The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
What has this to do with Willa Cather? A great deal. I had had time to grow up, to consider, to look again, to begin finding my way a little through the inordinate clutter and noise of my immediate day, in which very literally everything in the world was being pulled apart, torn up, turned wrong side out and upside down; almost no frontiers left unattacked, governments and currencies falling; even the very sexes seemed to be changing back and forth and multiplying weird, unclassifiable genders. And every day, in the arts, as in schemes of government and organized crime, there was, there had to be, something New.
Alas, or thank God, depending on the way you feel about it, there comes that day when today’s New begins to look a little like yesterday’s New, and then more and more so; you begin to suffer slightly from a sense of sameness or repetition: that painting, that statue, that music, that kind of writing, that way of thinking and feeling, that revolution, that political doctrine—is it really New? The answer is simply no, and if you are really in a perverse belligerent mood, you may add a half-truth—no, and it never was. Looking around at the debris, you ask has newness merely for its own sake any virtue? And you find that all along you had held and wound in your hand through the maze an unbreakable cord on which one by one, hardly knowing it, you had strung your life’s treasures; it was as if they had come of themselves, while you were seeking and choosing and picking up and tossing away again, down all sorts of bypaths and up strange stairs and into queer corners; and there they were, things old and new, the things you loved first and those you loved last, all together and yours, and no longer old or new, but outside of time and beyond the reach of change, even your own; for that part of your life they belong to was in some sense made by them; if they went, all that part of your life would be mutilated, unrecognizable. While you hold and wind that cord with its slowly accumulating, weightless, unaccountable riches, the maze seems a straight road; you look back through all the fury you have come through, when it seemed so much, and so dismayingly, destruction, and so much just the pervasively trivial, stupid, or malignant-dwarfish tricks: fur-lined cups as sculpture, symphonies written for kitchen batteries, experiments on language very similar to the later Nazi surgical experiments of cutting and uniting human nerve ends never meant to touch each other: so many perversities crowding in so close you could hardly see beyond them. Yet look, you shared it, you were part of it, you even added to the confusion, so busy being new yourself. The fury and waste and clamor was, after all, just what you had thought it was in the first place, even if you had lost sight of it later—life, in a word, and great glory came of it, and splendid things that will go on living cleared of all the rubbish thrown up around their creation. Things you would have once thought incompatible to eternity take their right places in peace, in proper scale and order, in your mind—in your blood. They become that marrow in your bones where the blood is renewed.
I had liked best of all Willa Cather’s two collections of short stories. They live still with morning freshness in my memory, their clearness, warmth of feeling, calmness of intelligence, an ample human view of things; in short the sense of an artist at work in whom one could have complete confidence: not even the prose attracted my attention from what the writer was saying—really saying, and not just in the words. Also I remember well my deeper impression of reserve—a reserve that was personal because it was a matter of temperament, the grain of the mind; yet conscious too, and practiced deliberately: almost a method, a technique, but not assumed. It was instead a manifesting, proceeding from the moral nature of the artist, morality extended to aesthetics—not aesthetics as morality but simply a development of both faculties along with all the others until the whole being was indivisibly one, the imagination and its expression fused and fixed.
A magnificent state, no doubt, at which to arrive; but it should be the final one, and Miss Cather seemed to be there almost from the first. What was it? For I began to have an image of her as a kind of lighthouse, or even a promontory, some changeless phenomenon of art or nature or both. I have a peculiar antipathy to thinking of anyone I know in symbols or mythical characters and this finally quietly alienated me from her, from her very fine books, from any feeling that she was a living, working artist in our time. It is hard to explain, for it was a question of tone, of implication, and what else? Finally, after a great while, I decided that Miss Cather’s reserve amounted to a deliberate withholding of some vital part of herself as artist; not as if she had hidden herself at the center of her mystery but was still there to be disclosed at last; no, she had absented herself willfully.
I was quite wrong of course. She is exactly at the center of her own mystery, where she belongs. My immoderate reading of our two or three invaluably afflicted giants of contemporary literature, and their abject army of camp followers and imitators, had blurred temporarily my perception of that thin line separating self-revealment from self-exhibition. Miss Cather had never any intention of using fiction or any other form of writing as a device for showing herself off. She was not Paul in travesty, nor the opera singer in “The Diamond Mine,” nor that girl with the clear eyes who became an actress: above all, not the Lost Lady. Of course she was all of them. How not? She made all of them out of herself, where else could they have taken on life?
