Mythologia Americana – Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels and the myth of the frontier

Diploma Thesis, 2001

112 Pages, Grade: Sehr gut


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1. Preface

2. Willa Cather
2.1 Life and Work
2.2 Art and Writing
2.3 West and Fiction

3. O Pioneers!
3.1 Introductory
3.2 History and Region
3.3 Love and Death

4. My Ántonia
4.1 Introductory
4.2 Memory and Narrative
4.3 America and Europe

5. A Lost Lady
5.1 Introductory
5.2 Story and Dream
5.3 Beauty and Secret

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Index

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Preface

America’s collective memory rests on mythic regions: the planter’s South, the Puritan’s East, and the pioneer’s West. It is the latter which covers a genuinely American experience. For almost three hundred years the westward expansion determined the nation’s thought and action. Millions of pioneers – male and female, young and old, native and foreign–born – were pouring into the Great West. By settling the country those people brought civilization to the wilderness. Their efforts at cultivating the virgin land helped to transform the prairie region into an agricultural empire. The pioneer age had a great influence on American history and its spirit was a vital factor in the formation of the national character. The effects of the frontier heritage are still strongly felt in American society and culture. As one of the three mythic regions, the pioneer’s West forms an integral part of America’s identity today.

Willa Cather (1873–1947) made her contribution to it in literature. Often regarded as among the best imaginative accounts of frontier life in American letters, O Pioneers! (1913), My Ántonia (1918), and A Lost Lady (1923) demonstrate Cather’s poetic responses to the prairie West. These three novels illustrate her adaptation of the pioneering theme to the Great Plains region and reveal her preoccupation with history, memory, and identity on a national, regional, and individual scale. Their stories reflect her creative use of the popular myth of the frontier and the literary figure of the pioneer. As a rule, the novelist presents pioneer characters against a Nebraska background and places them at the centre of collective and private conflicts. Her artistic imagination turns to aspects usually left out from celebrations of the frontier experience in the rural West. Her main concerns are the personal costs concomitant with the pioneer’s victory, the social limitations and cultural inhibitions existent on the agricultural frontier, and the danger and damage inherent in myths about a glorious past.

The epic novel O Pioneers! unfolds the heroic life of a female pioneer. As the daughter of a Swedish immigrant family, Alexandra Bergson succeeds in farming the Nebraska soil and asserts herself against her social environment. But the price that she comes to pay for her material success is emotional failure and personal loss. My Ántonia is an elegiac novel composed of Jim Burden’s nostalgic childhood memories. He falls victim to the illusions that he has about his early experiences on the prairie and his close friendship to the Bohemian settler Ántonia Shimerda. Only twenty years later, when he visits his romanticized friend, does he come to a better understanding of her real self and his own past. A Lost Lady is an allegorical novel about the end of the pioneer period. Set in a little western town, it focuses on Niel Herbert and his youthful admiration for a wealthy railroad builder and his beautiful wife. Disgusted at the vileness of the present, he is in danger of succumbing to his idealized picture of a nobler past.

The aim of this thesis is to present Willa Cather as an author critical of the myth of the frontier. Born in Virginia and transplanted to Nebraska at the age of nine, she came to know the prairie land and the pioneer people at first hand. There and then she must have felt the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. When she wrote her novels later in life, she set herself the goal to correct the pastoral images that many people had of the pioneer’s West. Instead of perpetuating the agrarian vision of frontiering, the writer revised it in accordance with her own intentions. Her skilful integration of past and present, youth and age, innocence and experience brought the popular myth of the frontier to bear on such basic notions as history, memory, and identity. In her three Nebraska novels Cather criticized contemporary American mythology and strove for a more comprehensive and less distorted memory of America’s pioneer age.

2. Willa Cather

2.1 Life and Work

Willa Cather’s rise to the foremost rank of twentieth–century American novelists began with the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913. At that time Cather was nearing her fortieth birthday and could look back on an eventful life. Born into the homogeneous WASP culture of provincial Virginia[1], she had grown up among the mixed population of frontier Nebraska[2]. After some years in the narrow–minded community of urban Pittsburgh she moved on into the liberal sphere of cosmopolitan New York. Hence, her childhood in the cultivated South contrasted greatly with her youth and adolescence in the yet uncivilised West and even more so with her adult life in the cultured East. In any case, she had experienced cultural otherness within America and on her trips to Europe[3] and had thus gained an understanding of the many differences between people from places as divergent as the Old and the New World.

Willa Cather’s literary apprenticeship had started at an early age. While still in Virginia, she partook in the long–standing southern tradition of oral storytelling. Always an attentive listener[4], she used to pick up legends, tales, gossip, and folklore whenever family and friends came together at her grandfather’s big farmhouse. Following her migration to Nebraska she got into the habit of listening to the stories that her foreign–born neighbours told about Europe and the past. Needless to say, the author cherished those memories from her earliest days and retained a relish for stories all her life. Shortly after, her grandmother began reading religious, historical, and fictional works to her. Once she had learnt to read, she turned into a voracious reader, devouring anything that she found interesting and could lay her hands on. As a consequence, she developed an everlasting love of books with a particular “taste for romance” (Woodress, 80).

Driven by a passion for writing, Willa Cather became a very productive writer of both journalism and fiction. Since her college days she worked as a journalist for some Nebraska newspapers, doing drama and opera criticism, reviewing books, and contributing her own column. Thereby did she acquire the reportorial skills that came in handy in the offices of eastern magazines. Next to teaching in Pittsburgh high schools, she accepted the post of managing editor of America’s best–known muckraking magazine in New York. All the while she continued writing poetry and short stories but seemed to make no progress. Overburdened by her many responsibilities as editor, she felt that she had got stuck in her development as a fiction writer. So one day in 1912 she made a momentous decision and gave up her job to follow her true vocation. Undeniably, “she had been a good editor as she had been a good critic and a good teacher. Now she wanted one thing only, to be a writer, and a good one” (Robinson, 180).

When O Pioneers! was published in 1913, Willa Cather proved herself to be an excellent writer. At last, she had broken free from journalistic drudgery and had achieved artistic mastery. In the process of writing her first Nebraska novel she could rely on her profound knowledge of American nature, European culture, and classic literature. Furthermore, she brought in her sense of national history, her rich fund of regional memories, and her personal identity as a Westerner. For there can be no doubt that Cather considered herself to be “a Nebraskan who lived most of her life away from home” (Robinson, XII). All this came to play an important role in the composition of her three Nebraska novels[5]. In the years 1913 to 1923 she not only succeeded in putting her home state on America’s literary map[6] but also had a strong influence on American mythology.

