Willa Cather and the Artist of All Art
Written by Molly Clem
I wonder what Willa Cather would think about her biographies. A famously private person, she destroyed many drafts and personal letters before her death. While this leaves many fundamental questions about her life unanswered, her published works offer undeniable evidence of her religious sensibilities. She often weaves together her characters’ search for meaning with her own. Because the Christian tradition formed Cather’s life, her readers must interpret her writing in that context.
Cather grew up primarily in the Baptist landscape of 1950’s Nebraska. She was deeply familiar with the King James Bible, and in church, she absorbed biblical stories, songs, and images. The Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress were the most persistent influences on her work. Cather heavily used religious metaphors in her writing because they came naturally. As she matured intellectually, she became more interested in the relationship between art and religion. She writes about God Himself as the “Artist of all art.”
While she never composed a spiritual autobiography, we can surmise much about her personal faith. She attended church regularly and was confirmed with her parents in the Episcopal Church in 1922 at 49. Many biographers present Cather’s confirmation as a conversion experience as if she were newly awakened to the faith. I think describing her confirmation as a manifestation of a faith that already existed is more accurate. She was taking an inherited faith from her childhood and claiming it as her own. As Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, suggests: “It is my sense that one of the forces that drew Willa to make a formal commitment to the Episcopal Church was that the Anglican tradition was one that gave place and high value to transcendence and mystery represented by sacramental and liturgical continuity with its Catholic roots.”
When writing Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather deliberately avoided research into Catholic traditions so that the story wouldn’t have any artificial emphasis. She primarily drew on her knowledge of Scripture and Christian piety. Because of this, there is never a sense that Cather is a mere observer; there is no distance between the author and her characters. She conveys the holiness of her main characters with mastery because she shares their faith, and she accurately captures the hardships and vices of these men because she understands the true essence of the Christian life. For her, the essence of the missionary was his trust in providence, prayer life, and doubts.
Many of these doubts were shared by Cather. Even while she understood that faith was a gift, it was one that she struggled to accept. We see the character Archbishop Latour unable to sleep: “his prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment. His soul had become a barren field.” These torments come mere hours before he encounters the old Mexican slave. As he kneels with this woman and prays the Rosary, he reflects that he has never experienced the holy joy of religion or the preciousness of the things on the altar so deeply as on that night. It is impossible not to see Cather’s proximity in these passages, how deeply she shares the peaks and valleys of Father Latour’s faith. While much about Cather’s life remains a mystery, one thing is clear. The faith that spurred Archbishop Latour to build a cathedral is the same faith that inspired her to write novels that are good, beautiful, and true.
Molly Clem is a homeschooling mom of four daughters. Besides reading, she enjoys gardening, cooking, and family bike rides. She is a regular contributor to Wildflowers, a magazine for girls.
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