Escapism: A Letter from Willa Cather

From the April 17, 1936, Issue

My DEAR Mr. Williams:

You were asking me what I thought about a new term in criticism: the Art of "Escape." Isn't the phrase tautological? What has art ever been but escape? To be sure, this definition is for the moment used in a derogatory sense, implying an evasion of duty, something like the behavior of a poltroon.When the world is in a bad way, we are told, it is the business of the composer and the poet to devote himself to propaganda and fan the flames of indignation.

But the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters except escape. Hundreds of years ago, before European civilization had touched this continent, the Indian women in the old rock-perched pueblos of the Southwest were painting geometrical patterns on the Jars in which they carried water up from the streams. Why did they take the trouble? These people lived under the perpetual threat of drought and famine; they of ten shaped their graceful cooking pots when they had nothing to cook in them. Anyone who looks over a collection of pre-historic Indian pottery dug up from old burial-mounds knows at once that the potters experimented with form and color to gratify something that had no concern with food and shelter. The major arts (poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, music) have a pedigree all their own. They did not come into being as a means of increasing the game supply or promoting tribal security. They sprang from an unaccountable predilection of the one unaccountable thing in man.

At the moment, we hear the same cry which went up during the French Revolution: the one really important thing for every individual is his citizenship, his loyalty to a cause—which, of course, always means his loyalty to a party. The composer should be Citizen Beethoven, the painter Citizen Rembrandt, the poet Citizen Shelley, and they should step into line and speed their pen or brush in helping to solve the economic problems which confront society. There have been generous and bold spirits among the artists: Courbet tried to kick down the Vendome Column and got himself exiled, Citizen Shelley stepped into line and drove his pen, but he was not very useful to the reforms which fired his imagination. He was "useful" if you like that word, only as all true poets are, because they refresh and recharge the spirit of those who can read their language.

"Face the stern realities, you skulking Escapist!" the Radical editor cries. Yes, but usually the poor Escapist has so little cleverness when he struggles with stern realities. Schubert could easily write a dozen songs a day, but he couldn't keep himself in shirts. Suppose the Radical editor, or the head of the Works Project, had to write a dozen songs a day? I can't believe that if Tolstoy and Goethe and Viollet-le-Duc and Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton were brought together and induced to work with a will, their opinions, voiced in their various special languages and formulae, would materially help Mayor La Guardia to better living conditions in New York City. Nearly all the Escapists in the long past have managed their own budget and their social relations so unsuccessfully that I wouldn't want them for my landlords, or my bankers, or my  neighbors. They were valuable, like powerful stimulants, only when they were left out of the social and industrial routine, which goes on every day all over the world. Industrial life has to work out its fown problems.

Give the people a new word, and they think they have a new fact. The pretentious-sounding noun, Escapist, isn't even new. Just now, it is applied to writers with more acrimony than to composers or sculptors. Since poets and novelists do not speak in symbols or a special language, but in the plain speech which all men use and all men may, after some fashion, read, they are told that their first concern should be to cry out against social injustice. This, of course, writers have always done. The Hebrew prophets and the Greek dramatists went much deeper; they considered the greed and selfishness innate in every individual; the valor which leads to power, and the tyranny which power begets. They even cried out against the seeming original injustice that creatures so splendidly aspiring should be inexorably doomed to fail; the unfairness of the contest in which beings whose realest life is in thought or endeavor are kept always under the shackles of their physical body, and are, as Ulysses said, "the slaves of the belly." Since no patriarchal family was without its hatreds and jealousies and treacheries, the old poets could not see how a great number of families brought together into a State could be much better. This seems to be the writer's natural way of looking at the suffering of the world. Seventy-five years ago Dostoievsky was the idol of the Revolu­tionary party; but who could now consider his novels propaganda?  Certainly they are very unlike the product of the young man who goes to spend a year in a factory town and writes a novel on the abuses of factory labor.

Why does the man who wants to reform industrial conditions so seldom follow the method of the pamphleteers? Only by that method can these subjects be seriously and fairly discussed. And the people who are able to do anything toward improving such conditions will read only such a discussion: they will take little account of facts presented in a coating of stock cinema situations.