Her natural lack of picturesqueness was also a good protective coloring: it saved her from the invasive prying of hangers-on: and no “school” formed in her name. The young writers did not swarm over her with flattery, manuscripts in hand, meaning to use her for all she was worth; publishers did not waylay her with seductions the instant her first little book appeared; all S. S. McClure could think of to do for her, after he published The Troll Garden, was to offer her a job as one of his editors on McClure’s Magazine, where she worked hard for six mortal years before it seems to have occurred to her that she was not being a writer, after all, which was what she had started out for. So she quit her job, and the next year, more or less, published Alexander’s Bridge, of which she afterward repented, for reasons that were to last her a lifetime. The scene, London, was strange and delightful to her; she was trying to make a novel out of some interesting people in what seemed to her exotic situations, instead of out of something she really knew about with more than the top of her mind. “London is supposed to be more engaging than, let us say, Gopher Prairie,” she remarks, “even if the writer knows Gopher Prairie very well and London very casually.”
She realized at once that Alexander’s Bridge was a mistake, her wrong turning, which could not be retraced too instantly and entirely. It was a very pretty success, and could have been her finish, except that she happened to be Willa Cather. For years she still found people who liked that book, but they couldn’t fool her. She knew what she had done. So she left New York and went to Arizona for six months, not for repentance but for refreshment, and found there a source that was to refresh her for years to come. Let her tell of her private apocalypse in her own words: “I did no writing down there, but I recovered from the conventional editorial point of view.”
She then began to write a book for herself—O Pioneers!—and it was “a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.”
What are we to think? For certainly here is a genius who simply will not cater to our tastes for drama, who refuses to play the role in any way we have been accustomed to seeing it played. She wrote with immense sympathy about Stephen Crane: “There is every evidence that he was a reticent and unhelpful man, with no warmhearted love of giving out opinions.” If she had said “personal confidences” she could as well have been writing about herself. But she was really writing about Stephen Crane and stuck to her subject. Herself, she gave out quite a lot of opinion
Freud had happened: but Miss Cather continued to cite the old Hebrew prophets, the Greek dramatists, Goethe, Shakespeare, Dante, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and such for the deeper truths of human nature, both good and evil. She loved Shelley, Wordsworth, Walter Pater, without any reference to their public standing at the time. In her essay, “The Novel Demeublé,” she had the inspired notion to bring together for purposes of comparison Balzac and Prosper Merimée; she preferred Mer-imée on the ground quite simply that he was the better artist: you have to sort out Balzac’s meanings from a great dusty warehouse of misplaced vain matter—furniture, in a word. Once got at, they are as vital as ever. But Merimée is as vital, and you cannot cut one sentence without loss from his stories. The perfect answer to the gross power of the one, the too-finished delicacy of the other was, of course, Flaubert.
Stravinsky had happened; but she went on being dead in love with Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, Gluck, especially Orpheus, and almost any opera. She was music-mad, and even Ravel’s La Valse enchanted her; perhaps also even certain later music, but she has not mentioned it in these papers.
The Nude had Descended the Staircase with an epoch-shaking tread but she remained faithful to Puvis de Chavannes, whose wall paintings in the Panthéon of the legend of St. Genevieve inspired the form and tone of Death Comes for the Archbishop. She longed to tell old stories as simply as that, as deeply centered in the core of experience without extraneous detail as in the lives of the saints in The Golden Legend. She loved Courbet, Rembrandt, Millet and the sixteenth-century Dutch and Flemish painters, with their “warmly furnished interiors” but always with a square window open to the wide gray sea, where the masts of the great Dutch fleets were setting out to “ply quietly on all the waters of the globe. . . .”
Joyce had happened: or perhaps we should say, Ulysses, for the work has now fairly absorbed the man we knew. I believe that this is true of all artists of the first order. They are not magnified in their work, they disappear in it, consumed by it. That subterranean upheaval of language caused not even the barest tremor in Miss Cather’s firm, lucid sentences. There is good internal evidence that she read a great deal of contemporary literature, contemporary over a stretch of fifty years, and think what contemporaries they were—from Tolstoy and Hardy and James and Chekhov to Gide and Proust and Joyce and Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, to Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser: the first names that come to mind. There was a regiment of them; it was as rich and fruitfully disturbing a period as literature has to show for several centuries. And it did make an enormous change. Miss Cather held firmly to what she had found for herself, did her own work in her own way as all the others were doing each in his unique way, and did help greatly to save and reassert and illustrate the validity of certain great and dangerously threatened principles of art. Without too much fuss, too—and is quietly disappearing into her work altogether, as we might expect.
