Sunday, 29 November 2020

Willa Cather's songs of the earth

These are landscapes with people: what landscapes, what people - Swedes and Bohemians in the prairielands of Nebraska, Norwegians and Mexicans in Colorado, French Missionaries among the tribes and races of New Mexico. I actually came to Willa Cather (1873-1947) through Alex Ross who, in his Wagnerism (which I referenced here, as well as in a much too short review for the BBC Music Magazine) devotes a perhaps inordinate amount of space to her perceptions on singing and artistry. Hence I came to The Song of the Lark, central novel of her so-called Great Plains Trilogy. The title is taken from Jules Breton's painting of the same name in Chicago's Art Institute.

The protagonist, Thea Kronborg, has been left money to study in Chicago as a musician (first as a pianist, then as a singer). Cather is careful, as always, to let her break slowly out of her solipsism to learn and observe - and in this case, what Thea observes, on a rare excursion in the city, links the painting to the landscape of her childhood, however different: 'The flat country, the early morning light, the look in the girl's heavy face - well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that that picture was "right". Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain. But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.'

Ross's fascination with the novel lies in Cather's complex take on the artist's calling, which is perhaps better defined in terms of a Wagnerian singer than in any other work of fiction I've read. But equally important is her often ambivalent attitude to her roots, and the essence is of how to bring that into harmony with her new life. Experience is the catalyst, and in Part IV, 'The Ancient People', Thea goes to stay in the San Francisco Mountains of Northern Arizona. Cather is on the verge of preachiness in describing how her heroine finds herself in mystical touch with the indigenous people whose deserted rock homes populate Panther Canyon. Ansel Adams' 'Canyon de Chelly' is a helpful point of reference here, as are so many of his photographs. A detail of it is actually reproduced on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Song of the Lark.

Cather stops short of stating the obvious - that the time-machine effect helps Thea forward in her impersonations of Wagner's mythic heroines - but that's clearly implied. 

Thea Kronborg is a compelling creation, a fusion of the opera singer Olive Fremstad and of Cather herself, though the author's upbringing was not in Colorado but in the green landscapes of Virginia (until the age of 9), and then the prairie of Nebraska, the preferred pays d'adoption of her fiction. She must have felt at first just as she describes it in O Pioneers!

of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening...The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings. 

Nebraska is where the shorter and in some ways less complex outer panels of the Great Plains trilogy are located. Two more strong women are at their core. Cather describes the mind of Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! as 'slow, truthful, steadfast', but she loves the difficult, seemingly unyielding land: 

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of the geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower that it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

She makes a success of the poor farm bequeathed to her. 16 years pass, and her first (and only) love asks how she and her neighbours did it with the land she saved and borrowed to buy.

'We hadn't any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all it once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found that we were rich, just from sitting still.'

Others move away to seek a new life; tragedies unfold, not least in a parallel plot featuring a brutal husband accorded remarkable understanding by Cather. But Alexandra endures, and there is a quiet, optimistic ending in which she concludes: 'The land belongs to the future...We come and we go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it for a little while'. The same is expressed by my good friend Kaupo Kikkas in his website section on the photographs of 'Ansel', which I had the good luck to see last summer in Pärnu, with music by Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks to complement them: 'My “Ansel” is the 500 million-year-old landscape. It was here before the arrival of man. It will remain after the last of us is gone.' Just an excuse to introduce one of his stunning images. I wish I'd found the time to write about them on the blog after what had to be an all-too-brief mention in my Arts Desk article on the 2019 Pärnu Music Festival.

Cather is not blind to the exploitation and misuse of nature, and she seems nostalgic for the unfarmed and parcelled out prairie (in its old self, as one character puts it, 'the grass was the country, as the water was the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds, when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running'). But harmony with nature in the farming pioneers is central. My Ántonia is the portrait of a vivacious Bohemian girl as seen through the eyes of the boy she shares her childhood with. Jim Burden, the narrator, is quite a sentimentalist, but there are harsh incidents which course through the softness, as in a devastating chapter about a suicide, and you believe in the final idyll of Antonia's life as fecund mother and farmer. It may seem a rose-tinted picture, but the notion of self-sufficiency where everyone works together is an attainable ideal.

