Faulkner's Mexican Connections:
The Presence of Willa Cather in Light in August

ZETTSU Tomoyuki

I. Faulkner, Feminism, and Transnationalism

    Faulkner criticism in the 1990s underwent a significant transformation, partly yet profoundly spurred by the dramatic ascendance of Toni Morrison, who received a Nobel prize in literature in 1993. During the decade, a number of critical attempts have been made to demonstrate the continuity -- whether affirmative or revisionary -- from Faulkner to Morrison, radically going across racial, sexual, and ideological boundaries.1 If one could argue that the "conservative" Southern white male novelist positively inspired a "progressive" black female writer like Morrison, the former may be saved from a politically incorrect corner into which feminist (as well as African American) studies have lately driven him. Ironically, however, such a continuity endorses Faulkner's original authority as a fathering figure, providing his critics with a safe, canonical vantage and no splendid failure. True, it is essential and productive to point out that the supposedly "unrepeatable" master has his literary daughter(s); but it is more challenging and truly revolutionary to explore the possibility that the "unprecedented" author had his literary mother(s) or sister(s).
    Faulkner's lofty manliness or patriarchal isolation -- whichever way one sees it -- has been reinforced by the critical commonplace that Faulkner was too original an author to be inspired by any female precursors or contemporaries, even if he was indebted to such male precursors as Keats and Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Faulkner's own remarks make it clear that he read a number of women writers sincerely and with great interest. Therefore, it is imperative that we examine how and to what extent the seemingly male-oriented author's work draws on or re-creates a living tradition of literature by women.2
    In this light, the presence of Willa Cather, one of Faulkner's favorite contemporary writers, figures prominently. In fact, more than a few critics have already suggested that Cather and Faulkner are comparable.3 In recent years, though, a new analysis -- notably conducted by Merrill M. Skaggs -- has begun to elucidate the intertextual ways in which some of Cather's novels are specifically reimagined and transformed into the fabric of Faulkner's fiction.4 Ultimately, then, a consideration of the literary continuum from Cather to Morrison via Faulkner might prove enlightening, for it is Morrison's racial reading of Sapphira and the Slave Girl (discussed in Playing in the Dark) that provoked recent explorations into Cather's political as well as aesthetic strategies.
    In what follows, I shall attempt to throw light on the relationship of Faulkner to Cather, specifically focusing on Light in August (1932) as a creative response to Cather's major texts, and My Ántonia (1918) in particular. In doing so, I wish to raise a previously unexplored question about the two writers' Mexican representations. The question opens up new possibilities whereby the so-called American South, ideologically confined and aesthetically consecrated, may be reconsidered in its transcultural or boundary-breaking dimensions. Our understanding of Faulkner's deep insight into the local does not, or should not, undermine his global, transnational imagination. One must reconfigure Faulkner's Latin America, as well as Latin America's Faulkner, especially when viewed in light of Haiti's geopolitical importance in Absalom, Absalom!, coupled with Gabriel García Márquez's remark that "[Faulkner's] world is that of the Gulf of Mexico" (Guibert 327). A casual glance at the concordance to Faulkner's fiction shows that the words "Mexico" and "Mexican" appear in more than a dozen of his works and that Light in August contains by far the most frequent reference to this crucial country and its inhabitants. Of course, it may safely be said that the novel's protagonist, Joe Christmas, suffers from an identity crisis, not knowing exactly who he is or where he belongs. But it does not follow that one may detect any kind of racial identity in the tragic hero; his possible non-white origin is clearly specified in the novel as either African American or Mexican. Critics, then, cannot address the novel's central question without considering why it is Mexico -- of all countries -- that provides a backdrop against which Christmas's deepest secret reveals itself.

