Michael N. Field

Writer and public intellectual


Mr. Field holds a Master of Arts degree in English literature (with honors) from Fresno State University in Fresno, California, awarded in 2021.

He writes fiction and is interested geopolitical, social, political and cultural theory. His interests include American literature, British literature before the 20th Century, social relations in the United States in the Postwar and post-1970 eras, the Cold War and the impact of the world war 1939-45 on the system of world civilization.

He attended the Chicago Public Schools. He received his bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1974.

Caste and Destiny: Literary naturalism in the Prairie and Southwestern fiction of Willa Cather is the title of his Fresno State master’s thesis


Numerous editorial columns for various publications, 1984-2000

Various fiction and non-fiction work in development or under submission.

During his career as a graduate student from 2016 through 2021, participated in three graduate conferences, one in New York state and two at Fresno State University.

Member Sigma Tau Delta English honor society.


Mike may be reached at casteanddestiny@gmail.com.




The Twentieth Century American author Willa Cather has been treated a number of ways by successive generations and schools of scholars and critics – as an elegist, as a sentimentalist, as a pure artist and eventually as a relic or atavism. Cather’s position as a practitioner of literary naturalism has been recognized in varying degrees over the generations, but she never has been recognized as an outright naturalist except by certain outliers. In this thesis, the issue will be introduced, and then literary naturalism itself will be defined both in its original meaning as a conscious European school and in its American variation. The characters of the works of the Prairie Trilogy – O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia – and the later Southwest novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop will be examined through the naturalist lens. This study will show that Cather represents the characters in these works as bound by a choreographed system of ethnic, racial, class and gender caste which privileges the unmarked Anglo-Saxon norm and assigns lesser stations to all others. The concept of Nietzschean individualism as applied in American literary criticism and scholarship will be defined and its application to certain Cather characters noted. The study will conclude with an addendum which the reviews the successive stages and schools of American criticism and notes why each failed to sufficiently recognize the naturalist element in Cather’s work.

Michael N. Field

May 2021




Michael N. Field

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Arts in English

in the College of Arts and Humanities

California State University, Fresno

May 2021

© 2021 Michael N. Field


1. THE ISSUE OF WILLA CATHER……………………………………………………………….1




WORKS CITED………………………………………………………………………………………..99


Contemporary literary and cultural critic Joan Acocella, in her biographical essay Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism, begins with the note, “Cather is traditionally regarded as the elegist of the pioneer period, the repository of what America thinks of as its early, true-grit triumphs” (3).

With the themes, settings and peoples Cather deals with in her prairie fiction – struggling Bohemian, Swedish and Slavic immigrants of at best modest origins striving to succeed in farming and town life – it is both difficult and not plausible to see Cather’s prairie fiction, and her Western fiction generally, as not being at least in part about that true-grit struggle, the factual story of what the peoples of Continental European and British Isles descent did to survive, and ultimately to establish themselves as settled farmers and townsfolk in pre-World War I America.

In other fiction, notably in the Southwestern story Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather deals with another struggle. This is the struggle of the traditional cultures already planted in that region, the cultures of the Native nations and the Mexican campesino and gentry classes, to cope with the incursion of the Yankee empire and its culture of cosmopolitan modernity.

Some readers might be satisfied with seeing Cather’s prairie and Southwestern fiction as Americana or mere true grit adventure. Most readers, I believe, would go on to see in it the grimness which it in fact does so often possess, and few if any scholars and critics use the idea of Cather as a writer of historical romance as their jumping off point. Most critical views, rather, treat Cather’s fiction either as a fiction of social ideas or as a fiction of ideas about the nature of the human condition. Much of the conflict in the critical views of Cather in the century since the publication of her Prairie Trilogy has to do with whether the criticism is social or philosophical.

As Acocella describes how Cather was first received, she was treated along with other luminaries of the new generation as a breath of fresh air and a welcome alternative to a literature of “well made plots about the suppressed emotions of wealthy people in Boston” (17). Though she says, Cather wrote “with no political purpose in mind” (17) and “despised political art” (17), according to Acocella,

rising group of young literary critics – H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, others – were calling for a new kind of writing, one that would reflect in Brooks’s phrase, ‘America’s coming of age’. (17)

These critics, Acocella says, called for the development of a new literature “about ordinary people – poor people, people outside the cites – experiencing real emotions and expressing them in plain American language” (17). And she adds,

The naturalists, especially [Theodore] Dreiser, fit this bill. So would the ‘revolt from the village writers – Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. And so did Cather with her farmers. (17)

In spite of her own intentions, Cather was thus put in the context of the day and made into what the day wanted her to be politically. Acocella describes the view of the redoubtable Mencken:

Mencken, a famously censorious critic, placed [Cather] in the front rank of American novelists. In My Antonia, he said, [Cather] had taken the story of ‘poor peasants’ and made of it “the eternal tragedy of man” – a lesson to those Boston pantywaists. (17)

Mencken’s view as described by Acocella, if taken as a definitive statement of the use to which her own age put Cather’s work, shows that her work was in fact treated as a fiction of ideas and a statement about the nature of the human condition. While the material of Cather’s work bears both on the issue of American social conditions framed in the various terms of ethnicity, class, gender and race and on the issue of the literary naturalism, the matter of which is the action of vast, impersonal forces and their effects of the destiny of individuals, any criticism even touching on these issues had to await the future developments of modernism, the social consciousness of the 1930s and postmodernism.

Indeed, even though Cather came of age as a great American novelist during the later days of the naturalist era, it is questionable whether she ever has been recognized as a significant practitioner of literary naturalism in any form, except perhaps by some rare iconoclasts. Even contemporary critics and scholars, while they do not ignore the issue of how the lives of Cather’s characters are determined by great forces acting in context on the immutables in their nature, as we will later see, often work within the contexts of feminist and postcolonial critical theory.

The idea of the immutable will figure large in this discussion. The term can refer sometimes to inborn characteristics, in other cases to those which are contingent. The inborn can include gender, color or race, identifiable ethnic characteristics, physical characteristics and mental characteristics such as inborn personality traits, and native talents and aptitudes. The contingent can include caste or class as socially defined, including color caste, gender caste, ethnic caste and socioeconomic class.

Although Cather was close to 50 years old when the modernist revolution of the1920s got going, she quickly became a favorite target of the modernist critics. Particularly, the modernists were annoyed by the refusal of Cather to entirely share the modernists’ Postwar disillusionment or to write solely of the “absurdity and butchery of the war” (19) and to cast war as an entirely meaningless experience in the manner, for example, of John Dos Passos in his post-World War I novel Three Soldiers.

According to Acocella, when Cather’s own war novel One of Ours, the story of a frustrated young Nebraska man Claude Wheeler who finds meaning in the war experience, appeared “[t]he critics immediately went on the attack” (19).

Acocella notes that “In Vanity Fair Edmund Wilson raised his eyebrows over Claude’s finding his salvation in ‘the dubious crusade of the war’ (qtd. in Acocella)” (19).

According to Acocella, Mencken turned on Cather as well, and so did the formerly sympathetic Sinclair Lewis. (19)

In reality, Cather herself turned against whatever optimism was evinced in her earlier work. As Acocella points out: In O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, Cather had written of victory, female victory: adolescent girls in little towns dreaming of doing something great and actually managing it – a subject not unrelated to her own life. Then she stopped believing in victory. (20)

Perhaps the reason was not so cosmic. The disillusioning experience of the Great War may have played a role after all. Acocella suggests that the experience of aging itself might have played a role also. As she explains, “Various theories have been advanced for this change of heart, but do we need a theory to explain why a person in her forties might cease to believe that the race is to the swift” (20)?

Acocella calls the endings both of My Antonia and One of Ours “faked” and

invokes the idea that “Claude charging shiny-eyed into the German gunfire” and “Antonia standing in grizzled glory among her myriad children” represents “a sentimentality … that had nothing to do with the dark knowledge that inform the best part of those novels” (21).

After that, Acocella says, “Cather stops pretending” (21). But in doing so, she has not joined the modernists who are the romantic rebels always ready to take up the cause of society’s outsiders and oppressed. In Cather’s case she took, rather, a sharp turn to the cultural if not the political right.

The efforts of modernist cognoscenti to marginalize Cather thereafter took off. At first she was characterized merely as a dated figure but later, in the era of social action and class conflict which characterized the 1930s, she was vociferously attacked. As Acocella describes it,

If she was condescended to in the twenties, in the thirties she was attacked head-on, for by then the literary scene had changed again. America was in a depression, and the best young critics were mostly Marxists, or at least committed leftists. To them, Cather’s tragic vision seemed an affront. (24) Or so it would appear to an age and an encompassing political, artistic and movement which saw human angst not as a consequence of “the operation of a timeless tragic principle” but as “clearly just a matter of economics” (24).

Regardless of the barrage of criticism emanating from the cognoscenti, she remained immensely popular and widely read among ordinary readers. More importantly, to the degree she was vilified by the left, she was equally embraced by the political and cultural right. As Acocella observes, “[a] critic in North American Review praised her as an antidote to the ‘murky, obscure, amorphous prose’ being turned out by other novelists” (26), and [t]he Catholic World “described her work as a rebuke to the ‘crude realism, Freudism, inchoate prose, shallow philosophy’ and other vices that dominated modern literature. (26)

Nor were any of Cather’s public stances likely to dissuade anyone that Cather was other than a philosophical conservative. According to Acocella, “In her politics Cather was indeed conservative. She hated Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and big government” (26). Acocella adds to the list a visceral dislike of “political art” (26) on the part of Cather and reports Cather’s complaint that “An artist should have no moral purpose in mind that just his art” (26).

Cather died in 1947 at the age of 73, before Postwar modernism became fully developed. American Postwar modernist prose fiction was characterized more than anything by realistic treatments of contemporary white American life and was furthermore the almost exclusive province of the white male writers, although these may not have been from elitist backgrounds.

In this atmosphere, interest in Cather waned. Acocella describes critical interest in her work in the 1950s and 1960s as “small and taxidermic” (32) and often, “[i]n keeping with the trends of the period” (32), focused on the issue of the “myths and archetypes” represented in her work and on the issue of her “her borrowings from the Bible, the Aeneid, pastoral poetry, opera” (32).

As the feminist and, later, the postcolonial schools of criticism developed, interest in Cather increased again. But it was not often a positive interest. For the feminists, at least according to Acocella, Cather, because she was a woman and an icon who furthermore often wrote about persevering women like the Prairie Trilogy protagonists Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg, and Antonia Shimerda, was inherently of interest. Yet they were troubled by Cather, who was never an early embracee of the major feminist issues as the contemporary world understands them. As Acocella observes of Antonia Shimerda in My Antonia:

Finally, Antonia is not victorious. She has a hard life…. We find her at the end of the book in her kitchen doing the dishes, with her sons and daughters gathered around her. But this is not what most feminists would call victory (38).

Furthermore, those women who do succeed on their own terms are not barrier breakers in the contemporary mode, but rather apparent practitioners of Nietzschean individualism or some facsimile thereof. One can put in this class the previously mentioned Alexandra Bergson, and also, though what elitist would take notice, Antonia Shimerda’s youthful sidekicks Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball.

Feminists often were savage in their judgment of Cather. If they accepted her as a necessary part of their canon, she was otherwise a betrayer of the feminist cause. An example of such, according to Acocella, was the discomfited critic Jean Elshtain, who said of Cather “One is either part of the group of those who have found their authentic voices as women, or one is a ‘male-identified’ dupe of the patriarchy” (qtd. in Acocella 39).

Here, Elshtain could have been thinking of Cather’s youthful experimentation with the trappings of male identity, the wearing of male-identified clothing and the calling herself by the masculine name of William Cather (Acocella 9), but that may not have been the only issue.

For the feminists, the idea that Cather drew her major influence from male produced literature rather than past literature produced by women might have been the greater concern. For these critics, Acocella says, “it was not a pleasure to see Cather take her inspiration” from the likes of “Virgil, the Bible, and Pilgrim’s Progress” and the more recent canon of “Tolstoy, Flaubert and Henry James” (40).

The final stage of Cather criticism is what might be termed the postcolonial or multicultural. Acocella makes the point, however, that it is a mere step from the issues of the feminists to the issues of the multiculturalists. By the late twentieth century, Acocella says, “Actually, feminism is no longer the cutting edge of Cather criticism. Multiculturalism is” (63). But the question is still the same as in the feminist critique, the matter of “any politics that disempowers” (63). The difference is only that attention turns from the relation of women to men to the “treatment of the blacks, Mexicans, Navajos, and Pueblo Indians who turn up in her work” (64).

In this thesis a different approach will be taken to the work of Cather. Herein, the discussion will return to the foundational issue of literary naturalism and its concomitants of biological, social and historical determinism. The focus will be on the issue of social, economic and cultural forces acting in historical context on the individual human being considered as bound by the immutables of gender, race and ethnicity, and the inborn aspects which make one person differ from another in character, temperament and talents.

Approaching Cather from this vantage does not obviate the possibility of feminist, contemporary multicultural and postcolonial readings whatsoever, or the earlier readings either. The reading here rather will be somewhat originalist in the sense that it will explain Cather in terms of the world view which was contemporary to her own time.

Herein, the novels of the Prairie Trilogy, O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia, and the Southwestern novel Death Comes for the Archbishop will be examined from the point of view of an originalist literary naturalism. It will be shown that these novels describe a determinism which is represented as a vast analog machinery in which the destiny of all, whether Slavic, Scandinavian, German, Irish, French, Jew, Mexican, African American or Native, and whether male or female, works itself out in an intricate, hierarchically organized symphony of the spheres revolving around the hidden sun of Anglo-Saxon hegemony.

In organization, this thesis will consist of this introduction, a section discussing the concept of literary naturalism and its concomitants, including the concept of Nietzschean individualism, a section discussing the characters in the primary works in the context of the various elements of the naturalist and determinist concepts, and a review of and response to Cather criticism from the beginning through the present day. Throughout, Acocella’s essay will be the foundational secondary source.

Acocella’s work primarily is a history of the critical responses to Cather’s work. But Acocella also is not entirely in accord with the mainstream of present-day criticism, which is highly feminist, multicultural and postcolonial, and she protests against the lack of “historical understanding” (65) of the contemporary political critics and their complaints about Cather’s imputed racist views. Ultimately, Acocella, while noting that politics and political climate are an inevitable part of the critical discussion, protests against ignoring “the literary qualities of [Cather’s] work” (67).

This is a view in which I concur, and I believe the idea that life is inevitably tragic, and that tragedy is never really transcended even with the greatest of triumphs, is central to Cather’s art. Cather’s art, however, is not necessarily the primary subject of my discussion either. The subject here, rather, is the narrow issue of how the determined is shown to be the defining force in the life of the individual, though the determinist concept clearly is the handmaiden of tragedy also.

In the determinist concept all efforts are doomed to go to a foreordained outcome, and in the longer arc of time always doomed first to relative failure and then to ultimate destruction, with only a moment of transcendence and triumph lying in between, if even that. This is the essence of the tragic-heroic view of life and the inevitability of the tragic is a large element in Cather’s fiction too.


In this section I will seek to describe what literary naturalism is, especially American literary naturalism, and discuss how the concept might be applied to those works of Willa Cather I consider in this thesis. I expect, frankly, that the latter task will prove to be an easier one than the former. I use the term “explain” deliberately because literary naturalism is a concept which seems to defy concise definition. The common thread running through all iterations of the naturalist concept is the idea that the individual is powerless in the face of the vast impersonal forces of society and nature. What these forces are, or at least how to prioritize them, is in some dispute. But this is an issue which will be treated on an ongoing basis as the discussion proceeds. I am going to start out here by stating my own opinions about the issue and my sense of what it is about. From there I will go into a discussion of the approach to the issue of American literary naturalism particularly taken some scholars past and present.

Literary naturalism began as a consciously created literary movement, with the French literary icon Emile Zola the founder and earliest advocate. Zola hoped for a literature which would be scientific in the strict sense of the term, a literature based on the study of human beings and their proven characteristics. In his essay Le RomanExpèrimental, published in 1880, Zola makes the argument that the prevailing scientific materialism and the positivist impulse which prevailed within European bourgeois culture in his age must eventually make its mark on the literature of the era.

According to Zola,

The return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the century, drives little by little all the manifestations of human intelligence into the same scientific path. Only the idea of a literature governed by science is doubtless a surprise. (1)

Later Zola elaborates on his idea and announces that it his intention to achieve in literature “the substitution of reason and experiment for sentiment” (22) and declares leromanexpèrimental, by which he means, not experimental literature as our age understands that term, but a literature based on science,

a literature which is … a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century; it continues and completes physiology, which itself leans for support on chemistry and medicine; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical and chemical laws, and modified by the influence of his surroundings; it is in a word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age. (23)

Zola concludes by calling

the experimental novelist … therefore the one who accepts proven facts, who points out in man and in society the mechanism of the phenomena over which science is mistress, and who does not impose his personal sentiments except in the phenomena whose determinism is not yet settled…. (53)

and portentously adds

I cannot understand how our naturalistic literature can mean anything else. (54)

The literature Zola is proposing is one which looks at man himself, and by the term “man” here I mean the phyletic entity, the human being whether man or woman, as a mechanism explainable in terms of physiology, chemistry, and the inborn passions which it is necessary for him to have in order for life to continue.

This was the European view of how to bring materialist science into literature.

American literary naturalism took a different course. It too sought to account for Darwinism and materialistic science generally, and to see man as a product of the natural but it looked at the world in a different way. Where European naturalism was the product of the science of atomistic mechanism above all, the American literary naturalist looked at the world through the eyes of the qualitative scientist who observes the lives of plants and animals and who, while seeing a marvelous and irreducible system in the operation of nature, also sees the terrible randomness which governs the fate of any given individual.

