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From Constructing a Nervous System, a memoir, which will be published this month by Pantheon.

I started teaching women writers in the early Nineties. When I thought about my own writing—its materials, its form, what needs would drive it—I wanted to learn from every one of them: from Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks. I was also working out how to succeed as a teacher in the classroom, unprotected by a page and a byline.

I started teaching full-time in 2006. And I taught The Song of the Lark, Cather’s luminous portrait of a girl from the American West becoming a great opera singer, in college seminars between 2007 and 2011. Nearly all of my students were young women; nearly all of them were young white women. And I realized after I’d taught The Song of the Lark a few times that I was uneasy; as I revised my notes, I knew I must find a sustained way to—which of these verbs is best? expose, excavate, evaluate?—the rapture stirred in Cather by her heroine’s white skin. How, I asked myself, could I make potent the historical discord stirred by race worship without obliterating the novel’s aesthetic concord?

It was a technical challenge, yes. But I knew I had the necessary analytic tools. I’d been schooled in close reading; I’d kept up with African-American, postcolonial, and feminist criticism. I was a book critic, for god’s sake. I’d taught chapters by Toni Morrison, where she examined Cather’s last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. It was set in Virginia, home of the Confederate ancestors Cather was sentimentally attached to all her life. But wasn’t Morrison’s task more straightforward than mine? She’d chosen a novel about slavery, a fumbling, uncertain novel, which she admired, rightly, much less than I admired Lark. And she had the vast advantage of being Toni Morrison.

I knew that, if I revealed it too artlessly, my anger and grief at this white-skin fetishism could overwhelm me and leave white students . . . what? Guilty but confused? Convinced but embarrassed? Dutiful but resentful? How not to endanger my authority as their professor, the black woman instructing them on our—and their—literary canon? Teaching them to feel intellectual contempt was too easy. I wanted them to feel chagrined. Chagrin implicates those who feel it. And I wanted them to be disappointed—roundly disappointed in this major American writer Wilella Sibert Cather. As I’d had to be, time and time again, in a life- time of reading white writers.

The Song of the Lark is an epic, a lyric, and a Künstlerroman filled, almost stuffed, with sensory, social, and psychological detail. In it are modest towns, with their workaday routines; brash cities, promoting art along with railroads and stockyards; the vast grandeur of Western deserts; the gilded glory of opera houses. An America making itself up, using homemade rituals while seizing on great, inherited traditions: the art and architecture of the Sinagua people; the classical music and epic myth-building of Wagnerian opera. A portrait of the United States as a new world, clamorous yet slumberous, trying to make itself a coherent civilization.

Through Thea Kronborg, Cather envisions a formidable, seemingly comprehensive American classicism. And woefully, cursedly, that classicism needs the imprimatur of milky white skin. This was the venom: whiteness as sign for the treasure America so covets, the treasure of great art—Europe its sacred fount.

A novelist uses every resource of her experience (what she’s lived) and her imagination (what she wants to live). Both are forms of knowledge. For Cather, both were impaired by Confederate Southern mythmaking: warrior angst, aristocrat elegy, belligerent disdain, wanton nostalgia. Negroes were former slaves with murky African origins: What did they have in common with the European immigrants bringing European ways and means to the Midwest she loved?

Black people weren’t part of the usable past or aspirational future Cather was constructing for American art and culture. They—we, American blacks—held no aesthetic appeal for her. What I wanted was for those choices to be evaluated and assessed as part of the longue durée vision of American history and literature.

I still cherished memories of the early 1970s, when the women’s movement sent us blissfully hunting and gathering women writers. That’s when I’d first read Lark, and cleaved unto Thea. I had been utterly uninterested in Cather’s novels before literary feminism spurred my curiosity and admiration. Now I honored this young Midwestern woman, fierce and solitary, who sought the most valuable part of herself in something larger than herself. I longed for that. I nurtured, even coddled, my love for Cather’s portrait of the artist as an obscure young woman. I cherished each personal connection. Now I felt I was being rebuffed and humiliated.

I let several years pass without speaking directly to Cather’s whiteness rapture. The old stratagem, devised in childhood: not wanting to exclude myself from the cultural access whites had; not wanting to look damaged by what had been offered grudgingly or compensatorily. This no longer served. My inner life had to keep pace with the facts and furies of the outer world.

By revealing not just my anger, but my embarrassment, my wounded pride, my (dare I say) hurt, did I risk having white students turn their pity on me? Did I risk having my few non-white students cringe at my vulnerabilities? I did brood over my racial grievances. I resented my students’ leisure, their flowery beds of racial ease. I knew they all had their own sufferings, some of which I’d been spared—history doles out all kinds of suffering to all kinds of people. But their ancestors had made sure they were spared my kind of suffering.

When I teach I like to display, even flaunt, the contours of my sensibility: teacher, thinker, reader, writer. Nothing I’d chosen to study and care for had lethally damaged me, whatever its racial intent. The power to imagine what couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine me was my protection. My magic helmet, my anthem and aria. I could be wounded, I could suffer, I could rage, but these weapons shielded me from permanent harm. No scars marked the smooth skin of my thoughts. No keloids.

