by Hannah Halter
In her article, “Harvesting Willa Cather’s Literary Fields,” Beth Rundstrom discusses the humanistic outlook evident in most scholarship surrounding literary geography, as she writes, “Human-land relationships are the inspiration and impetus for invented landscapes…. Authors use invented literary settings, the where of a story, to represent landscape symbolically. Literary geographers examine an author’s conceptual sense of place to enhance understanding and to enrich readers’ geographies” (217). Rundstrom’s words aptly introduce the intersection of landscape and meaning that is apparent in Cather’s My Ántonia and The Professor’s House. Cather’s close relationship with the landscapes of her life—notably the American prairie, the landscape most often cited in discussions of her work—was a foundational influence for the landscapes she built, image by image, in her stories and novels. Cather’s connection to the land she was familiar with inspired observations of emotional significance, leading her to make artistic connections between her surroundings and the vistas of the human mind via her characters.
The effects landscapes have on Cather’s characters can be understood as existing both in a wide range and in a nexus; they are unique even as they converge. In attempting to map the emotional impact of Cather’s landscapes upon Ántonia Shimerda and Jim Burden of My Ántonia and Tom Outland and Professor Godfrey St. Peter of The Professor’s House, I propose a mode of categorization that metaphorically follows four directions: forward, backward, downward, and upward. With these four directions acting as both placeholders and lenses of investigation, I seek to delve into landscape’s impact on the characters in terms of building and shaping their identities as they grow and change (forward), playing a key role in their memories (backward), exposing them to the harshness of life and the immediacy of death (downward), and guiding them toward some sense of transcendence or spirituality (upward). These directions effectively play on Cather’s presentation and narrative exploration of her landscapes.
Beginning with the forward mode of directionality, Cather’s two books characterize the land as a means, or at the very least a facilitator, of building an identity. Dillman considers My Ántonia a bildungsroman, and many Cather scholars would agree (236). It is a story of growth and development, and the landscape of Jim Burden’s and Ántonia Shimerda’s childhoods is closely linked with nearly every aspect of their young lives. When Jim first encounters the landscape of his new home on the Nebraska prairie, he describes the profoundly unnerving unfamiliarity of the landscape, recalling how he “had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction” (Cather, Ántonia 12). Jim even contemplates the leveling effect the landscape had on his perception of his own existence, thinking, “Between the earth and the sky I felt erased, blotted out” (13). Ántonia’s perspectives are largely hidden from readers since Jim is the narrator of the story, but assuming she harbored similarly upsetting feelings is not a stretch. Jim moved to the prairie in the wake of tragedy, and the Shimerdas left their home country behind without even the advantage of knowing English. Jim and Ántonia are forced to exchange one landscape for another; Jim gave up his mountainous, pastoral home in Virginia, and Ántonia gave up her home across the world in Bohemia, a place from which she drew vivid memories, as she later states “my feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you” (181). The drastic uprooting of the children’s lives set them on a new course of development. Jim seems to foreshadow their growth when he thinks, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” (12). The material of the children’s lives has been transported to the blank slate of the prairie, and they must build themselves anew.
The original lure of simply exploring the mesa grows to new proportions when Tom discovers within it the ruins of a city once populated by Pueblo Indians.
The years that follow Jim and Ántonia’s relocation are underscored by a land in motion. Early in the novel, on a September morning spent outdoors with his grandmother, Jim muses, “More than anything else I felt the motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herd of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…” (Cather, Ántonia 18). Jim observes the swaying motion of the prairie grass on more than one occasion as he grows up. Dillman notes various images of motion related to the prairie and links them to the motion of the characters’ development, writing, “There is no stasis, no inertia. Events happen, characters develop and the countryside develops” (238). The motion of life in the prairie is connected to the necessity of maintaining a farm. Jim joyously embraces the necessities of a life in motion, assisting his family and friends with the many tasks related to agriculture. By the end of the novel, Ántonia has returned to the prairie and established an active, thriving family. The pain and sorrow she faced in the past, from her father’s suicide to her abandonment by Donovan, have given way to a healthy maturation of her character and a return to the land of her adolescence. Despite her struggles, Cooney writes that, “In transforming the once-foreign land into something familiar, Ántonia transformed herself from an immigrant girl to a pioneer woman” (142-43).