A close connection always is drawn between realism and naturalism, but the connection, although perhaps inevitable, is contingent rather than necessary. Whereas realism is an aesthetic wherein the objective is to depict people and events in an accurate manner consistent with daily reality as that is known to the reader, naturalism has a different objective. Naturalism rather seeks to show how the lives and fates of people inevitably are the product of forces beyond their individual control. The object is to show that what happens to the individual is the product of such matters as social and cultural class, individual heredity, geographic place and the economic forms of society.

Demonstrating these things without resorting to realism might be difficult however, and resorting to realism is exactly what the authors of the naturalist movement did even if the realism of the naturalist movement was in some existential sense contingent, something which had to be adopted in order to vividly and persuasively make the conceptual point and in order to put the social, cultural and political argument in the form of fictional literature.

The aesthetic of the American naturalists therefore called for them to make the lives of the poor, the working class, white immigrants of Continental European and British Isles descent, persons not of white European descent when and as included, girls and women in relation to circumstance imposed on them on account of their gender, and even, on occasion, animals the matter of their fiction. All were shown as ruled by the aforementioned forces of class, heredity, place and the form of society.

Historically, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London and Stephen Crane have been regarded as the archetypal and defining figures of American literary naturalism. Their work shows the individual not only as determined, but as reduced to a powerless speck in the face both of the external world and of inborn human nature. Some notable exceptions to the principle of powerlessness might be found in the work of Jack London, wherein individual instances of transcendence over this principle figure prominently. Such is the case of Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf or Buck the canine in Call of the Wild, who, due to an accident of place, has his inborn capacity to transcend the normal limitations of the domestic breed revealed. Both Larsen and the canine Buck are exemplars of the alpha function inherent in the Nietzschean concept though, significantly, neither comes into the possession of the alpha capability as a consequence of choice.

In Cather more people seem to transcend the boundaries of the determined. Yet, when they do so, it is inevitably on the strength of some trait which is itself determined. For Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark and Blind D’Arnault in My Antonia the possession of natural talent is the factor which raises them above the common lot. For Lena Lingard and particularly Tiny Soderball in My Antonia, or Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!, a capacity for the practice of an individualism which in varying degrees disregards the norms other people live by, called Niezschean, is the issue. Even so, those who transcend the common lot do so perhaps only in ways which also are themselves determined by the irreducibles of place, race, ethnicity, class, gender and stage of economic development and social form.

For many more in Cather, there is no transcendence, only the same grim machinery of determination found in other naturalistic literature. Perhaps, in Cather, more people achieve an acceptable condition of life although many along the way also are destroyed. But whatever the outcome is, that outcome always is the product of the determined – the absolutes of race, descent and gender and the contingents of class and caste – operating in the context of place and stage of history. If, in Cather, there is more variegation it is not because she suffers limitations as a literary naturalist, but rather because she is perhaps a better observer and chronicler of the complexities of nature than were her predecessors.

In its sum, this discussion points to what distinguishes American literary naturalism from its European counterpart, and it is a clear distinction. Where philosophically, at least to judge by Zola’s description of his intentions, European literary naturalism viewed the human being as a mechanism itself composed of parts, American literary naturalism retained the concept of the human individual as a whole and irreducible entity, perhaps marked by matters such as gender, race, ethnicity and place in a class system, but always, Whitmanesque, nevertheless whole.

The idea of the wholeness of the individual is a concept with deep roots in American literature if not in American culture entirely. Consider, for example, Walt Whitman in “I Sing the Body Electric”: “The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account, / That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.” (95)

This statement may be taken as personal expression or it may be taken as national poetry and as an expression of a passion for the body politic, in that case perhaps the defining expression of that sentiment in all of American literature. But however it is taken, in it one thing is crystal clear. The individual is whole, indivisible, and, as Whitman says, “balks account” (95), meaning that the individual is irreducible and not subject to being accounted for in terms of the operation of an assemblage of constitutive parts.

Much the same idea is attributed to Herman Melville by contemporary American scholar Steven Frye, who describes the “Cetology” chapter in Moby Dick as “a more nuanced treatment of this perspective” (160).

Frye describes Melville in “Cetology” as “ostensibly composing a work of natural philosophy only to abandon it, concluding that inquiries of this sort are valuable but limiting” (160). Frye concludes that “[f]or Melville, the whale is an embodied symbol of mystery and the sublime” (160), in other words, a thing irreducible and not subject to account in other terms.

American literary naturalism never loses that sense of the individual as a thing entire, and thus never loses its connection to romanticism and the idea of the primacy of the individual. What the individual loses in the naturalist universe is not wholeness but agency, the power to control one’s own destiny. Therefore, the individual in naturalistic literature becomes inevitably doomed; if not doomed to suffer outright destruction, then doomed to the inevitable limitations of class, race, gender, biological inheritance and place, and thus nevertheless tragic.

Mary Lawlor, in the chapter “Willa Cather and the Enchantment of Difference” in Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West, entertains a discussion of the connection between romanticism and naturalism in Cather’s work.

Lawlor, that rare scholar who outright regards Cather as a literary naturalist, makes note of Cather’s willingness, as compared to her predecessors, to unembarrassedly embrace the romantic, according to Lawlor, as compared to the difficulties of her male predecessors had in doing the same.

As Lawlor puts it,

Cather’s westernism is not shy about its romantic inclinations. One finds in her work little of the anxiety Norris, London, and Crane betray over the return of a repressed lyricism. Cather is, on the contrary, overtly interested in the needs, desires and memories that go into the shaping and painting of landscapes. She does not hesitate to recognize the constitutive powers of romanticism. (166)

The reference to the term “constitutive” as it is meant in this context is interesting and telling. Later, Lawlor describes both Cather’s early interest in science and her eventual “distrust of science altogether as a way of knowing” (168), or at least a distrust of mechanistic as opposed to qualitative natural science.

The idea of constitutiveness as it might be applied to Cather might mean something different than what the term means in other contexts. The concept of the constitutive identity refers to the idea of an identity composed of externally received parts. In this usage, these parts or constituents might be described as cultural or they could be described as psychological, but in any case they represent traits, stances or attitudes individuals are pressured or outright directed to adopt by some external movement or authority, or even by commercial and corporate interests.

The possibilities in this regard are, of course, bewildering in their vastness.

Political stance might be the obvious issue but other components could include attitudes toward family, child rearing and sexuality, attitudes regarding economic relations, attitudes toward risk and risk-taking, preferences regarding cultural expression and cultural consumption, attitudes toward religion and many other matters. The opposing concept is that of culture, or the German kultur, the idea of the taking of individual identity in these matters as coming rather from internalized tradition. The conflict between these two concepts undoubtedly is age-old and always ongoing in every culture however submerged one or the other of them may be in a given situation.

The idea of “the constitutive powers of romanticism” (166) therefore means almost the opposite, and perhaps refers rather to the idea the power of the romantic view to recognize the wholeness and irreducibility of the individual.

Acocella speaks little of naturalism, but does allow that the naturalists represented a response to the need for a new American literature reflecting the realities of life in a rapidly urbanizing America which was still filling in its internal rural geography as well. (17)

This idea may be one of the issues in American literary naturalism. Successive generations of critics and scholars have raised new issues which may go yet more to the core of what American literary naturalism was about philosophically than the original conception built around the doomed life of the urban underclass or the challenges faced by men, adult male persons that is to say, brought suddenly into contact with merciless nature.

More to the point, of all of the writers associated with American literary naturalism, Cather in her treatments of race, gender and ethnicity in addition to class may be the one whose work is most in touch with the issues of concern to postmodernist and postcolonial criticism.

Linda Joyce Brown, in the chapter ‘“That hideous little pickaninny” and the Formation of Bohemian Whiteness: Race, Cultural Pluralism, and Willa Cather’s MyAntonia’ in the work The Literature of Racial Formation: Becoming White, BecomingOther, Becoming American in the Late Progressive Era, makes a case in favor of the idea that Cather widely treats the sames issues that are of concern to postmodernism and its adjuncts. Herein Brown focuses most notably on the characters of the black piano man Blind d’Arnault and the adolescent first-generation Bohemian farm girl Antonia Shimerda and the relationship between their positioning in the hierarchy of racial, ethnic and social caste and the contemporary issue of whiteness.

Brown first places d’Arnault and Antonia in apposition, then seeks to draw a binary between them in which d’Arnault represents the “racial grotesque” (107) and Antonia and her ethnic friends the nascent whiteness which would eventually grow to encompass all Americans deemed to be of white European descent.

Brown’s discussion of the character of Jim Burden, the once local youth and childhood friend of Antonia who goes on to become an Eastern lawyer, serves as the conduit for the postmodern and postcolonial view of race and ethnicity in Cather’s work.

According to Brown,

For Jim, d’Arnault functions to normatize whiteness, to establish its borders, but to leave difference within the category of whiteness unmarked. The dancers in the hotel have differing ethnicities: the group includes Norwegian, Irish, Anglo, and Czech Americans. However, these identities are not salient during the dance; apart from gender, Jim barely notes differences among the dancers. (107)

Without the idea of the binary of color, this argument stretches credulity. Without the binary, the reasonable interpretation then would be to think that the blind, black piano man d’Arnault and the dancers alike can participate unabashedly in this impromptu festival because all, even the ruffian Anglo-Saxons in this far outpost of American civilization, are outsiders whose immutables make them inevitably primitives relative to the gentrified Anglo-Saxon. As primitives they then possess the capability, by this stage deemed absent in the gentrified Anglo-Saxon, of being actors in the visceral culture of which the negro is deemed the defining representative.

D’Arnault himself is represented as the immediate apotheosis of this concept. Though his music is contemporary to his time and his patter urbane and tuned to the American culture of the age, he remains “the African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood” (Cather 185).

Jim, now the representative of the Anglo-Saxon core, meanwhile is represented by Brown as seeing, from his perspective as the memoirist, something different in this dissolving of identities, the possibility of subsuming all persons of white European descent into a single presumptive identity based on the Anglo-Saxon ideal.

But postcolonial criticism, in order to carry this idea into the present, perhaps needs to find it ever present in the past too, whether it is there or not. In its future form, defined as the nominal assimilation of all white European types into the Anglo-Saxon concept, the Anglo-Saxon ideal is only liminally or nascently present in the visceral culture of Cather’s multiethnic Nebraska prairie.

Modern and contemporary criticism appears always to have a problem with naturalism in Cather. Postwar critic John H. Randall III in the chapter “Interpretation of My Antonia” in the 1960 publication The Landscape and the Looking Glass carries on a long and, one might say, stifling discussion which touches on the key issues which, in Cather’s work, send people off on different destinies but never quite acknowledges the determinist concept which is at the core of the naturalist idea. Randall, for example, is willing to acknowledge that “different stages in the development of civilization” (273) might influence what happens to the individual. The passion of Emil and Marie, the doomed lovers in O Pioneers! is “snuffed out and so cannot take root” (273) solely on account of the state of civilization apparently. Meanwhile, “the proposed marriage of Carl and Alexandra is postponed until after book’s ending” (273) for much the same reason.

Meanwhile, the deeper intricacies of how these outcomes could be influenced, if not determined outright by the matters of ethnicity, class, gender, the progress of empire, and the inborn natures of the individuals involved is entirely ignored.

Later on, the differences in lives of childhood friends Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda are reduced to a matter of socioeconomics. That “[t]he Shimerdas suffer from poverty for a great many years,” while “the Burdens never have to meet this particular difficulty” is given as the sole reason why “Jim can leave home and receive a university education while Antonia cannot even afford to take time off to attend grade school and learn English properly” (275).

That Jim is from an established, already gentrified American family of apparent British descent and that Antonia is Bohemian, a first-generation immigrant, not a native speaker of English, from a family and culture which see little stigma in illiteracy, and female seems not to be given much weight in this interpretation.

The inability of a scholar of Randall’s ilk to recognize the seemingly self-evident naturalist elements in Cather’s prairie fiction might be written off as the product of his station as a Postwar modernist. But later scholars, though they move beyond the simple issue of class to make the issues of race and gender particularly the major focus of their interest, also overlook the encompassing grandeur of Cather’s vision in favor of their particular concerns and agendas. This, however, is an issue which will be returned to later. At the present, the concern is to outline how scholars have viewed the idea of literary naturalism generally, particularly the American variety, so as to provide a context for the subsequent discussions both of Cather’s work and the work of Cather’s critics, as viewed through the naturalistic lens.

Richard Lehan, who might be termed a later Postwar modernist, in his article “Literary Naturalism and Its Transformations: The Western, Neo-realism, Noir, and the Postmodern Reformation”, attempts to see the naturalist concept through all of the above stages. In the original western novel, the defining character was the loner-hero who confronts and conquers evil and savagery with equal applications of moral and physical force. But the western, where according to Lehan, “the characters had a certain control over the environment” (229), or at least an essential autonomy in the context of its unpredictable wildness and instability, gave way to the naturalistic mode where “the environment controlled the characters” (229).

Or perhaps the line between the western novel and the naturalist novel was not really so long, and the western hero not someone who became a force because he had made a moral choice, but rather someone who became a force because he was fortunately endowed by the workings of chance within nature with the capacity to transcend the limits others were bound by, and hence, appearances aside, determined.

In neo-realism, at least in Lehan’s scheme, the force of the natural is submerged but not entirely eliminated. Lehan calls Hemingway’s world a “naturalistic world” in which “consciousness overrides a naturalistic response and gives rise to neo-realism” (237). In the end Lehan seems to hold that what neo-realism does is present the “naturalistic story without the racial or inherited background – without that is, the documentation that previously made it naturalistic” (237). Perhaps what Lehan is saying is that modernist and neo-realist literature is naturalistic in its world view, but cannot be described as such because it does not meet the formal requirement of documentation which characterizes what is usually recognized as American naturalistic literature.

It needs to be noted at this point, also, that the features which most characterizes Cather’s work is the vastness of her documentation of the immutables, noted in terms of ethnicity and race, gender, socioeconomic station, place and individual biological inheritance, which define the characters who people her fiction. If documentation is the standard, there can be little argument that Cather’s fiction is other than deeply naturalistic, though perhaps in a different way than that of other writers of the era.

Lehan moves on to identify the noir movement in the cinema and literature of the 1930s and the Postwar as yet another transformation of literary naturalism, though an interation of the concept more clearly rooted in the work of the male American naturalists than in anything written by Cather. The quintessential noir protagonist is a male survivor, often a private detective, negotiating his way through the Hobbesian world of the soulless contemporary metropolis. Lehan describes the noir hero as,

… not naive enough to believe that the city can be changed, or unrealistic enough to believe that it can be redeemed. Its corruption is simply given, creating the determining force that works its way in noir similar to the hostile force of literary naturalism. In both modes we are in the realm of inevitability. (237-38)

The noir movement might be an interesting topic for study as rich as it is in material bearing on the issues of gender, class and race relations and the amorality and corruption of the powerful. What may be more important for this argument though is the way in which noir in literature serves as a precursor to the final transformation into postmodernism.

The noir movement in American literature is admittedly a minor one and perhaps confined to genre fiction, notably the detective novel. But Lehan may well be right in recognizing its place as a transitional literature. Lehan argues,

Once history becomes a system of signs we need a transcendental signifier (be it God, nature, the mind, or a system history itself) to hold the signs in place. Without a transcendental signifier, we have clue without conclusion, information without definition, content without context.

Meaning … resides in the structures the mind furnishes. (241)

This is very much the world the noir protagonist lives in, at least in his American literary iteration. Considering, for example, the noir protagonist in the work of Dashiell Hammat, Lehan says of him that he, “… brings a moral understanding to a world which he cannot change – a world which includes the corrupt institutions that are at the source of what is all-determining” (239).

But the point is, the noir hero makes his own values in a world in which the traditional sources of value, those that are deemed transcendental, do not exist. Through his own synthesis of value, he copes with the forces which in earlier naturalist literature destroy the individual. Maybe he is not fully postmodern yet, but by his adoption of an existentialist stance, he prefigures the postmodernist argument that value and meaning exist within the mind of the individual, within the mental structures the individual either receives or creates.

Regarding the genesis and nature of postmodernism itself, Lehan argues,

Modernism began where Nietzsche left off – with human consciousness confronting an unmade universe. Postmodernism takes us one step beyond modernist perspectivism and assumes that consciousness has been collapsed into culture by institutions (that is, by forms of power)…. The postmodernist view negates the belief that meaning is built into history. Nature is no longer a mirror, its working to be read symbolically. We create rather than discover meaning. (241)

This argument represents, perhaps, the modernist’s view of postmodernism but it also does explain why the more contemporary critics have might have trouble seeing the work of Cather specifically as naturalist writing. Cather’s fiction, among the American work that can be considered naturalist, is most thoroughly that mirror of nature, and the work that is most thoroughly the product of the true naturalist’s eye, the eye of the naturalist who is a student of living nature and its actual systems, that is to say.

Christophe den Tandt, in his articles “American Literary Naturalism” and “Refashioning American Literary Naturalism: Critical Trends at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” outlines the terms through which the postmodernists, as he means that idea, deal with the material of naturalist concept. Den Tandt, in defining naturalism, first refers back to the pre-Depression era work of Vernon Louis Parrington. He references Parrington’s description of naturalism as “a pessimistic realism, with a philosophy that sets man in a mechanical world and conceives of him as victimized by that world” (qtd.

in den Tandt “American” 96), and declares Parrington’s description as “among the best of what might be called the orthodox descriptions of naturalism.” (“American” 96).

