The Jumping-Off Place: Facing Death in ‘A Death in the Desert’

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Author: Kari A. Ronning
Date: 2002
From: Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief: A Collection of Essays
Publisher: Brigham Young UP
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 296. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,834 words

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[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Ronning considers the importance of art for the primary characters in “A Death in the Desert” as they deal with mortality and regret over lost opportunities.]

Cather’s 1903 Scribner’s Magazine story, “A Death in the Desert”, like the Browning poem from which it takes its title, raises the question of how to respond to death and thus, how to live. This story, especially in The Troll Garden (1905) text, on which I will draw, is one of Cather’s most densely allusive, crowded with references to art, literature, music, architecture, philosophy, and, as William James would put it, the “varieties of religious experience.” The characters confront or evade the issue of death, and how they do so reveals a great deal about who they are and about the young Cather’s search for meaning in both life and art. Cather had left Nebraska and its beliefs behind but had not yet found her place elsewhere.

The story was probably written sometime in 1902, when Cather was twenty-nine. She was free from journalistic duties, although she did contribute columns to the Pittsburgh Gazette. Teaching English at Central High School in Pittsburgh allowed her the time to publish two stories in New England Magazine, publish four poems in other major magazines, and prepare poetry for publication in her first book, April Twilights (1903). Most importantly, that summer Cather had gone to Europe for the first time, accompanied by her friend Isabelle McClung. She sent back dispatches to the Nebraska State Journal full of delighted descriptions of European landscape and culture. Years later, however, she would acknowledge that she had felt like a barbarian, coming from the plains of Nebraska and the commercial streets of Pittsburgh to all this richness. Her feeling is reflected in the title of and an epigraph to The Troll Garden, her first collection of short stories. Both were from Charles Kingsley’s lecture series The Roman and the Teuton (1891), which includes a parable of the invasion of Rome by the forest people, the Germanic tribes, who (like Cather in Europe) are bedazzled and abashed by the wonders they find in a rich and ancient civilization—the garden where the trolls make their magical creations (Woodress xvi).

It would not be until some years later in her life that Cather would come to see the beauty of the plains and desert lands. In the first years of the twentieth century, the West represented all that she hoped she had escaped from: not only “the arid airs, the scorching winds and hot horizons” she mentions in an early review (World 2: 729), but the solitude and isolation that led her to dateline one letter written from her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, as “Siberia.” The bitterness of her early stories arose from her fear that she would never really escape and find the riches of the aesthetic world. The contrast between the beauty, richness, and culture of Europe and Cather’s memories of the sparse, dry plains of Wyoming, where she had visited her brother in 1898 and 1901, may have sparked the writing of “A Death in the Desert”.

The Browning poem, one of his Dramatis Personae (1864), recounts the last words of the Apostle John, who has been hidden by his followers in a rock cave in the desert during a persecution. With nothing left in his life but rock and imminent death, and the memory of the one transcendent event in his life, John talks of faith and doubt, of how people come to believe, even when the miracles are withdrawn and only testimony is left: “I saw,” he repeats (line 133 passim), and wrote it down in his Gospel that others might believe (though we are told that one of John’s followers has since fallen into apostasy). In her story Cather sets the problem of what happens when an artist, a woman, has entered the troll garden, experienced its wonders, contributed her own powers, and then loses all she had valued when illness forces her out into the desert to die. The story begins when Everett Hilgarde, younger brother of the talented, successful, and perhaps even great composer Adriance Hilgarde,1 stops for the night in a Wyoming town. Katharine Gaylord, a gifted singer now dying of tuberculosis in her brother’s house outside town, had loved Adriance. She begs Everett, who resembles his brother, to stay and talk to her about Adriance and the artistic world she misses so desperately. Everett, who has always loved Katharine, stays with her the few weeks until the end. Most of the story is in their talk as the two struggle to deal with her coming death.

