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IMMOVABLE: W lLLA C A T H E R ’S LOGIC o f A r t a n d P l a c e M a r í a C a r l a S á n c h e z After the publication of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather received so many inquiries concerning the novel’s historical detail and her own compositional methodology that she addressed an open letter to the public in the Commonweal magazine. In the course of describing her visits to New Mexico and the inspiration she took from its people and architecture, Cather indulged in a slight digression: May I say here that within the last few years some of the newer priests down in that country have been taking away from those old churches their old homely images and decorations , which have a definite artistic and historic value, and replacing them by conventional, factory-made church furnish­ ings from New York?. . . All Catholics will be sorry about it, I think, when it is too late, when all those old paintings and images and carved doors that have so much feeling and indi­ viduality are gone— sold to some collector in New York or Chicago, where they mean nothing. (“On Death,” reprinted in Willa Cather on Writing 6) In fact, this sentiment matches one expressed by the novel’s protago­ nist, Father Latour, on his first night in the settlement of Agua Secreta. Admiring his hosts’ household shrine, Father Latour finds that its hand­ made wooden saints “were much more to his taste than the factorymade plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio— more like the homely stone carvings on the front of old parish churches in Auvergne” (Death 28). For Cather, urban and frontier spaces were marked not merely by differing geographic and socioeconomic formations, but also by differing types of aesthetic cultures. In her novel and letter, the urban figures both as the source of artificial, “factory-made” mass culture and as the site of legitimate culture’s ultimate market (the location of commerce and “collectors”). Chicago and New York emerge as no dif­ ferent in this formulation: in their cosmopolitanism and distance from the Southwest, the two cities are alike for Cather. Neither can appreci­ ate the artisanal crafts being hawked in its environs, nor can those items retain any of their intrinsic meaning. Whatever it is that consti­ tutes their “feeling and individuality,” their “definite artistic and historic 118 WAL 3 8 .2 Sum m er 2 0 0 3 value” inheres not only in them, but also in their original environment. Out of context, the beloved material elements of the Southwest cease to have any charm: one might imagine that they become as unremarkable and sterile as the factory replacements being purchased in their stead. As a writer who spent her career moving back and forth among geographic regions, and translating the societies and cultures of those regions to one another, Cather believed profoundly in an idea now often rejected and certainly rendered problematic: the ability of art to transcend social and temporal barriers. That transcendence compiemented her own devotion to literal and metaphorical movement, or, in Joseph Urgo’s terms, migration. Her well-known philosophies concern­ ing the nature of great art consistently reject any stylistic trait that, to her mind, burdens it with too much of the surrounding material world. In “The Novel Démeublé,” Cather took aim against journalistic, “overfurnished ” literature; her criticisms of realism’s excesses describe it as weighed down literally and figuratively (35). Cather’s investment in art’s transcendent capabilities remained constant throughout her life. Yet at times she expressed great pessimism concerning that transcen­ dent power; ironically enough, this expression often accompanied her writings about her beloved West and Southwest. To return to Cather’s Commonweal letter: why is it that the beauty of the Southwest’s “old paintings and images and carved doors” will not migrate perfectly to new homes in Chicago and New York? I suggest that the answer to this question lies not only in the racially tinged romanti­ cism with which Cather and many of her generation approached the Southwest and celebrated its senses of history...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 117-131
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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