Near the end of the novel, the same landscapes Jim once referred to as raw material have shifted from pastures to a thriving civilization of wheat and corn fields, and sod dwellings have been largely replaced by wooden homes. Jim describes the developing country with awe and admiration.
The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. (Cather, Ántonia 229)
Jim does not begrudge any of the changes made to the land of his youth; he welcomes the expansion of mankind’s reach and sees the dramatic changes as the fair and fruitful result of the pioneers’ hard work and staunch endurance. Just as Cather aligns her developing characters to the landscape, Jim himself comments on the way the development of the land can mirror human progress, just as the prairie—made dynamic by the images of motion Jim describes and its role in the expansion of American civilization—accompanies and even reflects the growth of Jim and Ántonia from childhood to adulthood. As Thacker suggests, the landscape is “symbiotically connected to characters” and instrumental in “reveal[ing] the values, concerns, and life struggles of those characters connected to them” (198). Ántonia, like the bright red grasses that are rooted yet moving, stays close to a landscape she would ultimately make her own by returning to the prairie after spending a portion of her life in the town of Black Hawk. In the spirit of American exploration, Jim travels beyond the lands of his childhood. Still, after visiting Ántonia, Jim seems to find one of the deepest manifestations of meaning in his life situated within his childhood home on the prairie and sealed away in the past.
Unlike in My Ántonia, the development of Professor Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland in The Professor’s House does not chart the large breadth of experience ranging from childhood to adulthood, yet the two books share links between their juxtaposition of landscapes and character development. Wilson introduces the dualism inherent in the characterization of St. Peter and Tom Outland by writing, “In contrast to the Professor’s static, nihilist contemplation, Tom Outland’s story is all movement and aspiration” (67). For the majority of the book, Professor St. Peter’s interaction with landscapes are bounded to limited spaces, with two key examples being his garden and his view from his attic window. St. Peter’s French garden, in its carefully designed symmetry, stands in contrast to the vast, awe-inspiring landscape of the American Southwest that is later explored through St. Peter’s memory of Tom Outland. Cather writes that St. Peter had “tended this bit of ground for over twenty years, and had got the upper hand of it,” her words highlighting the relative smallness of the garden and St. Peter’s close control over its condition (Cather, Professor’s 105). St. Peter also interacts with a limited landscape by means of his office window, as he is able to see the “long, blue, hazy smear” of Lake Michigan on the horizon, much like the lake, or as he recalls it, “inland sea of his childhood,” he grew up near (114). Even the lake itself—with all the freedom and happiness St. Peter attributed to lakes since childhood—exists in a limited state, bounded by land. Quite literally, St. Peter’s open office window keeps him alive by clearing the air made unclean by the gas stove, but metaphorically, the window bears a connection to the distant lake and the significance it impressed upon him since childhood.
Only by isolating himself and revisiting Tom Outland’s story of Blue Mesa through his diary does St. Peter see past these limited connections to the natural world and tap into the vast energy aligned with unbounded landscapes. He uncovers the identity of his young self when he lived in Kansas, describing himself as “a primitive” who was “only interested in earth, woods, and water” (Cather, Professor’s 260). Instead of drawing anguish from his memories of Kansas as he did early in the book (he “nearly died” out of sorrow from leaving the lake), St. Peter recovers the vitality of his former life in the wheat lands (115). This breakthrough, underscored at every turn by landscape, is not a final happiness for St. Peter, but an expansion of his consciousness and a shift in his perspective. Despite allowing the gas stove to nearly suffocate him, his story ends with forward motion; feeling as though he finally had “ground under his feet,” St. Peter knew that he could face the future “with fortitude” (271). All in all, St. Peter’s major arc of character development is apparent in his shift from a discontented man trapped beneath a growing sense of ennui to a man gathering his strength from the past to face the future, and these two states of mind are accompanied by the inertia of bounded natural features (the garden and the distant lake) and the active energy of expansive landscapes (the mesa and Kansas).
