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B E N J A M I N G E O R G E University of Alberta The French-Canadian Connection: Willa Cather as a Canadian Writer Willa Cather’s vivid and poetic rendering of the landscape of the Great Plains of the United States and her sympathetic treatment of the struggle of sturdy immigrant girls towards the promises of the American Dream would seem to mark her as a distinctively American writer. Yet she came to hold a close affinity with Canadian ideals and attitudes, pointedly different from those of her own national ethos. While the development of those ideals and attitudes may be traced throughout her work, they come into clearer focus in her work after World War I and reach their culmination in her Canadian-set novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931). Set in the New France of the seventeenth century, Shadows on the Rock demonstrates Cather’s belief in the value of maintaining the con­ tinuity of the traditions of European civilization in the New World as opposed to the delight and pride which her compatriots have traditionally taken in their attempts to create a new and better society in the New World. In a related choice of values, Cather makes quite clear in Shadows on the Rock that in the great conflict between civilization and nature which dominates so much of the literature of the New World, she sides, as does the Canadian tradition, with civilization. Appropri­ ately then, Cather depicts nature, not in the light of the tradition dominant in American literature, as the source of that which is good, innocent and ennobling, offering regeneration for society freed from European conventions, but rather as a threat to civilization, as a force ready and waiting to snuff out the accomplishments of puny man in its formidable midst. The development and intensification of these views on Cather’s part to the point of her formulation and expression of them in Shadows 250 Western American Literature on the Rock mark her realization and her concern that the genteel way of life which she valued had disappeared from the new post-World War I American scene. Viewing with disdain and contempt the elements of modernism and materialism which overtook American society in that era, Cather could find the genteel values which she so admired only in the past or in more traditional societies, particularly in France. France was to Cather, quite simply, the very source of civilized life. Even as early as 1895, seven years prior to her first visit to France, she wrote that, “most things come from France, chefs and salads, gowns and bonnets, dolls and music boxes, plays and players, scientists, and inventors, sculp­ tors and painters, novelists and poets. . . . If it were to take a landslide into the channel some day there would not be much creative power of any sort left in the world.”1 Her admiration was successively reaffirmed by the seven visits she made to France over the course of her life. By a happy accident of literary history, Cather discovered France in the New World. Worn by her father’s death and her own attack of the virus in the spring of 1928, Cather and her friend and companion, Edith Lewis, decided against their usual route through Maine to Grand Manan Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, where Cather had summered since 1922, and chose a new route through Quebec. There on the rock of Quebec, Cather found a city which, with its preservation of its physical and social past, had not only maintained French culture in the New World, but had also managed to resist the trends of modernism and materialism which were sweeping the United States. Lewis’s account of the author’s reaction to Quebec vividly and succinctly conveys the special appeal of that city to Cather: . . . from the firstmoment that she looked down from the windows of the Frontenac on the pointed roofs and Norman oudines of the town of Quebec, Willa Cather was not merely stirred and charmed — she was overwhelmed by the flood of memory, recog­ nition, surmise it called up; by the sense of its extraordinarily French character, isolated and kept intact...


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pp. 249-261
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