Day Two: Cather International Seminar

From Susan Maher:

Day Two: Cather International Seminar

This evening, participants at the seminar gathered on the 22nd floor of 200 South Michigan Avenue in the Cliff Dwellers Club, founded by writer Hamlin Garland. What a panoramic view we enjoyed! The entire day has been lovely–tolerable summer temperatures, lots of crowds attending the Taste of Chicago event at Grant Park, regattas sailing out of the marina into Lake Michigan to enjoy brisk winds and good water. From our vantage point, we could see the curve of the shore, lined with skyscrapers at the ends, with Grant and Millenium Parks front and center. Below us sat the Chicago Art Institute, a place Cather knew well. Stretching to the north for miles and miles was the lake, Godfrey St. Peter’s favored element in The Professor’s House. We sipped our drinks, gnoshed on hors d’oeuvres, and held lively conversations about all things Cather.

A memorable plenary session today focused on the two newest scholarly editions: Youth and the Bright Medusa, edited by Mark Madigan, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, edited by WLA member Ann Romines. Mark showed a number of photographs of relevant personalities and sites connected to Cather’s urban stories set in New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, and tangentially Chicago. Mark compared Cather’s journalistic essays and short pieces to their later revisions and reworkings in Cather’s short fiction. “She liked these descriptions well enough to revise,” Mark concluded. These small revisions that fed into short stories set the stage for Cather’s larger revisions of material into her novels.

Of particular interest were Mark’s materials on “Paul’s Case,” set in Pittsburgh. He showed a contemporary photo of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, were Paul lives, for a brief time, in material luxury. Mark’s most fascinating materials, however, connected to the Denny robbery and to silent film star Tommy Meaghan, both part of Pittsburgh lore. Mark and Tim Bintrim have been tracing the boy robbers who stole $2,000 from the Denny vault and then fled–to Chicago and then Milwaukee. The mastermind, James Wilson, and his companion were arrested in Milwaukee after enjoying some high living in Chicago. Upon their return to Pittsburgh, the two boys’ parents hired good lawyers and got the boys off. Paul’s fate is much worse in Cather’s story. Mark and Tim hope to flesh out the two robbers’ stay in Chicago.

Paul is particularly taken by the juvenile lead in the story. Mark discovered that Charley is none other than silent film star Tommy Meaghan, who began his early stage career playing young heroes in Pittsburgh theater as an 18 year old. Between 1916 and 1927, Meaghan was one of Hollywood’s big stars, earning $5,000 per week–big money in those days. Mark segued into “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” Though set in Sand City, Kansas, the dead artist, Merrick, was based on Pittsburgh artist Charles Henry Reinhart, who lived from 1844-1896. Upon his death, Pittsburgh barely acknowledged this talented son, admired the world over for his artistic vision. Cather herself wrote a eulogy for the neglected Reinhart in The Home Monthly, attempting to redress the community’s rejection of this man. Mark found Reinhart’s fallen tombstone in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, across the river from St. Mary’s cemetery, where Tommy Meaghan is buried and acknowledged. Mark was able to help restore Reinhart’s tombstone in the Allegheny Cemetery, and he showed before and after pictures of this great artist’s final resting place.

Editor Ann Romines turned our attention to Cather’s Shenandoah Valley. Ann drew a parallel between Cather’s final journey, her return to home and family history, and Ann’s own journey across Cather’s southern geography. Ann currently lives 75 miles from Frederick County and Willow Shade. She has traced numerous maps, genealogy records, and census data to provide a fuller vision of this antebellum world. As Ann put it, “the infrastructure of the novel still exists.” The many homes in Sapphira, the millhouse, the cemeteries, and churches are mostly extant. Ann says that her journey to Frederick County was like “driving into the pages of the book itself.” By remapping Cather’s southern space, Ann notes that one can better appreciate “place, history, memory, and fiction,” as well as gain insight into “writerly practice and the trajectory of [Cather’s] career.” Ann also reminded us that the autobiographical epilogue to the novel, resisted by her publisher, “is singular in her fiction.” In Ann’s assessment, Cather spent a “lifelong negotiation with her southern connections.” In this soil lies 300 years of Cather family habitation and memory.

In opening up the world of Sapphira, Ann connected to other writers. She mentioned Ellen Douglas, contemporary author, whose family stories “Old Enough to Tell” gave Ann the title of her presentation. Ann concluded that Cather needed to be old enough to tell this complex, vexed family history. At the same time Cather was writing this final novel, published in 1940, “contending southern visions”–Mitchell’s and Faulkner’s–were published, attempting to evaluate antebellum culture and slavery. While “Cather underplayed her family’s role in slavery,” Ann suggested, the author was still trying, in a dispassionate, unsentimental, and “unvarnished” way, to reveal “something terrible under the surface.” Ann also told the audience that young Cather “may have been shielded by combustible stories” that focused unflattering light on Cather family history.

My favorite insight of Ann’s had to do with her application of Edward Said’s idea of the “late style” (the name of his final study). “Modernism,” Ann asserted, “is a movement of aging and ending.” She highlighted the “special maturity in Cather’s last novel.” Quoting Said, Ann asked “what if age and ill health don’t provide serenity?” Cather, in her last completed work, is “tampering with closure,” giving us a “perplexed and unsettled” story, which should be celebrated in Cather’s oeuvre as “a triumph of late style.”

Many other sessions were memorable today, and I hope that other participants on Westlit will add their voices to my own blog. A light-hearted moment today occurred in Steven Trout’s assessment of The Professor’s House as an academic novel that examines “homo academicus.” When Cather was drafting this novel, two other writers, Veblen and Sinclair, had already published scathing critiques of American higher education. Steve reminded us that Cather indicts a number of areas in higher education that remain topical: the problem of admission standards; the competing definitions of scholarship that often leads to the devaluing of “pure” research over pragmatic research; the onslaught against the liberal arts; the fear that university training was becoming trade school; the danger of censorship and the loss of academic freedom; and the perils of privatization and private/public collaborations on American campuses. Much of Steve’s trenchant analysis left us laughing, providing a good tonic to clarify the afternoon.

Tomorrow I tour Chicago’s ethnic north neighborhoods with my sister Kris. This tour is significant for us because our Swedish relatives first settled in Andersonville before assimilating into American society and dispersing out to other regions. I hope to have some good descriptions of our tour tomorrow for Westlit readers. Good night for now from downtown Chicago!

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One Response to “Day Two: Cather International Seminar”

  1. Anne Says:

    Great accounts, Sue! The reception at the Cliff Dwellers’ club was a memorable event indeed.

    I can’t wait to read the post on today’s adventures — the bus tour will become legend fairly quickly, I imagine. I have a few a few pictures to upload from the seminar … soon!


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