The limitations of this point of view have been noted already, chiefly the defect that it fails to account for numerous factors apart from class or socioeconomic station which press upon and limit, and, frequently enough, endanger the individual. Nor does it to any degree account for the idea, stated already, that the aforementioned “pessimistic realism” (96) of naturalist literature is contingent, that it is adopted because it is serves as the means through which this literature can make its salient philosophic point, not because it is a necessary foundational aesthetic as is the case with the mimetic realism of William Dean Howells and the other practitioners of the same aesthetic.

Den Tandt adopts the term postmodernism, he says “for brevity’s sake” (“Refashioning” 1), as a rubric for the closely related developments of “neo-Marxist, neo-historicist, multiculturist or feminist” (1) theory and criticism which became prevalent in the 1980s and even earlier. To this term of convenience, one can add poststructuralism and also newer developments, such as postcolonial criticism, critical race theory and other streams of criticism, all generally understood as opposing the predominance, if not hegemony, of a perceived conservative, patriarchal power structure under the control of a male, Western elite.

As Den Tandt describes these streams of criticism, they clearly account for, in fact are preoccupied with, all of the issues associated with literary naturalism. This includes not just the grimy, Dickensian facts of class stratification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its sometime fatal effects, which was the grist for the mills of iconic male authors like Norris and Dreiser above all, but also the variegation noted in the encompassing social ecologies of Cather’s fiction.

In the most elemental view, postmodernism’s objection to naturalism is built on the idea that naturalism’s supposed mimesis, its representation of the reality of social ecology, is not mimetic at all, and that, rather, what is real are the social structures made by people. As den Tandt puts it,

Above all, postmodernist criticism proves defamiliarizing because its re-examination of naturalist politics is grounded in poststructuralist theories contradicting deeply entrenched assumptions about the relation of text and world. Neo-Marxists and neo-historicists reject the reflectionist concept of realistic mimesis endorsed both by naturalist novelists and by their twentieth-century readership. In so doing, postmodernist criticism relinquishes the hope that novels may be effortlessly referential—that they may “get to the places where things are real,” (qtd. In den Tandt 3) as Frank Norris puts it in his essays of the 1890s. According to poststructuralist semiotics, texts never neutrally hold up the mirror to nature: they actively construct the social reality they claim to reproduce.

Thus, naturalist novels, by virtue of the very signifying practices of the realist tradition, are bound to act as hypocritical tools for the perpetuation of power relations. Cloaked in the prestige of scientific objectivity, they construct fictional universes where ideology is disguised as reality itself. (2-3)

This stance is, of course, the basis of such things as the refusal of postmodernism to expand the naturalist concept beyond class. Postmodernists adopt rather what den Tandt call “an hermeneutic perspective enabling them to discern within turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature elements that could not be viewed critically in the authors’ own time” (7).

Postmodernism for one thing takes up the idea that naturalism, in its most iconic works, represents a revolt against a feminized aesthetic and, according to den Tandt, sees in “the naturalist choice to privilege the depiction of inarticulate characters in the urban scene … a gesture of masculine defiance” (11).

Finally, “naturalism no longer demystifies the hardships of urban capitalism” and “portrays subaltern populations as subhuman, ethnically alien outcasts.” (2)

In the sharpest of judgements,

naturalism only exacerbates patriarchy: it condones the roles ascribed to women in the culture of consumerist commodification or deploys a social Darwinian discourse of male supremacy of unprecedented harshness. In postmodernist readings, the naturalist reworking of social Darwinian discourse betokens no genuine attempt to ponder the mysteries of sociobiological determinism: it serves instead as matrix for a discourse of gender and racial supremacy whose presence in the text few previous critics had acknowledged. (2)

In the case of the male writers Norris, Dreiser, Crane and London perhaps this is so, meaning that perhaps they regarded male experience as more able to define the determinist principle they wished to illustrate. Thus, at least in the view of this line of argument, they could be seen as privileging the male person as standing more at the apex of human experience, be it good or ill, than the female person could be considered to stand. This is not so in the case of Cather, whose female characters are paragons of autonomy and self-determination even if their spheres of action are determined by their gender and other aspects of their phyletic and cultural inheritance and by the context in which they live. Considering the degree to which her male characters are represented as helpless, even fatally so, in the face of the pressures they experience, it is hard to see how Cather can be interpreted as privileging one gender or the other as more able to represent the essence of human experience at it most definitive.

A final issue, and one of some significance in the context of the literary naturalist reading of Cather, is that of Nietzschean individualism. Nietzschean individualism is a concept which is alluded to with some frequency in scholarly and critical work on American literary naturalism. Unfortunately, it is uncertain what is meant by the concept in these allusions. Perhaps, the idea simply is taken loosely and used as a cognomen for the idea of an individual who is strong willed and who successfully charts their own course without regard for the established social norms, daily niceties and moral concepts collectively held by the society around them.

Jeanne Reesman, for example, in “The American Novel: Realism and Naturalism (1860-1920)” describes the “moody, brainy Wolf Larsen” of London’s The Sea Wolf as “a monster of Nietzschean individualism” (44) but seemingly finds it unnecessary to define the concept. In “First Principles of Morals: Evolutionary Morality and American Naturalism” Rick Armstrong alludes to London’s “contradictory relationship to Nietzschean individualism” (150) but, again, does not see fit to define the concept.

The idea has, however, a specific meaning drawn from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche himself, which is vividly and accurately explained in the work of other scholars. Randall manages an account of the idea even without naming it. According to Randall, the “natural aristocrat,” whom he sees as figuring large in the work of Cather

is a familiar figure in nineteenth-century thought. He descends from the concept of the hero as outlined by such heroic vitalists as Nietzsche and [Thomas] Carlyle. According to them humanity is divided into two groups: the leaders and the led, heroes and ordinary people, those who are challenged by life’s precariousness and those who are cowed by it; natural aristocrats and everyone else. (70)

This may be a decent and reasonably articulate explanation as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. What is missing is any account of why in the Nietzschean system some one person might become that vitalist hero and another a member of the herd of the ordinary. For that matter, the connection between the concept of the vitalist hero and the hero of Romantic Individualism seems obvious enough. Nevertheless, Nietzsche, in positing the concept of the ubermensch, was not thinking of the idea of natural aristocracy as that was conceived by Romanticism, but rather was thinking in Darwinist terms, and not in terms of social Darwinism, but rather in terms of phyletic Darwinism. He was thinking of the biogenesis of a new kind of human being, and if he was thinking of the Romantic aristocrat, then he was thinking of how that individual might be created phyletically, not what the cultural genesis of that individual might be. If anything, then, Nietzsche treats both culture and the appearance of the exceptional individual, that individual person whom we consider representative of the principle we call Nietzschean individualism, as something which grows directly out of biology, out of the chance of biological inheritance as that was conceived within the thought of nineteenth Century Darwinism.

Contemporary scholars, concerned as they are with the contemporary issues of class, race, gender, postcolonialism and the like, and also perhaps under pressure to approach all topics with a type of forthrightness not prevalent in the past, might be expected to take a more driving approach to the question of what Nietszschean individualism means. Consider how this idea is developed by one contemporary scholar, Stephen Hicks.

Hicks is frank in describing Nietzsche’s concept as rooted in the biological.

Nietzsche is concerned about many issues, and the state of society and culture may be the greatest of them, with the superior individual the only tool through which the will to power operates and creates a superior culture. Beyond that lies the issue of morality as we understand that term, meaning morality as a system of restraint, which Nietzsche sees as thwarting the development of an aristocratic culture in which the strong freely treat the weak as a source of utility and hone their powers through participation in a warrior culture. Nietzsche, according to Hicks,

looks back on past cultures where the magnificent men dominated: strength was prized and inequality was a fact of life. Assertiveness and conquest were a source of pride. (259)

Nietzsche, according to Hicks, accounts for the biological basis of aristocracy in the following terms:

Part of the answer, says Nietzsche, is biological. All of organic nature is divided into these two types of species – those who are naturally herd animals and those who are naturally loners – those who are prey and those who are predators. Some animals are by nature sheep, field mice, or cows and some animals are by nature wolves, hawks, or lions. Psychologically and physically, this divide also runs right through the human species.

Some people are born fearful and inclined to join a herd and some are born fearless and inclined to seek lonely heights. Some of us are born sedentary and sluggish – and some of us are born crackling with purpose and craving adventure.

And he portentously adds,

… but one cannot do anything about which type one essentially is. There is a brute biological fact here: Our traits are evolutionarily bred into us. Just as a sheep cannot help but be sheepish and a hawk cannot help but be hawkish, each of us inherits from our parents a long line of inbuilt traits. (259-60)

In the work of Nietzsche, these ideas grow out of Nietzsche the individual’s fears, anguish and despair. According to 20th Century European scholar Janko Lavrin, whose study of Nietzsche is considerably psychoanalytic, the great issue for Nietzsche was a disgust at the “symptoms of decadence in all the aspects of contemporary life” (29), meaning, of course, European life in Nietzsche’s own era. Nietzsche understood the problem as he perceived it as arising from an inversion in morality which had as its aim “to protect the quantity of the species Man at the expense of its quality” (29). Quality in Nietzsche means the characteristics of an ascendant aristocracy which affirms “conquest and exploitation” (27) as the foundational principle of life. In Nietzsche’s words, rendered in English from the German, he sees the true aristocrat as “the beast of prey … avidly prowling round for spoil and victory (GM I-11)” and a “good and healthy aristocracy” [BGE 258] as marked by its ability to “accept with a good conscience the sacrifice of a legion of individuals, who, FOR ITS SAKE, must be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men” [BGE 258].

Seeing his time as a weak age and seeing as the cause of the weakness he perceived the enervating effects of the cooperative and altruistic morality imposed upon the magnificent by the meek. Nietzsche envisioned a startling solution to this perceived problem. Building on the concept of Darwinian evolution, he imagined the breeding of a new order of human being who would live a life of inconceivable vitality and who would dominate the existing human species based on an inherent biological superiority.

Out of these ideas grew the idea of Nietzschean individualism as it was found in American literature, which was the idea that there could be individuals who lived by their own rules not because of their training and the decisions they had made but because of an inherent biological capability, though circumstances might determine whether or not this capability ever became actualized. In the work of Cather, specifically, biological determinism plays a yet larger role because of the vast array of characters she presents. In some of them, Nietzscheanism looms large and becomes a force which works its way through the medium of certain of the characters as they through their individual successes break through the bonds of social convention and perhaps alter the social landscape.

In the subsequent section, I will discuss some of the characters in the works under consideration, as noted, the novels of Cather’s Prairie Trilogy and Death Comes for theArchbishop, both in terms the concept of determinism as already outlined here, both biological and sociocultural and, where merited, in the context of the concept of Nietzschean individualism as defined here also.


In this thesis, I have alluded already to the encompassing or, you could call it, the kaleidoscopic vision of Cather’s fiction, at least in the case of the works under consideration herein. In this section, I am going to discuss some of the characters in these works, Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia,in the context of the concepts already discussed, notably the various aspects of determinism, both cultural and biological, and, where applicable, also in the context of the idea of Nietzschean individualism as defined.

As a matter of method, it might be possible to delineate all of the necessary concepts, classify every character under discussion as either exemplary of one of these concepts or at the intersection of two or more of them, and discuss each character in context. But this approach, while it might be informative and sound, would not be representative of the approach which treats criticism as an art form of its own accord. Rather, I intend to take an approach to this discussion which is itself artful and kaleidoscopic.

The British author A.S. Byatt, in her introduction to the edition of Death Comesfor the Archbishop which I will reference herein makes note of what is the essential feature of the Cather’s ecological naturalism, the realization that all events, whether great or small play an equal part in the ecology. Without all of these events, the natural ecology is not itself. Nor without every event, both natural and social, is the human ecology itself either. As Byatt points out,

In O Pioneers! and My Antonia violent death, moments of vision, the careful preparation of food are treated at the same leisurely narrative pace, described but not angled from any ‘point of view’ so that ultimately all do

seem to be part of the same experience, the whole of which is both simpler than, and greater than, the sum of its component parts.

In this way, the social ecology itself becomes something whole and indivisible, perhaps in these works always in dynamic flux and in the process of becoming something different, but always whole and not explicable in terms of its parts, just as the individual within it is always also whole and irreducible.

In Cather, the determinative process, as it acts on the individuals, comes in parts. There is, first, the part of the individual’s own nature, which is the product of biological inheritance, and then there is the individual in the context of culture. Finally, there is the progression of the individual always at the cusp of the intersection between entity and culture over time, a concept much apparent in the case of the principal characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the fathers John Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant, both of whom eventually becomes bishops of the Roman church. As Byatt points out, the two characters, like “Christian and Faithful” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, are named for what they represent. Latour, the tower, the urbane churchman, “is conscious culture, well reserved, just, whose crowning achievement is his cathedral … built in and of the local rock, a part of the landscape.” To him, Byatt says,

the mission of bringing “excellent soup, well-roast lamb, wine for the table and methods of gardening to New Mexico” is made equal to the mission of bringing “true doctrine or even a cathedral” to the same land.

Vaillant, the valiant one, represents the opposite pole of this improvised binary. As Byatt describes him “Vaillant, valiant-for-truth, goes out on journeys: associated with him are his mules, waggons, litter, cooking, social encounters.”

His is not a world of the gentle though tenacious spreading of a superior culture but, rather, a world of ministering and proselytizing among the submerged peoples of the

arid territory of the Southwest, chiefly, the Indians and the mestizo underclass. Later in life, he ministers to the rough men in the mining camps of the Colorado Rockies.

Nor do these two men come to these roles for casual or arbitrary reasons, but rather for reasons which are deeply rooted both in class structure and biological inheritance. Cather reminds the reader throughout both of the physical shortcomings and the outright ugliness of Vaillant and of the numerous aristocratic graces of Latour, but does not go into the backstory of the two priests until the end of the novel.

Latour and his partner-in-God’s-service Vaillant come from the thinly populated rural commune of Montferrand in the Pyrenees region of Southern France. They are shown as having been born into the characteristics, both physical and cultural, which frame their respective destinies. The physical characteristics which define them, Latour’s aristocratic mien and Vaillant’s crudeness and physical inadequacies already have been noted. But this is not the only thing that separates them.

Apparently they are separated as well by a boundary of class, with Latour shaded more toward the aristocratic class, the gentry if not the titled aristocracy, and Vaillant toward the element contemporary America society calls the lower middle class.

Cather has the elderly and now-retired Latour, as he rests in the dark end of his room following his dejuener, remember it this way in his reveries:

They were both young men in their twenties, curates to older priests, when there came to Clermont a Bishop from Ohio, a native of Auvergne, looking for volunteers for his missions in the West. Father Jean and Father Joseph heard him lecture at the Seminary, and talked with him in private. Before he left for the North, they had pledged themselves to meet him in Paris at a given date, to spend some weeks of preparation at the College for Foreign Missions in the rue du Bac, and then to sail with him from Cherbourg.

Both the young priests knew that their families would strongly oppose their purpose, so they resolved to reveal it to no one; to make no adieux, but to steal away disguised in civilian’s clothes. They comforted each other by recalling that St. Francis Xavier, when he set forth as missionary to India, had stolen away like this; had “passed the dwelling of his parents without saluting them” as they had learned at school; terrible words to a French boy.

Father Vaillant’s position was especially painful; his father was a stern, silent man, long a widower, who loved his children with a jealous passion and had no life but in their lives. Joseph was the eldest child. The period between his resolve and its execution was a period of anguish for him. As the date set for their departure drew near, he grew thinner and paler than ever.

By agreement the two friends were to meet at dawn in a certain field outside Riom on the fateful day, and there await the diligence for Paris. Jean Latour, having made his decision and pledged himself, knew no wavering. (283-84)

Latour may have been resolute, but the same was not so for Vaillant. On the morning the two are supposed to leave for America, Latour is described as having “found his comrade in a miserable plight” Joseph we are told,

had been abroad in the fields all night, wandering up and down, finding his purpose and losing it. His face was swollen with weeping. He shook with a chill, his voice was beyond his control. (285)

Then he unburdens himself to Latour: “What shall I do, Jean? Help me!” he cried.

I cannot break my father’s heart, and I cannot break the vow I have made to Heaven. I had rather die than do either. Ah, if I could but die of this misery, here, now. (285)

Latour the patrician of the two and future diocese administrator proposes a wise solution.

Allons!” said Jean lightly. L’invitation du voyage! You will accompany me to Paris. Once we are there, if your father is not reconciled, we will get Bishop F—— to absolve you from your promise, and you can return to Riom. It is very simple. (285)

Then Latour, “ran to the road-side and waved to the driver; the coach stopped. In a moment they were off, and before long Joseph had fallen asleep in his seat from sheer exhaustion” (285-86)”

And, finally, we are reminded of Vailliant’s gratitude to Latour for being his better in resolution, judgment and administrative capabilities, for otherwise “he would have been a parish priest in the Puy-de-Dôme for the rest of his life” (286).

What has been deemed to have determined the positioning of these two men, Latour and Vaillant, beyond the obvious matter of their physical differences is of great interest. Although Cather does not belabor the response of Latour’s parents to his decision to become a missionary, maybe this is because it is not necessary to belabor their response. As the parents of a son possessed of natural graces, they would be expected as a matter of course to accept his decision with an equal grace, so why make it an issue at all? The expected resistance of Vaillant’s father, foreshadowed by his presumed stubbornness in remaining a widower, speaks of the characteristics of the lower middle-class mentality. Vaillant’s father apparently yields, for Vaillant does not have to ask the bishop to free him from his promise. We are not told what Vaillant’s father thought, but

we can imagine that he acted not with aristocratic grace but in deference to the authority of God and church.

Although we should note that the characters of Latour and Vaillant are based on the historical figures of Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, the first archbishop of Sante Fe and the first bishop of Denver respectively, Cather clearly takes great pains to align the body and the body politic. The two characters first are shown to arise out of the social body in characteristic, if not stereotypic, ways, and then to go on to careers which are representative of that which is determined by the facts of heredity and the circumstances of their birth.