II. Mexican Connections: Cather's Case

    Pertinent here is "the enormous vogue of things Mexican," to borrow the title phrase of a critical study by Helen Delpar, who traces the close cultural ties between the United States and Mexico that developed from 1920 to 1935. The phrase is taken from an article that appeared in New York Times in 1933, but it was not uncommon even in the 1920s to say: "a Mexican 'invasion' [i]s under way" (Delpar vii). In fact, the apparently innocent word "invasion" may prove to be a politically loaded term, an expression of psychic projection deeply rooted in the collective unconscious of the United States in the turbulent age of modernisms.
    After World War I, the economically rising United States displayed an increasing interest in its neighbor country, an interest heightened by the northward movement of a substantial Mexican population. In the 1910s, according to Delpar, "nearly nine hundred thousand immigrants and 'temporary' migrants crossed the border, along with uncounted thousands of refugees" (1). Giving due attention to the subsequent "Mexican renaissance in literature and painting, which began to flower in the 1920s" (Robinson 78), another scholar offers a tentative list of those U.S. writers and poets who have "seriously" dealt with Mexican themes, including "Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Robinson Jeffers, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter" (88), and many more. Fascinated by the New Continent, even the British writer D. H. Lawrence -- by virtue of his own experience in Mexico -- published The Plumed Serpent(1926) at the height of the Mexican invasion/renaissance.
    Behind such a cultural craze was a kind of romantic primitivism, an irresistible longing for the land of ancient history and beautiful nature, as opposed to the nation precipitated into the inexorable process of urbanization and mechanization. Also relevant here is a fantasy of sexual excesses, which has been often associated with Catholicism and dissociated from puritanical restrictions. However, the Mexican invasion may and should be taken as a vital part of American Modernism, especially since it involves an ironical paradox that romantic desires coexist with historicized fears. It is a paradox, one might say, of the tension between eternity (as in Faulkner's favorite vision of Keats's Grecian urn) and merciless temporality. The tension, moreover, appears to be inseparable from racial and/or gender anxieties on the part of white Americans. As a case in point, then, we shall briefly examine Cather's crucial engagement with such issues. Mexican representations in her major works offer, I argue, a frame of reference in which to situate Faulkner's creative dialogue with his own fictional characters, as well as his intertextual transactions with the author of My Ántonia.
    In the midst of the Mexican Revolution, Cather wrote O Pioneers! (1913), a novel looking back on the late nineteenth century. At one point, the novel foregrounds a letter sent from Emil, the heroine's youngest brother. He stays in Mexico City, trying to forget his unforgettable Marie, a married woman in his Midwest hometown. The letter highlights "the gay life in the old Mexican capital in the days when the strong hand of Porfirio Diaz was still strong." Before the Revolution broke out, Diaz was a symbolic figure of vigor and virility, embodying the colorful Mexican scenes of "bull-fights and cock-fights, churches and fiestas" (115). Since the letter prefigures Emil's tragic passion for Marie, Mexican associations here serve as a sign of sexual potency, a dangerous and yet alluring locus of love and death. One may note in this connection that Kate Chopin's The Awakening, of which Cather wrote a highly ambivalent review, builds a plot in which Edna's illicit lover leaves for Mexico -- an episode leading to the bold heroine's empowering, albeit suicidal, plunge into the Gulf of Mexico at the very end of the novel.
    The sexually loaded image of Diaz's virile country, however, conceals a paradoxical fact of "feminization," a history of economic and political exploitation that transgresses the national border. Diaz, we are told, once deplored: "Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States!" (Delpar 2). In Cather's work, Mexicans as an exploited group of people in the capitalist economy find their vivid, though peripheral, expression in A Lost Lady (1923). To glorify Captain Forrester (the novel's legendary hero who once built railroads and ran his bank), one white Southerner recounts how the Captain helped those poor Mexicans who, "looking scared to death" (91-92), kept on calling his name in front of the bank, as if "the only English word they knew was 'Forrester.'" Ironically, though, the Southerner who glorifies the Captain's virtue as a businessman betrays his racial prejudice against black people: "I think I've lived too long! In my day the difference between a business man and a scoundrel was bigger than the difference between a white man and a nigger"(92). His way of thinking shows that the marginalized/feminized Mexicans, when viewed in light of the white ideology, may serve as a safely displaced African American presence, an ambivalently reimagined racial other.
    The gendered history of U.S.-Mexican relations, moreover, informs the religious universe of Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Despite their European origin, Father Latour and other missionaries "look like American traders" (35), a tacit reminder of the uncanny connection between their Catholic mission and the (neo)colonialist impulse prevalent in mid-nineteenth century America. Cather's story begins in 1848, namely, "a pivotal year in the territorial expansion of the United States" (Urgo, Willa Cather 172): a year that marked the U.S. victory in the Mexican War. Contrasted with the masculine vigor of Diaz-like Mexicans such as Padre Martinez, Father Latour's serenity and sophistication do seem to reveal "feminine" sensibilities; but even so, Latour remains a powerful leader/ruler in terms of his politics of religion. At the same time, though, his dominant position appears to engender in him a paradoxically masochistic desire for surrender or self-shattering. Intriguingly, he is "glad" about the idea that the Christian skill of founding silver bells -- historically passed on from the Spaniards via the Mexicans to the Navajos -- is derived, ultimately, "from the Moors" (Cather, Death 45). As if to lift the burden of whiteness from his subconsciousness, Latour here attempts to subvert the relation between ruler and ruled, or between Western assumptions and African associations. Cather's Mexican imaginings are inseparable, then, from typically Southern preoccupations with race, gender, and religion.

