The United States has produced many great women poets, beginning with Emily Dickinson, whose extraordinary example may be responsible for their inventiveness and freedom. It has not produced great women novelists in the same way. The only two I am sure about are Willa Cather and Toni Morrison. Edith Wharton seems to be at the very front of the second rank. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a great force, and had genius, but her art was clumped and intermittent. Cather, like Dickinson, forged a style, an art, and a subject matter out of precise observation, wide reading, and idiosyncratic certainty. Like Dickinson, she had a perfect ear, and made new rhythms for American-English prose. Unlike Dickinson, she has had neither a wide influence nor a place in histories of American literature commensurate to her power.
In her lifetime she sold many books, and was admired by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. She does not fit the theses of the theorizers of American literature—Richard Chase and Leslie Fiedler do not mention her, and Malcolm Bradbury, despite writing in a time of feminist criticism, omitted her from his comprehensive study.
Feminist criticism, indeed, might have been expected to treat Cather’s subtle art with the respect it deserves. I myself discovered her through reading Ellen Moers’s Literary Women and subsequently wrote prefaces to the British Virago reprints of her work, finding with each book that rare experience of hearing a completely new voice, discovering completely new subject matter. Part of Cather’s problem for readers is that she transfigures the ordinary, and a reader needs to be vigilant—and quiet and receptive—to take in the transfiguration. Anyone who has tried to write can recognize the pared-down elegance, the economical savagery, the sudden unexpectedness of those extraordinary sentences—and not only sentences, paragraphs—that brush the banal and annihilate it. Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Rebecca West, and Wallace Stevens heard her voice and wrote appreciatively about her. Yet, as Joan Acocella shows in her recent book Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, Cather’s work has been ludicrously misrepresented and misused by modern critics, even when they appear to approve or admire it.
Acocella’s book is brief—ninety-four pages of text—and it shines with exemplary good sense. It is a history of the successive phases of Cather’s reception. In her own time, her early novels about poor farmers in Nebraska were praised as affirmative pastoral, full of “elemental vision.” Most Americans I meet still see Cather as the author of My Antonia (1918) exclusively, and appear to have read the book at school as a study of rural life. In the 1920s, as Acocella shows, Cather became unpopular with the critics of the left, because she wrote neither grimly realist novels of urban disillusion nor stream-of-consciousness modernist studies of the …