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The Song of the Lark tells a tale familiar in frontier history, a tale of struggle and courage in which a determined protagonist forges a self equal to a wild and outsized land. In this epic of encounter, New World possibility is embodied in the harsh, glittering, wind-blown western landscapes of Colorado and Arizona and in the "contact zone" between northern European, Mexican, and Native American cultures. However, the heroic figure at the center of this story is not a woodsman or an explorer but a young girl growing up in a small Colorado town with a "secret something" inside her, and what she must conquer is not a people or a land, but an art. Thea Kronborg possesses "a voice" and she must learn to master and channel it, using every resource of her mind and body to direct its force. Unlike so many female protagonists in early twentieth-century fiction (one thinks of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, or Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse), Thea does not suffer from vague aspirations or the felt need to conform to conventional feminine roles. She is unmistakably herself from the opening pages of the story, a person with "power to make a great effort, to lift a weight heavier than herself." While still a child, she attracts a number of male mentors who find in her a way to redirect their own foiled aspirations, not by controlling her, but by encouraging and enabling her. Helped by these admirers (and, surprisingly as women's fiction goes, by a sensible and non-intrusive mother), Thea nonetheless belongs unequivocally to herself. As one acute observer says of Thea, "She is very much interested in herself--as she should be." Early twentieth-century readers had come to expect fiction's unconventional heroines to either disappear into marriage, like Isabel Archer in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, or die, like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Thea, however, does neither (she marries, but only parenthetically). Instead, she dreams big and gets what she dreams of--a brilliant success as a Wagnerian soprano--in a plot that Cather likened to a “fairy tale.” In her uncontested power and the clearness of her destiny, Thea Kronborg is a very unusual fictional heroine to have appeared in 1915, or at any time since.
Many of Willa Cather's own early experiences and struggles with her vocation went into The Song of the Lark. The story of the gifted girl growing up in a small western town full of recent immigrants, absorbing European culture indirectly from them, and finding in the wide-open American landscape a dazzling equivalent to her own expansive sense of self is Cather's story as well as Thea's. Willa Sibert Cather was born Willela Cather near Winchester, Virginia, in 1873 (though she later claimed to have been born in 1876), the oldest of seven children. When she was nine years old, her family moved to join other family members in Catherton, Nebraska, and a year later relocated to Red Cloud, Nebraska, the town that has ever since claimed Cather as a native daughter. Red Cloud, with its immigrant population and its narrow pieties and proprieties so stultifying to nonconformists, was the model for many of Cather's fictional towns, including Moonstone in The Song of the Lark. Though Cather experienced a profound sense of loss at leaving Virginia, she soon found herself growing fiercely attached to the windswept Nebraska prairies, "where the absence of natural boundaries gave the spirit a wider range." The precocious child spent much of her time coaxing stories from the old Swedish, Norwegian, and Bohemian women who were her neighbors, stories which would later come to fill the pages of her much-loved "prairie" novels, My Ántonia and O Pioneers!. Too hardheaded and intellectual to be well liked, Willa Cather cultivated the kind of “second self” which she ascribes to Thea, one which was “moving to meet her” even as “she was moving to meet it.” The spartan attic room that the young Willa shared with her brothers in their Red Cloud house became the incubator of her creative life. It reappears as the various attics and caves in which many of her novels' protagonists commune with their secret selves. Thea's acquiring of an attic room is said to be "one of the most important things that ever happened to her," and it is in the caves of the native cliff-dwellers where she finally accesses her full power as an artist.
Cather left Red Cloud to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1890, intending to become a physician (her childhood experiences shadowing the town doctor reappear in The Song of the Lark in the friendship between Moonstone's Dr. Archie and Thea). However, Cather's ambitions turned towards writing when she became managing editor of the college newspaper and began working as a theater critic and columnist for The Nebraska State Journal and The Lincoln Courier. It was during this time that she began to absorb much of the theatrical and musical knowledge that would later inform her fiction. After graduating from college, Cather taught high school in Pittsburgh and worked as a magazine editor, most significantly for the popular monthly magazine, McClure's. It was not until 1911, when she was thirty-seven years old, that Cather left the journalistic world to pursue a full-time career as a fiction writer. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, appeared to general acclaim in 1912, followed by O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918) and One of Ours (1922), a novel of the First World War which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. While all of Cather's fiction is deeply rooted in a sense of place, this place was not always the prairie. The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), like The Song of the Lark, draw on Cather's travels to the Southwest and her research into the history of its indigenous populations and its European missionaries and explorers. Shadows on the Rock (1932) is set in Quebec, a place which Cather valued as an American version of her beloved France; and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather’s final novel, draws from her long dormant childhood memories of Virginia. By the time of her death in 1947, Cather was generally acknowledged as a master of American regionalist fiction, though it was not until feminist critics in the 1980s and cultural critics in the 1990s began to re-examine Cather's work in other contexts that she escaped that rather narrow characterization.