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley[7], near Winchester, Virginia, in the home of her maternal grandmother as the first of seven

children of Charles Fectigue Cather and Mary Virginia Boak[8]. She was named Wilella for an aunt who had died of diphtheria but her family and friends always called her Willie[9]. As was common for people from the Appalachian region, her father, an easy–going well–educated gentleman who had studied law but never practised, was raising sheep for sale in Baltimore and Washington, while her mother, a proud fashion–conscious lady, was at the head of the household. A year later, Willa Cather, her parents, and Grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak moved to Willow Shade[10], Grandfather Cather’s nearby farmhouse.

In 1877 Willa’s grandparents, William and Caroline Cather, migrated with their three daughters to Webster County, Nebraska[11]. Entrusting the management of their Virginia sheep farm to Charles, they joined their older son George and his wife Frances, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminar, who had abandoned their home some time before and had become successful farmers in Catherton precinct, Nebraska. When the sheep barn at Willow Shade Farm burned down in 1883, the estate was sold and the Charles Cather family, along with Cather’s grandmother, mounted the railway train to the West.

After their arrival in Nebraska they settled down in William Cather’s homestead “about sixteen miles north–west of Red Cloud in the country between the Blue and Republican rivers known as the Divide” (Ambrose, 12). Transplanted as she had been from a lush mountainous area to that flat grassland, Willa was initially shocked by her new environment and suffered what the author would always remember as “a kind of erasure of personality” (Cather in KA, 448). But her sense of being lost in the vast expanses of the open prairie was soon replaced by boundless satisfaction. Later in life she was to recall that this country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention to us. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, 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. (Cather in WWC, 140)

The circumstance that Nebraska in those days was a frontier country populated by a large number of foreign settlers immediately aroused her curiosity. Intrigued by their foreignness, Cather got into contact with immigrant people from Bohemia, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. She made friends with the pioneer farm women who told her stories about their former lives in Europe in broken English. Her reminiscences were recorded in a 1913 interview:

We had very few American neighbors – they were mostly Swedes and Danes, Norwegians and Bohemians. I liked them from the first and they made up for what I missed in the country. I particularly liked the old women, they understood my homesickness and were kind to me. I had met ‘traveled’ people in Virginia and in Washington, but these old women on the farms were the first people who ever gave me the real feeling of an older world across the sea. Even when they spoke very little English, the old women somehow managed to tell me a great many stories about the old country. (Cather in KA, 448f)

In September 1884 Willa Cather’s family left the Divide to live in a story–and–a– half frame building in Red Cloud[12]. A division point on the Burlington Railroad with eight passenger trains passing a day, this small prairie town of about 2500 inhabitants from the Old and the New World was then a busy place where Cather’s father opened a real estate and loan office and she attended school. In her spare time she would play with her brothers along the river out of town or with Carrie, Irene, Margie, and Mary Miner[13], the four sisters of the shopkeeper living next door. She also enjoyed staging amateur theatricals in the backyard garden or watching performances at the local opera house. Among the more cultivated townspeople were William Ducker, an Englishman with a special preference for the classics, who taught Willa Latin and Greek, and Charles Wiener, a German–French doctor of Jewish background[14], who introduced her to European literature in translation. Besides, she also made extensive use of the family library containing the Bible, Shakespeare’s works, volumes of nineteenth–century English and American classics, popular romances, and some ladies’ magazines.[15]

At age thirteen, Willa Cather had taken to a male gender role[16]. As was the usual tomboy manner, she cut her hair short and wore boys’ clothes. She also created “an identity of her own that satisfied her, one that was strong, independent, essentially masculine” (Robinson, 31). What is more, she often referred to herself as “William Cather, M.D.”, thereby expressing her wish to become a surgeon, and used to accompany two physicians[17] on their calls. Her interest in the natural sciences was also reflected in her fascination with the dissection of plants and animals and in her commencement speech “Superstition versus Investigation”, delivered in defence of scientific enquiry and experimentation on the day of her graduation from high school.

On leaving Red Cloud for Lincoln[18] in 1890, Willa Cather intended to follow the science programme including courses on botany, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. But, before entering the State University of Nebraska, she had to take an additional year of Latin and English in the preparatory school. After she had handed in a talented essay on Thomas Carlyle, her teacher saw to its publication in both the Nebraska State Journal and the college paper Hesperian in March 1891. That, however, prompted Cather’s growing interest in literature and was to change her future life. For when she matriculated as a freshman that autumn, she decided to pursue the philosophical programme. In the course of the next four years she studied Greek, Latin, English, French, and German as well as history, philosophy, rhetoric, and journalism.

Willa Cather’s university days in Lincoln were characterised by an enormous amount of extracurricular activity. Not only did she attend plays and operas[19] and participate in literary, debating, and theatrical societies but she also did a lot of reading and started writing journalism and fiction. At that time she met Louise Pound, with whom she became infatuated[20], Mariel Gere, the daughter of the publisher of the Nebraska State Journal, and Dorothy Canfield, who was to be a lifelong friend[21]. Cather’s first story, “Peter”[22], was printed in the Boston literary weekly The Mahogany Tree in 1892. In the three successive years she worked as literary editor of the Lasso, a student magazine, and the Sombrero, the campus yearbook, and became managing editor of the Hesperian. As early as 1893 she began to write her own column, “The Passing Show”[23], articles and reviews for the Nebraska State Journal.

After her graduation in June 1895 Willa Cather remained in Lincoln through the fall, writing alternately for the Courier and the Nebraska State Journal. Next, she returned to Red Cloud, applying unsuccessfully for a teaching position at the university but releasing her story “On the Divide”[24] in a national magazine, the Overland Monthly. When she was offered a job as assistant editor of the Pittsburgh– based Home Monthly, Cather moved east in 1896. As she found her work on the new magazine uncongenial, she resigned from the Home Monthly in 1897. Instead, she took up work with the Pittsburgh Daily Leader, producing her own column, “Books and Magazines”, and much drama criticism. After three years of interesting journalism she quit the Daily Leader to teach Latin and English at Central High School and later at Allegheny High School. By that time another story, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul”[25], had appeared in the April 1900 issue of the Cosmopolitan and some verse in Harper’s Weekly, Lippincott’s, and Youth’s Companion. In fact, Cather’s first book was April Twilights [26], a collection of poems published in 1903.

