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Justice for Willa Cather

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.1 She does not appear—though she might have done—in Hugh Kenner’s study of early American modernism, A Homemade World.2

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 Women3 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 self. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her war novel, One of Ours—which was, as Acocella says, “a good novel and a bad novel in one”—a good Nebraska novel, an uncertain novel about the war in France. It earned sneers from Edmund Wilson, and caused H.L. Mencken, previously an admirer, to call her “a standard model of lady novelist” writing “oceans of romance and blather.” The right and the common reader delighted in the book, which became a best seller.

What Acocella calls “Cather’s great middle period, her tragic period” followed, with A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925), and My Mortal Enemy (1926). A Lost Lady is a young man’s account of his admiration for the beautiful and mysterious wife of a railway magnate, and her decay into drink and poverty. The Professor’s House deals with the loss of love in the family of an eminent historian, after his protégé and student, Tom Outland, dies in the war. My Mortal Enemy, again, tells, through the eyes of an admiring younger woman, the tale of Myra Henshawe, who elopes to make a romantic marriage, and dies hating her husband, her “mortal enemy.” All these three novels are compressed and brief. All these are grim, hermetic masterpieces. They are about the decay of hope and the decay of life itself, but written with a chiseled certainty of understanding that is a form of energy, which is why they are—as tragedy should be—invigorating, not depressing.

Acocella is a sure-witted judge of books—she says that Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is “the most perfect piece of writing Cather ever did” (and with the most surprising subject matter of a great American novel—a French bishop’s single-minded passion for re-creating the architecture of a French cathedral in the American desert). But—and I agree with her—she sees The Professor’s House as “her most profound book” and “terrifying.” In it Cather’s professor loses, quietly and ineluctably, his love for his family and his interest in his historical work. Cather’s account is terrifying because it is dry and matter-of-fact. To this state of inert failure we all come, she implies, sooner or later.

Acocella collects critical misunderstandings. “A charming sketch [Edmund] Wilson called this dark book” (A Lost Lady). She collects mild insults: “A spinster schoolteacher.” “The Lady as Novelist.” “Second Best.” “The Modest Method of Willa Cather.” In the 1930s, during the Depression, Cather’s work was attacked by a generation of Marxists, or leftists (Lionel Trilling, Granville Hicks), for being a “petty bourgeois” retreat into “supine romanticism.”

As Acocella acutely says, Cather was not only the wrong sex in the 1930s and 1940s, she was the wrong age. She herself wrote a somewhat irritated and irritating collection of essays entitled Not Under Forty, in which she claimed that the world “broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” and that the young cannot understand those who were alive earlier. She became reclusive and reticent. Born in 1873, she was, Acocella says, old enough to be the mother of Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. “They grew up in the twentieth century, she in the nineteenth.” But, Acocella argues, she could never be mis-taken for a nineteenth-century writer. “Her austere style is part of modernist classicism; her tragic vision, part of modernist pessimism.” Understanding of this essential point is occluded both by the dismissal of the left and by the equally misleading pious admiration of the right, who admired her for a timeless pastoral idealism, and ignored the dark “problem” works.

It might be thought that the coming of the new feminism, and literary feminism as an aspect of it, might have led to a deeper reading of Cather—might have led to a greater attention to what she wrote and how she wrote it. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism traces, with patience, a sense of shock, and humor, a tale of farcical misrepresentation, of the fabrication, from biographical speculation, and feminist and “queer” and multicultural theory, of a kind of gesticulating scarecrow, a Woman Writer, made up of the tatters of shredded texts with a wind of disapproval howling through the gaps.

Acocella’s case is well argued and illustrated, as she goes on to describe the stages of recent political criticism of Cather. First the impulse to include her in the “female canon” of the 1970s and 1980s. The desire to rediscover neglected good women writers was an excellent one, but, Acocella says, it included the need to find exemplary feminist incidents and views in both their lives and their work. Cather didn’t fit—she has male narrators, she attacked the icon Kate Chopin, her models were Virgil, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Henry James. While she met and was much influenced by Sarah Orne Jewett, who suggested that she turn to what she knew, Nebraska, she did not see herself as a “woman novelist.”

