Rock, Wind, and Sun
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few authors achieve the distinctive transparency of Cather's work.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were rich in celebrated novelists: Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck are just a handful of the luminaries of the period. Beginning with a short story in 1896, Willa Cather joined their ranks, garnering critical and commercial success and ultimately a Pulitzer Prize.
Cather’s work is remarkable for its sense of place. Like Hemingway after her, she achieves a surprisingly dramatic effect through simple, direct descriptions. In perhaps her best-known novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, the clear skies and warm sand of the New Mexico territory (as it then was) are almost tangible to the reader; the colors of the Nebraska prairie in My Ántonia are as vivid as an impressionist painting. Much of her writing is set in what was then the American frontier, and was lauded for its portrayal of the “west.” Yet for all its simplicity, her style suffuses the landscape with meaning. Again in Archbishop, she writes: “The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. … Elsewhere the sky was the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.”
As well as place, Cather depicts her characters with immense vividness and variety. The serene and gentle wisdom of Archbishop Latour, the fiery Fr. Joseph Vaillant, the falsely genial corruption of Fr. Martinez, the trembling dignity of Dona Isabella Olivares—all are conveyed in a matter of sentences, yet all, from the first paragraphs in which we meet them, have the feel of fully-rounded characters with decades of life behind them. As in her landscapes, so in her characters, Cather displays a remarkable fidelity to fact: where another author might make sympathy or consistency a priority, she is unafraid to depict the strange complexity of human nature. In My Mortal Enemy, which recounts the slow collapse of a marriage, one character remarks, “People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were. … A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other.”
This openness to human experience was also reflected in her choice of subject matter. Death Comes for the Archbishop, written in a time when anti-Catholicism was a common and explicit prejudice among many Americans, chronicled the semi-fictionalized life of the first Bishop of New Mexico with so much intelligent sympathy that many readers mistakenly assumed she was a Catholic herself.
One passage in The Novel Démeublé, an essay on realism in fiction, are practically an unintentional summary of her own work: “Tolstoi was almost as great a lover of material things as Balzac, almost as much interested in the way dishes were cooked, and people were dressed, and houses were furnished. But there is this determining difference; the clothes, the dishes, the moving, haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author’s mind, as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves. When it is fused like this, literalness ceases to be literalness—it is merely part of the experience.”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other author profiles, like Ovid, Antoine Lavoisier, and Jorge Luis Borges. And be sure to check out our podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.