Although she had first resented Presbyterian Pittsburgh, Willa Cather embarked on a busy social and cultural life, enjoying parties, picnics, and plays. At that time she was going on twenty–four, a very marriageable age, but her contacts with men never went beyond mere friendship:

There is no evidence that Willa Cather ever came close to getting married. The men in this world that she loved most dearly were her father and her brothers Douglass and Roscoe. She had the deepest sort of devotion to all three. ... It seems perfectly clear that she simply had no need for heterosexual relationships; she was married to her art. (Woodress, 86)

Among her many acquaintances were the German–Americans George and Helen Seibel, with whom she used to read French literature, the composer Ethelbert Nevin, and the actress Lizzie Hudson Collier. The latter introduced her to 21–year–old Isabelle McClung, an art–lover and patroness from an affluent and influential Pittsburgh family, with whom Cather grew very intimate over the next few years. Isabelle would even invite her to live with her in her family’s home on Murray Hill Avenue, where she fitted out a study in the attic for her friend. In the following years they went together on trips to Europe, visiting England, France, and Italy. Back in Nebraska in 1902, Cather met Edith Lewis, a Lincoln native and recent graduate of Smith College, with whom she would share apartments in New York for more than three decades.

In 1903 Willa Cather aroused Samuel McClure’s attention when he happened to find some of her short stories in his office. He was so enthusiastic about them as to promise her to publish any story of hers in the future, either in McClure’s Magazine or in book form. Two years later McClure put out her story “The Sculptor’s Funeral” and The Troll Garden, a collection of seven short stories[27]. In 1906 Cather gave up teaching in Pittsburgh and moved on to New York to work for McClure’s, at that time America’s most successful reforming magazine. Her first assignment took her to Boston, where she developed close friendships with Ferris Greenslet of Houghton Mifflin Company, later her publisher, Annie Fields, widow of the well–known publisher James T. Fields, and Sarah Orne Jewett, her future literary mentor[28]. Even though she had “absolutely no interest in muckraking, found social reformers very dull people, took the dimmest possible view of literature that had a message” (Woodress, 123), Cather was promoted managing editor of McClure’s in 1908 and held that position until her resignation in 1912. In the years between she got to know Zoë Akins, the prospective playwright, and Elizabeth Sergeant, a Bryn Mawr graduate and young journalist with a sharp sense of social justice[29].

As long as she was on the editorial staff of McClure’s, Willa Cather found almost no time to write fiction. Constant overwork led to nervous exhaustion and brought her to the brink of a breakdown. So Cather took leave of absence from her work in 1911 and passed three months with Isabelle McClung in Cherry Valley, New York. After her quick recovery she revised the drafts of her first novel and composed a few stories. The year of 1912 saw the publication of Alexander’s Bridge [30] under the imprint of Houghton Mifflin and “The Bohemian Girl” in McClure’s. Visiting her brother Douglass in Winslow, Arizona, Cather felt captivated by the Southwest with its deserts, canyons, and peoples of Indian and Mexican descent. On her way east she stopped in Nebraska and watched the wheat harvest for the first time in several years. Staying with Isabelle McClung in Pittsburgh through the autumn, Cather availed herself of her recent experiences in the West to create “Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree”.

In the following year Willa Cather was back in New York, working as much as ever. Drawing on the aforementioned stories, she composed her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers!, and started ghostwriting Samuel McClure’s My Autobiography. Apart from that, she had accepted an assignment for McClure’s which gave her the occasion to meet Olive Fremstad, one of the leading opera singers in contemporary America. The moment O Pioneers! appeared in June 1913, her next book was well under way. But The Song of the Lark [31], a Künstlerroman, was published no sooner than October 1915 because Cather had spent the previous summers calling on Fremstad in Maine and exploring with Edith Lewis the ancient cliff dwellings near

Taos and the historic city centre of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Isabelle McClung’s wedding in 1916 left the author shattered and set her on another journey west with visits to her brother Roscoe in Wyoming and her family in Red Cloud. When she arrived in New York later that year, she had conceived the idea of her next Nebraska novel. My Ántonia was easy writing and was the last book to be published by Houghton Mifflin in September 1918.

By the end of the Great War Willa Cather was labouring on a war novel after she had come across the letters of G.P.Cather, Uncle George and Aunt Frances’ son, who had been killed in action at Cantigny. Despite her increasing obsession with it, the work dragged on endlessly. Since she lacked the necessary first–hand experience, she felt compelled to tour the battlefields in France and to interview homecoming soldiers. When her new publisher, Alfred Knopf, eventually released One of Ours [32] in September 1922, it was generally criticised for romanticising the war[33]. Yet, “for all the controversy it aroused, this disputed novel became Cather’s first best–seller and won for her the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1923” (Robinson, 230). The first production under Knopf’s imprint had been Youth and the Bright Medusa, a collection of short stories[34] issued in 1920, which was followed by April Twilights and Other Poems, a compilation of old and new poems[35], three years later.

In the 1920’s Willa Cather was at the height of her professional career. Working indefatigably in New York City, at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, or on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, she produced five novels and numerous stories. A Lost Lady, her third Nebraska novel, was printed in September 1923 and was turned into a silent film by Warner Brothers two years later. The Professor’s House and My Mortal Enemy, works full of despair and disgust at the growing materialism of the time, came out in 1925 and 1926 respectively.

Inspired by the Catholic heritage of the Southwest, Cather set to work on her first historical novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop [36] appeared in 1927 and was awarded the Howells Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. On her way to Grand Manan she visited Quebec and was gripped by its rich French culture. Shadows on the Rock [37], her second historical novel, was published in 1931 and earned her the Prix Femina Américain in 1933.

At the same time there were many things occurring in Cather’s private life. In 1922 Willa Cather and her parents gave up Baptism and entered the Episcopal Church. When her apartment on Bank Street was torn down in 1927, the writer moved together with Lewis into the Grosvenor Hotel and lived there for five years. Her beloved father died of a sudden heart attack in 1928 and her mother suffered from a paralytic stroke before her death in 1931. Sometime around 1930 Cather became acquainted with Moshe and Marutha Menuhin, whose three musical children, Yehudi[38], Hephzibah, and Yaltah, brought as much joy to their “Aunt Willa” as her nieces Mary Virginia, Margaret, and Elizabeth. From 1933 onwards Cather was plagued by her chronically inflamed tendons, which called for a brace and prevented her from writing time after time.

