April 24, 1997, sees the 50th anniversary of the death of the widely admired American Episcopalian writer Willa Cather. ALAN PAVELIN notes the interest in Catholicism in many of her novels BORN IN 1873, Willa Cather spent her formative years in Red Cloud, Nebraska, the setting of several of her novels and stories. The American South-West, notably New Mexico, also came to haunt her, given powerful form in her highly Catholic novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. As she grew older she came to detest the modern world, and her writing typically evoked an elegiac "golden age" when immigrant pioneers from Europe tamed and civilised the wild land in the late 19th century. She developed a style which eschewed the "big events of strongly-plotted novels, concentrating simply on successions of little incidents and impressions, often not chronological, in order to represent how a character or narrator might remember things.
It was her popular second novel 0 Pioneers! (1913) in which Catholic themes first appeared. The spirited heroine Alexandra Bergson builds up the family farm after her father's death in the face of opposition from her ineffectual older brothers. Alexandra, a Swedish Protestant, is contrasted with her friend Marie from the French Catholic district with its exuberant Church celebrations.
One of the book's strongest scenes is the joint preparation at the Catholic church for a mass confirmation, and for the funeral of a young man. The troupes of boys riding to greet the bishop, the church filled equally with mourners in black and communicants in white, and the rapturous singing of a Mass and an Ave Maria are starkly contrasted with Alexandra's simple and practical individualism.
The central character of My Antonia (1918) is also one of Cather's strong pioneering heroines, although here Antonia Shimerda is a Catholic from Bohemia. From her student days Cather loved France and its literature, seeing it as embodying the values which were being eroded in America. In her popular war novel One of Ours (1922) her alter ego Claude discovers Catholicism there, with its Gothic cathedrals and idealistic anti-materialist values. It is of interest that Cather later wrote that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts".
In The Professor's House (1925), which some consider to be Cather's best novel, the lapsed Catholic Professor St
Peter gives a lecture comparing art and religion which can be taken approximating to the author's own views.
Catholicism is also represented by the elderly Austrian housekeeper Augusta, who maintains her old religious traditions and ultimately saves the Professor's life. The Professor's House is notable for its "novel within the novel" structure, with an interpolated section concerning an exploration of the remains of an ancient civilisation in New Mexico.
Myra, the central character of the short novel My Mortal Enemy (1926) returns to her great-uncle's Catholi
cism when near to death. However, her religion takes a highly extravagant and ritualistic form, as she clutches an ebony crucifix while staging her death overlooking the sea.
From a Catholic perspective Cather's most important work is undoubtedly. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) This semihistorical novel is based on the lives of the French missionary priest Archbishop Lang and Fr Machebeuf, who worked in New Mexico in the 19th century.
The author largely fictionalises their lives, giving them the names Latour and Vaillant and creating a host of adventures and incidents, large and small, to spread over her canvas. The two major inspirations for the novel were Cather's visit to the magnificent cathedral at Santa Fe, which was built by Lang, and her discovery in France of the frescoes of the life of St Genevieve by Puvis de Chavannes. • These frescoes, which give equal prominence to the important and the relatively trivial incidents of the saint's life, parallel Cather's notion of a novel taking a similar form: a sequence of events, not necessarily chronological, where the important (such as the Archbishop's death) are given a greater accent than the everyday.
This technique of touching each incident and passing on would, Cather thought, illustrate her view that all human experiences spring from one supreme spiritual experience. Many would agree with the author that Death Comes for the Archbishop is her finest work.
This is a writer who is still far too little known outside the United States.