- Willa Cather's Southwestern Grave Robbers
In Willa Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark, the Swedish American protagonist, Thea Kronborg, arrives at her full musical powers singing the part of Norse heroine Sieglinde in the German opera Die Walküre. Thea attributes her cosmopolitan triumph largely to a summer spent in Panther Canyon, Arizona, climbing among the ruins of ancient cliff dwellings. Cather's insistent linking of the opera singer and the cliff dwellings is the central interpretive oddity in The Song of the Lark and is best understood in conjunction with the other Cather work with traces of absent Indians at its heart, Cather's 1925 novel The Professor's House. That novel, too, has a central oddity: the insertion of the thoroughly Western tale of Tom Outland's amateur archaeology on a Southwestern mesa into the story of an aging Midwestern college professor.
These two works constitute Cather's deepest engagement with mainstream American notions of success, wealth, and fame. Published ten years apart, both emphatically link the rural Southwest to rarefied cosmopolitan stories, and both are queered by cliff dwellings. I use the word "queered" in the sense that Marilee Lindemann does in Willa Cather: Queering America, to point to "a process of making and unmaking, settling and unsettling" the idea of the nation (4). The archaeological traces make the novels odd, mysterious, and even uncomfortable, and rightly so, for the relationship that Cather illuminates between her characters and the cliff dwellers transgresses into grave robbing and serves to rupture the characters' stories of self-making. By pushing her characters' interactions with the Indigenous dead all the way to the grave mound, Cather fosters greater discomfort over settler appropriations than many of [End Page 415] her modernist contemporaries. The novels thus bear witness to the abuses of early twentieth-century archaeology, anthropology, and archaeological and anthropological tourism, and, in their stirrings of conscience, foreshadow current efforts at achieving dignity and repatriation for Indigenous remains.
Cather's repeated decision to link the rural Southwest to larger cosmopolitan stories is noteworthy in the face of a contemporary critical climate eager to divide works and authors between cosmopolitan modernists and regional or local color writers. As Sharon O'Brien chronicles in "Becoming Noncanonical: The Case Against Willa Cather," Cather's first frontier-set novels, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, were eagerly received by critics who were seeking a more truly American literature that did not ape the literature of England. This allowed Cather to enjoy a brief heyday in the public esteem as a major novelist of the 1920s before her regionalism helped serve as a pretext to relegate her to minor status as the scholars of the 1930s and 1940s sought to institutionalize (and masculinize) a canon of American literature for academic study. Thus, being regional proved a double-edged sword for Cather and her contemporaries. Even in the 1920s, writers with regional investments and global ambitions pursued various strategies to negotiate or bridge the divide. Jean Toomer was nearly silenced by the expectation that he continue to write of African American life in the deep South after doing so with Cane in 1923. Mary Austin, frustrated with the pigeonhole she perceived herself to be placed in due to the regional writings on which she had built her reputation, produced No. 26 Jayne Street, a Jamesian New York novel, in 1920, only to have the critical establishment tell her to go back to the desert.
In The Professor's House and The Song of the Lark, Cather insists upon holding the regional and the cosmopolitan within the same book covers. The immediate and continued reception of The Professor's House as either flawed or mysterious in structure due to the Western interlude at its center speaks to the uniqueness of Cather's strategy. The juxtaposition is still striking, presenting readers with a puzzle that requires attention and explanation. Kelsey Squire attends to the work's dual nature by using the term "modern regionalism" [End Page 416] for The Professor's House and recruits F. Scott Fitzgerald as Cather's fellow. Both writers, she argues, produce "critical portraits of erratic consumerism" that explore the...