock–Willa Cather is as expansive, sensitive, generous, and understanding towards human life as a novelist could be. To plot more than she does, it comes to feel, would be to set an agenda; and she has none, though her characters, and the habits and traditions they live by, do. It could be said that she fragments the novel as much as any modernist–breaking it into different perspectives, into anecdotes told over dinners, memories springing up out of sleep, entries into journals and letters, dividing her novels into books and her books into chapters, each chapter as arbitrary and surprising in its shape as a day or evening or stretch of days in the company of another, a hope, or a regret; the books are selections and arrangement of such shapes; the novel a selection and arrangement of what might have been many other books.
She can move from the highest levels of political power or religious devotion to childish wanderings, a mother’s preparations of dinner, or vigorously youthful forays in the wilds, because of her sure confidence that for any person in any power, most of life requires domesticity, a sense of being at home, in a place or in a routine of living well; but she does not become only a domestic novelist because for her domesticity is always historical, depending, for different people, on wars, on politics, on creeds, on trade, on ideas, and passions; the habits of dwelling, for her, are where they are are made to matter, where they are most felt.
In Shadows on the Rock, her historical novel of Quebec in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, she comes nearer than in the other major novels to telling us what she felt, in a passage that is a meditation on life and also on the life of her fiction:
But if she was to make a good dinner for Pierre, she had no time to think about the Harness. She put on her apron and made a survey of the supplies in the cellar and kitchen. As she began handling her own things again, it all seemed a little different,–as if she had grown at least two years old in the two nights she had been away. She did not feel like a little girl, doing what she had been taught to do. She was accustomed to thin that she did all these things so carefully to please her father, and to carry out her mother’s wishes. Now she realized that she did them for herself, quite as much. Dogs cooked with blueberries–poor Madame Harness’ dishes were not much better–These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,–the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.
The quality of her fiction–not its greatness only but its peculiar atmosphere, unlike anything else, sustaining a reader’s attention despite so little drama, of the outer life or inner life–depends on her willpower in retaining a focus on the moments of time that constitute most of experience, not neglected or peripheral, but ostentatiously dull and yet drawing on the energies of daily habit and routine–and on her range of knowledge and sense of the breadth of experience so as to register the presence of history, politics, religion, ideas, ambitions, and desire in those moments.
In other words, her art does not depend on a transfiguration of life into something greater than life; it does not depend on metaphysical importation. And yet it does not exactly depend on selecting moments that are, in themselves, to the people experiencing them, especially invested with meaning.
Instead, I think, that in her major novels, the depth and breath of daily domestic habit depends on her selecting for focus individuals whose lives she considers remarkable; that she can see in them what she does is a suggestion that they are remarkable. They have, in their ways, preserved the significance of a whole way of life, in small gestures, customs, and preferences; they bring worlds to bear on their experiences, even when they do not know it. For Cather, that means excluding a certain type of character given to the most dramatic intensity–since those moments of dramatic intensity, so focused on the present, will not catch much that lies beyond–or at least showing characters capable of precipitating such moments dramatic intensity (Pierre Charron, for instance) in other, less dramatic circumstances. There is also, for Cather, a certain virtue corresponding to the lives she selects; because they are aware, instinctively, by habit, of so much of what they have experienced, known, understood, they are not entirely selfish, not usually cruel, not as warped as other lives; in the breadth of experience by which they find balance in unremarkable habits, they experience something like virtue.
That is not to say that such lives must be worldly, well-travelled, or especially curious. She finds strong respect for the nuns, whose lives have passed largely within cloisters–but she can do so because of how much is sustained and sustaining in their narrow, repetitive acts. And the Sisters she admires most have considerable experience beyond cloisters.
She writes in Shadows:
So the nuns, those who were cloistered and those who came and went about the town, were always cheerful, never lugubrious. Their voices, even when they spoke to one though the veiled grille, were pleasant and inspiriting to hear. Most of them spoke good French, some the exquisite French of Tours. They conversed blithely, elegantly. When, on parting from a stranger, a Sister said pleasantly: “I hope we shall meet in heaven,” that meant nothing doleful,–it meant a happy appointment, for tomorrow, perhaps1
Inferretque deos Latio. When an adventurer carries his gods with him into a remote and savage country, the colony he founds will, from the beginning, have graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit. Its history will shine with bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as in life itself, where the great matters are often as worthless as astronomical distances, and the trifles dear as the heart’s blood.
She does not swoon in sentimentality over the cloisters, any more than she falls at the knees of the Mother Church or the imperial ambitions of France. The nuns are balanced against the tag from Virgil’s Aeneid; they are a pattern of exile and setting out, and Shadows on the Rock, like all of the other great works Cather wrote, does not take home for granted–it is always shadowed, on the North American continent, by a longing for what was left behind; and yet what was left behind is made to feel deadening, impossible.
But where Cather admires the nuns most, I think, and where the praise for the Sisters is continuous with the Virgil and the care for “graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit” is in the remark that “most of them spoke good French, some the exquisite French of Tours.” That is a light touch, a light reference to a historically and culturally code of manners and distinction, as well as learning; it shows Cather’s ease in the world of the novel, but invites us also to notice what is contained in the everyday.
Her basic conviction is simple: that most people want to live good lives. The novel’s seem to answer her need to understand how success has been possible for people in so many realms of life, with so many aspirations, ambitions, possibilities, and limitations; the place she looks for answers, is at the hearth. Imagining what is required there, she makes sense even of what might seem most complex and irrational:
By many a fireside the story of Jeanne Le Ber’s spinning-wheel was told and re-told with loving exaggeration during that severe winter. The word of her visit from the angels went abroad over snow-burdened Canada to the remote parishes. Wherever it went, it brought pleasure, as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families she did not know some living beauty,–a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit. Indeed, she sent them an incomparable gift. In the long evenings, when the family had told over their tales of Indian massacres and lost hunters and the almost human intelligence of the beaver, someone would speak the name of Jeanne Le Ber, and it again gave out fragrance.
The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless ongoing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.
Possessions that endure change, death, and vicissitude are sacred to Cather; or perhaps it is better to say that the sacred is indistinguishable from the possessions that endure; that to endure, and to make life more than a task of endurance, is the virtue of the material world, and a virtue for which she has the highest respect; it is the rock on which her art stands.