More rock-like is the prose of what has been argued as Cather's greatest masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, set in the varied scenes of the vast territory called New Mexico, where in some places 'the country was still waiting to be made into a landscape'. Its essence is picaresque, with shades of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, though these are no rogues or madmen but two missionaries of contrasting temperaments and outlooks. Father Ferrand and Bishop Latour do what good they can on their own very different terms in a tough land where they could be killed at any moment. The latter, reaching a simple community shortly after being lost, realises that his 'dear Joseph...must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature, but against it'. Later, he tells Ferrand:

 'The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what there is about us always.'

Though Ferrand is much loved by the different people he visits, Cather's sympathies are clearly with Latour, his understanding of people of different faiths and races. His Indian assistant Jacinto, behind whom Latour perceives 'a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him',

liked the Bishop's way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos, the right tone with Padre Jesusm and that he had good manners with the Indians In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces: Father Vaillant's, for example, was kind but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.

The compliment is returned:

Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or bids through the air.

So the perspective in Death Comes for the Archbishop is bigger, more sweeping, than in the earlier novels, though always bounded by perfect prose. The two men meet alarming local autocrats, dark elements of other religions which must simply be accepted, a noble Navajo with whom the Bishop has a moving friendship, changes to the territory ('as Father Vaillant remarked, at Rome they did not seem to realize that it was no easy task for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history'). The Bishop lives long enough 'to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have lived to see the Navajos restored to their own country'. He has seen how 'too many traders and manufacturers made a rich profit out of that [Indian] warfare; a political machine and immense capital were employed to keep it going'. Plus ca change. But the Bishop dies in the knowledge that God will preserve the Indian.

There are almost too many quotable passages in these four books, but I'll finish with one that comes towards the end of Death Comes for the Archbishop, sure that I'll find many more in Willa Cather's other novels, her letters and her biography, still on the reading list. I've inserted one more of Kaupo's images before plunging into the last chunk of prose.

But the Spanish Fathers who came up to Zuni, then went north to the Navajos, west to the Hopis, east to all the pueblos scattered between Albuquerque and Taos, they came into a hostile country, carrying little provisionment but their breviary and crucifix. When their mules were stolen by Indians, as often happened, they proceeded on foot, without a change of raiment, without food or water. A European could scarcely imagine such hardships. The old countries were worn to the shape of human life, made into an investiturem a sort of second body, for man. There the wild herbs and the wild fruit and the forest fungi were edible. The streams were sweet water, the trees afforded shade and shelter. But in the alkali deserts, the water holes were poisonous, and the vegetation offered nothing to a starving man. Everything was dry, prickly, sharp; Spanish bayonet, juniper, greasewood, cactus; the lizard, the rattlesnake - and man made cruel by a cruel life. Those early missionaries threw themselves nakes upon the hard heart of a country that was calculated to try the endurance of giants. They thirsted in its deserts, starved among its rocks, climbed up and down its terrible canyons on stone-bruised feet, broke long fasts by unclean and repugnant food. Surely these endured Hunger, Thirst, Cold, Nakedness, of a kind beyond any conception St Paul and his brethren could have had. Whatever the early Christians suffered, it all happened in that safe little Mediterranean world, amidst the old manners, the old landmarks. If they endured martyrdom, they died among their brethren, their relics were piously preserved, their names lived in the mouths of holy men.

Despite the toughness of this writing, I should only add that for all the harsh events featured in the pages of the four novels I've read, Cather has been such a luminous and positive companion through these dark days - the ideal lockdown reading.


Unknown said...

I have just finished The Song of the Lark and loved it. The descriptions of landscape linger long and make me want to go to Colorado and Arizona to see the sand hills, the cottonwood trees and canyon. The canyon was so vividly depicted, the heat, the apricot rock faces and the whispering aspen that when I looked at photographs afterwards, it was exactly as I had imagined. And the articulation of single-minded artistic passion rings true, although Wagnerian singers then were much less supportive of each other than they are today. Thea Kronborg is such a splendidly fierce character who is an equal to all the men with whom she has relationships. Sarah Baxter

David said...

Yes, all these books made me want to go, especially to the south. A happy reconciliation after the pre-election crisis when I was wondering if I would ever care to visit the USA again. When it's possible, I want to - though I imagine quite a few possible conflicts with representatives of the horrifying percentage who voted for the Horror Clown.