As Cather explains,

Of the two young priests who set forth from Riom that morning … Latour had seemed the one so much more likely to succeed in a missionary’s life. He, indeed, had a sound mind and a sound body. (286)

Of Vaillant, however, we are reminded,

the authorities had been very doubtful of Joseph’s fitness for the hardships of the mission field. Yet in the long test of years it was that frail body that had endured more and accomplished more. (286)

Is this to be taken as a surprise? As Cather draws him, Latour is been fitted by nature and nurture both for the refined tasks of planting gardens and fruit groves, administering a diocese, training priests and supervising the building of the Sante Fe cathedral.

Vaillant meanwhile is proved to be a model of menial endurance and the one able to minister to those yet more menial than himself, the Mexicans of the campesino class, the Indians and, eventually, the Anglo roughnecks of the Colorado gold fields.

In life, Machebeuf outlived Lamy by more than a year. In the novel, Vaillant dies ahead of Latour, and by this the identity of the body and body politic and the order of the

hierarchy of men is preserved. Latour is allowed to acknowledge that Vaillant is his better in certain ways. Vaillant is an indefatigable worker in a way Latour cannot match. As already noted, he is the better of the two in ministering to the proletariat, the underclass and the purportedly heathen races. He even is acknowledged as the better hustler on behalf of his diocese once he is appointed to the position of high churchman as the first bishop of Denver.

Consider the following passage:

And Father Vaillant had not been content to be a mere missionary priest. He became a promoter. He saw a great future for the Church in Colorado. While he was still so poor that he could not have a rectory or ordinary comfort to live in, he began buying up great tracts of land for the Church. He was able to buy a great deal of land for very little money, but that little had to be borrowed from banks at a ruinous rate of interest. He borrowed money to build schools and convents, and the interest on his debts ate him up. He made long begging trips through Ohio and Pennsylvania and Canada to raise money to pay this interest, which grew like a rolling snowball. He formed a land company, went abroad and floated bonds in France to raise money, and dishonest brokers brought reproach upon his name.

When he was nearly seventy, with one leg four inches shorter than the other [due to an injury], Father Vaillant, then first Bishop of Colorado, was summoned to Rome to explain his complicated finance before the Papal court, — and he had very hard work to satisfy the Cardinals. (287)

Even in her drawing of the end of their lives, Cather ever reinforces the natural inevitability of the differences between the two men and their destinies. Latour’s end is

peaceful and contemplative and the emotional and spiritual responses of others as his death draws near are appropriately subdued. As Cather sets the scene:

On the last day of his life his condition was pretty generally known. The Cathedral was full of people all day long, praying for him; nuns and old women, young men and girls, coming and going. The sick man had received the Viaticum [the Roman Catholic last rites] early in the morning. Some of the Tesuque Indians, who had been his country neighbours, came into Santa Fé and sat all day in the Archbishop’s courtyard listening for news of him; with them was Eusabio the Navajo. Fructosa and Tranquilino, his old servants, were with the supplicants in the Cathedral. (298)

Finally, when death itself come, its manner must retain the alignment of the body and the body politic and reinforce the Apollonian stature of the man. As Cather stages it,

When the Cathedral bell tolled just after dark, the Mexican population of Santa Fé fell upon their knees, and all American Catholics as well. Many others who did not kneel prayed in their hearts. Eusabio and the Tesuque boys went quietly away to tell their people; and the next morning the old Archbishop lay before the high altar in the church he had built. (299)

Vaillant’s funeral, in comparison, is a raucous business. Exactly how he had died is treated as of little interest and not recounted, for how could the details of his final moments be allowed to match the choreographed glories of Latour’s subsequent departure? We know only that Latour learns of Vaillant’s death, now through a telegram, and that he rushes to Denver, now by train, to attend Vaillant’s funeral. Here Cather takes advantage of another opportunity to reinforce the difference between the two men. As she describes the scene,

Father Latour could never feel that he had actually been present at Father Joseph’s funeral — or rather, he could not believe that Father Joseph was there. The shrivelled little old man in the coffin, scarcely larger than a monkey — that had nothing to do with Father Vaillant. (288)

Latour may not have been represented as believing that Vaillant was a lesser human being than he himself, but Cather, while again allowing that Vaillant could be the stronger and the better servant after all in the transcendental order, sets him, in an unmistakable and arguably repulsive way, as Latour’s inferior in the temporal order of life. Vaillant is represented as the near-simian plebeian and contrasted to the patrician and fully human Latour. That Vaillant’s earthiness might make him the better servant is irrelevant in the naturalist’s eye.

In the subsequent details of the funeral the argument is further reinforced. The funeral “was held under canvas, in the open air; there was not a building in Denver — in the whole Far West, for that matter, — big enough…” (288).

That “[f]or two days before, the populations of villages and mining camps had been streaming down the mountains” (288), toward Denver, that the Father Revardy who had been his curate for many years rose from his deathbed after falling ill during his travels to return to Denver for the funeral, and that Vaillant was noted for “the extraordinary personal devotion that [he] had so often aroused and retained so long, in red men and yellow men and white” (289) did not raise him in the temporal order but rather further reinforced the idea that he was in the temporal sense of a lower caste than Latour. Or, otherwise, why would he be so immersed in that roiling rabble of the lower orders of humanity?

In the three novels of the Prairie Trilogy, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia, published in 1913, 1915 and 1918 respectively, Cather deals with a later period in the history of Western settlement than DeathComesfortheArchbishop, which

was written and published in the 1920s. In these works, Cather practiced a microscopic perspective as opposed to the persistent aerial distance she maintained in the later novel. The life of close contact between ethnic groups all of Continental European origin and all relative peers in their status as unassimilated immigrants struggling to survive on a previously unworked land provides the major material for these novels. With this material comes the opportunity to study the minutiae of how the destinies of individuals play out in context in terms of what about them is determined. With the increased assimilation of non-white European groups into Anglo culture, even the newly emancipated Black African, and sometimes other groups, notably the Mexican-American, come under the microscope too. Absent, and not conspicuously so, are the Indians, who are known only through the traces of their former presence, as in the case in My Antoniaof the “great circle where the Indians used to ride” (60) on the Burden farm, described by Jim Burden as “faintly marked in the grass” (60). In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather offers, “It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape” (233).

This, perhaps, is how Cather and the rest of America also saw the Plains Indians, as a race which just as equally could vanish out of the landscape and leave it a primeval sea of grass and a virgin New Land where the Continental European immigrant drama and the final stage of Manifest Destiny could play out. Or maybe Cather acting as a naturalist is merely documenting through the character of Jim Burden certain facts, for one that the Indian has vanished and for another that the settlers attach no significance to fact that another race once lived on the same land they are settling.

Death plays a mighty role in the Prairie Trilogy, but it is not random death most of the time, not death due to the vagaries of disease and accident. Rather, death most often is the place where social Darwinism reaches its terminal stage and becomes phyletic Darwinism. People, most often men but significantly women too, die for telling reasons. Some die because of the occupations they are forced into as a result of their

ethnicity and class station. Some die apparent deaths of despair because of their lack of ability to learn another language, in this case English, and because of the isolation their lack of ability to assimilate into another culture imposes on them. Some die because of their position in the hierarchy of race and color caste even within the larger white European race, so-called. The binary between the characters of Alexandra Bergson and Marie Tovesky in OPioneers!is an interesting, even disturbing, study in this regard.

Alexandra Bergson is introduced as a girl or young woman, pick your term, in her late teens. In this scene, she is outdoors in town in the winter with her brother Emil, who is still a small child. She is described as “a tall, strong girl” (13) who “walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next” (13). Nor do her “serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes” (14) go uncatalogued.

Shortly, a scene unfolds in which the workings of the brutal mechanisms of human sociobiology and social determinism get put on display.

A small drama devolves from a misadventure of Emil and his pet kitten, which has scrambled up a telegraph pole to escape a dog and now is trapped at the top and at risk of freezing to death. Alexandra decides she will find her friend Carl Linstrum, who will find some spiked boots, climb the pole, and recover Emil’s kitten. Seeing that Emil has forgotten the scarf he is supposed to be wearing around his neck “she un[winds] the brown veil from her head and tie[s] it about his throat” (14-15).

Now the phyletic basis of Alexandra’s existence is revealed in all of its Nordic glory when,

A shabby little traveling man, who was just then coming out of the store on his way to the saloon, stopped and gazed stupidly at the shining mass of hair she bared when she took off her veil; two thick braids, pinned about her head in the German way, with a fringe of reddish-yellow curls

blowing out from under her cap. He took his cigar out of his mouth and held the wet end between the fingers of his woolen glove. “My God, girl, what a head of hair!” he exclaimed, quite innocently and foolishly. She stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip—most unnecessary severity. It gave the little clothing drummer such a start that he actually let his cigar fall to the sidewalk and went off weakly in the teeth of the wind to the saloon. (15)

Compare the introduction of Alexandra to the introduction of Marie Tovesky, eventually Alexandra’s primary adult friend, but at the time a child the same age as Emil. Now ready for the trip back to the farm Alexandra goes looking for Emil and locates him playing with the Bohemian girl, Marie Tovesky, who is tying her handkerchief over the kitten’s head for a bonnet.

Marie is described as

a dark child, with brown curly hair, like a brunette doll’s, a coaxing little red mouth, and round, yellow-brown eyes [with] golden glints that made them look like gold-stone, or, in softer lights, like that Colorado mineral called tiger-eye. (18)

To add to the look and the characterization, she is described as “being dressed in the “Kate Greenaway manner” (18), with “a red cashmere frock” (18) and “a white fur tippet around her neck” (18).

Marie does not grow up in the town of Hanover and on the Nebraska divide where her uncle and the Bergson family live and work. She returns, however, in her late teens when she rebelliously ends her education and gets married to man apparently possibly below her station, the charismatic beau gent Frank Shabata. As Alexandra describes the situation to her once childhood friend and eventual life partner Carl Linstrum, whose family’s former land the Toveskys now occupy.

You must remember her, little Marie Tovesky, from Omaha, who used to visit here? When she was eighteen she ran away from the convent school and got married, crazy child! She came out here a bride, with her father and husband. He had nothing, and the old man was willing to buy them a place and set them up. (110-11)

Now Marie is presented in the glory of her womanhood. Or, rather, one could say, that which determines her existence is revealed in it fullest, the matters of natural temperament, physicality and gradations of race, again within the larger white European race, in their sociohistorical context.

Shortly, Alexandra and Carl go to see Marie on the adjacent farm. After some reminiscences about the history of the farm, the trio settles down and the visiting Carl becomes the observer and chronicler.

Carl sat at a little distance from the two women, his back to the wheatfield, and watched them. Alexandra took off her shade-hat and threw it on the ground. Marie picked it up and played with the white ribbons, twisting them about her brown fingers as she talked. They made a pretty picture in the strong sunlight, the leafy pattern surrounding them like a net; the Swedish woman so white and gold, kindly and amused, but armored in calm, and the alert brown one, her full lips parted, points of yellow light dancing in her eyes as she laughed and chattered. Carl had never forgotten little Marie Tovesky’s eyes, and he was glad to have an opportunity to study them. The brown iris, he found, was curiously slashed with yellow, the color of sunflower honey, or of old amber. In each eye one of these streaks must have been larger than the others, for the effect was that of two dancing points of light, two little yellow bubbles, such as rise in a glass of champagne. Sometimes they seemed like the sparks from a forge.

She seemed so easily excited, to kindle with a fierce little flame if one but breathed upon her. (124-25)

What do these characterizations tell us about the matters which determine the contingent social ecology and direct the lives of individuals within that the constraints of that structure? There are, of course, many possible ways of looking at the characters and material of these stories, some of which, for example, postcolonial theory, did not yet exist in earlier eras. In the naturalist approach, however, we need to look at the characters in terms of the idea that they are constructed for the purpose of illustrating certain principles.

Individual inheritance is important, of course. Alexandra is constructed as a commanding figure. Part of the reason is the good fortune of her individual inheritance, the good fortune of her genes, we would say today. The dying John Bergson chooses Alexandra over her brothers as his legatee because,

It was Alexandra who read the papers and followed the markets, and who learned by the mistakes of their neighbors. It was Alexandra who could always tell about what it had cost to fatten each steer, and who could guess the weight of a hog before it went on the scales closer than John Bergson himself. Lou and Oscar were industrious, but he could never teach them to use their heads about their work. (28)

In the practical sense, these things may have been reason enough to put the hopes of the enterprise in the hands of young Alexandra, not that her brothers were old enough to manage it yet in any case, nor her mother at all capable. But Cather constructs yet another reason, one that refers back to the issue of Nietzschean morality and the idea that different people are born to be different things. As it is explained,

Alexandra, her father often said to himself, was like her grandfather; which was his way of saying that she was intelligent. John Bergson’s

father had been a shipbuilder, a man of considerable force and of some fortune. Late in life he married a second time, a Stockholm woman of questionable character, much younger than he, who…. warped the probity of a lifetime….

But when all was said, he had come up from the sea himself, had built up a proud little business with no capital but his own skill and foresight, and had proved himself a man. In his daughter, John Bergson recognized the strength of will, and the simple direct way of thinking things out, that had characterized his father in his better days. He would much rather, of course, have seen this likeness in one of his sons, but it was not a question of choice. (28-29)

The other component of Alexandra’s inheritance is not individual however, but rather racial. In this story, she stands out as the bright beacon of the principle of Nordic supremacy, and her individual inheritance only makes her the one within her race the most capable of serving as that bright beacon of race.

The fate of Marie likewise is represented as the product of some inevitable alloy of individual inheritance and race. Her individual inheritance provides her beauty, her energy, as Alexandra describes it, her ability to “work all day and go to a Bohemian wedding and dance all night, and drive the hay wagon for a cross man next morning” (112), and her passionate nature. The forces which drive her to become the eventual inadvertent femme fatale she turns out to be, fatal even to herself, are more clearly the product of race, and if not race entirely, then class.

Consider the marriage which send Marie into her fatal relationship with Alexandra’s brother Emil, her youngest sibling. Emil, as the youngest child, had the least deprived upbringing and became the most Americanized, the best educated and most cosmopolitan of the Bergsons. When Emil returns to Hanover and the farm after some

adventures in Mexico he picks up his relationship with the Marie. The two, in the throes of their first amorous contact, are found in a secluded spot on the Shabata farm and shot to death by Marie’s by then morose husband Frank Shabata.

The relationship between Marie and Frank begins passionately. Frank arrives as the new immigrant who arrives to “set all the Bohemian girls in a flutter” (131). He is described as

the buck of the beer-gardens, and on Sunday … a sight to see, with his silk hat and tucked shirt and blue frock-coat, wearing gloves and carrying a little wisp of a yellow cane…. tall and fair, with splendid teeth and close-cropped yellow curls. (131)

Frank immediately falls for the 16-year-old Marie, who has just graduated from Omaha High School, and later in the summer the two becomes engaged. Marie’s father berates Frank as a “stuff shirt” (132), a concept that might more mean a dandy, a cad or a fop, and sends Marie to a convent school in St. Louis. Marie leaves the school at eighteen and the two are married. But the tale is all one of downfall after that. Frank, a reluctant farmer in the first place, becomes the overworked, culturally deprived churl and soon the bullying husband. Marie keeps her spirit and gaiety but withdraws in the face of the sea change in her husband’s personality and becomes a partner in a failed and alienated marriage.

The design of the character of Frank positions him as the product of racial caste and class generally and a product of a destiny as member of a lesser race which would inevitably sink him into the condition of a lower caste, the condition of someone without culture. Deprived by racial caste, unless he should so choose to turn his back on his heritage and attempt to pass as an undifferentiated white American, in a word, as an Anglo-Saxon, from aspiring to membership in the American gentry, he follows a known and familiar pattern as he passes by stages from dazzling youth to lumpenman to utter

ruin. His fate, though not death, may be something worse, foul confinement followed by a lifetime of remorse and self-castigation.

Marie’s situation is perhaps more complex though not less determined. Her destiny is the product of her positioning on the scale of both racial caste and gender caste. The intersection of these two factors places her within the context of the exotic, in her case, the exotic woman of Mitteleuropa. From far enough south to be brown and to be also of a race deemed lesser, she functions as a surrogate for the viscerally passionate tropical woman. From far enough east and by dint of her brownness, she evokes also the exotic sensuality of the woman of the Orient. But because she is neither – because she possesses neither the aptitude for treachery attributed to the tropical woman nor the aptitude for intrigue attributed to the Oriental woman she is left, by dint of her position in the hierarchy of race, gender caste and class, hopelessly naive – the lack of calculation with which she approaches her extramarital relationship with Emil means her death and Emil’s as well.

The binary between Marie and Alexandra represents also the familiar trope in American literature of the dark woman as a source of hazard, as compared to the unmarked Anglo-Saxon.

Consider O Pioneers!, as a product of the literary craft, a tale based on positioning and construction; on the positioning of the characters within a matrix of caste – ethnic and racial caste, gender caste, socioeconomic caste – and the meticulous construction of character each to most fit and most exemplify the caste position selected for that character. Even the individual success of Alexandra Bergson as a modern farmer and agricultural entrepreneur is represented more as the product of the race than of some great individual fire.

Imagination is represented as “Alexandra’s blind side” (183) and the life she has lived is described as having “not been of the kind to sharpen her vision” (183). Her forte

is her self-described ability to “stay by a job” (112) and “[her] training … all been toward the end of making her proficient in what she had undertaken to do” (183).

These traits, which Cather represents as a given, are the attributes of race, again as the earlier age used that concept, and Alexandra’s success, we are expected to believe, comes to her because she is by chance born the exemplar of the characteristics of her race.