After the admiring reception of O Pioneers!, with its portrait of the heroic farm woman, Alexandra Bergson, some critics complained that The Song of the Lark strayed too far from Cather's localized tales of rural life and that it abandoned her earlier spare style for one overburdened by detail. The novel contains what was, for Cather, an unusually wide cast of characters, and its plot carries its heroine from Moonstone, Colorado, to Chicago, then to the ancient cliff-dwellings of the Southwest, to Mexico, Germany, and back to New York for her triumphant performances at the Metropolitan Opera. The novel's subject is not primarily the American West, nor Thea Kronborg, but art itself, both its passion and its impersonality. The final chapters, thick with conversations about what art is and how artists do what they do, struck some reviewers as more didactic than dramatic. Cather herself, in a 1932 preface to the novel, regretted having carried its plot past Thea's first awakening into the period of her success. However, it is clear that Cather was using Thea's story to work out principles important to her own artistic practice. By extending the story into an account of the daily challenges and disciplines of the mature artist's life, Cather was creating an entirely new kind of heroine, a woman who makes her way through a combination of shrewd intelligence, inspiration, and physical stamina. Thea Kronborg is a portrait of her indomitable creator, the hardy, pragmatic westerner who crafted her unique voice through a long and arduous apprenticeship and a continually evolving imaginative relation to the land. Thea, like her creator, lives for and through her art, foregoing many of the rewards of a more ordinary life.
But if Thea Kronborg is an imaginative projection of Willa Cather, she is one filtered through the personality and career (as well as the looks and mannerisms) of the great soprano, Olive Fremstad, a fellow-Midwesterner whom Cather met while Fremstad was singing Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. Fremstad's Swedish immigrant background, imposing physique, and vocal power bespoke the pioneer qualities that Cather so admired. Like Walt Whitman before her, Cather thought of opera as an epic form suited to the robust energies and aspirations of the American experience. In choosing to filter her own story through that of an artist whose instrument was her body, Cather found a way to express what she saw as the indispensable, sensuous relation of the artist to the land. Moreover, in Fremstad’s story of struggle from early competence to brilliance (she was first a pianist, like Thea, then a contralto, and finally a soprano) through painful effort and the sheer force of will, Cather saw an echo of her own transformation from successful journalist and editor to major American novelist.
Despite the critics’ cavils, The Song of the Lark is not so much a departure from Cather's favorite theme of locality, as it is a reworking of this in relation to aesthetic questions. In putting a singer at the center of her story, Cather poses questions about how the body's life relates to the mind's aspirations and of how exalted ideas may grow out of local knowledge. Thea, described as being like the desert’s “prickly-pear blossoms,” is a product of her place--of the sand, the sunlight, and the gemstones of Colorado, as well as its local vernacular and the stories of its inhabitants. Repeatedly in her singing she returns to these sources of inspiration, feeling them in her body and expressing them in her voice. Thea comes into her power as an artist when she ceases to merely think and strive and allows herself to feel during an interlude spent climbing and dozing in the rock caves of Arizona's ancient cliff city and bathing in the streams running through Panther Canyon. Here she comes to understand that her body is a vessel for larger forces, just as the pots of the ancient cliff-dwellers (made, significantly, by women) were designed to capture the life-giving current of the streams: “what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself…?” The Western landscape and the human histories embedded in it become for Thea a source of physical power as well as the embodiment of a magnificent idea. Her passionate response to the land is what links her imagination to her body, creating the voice which is at once her instrument and her art. Though she must leave the West, the nostalgia for the landscapes of her childhood—“the earliest sources of gladness”--becomes the hidden spring of Thea’s artistic power. On the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, singing Wagner’s epic scores, Thea reenacts the “carrying power” she first demonstrated on the cliffs of Arizona, where her suitor, Fred Ottenburg, recognized in her “a personality that carried across big spaces and expanded among big things.” In her powerful performances, matched by the “savage fierceness” of her audience’s response, Thea expresses the lessons the land has taught her about the hardship of human life and the enduring power of artistic effort. She expands into imaginative space just as her immigrant ancestors spread out across the seemingly endless landscapes of the West.