Willa Cather’s position as a fiction writer of national stature had been long assured when her literary output gradually decreased in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By then she had received honorary degrees from several well–renowned universities[39] and had been given the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944. Furthermore, she had been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1938. Three of her most famous short stories, “Two Friends”, “Neighbour Rosicky”[40], and “Old Mrs. Harris”, appeared together under the title Obscure Destinies in August 1932. The publication of Lucy Gayheart, another Künstlerroman, in 1935 was followed by a collection of her essays, Not Under Forty

[41], in 1936 and her novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940. Whereas an unfinished last novel laid in medieval Avignon remained unpublished, her short stories “The Best Years”, “The Old Beauty”, and “Before Breakfast” were included in the posthumous The Old Beauty and Others in 1948. The loss of her brothers Douglass in 1938 and Roscoe in 1945 caused Cather much distress. Beset by her failing health, she died in her own apartment on New York’s Park Avenue on the afternoon of April 24, 1947, from a cerebral haemorrhage. Four days later Willa Cather was buried on a hillside in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

2.2 Art and Writing

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)

Willa Cather’s literary work comprises poetry and fiction, stories and novels. Among her novelistic œuvre, there are novels as dissimilar in style, setting, and subject as the international novel Alexander’s Bridge and the regional novel My Ántonia or the contemporary novel One of Ours and the historical novel Death comes for the Archbishop. Confronted with so much variety, critics were long troubled with labelling her fiction. It is no surprise to learn that Cather was considered a realist, classicist, idealist, and romanticist[42]. Only lately have scholars agreed on a distinctly romantic quality in the body of her writings and have placed the novelist within “the tradition of American romanticism” (Woodress, 159). In fact, romantic concepts of art inform her writings from first to last. Continuously striving for beauty and truth, Cather believed in and remained faithful with the poetic imagination as the central principle of the creative process.

Willa Cather’s “affinity for romanticism” (Rosowski, 1988, IX) in writing arose from her early reading. In her adolescence she was greatly attracted to nineteenth–century Romanticism. As to English literature, she grew especially fond of fiction by Sir Walter Scott and poetry by Lord George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. Her favourite American authors were Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the French language she felt much admiration for such Romantics as Alphonse Daudet, Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Pierre Loti, and George Sand[43]. What is more, Cather harboured a strong “feeling for romance” (KA, 31). Always fascinated with its imaginative mode and heroic impulse, she stated in an 1895 newspaper article that “romance is the highest form of fiction” (Cather in KA, 232f). Little wonder, then, the books that she loved most were Rudyard Kipling’s Soldiers Three, Robert Louis

Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, and Gustave Flaubert’s fiercely romantic Salammbô [44].

Her lifelong “taste for the romantic in fiction” (Robinson, 53) went hand in hand with her utter dislike of the realistic school of writing as headed by William Dean Howells and Henry James in America and Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen in Europe. Even though both realists and romanticists aimed at reality, there were basic differences in their definition of it and their ways of achieving it. In Cather’s opinion realists are interested in actuality, romanticists in truth[45]. Limited to reproducing the material environment, realistic methods tend to become a constriction of the artistic imagination. Romantic techniques, however, depend on the creative powers of imagination to produce new physical and spiritual worlds. And whereas realism in its concern with social problems means writing for a cause outside literature, romanticism has the potential to make sense of human life.

“Imbued with Romantic ideology” (O’Brien, 1987, 28), the aspiring Cather came to think of art and religion in equal terms. Her firm conviction that “religion and art spring from the same root” (OW, 27) was backed by her adoption of the artist–priest metaphor so common to romanticism. She conceived of the artist as someone who shares in the divine power of creation. Evidently, “the divine faculty by which the artist creates is the imagination, with its power to reconcile the general and the particular” (Rosowski, 1988, 5). This gift of genius is deemed essential because “the ultimate truths are never seen through the reason, but through the imagination” (Cather in KA, 143). In order to fulfil his mission every true artist – may he be a performer, composer, painter, or writer – must commit himself to art wholeheartedly. As a rule, in the kingdom of art there is no God, but one God, and his service is so exacting that there are few men born of women who are strong enough to take the vows. There is no paradise offered for a reward to the faithful, no celestial bowers, no houris, no scented wines; only death and the truth. (Cather in KA, 417)

Speaking of Cather, one may well argue that “art was her religion and it demanded absolute devotion” (Robinson, 93).

As can be deduced from her many newspaper pieces, Willa Cather had by 1896 gravitated to “a fundamentally primitivistic position – historical, cultural, human” (KA, 33). Clearly, her primitivistic attitude to life had much impact on her approach to art. As the life force lies at the very centre of primitivism, passion became the key concept in her aesthetics[46]. Not only must the artist have a deep passion for creation but his art is expected to reflect the grand passions of life. To this end the artist needs to be in touch with a kind of elemental reality and form his artistic works in accordance with the fundamental forces of life. The experience of passion in works of art is thereby linked to the creation of art from life. Cather once claimed that “art must spring out of the very stuff that life is made of” (Cather in WWC, 168). That is also why she was constantly drawn to the unchangeable things in human life. The accomplished novelist admitted in a 1921 lecture that “art has nothing to do with smartness. Times may change, inventions may alter a world, but birth, love, maternity and death cannot be changed” (Cather in KA, 82).

In the years when she was working as an art critic Willa Cather began to inquire into the very essence of literature. Eager to single out the principal elements of writing, she studied and reviewed dozens of books in her weekly column. As a result of it, she came up with two groups of factors, which she regarded as relevant to the art of writing:

First, those intangible qualities, personal or god–given, which make up or determine the internal substance of art – intuition, inspiration, feeling, emotion, idea, experience; second, the body of the work itself – form, craft, technique, language, and, as the determining force, the labor of creation. (KA, 72)

There is ample evidence in her critical statements that, initially, Cather advocated feeling instead of form as the primary constituent of literature. Only gradually did she acknowledge the need for technique in literary works and, last but not least, the necessity of relentless labour on the part of the author. Nevertheless, it would take her a long time to integrate and balance the seemingly opposing demands of inspiration and craft in her own creative writing.

Willa Cather’s criticism of two of America’s most prominent writers is indicative of her search for an ideal model of writing. What she liked about Walt Whitman is “a primitive elemental force” (Cather in KA, 352) and “a passion for the warmth and dignity of all that is natural” (ibid.). Yet, his rhapsodic poetry is poorly structured and reveals “a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy” (Cather in KA, 351). By way of contrast she referred to Henry James[47] as a “mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives” (Cather in KA, 360), whose prose is “as correct, as classical, as calm and as subtle as the music of Mozart” (ibid.). For all their stylistic perfection his works of fiction are “always calculating and dispassionate” (Cather in KA, 360) so that readers are “never startled, never surprised, never thrilled or never enraptured” (ibid.). Feeling a tension “between the Dionysian and Appolonian forces of rapture and repose, release and containment” (KA, 81) within herself, Cather stayed ambivalent in her response to Whitman’s passion and James’s polish.

