For me, one of the most poignant scenes in literature is the opening of Shadows on the Rock (1931), Willa Cather’s novel of seventeenth-century Quebec. The last ship of the summer has disappeared, yet the “philosopher apothecary” Euclide Auclair stares after it. “Now for eight months the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off from Europe, from the world.” What comes to mind whenever I read this is the annual goodbye in my parents’ driveway, as I leave Washington State to return to my home in the Netherlands. I know what it’s like to live at a distance from one’s country and culture, having done it myself for a third of my life.
More deeply, though, what resonates with me here is Cather’s suggestion, developed extensively in this book and throughout her oeuvre, that human life itself is an experience of exile and homesickness. We are all separated from our true homeland—from that place where we are entirely in our element. But how to get back there? Genesis 3 sums up our condition neatly. We live outside the gates of Paradise, at odds with God, our neighbor, and the natural world.
I don’t believe that Cather set out to explore this problem systematically or to solve it, yet I have found few writers so helpful as she in confronting it. What I have learned from Cather is that viewing the world through eyes of love helps close the gap of alienation.
The theme of exile came to Cather naturally and early. In 1882, at the age of nine, she moved from the lush hills of her native Virginia to her new home in Nebraska, a country “bare as a piece of sheet iron.” It was, she recalled in an interview,
as if we had come to the end of everything. … I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country and I would’ve got on pretty well during [our first ride through it] if it had not been for the larks. Every now and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down into the grass again. That reminded me of something—I don’t know what, but my one purpose in life just then was not to cry.
Cather’s alertness to the bright notes in her new environment would eventually serve her well. In the meantime, she took comfort in the kind welcome she received from her Scandinavian and Bohemian neighbors. During those first years on the prairie, her visits with women at their baking and butter-making not only soothed her homesickness—something they understood, having left their own homes behind—but also opened her eyes to “an older world across the sea.” Their personal stories thrilled her, and she began to see that life on the prairie “might not be so flat as it looked.” In her later years, Cather would say that love for the women she had known in her youth was what drove her writing. It was her way of honoring and “having them all over again.”
The experience of exile takes many forms in Cather’s novels. Some of her characters long for their country of origin (see Auclair in Shadows and Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia, 1918). Some battle the land (the Bergsons and Linstrums in O Pioneers!, 1913). Others grieve their removal from society and cultural refinement (Mrs. Forrester in A Lost Lady, 1923). Most know strained or broken relationships (see any of her books). And a few show the human longing for God (Ivar in O Pioneers!, Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927). The wonderful thing about these books is that they don’t leave us stranded; they point the way home.
The key to getting there, Cather suggests, is to let love guide our vision. Consider the work many find to be her masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Here she shows us the three elements essential to her way of seeing: openness, compassion, and honesty.
By “openness,” I mean that Cather stresses the importance of true receptivity to the world around us. Just as she herself came to recognize the beauty of her new prairie home, so we too may open ourselves to riches that do not immediately meet the eye. When we first meet Jean Marie Latour in Archbishop, he is lost in a monotony of red sand-hills. He is deep into a treacherous journey from his native France, on his way to serve as Vicar Apostolic in what will become the diocese of New Mexico. Given his privileged background, Latour could hardly have received a less promising assignment. Yet even in this bleak setting he finds comfort, spotting a juniper tree in the shape of a cross. He bares his head and kneels at the foot of it. It’s a telling moment, one we find recurring in various ways in Cather’s books (compare Jim Burden’s “burning bush” prairie in My Ántonia). While masterfully conveying the beauty of the Western landscape, Cather points at the same time to the transcendence that landscape suggests—to “the law behind the great operations of nature” (O Pioneers!). This law is for her characters a source of reassurance and refreshment.
Cather takes this openness a step further. She makes clear that closing the gap of exile involves not only recognizing the fundamental dignity of people, but also drawing near to them in their suffering. In Archbishop, Latour’s compassion distinguishes him from his antagonists, those being certain locals, including priests, who take advantage of the Native American and Mexican peasants. In what is perhaps the most moving scene in the novel, Latour sees on a sleepless night a Mexican slave who has come to the cathedral to pray. Finding it locked, she shivers outside until he puts his own cloak around her and lets her in. Observing her subsequent devotions to the Blessed Virgin, he realizes that he never before has beheld such a deep experience of the joy of religion.
He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much-enduring bond woman, he experienced the holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood. He seemed able to feel all it meant to her to know there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth.
Together with his like-minded assistant, Fr. Joseph Vaillant, Latour draws near to the local people by learning their language and traditions and sharing with them in their daily life. Their compassion even extends, at times, to taking risks on their behalf. At one point Latour draws a gun to free a woman from her abusive husband. Here we see that Cather’s way of looking does not mean romanticizing the world or closing our eyes to its harshness (the Shimerdas’ prairie cave in My Ántonia always gives me the creeps), but in confronting it honestly. Nor does Cather’s view of human nature spare her favored characters. The population served by the priests is not a pure, innocent victim, but “fickle,” equally at home in scandalous and devout behavior, and Latour himself is limited by his native reserve and intellectual bent.
Yet if Cather is honest about human shortcomings, she is honest, too, about human possibilities. The miraculous is all around us, if we but open our eyes to it. Here Cather draws on her Christian (Baptist, Episcopalian) upbringing to suggest that love is a divine quality enhancing our vision. Hearing from Vaillant of the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Guadalupe, Latour marvels, but adds:
Where there is great love there are always miracles. … One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. … I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.
The critic Granville Hicks did not like Archbishop or Cather’s other “Catholic novel,” Shadows on the Rock, believing that she had surrendered definitively to “sweet sentiment and vague nostalgia.” I’ll grant, Cather did get carried away with love, which she called the thing most necessary to vital writing. But I think this is a good thing. Thus do I find Latour’s late visions of reconciliation to be not wishful thinking, but welcome reminders of God’s presence at our passing. Having found sustenance in beauty, friendship, and prayer while “abroad,” the Archbishop now makes his way home.
He observed … that there was no longer any perspective in his memories. He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the … building of his Cathedral. He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible.
I hope Cather herself knew so peaceable a death.
Timothy P. Schilling lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands.