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Cinquième partie : Montagnes Textes

Museums for the Nation: the Mountain and the Text in Willa Cather’s Fiction

Aurélie Guillain
p. 299-306


Cet article explore les enjeux idéologiques et esthétiques de la représentation de la montagne dans trois romans de Willa Cather : The Song of the Lark, The Professor’s House et Death Comes for the Archbishop. L’espace des mesas et canyons du Sud-Ouest américain y semble constamment envisagé comme un espace proto-muséal, un conservatoire des traces de sociétés indiennes disparues dont il s’agit, pour l’écrivain, de trouver un équivalent formel dans la structure et les techniques descriptives de son propre texte

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1In Willa Cather’s fiction, the mountain seems to be a particular form of cultural space rather than a natural environment. Whenever the mesas and canyons of the American Southwest appear in her novels they act as metaphorical conservatories for some treasured Americana. In The Professor’s House for instance, in which the novelist fictionalized the 1888 exploration of the Mesa Verde Cliff City by Richard Wetherill, the whole text revolves around the exceptional capacity of mountain areas to preserve the remains of extinct societies and deliver them—almost intact—into the modern period. The most vivid evocation of the exploration is given by Tom Outland, a fictional equivalent of Richard Wetherill, when he describes his discovery of a dried up body near the Cliff City:

At last we came upon one of the original inhabitants—not a skeleton, but a dried human body, a woman... She was lying on a yucca mat, partly covered with rags, and she had dried into a mummy in that water-drinking air. We thought she had been murdered; there was a great wound in her side, the ribs stuck out through the dried flesh. Her mouth was open as if she were screaming... Henry named her Mother Eve, and we called her that. We put her in a blanket and let her down with great care, and kept her in a chamber in the Cliff City. (The Professor’s House 175)

  • 1 John N. Swift goes further and suggests that the seemingly protective gestures prepare the integrat (...)

2The preservation of the human body by the mountain atmosphere—its literal mummification—may seem mirrored and prolonged by the cautious, respectful treatment it receives at the hands of the explorers. Yet the preservation of the find by the amateur archaeologist is far from being naturalized in Cather’s text: on the contrary, it immediately brings out the complex cultural implications of these seemingly simple, inconsequential gestures. The act of protecting the body from potential damage is bound up with the acts of concealing its nudity, veiling its otherness and converting its urgent, silent scream into a quiet narrative conjecturing what may have happened to her. One of the explorers immediately calls her "Mother Eve". As has been noted by many critics—notably John N. Swift the dried body is thus christened and mummified in more than one way. Human language embalms and conceals the body, wrapping it up in the figure of Mother Eve, the sacred origin of mankind and the accursed mother of all sins. In a later episode the body is shown to Father Duchene, a priest who dabbles in archaeology and who immediately suggests that the woman must have been an adulterous wife who had been killed by her jealous husband. By her shrewd detection of Judaeo Christian narrative patterns in the mental, linguistic, practical acts of those amateur archeologists, Cather shows how they actively inscribe the archeological finds into the narrative of the American nation conceived as a Christian nation1 More generally, whenever her narratives explore this type of mountain space, the mesas and canyons which used to be the homes of now extinct Indian tribes, the ethical and political implications of the seemingly benign act of preserving what one has found are consistently explored. Especially in the texts she published after 1920, Cather insisted that the public and institutional forms taken by the preservation of Native American culture in the early 20th century were highly inadequate by which she seemed to imply that the only adequate way of appropriating the Americana found in mountain territories was to build a literary museum.

3Critic Joseph Urgo recalls that Cather’s formative years, between 1880 and 1920, are also known as the "formative years" of American environmentalism. In 1906 indeed, the Mesa Verde had already become a national park and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt issued proclamations establishing Grand Canyon and many other areas as National Monuments. Urgo remarks that the preservation movement would have appealed to Cather not only as a tourist but also as a writer: "At issue was the question of how to preserve the American wilderness experience as an art form, how to transform carefully selected wildlands into sites of heightened experience, valued by virtue of the capitalist sacrifice of profit represented by preservation" (Urgo 2003).Yet Cather always seemed to show less interest in the wild as such than in the human response to the wild: the cliff-cities, rather than the cliffs themselves, made up the precious fictional material, the archeological finds which she treasured as a writer. Indeed, the vanished cliff-dwellers could easily function as early representatives of the human effort to civilize and domesticate the non-human world. Moreover, the extinct tribes could be remembered as societies of peaceful craftsmen and shepherds and thus they could function, at least in some felicitous circumstances, as mythical prototypes for the American nation.

4Such felicitous circumstances are met in the individual experience of Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark (1915). The novel is a Bildungsroman, more precisely a Kunstlerroman, in which the mountains are home to a private epiphany for a young woman who is training to be an opera singer: Thea Kronborg, who receives the confirmation of her artistic calling while visiting Panther canyon and its Cliff City, a fictional setting modelled after Walnut Canyon, Arizona which Cather had visited in 1912, only a few years before she wrote The Song of the Lark. The protagonist behaves as a tourist and an amateur archaeologist, taking up abode in the Cliff City, establishing her base camp there, studying and caressing the jars made by the Indian craftswomen. The tourist’s visit to the Canyon soon turns into a momentous rite of passage and Thea, clearly a late version of the romantic visionary subject, invents her own ritual of passage in a mytho-poetic act of self-creation: her imagination conjures up the ancient artist as a mythical prototype for the modern artist, herself. The absent Indians are immediately identified as skilled architects who have elected the ideal location for solid buildings, a detail to be read metaphorically: the vanished Indians have laid sound foundations for the American nation. The visit of the American artist to the canyon and the Cliff City occasions a powerful act of identification with the native craftswomen, so that the singer symbolically becomes an American-born artist in the episode: "In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, [the shining, elusive element which is life itself] had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals." (The Song of the Lark 378)

  • 2 "Those pot-sherds were like fetters that bound one to a long chain of human endeavour" (380); "She (...)

5The character’s education begins in an American museum (the "Art institute") but in the caves of the cliff, education becomes an incorporation process and a sensuous experience. The cave becomes a museum in the etymological sense of the word: a "grotto" where the Muses dwell. If read allegorically, the passage shows Erato, a Muse of European origin as she is invited to the cave of Native American Muses: the muses of Indian architecture and domestic crafts. The American tourist becomes an allegory of the American nation, feeling "older and richer" and discovering mythical origins for itself that are more remote in time than the days of the Pilgrim Fathers.2 At one point, the character rises to her feet abruptly as she sees an eagle. The woman becomes a chtonian creature and an allegory of the American continent: "Thea sprang to her feet as if she had been thrown up from the rock by volcanic action. She stood rigid on the edge of the stone shelf, straining her eyes after that strong, tawny flight. Ο eagle of eagles! Endeavor, achievement, desire, glorious striving of human art! From a cleft in the heart of the world she saluted it...." (The Song of the Lark 399)

6The simile of the volcanic surge ("as if she had been thrown up from the rock by volcanic action") suggests that the geological phenomenon of the mountain’s birth is being literally reenacted. The character is fully Americanized as it physically becomes one with the America continent. The text undergoes a similar transformation: the soaring flight of the eagle is clearly a symbol of Shelleyan inspiration evoking the titanic creative power of human beings, but the passage gradually takes on a Whitmanian grandiloquence which contrasts with the usually spare, controlled classicism of Cather’s style. The passage provides a choice example of European romantic writing going native as it strives to follow Whitman’s powerful example and to sound its own barbaric yawp. As the sentence becomes a potentially endless series of synonyms for a specifically American type of desire, its exclamative tone and expanding rhythm increasingly recall Whitman’s prosody. As for the physical posture of the human figure, dynamically poised over the precipice, it also recalls the characteristic tension of the Whitmanian speaker, physically reaching out—as if trying to stretch the limits of the self—and hailing other Americans from some physical limit of the continent.

7Yet in the course of her literary career, Cather would gradually move away from the picture of felicitous coincidence between the American self and an Indian prototypical self. More and more often, and with increasing poignancy, her texts would question the capacity of this particular pastoral image—the image of the cliff-dwellers’ society—to function as a powerful myth of origins in an American context. The Professor’s House (1925) revolves around the exploration of a Cliff City (this time located in Mesa Verde, Colorado) but some anxieties that had merely been touched upon and suppressed in The Song of the Lark are now brought to the fore. Will the archeological site be appropriated by the State? More crucially perhaps, will the Indian artefacts become commodities on a private market, possibly to be sold away to German private collectors or German museums? Such questions are immediately raised and turned into central dilemmas. In fact the 1925 narrator wonders about the kind of publicity which ought to be given to the archeological sites as well as to the artefacts, the buildings, the human remains which have been so long preserved in the secrecy of landlocked mountain territories. If it is indeed desirable that the archeological sites should function as mythical settings for the American nation, these sites must be made available to the American public in some way. But while the whole novel contends that it is the mission of the State to appropriate the sites, it simultaneously insists that the State has failed in its mission. The central part of the novel is devoted to the trip of the explorer to Washington and his failed attempt at drawing the interest of the Smithsonian Institute. In fact, all public educational institutions, schools as well as museums, are blamed for their pathetic ineffectiveness. The pervasive failure of public education is even given allegorical form in the figure of the melancholy pedagogue. Professor Saint Peter. A depressed university professor who feels alienated from his philistine students, a historian who suffers from writer’s block. Professor Saint Peter is a failed apostle to Outland who, in turn, proves to be a failed Messiah: Saint Peter does not succeed in founding the church-like structure that could perpetuate the ideals embodied by the cliff-dwellers’ society: peacefulness, worship of the arts, pastoral simplicity. Indeed the professor’s family, his classes and the whole faculty are collective bodies in which mimetic warfare and economic competition are rife. Yet among the rampant failure of educational institutions, that of the Smithsonian Institute looms larger than the rest. Critic David Harrell has examined the oral and written sources to which Cather had had access when doing research into the 1888 exploration of the Mesa Verde. Harrell suggests that Cather has widely exaggerated the slowness of the Smithsonian’s response and overemphasized the lack of interest of the Federal State in the Mesa Verde (Harrell 1987, Harrell 1990). After all, when Cather wrote The Professor’s House in 1925, the Mesa Verde had already been a National Park for almost twenty years and the Antiquities Act had been passed in 1906. Thus we may suppose that Cather has deliberately exaggerated the ineffectiveness of public institutions in order to present the literary text, as opposed to the literal museum space, as the only adequate show case for the display of recovered archeological items—as the only viable repository for national treasures. The literary form chosen for The Professor’s House is already experimental enough to suggest a metaphorical museum: the first person testimony of the explorer, Tom Outland, seems framed by the third-person narrative as if it were presented separately, in its own display cabinet, like some archive or jewel. But it is mostly in the novel that Cather published two years later, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), that the formal characteristics of the literary text become clearly evocative of a metaphorical museum for the American nation.

  • 3 For more developments on the island-like quality of descriptive passages in a narrative, see Philip (...)

8Death Comes for the Archbishop is both a tale of political appropriation and a reflection on description as a textual form of appropriation. Immediately after the Federal Government had claimed the New Mexican territory for the United States (1846-1848), the Church of Rome had sent a vicar apostolate to reclaim territories that had been neglected by the Catholic church in Mexico. Although such material could seem to call for scenes of critical historical action, Cather has chosen to make the focal character of Father Latour (the future bishop) an inordinately dreamy protagonist who is in no way a man of action. In fact, the constant focus of the text on the day-dreams of the contemplative bishop allows the narrator to avoid all potentially agonistic scene: in fact the central strategy of the narrative is its systematic avoidance of conventional historical narration. Each of the bishop’s daydreams is used for a descriptive pause; the descriptions can be so long—and of so little use in terms of plot structure—that the detachable, island-like quality of the descriptive text is brought to an extreme here.3

9The mountain territories surrounding Santa Fe enjoy a specific status in the text, once again because of their landlocked quality. When Father Latour visits them, action seems to be wholly suspended, as if the mountain areas were entirely reserved for aesthetic and anthropological reverie—and thus, wholly meant for description not for scenes of action. Not only are the descriptive passages similar to metaphorical display cases in a textual museum but their descriptive methods also seem to vary according to the kind of museology which is used as an implicit model. Three main models seemed to appear in the text: a museology inspired by the evolutionary anthropology of Frazer, one that is influenced by the modern anthropology of the analytical school of Boas and the pre-modern arrangement of the curiosity cabinet.

10When an artefact, an attitude or a geological feature is noticed by the dreamy bishop in some Indian territory, the object is often displayed in the text as an early, sketchy prefiguration of some later equivalent to be found in Christian culture. For instance, the wooden parrot identified as the Indians’ bird of "wonder and desire", an Indian symbol which foreshadows the symbol of the holy spirit in Christian symbolism.

[The wooden parrot] was cut from a single stick of wood, exactly the size of a living bird, body and tail rigid and straight, the head a little turned. The wings and tail and neck feathers were just indicated by the tool, and thinly painted.... The parrot, Father Jesus said, had always been the bird of wonder and desire to the pueblo Indians. (Death Comes for the Archbishop 86)

  • 4 "Stadialism" implies that each individual society stands for a more or less advanced stage in the d (...)

11Of course, because the focal character who is collecting these impressions is a Catholic bishop who is listening to another priest, we could trace the descriptive method back to the art of typological interpretation which a Catholic will use to familiarize a strange place, symbolically reclaiming it and turning it into Christian territory. This is undeniably so, but the reader can also interpret the implied analogy between the wooden parrot and the symbol of the holy spirit as the transfer of a mode of classification and museum display from the literal museum to the literary text. Indeed, the description of the parrot echoes the stadialist views4 of Frazer who influenced and dominated museology as well as anthropology in the 19th century. What is being transferred from museology to literary discourse is a way of classifying various items: a way of establishing a series and ordering its various elements in hierarchical as well as chronological order. The description of the wooden parrot is entirely based on its implicit categorisation as a symbolical bird representing a spiritual principle, as well as on the assumption that this symbolical bird is an early, and therefore imperfect, stage in the production of such symbolical objects by human societies. Hence the emphasis on the rough, sketchy quality of the pattern: "The wings and tails and neck feathers were just indicated by the tool" (86).

12But as we have already implied, Willa Cather’s transfer of museological methods to literary description is highly eclectic. Many other descriptions use quite a different method and they collect impressions about Indian culture in the cautious, conjectural tone of a modern anthropologist collecting data. For instance, when Father Latour offers a tentative interpretation of some linguistic material which he has just collected:

"Have you a son?"
"One. Baby. Not very long born." Jacinto usually dropped the article in speaking Spanish, just as he did in speaking English, though the Bishop had noticed that when he did give a noun its article, he used the right one. The customary omission, therefore, seemed to be a matter of taste, not ignorance. In the Indian conception of language, such attachments were superfluous and unpleasing, perhaps. They relapsed into the silence which was their usual form of intercourse. (
Death Comes for the Archbishop 91)

13In this case, the principle guiding the description of the other’s culture is that the observed cultural system is endowed with internal consistency and therefore cannot be reduced to, or translated into, the categories of the observer’s own system: "There was no way in which (the bishop) could transfer his own memories of European civilization into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him" (92). In this case, the transfer of museology to literary discourse is carried out in a different mode. It is conveyed by the conjectural tone rendered by the use of free indirect speech ("seemed to be", "perhaps") and by an almost ostentatious unwillingness to leap from the record of facts to their interpretation. Critic and historian Michael Kammen notes that in the 1920s, the analytical school of Franz Boas was becoming more and more influential in the connected fields of anthropology and museology (Kammen 1990). The eclectic approach taken to Indian artefacts or Indian culture in Cather’s text, clearly hesitating between Frazer’s and Boas’ model, seems to echo the gradual changes that were taking place in American museology in the 1920s. Besides, in some other descriptions of mountain territories, the mind of the Bishop drifts quite freely from one association to the next and then the erratic use of the character’s private encyclopedia is the only identifiable principle of the description:

Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave. (Death Comes for the Archbishop 95)

  • 5 In Hooper-Greenhill’s account, the function of princely collections during the Renaissance was "to (...)