In an effort to find out more about the writer’s creativity Willa Cather went on to elaborate her conception of writing. Increasingly, she became aware that neither feeling nor form nor even force was of the highest importance in the creative process. Instead, she envisioned an order of priority according to which the writer’s inspiration must come first and be followed by his craft in the production of literary works. Some time in 1896 Cather arrived at her poetic vision of writing. To her, art is not thought or emotion, but expression, expression, always expression. To keep an idea living, intact, tinged with all its original feeling, its original mood, preserving in it all the ecstasy which attended its birth, to keep it so all the way from the brain to the hand and transfer it on paper a living thing with color, odor, sound, life all in it, that is what art means, that is the greatest of all the gifts of the gods. And that is the voyage perilous, and between those two ports more has been lost than all the yawning caverns of the sea have ever swallowed. (Cather in KA, 417)

These few lines contain Cather’s artistic creed that art is, above all, expression. She thought of writing as a creative act, which is based on the author’s successful transfer of his idea from the brain to the hand down on paper. Hence, the true writer not only has a deep passion for creation but must possess inspiration and craft in equal shares.

His is the unique gift to employ them so perfectly in the process of writing[48] that the beauty and truth of the idea are fully realised in the written text. Whereas thoughts and emotions are possible to all men and a few may even display some literary talent, it is the writer alone who has the powers of expression necessary to keep an idea alive on the pages of a book.

During her time as an art critic Willa Cather expounded several creative principles that she would bear in mind as a fiction writer. For the many years in between it was mostly the newspaper and magazine business in which she was engaged. As a young journalist from the West, she had the luck to develop her writing skills in some of the well–known offices in the East. Nonetheless, even her work as managing editor of McClure’s could not change her lifelong belief in the superiority of artistic writing. In one of her early articles she had pronounced that “journalism is the vandalism of literature. It has brought to it endless harm and no real good. It has made an art a trade” (Cather in KA, 332). In her view journals will inevitably ruin any writer’s style because they have no use for individuality in their reports. In concentrating on photographic detail and novelty[49] journalism is diametrically opposed to literature that deals with the universal things in life. Apparently enough, Cather saw much difference between the “journalist who trains himself to write equally well whatever the subject and the creative artist who can do his best only with subjects of deep personal involvement” (Gerber, 143).

Early in her career Willa Cather turned to the literary genre traditionally suited best to express personal experiences. Ever since her college days she was writing and publishing poetry, first in undergraduate publications and local journals, then in national magazines. But April Twilights, her 1903 collection of thirty–seven poems[50], was neither a financial success nor did it attract much critical attention. Due to the fact that the future novelist had not yet found her artistic voice most of the pieces therein sound “bookish, drawing their metaphors from reading rather than from living” (Woodress, 106). As she availed herself indiscriminately of classical, medieval, pastoral, and romantic forms, such poems as “Eurydice”, “Paradox”, “Arcadian Winter”, and “Provençal Legend” are artificial and eclectic. “What is most striking about April Twilights is its derivative nature” (O’Brien, 1987, 256), some of the pieces borrowing extensively from Virgil, Shakespeare, Keats, and Housman[51]. Among her more personal poems, “Prairie Dawn” and “The Night Express” betray a careful combination of a western theme and an elegiac tone as is often observable in her later fiction. Once Cather had realised her limitations as a poet, she almost stopped writing verse.[52]

Unlike her poems, the short stories played a crucial role in Cather’s emergence as a novelist. From “Peter” through “A Death in the Desert” to “On the Gull’s Road”, the early stories helped the novice writer develop her artistic self. In fact, during the 1890’s and 1900’s she wrote many short stories that foreshadowed her later novels in various respects. Beginning with her native material she produced such stories as “Peter” (1892), “Lou, the Prophet” (1892), “The Clemency of the Court” (1896), and “On the Divide” (1896). What unites them is an almost naturalistic “grimness of the details reflect[ing] Willa Cather’s first strong, fearful impressions of the untamed Divide in themes of failure, despair, madness” (Gerber, 31)[53]. Only after Cather had put a spatial distance between Nebraska and herself, she was able to paint a less disheartening picture of the West in “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” (1900) and “The Treasure of Far Island” (1902). Finally, her growing attachment to the country and people of her home state induced her to apply an even more sympathetic mode in “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909) and “The Bohemian Girl” (1912), both being important steps to O Pioneers!.[54]

Her 1905 collection of seven short stories, The Troll Garden [55], is a testimony of Cather’s personal preoccupation at that time with “art, artists, and the relationship between art and life” (O’Brien, 1987, 271). Its title and two epigraphs are taken from Charles Kingsley’s The Roman and the Teuton and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and hint at the conflict present in the entire book between “true and false art, artist and ‘barbarian’” (Ambrose, 61). By setting “East against West, experience against innocence, civilization against primitivism” (Woodress, 111) the author ordered her well–wrought pieces in juxtaposition. The ‘garden stories’[56], including “Flavia and Her Artists”, “The Garden Lodge”, “The Marriage of Phaedra”, and “Paul’s Case”, are set in the East and exhibit a distinctly Jamesian influence. “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, “A Death in the Desert”, and “A Wagner Matinee”, however, belong to the ‘prairie stories’, all of them presenting western themes with a typically Catherian touch.

With the publication of “The Count of Crow’s Nest” (1897) Cather approached what has been termed her “Henry James period” (Woodress, 110). Since her days in Lincoln she had admired James for his order, balance, and command of language. Now in New York, James became more and more her model of writing[57]. By adopting his literary interests and artistic intentions she declared herself to be “the stylistic son of Henry James” (O’Brien, 1987, 110)[58]. At the height of her Jamesian phase she composed such psychological pieces as “The Profile” (1907), “The Willing Muse” (1907), and “Eleanor’s House” (1907). Imitative and inauthentic as they are, these stories remind readers in technique, characterisation, and subject– matter of James, Hawthorne, and Edith Wharton. “The Namesake” (1907)[59], “On the Gull’s Road” (1908), and, last but not least, Alexander’s Bridge owe just as much to her literary master. At any rate, it was not until Cather had more confidence in her native material that she gave up her Jamesian style of writing.[60]

On her way to literary artistry Willa Cather was greatly encouraged by the New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett[61]. Soon after their meeting in 1908 the two women writers developed a warm and tender relationship which ended abruptly with Jewett’s premature death in 1909. Even though Jewett was twenty–four years Cather’s senior and had lived exclusively in the East – writing fiction at her family home in South Berwick, Maine, and conversing with literati at Mrs. Fields’s stately house on Beacon Hill in Boston – there were many similarities between them. Apart from a common interest in the past, both of them had a rural background and a relish for stories. Unsurprisingly, Cather encountered in Jewett[62] “many people: a female literary precursor, a woman writer whom she could respect, a mentor, and an encouraging friend” (O’Brien, 1987, 332). Indeed, it was Jewett who not only urged her to get on in her development as an author[63] but gave her practical advice on how to proceed in her creative writing[64]. In a 1913 interview Cather recalled her mentor’s admonition:

Write it as it is, don’t try to make it like this or that. You can’t do it in anybody’s way – you will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don’t let that frighten you. Don’t try to write the kind of short story that this or that magazine wants – write the truth, and let them take it or leave it. (Cather in KA, 449)

Jewett also anticipated her friend’s artistic method when she remarked in a letter that “the thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper – whether little or great, it belongs to Literature” (NUF, 76). Moreover, Cather derived some of her more pragmatic insights into fiction from reading Jewett[65]. For what she found exemplified in her works were two elements that she viewed as essential to the art of writing: a “gift of sympathy” (NUF, 80), that is the writer’s ability to give himself absolutely to his material, and a “gift from heart to heart”(NUF, 84), which means the author’s familiarity with the native idiom of the local people. Endowed with Jewett’s gifts, Cather was ready to embark on a professional career as a fiction writer.