III. From My Ántonia to Light in August

    As far as the record shows, Faulkner referred to Cather as a great writer at least on five occasions in his lifetime.5 One of them occurred in 1932, when he was introduced to Clark Gable. In answer to the movie actor's question as to contemporary writers whom Faulkner found important, the author named Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, and John Dos Passos, as well as himself (Blotner 787). Important notice should be given to the fact that the year 1932 -- in which this conversation took place and Faulkner chose Cather as the only important female writer of his time -- saw the publication of Light in August, a novel most compellingly defined, as we shall see, by Faulkner's refashioning of Catherian themes in their geopolitical (as well as racial, sexual, and religious) implications.
    First and foremost, it is important to observe that Light in August begins and ends with Lena's movement. Vital, moreover, is the westward course (from Alabama to Mississippi) in which her wagon proceeds at the opening of the novel. Even though the pregnant heroine moves forward within the limited sphere of the South, her dynamic vector symbolically reenacts the Westward Movement, especially since she takes pride in the fact that she has traveled "a fur piece" (Faulkner 3), as if to embody the nineteenth-century frontier spirit, an American belief in mobility, freedom, and self-reliance. In fact, Lena's mobile life started when she was twelve, following the death of her parents. True to her life-style as a pathfinder, Lena first moved to a mill, an emblematic site of pioneering activities. Faulkner's description, however, suggests that the act of exploiting the woods can be destructive rather than productive:

[Lena's] brother worked in the mill. All the men in the village worked in the mill or for it. It was cutting pine. It had been there seven years and in seven years more it would destroy all the timber within its reach. Then some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away. (4)

