Thursday, January 9, 2014

The story of what had happened was written plainly - some Willa Cather mythology

O Pioneers! is pretty good as novelistic sociology – the mix of immigrant groups in late 19th century Nebraska, their speech patterns, their habits.  But Cather is also up to something else.  She is myth-making.

The protagonist is a kind of earth goddess, for example, in tune with the land, prophetic about the weather.  She is visited in recurring dreams by some sort of male corn god (“he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him”).  After the dreams, “angry with herself,” she gives her “gleaming white body” a good scrub with “cold well-water” (III, 2 for all of this).  Hmm.  Maybe this is why I was not assigned the novel in high school – too much sex.

The minor character Crazy Ivar speaks only Norwegian, goes barefoot, knows the language of the birds, and, to top it off, lives in a hole in the ground (“Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank”) in a part of the country where the “wild flowers disappeared,” (I, 3)  Yesterday I called him a symbolic link to the Old Country, but he also appears to be a genuine troll, one of many who will appear at Wuthering Expectations this year.

Long ago I took a course in Greek and Roman mythology.  The professor at one point described his admiration for Willa Cather, based in part on her deep love of myth.  For example, he said, in one of her novels she borrows the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid (Book IV of Metamorphoses), in which two nitwit lovers kill themselves for no good reason, in the process staining a mulberry bush with their blood:

With that, his body on his sword he threw:
Which, from the reaking wound, he dying drew.
Now, on his back, vp-spun the blood in smoke:
As when a Spring-conducting pipe is broke,
The waters at a little breach breake out,
And hissing, through the aëry Region spout.
The Mulberryes their former white forsake;
And from his sprinkling blood their crimson take.  (from the great George Sandys translation, 1632)

The great Ovidian touch here is the ridiculous and sublime comparison of the jet of blood to the broken pipe.  And here it was, in O Pioneers!.

Cather borrows not the story, exactly, or only does so with a lot of distance, but the mulberries, and the blood:

While Ivar was hurrying across the fields, the first long rays of the sun were reaching down between the orchard boughs to those two dew-drenched figures.  The story of what had happened was written plainly on the orchard grass, and on the white mulberries that had fallen in the night and were covered with dark stain.  (IV, 8) 

In the next paragraph, the stained berries are mentioned again.  The slain lovers have been transformed:

two white butterflies from Frank's alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die.

Those roses may go a bit too far.  This is what I meant by the foregrounding of symbolism.  How can you miss the interlaced shadows and pink hearts?  You are not meant to miss them.

Yet Cather merely brushes against Ovid’s mulberries.  No arrow points at them – “classical reference here.”  There is no need at all for the reader to recognize the story, and no hint that it is there.  None of the characters have any idea of it.  It is not worked in to the novel but just there, in a few lines.

What else did Cather hide?


  1. And yet so many of the writers of the time were turning to classical mythology and the Bible and just bludgeoning their readers with references to them (i.e. Thomas Wolfe).

    I'm definitely going to read more Cather. In Truman Capote's wonderful account of meeting her, he had indicated to her (before realizing who she was) that she was his favorite American author, and pointed to A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy as "perfect" works of art - so I'll probably start with one of those. In the same meeting, they talked about Flaubert and Turgenev, so Cather may be hiding something of those writers too.

  2. You say at the end, "What else did Cather hide?" You are talking, of course, about whatever might be hidden in the text. I am always reluctant to look for "hidden" meanings and messages. Moreover, let us not fall into the unpleasant trap of talking about what she was hiding in her personal life. Too many recent biographers and article writers have spilled too much ink on that superfluous, salacious issue. BTW, in my simple approach to Cather, I think she used her novels to talk about the kinds of people and experiences she enjoyed knowing and experiencing. Is that too simple?

  3. Yes, everyone writing comments about Cather's personal life, knock it off. How annoying.

    I think Cather was a bit ahead of the big wave with this Ovidian insertion. 1922 - Ulysses and "The Wasteland" - may have been a tipping point. By the '30s, when Wolfe was writing, things had become ridiculous. Absalom, Absalom, what kind of a title is that?

    Faulkner's Sanctuary also features some business from The Golden Bough. I see I forgot to mention that I suspect Cather had been reading The Golden Bough.

    Scott, have you read The Egoist by Meredith by any chance? That novel is as early example as I know of a fiction that has an external pattern just sort of slid underneath the action of the novel, giving it structure and some detail, but otherwise having no obvious relation to the story. Strange and fascinating.

    R.T., what kind of grade would you give a student for that answer? E.g., test question: "What is the role of the chorus in The Bacchae? My answer: "I think Euripides used his plays to talk about the kinds of people he knew and experiences he had. Like the time that mob of crazy ladies attacked him. Luckily, unlike the character in the play, he lived to tell the tale."

    Wait, this has some promise. A new kind of literary criticism. People are always saying this or that work is autobiographical. So just run with that. Assume that it is true.

  4. Okay, AR/Tom, you get an "B" for tongue-in-cheek originality (especially in turning my phrase from a different context back on me in this one). Now, in your rewrite, for an "A" instead, simply show evidence in the text to support your creative assertion. What the hell! I feel generous in my last semester. You're lucky you didn't run into me when I started teaching. I was Vlad the Impaler!