After an apprenticeship of more than two decades Willa Cather eventually emerged as a novelist in 1912. While Alexander’s Bridge was still largely indebted to James, it was O Pioneers!, in which Cather embraced her native material and spoke in her own artistic voice for the first time[66]. From 1913 onwards the novels demonstrate Cather’s literary mastery. Despite all diversity her novelistic œuvre testifies to the author’s insistence on the poetic imagination as the central principle of the creative process. In a 1915 interview, Cather proclaimed:

Imagination, which is a quality writers must have, does not mean the ability to weave pretty stories out of nothing. In the right sense, imagination is a response to what is going on – a sensitiveness to which outside things appeal. It is a composition of sympathy and observation. (Cather in KA, 452)

Yet, a closer look at her stories and novels suggests that both imagination and memory formed the core of her artistic method[67]. It has been argued that “the unifying principle of memory in her whole work becomes a larger force than simple recall and recording; it is a source, a technique, and a belief” (KA, 108). Throughout her life Cather “had subconsciously observed and responded to the world about her by sifting and committing experiences to memory – all those experiences which particularly attracted her sympathy” (Ambrose, 84). Many years later she drew on the same experiences in her memory and transformed them through her imagination Once Willa Cather got started in her career as a novelist, she pondered more and more over the technique of good fiction–writing. What she found pertinent to the writer’s craft were selectivity and simplicity[68]. Convinced that “the novel, for a long while, has been over–furnished” (NUF, 43) with material things and physical sensations, Cather wanted authors to “throw all the furniture out of the window; and all along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations” (NUF, 51) so as to “leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little”

(ibid.). As a form of imaginative art, the novel must not be an exercise in presenting the material world as faithfully and completely as possible. Unlike Honoré de Balzac[69] and other realists, writers are expected to select their poetic material with deliberation. Additionally, Cather called for a more suggestive way of writing because whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there – that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel. (NUF, 50)

According to her view[70] that “the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification“ (NUF, 48f), authors must do in writing what Jean François Millet[71] did in painting. Instead of multiplying their ideas in fiction, the writer’s task is to intensify and simplify his artistic works by replacing many conceptions good in themselves with one that is better and more universal. Hence, Cather held the firm belief that “any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it” (OW, 103).

A survey of her narrative œuvre makes it clear that Willa Cather remained concerned with a handful of topics all her life. Her recurrent subjects include themes highly familiar to romanticism: “love of nature, sympathetic interest in the past, exaltation of youth and the superior individual” (Rosowski, 1988, X). The writer’s occupation with the past and her enthusiasm for youth became artistic obsessions[72]. Thanks to the stark contrasts which she had experienced in her own life – Virginia versus Nebraska, Red Cloud versus New York, America versus Europe[73] – Cather was well–prepared to write about opposites in place, time, and man. In her fiction she set nature against culture, past against present, youth against age, and individual against community[74]. From the first short stories to the last novel her imaginative writings explore the many conflicts “between the young and the old, the city and the country, the artist and society, between ideals and realities, between desire and necessity” (Robinson, 8). And that is also the reason why Cather’s best work is illustrative of an almost “instinctive pairing of the major dualities” (KA, 80) in human life.

2.3 West and Fiction

We go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure. (Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”)

Willa Cather is an author as thoroughly American as her best writing is essentially western. Hence, her western works are cited again and again as evidence for her pre– eminent status as an American writer. Out of her western fiction it is the Nebraska novels that are frequently considered her most accomplished and most original contribution to twentieth–century American literature. O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady cover a genuinely American experience: pioneering in the West. These novels unfold the lives of prairie farmers, immigrant settlers, and railroad builders as commonly found in the Great Plains region. They reflect the physical strains and psychic effects of the frontier experience on people living in the prairie West. Accordingly, Cather’s Nebraska novels have been recognized as belonging to the one literary genre most native to the American West: prairie fiction.[75]


[1] O’Brien argues that “coming from the homogeneous Anglo–Saxon culture of white settlers in the Shenandoah Valley – where the sharpest divisions were those between Baptists and Presbyterians, supporters of the secession and Union sympathizers – she was excited by the discovery of difference” (O’Brien, 1987, 71).

[2] In her essay “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle” Willa Cather refers to the early population of Nebraska as “transatlantic” (p. 621), saying that “colonies of European people, Slavonic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Latin, spread across our bronze prairies like the daubs of color on a painter’s palette” (p. 622).

[3] Between 1902 and 1935 Willa Cather undertook seven journeys to Europe. Usually accompanied by either Isabelle McClung or Edith Lewis, she toured extensively through England, France, and Italy.

[4] O’Brien makes a case for southern story–telling as an important influence on Willa Cather and compares it to the female activity of quilt–making (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 29).

[5] Although the term ‘Nebraska novel’ is widely used, some Cather critics prefer the terms ‘pioneer novel’ (Urgo, 1995, 41), ‘prairie novel’ (Thacker, 149), or ‘frontier novel’ (Bloom and Bloom,73).

[6] That is why Robinson calls Willa Cather’s Nebraska “a part of American literary lore” (p. 19).

[7] Today’s Gore, the village in Frederick County is located some 13 miles from Winchester under the Blue Ridge Mountains at the end of the Shenendoah Valley.

[8] Still in Virginia, Willa Cather’s mother gave birth to Roscoe, Douglass, and Jessica in 1877, 1880, and 1881 respectively. Her younger siblings, James, Elsie, and John, were born – after the family’s migration to Nebraska – in 1888, 1890, and 1892 respectively.

[9] Some time later Willa Cather changed her first name into Willa and added Sibert as her middle name in honour of her uncle William Seibert Boak, who had died as a soldier of the Confederacy in the Civil War.

[10] The farm and its people resurface as the setting and characters in Cather’s last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).

