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Woman of Letters

Can Willa Cather be saved from her academic admirers?

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Companion includes two essays on My ntonia. Anne E. Goldman's "Rereading My Antonia" exemplifies the approach Joan Acocella had in mind when she observed that "Some writers are willing to give [Cather] points on one scale, but not on another. One might say 'Cather was good on women, or pretty good, but she was bad on empire,' while another might condemn her political conservatism but praise her as 'a friend to gay rights.'"

Goldman faults My ntonia for supporting "a conservative reading of American political life," but she praises Cather for her "insistence on representing middle-aged women . . . the people most consistently under-represented across a wide range of arts." Objecting to Cather's affirmation of American society in general, Goldman gives Cather points for at least bringing out the "suffocating quality of small town life." She seems to be intending to praise one of the great novels of American literature by claiming that, in the episodes depicting the small town of Black Hawk, it "resembles filmic satires of suburban life such as The Stepford Wives or American Beauty."

The late Susan J. Rosowski's essay "Willa Cather and the comic sense of self" is something else again. Lindemann writes in the introduction that Rosowski "turns in a surprisingly different direction for her discussion of Cather's aesthetic principles." And it is, indeed, surprising to find in this anthology an essay that objects to "the general tendency to treat fiction as a psychobiographical document" and suggests "we return to [the] aesthetic principles underlying Cather's art."

Taking as her epigraph George Santayana's dictum that "Everything in Nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence," Rosowski argues persuasively that My Antonia may be seen as "one of the great comic narratives of American literature." Rosowski clarifies her conception of the comic perspective by a comparison with the tragic view of life:

Whereas tragedy celebrates the heroic of a great but doomed assertion of ego, comedy celebrates the capacity of human beings to lose themselves in the regenerative and adaptive rhythm of life. Whereas tragedy features a consolidation of self, comedy requires a blurred, indeterminate sense of self.

Whereas Lindemann is "annoyed" by the "insipidness" of the narrator, Rosowski sees that the stories Jim tells on himself express the "expansive comic spirit" of the novel, so that when Jim finally visits ntonia after 20 years, "The expansive spirit of self-negligence means that Jim fully accepts ntonia as she is" and, likewise, "Jim fully accepts in himself the follies of his youth." Rosowski praises Cather for expressing the "comic spirit" which she identifies, in a gesture unique in the Companion, with the American spirit:

Cather confirmed principles of comedy for herself and for America when she wrote My Antonia: of finding faith in the life spirit's adaptability, and flexibility; of celebrating that faith with full knowledge of individual mortality; of blurring boundaries between the self and the not-self and, in doing so, fully accepting one's own identity.

Rosowski's success in making use of George Santayana's vision to gain insights into Cather's fiction suggests the possibility of other parallels between the world views of the philosopher and the fiction writer. When Godfrey St. Peter, the historian who is the protagonist of The Professor's House, tells his class that "Art and religion . . . are the same thing, in the end, of course," he is repeating Santayana's thesis that "religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs."

Santayana's point about the virtual identity of art and religion is not only explicitly supported by St. Pierre but borne out by the ancient Cliff City explored by Tom Outland in the same novel. The remains of Cliff City architecture reveal what the priest Father Duchene calls a "natural yearning for order and security" that, the text makes clear, is satisfied by both art and religion. The archbishop of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour, could not, of course, admit an identity between the two realms, but at some level he feels the affinity: "As he had a very special way of handling objects that were sacred, he extended that manner to things which he considered beautiful."

Many readers of My Antonia cannot understand why Jim Burden does not want to marry ntonia but is taken up with the "idea" of her. About to leave ntonia for two decades, he tells her "The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."

Santayana would have understood. In his autobiography, he describes "a change of heart" he went through around the age of 30, as he came to realize that "to possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare." The hero of Santayana's novel The Last Puritan, Oliver Alden, comes to the same awareness only after his marriage proposals are rejected by two women:

Now affection and kindness are all that I have felt or ever ought to feel about the real Rose, or about the real Edith .  .  . my image of them in being detached from their accidental persons, will be clarified in itself, will become truer to my profound desire, and the inspiration of a profound desire, fixed upon some lovely image, is what is called love. And the true lover's tragedy is not being jilted; it is being accepted.

Willa Cather would seem to agree: The happy marriages in her fiction, like that of Antonia and Anton Cuzak, or Anton and Mary Rosicky, are indeed expressions of "affection and kindness," not the sort of idealization of another that Jim Burden instinctively (and Oliver Alden eventually) both realize cannot be fulfilled except by absence.

Early in My Antonia, the young Jim Burden falls asleep in a pumpkin patch, "entirely happy." The adult Jim Burden muses that "Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge." He concludes his reflections with a line that is engraved on Willa Cather's tombstone: "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

This acceptance of dissolution is part of what Susan Rosowski has in mind in finding a link between Santayana's philosophy and the comic view she finds in Cather's fiction, especially My Antonia. The comic perspective blurs "distinctions between the self and the not-self." The comic spirit accepts "individual mortality" with "full knowledge" but does not regard one's own end as tragic because it is capable of finding a continuity beyond the individual self. The philosopher who sees things "under the form of eternity" sees a continuity beyond his own life: "A man who understands himself under the form of eternity .  .  . knows that he cannot wholly die .  .  . for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part for ever of the infinite context of facts."

Cold comfort, perhaps. But Willa Cather's fiction suggests that it is not only philosophers who are able to see death, including one's own, as something other than a tragedy. Jim Burden is one witness; death as continuity is perhaps affirmed most lyrically in Cather's fiction in the last sentence of O Pioneers! which tells the story of Alexandra Bergson: "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!"

These parallels between the fiction of Willa Cather and the philosophy of George Santayana are not meant to suggest that the key to Cather's fiction, if such a key were possible or even desirable, could be found in Santayana's ideas. They are meant to suggest that a vision of the world of the quality and depth found in the work of Willa Cather is perhaps best understood when interrogated with the assistance of minds--like Santayana's--whose works reveal a similar quality and depth.

Unfortunately, with some outstanding exceptions, such as the work of Susan Rosowski, much of the recent criticism on Willa Cather renounces any assistance except what is provided by the dominant academic trends, so that a large part of contemporary Cather studies amounts to, as Joan Acocella puts it, "the interrogation of this author as to whether her views were sufficiently antipatriarchal, anticolonial, antihegemonic."

In her introduction to the Companion, Marilee Lindemann responds to Acocella, and those who share her sense that contemporary criticism has distorted and diminished Cather's literary reputation, by asserting: "I am pleased to offer this volume as a way of saying that the patient is doing very well, thank you, and the doctors are justifiably proud of their efforts."

The image of contemporary critics as "doctors" and Willa Cather as the "patient" reveals all too much about the state of Cather studies today.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.