The desert plains of eastern Colorado and Wyoming form the fundamental reality in the story. Hot, monotonous, and empty, they lie all around the train in the opening scene, and yellow dust blows over Everett and his fellow passengers, a traveling salesman and two girls on their way home from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, threatening to make them as one with the bleakness. The landscape is relieved only by the litter of deserted towns and by “little green reserves fenced off [around station-houses] in that confusing wilderness of sand,” where the futility of attempts to break the monotony and bring life to the desert is represented by “spindling trees and sickly vines” (57).2 The unnamed traveling salesman whom Everett meets on the train to Cheyenne, a decent though not particularly sensitive man, is immediately struck by the incongruity of high art in the person of Everett, his brother’s double, and the desert that surrounds them: “So you’re Hilgarde’s brother, and here I’ve run into you at the jumping-off place” (58). The slangy term refers to the remote and isolated stations the train passes: the distance between the stations is the “jump” in railroad slang—by leaving the track to go beyond these stations the traveler jumps off into the unknown, into territories without even the connection to civilization represented by a railroad line. But especially relevant here are its metaphorical uses: the “jumping-off place” has some of the same implications as “the end of the line”—the last place, where death and the final journey await.3

The traditional hopeful promise of the frontier, however, has been realized by Katharine’s brother, Charley Gaylord, who has made his fortune in the empty plains surrounding his incongruous frame house, with its gables and towers recalling the European-based styles of towns back East. Even more alien to the surrounding desert is the artistic, luxurious New York-style studio, emblematic of her old way of life, which Katharine has re-created inside the house. When the wind blows open the red window blind, the inescapable flat yellow plains are revealed and also the white-peaked mountains in the far distance. When Everett learns of Katharine’s presence in this Wyoming outpost, he exclaims, “What on earth—,” and Charley Gaylord finishes the sentence: “Is she doing here?—you’ve got at the heart of the matter” (60). Katharine, the artist and singer who seemed destined for Wagnerian roles, has always been out of place. She was an artist growing up in Bird City, Iowa, in a family of railroad employees, and she sang in the church choir before apparently making her escape in successive jumps from Chicago to New York to Europe. Now she is trapped; “to go [back] East, she says, would be like dying twice” (61). Everett brings Katharine the first comfort she has had out in the desert. In part this is because he is a link to her artistic life in the East: she demands that he tell her all about New York and reassure her that the trees are still green and that “Diana on the Garden Theatre still keep[s] her vestal vows through all … changes of weather” (64). But, as he knows, it is chiefly as a reminder of Adriance that she (like many others) values him at first. Indeed, through their conversations the absent composer emerges as the dominant figure of the story.

Katharine needs help in her dying, but she quickly rejects the conventional brand of Christianity as Cather had experienced it on the prairie. While the local minister who calls on Katharine has been to New York and demonstrates his progressive style by riding a bicycle (the latest and most up-to-date means of transport in the 1890s) and his progressive scholarship by claiming to have read the five volumes (there are six!) of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), he seems to have no conception of art or what it can mean. She feels that his focus is on sin and that he assumes she has a “dark past” because she has been on the stage (64), as though there is little distinction between the concert and operatic stage and the burlesque and the “hootchie-kootchie” show at the Chicago World’s Fair from which the girls on the train were returning. Cather, from her youth on, revolted against this kind of narrow-minded Protestant fundamentalism, which rejected dancing and the theater as passports to hell, condemned playing secular music on Sundays, and approved of fiction and the visual arts only as they conveyed moral lessons. The fanatic preacher of the early Cather story “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” (1900), who makes Eric destroy his violin in order to save his soul, is more extreme than this Wyoming minister, but Cather saw them both as trying to destroy the richness and beauty that art could bring to life. The minister here tries to suggest “possible noble uses for what he kindly calls my talent” (64), Katharine observes (doubtlessly with a play on the biblical parable of the talents); presumably, he believes she can atone for her sins by singing revival and temperance hymns.

Cather considers non-Christian spiritual alternatives through Katharine and Everett’s talk about Adriance, who is associated chiefly with a romanticized Greek paganism fashionable at the turn of twentieth century.4 He looks like one of “the shepherd-boys who sang in the Vale of Tempe” (67), a place sacred to Apollo, god of music and of the sun. Laurel for the victors of the Pythian games was gathered in Tempe, an appropriate association for one whose career has apparently been one long triumph. Adriance’s first success had been with a cantata, Proserpine.5 Although the myth of Persephone concerns rebirth, it is essentially about the evasion of death, or at least compromise with it. The return of Persephone from the Underworld, and hence the return of spring and fertility to the earth, is celebrated in the “Spring Song,” Adriance’s most ubiquitous composition. Everett reflects that he has heard it “on guitars in Old Mexico, on mandolins at college glees, on cottage organs in New England hamlets, … on sleighbells at a variety theatre in Denver,” and now whistled by the traveling salesman on the train (58). But whether all these performers, or the composer himself, know it, this return is not a victory over death, for Persephone must always go back to the Underworld as a part of the bargain Hades made with Demeter.