[11] Migration was probably due to the humid climate of the valley that caused tuberculosis and had led to the deaths of several of William’s brothers (Cf. WWC, 9f).

[12] Founded in 1870 and named after a Sioux Indian chief, Red Cloud figures as Hanover in O Pioneers!, Moonstone in The Song of the Lark, Black Hawk in My Ántonia, Sweetwater in A Lost Lady, Frankfort in One of Ours, and Haverford in Lucy Gayheart (Cf. Ambrose, 18).

[13] Willa Cather retained lifelong ties with two of them and dedicated My Ántonia to Irene Miner Sherwood and Carrie Miner Weisz.

[14] Mr. Charles Wiener appears as Mr. Rosen in Willa Cather’s short story “Old Mrs. Harris”.

[15] For a detailed summary of the books available in the Cather household see Bernice Slote’s article “The Kingdom of Art” (KA, 35–43).

[16] Willa Cather’s mannish period lasted until 1892, when she began to let her hair grow out and dress in a more feminine way.

[17] Their names were Dr. McKeeby and Dr. Damerell, the former being used as the model for Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark (Cf. WWC, 110–14).

[18] Around 1890, Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, had a population of 30000 people and could boast a capitol building, a university, five major hotels, five private schools, a public library, and plenty of saloons and churches (Cf. Woodress, 50).

[19] Lincoln’s two theatres, the Lansing and the Funke, could accommodate together up to 3000 spectators. Sometimes one hundred travelling companies passed through the city in one year (Cf. Woodress, 51).

[20] Sharon O’Brien goes to great lengths to prove Willa Cather’s lesbian identity and her affection for Louise Pound (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 127–141).

[21] Dorothy Canfield–Fisher (1879–1958) acquired a PhD in Romance languages and spent her later life in Vermont. She became a writer whose novels and short stories are mostly set in small–town America and celebrate traditional American values.

[22] Set in a harsh Nebraska country, “Peter” narrates the story of an old Bohemian immigrant who commits suicide before seeing his beloved violin sold by his own son. Later Willa Cather reworked it and integrated it as the episode of Mr. Shimerda’s suicide into My Ántonia.

[23] Willa Cather’s column was a regular feature until 1900 and dealt with human–interest material and the arts (Cf. KA, 13, and Woodress, 65).

[24] Another grim Nebraska story, “On the Divide” tells of Canute Canuteson, a Norwegian immigrant farmer, who almost goes crazy for loneliness on the prairie.

[25] One more piece of Nebraska fiction, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” relates the love story of a Westerner and an Easterner, thereby anticipating themes in Willa Cather’s later novels.

[26] Published by Richard C. Badger, the collection is dedicated to her brothers Roscoe and Douglass. Its thirty seven poems are about “death, mutability, and failure in love and art” (O’Brien, 1987, 256) and show Willa Cather imitating “Virgil, Shakespeare, Keats, Rossetti, Yeats, Swinburne, Tennyson, FitzGerald, Housman” (ibid.).

[27] The stories included are “Flavia and Her Artists”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, “The Garden Lodge”, “A Death in the Desert”, “The Marriage of Phaedra”, “A Wagner Matinee”, and “Paul’s Case”. Woodress notes that “all concern in some way the world of art” (p. 110).

[28] Willa Cather’s reverence for the former is expressed in her essay “148 Charles Street”, published in Not Under Forty. Her admiration for the latter is mirrored in the dedicatory lines of O Pioneers!:”To the memory of Sarah Orne Jewett in whose beautiful and delicate work there is perfection that endures”.

[29] Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant gives her view of their friendship in her own book Willa Cather: A Memoir.

[30] Alexander’s Bridge has a distinctly Jamesian flavour. Set in Boston and London, the psychological plot depicts Bartley Alexander’s love affair and his death caused by the bridge that he as an engineer is commissioned to construct.

[31] Often referred to as Willa Cather’s “portrait of the artist as a young woman”, The Song of the Lark combines her own childhood days in Nebraska and Olive Fremstad’s artistic career as a singer in Chicago and New York.

[32] As long as Willa Cather worked on it, she referred to it as ‘Claude’ but changed the title to One of Ours at the suggestion of Alfred Knopf.

[33] For evidence see Henry L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson’s statements on One of Ours (reprinted in Willa Cather and her Critics, ed. by James Schroeter, 10ff and 25f).

[34] The book contains reprints of “Paul’s Case”, “A Wagner Matinee”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, and “A Death in the Desert” and four new stories, namely: “Coming, Aphrodite!”, “The Diamond Mine”, “A Gold Slipper”, and “Scandal”. Similar to The Troll Garden, “the stories deal with artists in relationship to the Philistine world, and the entire collection sounds an over–all note of death, defeat, frustration, and loss” (Woodress, 187).

[35] Re–dedicated to her father “For A Valentine”, the book retains twenty–four pieces from the 1903 collection and adds twelve new poems (Cf. Robinson, 118).

[36] Based on Willa Cather’s reading of Father William Howlett’s biography The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Macheboeuf, the novel is an account of the lives of two French–Catholic missionaries in nineteenth–century New Mexico.

[37] After reading up on the history of the French–Canadians in works by Francis Parkman (1823–93), Willa Cather produced a novel which tells of a small settlement in seventeenth–century Quebec (Cf. Woodress, 237).

[38] Yehudi Menuhin (1916–99) became a very famous violinist and conductor in his professional life.

[39] Between 1917 and 1933 Willa Cather received honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska, University of Michigan, Columbia University, Yale University, University of California at Berkeley, Princeton University, and Smith College.

[40] Set in Nebraska and populated by Bohemian characters, “Neigbour Rosicky” is often considered a sequel to My Ántonia.

[41] Later renamed into Literary Encounters, Not Under Forty includes “A Chance Meeting”, “148 Charles Street”, “Joseph and his Brothers”, “Katherine Mansfield”, “Miss Jewett”, and “The Novel Démeublé”. The last two essays contain some of Willa Cather’s most explicit statements concerning her artistic principles.

[42] For a detailed survey see Philip Gerber (p. 141).

[43] Apart from George Sand (1804–76), Jane Austen (1775–1817), Charlotte Brontë (1816–55), and George Eliot (1819–80) were the only women writers whom Willa Cather held in high esteem. She thought of all others as belonging to Hawthorne’s “mob of scribbling women”, lacking craft but abounding in sentimentality.

[44] The truth is that Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) was a realist writer. Willa Cather’s essay “A Chance Meeting”, first published in the February 1933 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and later inserted in Not under Forty, expresses her admiration for the author and his historical novel Salammbô (1862).