The language and imagery that Cather uses to depict Thea’s awakening are those of imperial discovery and possession. Like her childhood friend, Ray Kennedy the railroad man, Thea has a “feeling of empire” about the Southwest, and she is able to dream herself into its vistas and appropriate its cultural traditions because it all seems there for the taking. One of Thea’s cherished memories is of seeing the wagon tracks of the forty-niners in the hills above Laramie, Wyoming, and hearing an old man’s story of being present when the first transcontinental telegraph message came over the wires: “'Westward the course of Empire takes its way.'” Ray’s stories about his collecting of Indian artifacts, the Colorado sand hills, the wagon ruts, the telegraph message, and the eagles flying overhead merge in Thea’s memory to form an iconic image of “the spirit of human courage,” which models her own “expansion” into her true artistic potential. When Thea attends a performance of Dvorak’s “Symphony from the New World,” she is reminded of the Laramie peaks and the wagon tracks and imagines herself as “a new soul in a new world” who will have to fight off a stream of hostile people in order to reach again and again the heights of ecstasy she has attained in her merging with the music. If in the Panther Canyon scenes Thea seems to be the inheritor of native culture, here she seems to imaginatively align herself with the pioneers who helped to hasten its demise. Such scenes have led some readers to characterize The Song of the Lark as a work of “imperialist nostalgia”[i] in which absorption or appropriation of native history and lands is viewed romantically as the revitalization of European culture (Thea becomes a Wagnerian soprano, after all). In support of such a reading, one might also note Thea’s relation to her Mexican neighbors, among whom she first experiences the exhilaration of performing for a truly musical people, “who turned themselves and all they had over to her.” The appropriation of such “primitive” sources as Mexican music or native pottery helps to produce the “savage blond” that Thea becomes.
Writing in a period in which the expansion of railroad travel into the Southwest and the aggressive marketing of the region as a tourist destination were increasing interest in both native artifacts and Mexican cultur, Cather participates in her period’s general fascination with these displaced cultures as well as in emergent discourses of cultural nationalism. When Frederick Jackson Turner announced the “closing of the American frontier” in 1893, he marked a moment of national anxiety about the fate of Anglo-American character in a newly industrial and urban age. He helped to usher in an era of nostalgia about frontier culture in which many white Americans would come to see the native cultures of the American continent as a part of their own rightful heritage and a source of cultural rejuvenation. Like Thea in Panther Canyon, early twentieth-century Americans came to think of Indian and Mexican history as “lengthening [their] past.” The ironies of such appropriations are readily apparent. Cather makes clear that Thea’s success, like that of Anglo-European pioneers, depends upon the sacrifice of “a lot of halfway people . . . who help the winners win.” However, it is also possible to read Cather’s project as one that subtly undermines this narrative of conquest with a sense of the fertility of the multi-cultural frontier, a desire to imagine America as an interflowing of disparate streams, where European culture is tested and reimagined in an American context. Thea’s final performance on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera is no more exquisite than her voice co-mingling with the guitars in Mexican Town and wafting on the night air into the German garden of her old friends, the Kohlers. As the German immigrants bring their linden trees to be transplanted in the Colorado desert, the Mexicans give their songs to Thea so that they may ripple through her rendition of Wagner’s Rhine daughters, suggesting a dialogic exchange between immigrant and native cultures. The final “commensurate answer” to all Thea’s labors is the smile on the face of her old friend, Spanish Johnny, himself a musician, who watches her performance from the balcony of the Metropolitan Opera before exiting to mingle with the Broadway crowds, “embrac[ing] all the stream of life that passed him.” Whether one reads The Song of the Lark as imperial romance, then, or as an attempt to rethink the frontier as a genuinely pluralistic space of mutual revitalization, it is clear that Cather’s novel is deeply engaged with early twentieth-century debates about progress, immigration, and ethnic inheritance.
Though Willa Cather has been called a regionalist and a realist, she is more properly a romantic. Hers is an art of the individual, concocted out of “one passion and four walls.” Vividly memorable as the physical settings of her novels are, they are never present for the sake of mere verisimilitude. Unlike her friend and mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett, or other female regionalists such as Mary Austin or Sarah Wilkins Freeman, Cather was not particularly interested in recording the particularities of a single region or social milieu. Rather, her landscapes and houses are meant to evoke “the inexplicable presence of the thing not named . . . the emotional aura of the fact or the thing. . . ."[ii] Her deserts and cliffs and prairies are compelling physical presences drawing her protagonists at once backwards in the direction of human history and forward into the realms of desire. In The Song of the Lark, Cather tried to make of the novel a container for those driving passions that enable, now and then, a man or a woman such as Thea Kronborg to “break through into the realities.”
Stacy Carson Hubbard is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the author of articles on romantic autobiography, women’s poetry, and poetry and photography, and wrote the introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of The Early Poems and Plays of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
[i] Rosaldo, Renato. "Imperialist Nostalgia." Representations No. 26 (Spring, 1989): 107–122.
[ii] Cather, Willa. "The Novel Demeublé." In Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968: 41–2.