The heart of Tom Outland’s posthumously recounted story involves Blue Mesa, a feature of the American Southwest’s landscape that takes on titanic meaning in Tom’s section of the book. The original lure of simply exploring the mesa grows to new proportions when Tom discovers within it the ruins of a city once populated by Pueblo Indians. After finding artifacts such as pottery and tools, Tom thinks, “To people off along, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk on” (Cather Professor’s, 216). Apart from the initial awe and excitement of adventure, Tom’s discovery of the stone city stands as the first major push toward his deep connection with the mesa. Tom sees national importance in his discovery, and in agreement with Roddy Blake and Father Duchene, he travels to Washington D.C. to present his findings to the Smithsonian. Not only is Tom stalled and ultimately dismissed during his trip, but his partner, Roddy, sells Tom’s artifacts when he is away, betraying his trust. Tom sees Roddy’s actions not just as a breach of trust between the two men but as an affront to the nation. Tom elevates the value of the artifacts to a matter of national importance when Tom says to Roddy, “You’ve gone and sold your country’s secrets” (246).
For Jim, the prairie is a physical reality closely tied to his past experiences and laced with complex emotions.
Tom is grieved by the Smithsonian’s rejection and Roddy’s betrayal. These crippling rejections grieve Tom, but soon, he undergoes a crucial shift in his perception that is central to his character development. When Roddy leaves, Tom experiences a “happiness unalloyed” with the feeling that he had “found everything,” and he describes the time he spends on the mesa alone as the “high tide” of his life (Cather, Professor’s 253), a description that echoes St. Peter’s “golden days” of writing his Spanish Adventurers books (116). Wilson points out Tom’s full understanding that the civilization would likely never be known and revered by larger circles of society after the artifacts were removed and the mummified remains of “Mother Eve” was destroyed (67). As a result, Wilson writes, “Tom adjusts his perspective, making no continuing claim for the mesa’s place in the nation’s imagination of origin, settling instead for a purely personal relation to the city” (68). Despite the rejections brought on by Tom’s work in the ruins, he nevertheless takes root alone at the mesa and finds fulfillment that overrides his disappointment. When trying to pin down the cause of his fulfillment, Tom concludes that the feeling was “possession,” a notion that enabled him to feel as if it were the first time he was “really on the mesa at all” (Cather, Professor’s 253). He trades the idealistic ambition to actualize his discoveries and add them to the cultural heritage of the nation for the satisfaction of connecting to the land and ruins as a lone inhabitant instead of an advocate, all the while appreciating the place’s value and possessing its relics to the point of experiencing transformative happiness.
Along with the forward motion of character development, the impact of landscape in My Ántonia and The Professor’s House is closely tied to memory. Because My Ántonia includes the span of Jim’s and Ántonia’s adolescence to their adulthood, memory plays a key role in Jim’s narrative, which is presented as a recollection in and of itself. The many positive aspects of Jim’s childhood on the prairie are brought into greater relief when he and Ántonia immerse themselves in town life at Black Hawk. Even when years have passed and Jim returns to Black Hawk, he is underwhelmed by the trip and only manages to pick up on “the curious depression that hangs over little towns” until he returns to the land of his childhood, still rife with “the long red grass of early times,” and clearing away his thoughts of the town is able to declare, “My mind was full of pleasant things” (Cather, Ántonia 272). The years Jim spent away from the Nebraska prairie did little to dampen the joy attached to the landscape through his childhood memories. Of course, Jim’s connection to the prairie did not start out positively, and he does not shy away from the memory of his arrival and the immediacy of it in his mind, thinking, “This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the rain at Black Hawk…. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand” (273). As Jim recounts that experience, he ponders the very road beneath his feet, imbuing it with significance by referring to it as “the road of Destiny” that set his and Ántonia’s lives in motion, a road that closed in the circle of his arrival, his absence, and his return (273). The landscape takes on greater meaning through the lens of Jim’s memory. Hindsight imbues both the town and the prairie with emotional significance that is collected, filtered, and crystallized in his mind. Cooney aptly captures the link between landscape and memory, writing, “In My Ántonia, the land is also a mediator between the present and the past, as though all the organic and inorganic features of a place preserve and prompt a person’s memory…. The details—shapes, colors, smells—of one’s environment can be a catalyst for dense memory” (143-44). For Jim, the prairie is a physical reality closely tied to his past experiences and laced with complex emotions. In his perception, the landscape maintains the meaningful emotions of “the precious, incommunicable past,” from the leveling effect of the land on his very identity when he arrived to the deep connection he felt with the panorama of prairie life (273). Jim conjures up memories of the places and people that “stood out strengthened and simplified,” reminding him of “the image of the plough against the sun” (198). Recalling the plough is an imagistic approach he takes in reconstructing the past. Whether through simple images or extended musings on nature, Jim continually draws on images of the landscape of his youth to explore and evaluate his fondest memories of both people and places.