The Song of the Lark, the second of the three novels of Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, generally is represented as a tale about the coming of age and development of a classical musical artist from a prairie town, Thea Kronborg, carried nearly into her middle years. In this work determinism takes a new turn and herein the issue of individualism begins to play a larger role, or at least it is believed to. But the role of individualism in this work might not be so large as people make it to be. The defect of the coming-of-age idea is that it discounts the possible other meanings of the lark concept. Consider the story from the point of view that Thea, who as a young adult now living on her own in 1900s-era Chicago, discover a vocal talent, and develops into an operatic diva, is not the lark.

Consider rather that the lark is something within her, her daemon, people sometimes call it, or her talent, and the story begins to take on a different look. As natural as it might be to think that Thea, who is after all a singer, is the lark, and the story her song or saga, after all, birds sing and so does Thea, her life and career just as easily, and more to the point, more deeply can be seen as the story of how that which is inborn within her, her daemon or “lark”, drives her life. The same idea will figure in a later discussion of the character of Blind d’Arnault in My Antonia, the once “hideous pickaninny” (Brown 85) who develops into an adroit, culturally attuned artist and entertainer.

Individualism will may play a role particularly in the development of Cather’s artistic characters, meaning the individual will not to be submerged in the common lot however that might vary by gender and element. For Thea the common lot might have

meant a station as a mother and housewife who played and sang in the local church. For Blind d’Arnault, existing under the multiple burdens of racial caste, disability and even class caste within his own race, who knows what the common lot might have been taken to be?

However, within the social and cultural cosmos of The Song of the Lark determinism plays the largest role. Even those who transcend end up bound by the determined.

Especially, the form of their transcendence is moved and bounded especially by their race or nationality, or as we call it today, their ethnicity. Other characters, those who lack a transcendent talent, find themselves bound entirely by the determined, especially the racially determined, even to the point of death, or as I have already termed it, to the point of transition between social and physical Darwinism.

Thea is introduced as a self-possessed girl with an early talent both for secluding herself and single-mindedly pursuing her own aims and for recruiting people who can support her purposes. For one thing, she early sets herself apart from her family through the simple expedient of choosing as her room a drafty loft “upstairs in the half story” (62) and “not plastered … but snugly lined with soft pine.” (62) The room becomes her redoubt and in its solitude, so we are told,

Pleasant plans and ideas occurred to her which had never come before. She had certain thoughts which were like companions, ideas which were like older and wiser friends. (64)

Another pattern takes shape this early in her life, the fact that those who will play a significant role in training her and facilitating her future career, and, indeed, all who significantly support her personally are of Continental European or, in any case, of non-British descent, with the exception of the town doctor, Howard Archie, whose ethnic extraction is never specified, although that could mean that, by default, he is expected to be taken as Anglo-Saxon. Ray Kennedy, the 30-year-old Irish railroad man who harbors the thought of eventually marrying the then 12-year-old Thea, is another character who plays a significant role in Thea’s life prior to her coming of age. Yet another one is the local piano teacher, the dissipated German Wunsch, whose first name is never known to the community.

Particularly from the point of view of the concept of ethnic determinism, Ray Kennedy is an interesting character in his own right. He is, for one thing, a dreamer, and are we supposed to take that as a racial characteristic? We are not told to do so, but the idea of the Irishman as dreamer is not unheard of, not that other people do not also dream. But maybe we then are expected to imagine that the Irishman, the Irish male, that is to say, when he is a dreamer, is a special kind of dreamer because he is Irish. For another thing, that Ray dreams, and that, though undereducated, he pursues self-improvement through reading and study, places him above the level of the brute worker. That he is so and yet is consigned by labor caste to a railroad career sets up his tragic end. As he lingers following a line accident, which occurs when he is about thirty-five and Thea seventeen, he lets go of his dream, acknowledges her greater destiny and leaves a legacy to her.

The transaction and legacy is in part moral. As Cather has earlier described his ambitions,

Ray Kennedy was thinking of the future, dreaming the large Western dream of easy money, of a fortune kicked up somewhere in the hills, — an oil well, a gold mine, a ledge of copper. He always told himself, when he accepted a cigar from a newly married railroad man, that he knew enough not to marry until he had found his ideal, and could keep her like a queen. He believed that in the yellow head over there in the sand he had found his ideal, and that by the time she was old enough to marry, he would be able to keep her like a queen. (59)

With Thea sitting with him and Dr. Archie in attendance, he surrenders his ambition and concedes Thea’s destiny with the thought “Thea was never meant for any rough fellow like him — hadn’t he really known that all along, he asked himself? She wasn’t meant for common men” (164).

Ray Kennedy’s melodramatic demise demarcates the arc of Thea’s life. Kennedy, a single man, wills his personal property to Thea and he already has made Thea the beneficiary of the $600 life insurance policy he has been maintaining. The personal property is worth little but the $600 is a considerable sum of money for the era. Kennedy conveys also through Dr. Archie that he wishes Thea to use the proceeds to go to Chicago and study music there.

Her will and self-possession are evident but the many things that happen to her in the city are telling of the matters that go into the naturalist concept in literature. Above all, race and ethnicity, along with questions of class, constrain and channel her course at every turn. Her teachers and employers are Continental European in descent and those who reach out to help her in the most significant ways evidently do so with a visceral sense of collective racial alliance and shared cultural elanamong the Continental Europeans well forward in their minds. One such figure is the Swedish Reform pastor Lars Larsen, who after receiving a request from her father provides her with employment singing in the choir and playing at funerals. A more significant one is her Hungarian piano teacher Andor Harsanyi. Harsanyi also is the one who realizes the magnitude of Thea’s vocal talents.

Thea’s relationship with the teacher Harsanyi has referred her to, Madison Bowers, is of considerable interest from the perspective of race or ethnicity. Cather seems to find it necessary always to specify the national origin, race or ethnicity of her characters except when they are Anglo-Saxon, so we can safely assume, since his race is not specified, that Bowers is Anglo-Saxon, if the name did not already tell us.

Indeed race and ethnicity plays a role in Harsanyi’s assessment and representation of her talent. Consider the conversation between Harsanyi and the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Theodore Thomas that follows after Thomas asks Harsanyi to describe the possible voice student he is seeking a teacher for.

“A young Swedish girl from somewhere in Colorado” (297), is how Harsanyi first describes Thea. Only then does he add, “She is very talented, and she seems to me to have a remarkable voice” (226).

“High voice” (226)?

“I think it will be; though her low voice has a beautiful quality, very individual” (226), Harsanyi responds, though he does qualify his assessment with the cautionary “There is a break in the middle voice, so that the voice does not all work together; an unevenness” (226)

Cather has Thomas offhandedly respond,

So? Curious; that cleft often happens with the Swedes. Some of their best singers have had it. It always reminds me of the space you so often see between their front teeth. (226)

Then he asks, “Is she strong physically” (226)?

Harsanyi responds emphatically “Like a horse, like a tree! Every time I give her a lesson, I lose a pound. She goes after what she wants” (297).

Thomas recommends Bowers as a voice teacher and Thea becomes both student and the accompanist for some of the other students. One them, Katharine Priest, a local diva with a showy style and a strong but not exceptional voice, complains to Bowers “How handsome your afternoon girl would be if she did not have that unfortunate squint; it gives her that vacant Swede look, like an animal” (283).

Cather constructs Bowers as the archetypal Anglo-Saxon Yankee. Described as descended from “a long line of New Hampshire farmers; hard workers, close traders,

with good minds, mean natures, and flinty eyes,” (278) Bowers lacks the quality of vibrancy attributed to every other race. He has not the charm, wit and romantic streak of the Irishman, not the cultural soul of the Jew, not the sentimentality of the German and the Eastern European, not the lyrical feeling and tragic sense of the Mexican, not the earthy gusto and cultural nuance of the black. Not anything, and he is bitter that his singing career failed in the face of his “cold nature” (278) and his disdain for his peers and the public, where the careers of lesser singers had succeeded.

Thea nevertheless thrives under Bowers’s tutelage and, as her consciousness of the superiority of her talent builds within her, learns also to share Bowers’s disdain for lesser talents. Cather, for example, describes the evolution of Thea’s attitude toward Katharine Priest in these terms:

When she first heard Mrs. Priest sing in church, Thea admired her. Since she had found out how dull the goodnatured soprano really was, she felt a deep contempt for her. She felt that Mrs. Priest ought to be reproved and even punished for her shortcomings; that she ought to be exposed, — at least to herself, — and not be permitted to live and shine in happy ignorance of what a poor thing it was she brought across so radiantly. (283)

Nevertheless, events show that Thea can only depend on her own kind for nurture, either of her career or of herself personally. When she needs to unburden herself regarding Bowers and her experience with him, she goes to Mrs. Harsanyi, who at that point is preparing for a move to New York where Andor Harsanyi is to take over practice of a retiring music teacher, and confides such things as that she does not seem to “get much” (285) out being the accompanist for Bowers’s students and that “singing does not seem to be a very brainy profession” (285) as compared to being an instrumentalist. Or, as Thea notes, “The people I see now are not a bit like the ones I used to meet here. Mr.

Harsanyi’s pupils, even the dumb ones, had more — well, more of everything, it seems to me” (285).

With the issue of the success of mediocre talents now on the table, Thea reveals her despair, complaining, “Mrs. Harsanyi, it seems to me that what I learn is just to dislike. I dislike so much and so hard that it tires me out. I’ve got no heart for anything.” (286)

Wisely, Mrs. Harsanyi counsels her, “That stile you must simply vault over. You must not begin to fret about the successes of cheap people.” (286)

Perhaps, in a psychoanalytic interpretation, parenting and the placing of Mrs. Harsanyi in the role of the wise, warm mother could become psychological issues of great interest. As it is, the unimaginative, dutiful, old country Scandinavian mother is a stock character in Cather. Alexandra Bergson had one and Thea Kornberg had one too, and probably for the good reason that this was the kind of Scandinavian mother Cather herself saw around her and knew during her days on the Nebraska prairie. Whatever the effect of the mother on the daughter is, on a daughter who has undergone Americanization and moved into the modern age, it is part of what history and race have determined that the daughter must live with and know, and what determines her course in turn.

Whatever Thea or the Harsanyis think about Bowers, that “cold muffin left on the plate” (288) as Andor Harsanyi once called him, Thea’s connection with Bowers becomes the pivot around which her destiny turns. Even so, the divide between the Anglo-Saxon and the other European kinds plays its inevitable quintessential role.

Through working as Bowers’s accompanist, Thea meets the individual who will become the most important person in her adult life, the beer scion and enthusiastic amateur singer Fred Ottenburg. What follows is a courtship which takes a decade and longer to turn into a betrothal and eventual marriage.

At this point, some digression on the subject of Cather’s art and the things in her art that perhaps have little to do the matter of literary naturalism and the working of the naturalist’s eye might be needed. The reason for this is that it is frankly quite possible to look at the story of Ottenburg and Kronborg as a segue into the conventions of the Gothic novel and its characteristic motif of the relationship between the male Byronic hero and the self-reliant though endangered younger female. Yet another issue is how Cather deals with, or rather ignores, the actuality of adult amorous desire. For the modern reader steeped in post-1970 cinema and the legacy of the Postwar mass market novel and its graphic excesses, this is an element of incongruity which might make the work seem sometimes hollow.

The first fruit of Thea’s connection to Ottenburg is conventional enough however, and also telling in the context of the role ethnicity in America in European immigrant era. After they have been acquainted for some decent period of time, Ottenburg arranges for Thea to perform at a series of “musical evenings” (301) at the home of the Nathanmeyers, a cultured German-Jewish couple “so rich and great that even Thea had heard of them” (302).

The Nathameyers, one the “heavy, powerful old Jewess, with a great pompadour of white hair, a swarthy complexion, an eagle nose, and sharp glittering eyes” (305) and the other a man of years with a “caressing” (306) accent and “hair soft and white” (306), who collects “medals and cameos” (306) and whose fingers “looked as if they had never touched anything but delicately cut surfaces” (306) treat Thea with a loving solicitude they could only give to someone whom they trusted as their own kind, not that this stops Mrs. Nathanmeyer from pronouncing her racially tinged assessment of Thea’s possibilities as a woman. As she explains to Ottenburg,

About her beauty? She has great possibilities, but you can never tell about those Northern women. They look so strong, but they are easily battered. The face falls so early under those wide cheek-bones. (307)

The next phase of the courtship is where, for a variety of reasons, the aforementioned issues of the Gothic model and the boundaries of the amorous come into play. For one thing, Ottenburg and Thea are isolated together on a sustained basis in a setting where they also are isolated from the possibility of scrutiny and reproval. For another thing, Thea already is in her late teens and at an age where by, our lights, if not by the sometimes practice of some in the era the novel is set in, she is old enough to have an amorous relationship with an older man, indeed to marry if she has an offer and chooses to accept it.

Seeing that by the end of her second year in Chicago, Thea is restless, Fred offers her an opportunity to spend the summer at a ranch in Arizona owned by his father. It is all for Thea’s own good, of course. Looking at her after an arduous year capped off by a bout of tonsillitis, and seeing her “as gray as the weather” (358) he remembers the Jewess Mrs. Nathanmeyer’s admonition about the hazards of the Swedish face, not that Thea does not have her own ideas too.

Laying sick in bed in her rented room, she already has reasoned,

Fred knew where all the pleasant things in the world were, she reflected, and knew the road to them. He had keys to all the nice places in his pocket, and seemed to jingle them from time to time. And then, he was young; and her friends had always been old. (317)

The jauntily patient Ottenburg, who already knows the reason why he cannot move on Thea beyond the simple issue of her acceptability in his social circles, takes her to the desert and sends her ahead and into the care of the ranch’s tenant, the old German named Henry Bitmer, and his wife. Ottenburg, meanwhile takes off on other business

while Thea goes to work exploring the abandoned cliff houses, the once homes of a no-longer-present Native people, in the nearby canyon. Eventually Ottenburg arrives in Arizona and the courtship continues.

Thea already has set up a space for herself on the cliffs and now the enamoured couple spend nights together in adjacent caves within the cliff, and share both daily adventures and a kind of practice domesticity. Yet the amorous contact between them is limited to two kisses, the first reluctant on Thea’s part and the second willing.

In a contemporary film or novel, it would be hard to imagine that the two would not become intimate; even if the woman knew that the man was married and estranged, still intimate. Nor would it be imaginable in the world of actual life, unless the people involved had strict religious scruples forbidding contact. But it is hard to imagine such contact was not known in that age particularly among the artistic class, so the question has to be raised, why did Cather not, if not overtly, then at least by insinuation allow this into the plot?

One possible explanation is her presumed same-sex orientation. But there is no reason to believe that she was deterred in her storytelling on this account. In O Pioneers!she manages the fateful encounter between Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata quite deftly. Considering her proven skills as a prose stylist the idea that she would not have two characters become intimate because she was viscerally reluctant to do so has to be relegated to the realms of the implausible.

A second explanation is that she put the relationship and courtship into the mode of the Gothic simply because she thought this was what she was supposed to do. This idea has little plausibility either. Rather, the long and interrupted courtship both provides leave to put the focus on what Thea must do to develop herself as an artist and puts light on how class issues and especially family pressures within the context of class determine the course of events in people’s lives.

Ten years later, Thea is now the great Kronborg. Meanwhile, Ottenburg is still is married but his socialite wife has mentally deteriorated and is living in a sanitarium. How either party has managed the issue of amorous desire is left unstated. Thea, as a free woman who has had a career both in Europe and America, would have to have received many offers and had many potential suitors. But Cather describes no aspect of her experiences whatsoever. Ottenburg is described as “fall[ing] more and more into the way of going about among young artists, — people with whom personal relations were incidental” (373-74).

Of his relations with women particularly, Cather offers, “With women, and even girls, who had careers to follow, a young man might have pleasant friendships without being regarded as a prospective suitor or lover” (374).

And she adds,

Among artists his position was not irregular, because with them his marriageableness was not an issue. His tastes, his enthusiasm, and his agreeable personality made him welcome. (374)

In our understanding of the times, it might be possible to believe that a woman in Thea’s position at the age of thirty might never have had a sexual affair, although in practice people in that era may have been freer than we believe they were. In the case of Ottenburg, his circumstances as a wealthy man of the world who furthermore travels in artistic circles make it hard to imagine that he would not have had his affairs along the way. But Cather stops short of specifically insinuating these.

The issue here is what to make of the matter. As already noted, Cather previously had shown herself capable of treating the amorous in her writing. Nor did the conventions of the day disallow her from doing so at least discretely. So the issue remains up in the air and all that can be done is to suggest motives. One possible motive is simple concession to the market, or at least to the market as perceived by the author. Another motive might

be to keep the focus on the matter of the self-oriented priorities an artist must maintain in order to succeed. In that sense, Thea might be a front for Cather herself, but from the point of view of the story the failure to account for the amorous lives, or lack thereof, of Thea and Ottenburg might simply be judged a literary weakness.

Cather ends the narrative with a summation wherein she states,

This story attempts to deal only with the simple and concrete beginnings which color and accent an artist’s work, and to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor. (528)

This assessment, if taken on it face, might account for the construction of the plot as a coming-of-age story with some Gothic elements. Certainly it represents both how the story is taken by many readers and how it is taught. Whether this is Cather’s own view of the story is another question. Perhaps this statement is not her view at all but is merely itself a product of the storytelling art. Perhaps Cather was well aware of the elements of social determinism she, herself, put in the story and aware also of the degree to which Thea Kronborg was driven by her accidental possession of a miraculous voice. If she had not possessed this, maybe her drive would have brought her some position in life, but no will on her part could have made her into Kronborg without it.

