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Authors: Willa Cather

My Mortal Enemy

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ALSO BY WILLA CATHER

Alexander’s Bridge

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Five Stories

A Lost Lady

Lucy Gayheart

My Ántonia

O Pioneers!

Obscure Destinies

The Old Beauty and Others

One of Ours

The Professor’s House

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Shadows on the Rock

The Song of the Lark

The Troll Garden

Uncle Valentine and Other Stories

Youth and the Bright Medusa

VINTAGE CLASSICS EDITION, NOVEMBER 1990

Copyright 1926 by Willa Cather
Copyright renewed 1954 by Edith Lewis and The City Bank Farmers Trust Co.
Excerpt from
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
copyright © 2013 by The Willa Cather Literary Trust.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1926.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cather, Willa, 1873–1947.
My mortal enemy/Willa Cather–1st Vintage Books classics ed. p. cm.–(Vintage classics)
eISBN: 978-0-307-80524-9
I. Title. II. Series.
PS3505.A87M9   1990      90-50169
813′.52–dc20

v3.1_r1

Contents
  INTRODUCTION  

A
fter
My Mortal Enemy
the next novel was to be
Death Comes for the Archbishop
, that most fluent and serene of Willa Cather’s elegies. Before it, by a handful of years, there had been the radiance and the supreme ease of
My Ántonia.
In the years between there was a gathering darkness of which
My Mortal Enemy
, in form the most severe and in its implications the most furious of Willa Cather’s novels, was the crisis.

Or it is to be seen that the same forces of darkness had been gathering from the beginning and that a series of holding visions culminating in
My Ántonia
had given way.
Alexander’s Bridge
, in 1912, a story of a hubristic hero who reached beyond convention for a new freshness and an extra intensity in life and who overreached himself, and then
O Pioneers!
and then
The Song of the Lark
, all quite different in their circumstances and occasions, had all struggled toward an image of poised and indisputable greatness, by which everything that cluttered, everything that was tawdry and cheap and small and restricting, would be subdued. The dark enemy was whatever clutched the individual, and heroism was in dominating it or living through it, enduring at the cost of any personal sacrifice to the point of absolute and untouchable equability. They are austere heroes
and heroines of those early novels. The metaphor of striving varies—Alexander is an engineer, Alexandra Bergson of
O Pioneers!
is a pioneer, Thea Kronberg of
The Song of the Lark
is a singer—but the goal is the same. They are in pursuit not of happiness but success. They are in pursuit not of an ideal—ideals contain ideas, and Willa Cather was not an idealogue—but of an integrity, the feel of purity and finality and permanence, beyond all pettiness.

The striving in the early novels is sometimes shrill. “If you love the good thing vitally,” Thea Kronberg says, “enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard! I tell you there is such a thing as creative hate!” The shrillness measures the severity of the striving, and compromises it. But then, after striving, there was no such desperation or struggle at all to Ántonia Shimerda, whose success is simply the endurance of her vitality. Because she is, because she exists, the enemy is routed. The novel is her magnificent stillness—there is in her commonest gesture, the narrator says, something immemorial and universal and true, and that really is the case—and the enemy is reduced by her to scampering trivialities. There is a melancholy always just behind her, a suggestion of cultural riches lost in her transplanting from Bohemia to this new country, of trials imposed by a capricious fate. But nothing really can
hurt her. Not her toil, not the townsmen who exploit her, least of all the mechanical little man who seduces her. Not love, either, nor hate. Her domain for creation is the Nebraska soil that she makes into a farm, and she is its equivalent in her lastingness and her gift of life and her incorruptibility. And Ántonia is absorbed, indeed, in the huge, solid, still image to which all the novel comes, to which Willa Cather after many trials had come, of a plow silhouetted against the setting Nebraska sun.

It was an image of unimpeachable grandeur. But then it was as well apparently anachronistic. The day of greatness on the Nebraska frontier, that last of the agricultural frontiers, had lasted only a moment of the mid-1880’s, and had been suddenly eclipsed by drought and depression and finance capitalism. Or perhaps it had never been at all. Nothing in Willa Cather’s own early life on the Nebraska frontier suggests the possibility of Ántonia’s elemental piety. Everything, to the contrary, suggests that she found her few years in Red Cloud, Nebraska, population in the 1880’s about 1,000, unbearably constricting. Allowing even a great deal for normal youthful rebelliousness—she was eleven years old when she was taken from a farm in Virginia to Nebraska, and seventeen when she left Red Cloud for the University at Lincoln—she was markedly defiant, markedly bent on escape. Her companions in the village
were the old men and women, anyone whose real life had been elsewhere. Her allegiances were to the Europeans scattered among the population, whose lives hinted a substantial and ancient and nonproscriptive culture. The village in all her Nebraska novels was to be the source of all corruptions, its dominant Anglo-Saxon inhabitants narrow, ignorant, imposing, convention-ridden, and exploitative, and she had herself opposed it in what ways one supposes she could. She wore her hair assertively short and wore clothes assertively mannish. She held unconventional ideas about religion, and she lectured her Baptist neighbors on the necessity of scientific investigation over their superstition. And most significantly, in that squeezing village she bent herself to a notion of greatness.