In The Professor’s House, St. Peter’s memory of childhood is linked to the places of his youth, including the lakefront farm and the Kansas wheat lands. In a moment of transformation, he is able to reawaken a measure of the latent, primitive awareness of his youth, an awareness immersed in nature. The greatest adventure of St. Peter’s adult life was arguably the writing of his books on Spanish adventurers, the very inspiration of which was connected to a landscape, since St. Peter claims the design of his book “unfolded in the air above him” as he lay looking up at the mountains of coastal Spain from the deck of a boat (Cather, Professor’s 161). St. Peter’s memories of joy and mental vigor brought on by writing the books is comparable to his past friendship with Tom, which allowed him a “second youth” of sorts (255). Because of Tom’s death, the role of landscapes in his memory is largely unexplored. Still, Tom’s connection to the mesa is paramount in St. Peter’s memory of him. Tom is a major catalyst who affects St. Peter at the depths of his identity and personal outlook. St. Peter’s daughter, Kathleen, hints at the idealized rendering of Tom that thrived in their family’s memory when she says, “Our Tom is much nicer than theirs,” (177) a version of Tom associated with ancient artifacts and thrilling stories of adventure, stories that St. Peter recalled as having “no shadows” (171). Kathleen elevates the Tom she and her father revere while discounting the Tom who “turned out chemicals and dollars and cents,” establishing himself as a highly successful scientist (177). Just as Jim reconstructed the past as he stood on the road to his grandparents’ old farm, St. Peter and Kathleen reconstruct the memory of Tom Outland as a prolific explorer deeply connected to the land. In a way, St. Peter’s sweeping shift in perspective is rooted in a vicarious association with the landscapes of the American Southwest that framed a meaningful portion of Tom’s life. The land set Tom on his path of exploration and discovery, and St. Peter’s precious memories of Tom are based on those explorations. In this way, the landscape remains at the heart of St. Peter’s relationship to “our Tom,” as Kathleen says, and from it sprang the emotional transformations experienced by both Tom and St. Peter.
Whether through simple images or extended musings on nature, Jim continually draws on images of the landscape of his youth to explore and evaluate his fondest memories of both people and places.
With all these notions of growth and nostalgia acknowledged, it is important to note that Cather clearly presents the harshness and danger indivisibly linked to the landscapes in My Ántonia and The Professor’s House. Alongside the forward motion of growth and the backwards glance of memory exists the grounding force of death. Just as Cather can be quick to portray nature as a protagonist in some aspects of her books, she also often presents nature as an antagonist, a tendency that is clearly portrayed in My Ántonia (Forbes 106). Although life on the Nebraska prairie in My Ántonia is often a source of joy and fulfillment for Jim on an emotional and even spiritual level, he and Ántonia are made aware of danger and death in a series of both first-hand and second-hand experiences. Looking back on his arrival on the prairie, Jim remembers feeling as if he had left the spirits of his parents behind in Virginia, and he recalls, “I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be” (Cather, Ántonia 13). With this somewhat deterministic frame of mind, Jim manages to grimly underscore the more harrowing aspects of prairie life. One of the only major dangers Jim personally experiences is an enormous snake he encounters when exploring the prairie dog burrows with Ántonia. After successfully killing it, Jim notes how it “seemed like the ancient eldest Evil,” no doubt drawing parallels to the serpent in Eden and confirming the connection between this scene and the moments of Edenic beauty Jim and Ántonia share in the garden and on the prairie during their childhood (42). Jim’s comment also serves to voice the ever-present reality of nature’s hazards opposing mankind’s well-being. Jim celebrates his victory and sees it as a coming-of-age moment, yet he does not fail to realize his luck when he states, “Subsequent experiences with rattlesnakes taught me that my first encounter was fortunate in circumstance…. So in reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance” (43).
