Society for the History of Discoveries

Swift, John N. and Joseph R. Urgo, eds. Willa Cather and the American Southwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xi, 172p. ISBN 0803245572.

In order to more fairly review this book, after my initial reading of it I re-read two of Cather’s novels which are the basis of most of the essays in this volume. I had first read The Professor’s House and Death Comes to the Archbishop more than thirty years ago. In the mid-1960’s, as a graduate student fresh from England, living in Colorado and spending a summer at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, I devoured Cather’s novels which so well evoked the (to me) exotic landscapes and Anasazi cultures. But re-reading them after three decades in the U.S. and after reading the essays in this book, I realize how naïve my initial consumption of Cather was … but also how much more pleasurable! Perhaps just as a place cannot be “discovered and explored” more than once (at least not by the same person), so too a book is not necessarily lovelier the second time around. Or, to use another platitude, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

This volume, edited by two professors of English, evolved from a 1999 symposium on Willa Cather held at Mesa Verde, Colorado. Most of the contributors also teach English literature, though the essays incorporate a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. This reviewer is a geographer by training and is not versed in the nuances of literary criticism, but as a student of travel and tourism I admire Cather’s verbal portraits of places, their inhabitants and their visitors. As the editors note, “Cather was a quick student of place…her friends always noticed the focused intensity of her curiosity, her quick, impassioned connectedness to people and places” (p. 1-2). She painted landscapes through words and imagined the impressions of early European explorers of the American Southwest. As the authors of this book illustrate, while Cather had a great appreciation and passion for the land and cultures of the Southwest, she was ultimately “faithful to” European and European-American cultural traditions. As with all travelers/tourists, she saw new places through the lenses of past experience.

The editors claim that “[m]ore than with most writers, Cather readers and scholars have become tourists themselves” visiting her haunts such as Red Cloud, Nebraska or Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hence the symposium at Mesa Verde was intended to “use tourism – the transient, curious relationship of the individual to the significant land – as a paradigmatic structure for reunderstanding Willa Cather’s complicated relationship to the American Southwest” (p. 4). However, the reader of this volume will discover more about possible interpretations of Cather’s sexual, “colonial,” and ethnic perspectives than about the Southwest. These are twenty-first century “post-modern” perspectives on an early twentieth-century writer some of whose novels were set in preceding centuries. John Swift’s essay on the dried human “mummy” in The Professor’s House explores the signifiers this possibly female form had for the male characters in the story. Ann Fisher-Wirth discusses claims of anti-semitism in a Cather character, but argues ultimately against that interpretation. She subsequently ruminates about post-Cather claims that the Anasazi (ancestors of characters in Cather’s novels) were cannibals and wonders how we can continue to relish Cather’s image of Anasazi edenic oneness with nature. Ultimately she argues that realism, not idealism, will salvage us from our materially consumptive lifestyle.

Two essays explore the roles of nationalism and sexuality in The Professor’s House. In the novel, Tom goes to Washington unsuccessfully seeking governmental assistance for the preservation of Indian archeological sites only to find on his return that his discoveries have been sold for export. Matthais Schubnell argues that Cather implied criticism of U.S. policy in its lack of recognition of Native American cultures. Marilee Lindemann’s goal is to build on previous research which has “usefully complicated the image of Cather as a homophobic lesbian who either wrote from the closet or wrote nothing at all on the matter of sexuality” (p. 43). And complicate it she does, calling The Professor’s House a “grouchy book” which is also “bitchy” at times. Lindemann’s essay indicates to me how polysemic Cather’s writing is – how different readers “see” diverse things in the same text, just as Cather’s characters “see” contrasting visions of the same landscape.

John Murphy explores Cather’s ideas about spirituality showing links between her appreciation for European Christianity and her notions of alternative spiritualities of the Native American Southwest. He demonstrates how Cather’s visits to France with its inspiring Gothic cathedrals influenced her novels and how travel in both Europe and North America influenced her aesthetic development.

Part 2 consists of three essays examining structural issues of The Professor’s House: the domestic and its obverse, and the possible influence of Cather’s relationship with Mark Twain on the way in which Cather envisaged her oeuvre. Part 3 focuses on Death Comes to the Archbishop and includes considerations of the significance of Indian-Hispanic religious art objects, other cross-cultural aesthetic dialogues in the novels, and of Cather’s place in the traditions of magical-realism. The volume concludes with a fascinating attempt to show that Cather (and Faulkner) approach “difference,” or multiculturalism in a quintessentially American way by basically ignoring difference which does not interfere with the American project. Urgo argues that Cather’s work anticipated American attitudes that evolved later in the century.

Alain de Botton recently claimed in The Art of Travel (2002) that reading about a place can be better than visiting it, and revisiting a place about which you retain pleasurable memories can be perilous. Certainly reading Willa Cather’s Southwestern novels is, in many ways, cheaper and more gratifying than traveling in the contemporary region with its poverty, casinos and environmental crises. Reading Scott and Urgo’s book may incite you, as it did me, to re-read Cather but you may have to shed your rose-colored nostalgia glasses, as did I.

Briavel Holcomb
Rutgers University

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