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D O N D. W A L K E R University of Utah Tke Western Humanism of Willa Cather At one point in The Song of the Lark, Fred Ottenburg remarks to Thea, “Well, I am never strong for getting up before the sun. The world looks so unfurnished.” At the time of his speaking the sun is up; the bushes, aspens, and pinons have been colored with liquid gold; the sky has become a transparent, pearly blue; Fred and Thea are having a savory breakfast of coffee and bacon. Never­ theless they are both remembering a time earlier when while the stars were still bright they entered Panther Canyon and heard a different voice. “The voice of the stream at the bottom of the gorge was hollow and threatening, much louder and deeper than it ever was by day —another voice altogether. The sullenness of the place seemed to say that the world could get on very well without people, red or white; that under the human world there was a geological world, conducting its silent, immense operations which were indif­ ferent to man.” 1 This geological world of immense silent operations, this world which underlies the landscape of literary naturalism, is suggested elsewhere in the writings of Willa Cather. One does not look for it in a writer of her particular faith, but it is nevertheless at least im­ plicitly present, a background or underground to the human world which receives her special attention. Like the discovery of a push of old igneous rock, it occasionally lengthens and darkens her sense of time, exposes for a moment at least those layers of prehistory which gripped the imaginations of London and Norris. 1 The Song of the Lark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1932), p. 313. First published in 1915. 76 Western American Literature The wild land of O Pioneers!, a land of sombre wastes and ugly moods, seems to want “to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted moumfulness.” 2To John Bergson, after eleven long years its genius still seems unfriendly to man.3 When his daughter, Alexandra, pledges herself to it, it is perhaps the first time “since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages” that “a human face” has been “set toward it with love.” 4 In The Song of the Lark, Ray Kennedy’s party on the road to the sandhills sees a “ghost” of those ancient waters. The desert sunlight magnifies the images of grazing heifers “to a preposterous height” and they look “like mammoths, prehistoric beasts standing solitary in the waters that for many thousands of years actually washed over that desert; —the mirage itself may be the ghost of that long-vanished sea.” 5 In Death Comes for the Archbishop, when Father Latour celebrates Mass at Acoma, he has the feeling that the Indians are antediluvian crea­ tures at the bottom of the sea. “He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man and his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crust­ aceans in their armour.” 0 And later when he puts his ear to the crack in the secret cave, he hears “a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock.” “It is terrible,” he says as he rises.7 Although Willa Cather rejected most of the assumptions of the literary naturalists, such passages in her writings clearly show her awareness of their world. In the late nineteenth century, even with Miss Cather’s fierce dedication to music and literature, she could hardly have been oblivious of other intellectual movements astir in the land. One too easily forgets that at one time in her youth sci­ ence claimed all her attention,8 that she cut...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 75-90
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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