Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

By Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

Willa Cather's Great Emersonian
Environmental Quartet

MERRILL MAGUIRE SKAGGS

“There are many ways of handling environment—most of them bad, ” Willa Cather declared in her 1899 review of Frank Norris (Stories 922). Yet when used correctly, she added, environmental description can be “a positive and active force, stimulating the reader's imagination, giving him an actual command, a realizing sense of this world into which he is suddenly transplanted” (922). A quarter-century later, when Cather realized four versions of this world as she scrutinized four modes of knowing, she produced a tetralogy designed around environments. Her four works cohered like the four autonomous movements of Dvořák's American quartet—its rhythms half American, half European. 1 To achieve a wide relevance, she focused on gender.

Starting with The Professor's House, Cather used environmental keys to denote every important thematic or characterizing element in her four varied worlds. And because Ralph Waldo Emerson had authoritatively described nature on this continent, as well as because she loved him, she played with and against riffs of Emersonian music throughout. 2 What she sought was enduring definitions. First she trenchantly critiqued the abstracting, objectifying, linear-thinking, phallocentric culture of the West in The Professor's House; then she flayed the feeling-wracked narcissism and gynocentric projections of My Mortal Enemy. Having settled the hash of both sexes, as well as their stereotypical ways of knowing the world, she turned to affirm myth-shaping and institution-building church fathers in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Then having accomplished in secular 1927 this astonish

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