To further my inquiries, I was reading Cather’s criticism: the confident reviews she’d published as a young journalist, when fiction was the mighty sword she had yet to claim. Eventually, I came upon her short 1894 review of Blind Tom Wiggins, the black piano prodigy who toured the country for nearly fifty years. Wiggins was a former slave with great musical gifts, a pianist-composer who, in addition to being blind, suffered from tremors and speech disorders. Cather was intrigued and repelled.

He was a living phonograph, “a sort of animated memory with sound-producing powers,” she wrote. The fact of his talent all but offended her: “It was as if the soul of a Beethoven had slipped into the body of an idiot.” His gifts—he “played with some genius”—only aroused her need to belittle him—“for certainly that may be called genius which has no basis in intellect.”

And then comes an unexpected admission, like a dissonance that refuses to resolve. “One laughs at the man’s queer actions, and yet, after all, the sight is not laughable. It brings us too near to the things that we sane people do not like to think of.”

Those last words hint at the layered awareness one is used to valuing in Cather. “We” do not like to think of bodies marked by uncontrollable shaking, eyes gone blind; a slave child at his mistress’s piano, so terrified when he hears her voice that he plunges into fits and fevers that last for days; bodies that disgust even as they produce art that enchants us.

A character based on Tom Wiggins called Blind d’Arnault appears in My Ántonia, a novel published three years after Lark. And I know that the way d’Arnault is described is in character for the novel’s narrator, Jim Burden.

Cather often uses ethnic generalities (physical and temperamental) with affection and respect. These generalities are comfort tropes, usually countered by precise descriptions and characterizations. Here they work as crude Darwinian confines.

“He had the Negro head . . . almost no head at all,” Jim says of d’Arnault, and instead of close-clipped hair he has “close-clipped wool.” (Cather softens his appearance by making him a mulatto.) “He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy.” A Negro’s kindly happiness is the only possible antidote to his behavioral and biological repulsiveness.

D’Arnault’s white Southern teachers found he had perfect pitch and an exceptional memory, he explains, but d’Arnault wore them out; he couldn’t learn like other people; couldn’t acquire finish. “As piano-playing it was perhaps abominable,” Jim muses, “but as music it was something real, vitalized by a sense of rhythm that was stronger than his other physical senses—that not only filled his dark mind, but worried his body incessantly.” To watch and listen as d’Arnault played plantation melodies for the happy Nebraskans “was to see a Negro enjoying himself as only a Negro can.” With Ántonia, Cather knows and shows what Jim misses. With d’Arnault, she can’t.

In Lark, Thea has left Moonstone, Colorado, to study music in Chicago. One afternoon she goes to a concert and hears Dvorák’s New World Symphony for the first time.

Dvorák had written ardently about “Negro spirituals” as a foundation for American music, and about the grand and spacious plains of the Midwest. Cather would have known this. Thea wouldn’t have: she was still a young, provincial student. So when the first movement ends and the Largo theme begins, all she sees and feels is her own Western home—“the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts, all the things that wakened and chirped in the early morning; the reaching and reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands.” Lyric. Sensuous. Melodic.

I wanted my students to know that when Cather the critic reviewed the Pittsburgh Orchestra’s performance of Dvorák’s New World Symphony in 1897, she began by reminding her readers that it was built around “the old Negro air of the South.” Strange, she wrote, that the only folk music we have was given to us by “our slaves.”

She’d thought there was little there beyond “Dixie” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” until, on a recent trip to Virginia, she heard Negroes singing, “those wordless minor melodies echoing through the silver silence of the Virginia moonlight.” She heads North as fast as she can, declaring that after the symphony’s first movement, Dvorák has “pretty well exhausted his African theme.” The South fades away, the limitless Midwest emerges; one can hear the confident, almost ecstatic swell of Cather’s voice, so relieved at coming home to “limitless prairies” filled with the “peasantry of all the nations of Europe,” who offer the world their collective “song of a homesick heart.”

I must be clear. I did not need Cather to supply a brief passage in which Thea’s wise music teacher tells her about the influence spirituals had on this symphony. So yes, I’d have mightily enjoyed such a passage. But I didn’t need it. Or so I thought. We critics leave our factual errors behind for all to see. Our errors, our evasions, our simplifications and dismissals: what we didn’t know or didn’t care to know about the art we loved.

How cleanly, relentlessly, Cather excises the “African theme” from Dvorák. Like a surgeon amputating a limb. Except the limb’s not all gone in the novel. It leaves its trace on the final description of what Thea hears in the Largo: “There was home in it too . . . the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old, that had dreamed something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born; a soul obsessed by what it did not know, under the cloud of a past it could not recall.” These words could almost be read as an evocation of those Negro American sorrow songs, which did indeed shape Dvorák’s symphony. But they remain coded, unconscious. And possibly my own invention.

Cather couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine that music came to Blind Tom Wiggins in a lucid sensuous form, just as it came to Thea in the Sinagua ruins of Arizona. “And now her power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation. She could become a mere receptacle . . . or become a color . . . or she could become a continuous repetition of sound.” And that I hold against her.

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