On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Struggle Is All: Willa Cather

    Willa Cather's strong and sympathetic writing finds clearest expression in those novels that are set in the Midwestern United States, primarily because of the unique qualities of that land. The great-granddaughter of pioneers, I was born and reared there myself, so I can appreciate the sentiments she expresses through four novels in particular. Although Cather was born in Virginia, she moved with her parents to Nebraska at the age of nine in 1883, a move which had an enormous impact on her subsequent writing.  Living there through her university years, Cather had ample opportunity to observe the pioneers, mainly immigrants, who populated the region and toiled amid great hardships.  That harsh land which required so much of those who lived on it remained with her indelibly to serve as an inspiration for her novels set in that region, which historically has been characterized as having “an inhospitable climate, a boring landscape, and conventional inhabitants.”  Cather was acutely aware of this perception and quotes a New York critic who at the time her first Midwestern novel was released said, "I don't care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it.”  But other critics since have not shared that view; Eudora Welty shows appreciation for Willa Cather's depiction of Midwesterners when she says, "There is not a trace of disparagement in her treatment of the least of her characters.  The irony of her stories is grave, never belittling; it is a showing of sympathy.”
    Cather herself moved to the East coast to establish her career, but visits to relatives in Nebraska reinforced her strong feelings of sympathy for those people who became the models for her protagonists in several novels and short stories.  Perhaps because of Cather's "showing of sympathy," posterity has had a continued interest in O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (l918), A Lost Lady (1923), and The Professor's House (1925), which can be considered her Midwestern novels.
    All of the principal characters in the four novels are connected to a greater or less degree with the land, which is employed as more than a setting for the story.  Most notably is O Pioneers!, where the land is introduced as so potent a force as to be a personality in its own right.  There and in the other three novels, the land is a featured player with a changing role, not so much for its effect on the characters as for its use as a counterpoise which indicates the moral force of each protagonist, i.e., the character of the land balances the character of the protagonist.
              Viewing the novels from an apparent chronology it seems obvious that as the plains become more readily cultivated and the population increases, the land figures less importantly in the lives of the main characters; therefore, one does not have to seek hidden or symbolic meaning as to its function.  But a closer look at the novels should make clearer Willa Cather's main thesis:  that the struggle of the immigrants on the virgin prairie symbolized the most difficult and most worthy endeavor of humankind--lofty, sacrificial striving toward an ideal: the essence of individualism.  Cather, in fact, seemed to resent the effects of "progress," in which the distractions of modern life–social pressures that desire conformity and require a money-grubbing mentality–deflected purposeful effort and constrained heroic gesture.   Cather became increasingly disturbed by the tendency of the times to look outside oneself for "success" in life.
              An unrepentant individualist, she viewed the New Deal with a kind of horror as the dawn of the age of the civil servant, whom she regarded en masse as "dreary petty men who took a mean pleasure in thwarting those who had energy, daring, and originality.”  The novels, under scrutiny, express Cather's desire to enlarge our sensibilities to her view of human potential and heroic achievement.  To Cather, the land comes to represent the protagonists themselves in these novels; how they use the land is how they "use" their lives.  The strengths exhibited by both the land and Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! form the standard by which characters in succeeding novels are to be judged.  In The Professor's House, the last novel chronologically, the author shows how the absence of struggle toward an ideal leads to spiritual poverty.  Here the land, a French garden, is relegated to an ignominious role of plaything for the Professor, and the Professor's life is as inconsequential as the garden with which he occupies his leisure moments.
              Now in our own times, when land has little importance in people’s lives, Cather’s thesis is interesting to ponder: that struggle is the great definer of character.  Since the symbolic importance of the land is now passé, other symbols of the individual’s struggle may now suffice.   A person's life may be good, even happy, Cather seems to say, without taking the heroic path, but the transcendent life of real achievement can only follow from struggle toward a formulated ideal.

1 comment:

  1. Jeanne, a most interesting essay. I especially liked her observations about the New Deal bureaucrats. Wonder what she'd think about the vast army of those "dreary petty" men and women we have in such positions now?