The mercurial, role-playing Adriance (“He is himself barely long enough to write checks and be measured for his clothes” [66-67]), like Persephone, seems to be seeking some way to avoid even the idea of death—he isn’t fond of being around people who are old or sad (74), and he himself is ever-youthful, even as his hair begins to turn silver (75). Belief for him is a matter of fashion or whim. He flirts idly with the idea of reincarnation. In Granada, a visit to the Alhambra, which “from the first, seemed perfectly familiar to him,” makes him sure “he must have trod that court, … centuries before Ferdinand rode into Andalusia” (70-71). The beauty of Moorish art and architecture appeals to him far more than what he calls “the brutal exaggerations of Gothic art” (70). When he was in Algiers, Katharine says, he spent “night and day [on horseback] in an Arabian costume, and in his usual enthusiastic fashion he had quite made up his mind to adopt the Mahometan faith. … How many countries and faiths has he adopted, I wonder?” (66).

One cult Adriance adheres to is the cult of the self. Other people matter to him only so far as their immediate relationship: he was “bent upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, … and, when they were no longer near, forgetting” (69). Even Katharine realizes this shallowness: “Of course, he is accustomed to looking into the eyes of women and finding love there; when he doesn’t find it there he thinks he must have been guilty of some discourtesy and is miserable about it. … I shared with the rest; shared the smiles and the gallantries and the droll little sermons. It was quite like a Sunday-school picnic; we wore our best clothes and a smile and took our turns” (74).

But in the story there is no doubt that Adriance is also genuinely an artist. Cather, as in many of her other stories about artists, breaks down the Victorian idea and its corollary that art is ennobling and that the artist should be the most ennobled of all. Everett, who knows Adriance best, thus knows his capacity for cruelty, his capacity to use and then forget people. When Everett reminds his brother of Katharine’s plight and Adriance sends her a “wonderfully tactful and tender” letter that gives her great joy, Everett sees the egotism it displays and senses its patronizing tone (71-72). Nonetheless, as a competent musician himself, he recognizes his brother’s genius; there is a circle of fire around true artists like Adriance and Katharine, which he himself cannot cross. The patronizing letter is accompanied by the score of Adriance’s latest work, a sonata which Everett plays and recognizes as the true “voice of Adriance, his proper speech … mark[ing] the transition from his purely lyric vein to a deeper and nobler style” (71), and which Katharine recognizes as “the tragedy of the soul, the shadow coexistent with the soul. This is the tragedy of effort and failure, the thing Keats called hell” (71-72). Although Adriance the man knows little of death and tragedy, his art can grow because it is rooted in something deeper than his own experience and personality. Katharine loves Adriance the artist as much or more than Adriance the man and has never asked anything for herself in their relationship: “I think I can scarcely answer his letter, but … tell him … I want him to grow wholly into his best and greatest self, even at the cost of the dear boyishness that is half his charm to you and me” (71). Katharine is the one who has followed the religion of art, devoted herself to it only to find it fail her in the end. Because she is a performing artist, when her body fails her, she feels there is nothing left: she refers to herself as a “broken music-box” (72).

Everett had been forced to renounce his own hopes for a life in art because he lacks the inner fire that sets the true artist apart. In personal relations he has always lived in his brother’s shadow; his mother, he says, would have made “burnt offerings” of all her other children for Adriance’s sake (66). Unlike Adriance, he knows self-abnegation: in echoes of both Milton and the young Christ in the temple, he reflects that “[n]o matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother’s business” (68-69). All this has engendered in him a fatalistic sense: “Destiny,” he concludes, “seems to have very positive notions about the sort of parts we are fitted to play” (68). Instead of bitterness, however, he has developed the capacity to feel for others, and to act. He has no hopes for himself, except now to help Katharine. And from this point on, the added dimension of their story is suggested in Cather’s increasing use of biblical allusions and images.

Katharine realizes immediately that Adriance has sent her the letter at Everett’s request: “this time she was looking at [Everett], and not at a whimsical caricature of his brother” (70). What she sees is someone to whom she can confess her love and her torment, the memories of a stormy night in a Florentine palace with Adriance; a dark night when the flames of a wood fire “glowed upon the hard features of the bronze Dante like the reflection of purgatorial flames.” Even then it was not love uniting them, but something like despair: “the wave came up in both of us at once—that awful vague, universal pain, that cold fear of life and death and God and hope—and we were like two clinging together on a spar in mid-ocean after the shipwreck of everything” (73). Katharine has lived with that pain and fear ever since; Adriance, being what he is, could use the experience to deepen his music but pass on unscathed. Confession offers relief to Katharine: “Now that you know, you would scarcely believe how much less sharp the anguish of it is” (73). Having rejected the narrow conventional Christianity of the Wyoming minister, she finds the essence of Christianity through Everett. Recognizing “his divine pity and my utter pitiableness” (75), she is able at last to drop the ironic mask she has worn for so long. She tells Everett that his time with her “may never be to your glory in this world, perhaps, but it’s been the mercy of heaven to me.” Now she can say she has fought the “good fight” (74), as Paul had instructed Timothy in his first letter to him (6:12), and will face the future with courage instead of bitterness and fear.