14In this case the order of the description models on the arrangement of a pre-modern, archaic version of the museum: the cabinet of curiosities, in which the individual fancy and taste of the collector can reign supreme in a truly autocratic manner.5 In the last passage, the exotic mountain space is described as a compound formed by a geological formation (the mesa) and a meteorological phenomenon (the cloud above it). But the mesa will not be described from a positivist’s perspective. On the contrary the text shifts without apparent method from one metaphor to the next, from the architectural metaphor ("terraces", "ledges", "pagodas", "city") to that of the altar ("tables", "censers") and on to that of the foamy sea (’the foam of the wave’). For each metaphor, the choice of the tenor is clearly guided by the bishop’s cultural encyclopedia and says less about the described object than about the cultural idiosyncrasies of the focal character: an aesthete and architecture lover, a Catholic priest and a Classicist who would be familiar with Virgil’s comparisons between the desert and the sea (as Cather herself was). In its versatile descriptive style, Cather’s text seems to use a variety of museological models, ranging from the freely associative style of the curiosity cabinet to more modern techniques of museum display. In this respect, Death Comes for the Archbishop could be called a museum of museums, a collection of various and conflicting museological methods.

15Turning the novel into a textual museum was in part a literary experiment: it could push the narrative to its limits, to the point: where it could almost become a plotless recapitulation of American history. But building a textual museum was also a means for Cather to achieve a somewhat uncomfortable but ingenious ideological compromise. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, the eclectic museology of the text allows the writer to acknowledge the violence involved in the annexation of the New Mexican territory, including the deportation of Navajo Indians before they were restored to their land on the east side of the Rio Grande. Yet at the same time, it allows the reader to behold the violent historical process from an abstracted perspective: not exactly the perspective of the aesthete, not exactly a de-historicized perspective either, but the very specific historical perspective of the museum visitor who—by definition—can adopt the vantage point of a neutral third party. Although the very notion of a neutral text is highly dubious, it was nevertheless central to the expression of Cather’s aesthetic goals. She wrote: "I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment... something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition... The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on" (Willa Cather. "Letter to the Commonweal on Death Comes for the Archbishop", 1927). A text without accent, a novel without drama: the ideal narrative, paradoxically, would be a purely descriptive text touching upon themes and passing on, like the eye of a visitor who leisurely strolls among museum pieces.

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1 John N. Swift goes further and suggests that the seemingly protective gestures prepare the integration of the body into a modern American economy: they symbolically prepare the commodification of ‘Mother Eve’ on the market of antiquities: "... in fact the whole series of gestures, from the simple blanket to the whole embroidery of adultery, is necessary precursor to Roddy’s eventual sale of Mother Eve, now a well defined cultural commodity in a wooden sarcophagus, to the German Fechtig." (Swift, 2002, 19)

2 "Those pot-sherds were like fetters that bound one to a long chain of human endeavour" (380); "She had older and higher obligations" (383).

3 For more developments on the island-like quality of descriptive passages in a narrative, see Philippe Hamon, Du Descriptif (Paris: Hachette, 1993) and Ernst R. Curtius, La littérature européenne et le moyen-âge latin (Paris: PUF, 1956).

4 "Stadialism" implies that each individual society stands for a more or less advanced stage in the development of human civilisation.

5 In Hooper-Greenhill’s account, the function of princely collections during the Renaissance was "to recreate the world in miniature around the central figure of the prince who thus claimed dominion over the world symbolically as he did in reality." (Hooper-Greenhill 1989, 64)

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Bibliographical reference

Aurélie Guillain, « Museums for the Nation: the Mountain and the Text in Willa Cather’s Fiction », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 299-306.

Electronic reference

Aurélie Guillain, « Museums for the Nation: the Mountain and the Text in Willa Cather’s Fiction », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 June 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.1364

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About the author

Aurélie Guillain

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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