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WILLA CATHER'S PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST IEdward A. Bloom Lillian D. Bloom Drawing upon her own artistic convictions and practice, Willa Cather once asserted that there are "only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves fiercely as if they had never happened before." Specifically her many novels and volumes of short stories reveal that for her there were only three major themes, but all interrelated through a common aesthetico-moral bond. Two of the themes have to do with the inspiration of the pioneer experience and, because of material considerations, the corruption of that experience. The third concerns the artist who, like the pioneer, undergoes the crises of self-discovery, struggle, and ultimate spiritual triumph. Throughout her life Willa Cather was intrigued by the portrait of the artist. In her early literary productions at the University of Nebraska, where she was an undergraduate, she often wrote analytically about artistic genius. Although her analyses were not profound , they expressed a sensitivity and an enthusiasm alternating between awe and hostility. At McClure's, where she worked as an editor, her most important artiCles were those in which she interpreted the personal histories of the great productive artists of the time. Her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, is primarily an extended colloquy between the artist as hero and a personified middle-class society as the villain. And in her more lasting accomplishments-The Song of the Lark, Lucy Gayheart, and Youth and the Bright Medusa-she devoted herself exclusively to the thematic development of the artist as an individual. The artists in Willa Cather's spiritual hierarchy-whether fictional or real-are given a fitting eminence for their greatness of spirit. Endowing them with remarkable sanctity of purpose, she insists almost fiercely that they are pilgrims of imagination, driven by a single mission. All of her artists are urged forward by their inner need to seek and find a direction of life, their art being the instrument by which they guide them273 274 EDWARD A. BLOOM & LILLIAN D. BLOOM selves. Without external or materialistic prompting, her seekers press towards an aesthetic ideal, or perhaps vision, that blossoms into creative power rich in both imagination and spiritual values. Creativeness, she says in The Professor's House, is a "magical element" born of the inner quest. Serving as a prototype of her fictional artists, Miss Cather denied that genuine artistry may be diluted. By personality and ability "uncommon , in a common, common world," the artist will not compromise with debilitating materialism or meretricious physical power. Even the ultimate rewards of the artist are intangible. For that matter, Miss Cather is not sure that the rewards which count are ever definable as anything other than a vague sense of exultation after a long and arduous search. Her attitude bears comparison with the reaction described by Proust after he had composed his first successful page: At the moment when . .. I bad finisbed writing it, I found sucb a state of happiness. felt that it had so entirely relieved my mind of an obsession . .. that, as though I myself were a hen and had just laid an egg, I began to sing at the top of my voice. If Miss Cather and her artists were less fanciful about their own creative efforts, they were at least as jubilant. "The eternal mind," as Proust alluded to the continuity of art, becomes the controlling urge for Miss Cather's creative seekers. Because there is no end to art and no beginning, each artist represents a link with those who have gone before and with those who are yet to come. Especially in The Song of the Lark, Miss Cather eulogizes art as a transcendent voice. The desire which precedes and complements artistic creation and fulfilment is a refraction of infinity, obsessive in its need "to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself-life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose." At the moment of her artistic awakening, which is also her moment of dedication, Thea Kronborg beholds the broken clay vessels of the ancient cliff-dwellers. Emotionally and intellectually responsive...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 273-288
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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