by Bradley J. Birzer
On Sunday, August 11, 2013, my family and I began our now-yearly odyssey into the West. As I write this, our vacation is ending, and I’m typing this from the second floor of a rented house in the Rockies, looking across my laptop out the window at Mt. Ouray.
In two days, our kids have pre-opening at their academy, back in Michigan, and the next morning I’ll attend the same for my job. I’m not quite ready to leave the glories of the American West, but, should I continue to care about a steady income and providing for my family, eastward I must return.
Some of my very first posts at The Imaginative Conservative were written three years ago on such a trek. I can no longer embark on annual trips without thinking of The Imaginative Conservative and without considering editorial mastermind Winston Elliott’s birthday (August 13), a day that will be celebrated some day in the Republic of Texas and, if it still exists, the United States of America.
A significant part of our yearly ritual and travel is my wife reading fiction to me as I drive. Dedra has one of the best reading voices I’ve ever encountered, and, as long as my children aren’t fighting with one another or with imaginary friends, I look forward to her reading almost as much as I look forward to the sites I’m about to encounter on our adventures.
Dedra can read anything and read it well, but she most often gravitates either to the mysteries of Ralph McInerny and Sharon McCrumb or to the fiction of Willa Cather. We both have adored Cather since college. With The Imaginative Conservative’s beloved John Willson, I try to read Death Comes for the Archbishop at least once year. I think a solid case could be argued for considering this novel the “Great American Novel” if such a label needs to be employed. Cather’s West is what the American West should’ve been, rather than what it was. In Cather’s vision, the West is humane, challenging, and, ultimately, in the best Ciceronian sense, cosmopolitan.
Looking back a century and a half, it would probably not have been wise to have bet on the success of Cather. Born in Virginia, her parents moved her to extreme south central Nebraska (only miles from the Kansas line and only about fifteen miles from the geographic center of the 48 states). Oldest of seven children, her parents homeschooled (or its past equivalent) Willa with their neighbors, raising her around German, Polish, Bohemian, Moravian, Swedish, and Russian immigrants. American Indians arrived in Red Cloud from time to time, as did Americans of African descent. All of this immigration and community with the treeless backdrop of the Great Plains fascinated Cather. Here, as a young woman, she experienced what most sociologists only imagine in their wildest dreams. While the various peoples and peopling of the land mattered to Cather, so too did the land.
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. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
So wrote Cather of her first great heroine, Alexandra, in O Pioneers!.
Graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1895, Cather went east to work as a muck-racking journalist. She gained considerable attention and fame at the notorious but popular McClures and she gave herself fulltime to her fiction in 1912. Her many works include: April Twilights (1903); Alexander’s Bridge (1912); O Pioneers! (1913); The Song of the Lark (1915); My Ántonia (1918); Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920); One of Ours (1922; for which she won the Pulitizer Prize); A Lost Lady (1923); The Professor’s House (1925); My Mortal Enemy (1926); Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927); Shadows on the Rock (1931); Obscure Destinies (1932); and Lucy Gayheart (1935).
Sometime in the 1920s, Cather’s anti-progressive views became quite clear, and the left despised her. She died, horribly, in some literary obscurity, rescued only after her death.
The Critics: Almost All Wrong
Numerous literary scholars have examined Cather’s work, deconstructing it, and trying to find who she was. What almost every writer about Cather misses (grant me a bit of righteous arrogance for this claim, please) is her intense Humanism (in the sense of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More) and her even more intense Christian Humanism. Raised a Baptist, she later converted to Anglicanism, becoming a very high Anglo-Catholic, always in love with (but mixed with a bit of fear of) the Roman Catholic Church.
As one of the few scholars who understands Cather, Ralph McInerny knew that one could never understand Cather unless one considers her a Roman Catholic writer. To consider her anything else would and will continue to distract the critic toward oblivion.
And, McInerny was correct. Any sensible reader of The Professor’s House, Death Comes, or Shadows on the Rock would be willfully blind to miss Cather’s love of the Roman church. Additionally, those of us who are Catholic might give God a little thanks that she never officially entered the Church. Why? Because, it gave her the ability to believe without being one of the Faithful. In Death Comes, for example, Cather portrays the bishops and Cardinals of Rome as soft, velvety, and decadent. Of course, the year is 1848, and things are about to change mightily at the Vatican. But, turn to the American Southwest and meet Father (now Bishop) Latour.
Mais, c’est fantastique!” he muttered, closing his eyes to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle. When he opened his eyes again, his glance immediately fell upon one juniper which differed in shape from the others. It was not a thick-growing cone, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it parted into two lateral, flat-lying branches, with a little crest of green in the centre, just above the cleavage. Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross. The traveller dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree. Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man,–it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth–brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.–Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Dear Lord, who wants to live in a parish with a priest possessing a limp and sweaty handshake, a lisp, and the inability to look his parishioners in the eye? Give me a manly priest, every time! Give me a Father Brian Stanley! Give me a Bishop Latour. This is what Cather understands and expresses so well. Yet, open almost any criticism of Cather, and you’ll likely see several themes/questions: was Cather a lesbian? (who knows and who cares?); was she anti-black? (no); and was she as simple as her writing? (no!)
Cather’s Christian Humanism
Consider this long but glorious passage from one of her finest works of fiction, The Professor’s House:
I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins–not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance–you impoverish them.– Godfrey St. Peter in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House
This is Cather at her best. And, frankly, it’s the single best definition of Christian Humanism I have ever encountered, rivaling anything Christopher Dawson or Russell Kirk claimed. And, for those of you who read The Imaginative Conservative, you know what huge praise I am giving Cather. Cather just “gets it,” and her critics don’t. But, don’t take my word for it. Pick up a Cather novel (sold in beautiful editions by Vintage). Neither your mind nor your soul will regret it.
As I mentioned above, I’m at the end of my vacation. It’s been a glorious time. I will always give thanks, especially, for two things. First, my wife read The Professor’s House to me. Second, my entire family and I got to visit Red Cloud, Nebraska, the home of Cather and the setting of some of the best fiction ever written in the new world.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.