Shadows on the Rock Background

Shadows on the Rock Background

Shadows on the Rock is a 1931 novel by Willa Cather. The “rock” of the title is Quebec City which becomes the setting for a tale of some of the earliest French settlers in the New World. The novel really does not have much of a plot per se and instead a concentrated portrait of the pioneer spirits which so fascinating Cather. Instead of life on the American frontier, however, these pioneers are engaged in a the eternal struggler of settlers to retain their European culture and manners while in the middle of 17th century Canadian wilderness.

Although readers snatched up the tale in numbers large enough to make it another best-seller for Cather, reviewers were not as enthralled. In addition to criticism that the novel was narratively weak, Cather was also accused of indulging in escapism. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake was perhaps the cardinal sin that a serious writer of fiction could commit as the Great Depression began to tighten its grip. Such lighthearted fare was better left to the movies was the thinking of the day; serious artistic endeavor needed to flex its intellectual muscle in pursuit of political agendas and social critiques. To many, the story Cather chose to follow upon the exceedingly serious-minded Death Comes for the Archbishop seemed like a definite step backward.

So antagonistically was Shadows on the Rock received by the intellectual elite, in fact, that just two years after its appearance that Granville Hicks—arguably the most influent Marxist literary critic in America—was moved to write an essay titled “The Case Against Willa Cather.”

Time has passed, emotions have drifted back to the normal and the case has been settled: Willa Cather is regarded as one of the heavyweight of American fiction. The same cannot be said for Shadows on the Rock, though it is slowly making its way through the process of revisionist reappraisal. Although still not widely considered among her more important novels, more and more voices are being raised in the wilderness supporting the contention that it may well be her most underestimated and misunderstood.

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