Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Muse of the West

Lately, I've been reading some Willa Cather novels.  I finished My Antonia in January and just recently finished Death Comes for the Archbishop. Here are some random, unorganized raw musings I have regarding both books.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

I'll admit that in reading Death Comes for the ArchbishopI was unsure of the whole point of the book.  I was enjoying the story immensely but I was not grasping it and realizing the greater truth it upholds, that is, until the very last two paragraphs of the book.  And that's when I realized again how lovely Cather is an an author.  She can sum up the meaning of a 300 page book in two simple paragraphs.  I was left with chills, wanting more, but so very satisfied (perhaps even mystified) with the beauty of it all.  And upon reading that ending, I found myself wanting to reread the entire book in light of what was shed in those last few words.


One thing that struck me about this book in particular is how Cather describes the Catholic devotion to our Blessed Mother.  This paragraph in particular had me running to Carter to share it with him:

[They] were not the first to pour out their love in this simple fashion.  Raphael and Titian had made costumes for Her in their time, and the great masters had made music for Her, and the great architects had built cathedrals for Her.  Long before Her years on earth, in the long twilight between the Fall and the Redemption, the pagan sculptors were always trying to achieve the image of a goddess who should yet be a woman.

My Antonia

I first read My Antonia as a freshman in high school.  I remember my favorite teacher, Mr. Sullivan, telling us that every time a person experiences a significant change in his life, he should read it.  His words resonated with me as I found myself as a new wife and mother in a new place.  It is no coincidence that I chose to read this book, I chose it precisely for its Nebraskan plains setting, the same setting I now look out my window and see.

One part of this book really spoke to me, as the main character is studying Virgil in Latin.  He recalls a line from the Georgics that he and his teacher had discussed: "For I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country".  And Cather through the voice of the narrator explains how Virgil was the first to bring the Muse into his country...he brought the Aeneid, the quintessential foundation story of Rome, a pillar of Western civilization.  And that's when it hit me -- that is exactly what Willa Cather is doing with My Antonia.  She is giving Western America its foundation story; she is bringing the Muse into the West.  I'm sure I could develop this idea more, and I'm sure it has been done before, but that is precisely why I am not in school...I am done writing papers!

Auf Widersehen!


  1. And this is from Mrs. Steier:

    Cecily, Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of my favorite books! Jeff and I used to take Nathan, Julia, and Emma to Northern New Mexico every summer and every winter. Years ago, Senior Montez, a merchant friend whose family has lived in Santa Fe for 4 centuries (after the economic collapse following 9/11, he had a sign on his door, “first sale in 400 years!”), told us to get the Willa Cather book. He knew we would appreciate it because of our love of Northern New Mexico. Not only is the area between Santa Fe and Taos physically beautiful (a la Georgia O’Keeffe) but the Catholic spirituality is almost palpable (despite the whole Breaking Bad thing). Priscilla and your mom have seen the little monuments to that spirituality, all over our house, in Jeff’s Northern New Mexico santos collection!!
    Anyway, I think Cather captures the essence of this beauty in such a PEACEFUL read. It’s hard to call it a novel isn’t it? It’s a different kind of storytelling. Don’t you find it fascinating that she was only a "visiting Protestant”? Yes, her description of devotion to The Mother of God? She writes about it all in such a loving way. Cloudy symbols of high romance, indeed.
    Cecily, you should plan to visit New Mexico someday. When I’m there I feel like it has not changed much over the centuries; one can really imagine what it might have been like for Archbishop Lamy, on whom the book is based. I have several copies of this book- my prize is the first edition with the typo on page 20!
    This is also one of Emma’s thesis books, along with Tale of Two Cities, and Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. Her thesis concerns suffering leading to goodness. Cather’s book fits right in, don’t you think? I wish Emma and I could read it again, with you!

    I suppose writing on a blog is supposed to be short and pithy- oh well!