In a way, “the game” was fixed in Jim’s favor in an overarching manner that reaches far beyond his encounter with the snake. Jim and Ántonia may have shared the same basic geography during their childhood, but Jim had a clear economic advantage; although his grandparents were not wealthy in the slightest, they had a well-established farm and a stable home. The poor quality of the Shimerdas’ farmland and resources exacerbates their struggle, a struggle depicted in images such as their ruined windmill (Cather, Ántonia 23). The most gruesome event of Jim’s childhood on the prairie is Ántonia’s father’s suicide, a tragedy undoubtedly linked to the Shimerda family’s struggle as poor immigrants in an unfamiliar and unforgiving landscape. The grisly details of Mr. Shimerda’s death, coupled with the harshness of the blizzard that renders the landscape impassable, form the dark, naturalistic heart of the prairie narrative portion of the story. Mr. Shimerda is buried at what would become a crossroads, and Cather presents a bittersweet parting image of his grave, as Jim thinks, “The grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper” (94). Dillman writes that Mr. Shimerda’s grave is situated in a “land of nexus” among the roads, granted mercy by the road-makers’ decision to let the grave remain untouched (232-33). Jim’s thoughts reconstruct the positive aspects of the landscape, since he presents the gravesite as both an idyllic spot between dirt roads that appear to be calm rivers and a continually acknowledged testament to Mr. Shimerda’s resting place.
Another instance of death in My Ántonia is the suicide of the man known only as the “tramp.” As with Mr. Shimerda’s suicide, Ántonia experienced this horrific event in a much more direct way than Jim. The tramp came to the Iverson’s farm and assisted Ántonia as she worked with a thresher, and after a few minutes, he waved to Ántonia and jumped into the machine (Cather, Ántonia 139). She reported that the tramp was carrying a penknife, a wishbone, and some poetry, which Frances identifies as “The Old Oaken Bucket” (140). Dillman closely examines these details, writing, “The wish-bone suggests that [the tramp] was down on his luck and ‘The Old Oaken Bucket’ suggests that he may have longed for the pastoral rural paradise depicted in that song and poem” (234). Taking Dillman’s conclusions into account, the tramp represents a worst-case scenario of prairie life. His suicide, along with Mr. Shimerda’s, likely had much to do with economic difficulty and the thwarted desire for a more ideal landscape. Such deep longing for stability and comfort is smothered quickly and severely in a landscape as vast, volatile, and sparsely-populated as the Nebraska prairie during the time at which Cather set the story. All in all, the frontier life carried tremendous possibilities yet retained the potential to be violent and tragic (Dillman 238).
Jim becomes acquainted with the harshness of life in a more direct way during his time in the town of Black Hawk. The brand of harshness he experiences is one that does not directly arise from the prairie landscape but one that stands as an aberration from it. The center of Jim’s discontented views on town life are made apparent in one of his silent monologues.
On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side….Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny…. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all. (Cather, Ántonia 168)
Such deep longing for stability and comfort is smothered quickly and severely in a landscape as vast, volatile, and sparsely-populated as the Nebraska prairie during the time at which Cather set the story.