Mr. Maxwell Geismar wrote a book about her and some others, called The Last of the Provincials. Not having read it I do not know his argument; but he has a case: she is a provincial; and I hope not the last. She was a good artist, and all true art is provincial in the most realistic sense: of the very time and place of its making, out of human beings who are so particularly limited by their situation, whose faces and names are real and whose lives begin each one at an individual unique center. Indeed, Willa Cather was as provincial as Hawthorne or Flaubert or Turgenev, as little concerned with aesthetics and as much with morals as Tolstoy, as obstinately reserved as Melville. In fact she always reminds me of very good literary company, of the particularly admirable masters who formed her youthful tastes, her thinking and feeling.
She is a curiously immovable shape, monumental, virtue itself in her art and a symbol of virtue—like certain churches, in fact, or exemplary women, revered and neglected. Yet like these again, she has her faithful friends and true believers, even so to speak her lovers, and they last a lifetime, and after: the only kind of bond she would recognize or require or respect.
A NOTE ON “THE TROLL GARDEN”
The Troll Garden, by Willa Cather.
New York: Signet/New American Library, 1961.
Willa Cather called her first collection of seven short stories, published in 1905 when she was thirty-two, The Troll Garden. It sets its theme on page ii with a verse from Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market”:
We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their thirsty, hungry roots?
Mr. E. K. Brown in his critical biography, Willa Cather, explains that the trolls are of course the dedicated working artists, and the goblins the savage, famished noncreators, the corruptors and prisoners of the mind and spirit.
Willa Cather was the first writer to express a horror of middle- and lower-class poverty and to give an appalling picture of life in the provinces of this country for the gifted or even just romantic, self-indulgent dreamer like Paul in “Paul’s Case.” The story of a strange boy who simply wanted luxury, a pathological liar, a real “case” in the clinical sense of the word, this is in one way the most contemporary of Miss Cather’s stories: the number of boys like Paul has increased. In the incredible romanticism of “A Death In the Desert,” a young singer has returned to her native Wyoming to die of tuberculosis. Wyoming is for her not only an earthly desert but one of the heart, the mind, the spirit.
Willa Cather did everything by emotional, instinctive choice; she was carried here and there, from country to country, from discovery to discovery, so she believed, and so she did, at very rich levels; but it was like mining gold and precious stones out of rocks, for she had a wonderful balance of mind, a true severity and steadfastness of character, and a discipline that came of will and character formed by intelligence and reason. Without her grand perfectly natural capacity to love, to love her own chosen few, deeply, narrowly, entirely, and to the end; and her power to attract and hold the love of those near her, she can be easily imagined as heading for the bitterest of ends. But the day she died had been a happy day for her and her friends and it ended serenely. And we have her books that should last as long as we are able to know what our treasures of literature are.
Gertrude Stein: Three Views
“EVERYBODY IS A REAL ONE”
The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress,
Written by Gertrude Stein 1906–1908.
Paris: Contact Editions/Three Mountains Press, 1925.
ALL I know about Gertrude Stein is what I find in her first two books, Three Lives and The Making of Americans. Many persons know her, they tell amusing stories about her and festoon her with legends. Next to James Joyce she is the great influence on the younger literary generation, who see in her the combination of tribal wise woman and arch-priestess of aesthetic.
This is all very well; but I can go only by what I find in these pages. They form not so much a history of Americans as a full description and analysis of many human beings, including Gertrude Stein and the reader and all the reader’s friends; they make a psychological source book and the diary of an aesthetic problem worked out momently under your eyes.
One of the many interesting things about The Making of Americans is its date. It was written twenty years ago (1906–1908), when Gertrude Stein was young. It precedes the war and cubism; it precedes Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past. I doubt if all the pe
Twenty years ago, when she had been living in Paris only a few years, Gertrude Stein’s memory of her American life was fresh, and I think both painful and happy in her. “The old people in a new world, the new people made out of the old, that is the story that I mean to tell, for that is what really is and what I really know.” This is a deeply American book, and without “movies” or automobiles or radio or prohibition or any of the mechanical properties for making local color, it is a very up-to-date book. We feel in it the vitality and hope of the first generation, the hearty materialism of the second, the vagueness of the third. It is all realized and projected in these hundreds of portraits, the deathlike monotony in action, the blind diffusion of effort, “the spare American emotion,” “the feeling of rich American living”—rich meaning money, of course—the billion times repeated effort of being born and breathing and eating and sleeping and working and feeling and dying to no particular end that makes American middle-class life. We have almost no other class as yet. “I say vital singularity is as yet an unknown product with us.” So she observes the lack of it and concerns herself with the endless repetition of pattern in us only a little changed each time, but changed enough to make an endless mystery of each individual man and woman.