Till human voices wake us, and we drown

by Jess

I read My Antonia years ago in school, and I remember mildly enjoying it. But I recently picked up Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and The Professor’s House from the library. I began with O Pioneers!, the first in her Prairie Trilogy. I found it engaging but just a bit flat. In characterization and tone, I was reminded of Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven (written some 20 years later). In my Penguin edition of that book, James Nagel explains in the introduction the literary Naturalism movement, which grew out of “the hard edge of Realism in the last decade of the nineteenth century.” Nagel says:

The Naturalist [focued] on the lives of lower-class characters struggling for survival in an alien and often hostile society, one insensitive to their personal needs for fulfillment or self-expression. … Omniscience is a powerful tool in the telling of the story, but it obscures the subtlety of the human personality, subordinates organic development, and tends toward the depiction of static characters who emerge, predictably, as the victims of circumstances beyond their control.

I found this to be very true of O Pioneers!. The trajectory of Emil and Marie’s saga of forbidden love was obvious from the very beginning. Even Amedee’s death was nearly certain. Much like in Pastures of Heaven, it’s almost as though the characters aren’t allowed to be too happy. And if they are, for one shining moment–watch out! The hammer’s about to fall.

Named for Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” the book begins with Cather’s own poem “Prairie Spring,” where we see the “strength and harshness” of the heavy black soil, the “toiling horses, the tired men; the long empty roads.” Even the sunset’s colors are “sullen.” But against the odds, youth comes “flashing like a star out of the twilight.”

Perhaps this is partly why Cather’s work reminds me so strongly of Steinbeck’s. Both writers were deeply impacted by the environments where they lived, and you can feel the heartbeat of the land in their writing, you can smell the freshly turned earth and the sweat on the necks of the men working in the fields, or the salt air and fish from the cannery. There is a lot of love in this sort of writing.

When I moved on to The Professor’s House, I was pleasantly surprised. The tone and writing style of this book, written about 12 years after O Pioneers!, was completely different. Gone was the starkness and simplicity of the open prairie. The Professor’s House is charming and urbane–but the heartbeat is still there. It is a powerfully affecting story.

John Swift has a tremendous write-up of the novel that pointed me toward other works written in the same time period, the “modernism” of the 1920s that was marked by a cataclysmic social shift. As Swift notes, Cather herself remarked that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” which is just a year or two before the setting of The Professor’s House. The primary question posed by The Professor’s House and other period pieces written by Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and others, was “how to live significantly in a world that seemed often without significance.” Swift points to a couple of poems of Frost’s that I found very instructional, namely “The Oven Bird” and “Directive.”

The Professor’s House covers a wide range of themes, but a primary one is the old vs. the new, or as Swift puts it, “a busy, trivial present and a noble, redemptive past.” But the distinction is not as clear cut in the novel. In fact, as the wikipedia entry for the novel points out, “the novel can be viewed as devoid of a clear moral imperative.” Apparently it’s typically read as a critique of modernity, and I certainly read it that way. I love the comparison of the protagonist, Godfrey St. Peter, with Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock (possibly my favorite poem of all time). When St. Peter determines at the end of the novel that he can live “without delight,” I can hear Prufrock saying, “I do not think they will sing to me.”

I was puzzled by the fragmentary form of the novel–it’s almost a novel within a novel; I would have read Tom Outland’s story as a book on its own–until I read several critical explanations. I love the way J. Schroeter ties back into the novel, the bracelet worn by one of the novel’s characters made of turquoise and dull silver. “It is not hard to see that Willa Cather wants to draw an ironic contrast not only between two pieces of jewelry but between two civilizations, between two epochs, and between two men, Marcellus [sic] and Outland, who symbolize these differences.” But Cather herself mentions Dutch paintings in her correspondence as an inspiration for the novel’s form. These stuffy paintings almost invariably include a square open window looking out at the wide sea, letting in an exhilarating sense of openness. Cather wrote:

In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter’s house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland’s face and in his behaviour.

I love that she named the novel for the house and not the man. That alone speaks volumes about the central issue of modernity, the fracturing of identity, the ennui of modern life. As Prufrock taught us:

  For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?