Willa Cather and Modern Cultures

By Melissa J. Homestead; Guy J. Reynolds | Go to book overview

10 Art and the Commercial Object
as Ekphrastic Subjects in
The Song of the Lark and
The Professor’s House

DIANE PRENATT

Although we often note Willa Cather’s devotion to high art and the frequency with which she depicts art and aesthetic experience in her fiction, we do not seem to have identified her use of ekphrasis as such—ekphrasis being the rhetorical figure that is most simply defined as “the verbal representation of a visual representation” (duBois 45).1 I do so here in order to illuminate the different values Cather assigns to the work of art and the commercial object as cultural products in The Song of the Lark (1915) and The Professor’s House (1925). In the former, Chicago serves as a setting for the display of what Cather affirms as authentic art; in the latter, the city is a source for the commercial object, which, however aestheticized, Cather views as only a poor substitute for authentic art, mistakenly valued by a society that has lost its artistic integrity. Cather’s use of such a classical rhetorical device as ekphrasis is consistent with her characteristic reliance on traditional literary forms and canonical standards of aesthetic judgment, but it also suggests her operation within a new, modernist aesthetic. As Janis Stout argues, modernists (including Cather) expressed an antipathy to com-

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