Some of the worst aspects of town life that Jim identifies such as envy and evasiveness did appear, albeit in a different permutation, in the relationship between Jim and Ántonia’s family. When Jim asks Ántonia why she acted like her brother Ambrosch so often rather than being her “nice” self, she ultimately answers, “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us” (111). The tyranny of town culture seems separate in Jim’s mind from the tyranny the Shimerdas lived under as poor, rural immigrants, pushed to the envy and evasions Jim recognizes and despises in Black Hawk. The major difference that remains between town life and rural life lies in the landscape. Although Jim’s social critiques are not perfect nor do they completely set up the dualism of town and rural lifestyles, his emotion-laden perspectives about the bleakness of the town and the awe-inspiring beauty of the open prairie are quite telling. For example, Jim often praises the play of light upon the colors of the countryside, describing the fruitful garden, the range of unique bugs, the fiery redness of the grasses during sunsets, and much more. In town, Jim’s attention is pulled away from the prairie and set upon the interactions of the residents, which he vividly characterizes in the previous monologue. One of Jim’s few descriptions of nature’s contact with the town is eminently bleak, as he notes how the “pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify” the scene at all, and that the wind swept through “with a kind of bitter song” that suggested all of summer’s beauty was a lie (136). In this way, the contrast between the descriptions of natural features greatly add to Jim’s critiques of town culture and display the harshness of life lived apart from the land.
In The Professor’s House, the austerity of life and the immediacy of death is made apparent in Tom’s experiences and discoveries connected to Blue Mesa. Unlike Jim’s empowering experience with a snake, Tom, Blake, and Henry’s experience with the same creature has a much more tragic end, as Henry is bitten on the forehead and killed during one of the group’s explorations in the ruins of Blue Mesa (Cather, Professor’s 231). Jim’s victory against the enormous snake and Henry’s sudden death by a smaller, hidden snake reveal how unpredictable nature can be. In addition, the evidence of the mesa’s former inhabitants that Tom collects and Father Duchene interprets suggests that the civilization saw a swift and violent end. In the words of Father Duchene, the inhabitants of the stone city created a complex and carefully-designed society.
I see them here, isolated, cut off from other tribes, working out their destiny, making their mesa more and more worthy to be a home for man, purifying life by religious ceremonies and observances, caring respectfully for their dead, protecting the children, doubtless entertaining some feelings of affection and sentiment for this stronghold where they were at once so safe and so comfortable, where they had practically overcome the worst hardships that primitive man had to fear. They were, perhaps, too far advanced for their time and environment. (233-34)
Father Duchene goes on to theorize that the inhabitants of Blue Mesa were “utterly exterminated” while occupying a summer camp in an unprotected area of the landscape (234). The end of the civilization occurred despite the tribe’s cultural and societal advancements. An important distinction to make, however, is that the features of the landscape itself did not wipe out the civilization—roaming attackers most likely did—yet the geography of the plains enabled its demise, just as the mesa enabled its degree of growth. As Tom Outland implies for the people of the mesa, the landscape ultimately became the deciding factor as to whether their civilization would survive much more so than the sophistication of their society.
Somewhat similarly to Jim’s experiences in Black Hawk, Tom’s experiences exploring Blue Mesa reveal a different sort of harshness that does not arise from the landscape itself but through his absence from it. During his stay with the Bixbys in Washington D.C., for example, Tom witnesses how petty and slavish their lifestyle was, and he subsequently feels a degree of “low-spiritedness” he had never before felt (Cather, Professor’s 242). Cather juxtaposes Tom watching the Washington Monument “colour with those beautiful sunsets” with the workers streaming out of buildings at the end of the day (242). Tom still searches for familiar beauty even in a bustling, unfamiliar city. When Tom is travelling back to the mesa following his unsuccessful trip, he thinks, “I wanted nothing but to get back to the mesa and live a free life and breathe free air, and never, never again to see hundreds of little black-coated men pouring out of white buildings” (Professor’s 243-44). Tom’s thoughts reveal the link he perceives between the mesa and freedom, drawing on the contrast between the highly populous, largely black and white city versus the solitude of a varied landscape rich with color. Despite the danger and volatility of the wild, uninhabited landscape, Tom still prefers it over the stifling world of urbanity, a world he sees as enslaved to materialism and peopled with masses meaninglessly clamoring for money and possessions. Tom faces the grip of materialism once again when he returns to the mesa to find that Roddy Blake sold his collection of artifacts from the ruins, and Tom remedies the pain of the event by spending time alone at the mesa and reconnecting with it. Both Jim and Tom critique the culture of materialism and disconnection between people in different degrees that fit their narratives. Having found fulfillment in living close to the land, both men find they cannot fully mesh with the dominant culture of the world around them.