Everett watches over Katharine’s deathbed, over “the last battle that we have with the flesh before we are done with it and free of it forever” (75). Despite her now “serene soul,” this is not the orthodox deathbed of sentimental Victorian fiction with pious last visions. Dying, Katharine has the “at once pitiful and merciful” delusion that she is on a train, making the last “jump” to New York, going back to her work, calling the porter to waken her before Jersey City, and “remonstrat[ing] with him about the delays and the roughness of the road” (75). Regaining consciousness at the end, she looks at Everett “with eyes that seemed never to have wept or doubted” (76)—and calls him by Adriance’s name.

Everett has been called a mere Jamesian ficelle (Woodress xx), but as the instrument of change for Katharine, he himself has been changed. The story ends when Everett, waiting at the station for his long jump to the west coast, is mistaken for Adriance by a German soprano and will no longer accept the role of stand-in, as he had with the traveling salesman in the train at the beginning. He lifts his hat courteously but withdraws implacably.

Cather has reversed the emerging myths of the West in this story. It is a place, not of beauty, but ugliness; a place, not of possibilities, but of failure; not a country of rugged individualists, but of lonely exiles; a country of ends, not beginnings. Yet this harsh landscape and the exiles inhabiting it, as in Browning’s poem, have been the setting for new understandings of faith, the self, and relationships with others. Having come imaginatively to the end of things, the jumping-off place, Cather, like them, could clear her mind and begin her own journey back to life and faith.


1. Woodress suggests the composer Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1900), whom Cather knew in Pittsburgh in the late 1890s, as the probable prototype for Adriance Hilgarde (xx)—Nevin later inspired her title character in “Uncle Valentine” (1925).

2. In the Scribner’s version, we are told that such vegetation is kept alive only by “hypodermic injections of water” (109). Cather’s conception and experience of the desert would change within the next ten years, probably as a result of her visit to her brother in Arizona in 1912. In The Song of the Lark, a journey across the Colorado plains elicits the narrator’s comment that it “seemed a dreary place enough to people who looked for verdure, a brilliant place to people who liked color” (119).

3. See Richard H. Thornton, An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms upon Historical Principles (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1912), 1:504. In The Song of the Lark (1915) the brakeman Ray Kennedy, another frequent traveler, also uses the slang term “jumping-off place” (107).

4. Cather herself was affected by this romantic view of ancient Greece; she already had published such poems as “Asphodel” (1900), “In Media Vita” and “Winter at Delphi” (both 1901), and “Arcadian Winter” (1902). Her volume of poetry, April Twilights (1903), included “Antinous,” “Lament for Marsyas,” and “Eurydice.”

5. The choice of Proserpine, the English form of Persephone, inevitably links Adriance’s composition to the “Hymn to Proserpine” (1866) by Swinburne, whom Cather described in 1895 as “a great lyric poet … thoroughly a Greek, in his thought and treatment, as well as in his themes” (World 1:277). Swinburne celebrates Proserpine as the queen of death “and death is a sleep” (line 110), a sleep and an oblivion to be longed for. The speaker in his poem (subtitled “After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith”) explicitly rejects the Christian concept of an afterlife to be achieved by sufferings in this world; he laments the dethronement of the old gods and the loss of beauty and color in the world in the famous line: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath” (35). Cather had seen that greyness and bleakness in some of the churches of her childhood.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “A Death in the Desert”. Selected Poems. New York: Penguin, 1989. 169-187.

Cather, Willa. “A Death in the Desert”. Scribner’s Magazine 33 (January 1903): 109-121.

Cather, Willa. “A Death in the Desert”. The Troll Garden. 1905. Ed. James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983. 57-76.

Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.

Cather, Willa. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews 1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “Hymn to Proserpine”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. 2:1625-1628.

Thornton, Richard H. An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms upon Historical Principles. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1912.

Woodress, James. “Introduction”. The Troll Garden. By Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983. xi-xxx.

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