"The Hermit's Parish," one of the twelve essays making up Cather Studies I, is a brief piece by Ann Romines on Jeanne Le Ber, the legendary recluse of Cather's Shadows on the Rock. Romines notes in passing how richly Cather's language enshrouds the tales of Jeanne's life: young Cécile Auclair feels the stories to be like lovely gifts—"gifts ravishing" as "a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit." Romines goes on to say that Jeanne's gift of her life story does "what art can do: it affirms and extends the regenerative powers of imaginative life, even in the coldest world."
One could hope that the many books about Willa Cather now coming our way might give evidence that her art is stimulating such "regenerative powers." Not a realistic hope, alas, as this review will attest. However, the essays in Cather Studies I give us heart, not only because they are excellent in themselves, but because they bode well for the series, launched under the able editorship of Susan J. Rosowski.
Romine's essay is a marvel of compression. She beings by asking why American literature shows few feminine versions of the solitaire—the figure who turns to solitude as a means of self-discovery: Thoreau, Whitman, Nick Adams, or the many others, males, who in one form or another light out alone for territory emblematic of inner possibilities. Romines perceives a minor but significant parallel path followed by fictional women in Jewett and Cather, withdrawal into domestic life, into housekeeping. Intriguingly, Romines uses as support current works of social history tracing housekeeping as a solitary activity back to seventeenth-century Holland where it developed concurrently with the concept of interior life. In Shadows on the Rock, Cather's tenth novel, set in seventeenth-century Quebec, twelve-year old Cécile Auclair keeps house for her father, described in a fashion that interweaves domestic and psychic awarenesses. And (here is the tie to the "official," as it were, solitaire) Cécile takes pleasure in the legends that have grown about Jeanne le Ber, the Montreal heiress who has had herself immured behind the cathedral altar, who sees no one, who creates beautifully embroidered cloths for all the churches of the diocese. Cécile and Jeanne are linked by the pains they are willing to take for interiors, for the minutely beautiful. What issues from Jeanne le Ber's story, as from Walden or Song of Myself, is the legend of the rich self. [End Page 254]
Jean Schwind's essay "Fine and Folk Art in The Song of the Lark," makes a worthy companion piece in that the folk art of her title is hat trimming and quilting—bright fabrics and patterns of patchwork that reflect strips of grass and plowed fields. Schwind speculates that an early root of Cather's artistry was the uncelebrated domestic arts of the American frontier.
Three essays in the volume add to our knowledge of Cather as a person. No observation made by James Woodress, the Dean of Cather studies, could be without interest. In his essay, he wryly traces the frustrations Cather left for her biographers, including her habit of handling her own life as fiction, a habit corroborated by David Harrell's fascinating account of the genesis of "Tom Outland's Story," the central section of The Professor's House. Harrell reviews the discovery of the Mesa Verde cliff ruins and Cather's instant (so it would seem) reworking of history into story. Comparable biographical insight is offered by Mark J. Madigan's reconstruction of...