Not unlike voracious locusts, men and machines migrate through the woods, "destroy[ing]" nature. Violently and without ecological considerations, they cut down all the trees along the way, leaving wasteland behind them. In this context, Lena's last name, Grove, reveals an illuminating irony. Despite her apparently hopeful association with "light," Lena's determined will to move on seems to cast a dark shadow on the aggressive history of American pioneers.
    Of course, Lena's Western associations, which create her image as a self-reliant frontierswoman, do not belong exclusively to Faulkner's fictional universe. In the literary history of the Unites States, such a woman has been invented, so to speak, by Cather's earlier masterpieces. In particular, My Ántonia offers through its heroine's characterization a prototype for Faulkner's Lena as an Earth Mother. What is more, the same fate attends Cather's Ántonia and Faulkner's Lena, both of whom courageously survive their ordeals after being impregnated and deserted by a man. What supports and complicates this parallelism, however, is the fact that Cather's novel pairs its heroine with a contrasting character by the name of Lena. As self-reliant as Ántonia, she succeeds in life, not by committing herself to the soil, but by engaging in urban commercial pursuits, thereby calling attention to the expansion of capitalism in the pioneer West, a phenomenon made obscure by the novel's obvious glorification of agrarian memories. Significantly, Lena Lingard is a graceful belle, endowed with "Southern voices," not to mention "good looks and gentle manners" (My Ántonia 284). It is no wonder that Cather's text almost always inscribes the recollections of its author's earliest life in Virginia. If Lena in Light in August illuminates the transferred West as she journeys through the South, Lena (as depicted by Cather's narrator from Virginia) in My Ántonia subtly evokes the displaced South in the novel's Western setting.
    In fact, Cather's Southern imagination goes beyond the national border, entering Mexico once again. One detail of My Ántonia, though casual in itself, proves the crux of the novel's design when considered in light of Cather's geopolitics. According to Ántonia's words (retold by Mrs. Steavens), Larry Donovan, a train conductor who has left her with a fatherless child, seems to have "gone to Old Mexico" (312), planning to "get rich down there, collecting half-fares off the natives and robbing the company" (312-13). The telling of this story provides a crucial moment in which the repressed aggression of Western pioneers comes to the fore, disclosing their unspoken violence, strongly associated with the extension of railroads and its destruction of Native American communities. The fact that Ántonia is victimized by a white man who preys upon non-white people suggests that the seemingly innocent pioneer woman deserves retribution for her historical -- if simply domestic -- invasion of the land which belonged to the Other.
    In the novel's opening scene, the brutality of the West is subtly implied by a book on the "Life of Jesse James," which Cather's narrator reads in the westward train and considers "one of the most satisfactory books [he has] ever read" (4). Unlike some other Western heroes such as Davy Crockett, however, Jesse James never committed murder across racial lines; Cather, then, shies away from naming the ultimate brutality of the pioneer West. But even so, the fact remains that Cather -- or Faulkner, for that matter -- witnessed the very period in which the dime novel was transformed into the Western on the silver screen: a new cultural strategy for constructing white manhood, a strategy that hinges on the lowly, brutal creation of Mexican as well as Native American stereotypes. It is no wonder that the Mexican government of the day imposed a ban on insulting films from the States. Accordingly, to restore precious international markets, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America gave a pledge in 1922 "that it would avoid the production of films that might be offensive to Mexico and would subject existing films to 'strict censorship' to excise all references to Mexico" (Delpar 170).
    It is reasonable to suppose that Faulkner, as well as Cather, was familiar with the cultural violence of the United States against Mexico, especially since Faulkner had an active interest in his contemporary movie culture, an interest set in motion by his encounter with Clark Gable and by his own Hollywood experience in the 1930s. Returning to Light in August, one may notice that Faulkner's Mexican connections are inscribed in Joanna Burden's ominous family history, a chronicle beginning from New England to a broader realm of transnational America. The family's sadistic violence is most glaringly exemplified by Joanna's father, Nathaniel Burden, who once "killed a Mexican that claimed he stole his horse" (Faulkner 244), just as Joanna's grandfather, Calvin Burden, "killed a man in an argument over slavery" (242). In this light, one could argue that Calvin combines the aggressive pioneer's westward vector with a southward, expansionist/neocolonialist one, for he began his life by traveling from the North to the West Coast -- not by land, but by sea -- all the way "around the Horn" (241), as if to enclose and absorb the whole of Latin America.
    The transgressive continuity from Calvin to Nathaniel is underlined by the fact that the former -- who became Catholic in California and then Protestant after he left there -- used to recite the Spanish Bible to his son, "interspersing the fine, sonorous flowing of mysticism in a foreign tongue with harsh, extemporised dissertations"(242). Furthermore, the strange spell of Catholicism in the Burdens manifests itself in what seems to Joe Christmas "the prints of [Joanna's] knees," an inscrutable sign of her kneeling prayer, from which he has to "jerk his eyes away as if it were death that they had looked at" (279). In fact, Christmas as a young child resembles "a Catholic choir boy" when he receives the catechism from his almost sadistic foster father and stands "erect" with "exaltation"(150). Along with her involvement with Christmas, then, Joanna's familial memory -- tracing back to Calvin, her ironically named once-Catholic grandfather -- destabilizes the distinctions between Catholicism and Calvinism, or between Mexican mysticism and American asceticism.
    Of course, Joanna's boundary-breaking quality should also be considered in terms of gender and sexuality, especially if we are to understand the subversive nature of her relationship to Joe Christmas. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that Joanna Burden shares the same initials as well as the same last name with Jim Burden, the sexually problematic narrator of Cather's My Ántonia. As an autobiographical double of the lesbian author who moved from the South to the Midwest, Jim Burden reveals "feminine" sensibilities in his relationship to the "strong" heroine, whereas Joanna Burden shows her "masculine" traits when juxtaposed with the "soft" hero suffering from an acute emotional pain. Similar to Jim and Ántonia, then, Joanna and Joe are sexually interchangeable, as is symbolized by their resonant first names with a common androgynous signifier Jo. By a strange fate, moreover, Joe Christmas lives with a man who calls himself Joe Brown; on one occasion, the former is suggestively referred to as the latter's "husband" (321). Complicated by this queer triangle, the sadomasochistic relation between Joanna and Christmas calls into question the difference between man and woman, or between the one who asserts control and the one who gets controlled.
    In a sense, the problem of sexual transgression elucidates the tragedy of Faulkner's hero, whose murder is capped by the fate of castration at the hands of Percy Grimm. However, it is important to emphasize that Grimm's masculinist ideology is intertwined with the idea of nationalism. One should not easily argue that Grimm is a white supremacist, a characteristic Southerner. In fact, he is not so much a provincial racist as a chauvinistic patriot, for he believes "that the American is superior to all other white races and that the American uniform is superior to all men" (451). Primarily, his quarrel is with those who do not belong to or believe in the nation. Therefore, the novel's symbolic design foregrounds Christmas's alienness in addition to his blackness. Significantly, the hero undertakes a journey "as far south as Mexico and then back north to Chicago and Detroit and then back south again and at last to Mississippi" (224), vacillating between different countries as well as between different racial identities. Moreover, Christmas first appears in the novel as a stranger whose queer name elicits a vague suspicion that he could be "a foreigner" (33), thereby calling attention to his ambiguities that revolve around nationality as well as race. In other words, if he is a scapegoat, it is not only because he is victimized by the white man's sin, but also because he is meant to atone for the American habit of excluding alien presences. Although Light in August highlights its hero's possible black blood rather than his probable Mexican origin, the question of Christmas's national identity is at the core of the novel because of its very marginality. According to the credible words of Christmas's own mother, the hero was born of a Mexican father, and yet Doc Hines almost groundlessly assumes that the father must be a black man. That is because African Americans constitute a "major" minority group in Yoknapatawpha County, whereas Mexicans remain a "minor" group of foreign people and they even fail to be identified as such. If hate is ultimately synonymous with love in Faulkner's idiosyncratic representation of the South, Mexico can be a locus of his deepest tragedy, the invisible center of flagrant forgetfulness.
    In conclusion, it is appropriate to quote the words of Katherine Anne Porter, a native Texan, who addresses the questions of Mexicans and/as Americans by saying that "[her] America has been a borderland of strange tongues and commingled races" (Porter 356). In her view, Mexican memories constitute a quintessential definer of what she thinks of as Americanness, for she is fully aware that the meaning of the self is always dependent on the other. If Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark is right in arguing that the literary presence of African Americans is essential, not ornamental, to the white imagination, the same can -- or must -- be said of Mexican representations, without which the national identity of white Americans cannot define itself. And that is true especially for those who come from the South, the land bordering the country that the United States internalizes as its necessary outside. Highlighting the geopolitical dialectics between Lena and Burden, the remarkable namesakes of Cather's main characters in My Ántonia, Faulkner's Light in August reveals, contrary to common belief, that the South is not a closed universe within the United States, but a disruptive site of transnational negotiations, ineluctably bound to the larger myth and history of the New Continent.


