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The Quotable Willa Cather

Got to be honest with you: Death Comes For The Archbishop isn’t doing much for me.

I don’t dislike it in a Mrs. Dalloway sort of way, but it’s struggling to keep my attention. Or, more accurately, I’m struggling to keep my attention while reading it.

That said, in the middle of what could be considered a dry book (set in the desert…pun intended), Cather really throws in some incredible sentences.  There’s something about a western-themed novel that sets up the writer to really paint some beautiful word pictures. And Cather does just that. She’s an elegant, visual writer, kind of like Cormac McCarthy without all the blood and gore.

Here’s a brief sampling:

“The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Love that one.

“Where there is great love, there are always great miracles.”

That’s a Hallmarkish quote, but that’s okay. Because Cather was long before Hallmark so it’s not cliched.

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

Oh, man. That one makes me want to visit The Grand Canyon again. Or Yosemite.  Or The Painted Desert. Such a great visual.

Just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark or memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air. It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it.

I love the line about passing through the land like a “bird through the air.”

[The Indians’] conception of decoration did not extend to the landscape. They seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction, in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves…It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it.

Cather’s depiction of the Indians seems very respectful. Long before “the green movement,” we had Indians.

So even though I’m not “feeling” this novel, I do enjoy reading Cather. She’s an elegant, almost poetic, writer with a great sense of location. You’ll definitely have a clear picture in your head of where this story takes place.

And when it comes to fiction, I think that’s what good writing is all about. Don’t you?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read a tweet just 10 seconds before I read this post. The tweet was “Today’s thought: ‘Where there is great love, there are always miracles.’ — Willa Cather” Weird!


    January 19, 2012
    • Wow. An internet quote that was actually attributed to the right person. Amazing!


      January 19, 2012
  2. Great way of looking at what you’re finding to be a bland book. I really love the last quote and the idea of the world being asleep while the Native Americans move through it trying not to wake it. I wish more of us existed that way with the natural world (although I’m guilty of wanting nature to conform to my preferences).


    January 19, 2012
  3. I agree with you completely. The passage about the sky is the roof of the world was my favorite in the book.


    January 19, 2012
  4. I am a Willa Cather fan, but I haven’t gotten through this book yet. I attempted it during December, and like you said, it just doesn’t keep my attention. I will give it another try. Someday…


    January 29, 2012

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