I love the later dialogues with the men - very Jamesian, I thought.

Susan Scheid said...

This is a lovely post, and a serendipity, of sorts, that you should write of Cather right now.

One of the miracles, for me, in the midst of all this turmoil, was the reopening of our local public library. Most recently, I obtained "The Saddest Words: William Faulkner's Civil War," and with it, because of author Michael Gorra's commentary about it, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, which I'd not read--and which I am finding mesmerizing.

I note this because just yesterday I read a passage in which Gorra references Cather. Gorra is writing more generally about authors who "set their work in the nation's margins and yet in doing so extended their reach by inventing a character from the world outside, an intermediary, as a way to enter and depict a region they knew intimately." About Cather, Gorra writes, "The prairie towns of O Pioneers and My Antonia are every bit as isolated as Jewett's Maine, but that's because they're new. They lie on the verge of the national life in both senses of the term: along its edge, and yet also ready to enter, something about to be more; and her people are always in motion. They key text here is Cather's 1915 Song of the Lark . . .". On reading it, I made a mental note to get that book and read it.

Other points of connection: I grew up outside Chicago. The Art Institute was, I felt, my personal museum, and The Song of the Lark among its (but really my) most treasured paintings. And of course I lived for many years in the rural Midwest, a place that only reticently yields up its secrets.

As an aside, I'm curious to know, per your comment to the post, why reading Cather, as her work is located in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, would spur a desire to visit "especially the south." Perhaps Faulkner might be next on your list, who knows, as his fictional Yoknapatawpha County is based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life. A lot of my family is from or lives in various places in the south, and while working for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, I spent a lot of time there. It is a complicated region. Here's a fascinating pictorial taste:

David said...

The immediate answer - because The Song of the Lark and above all Death Comes for the Archbishop are set in the south. The most evocative writing of all, it seems to me, is reserved for New Mexico. And while the prairie descriptions are atmospheric, they mostly speak of a time before the land was entirely cultivated, so no real desire to see that.

The passage you quote is very much in harmony with the Cather ethos as I understand it.

I read quite a lot of Faulkner when I was a student but there are glaring gaps, so yes, I should. I'm now deep in Victor Serge's Memois of a Revolutionary, where the prose is tough, spare and dark.

Susan said...

Ah, the southwest, then! (And yes, re the prairie, there's hardly any of it left--so little, in fact, that I believe most of what's left of it is part of the Kansas Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.) Re New Mexico: I sometimes think, if I had life to start over, I would live in New Mexico. Though I did visit there many years ago, and retail fond memories, if dimmed by time, my recollection of NM is likely to be made much more of myth than of reality. The Serge sounds fascinating. Here's hoping you'll weave some of it into upcoming classes. . .

David said...

I confess my knowledge of American geography is poor - I did study my big atlas while I was reading Cather to see what fitted in where. I could probably fit less than 20 puzlle pieces representing the states into a jigsaw.

Susan said...

Well, let it be known that my understanding of UK geography is beyond poor--and this despite getting several wonderful cook's tours of places all around the UK. That you took out an atlas while reading Cather truly touches my heart. May the day come when we can move from virtual to actual traveling again--perhaps we can all meet up in New Mexico one day. So many wonderful places to explore!

David said...

It's as Sarah writes in the first comment: 'The descriptions of landscape linger long and make me want to go to Colorado and Arizona to see the sand hills, the cottonwood trees and canyon.' I've always wanted to go to the Santa Fe Opera Festival - so maybe that would be a good base for a road trip? Let's hope it will be possible. Though I don't really want to fly where I can avoid it for a good while yet.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, the Santa Fe Opera Festival could not help but be a wonderful base for a road trip. May the day come when it's possible again.

Liam mansfield said...

no new blogs since end of november? hoping that you aare ok ,good and healthy. Liam

David said...

Thanks for your concern, Liam - yes, all of those things but been very busy with Zoom - just spent a happy two and a half hours on The Nutcracker with students keen to do something now all live ballet performances have been cancelled. Autumn 2 on the way soon, too. All well with you and the Prof? We keep missing Damant in so many ways.