[45] That is what Gerber termed “Willa Cather’s distinction between the actual and the true” (p. 140).

[46] Gerber points out that “Passion, beauty, emotion – these became Cather’s passwords” (p. 139).

[47] In her essay “Miss Jewett” Willa Cather states that “at that time Henry James was the commanding figure in American letters, and his was surely the keenest mind any American ever devoted to the art of fiction” (NUF, 91).

[48] Willa Cather must have held the view that “genius without craft is little; craft is nothing without genius; but should the two join – as when a great natural voice is developed by superior training – accomplishment knows no limit” (Gerber, 138).

[49] In her essay “On the Art of Fiction” Willa Cather expresses her strong conviction that “the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty – never a very important thing in art” (OW, 101).

[50] In 1923 Willa Cather reissued the collection under the title of April Twilights and Other Poems including more genuine poems “The Swedish Mother”, “Spanish Johnny”, ”Prairie Spring”, “Going Home”, and “Macon Prairie” (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 261).

[51] Some of the poems display the literary influence of Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936), whose A Shropshire Lad (1896) was especially dear to Willa Cather (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 256). On her 1902 tour through Europe, she even visited him in his Highgate lodgings (Cf. Woodress, 100–2).

[52] Willa Cather grew so ashamed of her early poetry that she bought up as many copies as possible. Her attitude is best illustrated by her 1925 remark: “I do not take myself seriously as a poet” (Cather quoted in Woodress, 105).

[53] In another scholar’s words, “her first stories focus on immigrants struggling to survive on the Nebraska plains and introduce the themes of loss, transplantation, and inhabitation” (O’Brien, 1987, 195).

[54] Still a fledgling author, Willa Cather told in a highly stylised manner of exotic places, supernatural beings, and mysterious incidents in “A Tale of the White Pyramid” (1892), “The Fear that Walks by Noonday” (1894), and “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900). Equally unimportant were melodramatic stories like “The Elopement of Allen Poole” (1893) and “A Night at Greenway Court” (1896), both being reminiscent of her Virginia origin.

[55] Four of them were released separately: “A Death in the Desert” (1903) in Scribner’s, “A Wagner Matinee” (1904) in Everybody’s Magazine, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (1904) in McClure’s, and “Paul’s Case” (1905) in McClure’s.

[56] The distinction between garden stories and prairie stories is derived from Rosowski (Cf. Rosowski, 1988, 22).

[57] Willa Cather must have felt that “James’ Appolonian perfection could balance [her] Dionysian self–indulgence” (O’Brien, 1987, 300).

[58] O’Brien deliberately refers to Willa Cather as the “stylistic son of Henry James” because the apprentice writer identified herself exclusively with male writers. Only little by little did she align herself with a matrilineal tradition in literature (Cf. O’Brien’s chapters “Paternal Voices”, “A Gift from Heart to Heart”, and “Literary Inheritance”).

[59] Based on a poem of the same title in April Twilights, the story immortalises her uncle William Seibert Boak, in whose honour Willa Cather adopted Sibert as her middle name and changed her first name into William during her tomboy years (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 13 and Woodress, 28f).

[60] Willa Cather recalls her early literary influences by indirection, declaring in her essay “My First Novels (There were Two)” that “Henry James and Mrs. Wharton were our most interesting novelists, and most of the young writers followed their manner, without having their qualifications” (OW, 93).

[61] As a local–colour writer, Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) produced mostly short stories and novels set in Maine. Deephaven (1877), A Country Doctor (1884), and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) are ranked among her best works.

[62] In her memoirs Elizabeth Sergeant records Cather’s great respect for Jewett, whom she regarded “outstanding as a writer of New England stories. The best writer our country had produced” (Cather in Sergeant, 40).

[63] In one of her letters Jewett warned her friend who was deeply involved in the magazine industry: “You are older than that book (= The Troll Garden) in general; you have been living and reading and knowing new types; but if you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago” (O’Brien, 1987, 345).

[64] In another letter Jewett exhorted Cather: “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the offices must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country – in short, you must write to the human heart” (O’Brien, 1987, 346).

[65] In a 1913 interview the author acknowledged that her three favourite American authors were Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sarah Orne Jewett (Cather in KA, 446).

[66] Willa Cather was well aware of that change. In her literary essay “My First Novels (There were Two)” she compared the writing of O Pioneers! to “taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding” (OW, 92f) whereas the composition of Alexander’s Bridge was like “riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time” (ibid.).

[67] O’Brien makes repeated mention of imagination and memory as the essential sources of Cather’s art (Cf. O’Brien, 1987, 366 and 409). into some of her most accomplished fiction. When summarising her development as a writer, Cather confided to a friend: ”Life began for me ... when I ceased to admire and began to remember” (Sergeant, 107).

[68] Gerber goes so far as to speak of Cather’s “doctrine of simplicity” (p. 143).

[69] The French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) is well reputed for his meticulous way of writing. He wrote of life in France during his time. His series of almost eighty novels and tales, which he called La Comédie Humaine, forms a social history of France in the first half of the nineteenth century.

[70] In her essay “On the Art of Fiction” Willa Cather expressed a similar view: “Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole – so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page” (OW, 102).

[71] The French painter Jean François Millet (1814–75) is most known for his drab scenes of country life. Set against a rural background, his peasant figures are caught in everyday tasks. Willa Cather repeatedly cited his painting “The Sower” as an illustration of her artistic principle (Cf. OW, 102f, and Cather in KA, 447).

[72] It has been observed that “youth became an obsessional subject, appearing over and over again throughout her writing” (Ambrose, 50).

[73] In this context one biographer speaks of Willa Cather “feeling the old dichotomies again” (Woodress, 151).

[74] For evidence see Sally Peltier Harvey, whose entire book probes the tensions between individual and society in Willa Cather’s various novels and links them to the writer’s changing attitude to the American Dream.

[75] Just as the North American prairie extends far into Canada’s southern provinces, i.e. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, so prairie fiction holds a prominent place within Canadian literature. Such Canadian writers as Frederick Philip Grove, Sinclair Ross, and Robert Kroetsch have produced prairie fiction.

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Mythologia Americana – Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels and the myth of the frontier
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Nebraska, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, Prairie, Pioneer, Frontier, American Mythology, Midwest, Willa Cather, western fiction, prairie novel, frontier myth, pioneer figure, Great West, identity, myth, history, American fiction, American literature, Great Plains, Virginia, James Fenimore Cooper, Virgil, rural West, agricultural West, Antonia Shimerda, Alexandra Bergson, Marian Forrester, settler, Frederick Jackson Turner, prairie West
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Mag. Bernhard Wenzl (Author), 2001, Mythologia Americana – Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels and the myth of the frontier, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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