Rooting into the Earth, Branching into the Sky: Willa Cather’s Vision for Life Among the Trees
Mohn, David Gerald
University of the South , School of Letters Thesis 2023 , School of Letters , Will Cather , My Ántonia , Death Comes for the Archbishop , Trees , Ecocriticism
In her introduction to Willa Cather’s Ecological Imagination, a volume of Cather Studies devoted solely to ecocritical essays about Willa Cather’s writing, Susan Rosowski asserts that the fundamental question driving debate in and around today’s environmental movement—“What is the right relation between human beings and nature?”—is a question that interested Cather deeply, a question that Cather’s stories frequently ask and occasionally, if incompletely, answer. This thesis aims to add to the ecocritical conversation surrounding Cather’s work by drawing attention to the important, albeit largely overlooked, ways that Cather’s beliefs about the relation between human beings and nature are encapsulated in the relationships between her human characters and the trees around them. To illustrate the consistently-important, if not entirely consistent, role that trees play in Cather’s writing, this paper offers an illustrative pairing of two of Cather’s best-known novels: My Ántonia (1918) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). This pairing is uniquely instructive because the two novels are at once very similar and very different from one another. Because both novels tell stories about characters who, when forced to adapt to new, unnervingly-bare environments, forge intimate connections with their new homes primarily through their attention to, and care for, trees, we come to understand that Cather sees trees as the primary mediators of humans’ relationships with the places they inhabit. On the other hand, because of the essential differences between the Midwestern plains of My Ántonia and the Southwestern deserts of Death Comes for the Archbishop, and, even more importantly, the essential differences between the personalities of the two novels’ titular characters (Ántonia of My Ántonia and Archbishop Latour of Death Comes for the Archbishop), we come to understand that exactly how trees mediate the relationship between humans and nature can vary. This thesis’s central argument posits that the trees of My Ántonia draw Ántonia’s spirit downwards into the Nebraska earth, rooting her more deeply in the immediate community, while the trees of Death Comes for the Archbishop draw Latour’s spirit upwards, making the Southwest a place where Latour feels a unique, transcendent connection to all of creation. Thus, although trees in both stories play a vital role in helping characters find meaning, and a sense of belonging, in a new place, the meanings that Ántonia and Latour find in their new homes, and the types of belonging they feel, are very different from one another. The paper concludes by examining Cather’s own relationship with the landscapes of Mid- and Southwest America. The thesis ultimately contends that although Cather’s own relationship with the natural world is likely to have been more similar to Latour’s than to Ántonia’s, the illustrative pairing of My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop reveals that Cather rejected the idea of a single “right” relation between human beings and nature. Instead, Cather’s stories suggest that each individual must discover their own “right” relationship with the natural world around them—a seemingly long and difficult task, but a task that may be made a bit easier if one knows where to begin: beneath a tree.