Eventually, Thea Kronborg and Fred Ottenburg do marry, we learn in an epilogue put in the form of an account of the life of Thea’s maiden aunt Tillie in the period subsequent to Thea’s becoming an opera star. Tillie is an unabashed though sometimes irrational follower of her celebrated niece and the last Kronborg still living in Moonstone.

The impossibility of divorce is given throughout as the reason why Ottenburg cannot marry Thea as much he, as the free spirit, would wish to. But there might be another reason and that is class. If he had tried hard enough, dangled enough inducement or moved to a jurisdiction where he had legal grounds under the tougher divorce laws of

that era, he might have been able to end his failed marriage. Many explanations are offered along the way for why he has not divorced, for example, “the conservative standards” (372) of the beer baron society in St. Louis.

Exactly how Ottenburg gets free of his marriage is never quite explained. Perhaps his wife dies. Perhaps he does finally obtain a divorce. Whatever the reason is, he does not end up married to Thea until she of her own accord achieves a class station which makes the marriage acceptable in the eyes of his social circles. That he becomes older and a social and business power in his own right ahead of the older generation also affords him more freedom. That he and Thea can be deemed to be of the same Northern European race and that she is fluent in German is another issue in a universe where race, again in the sense that word was used in the era the story is set in, and the place and relation of each race to the other exist in an intricate system of caste, in addition to the hierarchy of socioeconomic class.

In The Song of the Lark individual will plays a large role alongside the other elements of determinism; race and ethnicity, gender, class, time, place and the inborn. Thea Kronborg and Fred Ottenburg are made exemplars of the individual will, individuals who are possessed of certain attributes, talents and traits, who are possessed also of the ability to chart exceptional courses, Thea the great operatic talent, Ottenburg the cosmopolitan social maverick who breaks away from the parochialism of the high society of the St.

Louis German beer barons. MyAntonia is much more purely a story of ethnic caste, class caste, and even the possibly biologically determined as manifested things such as the ability to learn languages and the possession of ordinary sociability. Characters live and die, literally sometimes, on the weight of these issues.

My Antonia can be treated simply as a tale about people – a story about European immigrants struggling to survive on the Nebraska prairie, as recalled by an orphaned youth from the Virginia lower gentry, Jim Burden, who has grown up to adulthood in

Nebraska with his grandparents. It can be treated as a nostalgic story about two people, Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda, and their character, experiences and feelings. Another way to look at it, however, is as a series of episodes which ever show how the great forces of race, class, gender, time, place and biological inheritance act on the individual at each stage of their progression. Especially, how these forces act upon the Continental European immigrant and how the immigrant interacts with them to arrive thereby at some level of adaptation, or lack of adaptation, is the major issue in the work. Of all of the novel’s characters, only Jim Burden, descendant of what is called the “Early American” stock of Virginia, is significantly unmarked and free to seek and find an eventual significant position in the American mainstream – in his case the position of being a corporate lawyer and a man married into high society.

The failure of adaptation on the part of immigrants and its often-severe consequences is a significant theme in My Antonia. The title character Antonia Shimerda’s father, referred to throughout the text only as Mr. Shimerda, represents perhaps the starkest case, and his characteristics as described represent a catalog of the deficiencies which might make an adult immigrant despairingly unable to adapt to the American situation.

Consider the following passage, Jim Burden’s account of what he, as a boy, had been told about the Shimerda family, and about Shimerda specifically.

The Bohemian family, grandmother told me as we drove along, had bought the homestead of a fellow countryman, Peter Krajiek, and had paid him more than it was worth. Their agreement with him was made before they left the old country, through a cousin of his, who was also a relative of Mrs. Shimerda. The Shimerdas were the first Bohemian family to come to this part of the county. Krajiek was their only interpreter, and could tell them anything he chose. They could not speak enough English to ask for

advice, or even to make their most pressing wants known. One son, [Otto] Fuchs [the Burden’s reliable hired man] said, was well-grown, and strong enough to work the land; but the father was old and frail and knew nothing about farming. He was a weaver by trade; had been a skilled workman on tapestries and upholstery materials. He had brought his fiddle with him, which wouldn’t be of much use here, though he used to pick up money by it at home. (19-20)

Herein, we learn certain things. We learn, for one thing, that the Shimerdas lack linguistic talent. We learn that they are gullible and prone to being taken advantage of in transactions. To their advantage, we learn that they have one son, Ambrosch by name, who is capable of working a farm. But put this fact in the context of their Bohemian nationality, and it becomes another marker of their position as members of a menial caste, a caste able to work the land but a caste also deemed never fit to be able to rise to the station of rural gentry.

Shimerda himself is yet more buried in inadaptability. That he is already middle-aged, although he is called “old” (24) and that he is unsuited for work are factors, and so is his apparent lack of linguistic ability. The major factor, however, is that he is simply so irremediably old country, as evidenced by his impeccable European dress and “dignified manner” (24), his weaver’s trade, a skill as yet utterly useless and out of place on the Nebraska prairie, and his avocation as violinist.

Trapped by the bounds of his own uselessness and bereft of the hope of ever knowing anything different than life in a sod home on a cultureless prairie he commits suicide the first winter in Nebraska, a victim of his individual lack of the attributes which go into the making of an acceptable immigrant in America – a certain facility for language, or at least the fortitude to speak the new language badly if necessary, but speak

it nevertheless, the ability to work demonically hard, a hustler’s attitude and some general sociability.

Shimerda’s irrelevance is underscored by the fact that he is left dead in the barn, albeit safely frozen, for four days while the family and immediate community reorganizes its mental life and social structure and waits for the coroner to be summoned and arrive. Cather gives this period of time a long treatment and in so doing, again reveals the deftness of her naturalist’s eye. Consider for example the treatment given to the subject of the fitness of the Burdens’ “best horse” (95), the grey gelding, to make a country trip in winter.

Otto Fuchs is assigned “to make the long ride to Black Hawk to fetch the priest and the coroner” (95)

Fuchs dismisses the Mrs. Burden’s concerns about him and explains to her,

as he put on a second pair of socks. “I’ve got a good nose for directions, and I never did need much sleep. It’s the gray I’m worried about. I’ll save him what I can, but it’ll strain him, as sure as I’m telling you!’ (95).

Mrs. Burden rejoins, “’This is no time to be over-considerate of animals, Otto; do the best you can for yourself (95).

Indeed, he returns well the next day, but Cather has Burden recall, “he [Fuchs] was afraid the grey gelding had strained himself” (100). He adds, “Indeed, he was never the same horse afterward. That long trip through the deep snow had taken all the endurance out of him” (100).

This sequence reveals how the naturalist looks at social ecology. In naturalist’s view, no event is more important than any other, without all of them – even the most insignificant – the whole does not hold together. Likewise, even in the most insignificant events, the story of the whole is significantly revealed. Quickly, the death of Shimerda becomes no more significant than the passing of a horse from one stage of life to another.

Indeed, to the local community, the condition of the grey gelding may be more important to them than that Mr. Shimerda no longer exists or that there ever was a Mr. Shimerda.

By the spring, the Shimerda are, ensconced in “their new log house” (115) and “fairly equipped to begin their struggle with the soil” (116) with “four comfortable rooms to live in, a new windmill—bought on credit—a chicken-house and poultry” (116).

Antonia, meanwhile has within months turned into “a tall, strong young girl, although her fifteenth birthday had just slipped by” (117) who brags in her still broken English,

I can work like mans now. My mother can’t say no more how Ambrosch do all and nobody to help him. I can work as much as him. School is all right for little boys. I help make this land one good farm. (118)

Once again, issues such as class, a social inheritance, and the ability to learn a new language, a talent which may be a biological inheritance, envelops the individual in the web of the determined. In Antonia’s case, these issues, along with the matter of race, or call it ethnicity, and gender, assign her a place in the matrix of assimilation. Her volition, manifested in her desire to succeed in farming, may be her only autonomous contribution, although, in the theory of literary naturalism, the presence of volition in the individual could be taken as itself the product of biological inheritance.

In turn, the idea that volition or will in the individual is a biological inheritance allows its existence and presence to be considered within the context of the idea of Nietzschean individualism, defined as the inborn capacity to chart a self-determined course in defiance of the limiting strictures and expectations of mainstream society. Of especial interest in the context of My Antonia is the idea that the characters to whom the principle possibly can be applied are not male and aristocratic, but female and proletarian, or in the case of the one of them who is male – the piano man Blind

d’Arnault – black, a generation removed from chattel slavery and, as he would be described in our contemporary terminology, disabled.

Following the account of the Shimerda’s family’s first year in Nebraska, the narrative moves ahead and places Antonia and some new female characters, all now in their later teens, away from their farms and on their own in the town of Black Hawk as what the society of the day called hired girls, farm girls who as they grew into their later teens went to work for town families, living in the family’s home and serving as housekeepers and as nannies to the younger children. How these situations in their historical existence played out is not part of the scope of this thesis but in My Antonia the hired girls are treated well and protected by the families which have hired them. Being a hired girl may have been part of the coming-of-age process but the hired girls worked to help their families and the experience had a significant influence on the course of their lives. As Cather explain through her narrator Jim Burden:

Some of them, after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behaviour as they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father’s farm. Others … tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But every one of them did what she had set out to do, and sent home those hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten.

One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbours—usually of like nationality—and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve. (193-94)

Cather, in fact, calls the section of the novel in which these events take place “The Hired Girls”. One way to look at “The Hired Girls” is as a collection of case studies involving three specific individuals, Antonia Shimerda and two farm girls in her peer group, Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball. In these studies, the experience of working in town is represented as the crucible in which the destinies of the individuals under consideration are sorted. Herein, also, is where the appearance of the piano man d’Arnault occurs and where his backstory is told and the foundations of his destiny are explained.

In the particular cases of Lena Lingard, Tiny Soderball and Samson d’Arnault, each one by individual will chooses a course outside the norm. Only the title character Antonia turn out to be a representative of a different and unanticipated principle.

Lena Lingard, through her job as an apprentice seamstress, quickly finds autonomy, and after an isolated existence as a farm girl almost instantaneously learns sophisticated ways. Then she makes the decision to pursue an independent life rather than marry and does all of this as if she was programmed by nature to do exactly these things once set in the proper context.

Later, when Jim Burden goes to college in Lincoln, at the University of Nebraska, Lena, who now herself is located in Lincoln carries on a relationship with Burden, as constructed, apparently one of friendship rather than intimacy however much the idea disappoints us steeped as we are in our modernist, Postwar and contemporary expectations.

Burden consistently and in many ways acknowledges Lena’s superiority even in her days as a hired girl in Black Hawk and her days as a farm girl before that. As his social companion in Lincoln, he credits her with the possession of an exceptional maturity and sophistication compared to other young women her age. When he takes her

to the theater to see the Alexander Dumas fils play Camille, he reflects to himself in the lobby during the intermission,

As I walked about there I congratulated myself that I had not brought some Lincoln girl who would talk during the waits about the junior dances, or whether the cadets would camp at Plattsmouth. Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man. (267)

For the magnitude of her individuality, the possibility of place for her still remains both bounded and opened by race above all. Burden may make note of how while still a farm girl she turns a hand-me-down dress into a Sunday outfit. The “swelling lines of her figure” (162) thus revealed show the foundation of her physical presence. But the determinant of her possibilities of position is color. As Jim describes her during her days of working in the fields, “Her yellow hair was burned to a ruddy thatch on her head; but her legs and arms, curiously enough, in spite of constant exposure to the sun, kept a miraculous whiteness” (160).

A woman with the same talents and the same drive, but of a different color and racial caste, even a white European woman of a darker color, might have followed the same career and had the same success in her art and business. But without the same literal whiteness of skin, would she have the same position in the matrix of caste as Lena did?

The manifest answer is no. Even if she transcended her origins in the same way, the form of her position inevitably would be different, one thing if she was Central European and dark, another if she was Roman Catholic of any descent, another if she was Jewish, another if she was Mexican, another if she was black. Perhaps the defining characteristic of Lena Lingard is her ability to adapt herself to the Anglo-Saxon norm, and this evidenced by Jim Burden’s apparent willingness to accept her as, for the moment, a caste peer. There are many foundations for Lena’s ability to thus assimilate, but the most

foundational of all the foundations is color. Without her literal whiteness, she may have an independent and artistically successful career, but her life follows a different course.

Tiny Soderball is the hired girl and the character in My Antonia entirely who most exemplifies the principle of the individual who lives by rules of their own making and without regard for the limits nature seemingly places on the common herd of humanity.

The meaning of the name, whether or not the name is intended as a descriptive sobriquet is not clarified, but in any case, Tiny is described as “trim and slender, with lively little feet and pretty ankles” (186) and as “quicker in speech, lighter in movement and manner than the other girls (186).

Unlike the other hired girls, who work for families, Tiny, already reaching for destiny, goes to work as a waitress at the Boy’s Home Hotel, described as “the best hotel on our branch of the Burlington” (164).

She soon is befriended by the “traveling men,” (165), the representatives of major companies supplying local merchants, who stay there. These men are described as “all generous” (165). They give Tiny gifts of “handkerchiefs and gloves and ribbons and striped stocking and … bottles of perfume and cakes of scented soap” (165). Most importantly, one of the guests, the owner of “an idle property along the waterfront in Seattle” (290), funds Tiny in the business venture of a “sailor’s lodging house” (291) and launches her on a career suggestive of a Jack London novel.

Tiny successively runs the lodging house, sells out at the start of the Yukon gold rush, sets up a restaurant and then a hotel in Dawson City, inherits the mining claim of a dying Swede who “thought it great good fortune to be cared for by a woman, and a woman who spoke his own tongue” (292-3), sells the hotel and invests in building lots, works the gold claim, returns wealthy to lower states, and settles in San Francisco.

Tiny’s career could be treated in traditional feminist terms, both in terms of the idea of a woman succeeding in a traditional male domain and in terms of the idea of a

woman facing opposition for doing something that might earn a man a jolly sendoff even in the face of doubts about the plausibility of the venture. Then there is the idea of a woman using quintessentially female modes of power, both a different mode of command and sometimes even outright flirtation, to achieve individual goals rather than imitating male modes. Finally, there is the idea of female networking and alliance for success and mutual defense, exemplified in this story by the continued relationship between Tiny and Lena. The idea of mentorship even gets worked in through the character of Mrs.

Gardener, the co-keeper of the Boy’s Home hotel along with her husband Johnnie.

Mrs. Gardener in fact is described as the one who “[runs] the business and look[s] after everything” (176) while Johnnie, “a popular fellow but no manager” (176), does the glad-handing. The conventional and straitlaced Mrs. Harling, who is Antonia’s employer, at least acknowledges that “Mrs. Gardner keeps an eye on her waitresses” (158).

Jim Burden remembers Tiny, after her return from the Yukon, as “a thin, hard-faced woman, very well-dressed, very reserved in manner” (293) Then he adds, “Curiously enough, she reminded me of Mrs. Gardener, for whom she had worked in Black Hawk so long ago” (293).

What arc of mentorship Mrs. Gardener might have provided is never clarified but, clearly, Tiny, we are supposed to believe, learned.

When Jim Burden looks back to his early contact in Black Hawk with Tiny Soderball, he realizes,

When I thought about it, I discovered that I had never known Tiny as well as I knew the other girls. I remembered her tripping briskly about the dining-room on her high heels, carrying a big trayful of dishes, glancing rather pertly at the spruce travelling men, and contemptuously at the scrubby ones—who were so afraid of her that they didn’t dare to ask for

two kinds of pie. Now it occurred to me that perhaps the sailors, too, might be afraid of Tiny. (291)

After Tiny settles in San Francisco with her “considerable fortune” (293) she persuades Lena Lingard to move from Lincoln to San Francisco and continue in her dressmaking business there, explaining to Jim, so he reports, “Lincoln was never any place for her…. In a town of that size Lena would always be gossiped about. Frisco’s the right field for her. She has a fine class of trade” (294).

Many years later, Jim, now a corporate lawyer, visits San Francisco, where he finds the two women still allied, with “Tiny … in a house of her own and Lena’s shop … in an apartment house just around the corner” (318).

In his function as the distant social observer representing the unmarked mainstream of Anglo-Saxon America, Burden adds,

It interested me, after so many years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena’s accounts occasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny doesn’t grow too miserly. (318)

Some might look at this story and hold that the kind of success in business Lena has experienced ultimately is ordinary and routine. The feminist pushback against that argument might be that Lena’s story represents an instance of a woman sustaining her autonomy in a world where submission to patriarchal marriage is both the socially provided norm and in a manner of speaking also the perceived socially valorized solution to the dilemma of how to survive materially. From the naturalist point of view however, Lena’s life situation is the mere product of biological inheritance operating in context, and the streak of individualism, which carries Lena forward, exists as a consequence of biological inheritance operating in context.

In that sense, remembering that Nietzschean individualism is deemed to be grounded in the natural and inborn superiority of one being in relation to another, in the

naturalist context Lena can be taken as an example of Nietzschean individualism for the way she naturally and effortlessly becomes what she seemingly is intended to be. The scale is small, but the pattern is there. Then there is the case of Tiny Soderball, where both the scale and the pattern are larger than life in the same way that London’s creation Wolf Larsen is larger than life.

Both have a natural power of command although Tiny’s necessary method of commanding through a pert force of personality no doubt seems more laudatory than Larsen’s method of brute force and intimidation. Both have risen up from backgrounds which have limited their education and forced them to create their own opportunities. Both move inexorably to obtain what they need to acquire the autonomy and freedom from accountability they crave. Both, though, live for themselves. In the end both exist in isolation, and neither makes a true mark on the world, not one that many other people would recognize as representing a contribution to the progress of humanity.