  5. Yeah, I think there has been some grade inflation here.

  6. The Egoist, okay, got it, along with My Mortal Enemy and a couple of other things with which to stagger homeward. Thanks!

    P.S. My eternal model for that kind of student answer is Lynda Barry's advice to not "make your book reports too fakey": "It is a mordant criticism of man and morals, and I really liked the part where the house blew up."

  7. Dear Prof. Amateur,
    I am writing a paper about Wilma Cather and would like to ask you some questions.
    1. How many symbols are there in the story?
    2. Did Mrs. Cather herself ever live in a hole in the ground?
    3. Did Mrs. Cather think that "trolls" were "real"? Do you think that some people today might be "trolls"?
    4. Why didn't Mrs. Cather cite Mr. Ovid in her story, and is this plagiarism today?

    Thanks for your help! This post gets me extra credit, if I can cite it!

  8. Speaking of trolls, it's a little known fact, but there are plenty of trolls in Ibsen's plays. In addition to the actual ones from Peer Gynt, there are trolls disguised as human beings, to wit Hedda Gabler and Hilde from The Master Builder.

    On a different note, one of Ibsen's biggest fans (G. B. Shaw) and one of his most bitter detractors (Max Nordau), both have described him as a new Cervantes.

  9. Young student, you have come to the right place.

    The answers are:

    1. There are seven symbols in O Pioneers!. They are: the wild duck, the mulberries, the hammock, the kitten, the bank vault, the dynamite, and the getaway car.
    2. No.
    3. Cather knew several trolls in so-called real life. Your second question is a trick of some sort.
    4. Did you know that the full name of Ovid was Publius Ovidius Naso? In the original Roman, "Naso" means "big nose," probably. Ovid was given this name because of his enormous schnozz. Put this in your paper, it will impress your teacher.

    You are right that it is important to use proper citations. The correct citation in this case is: "Some dude's blog, 2014."

    Good luck with your paper!

  10. The Egoist - if only it were not so long, then it would be easier to recommend. It has some fine scenes. Plus the china pattern business.

    My original post on Ibsen and trolls, I think, from 2011. That fact is well known here. It is the source of my puzzlement at the idea that the important word to attach to Ibsen is "realism."

    I was just thinking that I ought to read "The Quintessence of Ibsenism" (1891) - although perhaps you are referring to something else - I should read it regardless. I did a text search and found Cervantes mentioned in the context of Peer Gynt and Brand, which makes immediate sense to me.

  11. So, tell me, AR/Tom, why does "realism" not match up perfectly with trolls? Clearly you need to get out and explore under some bridges. And as someone as already noted, if Hedda and Hilde aren't trolls, then I've never met one. (And given my experiences with women, I have met many!)

  12. I will stick to exploring literature, which is safer, but that is a good objection.

  13. You could almost say that trolls have taken hold of this comment thread. As for my sources, for Nordau of course it's his very dangerous book, Degeneration. For Shaw, it was a collection of his theatrical reviews of the '80s and '90s.

    In case anybody thinks we're just trolling around when it comes to the 'trolls in Ibsen' stuff, here's one source: "Supernatural or paranatural beings haunt many Ibsen plays, from Catiline in 1849 to When We Dead Awaken in 1899…principally in the last seven plays: Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, When We Dead Awaken and Little Eyolf…[in these plays] I see Dr. West, the Stranger, Diana, Hilde the Rat Wife, Borkman's dwarfish spirits of the gold and Rubek's marble statuary as troll alter egos." Stephen S. Stanton, Trolls in Ibsen's late plays.

  14. Any trolls here are of the friendly, moominish sort. I wonder what I will do about Ibsen secondary reading. The problem is not that there is a lot of it, but that there is a lot that is so good, readable by a fellow like me.

  15. I highly recommend Joan Templeton's Ibsen's Women. As biographical criticism, it is a superb way to begin looking differently and clearly at Ibsen and his plays.

  16. The Templeton booksounds good, and might be interesting to read along with Lou Andreas-Salomé's Ibsen's Heroines, which is also biographical - but about the biography of the characters. Maybe it is fiction as much as criticism. Maybe I am mistaken about what it is

  17. I think this may belong on your earlier post, but I'll stick it here anyway. I was much much more impressed with My Antonia than with O Pioneers!, which may have something to do with being 40 instead of 20 and of having done lots of field work on the prairie. I also think that is is a better book, and perhaps because I read it just as you were talking about narration and off devices (with Great Gatsby, perhaps), I kept wondering exactly who was telling the story on the train, so it has at least one bit of structural complexity that O Pioneers doesn't. I adored Death . . .Archbishop, once I finally realized it was not going to be a whodoneit, but I can't exactly recall why, and The Professors House has a lot going for it, but I was not sure quite how to think of it.

  18. That is true, Death Comes for the Archbishop ought to be an Agatha Christie title.

  19. I really have no idea what I intended to type, but someone I doubt "off devices" was it.

  20. As a college teacher, I'd just like to add that Cather is one of the few classic writers (yes, I love them all) easily accessible to remedial students.

    Her language is just so clear.

  21. I believe you. The language, the motivations of the characters, the action within a scene, all quite clear.