Why do the propagandists use a vehicle which they consider rickety and obsolete, to convey a message which they believe all-important? When I first lived in New York and was working on the editorial staff of a magazine, I became disillusioned about social workers and reformers. So many of them, when they brought in an article on fire-trap tenements or sweatshop labor, apologetically explained that they were making these investigations "to collect  material for fiction." I couldn't believe that any honest welfare worker, or any honest novelist, went to work in this way. The man who wants to get reforms put through does his investigating in a very different spirit, and the man who has a true vocation for imaginative writing doesn't have to go hunting among the ash cans on Sullivan Street for his material. There were exceptions to these double-purposed, faltering soldiers of good causes and the exceptions were splendid. The exceptions nearly always are. And their exceptionalness, of tener than not, comes not only from a superior endowment, but from a deeper pu rpose, and a willingness to pay the cost instead of being paid for it.

But doesn't the new social restlessness spring from a desire to do away with the exceptional? And isn't this desire partly the result of thwarted ambitions? Eighteen or twenty years ago there were graduated from our universities a company of unusually promising men, who were also extravagantly ambitious. The world was changing, and they meant to play a conspicuous part in this change: to make a new kind of thought and a new kind of expression; in language, color, form, and sound. They were to bring about a renaissance within a decade or so. Failing in this, they made a career of destroying the past. The only new thing they offered us was contempt for the old. Then began the flood of belittling biography which has poured over us ever since. We were told how shallow had been all the great philosophers, what educated dullards were Goethe, Rousseau, Spinoza, Pascal. Shakespeare and Dante were easily disposed of; the one because he was somebody else, the other because he was a cryptogram and did not at all mean  to say what the greatest lines in the Italian language make him say. Able research work was done on the bodily diseases and physical imperf ections of Beethoven, Schubert, Hugo Wolff and all the German composers. Not even their teeth were overlooked.

Is this a natural, unprejudiced way to study history? What does it lead to? Nothing very worthy. And what it comes  from is less worthy still.

Some of these iconoclasts and tomb-breakers were undoubtedly sincere. They attacked the old popular heroes in a spirit of dreary hopelessness rather than with a disgust bred of the chagrin from disappointed ambitions. The false past must be destroyed, they said, before the new and the true can be born.

Not at all: spare yourselves that disagreeable duty. Give us a new work of genius of any kind, and if it is alive, and fired with some more vital feeling than contempt, you will see how automatically the old and false makes itself air before the new and true.

The revolt against individualism naturally calls artists severely to account, because the artist is of all men the most individual: those who were not have been long forgotten. The condition every art requires is, not so much freedom from restriction, as freedom from adulteration and from the intrusion of foreign matter; considerations and purposes which have nothing to do with spontaneous invention. The great body of Russian literature was produced when the censorship was at its strictest. The art of Italy flowered when the painters were confined almost entirely to religious subjects. In the great age of Gothic architecture sculptors and stone-cutters told the same stories (with infinite variety and fresh invention) over and over, on the faces of all the cathedrals and churches of Europe. How many clumsy experiments in government, futile revolutions and reforms, those buildings have looked down upon without losing a shadow of their dignity and power of their importance? Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers.

The literary radicals tell us there must be a new kind of poetry. There will be, whenever there is a new poet—a genuine one. The thesis that no one can ever write a noble sonnet on a noble theme without repeating Wordsworth, or a mysteriously lovely lyric without repeating Shelley, is an evasion. As well argue that because so many thumb-prints have already been taken, there must be a new method of identification. No fine poet can ever write like another. His poetry is simply his individuality. And the themes of true poetry, of great poetry, will be the same until all the values of human life have changed and all the strongest emotional responses have become different, which can hardly occur until the physical body itself has fundamentally changed.

So far, the effort to make a new kind of poetry, "pure poetry," which eschews (or renounces) the old themes as shop-worn, and confines itself to regarding the grey of a wet oyster shell against the sand of a wet beach through a drizzle of rain, has not produced anything very memorable: not even when the workmanship was good and when a beat in the measure was unexpectedly dropped here and there with what one of  the poet's admirers calls a "heart-breaking effect." Certainly the last thing such poetry should attempt is to do any heart breaking.

Now, my dear Mr. Williams, I have already said much too much about a fleeting fashion which perhaps is not to be taken seriously at all. As Mary Colum remarked in the Yale Review: "The people who talk about the art of escape simply know nothing about art at all."   At all, I echo.

Sincerely yours,

[For more from our 1930s archive, click here]

About the Author

Willa Cather is the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, Lucy Gayheart, and other books.

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