Having found fulfillment in living close to the land, both men find they cannot fully mesh with the dominant culture of the world around them.
Although harshness and death are inherent in the landscapes and locations of My Ántonia and The Professor’s House, Cather clearly favors an emphasis on the life-giving aspects of the natural world. At the very height of the characters’ interactions with the land is often a sense of transcendence or spiritual imminence. The final direction of the four modes is upward, a direction that can be metaphorically aligned to these powerful states of mind. Cooney quotes Willa Cather when she writes that an artist “should be able to lift himself into the clear firmament of creation where the world is not. He should be among men but not of them, in the world but not of the world” (142). Cather’s words on the artist echo through these stories, reflecting the power of artistic elevation within the transcendent experiences of Jim, St. Peter, and Tom. Looking back on his childhood, Jim recognizes the stirrings of a mystical feeling that arose in him when he interacted with the prairie. Early in the prairie section of Jim’s narrative when he is lingering in his grandparents’ garden, he recalls the following feeling: “I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like this when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (Cather, Ántonia 20). Cooney points out that the prairie “serves as a conciliator between the material self and the spiritual self” (142), and that the garden acted as a “mediator” that “prompted Jim’s early epiphany that all things are interconnected” (143). The physical and mystical are bridged by means of the landscape, and Jim mentally—even spiritually—transcends the boundaries of the physical separations most people typically perceive.
Jim’s description of his epiphany bears a surprising connection to his feelings upon arriving at his grandparents’ farm. Although Jim recalls feeling “erased” and “blotted out” when he was relocated to the prairie (13), in the garden, he was “entirely happy” to feel as if he was being “dissolved” into oneness with his surroundings (20). Both descriptions point to a loss of identity, but the latter elevates Jim’s loss of self by incorporating him into the beauty around him and bringing him peace. Jim’s initial anxiety was driven by fear of the new and the unknown, causing him to hold fast to his threatened sense of self and refusing to accept the peace he later possessed. The garden space acts as an introductory landscape for young Jim; unlike the closed-off, symmetrical perfection of St. Peter’s garden in The Professor’s House, this garden leads Jim to open his perspective and reach a sense of oneness with the vast wildness of the prairie. The emotional force of the passage detailing Jim’s mystical connection with his surroundings in My Ántonia is further heightened by the fact that Willa Cather’s tombstone bears the inscription “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” The mystical heart of Jim’s childhood on the prairie goes far beyond a moment of natural beauty or character development and reaches toward the sacred mystery of mankind’s spiritual connection to the natural world.
In The Professor’s House, both St. Peter and Tom experience moments of transcendence and spirituality connected to the landscape. McGiveron diversifies the mystical themes connected to unbounded vistas by identifying the human drive to think about one’s place within a grander, more universal scheme.
Especially in the section of the book chronicling Outland’s story of the Blue Mesa, these distances not only call the heart but also lead it to wonder about one’s place in the universe, terrestrial nature, and humanity. The characters who hear this call come to realize that because the individual is connected with the whole both physically and spiritually, one must not withdraw from the natural and
human worlds, as St. Peter first attempts, but instead must try to embrace and enjoy them. (396)
Both St. Peter and Tom desire solitude, attain it, and then return to their roles within a wider community. In St. Peter’s case, acknowledging his “first nature” as a child whose greatest cares were the lake and the land stands as a moment of transcendence beyond his troubled mindset (Cather, Professor’s 261). St. Peter’s healing transformation hinged on the actions of Augusta, the family seamstress. Augusta is a character deeply connected with spirituality, and St. Peter’s evaluation of her after she rescued him from suffocating in his office aligns her with the land. He compares her to a taste of bitter herbs, calling her “the bloomless side of life that he had always run away from” and noting just how “seasoned and sound and on the solid earth she surely was” (270). In a way, Augusta acts as a healthy dose of earth and spirit that benefits St. Peter greatly by not only saving his life but by reconnecting him with reality. The combination of St. Peter’s discovery about his latent identity with Augusta’s rescue and assistance and his “temporary release from consciousness” allow him to transcend the growing discontent and emptiness plaguing his mind (271). These factors have much to do with the landscapes St. Peter recalls from childhood and his vicarious tie to Blue Mesa through his memory of Tom and the records in Tom’s diary.
