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WILLA CATHER'S NOVELS OF THE FRONTIER: THE SYMBOLIC FUNCTION OF "MACHINE-MADE MATERIALISM" EDWARD A. BLOOM AND LILLIAN D. BLOOM THAT Willa Cather never reconciled herself to the age and society in which she lived has long been a truism enunciated by her critics and apologists. So truistic, indeed, has been the general critical attitude that the precise nature of her disaffection has yet to be clearly defined. And without such definition there can be no clear understanding of the basic theses underlying Miss Cather's novels. "In Nebraska," she wrote at the height of her career, "as in so many other States, we must face the fact that the splendid story of the pioneers is finished, and that no new story worthy to take its place has yet begun.'" Behind this statement are two premises that are prominent in her novels of the frontier. The first is that the pioneer principle has been the only valid test of man's spirituality through alI ages. The second is that anti-spiritual forces have always warred against pure idealism and that these forces have ultimately been destroyed. At the root of the latter optimistic idea is Miss Cather's firm reliance upon historical analogy. This led her to deduce that since spirituality has always emerged triumphant from conllict with disruptive forces, it must always continue to do so. As Miss Cather absorbed into her own work the experiences of many frontiers, Western, Southwestern, Canadian, and even the frontier of the ancient Cliff Dwellers, she saw true idealism over-run and temporarily defeated by "machine-made materialism,'" as she terms it. But she observed idealism rising in subsequent eras, revitalized and strengthened ; and she was convinced that conllict of this nature has always been elemental in man's perpetual groping toward perfectibility. While symbolically idealizing throughout her novels of the frontier the lofty theme of mankind's eternal quest for truth, Miss Cather conjunctively develops another symbol which represents her attack upon society's deliberate rejection of ideal values. Dependent upon the context in which it is found, her protest becomes meaningful and symbolical in intent only if it is closely integrated with the other two of Miss Cather's dominating symbols, the land and the historical l"Nehraska: The End of the First Cycle," in These United States, 2nd series, ed. Ernest Gruening (New York, 1924) , 152. This essay of Miss Cather, little read and seldom used by her critical commentators, is a valuable factual summary of her attitude toward Western expansion. 21bid .~ 145. 45 UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, vol. XX, no. 1, Oct., 1950 46 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY ideal, the latter projected through the primitive Cliff Dwellers. For her the land is both test and end of an ethical striving; the historical ideal is the universal, objective proof of man's response to that test. As she observed and recorded these salutary values, it was inevitable that at the same time she should witness and describe the fading of pioneer strength in the West. The result of her vigorous examination of an encroaching degeneration was the angry conclusion that the basic deteriorating force was "machine-made materialism." Miss Cather was completely repelled by the resulting subservience to temporal , debilitating values and the divorce from permanent, ennobling aspirations. "Machine-made materialism" became an epitome of evil, a sign of the renunciation of moral and aesthetic standards that she had earlier found to be the only valid principles of existence. For she envisaged the moral as the seeking of the spirit for a code of behaviour which should be synonymous with perfectibility; and she regarded the aesthetic compounded as it is of desire (which is to her the counterpart of creation, and, hence, aesthetically significant) as an outgrowth of that search.' Making functional and creative use of this abstraction, "machinemade materialism," Miss Cather based upon it a complex symbol incorporating the two specific ramifications of her protest. She represents concretely the first facet of her displeasure, that against immoral acquisitiveness and greed, largely by characterization of landgrabbers , sons of pioneers, and amoral beings like the lost lady, Marian Forrester. And she fulfils her protest against the second, aesthetic degeneration...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 45-60
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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