The village commanded defiance and Ántonia’s easy supremacy had not been available to her. The village was not strictly the frontier, but one may doubt that there was really much distance between only just enough, perhaps, for Willa Cather to make a heroic myth of the frontier. But in any event by 1918, when she published
My Ántonia
, the great frontier had really and clearly long ago been captured by the village. The pioneers had not endured. Their great achievements had been inherited by the lesser men who were their sons, whose natural home was the village. Everything subversive of greatness had won out. The degeneration
of the frontier was to be the explicit theme now of her next few novels, treated in each successively with more reserve, the terms of the defeat seen in each novel successively to be of greater dimension.

In
One of Ours
in 1922 the hero does escape the Nebraska farm and village, both now populated by prohibitionists and farm implements salesmen and prim evangelists, but only by the miraculous and ironic intervention of the World War. More than that, though he dies for it on the Western Front, he becomes a hero of sensibility.
His
war is for the greatness that is in European culture and that was once in the frontier, and so he has opportunity to be a last pioneer. But he is the last. The next novel,
A Lost Lady
, is the unmitigated process of degeneration itself. The lady is a great lady while she is married to one of the great pioneers, in this case one of the men who had built the railroad. She is lost when he dies, and what she loses is not merely sensibility, which in fact she preserves, but the nerve and the moral rectitude and the courage without which her ladylike sensibility is merely prettiness. She becomes the property of the next generation in the person of a manipulating lawyer who had once not dared to walk in her garden. And the next novel,
The Professor’s House
, brings this corroding malignity of modernism into the most normal domestic affections. The professor has a wife, a good wife, and a daughter
whom he loves, but they are of the present, adepts of easy comforts. Their skill is in spending money. His own proper life is in the heroic frontier past. It is that which sustains him, and when his great scholarly study of it is finished, he is finished. The love of his family notwithstanding, their life in this time is not his life, and he is ready for death.

In her prefatory note to a book of essays in 1936, a book she belligerently called
Not Under Forty
because it was not to be read by anyone under forty, Willa Cather was to say that “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” and she made it clear that she had made her own house in the world before. The year of
One of Ours
was 1922. It was also, it happened, the year that T. S. Eliot published
The Waste Land
, and it was the year of E. E. Cummings’
The Enormous Room
and of Sinclair Lewis’
Babbitt
, and it was just a couple of years after Edith Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence
and H. L. Mencken’s
The American Credo
, and a couple of years before Ellen Glasgow’s
Barren Ground
—all of them assaults on modernism, in various tempers and modes, more or less explicit, by persons of a series of generations. Nothing would have pleased Willa Cather less, certainly, than to have found herself part of a literary movement. Or she would have found the fact irrelevant. Her way was absolutely independent devotion to her art. Her great masters were Shakespeare and Flaubert,
and she had taken practical lessons from Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett, never from any of the excited literary factionalists. But in fact what she observed was being observed by most serious writers. In 1922 or thereabouts some personal possibility of grace, of coherence, of achievement, or personal heroism had been defeated in America—that was, for instance, what Ezra Pound, the most clamorous factionalist of them all, had meant when in 1920 he said of his Mauberly that his true Penelope was Flaubert. There was a rigor and an austerity and a dedication missing from this modern America. The defeat surely had something to do with the sudden new wealth of a country suddenly beyond its youth. It had something to do with the happy post-war disillusion that was the philosophical basis for iconoclasm, hedonism, and that literary fiction, the Younger Generation. But whatever it had to do with, not only the conservatives of an older generation, but the young radical iconoclasts themselves agreed on the wasteland as the image of modern times. What Willa Cather’s Professor St. Peter discovered in the present is very much Babbittry, or the same thing made more intimate and therefore more crushing. Or her Professor who discovered that the present is the time of death, was not very different from the protagonist of
The Waste Land
whose true life was in a medieval legend.

BOOK: My Mortal Enemy
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ads

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