1 Besides a number of journal articles, the 1990s saw the publication of two book-length studies on Faulkner and Morrison. See Weinstein's racial reading of the two writers, as well as a diversified collection of essays edited by Kolmerten, Ross, and Wittenberg.
2 Virtually, Emily Bronte is the only female writer that criticism has thus far acknowledged as a possible inspiration to Faulkner. For this emphasis, see Rodewald, whose essay draws on and reinforces Michael Millgate's earlier suggestion as to Faulkner's Gothic re-creation of Wuthering Heights in Absalom, Absalom!
3 For instance, Harold Bloom tersely wrote in the 1980s that "Willa Cather, though now somewhat neglected, has few rivals among the American novelists of this century" and that he could "only think of Faulkner as Cather's match"(1). See also Joseph Urgo's Novel Frames, which gives simultaneous attention to Cather and Faulkner.
4 Skaggs elucidates Faulkner's use of Cather's The Professor's House (1925) in Mosquitoes (1927), suggesting that "Faulkner began his fiction-writing career by extensively imitating and lifting from Cather's work, and she ended hers by acknowledging and answering him" ("Thefts" 115). Relevant to my argument, moreover, is Skaggs's attention to The Sound and the Fury (1929) as a refiguration of Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), especially since she points out Mexican associations that Dilsey's cabin and Latour's study have in common ("Willa" 91).
5 These occasions occurred in 1926 (Blotner 496), 1932 (Blotner 787), 1947 (Meriwether and Millgate 58), 1955 (Meriwether and Millgate 168), and 1957 (Gwynn and Blotner 202), covering a period of more than thirty years and attesting to Faulkner's lifelong interest in Cather.


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-----. A Lost Lady. 1923; New York: Vintage, 1972.
-----. My Ántonia. 1918; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
-----. O Pioneers! 1913; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
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Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. "Thefts and Conversation: Cather and Faulkner." Cather Studies, Volume 3. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996. 115-36.
-----. "Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury." Faulkner Journal 13.1-2 (1997-1998): 89-99.
Urgo, Joseph R. Novel Frames: Literature as Guide to Race, Sex, and History in American Culture. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.
-----. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1995.
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