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P A T R I C K J . S U L L I V A N University of Massachusetts Willa Cather’s Southwest In her essay “The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett” Willa Cather wrote: The artist spends a lifetime in loving the things that haunt him, in having his mind "teased” by them, in trying to get these con­ ceptions down on paper exactly as they are to him and not in con­ ventional poses supposed to reveal their character; trying this method and that, as a painter tries different lightings and different attitudes with his subject to catch the one that presents it more suggestively than any other. And at the end of a lifetime he emerges with much that is more or less happy experimenting, and compar­ atively little that is the very flower of himself and of his genius.1 Willa Cather spent a good part of her lifetime loving the character of the Southwest, a land which haunted her imagination. The portrayal of the Southwest in her fiction undergoes significant transformations. From the first treatment in a short story to the final one in Death Comes For The Archbishop she used “this method and that” to create an important series of roles for the Southwest in both her “happy experimenting” and in the flowers of her genius.2 Willa Cather makes her first use of the Southwest as symbolic landscape in the short story “The Enchanted Bluff” published in 1909. Six boys are spending the night on a sandbar. Their con­ versation turns to the legendary Mesa Enchantada that T ip Smith’s uncle has visited and returned to Nebraska to tell about. These small-town boys dream of visiting this fabulous site which re­ sembles a monument with a verdant base rising majestically from the parched desert. The mesa is said to have housed a peace-loving 1 Willa Cather, On Writing (New York, 1953), p. 57. * Miss Cather made the first of several visits to the Southwest in 1912 when she was in the process of writing O Pioneersl: “The vast solitude of the Southwest, its bold magnificence, brilliant light and physical impact, too, had the effect of toning up her spirit, and made avail­ able a path in which a new artistic method could evolve from familiar Nebraska subject matter.” Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (New York, 1953), p. 85. In 1915 and 1916 she returned and explored the Mesa Verde county and parts of New Mexico. These visits gave her material for parts of two novels, The Song of the Lark and The Professor's House. A lengthy stay in 1925, principally in Santa Fe, resulted in Death Comes For The Archbishop. 26 Western American Literature band of Indians who heroically sustained themselves there until they were destroyed by a storm and a war party’s sudden attack. This story stirs the boys’ twilight dreams to see and climb the mesa: “ I’m going to climb that there bluff, and I’ve got it all planned out. . . . There might be ’most anything up there. Any­ how, I want to see.”3 The boys yearn for a richer experience, for more challenging circumstances than they have known—or will come to know. As they finish their conversation and prepare for sleep, “Suddenly we heard a scream above our fire, and jumped up to see a dark, slim bird floating southward far above us— a whooping crane, we knew by her cry and her long neck. We ran to the edge of the island, hoping we might see her alight, but she wavered southward along the rivercourse until we lost her. . . . Several of us pretended to doze, but I fancy we were really thinking about T ip ’s bluff and the extinct people” (p. 75-76). Their child­ hood aspirations, like the crane, fly southward. That night the boys dream of re-enacting the role of knights in quest of a Holy Grail in the land of the Southwest. The story concludes on another, quite contrary note: “Although that was twenty years ago, none of us have ever climbed the Enchanted Bluff” (p. 76). Each of the boys has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 25-37
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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