If Tiny Soderball is taken as a representation of the Nietzschean concept also, she may not be the nightmarish figure Wolf Larsen is, but the thought that Cather, in making her in the end a cold and isolated character with only one living friend and with no interest in anything “but making money” (293), intends also to put the concept of Nietzschean individualism into question. If this is Cather’s goal then, even in the face of the entertaining thought of an impertinent young Tiny on the streets of Black Hawk “tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings” (195), Cather succeeds.

All of the characters in the works under consideration here are bound by the determined, but none are more bound by the chains of race and ethnicity, context and biological inheritance than Samson d’Arnault, called Blind d’Arnault. D’Arnault is one of the Cather characters who is based on an historical person and the only one in the Prairie Trilogy who clearly is drawn from an historical personage, that person being a former chattel slave, Thomas Wiggins, known professionally as Blind Tom. Early in

childhood, Wiggins apparently was regarded an imbecile in addition to his visual disability, but his auditory gifts soon were discovered.

In a 1961 article in Georgia Review, “The Mystery of Blind Tom”, Ella May Thornton, daughter of a Confederate soldier and the state librarian of Georgia, patronizingly but evidently accurately describes Wiggins’s origins as follows,

The boy, with the rest of his family, came into the ownership of General James N. Bethune of Columbus, Georgia, in 1851. Thereafter, the baby was known as Thomas Greene Bethune. All of the Bethunes, who were of high intelligence, cultivation, and benevolence, recognized the unusual qualities of the small Negro and pitied his low mental state, which would have been imbecilic if it had not been for his great redeeming gift. So they gave him a place in the intimate family circle. Each devoted himself to the boy’s welfare as long as they had legal charge of him and until he was wrested from them by the widow of one of General Bethune’s sons in a law suit that she brought for his guardianship. (395-96)

Thornton overtly states that Wiggins’s story, he was known early in life only by the Bethune name, is “told by Willa Cather in My Antonia, in which he is called Blind d’Arnault” (395).

I would call this by far a dubious proposition. Cather very likely knew of Wiggins and based the concept of the character on him but the differences between the two men, the one actual, the other fiction, are quite extreme.

There is no reason to doubt that Wiggins was what we call today an autistic savant. (Attarian). His musical abilities were extraordinary beyond anything attributed to d’Arnault. There is no doubt either that Wiggins had no cognizance the meaning of the events, even of the Civil War as it was raging, or of the matter of race and color and its

relation to culture or to he himself. By comparison, d’Arnault to judge by his entertainer’s patter seems as a character quite aware of the world as it is.

The story of Wiggins’s guardianship is controversial, and it is known that his former masters profited greatly from talents. But he did require guardianship, and without it, he would have had to have lived in an institution or under some form of custodianship. By contrast, d’Arnault is accompanied by a simple manager and there is nothing in the description of him to indicate that he is other than a man with an adequate sense of the world around him.

Burden introduces d’Arnault as a known and welcome figure who is in town to perform at the opera house. As Burden recounts the situation, “He [d’Arnault] gave a concert at the Opera House on Monday night, and he and his manager spent Saturday and Sunday at our comfortable hotel” (175). The raucous set he plays at the Boy’s Home Hotel evidently is performed solely for the enjoyment of the guests and for his own enjoyment.

Looking at the way d’Arnault interacts with and commands his audience, it becomes yet more difficult to imagine him as intended to be considered a savant who was otherwise mentally limited. Even the little details belie this idea, for example, that Mrs.

Harling, a pianist and piano aficionado “had known d’Arnault for years” (175). Then there is the cleverness and cognizance of his repartee at the piano, seen, for example, in the way he warms up his audience with a plantation song singalong and then at the right moment changes the tempo and mood of the event as when

In the middle of a crashing waltz, d’Arnault suddenly began to play softly, and, turning to one of the men who stood behind him, whispered, ‘Somebody dancing in there.’ He jerked his bullet-head toward the dining-room. ‘I hear little feet—girls, I spect.’ (183)

The moving feet he hears belong to Tiny Soderball, Antonia Shimerda, Lena Lingard and another hired girl, Mary Dusak. With dance partners for the men now on the floor behind him he erupts into the aforementioned “glistening African god of pleasure”

(185) and moves as well into his role as master of ceremonies. He listen to goings on behind his back the way other people see, and

Whenever the dancers paused to change partners or to catch breath, he would boom out softly, ‘Who’s that goin’ back on me? One of these city gentlemen, I bet! Now, you girls, you ain’t goin’ to let that floor get cold?’ (185-86)

Cather provides D’Arnault with an origin story closely resembling the orgins of Tom Wiggins. He is described as having been “born in the Far South, on the d’Arnault plantation, where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted” (179). An illness in infancy leaves him blind for life but his exceptional auditory abilities appear early in life. At age of six, although blind, he finds his was to the big house where the master’s daughter Nellie d’Arnault practices the piano in the morning and listens to

this hideous little pickaninny, dressed in an old piece of sacking, standing in the open space between the hollyhock rows, his body rocking automatically, his blind face lifted to the sun and wearing an expression of idiotic rapture. (180)

Eventually, when Nellie and her teacher leave the room, Samson enters through the window and begins to experiment with the piano. His talents are discovered, presumably deemed acceptable for one of his color, and nurtured by the generous d’Arnaults. One by one “he wore his teachers out” (183) and finally he grows up to be “a Negro prodigy who played barbarously and wonderfully” (183).

His music, so Jim Burden recalls,

[a]s piano-playing, was perhaps abominable, but as music it was something real, vitalized by a sense of rhythm that was stronger than his other physical senses…. To hear him, to watch him, was to see a Negro enjoying himself as only a Negro can. (183)

Brown addresses the issue of Burden’s construction of d’Arnault as a “racial grotesque” (105). As constructed, that he may be. Burden, in his function as the narrator, describes, d’Arnault as “a heavy, bulky mulatto, on short legs” (Cather 178) with “a yellow face” (178) and “a show of white teeth.” (178) He solicitously adds, “He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy.” (178)

In appearance, he may have been grotesque, but, to return to the original issue, he was not in need of guardianship in the manner of Tom Wiggins. If one insisted on comparing the fictional d’Arnault to some historical person who had overcome a sensory disability, one of the many known individuals who had overcame visual disability to become prominent in American popular music would a better choice. Even author and activist Helen Keller, an historic person who as a child likewise stood at risk of being trapped in the realm of the demi-human due to sensory disability, would be a better choice. Then there exists the possibility that the best comparison might be between d’Arnault and some historical musician who had no disability.

As much as the d’Arnault narrative represents a story of the triumph of unique individuality, the making of d’Arnault is the product of an intricate collusion of things inborn and things determined by context. There is, first of all, color, which is the thing which provides his cultural context. But there is also the fact of being American and the fact of his coming of age after emancipation. There is the unidentified disease which renders him blind early in infancy. There is his extraordinary auditory ability. There is the fact that he was born on a plantation instead of on some small farm. There is the fact that the master’s family had artistic sensibilities and was willing to nurture his talents.

How he developed his independent adult career is left unstated. But it is hard to see the fate of any other character in Cather as more bound by the immutables of race, class, place, time and individual inheritance than is the fate of d’Arnault. In the sum of these things, and in the context of talent and his drive to develop it, he can be none other than what he is.

The eventual fate of Antonia Shimerda, as far as the story takes it, is conventional enough, and so is the explanation for it. Some years pass and Burden, now in the full bloom of his WASP glories, in the course of his travels meets with Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard in San Francisco. Lena encourages Burden to visit Antonia, which after years of trepidation he finally works up the resolve to do. Burden’s reluctance is borne of the fact that Antonia at an early age bore a child out of wedlock on account of a fiancé, the railroad man Larry Donovan, who abandoned her and the fact that he had heard earlier from Tiny Soderball “that Antonia had not ‘done very well’; that her husband was not a man of much force, and she had had a hard life” (317).

Perhaps her life as described had been hard. She is saved from her ignominy thanks to the local Bohemian prince Anton Jelinek, whose visiting cousin Anton Cuzak, fresh off his failure as an orange grower in Florida, identifies Antonia as “exactly the kind of girl he had always been hunting for” (354). He quickly marries Antonia and become a hardworking if reluctant Nebraska farmer.

Yet she seems at the age of 40 or so quite content in her situation as the mother of a brood of children, “ten or eleven of them at this time” (319), so Lena has explained to Jim, solicitously adding, “[S]he’d love to show them to you” (319).

Burden approaches the farm, first meeting several of the Cuzak children before encountering Antonia herself “battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well” (321-22).

In terms of the constructs of literary naturalism, it is easy to understand why Antonia occupies the station in the world she does. Her apparent deep satisfaction with her situation calls for a different explanation than any one provided within the constructs of literary naturalism as so far described.

To account for this, I want to turn to a source which, though significant, has to be considered also problematic. Domestic terrorist and anarcho-primitivist social theorist Theodore Kaczynski, in his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future published simultaneously in the Washington Post and the New York Times in 1995, discusses a concept which he calls “the power process” (sec. 33), his term for the process by which individuals achieve maturity and satisfaction in life.

Kaczynski posits that human beings possess a need, which he calls “probably rooted in biology” (sec. 33), to navigate through life stages wherein they set goals, exert effort to achieve those goals and experience their attainment. Kaczynski places his argument in the context of primitive society wherein, he says, the individual, having seen “[t]he needs and purposes of one stage having been fulfilled,” (sec. 75) experiences “no particular reluctance about passing on to the next stage” (sec. 75).

It is not within the scope of this thesis to assess Kacynski’s thesis that modern society, indeed any society in a state of civilization, interferes with the ability of the individuals to experience the power process, but it is clear enough that Antonia as constructed, in her satisfaction with her situation and her lack of complexes and angst about things such as her limited education and her inability to speak the language of her new country to perfection, stands as a paragon of the power process as Kaczynski describes it.

Cather herself conveys the same idea in more subdued, diffuse and artful form through her surrogate, the narrator Jim Burden, who says of her,

She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. (“Antonia” 342)

In summation, and in homage to the Virgilian roots of her character, she is declared “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” (342).

From hence comes her unshakable satisfaction with her elemental life.

The naturalist approach may nearly ignore many issues which are given treatment by scholars and critics, for example, the analysis of interpersonal relationships among others, but it does bear strongly on issues of great importance to us today. Above all, the naturalist approach, focusing as it does not only on the issue of how upbringing, class station and the inborn aspects personality and character, not to mention physical form, affect the life of the individual but also on race and ethnicity, shines a bright light on what Brown calls “the complex, and often disturbing, racial terrain of Willa Cather’s writing.” (85) My assessment of the work of Cather under study here is that it represents an accurate, if occasionally by turns fanciful or melodramatic, account above all of the racial and class landscape of her time, and, so to a degree, of our time too.

What Cather describes, at least throughout the works under discussion here, is not a tapestry of striving lived out in a certain context, but rather the workings of a relentless and encompassing machinery of caste which at the bottom of it is observed and chronicled the same way a naturalist studies the relentless machinery of life in an ecological community. No race or people is deemed incapable of a role in the pageantry of culture and civilization. But Anglo-Saxon supremacy and, subsidiarily, Nordic

supremacy generally is represented as the natural order of life, and the Anglo-Saxon template the defining model of culture, civilization and political organization.

Returning to the issue of American literary naturalism and its focus on the individual, perhaps it should be kept in mind also that the fate of the individual, not the genesis of the social order is the object of Cather’s naturalism. Individuals through their natures and their capabilities make the social order but the social order in turns reflects back on the individual and makes manifest why whatever fate the individual experiences in fact falls on them.


Herein, the argument has been made that Cather was a consistent practitioner of literary naturalism. The further argument is that her naturalism was far more rooted in the capacities of the ecological naturalist who observes, chronicles and analyzes natural systems than it was in the class-based deterministic social ecology which was the foundation of the naturalist literature set in the great American cities of the late Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

In this section, which can be considered an addendum to the argument, referring to Acocella’s outline and history of Cather criticism, I am going to show through a discussion of some representative academic and journalistic critical work, how at each stage of American social and cultural history the issue of naturalism in Cather, although never absolutely unrecognized, was perpetually disregarded in favor of criticism addressing a succession of compelling critical, cultural and sociopolitical concerns.

In the period immediately subsequent World War I, critics, and probably the public too, did treat Cather as that pioneer era elegist. The reasons are understandable considering both the times and the subject matter of her recent work. Manifest destiny was now fulfilled with the admission of every territory in the West as a state and the development of the interior of the continent, America had joined the first rank of world powers, and the idea of American exceptionalism was an unquestioned creed. Maybe no one wanted to think about or hear about how the grimy facts of class, ethnic and racial caste were out there ready to sully this glorious picture.

Writing in Smart Setin 1919, H.L. Mencken places Cather in that

small group that has somehow emancipated itself from the prevailing imitativeness and banality of the national letters and is moving steadily toward work that will do honor to the country. (272)

Mencken may have had no more in mind than the idea that a literature that was vigorous and more representative of the actual dimensions of the national experience would reflect better on the character of America as a civilization. For all of his cynicism and his cryptic view of human nature, he may well have believed in American exceptionalism nevertheless, but that is not the great issue with Mencken. Rather, the great issue with Mencken, or at least one of the great issues, is that he splashes the human race with his cynicism not universally but in an elaborately segmented way, disparaging every racial, ethnic and class caste each in special and highly differentiated terms. In spite of his holding this view, he seems not to have ever embraced naturalism as a critical concept or to have been particularly interested in identifying its presence in the literature contemporary to his own lifetime.

Certainly, this is the case in his commentary on Cather, where he fails to acknowledge the workings of the machinery of ethnic caste even though it is put right in front him. In what is perhaps his definitive statement on the Prairie Trilogy, he calls these works, and My Antonia particularly, “the story of poor peasants flung by fortune into lonely inhospitable wilds” (qtd. in Acocella 17) He may praise Cather for also finding in the stories of her peasant characters “the eternal tragedy of man” (qtd. in Acocella 17).

She may indeed do so and achieve art in so doing, and Mencken may be recognizing the dimensions of her art. But he misses something entirely. It is the account of the progression of social history and the process of Americanization her characters are experiencing – a process both glorious and brutal. Sometimes it fails. When it does, the failure can be literally fatal and the reason for it something innate and beyond the control of the individual. Even when the processes of adaptation and assimilation succeed the parameters of that success are defined by the determined, what is innate in the individual of course, but also the parameters of race and national origin, and how race and national origin condition the development of the individual.

Carl Van Doren, writing in the 1940 iteration of The American Novel but from the perspective of the 1920s expands greatly on same theme as Mencken, the idea Cather’s work was about the heroism, struggles and tragedies of individuals. In places, he even moves in the direction of recognizing the forces of determinism, as, for example, when he notes that Cather, in her youth, “was stirred by the difficult lives of the new Americans” (281). But he draws back from the precipice of a driving account of the forces of determinism and says only that Cather was “anxious to make them understood as human beings, not merely as discarded foreigners” (281).

Consider Van Doren’s brief treatment of Marie Tovesky. Van Doren assesses Marie as an individual “whom nothing more preventable than her beauty and gaiety drags into a confused status and so on to catastrophe” (15). Maybe some inborn aspect of personality is acknowledged here, but nothing is said about who Marie might be in the context of the world culture or what immutables she might lie at the intersection of. As argued herein, the Orientalism of her character is literal not symbolic, and even if the introduction of the Orientalist concept and eventually postcolonial theory lied decades in the future, it is still noteworthy that not an inkling of these ideas, relevant as they are to the naturalist treatment of Cather, is found in the work of Van Doren.

Lloyd Morris, a 1920s era critic who would go on to become a writer and scholar of some renown, did to a limited degree acknowledge the possibility of seeing the naturalist element in Cather’s writing, but not without first performing the necessary obsequies to the idea of Cather as elegist, as, for example when he offers that “Cather, writing chiefly of the close of that century of pioneering, chronicles the material fulfillment of its earliest aspirations” (642).

Material fulfillment, he means, is that circumstance wherein

The conquest of physical environment has been accomplished, a complex and efficient organization of material life has been perfected throughout

the land, and the national dream of the past has partly become the reality of the present. (642)

In the Prairie Trilogy, Cather does become the chronicler of some of the final stages of this process. This is not the issue Morris is most interested in though. Rather, what he seems most interested in is defining and acknowledging Cather’s character as an artist. In accounting for Cather’s development as an artist, Morris concomitantly accounts for the basis of the naturalist reading of Cather as follows:

Subsequently Miss Cather learned that in life the perception of character is determined by the observation of behaviour or conduct, and that fiction, to produce the illusion of reality, must afford an opportunity for precisely this observation. Having learned this, she began to portray the behaviour and experiences of men and women, allowing us to formulate from the data of their conduct our conclusions about their characters. She also learned to portray character by revealing through conduct only its universal relation to the particular experience in which it is involved. That is, she eliminated from her stories all minute dissection of the motives, impulses and instincts from which conduct arises. She has given us no analysis of the consciousness of either Antonia Shimerda or Marian Forrester [a later Cather character]. She has merely revealed what life itself might reveal to us about them, their conduct and its effect upon others and consequence for themselves, and in so doing she has created memorable characters. (650)

To reduce the drawing to character to “what life itself might reveal” (650), as Morris so notes, leaves those who read or criticize literary works free to come to their own conclusions, including their own conclusions about the effect either the innate or the external might have on the individual. This approach to literary creation, that of allowing

the observable to speak for itself, becomes then almost the essence of naturalism, or if not the essence of naturalism, then the essence of naturalist art.