Although harshness and death are inherent in the landscapes and locations of My Ántonia and The Professor’s House, Cather clearly favors an emphasis on the life-giving aspects of the natural world.
Compared to St. Peter’s transcendent experience, Tom’s is much more direct and closely tied to the landscape. As Tom spends more and more time at the mesa, his emotions toward it develop. Early in his explorations, Tom describes the effect of the mesa’s pure air on him as “produc[ing] a kind of exaltation,” hinting at the powerful effect the mesa would have on him as he spent more time there (Cather, Professor’s 220). When Tom returns from his trip to Washington and spends time alone at the mesa, he begins to see it as “no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion” (253). Up on the mesa, Tom feels he is “a close neighbor to the sun,” and he describes how the morning rays would hit the top of the mesa even as the rest of the world below him waiting in shadow (253). His descriptions cast the mesa as a physically and spiritually elevated landscape, a veritable “world above the world” (246). McGiveron takes into account Cather’s choice to call the mesa “Blue Mesa” instead of drawing from the real and highly comparable location of Mesa Verde. McGiveron writes, “whereas the color green has connotations of luxuriant growth and connection with the earth…the blue of the Blue Mesa is more evocative of the sky that is viewed so unobstructed from its high top; it connects us with the open and unmeasurable blue spaces above” (397). Incorporating McGiveron’s argument, Blue Mesa clearly takes on a spiritual alignment, elevated high above the flat land surrounding it as the sole inhabitant of the space between earth and sky.
Somewhat similarly to St. Peter’s return to his life with his family and career, Tom eventually leaves the mesa. Even in his time of solitude, Tom immerses himself in classic texts and in honing his skill in Latin, conferring with great minds and ideas through his reading. His solitude precedes his entry into the wider community of education, taking on the role of student and scientist. Even the mesa itself, an untamed land once molded into a thriving civilization, pulls in themes of wildness and solitude verses community and society. These details intimate Tom’s eventual return to modern society. As McGiveron writes, Tom is not dependent on solitude to find his place in the world, and his religious connection to the mesa and its former inhabitants stems from his private “contemplation and appreciation of the evocative distances of space and time in nature” (401). To Tom, the village itself was a testament to transcending time, as it existed in “immortal repose” and “sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity” (Cather, Professor’s 221). Tom’s spiritual connection with Blue Mesa reaches its greatest depths during the period of his solitude, but despite the true happiness he found there alone, he was able to begin a new life apart from it. As he neared the end of his story, Tom told St. Peter, “Troubles enough came afterward, but there was that summer, high and blue, a life in itself” (254). Just as St. Peter reclaims the past life of his youth and reaches a more balanced mindset with which to move forward, Tom continues in life by leaving his solitude behind but, of course, never forgetting his life on the mesa.
With both books considered, Cather presents a range of impacts of the landscape on her characters. The connections exceed this collection of examples and far exceed the scope of just two of her books. Cather skillfully instills meaning into her myriad descriptions of landscapes and her characters’ relationship to them across the breadth of her writings. Categorizing these relationships through the four directions that encompass growth, memory, death, and transcendence showcases the connections most important to both stories. The combination of these impacts on Jim, Ántonia, St. Peter, and Tom creates a literary latticework central to Cather’s art. It is clear that her landscapes serve purposes far beyond acting as a place for characters to interact. Cather’s land takes on the role of a larger-than-life protagonist and antagonist, becomes a means of transformative change in the lives of those connected to it, and stands as the zeitgeist of a frontier era fraught with the spirit of American expansion.
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—. The Professor’s House. Willa Cather: Later Novels. Ed. Sharon O’Brien. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1990. 99-271. Print.
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Hannah Halter is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program. This paper received the English Department’s Danny Ducker Graduate Merit Award in 2017.