This year marks the centenary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, and we can thank Viola Roseboro for its creation. As an editor at muckraking McClure’s Magazine, Roseboro noticed Cather’s prairie poetry and promoted her first volume of short stories. When Cather showed her the manuscript of My Ántonia after multiple rejections, Roseboro gave bold advice: “You have really great material. But you have told your novel through the wrong character’s eyes, from the wrong point of view. If you have the courage to throw the [manuscript] away, and sit down and re-write it from [Jim Burden]’s point of view, you have a great book.” Cather rewrote it, and Roseboro judged the result “the book of a lifetime.”
Roseboro was also interested in Catholicism. She was born in Tennessee in 1857 to a Congregationalist minister and his Methodist wife. But despite her Protestant upbringing, Roseboro read Belloc. In her adulthood, the Catholic Church fascinated her: “What can be said of the imagination of the bunch that would call themselves as a final nomenclature—Protestants! What a tribute to the body protested against!”
In 1882, Roseboro left the South to try acting in New York City. There she met the Catholic artist John La Farge, whom she would watch paint the altarpiece of Cather’s favorite church: Manhattan’s Church of the Ascension (Episcopal). Roseboro published La Farge alongside Cather in McClure’s and the three mixed socially in Greenwich Village. Roseboro and La Farge had an intimate, innocent friendship; she was always welcome at his studio or at his home. With a Catholic sense of time, La Farge slowed her pursuit of intellectual fads and calmed her inconstant enthusiasms. The setting of La Farge’s painting The Halt of the Wise Men could be Ántonia’s prairie—where “only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky.” La Farge gently rebuked Roseboro when she emptied her purse to a beggar: “Do you wish to live a higher life than the Christ?” She fired back, “I did it out of selfishness; it is easier to give all, than to lie awake all night because someone who asked me for help might be suffering from hunger.”
Roseboro’s admiration for the Church grew with the 1927 publication of Cather’s great “Catholic” novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. In stories first told to Roseboro, Cather follows two French missionary priests across the New World to found a church in Santa Fe. It is the most beautiful American religious novel, but Roseboro was also impressed by the grateful reaction of Catholics, who did not protest Cather’s depiction of the priests as imperfect men. “[T]his attitude towards [Cather’s] work does honor to the mental habits of the Church,” she said. (The Episcopalian Cather added a second novel with Catholic themes, Shadows on the Rock, in 1931, but burned the incomplete manuscript for a third Catholic work, set in Avignon.)
In response to Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather “got letters from great prelates and parish priests from all over the country who had worked with these men in the west, saying ‘You have given us back Father Joseph,’ or ‘Our Blessed Bishop lives for us again.’” Roseboro pondered one letter to Cather that included the sentences, “They tell me you are not a Catholic. It is very strange. Pray for me.”
While Cather judged “next in wonder to the Rome of the Empire is the Catholic Rome of the middle ages,” she did not treat the Catholic Church as “merely artistic material.” In fact, she often heard Mass with the Dominican Friars at St. Vincent Ferrer near her apartment in Manhattan. When her brother died suddenly at age 58, she sought the silence of the church. “The Catholics seem to be the only people who realize that in this world grief goes on all night, as well as all day, and they have a place for it to hide away and be quiet.”
It remains unclear whether Roseboro’s interest in Catholicism pushed her to convert. A friend who cared for her at the end of her life would later write: “Viola favored the Catholic religion. V.R. often said if John La Farge were alive”—he had died in 1910—“she would ask him to convert her. She said he would be the only one who could do it.” A few months before her death on Staten Island, Roseboro’s Catholic maid brought her priest to visit. Roseboro had refused to allow the local Protestant minister to visit, but was willing to meet her maid’s priest. During their meeting, a Protestant maid kept watch to prevent the priest from converting her, but the priest charmed Roseboro and she asked him to return. As he was leaving, she called him back and asked for his blessing. One month later, she saw the priest again, but there is no record of their final conversation. Roseboro again declined to see the local minister before dying on January 29, 1945.
In My Ántonia, the Bohemian Shimerda family buries their father at the edge of their property, anticipating a future country crossroad where travelers can spare a propitiatory prayer for the man’s soul. “Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.” Viola Roseboro lived at the crossroads of American art and letters. May we always remember her in the pages of Willa Cather.
Stephen Schmalhofer is a graduate of Yale College. He writes from Connecticut.
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