Morris does not want to adopt this point of view however, and rather draws back from it in favor of the search for pure art in Cather’s works. Finally he concludes,

At a time when many American writers of fiction seem content to record a merely faithful transcription of what they see before them, Miss Cather is reasserting the ancient distinction between nature and art and expressing the artist’s old confidence that art is artistic precisely because it is not natural. Not content with mere naturalism, she has begun to subject what she has seen in the world around her to an imaginative reconstruction that is gradually gaining in depth of conception, beauty of design and emotional power. At her best she has created characters of distinction and significance and represented experience in some of its permanent aspects. At her best, therefore, she has achieved art by interpreting comprehensively what her somewhat narrow world has offered for her contemplation. (652)

Certainly, what Morris says is true, and it is not my aim whatsoever to dispute it, but even if he ultimately concedes in a small way the presence in Cather of the naturalist concept, he says nothing of the magnitude of it, especially as it relates to the great issue of how matters of race, ethnicity and color condition tragedy. Perhaps the critics of the 1920s might have been more willing to recognize this issue in urban fiction or in fiction set internationally authored by celebrated male writers, but they did not seem to be so in the case of a diligent and subdued woman who wrote about unassimilated European immigrant farmers, sundry members of the city bourgeoisie and rural gentry, and Nineteenth Century missionary Roman Catholic priests.

With the social, cultural and moral changes that came after the Great War, the era of the 1920s was enough of a departure but at least it was an era of prosperity and, for

many people, normalcy. To merely call the 1930s different would be an understatement for the ages. The economic collapse which started in late 1929 pushed labor issues to the forefront of politics and cultural concerns at least across the Western world. The consolidation of the communist state in the Soviet Union led many Western intellectuals to embrace Marxism both as an intellectual concept and a model for action. The right wing and nationalist response was very powerful also and many in the liberal democracies of France, Great Britain and the United States admired the authoritarian regimes of Germany and Italy and embraced their ideologies in varying degrees too.

The culture of arts and letters was heavily leftist, however, and this leftism was reflected in the world of literary criticism. As Acocella explain, “by then [the 1930s] …. America was in a Depression and the best young critics were mostly Marxists, or at least committed leftists” (24).

As this affected the critical view of Cather current in that era, it promoted a determinism more narrowly focused on economics and this became one more thing that got in the way of allowing the ecological and sociobiological naturalism of Cather from being seen. As Acocella describes the view of the mainstream of critic of that era

To them, Cather’s tragic vision seemed an affront. She saw the wreck of the American dream; she saw that nineteenth-century individualism had petered out, in the twentieth century, into little more than get-ahead capitalism: How could she analyze this as the operation of a timeless tragic principle, something that must always occur, when clearly it was just a matter of economics? (24)

Writing in The Nation in 1932, Clifton Fadiman, a noted critic, popularizer and, media personality of the Depression and Postwar eras, produced a sharp though not always hostile iteration of the characteristic 1930s view of Cather, or at least the view characteristic of the leftist-oriented critics of the 1930s era.

Fadiman emphasized Cather’s separateness from events of the day, for example, at one point noting “her remoteness from the problems which engaged most of her contemporaries” (563-64), although herein he may have been thinking more the realists of the 1920s than of politically preoccupied writers of the 1930s. Fadiman speaks also of Cather’s fiction as

Vergilian in its grace, its aversion to confusion and violence, its piety, its ancestor-worship, its moral idealism, its stoicism, its feeling for the past, its moral idealism, its gentle stoicism, its feeling for the past, and its sense, touching rather than tragic, of the tears which lie in mortal things. (563As much as Fadiman, as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants ought to have been aware of the Europe immigrant experience, he simply jumped over the entire issue, one of the gateways, along with the issue of the immutables of individual character, to recognizing the role of literary naturalism in Cather, merely noting that within the scope of Cather’s oeuvre, “First there are novels dealing with the Western pioneers of foreign birth or ancestry, and with the generation which directly followed them.” (564)

Fadiman then quickly seek refuge in the characterization Cather as pioneer-era elegist, and decries her lack social realism as well. He say of her,

Her evocation of the past can be beautiful and moving, and even at its most ethereal can transport us to a world of pleasant reverie. But few will affirm that it bears any relationship to our present day conception of history. (564)

The naturalist view of the works of the Prairie Trilogy particularly puts the idea that the works bear no relation to a history that could be relevant in the 1930s seriously in dispute. But Fadiman might be right in saying that the works bear no relation to any conception of history held by the leftist critics of the 1930s, as based as it was in their view

that socioeconomic class and the struggle of classes was the issue that overarched all other issues.

A similar view was expressed by Granville Hicks. Hicks was one of the prominent Marxist critics of the 1930s but in the Postwar era became a noted anti-communist. According to his biography on the Syracuse University Libraries special collections website, he left the Communist Party “in protest against the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact” (Syracuse) and thereafter “termed himself a democratic socialist.” (Syracuse)

Like Fadiman and the critics who preceded the depression era as well, Hicks, before he says anything else, characterizes Cather as a trafficker in nostalgia and prairie elegist. Hicks argues,

We observe first of all that the very basis of OPioneers!is a mystical conception of the frontier. At the turning point of Alexandra’s career, when, after an examination of the river farms, she decides to remain on the high land, she looks at the Divide with love and yearning: [‘]It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. 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 than it ever bent to a human will before[’]. This exultation sustains Alexandra throughout the book, and at the end she says, “The land belongs to the future We come and 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.” (703)

These sentiments may indeed be mystical, but perhaps it should be noted, too, that Alexandra Bergson’s delivers these comments in the course of a discussion with her fiancé Carl Linstrum on the subject of the eventual disposition of her farm given that Alexandra and Carl are by then likely too old to have their own family.

Then there is another and related observation Cather makes, this time delivered through the person of Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia, which is very revealing of the magnitude of Cather’s powers as a natural and even a geopolitical observer.

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world…. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas’ cornfields, or Mr. Bushy’s, but the world’s cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war. (566)

This passage is, in fact, a disquisition on the subject of the relationship between the natural endowments of a nation and its station in the system of world power. One might think that the Marxist and Marxist-influenced critics of the 1930s at least would want to take notice of this issue. Apparently they did not, and their focus on the issues of class and the conflict between labor and capital was so strong it kept them from seeing any other issues either. As critics they had their concerns and wanted to see and promote a literature which, as Hicks put it, “tried to see contemporary life as it is.” (708) They were correct in identifying Cather’s work as a literature of remembrance, but in their own preoccupation with social realism as their own era understood that concept, they entirely missed the powerful, sociobiologically-based naturalism which permeated the works of the Prairie Trilogy particularly, and also DeathComeforthe Archbishop, another work

which Hicks discusses but in which he misses entirely the issues of class and ethnic determinism discussed in my paper.

As much as Cather was scourged, albeit relatively gently, by the political left, she was embraced in the 1930s by the political right, Acocella says, above by the Catholic press. According to Acocella,

The more she was senselessly dismissed by the Left, the more she was senselessly exalted by the Right and used as a stick to beat the Left indeed, to beat anything that the Right disliked…. Catholic World described her work as a rebuke to the … vices that dominated modern literature. Not just Catholic World, but other Catholic magazines, such as Commonweal and America, became her champions, and slapped on her novels pious readings completely out of line with the text. To the reviewers in these journals, Cather, though an Episcopalian, was an honorary Catholic.” (26)

The right may have championed Cather, but their use for her, to position her as a source of support for their moral conceptions and perhaps their conception of what art ought to be as well, did not leave them interested in recognizing the naturalism inherent in Cather’s writing. Acocella, for example, goes on to note,

And her books were Catholic books, radiating as a Commonwealreviewer said of Obscure Destinies“a living light, like candles on an altar in a shrine dedicate[d] to human pity and love.” (26)

This kind of perceived sentimentality, or even work that might permit it as Cather’s work was deemed to do, was almost the antithesis of the social action-oriented mentality of the mainstream of the Marxist and Marxist-influenced leftist scholars and critics of the 1930s era. Or, as, Acocella wryly puts it, “With friends like these, it was not hard for Cather to find enemies” (26).

The New Criticism movement, though not named until the 1940s and in the 1930s known as formalism, represented perhaps the foremost force in opposition to the leftist critics. Speaking generally, Vincent B. Leitch in American Literary Criticism since The 1930s, published in 1988 formalist criticism as “invariably linked with a conservative social, moral, religious, and political assessment of the past, present, and possible future[,] (24)” and added,

Though they endeavored to purify criticism, the practice and theory of these American formalists was typically tied to a traditional conservative—a Tory—ideology and value system. (24)

As a visible conservative, Cather in the 1930s, inevitably would be associated by the leftists with the imputed conservative ideology of the formalist school, and correctly so.

By 1945 the world had turned over yet one more time. The Postwar modernists may not have been interested in Cather at all. Or as Acocella says, “Basically, her admirers gathered up her abused corpse and took it back to their fort, while the rest of the critical establishment forgot about her” (31).

The critics and scholars of this era may have been less ideological and less partisan than the critics of the 1930s. In general, they had little to say about Cather, who by then was no longer a living author, but in what they did have to say about her, they continued to classify her as an elegist and an author who worked in the realm of nostalgia and remembrance.

Alfred Kazin, a noted liberal critic, describes Cather as imbued with

a candid and philosophical nostalgia, a conviction and a standard possible only to a writer whose remembrance of the world of her childhood and the people in it was so overwhelming that everything after it seems drab and a little cheap. (164)

Henry Steele Commager, a noted liberal historian, turning literary critic for the moment, described Cather as

engaged in an elaborate remembrance of things past—the past of pioneers who had built the West, of the immigrants who had carried … into the New World their sense of beauty and art, [and] of those earlier spiritual pathfinders … who had served their fellow man so well. (209)

Again, none of this is untrue. It is, in fact a central theme in Cather criticism. But, again, you have another generation of critics who fail to see the great naturalist machinery which is ever turning in Cather’s work.

Another Postwar critic, Robert Spiller, in The Cycle of American Literature: An Essay in Historical Criticism at least acknowledges Cather’s naturalism but he does so only to put its importance in dispute and declare it secondary to the issue of art. He, for example, extols her ability “to give her portraits of pioneer women a vibrant integrity that seemed effortless because it was pure and primitive” (169).

Ultimately, he declares, though, that the power of the individual stand above and not within the deterministic system of nature, saying, “Her naturalism could not control her faith in the human will” (169).

The argument herein, however, is that the existence of human will itself is, in Cather, also a product of nature and nature’s inherent individual and collective hierarchies.

The succeeding generation, the one that came of age in the 1970s as the scholars and critics prominent in the Postwar began to phase out, was more interested in the issues of race, gender, socioeconomic class, and cultural identity. They were not necessarily pursuing these issues in a way which was conducive to a thorough naturalist approach to literary scholarship and criticism, however.

Nor was Cather’s work in that era individually of any true widespread interest.

According Acocella the renewal of interest in Cather that occurred in the 1970s devolved from the desire of the

feminist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s to assemble a “female canon”, a list of first-rate woman authored books that would demonstrate that women were the equal of men as writers and that therefore their underrepresentation in the [canon] … was the result of politics, not biology. (37)

Being already in the American canon and even the world canon, Cather necessarily had to be included in the female canon. But once included in this canon, Cather became a problem for the feminists on account of her social and political conservatism, reverence for tradition, belief in universal truth, and even the fact that she relied heavily on male mentors during her actual upbringing and education. Or, as Acocella puts it, “the feminists didn’t just need first rate writers; they need them to be feminists” (37).

Acocella describes the first two novels of the Prairie Trilogy, with their triumphant, self-reliant heroines, the farmer Alexandra and the artist Thea, as “everything a feminist could have asked for” (37). But then, at least according to Acocella, Cather’s work takes a turn and in her subsequent efforts beginning with My Antonia, Acocella says, the issue became “less a matter of victory than of sorrow and memory and art” (38).

By the lights of the feminists of the post-1970 era, the character of Antonia was an outright affront, or at least that is how Acocella describes the situation. She recalls the first-person narrator Jim Burden’s description of Antonia as “something out of Virgil or ancient myth” (38) and then adds,

This … is exactly what the feminists did not want to hear. Universals, transcendence—those were the magic words by which women were taught

to accept a fate that was not universal, but assigned to only half of humanity. (38)

In Acocella’s account, the feminists were disinterested in any issue other than the one cut by the broad swath of the gender dialectic. As she describes their take on Antonia, she “stays home and stays poor while Jim goes to Harvard to study the Virgilian texts to which he will compare her.” (38)

Perhaps they could have compared the fictional Antonia to the historical Cather and searched for the other reasons why one and not the other would end up also with a university education and a background in Latin. But if they did that, it then would have been necessary also to recognize the issues of racial, ethnic and class determinism and the issue of individual endowment which play so large in Cather’s fiction.

Acocella represents the early feminists as focused on one issue entirely, showing the “unfeminist” (43) Cather, the literary woman who credited her male influences more than the females ones, to be “in conflict with those [unfeminist] values.” (43)

In Acocella’s estimation, the means the feminists used to reclaim Cather was the issue of her imputed same-sex orientation. But the issue is not particularly relevant in the context of the generally structuralist and formalist approach to the works which has been followed herein. What is relevant to the review of Cather criticism is that the search within her work for evidence of her same-sex orientation served as yet another factor among many which led yet more generations of scholars away from any recognition both of Cather’s literary naturalism and of her capabilities as an ecological naturalist and an observer of nature and its processes.

Among the consequence of this search and the embrace of postmodernism generally, according to Acocella, was that Cather again ended up being put to political uses by yet more generations of critics. Or, as Acocella puts it, “Having once been captured by

the Right, she was now captured by left” (51). As the right used her for its purposes in the 1930s, decades later, the left used her for a different purpose.

The result, nevertheless, was renewed critical interest and the production of critical works and studies which looked at Cather’s work in the context of other issues of interest to the scholars and critics of the postmodern era.

Evelyn Funda in her 1994 article ‘“The Breath Vibrating Behind It”: Intimacy in the Storytelling of Antonia Shimerda” discusses in some detail and with considerable persuasion Antonia’s capacities as a storyteller. Funda makes Antonia’s ability to create and expand human connections through her intimate storytelling the issue and notes also Antonia’s quintessentially female mode of storytelling, described by Barbara Johnstone as “‘other oriented’” and “underplaying the protagonist’s personal roles and emphasizing social community and mutual dependence” (qtd. in Funda 207).

Funda compares the passion and intimacy of Antonia’s storytelling to Jim’s “detached, reflective narrative” (198) and intimates that this is the product of a gender binary. Ignored is the possibility that this binary could be understood as the product of the workings of ethnic and class determinism as well, that it could be seen as the inevitable product of the natural difference between the visceral but limited lower castes of race and class and the naturally dominant, self-controlled Anglo-Saxon.

From the 1920s through today, the use Cather’s body of work has been put to has never changed. It always has been placed in the service of one critical agenda or another. In the 1920s it was modernism and Cather’s place in the progression toward a new American literature more reflective of the true national life, as represented in her accounts of the final, prairie phase of the pioneer era. In the 1930s, the leftist and Marxist critics treated Cather as a foil and the example of what literature should not be while the right appropriated her as one their own. In the Postwar era, critics treated her as an elegist and pure artist. In the era referred to as the postmodern, the major impetus has seemed to be

the effort to claim Cather as a feminist, although a postcolonial reading inevitably would focus on some of the issues the naturalist reading also focuses on.

Literary criticism can be taken to represent both an effort to investigate and explicate the meaning, nature and production of literature and an art form of its own accord.

No critical stance is inherently wrong, but no critical stance or concept can encompass every possible issue either. Why, over a literal century, none of the successive schools of criticism saw fit to recognize the scope of Cather’s capacities as naturalist is a question of some significance. Part of the answer is that every school of criticism had its own preoccupations as already described. Another part of the answer though is race, again as the nineteenth century defined that term.

No school of thought wanted to give any weight and play to the thoroughgoing ethnic determinism which characterizes Cather, at least in the works under consideration in this thesis. For some, the modernists of the 1920s or the social realism-oriented critics of the 1930s, the issue may have been insignificant in relation to their other concerns. For the postmodernists of the post-1970 era, another issue comes into play. With their concern with the issues of social and racial caste and the issues of social justice and power relations, they should have been willing to recognize the issue of race as ethnicity as it was chronicled in Cather. That they did not is a fault growing out their tendentious focus on an agenda that was interested in the issues of gender and race, meaning race as the term is used in our age.

Again, we arrive at the issue of what Cather believed about race. Again, my opinion is, she believed that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon supremacy was the natural order of life, in other words, that she was not a great critic of the system of caste she saw operating around her on the Nebraska prairie and in American society generally. Nevertheless, her powers as an observer and her talents as a naturalist made her be the faithful chronicler where a lesser light might have descended into editorializing and even invective.

As Acocella explains and most of the critics would prefer to not to acknowledge in any strong way

Nature was the inspirer of Cather’s irony, and of her tragic vision. Nature showed her that the world might be beautiful, and loud with life, yet wholly indifferent to the happiness of its creatures. In O Pioneers! Carl Linstrum, at sunrise, listens as “in the grass all about him the small creatures of the day began to tune their tiny instruments. Birds and insects without number began to chirp, to twitter, to snap and whistle, to make all manner of fresh shrill noises” (qtd. in Acocella). Before the sun sets again, many of these creatures will be dead[.] (89)

In Cather, human beings live and die, prosper and fail, for the same reasons nature’s myriad and usually small creatures live and die and prosper or fail – accident of place and conditions, accident of some obscure aspect of biological inheritance, accident of breed or kind.

But let Cather speak for herself on the topic of determinism in her own work. In final sentences of My Antonia, Cather has Jim Burden going through a reverie about his night in Nebraska and wagon ride he took in the dark along with the Shimerda family on his way to the farm where he would grow up.

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. (359)

Of that road, he concludes, “For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be” (360).

The accidents of fortune are not true accidents though, but rather the immutables in which each of them already are involved, the familiars of race, gender, class and individual inheritance in intersection with the world as it is in their place and age.


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