Feminist critics who didn’t castigate Cather for not creating positive images of women diligently set about showing that her male narrators were “unreliable” and their devotion to classical learning “a faulty literary vision.” The feminist critic Elizabeth Ammons congratulates Cather on her “subtle exposure” of Jim Burden’s attempt in My &#193ntonia to “take over and rewrite a strong, threatening woman’s story in terms that suit his own image of her.” Acocella points out that (as the admirable coeditor of The Art of Willa Cather, Bernice Slote, has also demonstrated4 ) Jim Burden’s classicism and romanticism are Cather’s own. Indeed, Jim Burden’s childhood experience of arriving in the vast empty prairie, his terror and wonder, are also Cather’s own. Burden tells the story of &#193ntonia, the hired girl, and of the other European immigrants and their hard lives, from Cather’s own point of view, that of an educated person, at once rooted in Nebraska and passionately interested in European culture.

Acocella is particularly dismissive of the criticism that centers around the idea of Cather as a lesbian woman and a lesbian writer. Cather shared a house with Edith Lewis, who wrote an excellent short memoir of her, Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record,5 and she was devoted to a young woman she met in Pittsburgh, Isabelle McClung. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, and her familywelcomed Cather, who had a sewing room in their house set aside for her to write in. Isabelle’s unexpected marriage at the age of thirty-eight shocked and shook her. She herself never married. She had a phase as a student of calling herself William Cather, wearing trousers and cropping her hair—Acocella points out that “male identification” is frowned on in current feminist politics, and remarks mildly that Cather’s rebellion may have had something to do with Jo and her cropped head in Little Women.

There is no evidence of what Cather’s sex life, if she had one, was like. There is an excess of evidence that she did not wish her private life to be scrutinized. Her letters are embargoed in perpetuity. She burned as many as she could, and what are left may not be quoted. Her biographer, Sharon O’Brien, has made a great deal of a phrase in Cather’s essay “The Novel Démeublé” about the “thing not named” in a suggestive work of art.6 O’Brien associates this phrase with Oscar Wilde’s “Love that dares not speak its name” and identifies it as lesbianism. O’Brien, following the modern trend for critics to be both biographer and autobiographer, has written of her connection with Cather as enabling her own lesbianism, and freeing O’Brien herself from the influence of “powerful women.”7

Acocella is cautious about biographical inventions that go beyond the evidence, and rightly tries to rescue the phrase “the thing not named” for the modernist/symbolist aesthetic in which its author placed it. But she is distressed by the burgeoning of criticism that accuses Cather of “concealing” and that criticizes the absence of mention of lesbianism, or conflict about women in her work:

What before had seemed a surface of polished marble was now judged to be full of “gaps” and “fissures.” Didn’t Cather sometimes skip whole decades in her narrative? Didn’t she sometimes interpolate long subtales into her main tale? What caused these strange disjunctures? What was hiding in these gaps? Clearly, it was either lesbianism or, more generally, some conflict about women. So Cather, who had thought to leave behind the subject of gender, was taken in hand and firmly led back to it.

  1. 1

    Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Doubleday, 1957); Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Criterion, 1960); Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel (Oxford University Press, 1983).

  2. 2

    A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (Knopf, 1975).

  3. 3

    Doubleday, 1976.

  4. 4

    The Art of Willa Cather, edited by Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner(University of Nebraska Press, 1974).

  5. 5

    Ohio University Press, 1989; republished in paperback by Bison Books, 2000.

  6. 6

    See Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (1987; reissued by Harvard University Press, 1997).

  7. 7

    Sharon O’Brien, “My Willa Cather: How Writing Her Story Shaped My Own,” The New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994.

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