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Justice for Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Willa Cather; drawing by David Levine

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.

Many critics have applied psychoanalytic theory to Cather’s work. Much use has been made of Nancy Chodorow’s belief that women fear identification with women and with the female. These theories, applied to the elegant, wrought texts like hot plasters or instruments of torture, can always isolate what they are looking for:

When almost half the novels turn out to have male protagonists, that’s because [Cather] has “to place the barrier of gender” between herself and the maternal presences in her fiction. If something doesn’t fit, it’s fixed. When a story involving the death of a woman ends with a vision of the woman’s infant son, he is whisked off into a footnote where his presence is explained as a function of “Christian ideology” (Christ child). O’Brien’s discussion of the story ends with an earlier scene, a vision of the heroine’s daughter, wearing her mother’s hat, which symbolizes a “matrilineal heritage of creativity.”

Acocella is judicious. She is funny about the contemporary tendency to find, like Mr. Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm, a phallic symbol in every upright object, a maternal presence in every plowed field and all water. She notes the passage in Ellen Moers’s book in which a canyon in The Song of the Lark (1915) is described as “the most thoroughly elaborated female landscape in literature.” In other words, says Acocella, a crotch. And she says exactly what I thought at the time—it does sound a little like a crotch, though it sounds a lot more like a canyon. Thea Kronborg, the singer-artist-heroine of The Song of the Lark, discovering the beautiful pots of the long-dead mesa women, does indeed think of the pots as female containers of air and art, and likens them to her own body. The moment is beautiful. Cather wants us to connect the female art of pottery, the container filled with air, and Thea, and we do. But, as with the canyon, what needs emphasizing now is the observed reality of the pots, a natural symbol. They are not seen as being within a symbolic network like a string shopping bag around bulging shopping. They have their own graceful form.

Acocella deconstructs the deconstructionist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s analysis of the word “Berengaria,” from the last sentence of The Professor’s House, which Sedgwick defines as a “nonsense word,” as a collection of little anagrams which are gestures of rebellion against heterosexism: “Berengaria, ship of women: the {green} {aria}, the {eager} {brain}, then {bearing} and the {bairn}, the {raring} {engine}”…and so on and on. Acocella remarks that the Berengaria was a real ship, on which Cather really sailed—though she does not say that the professor, a historian of exploration, stages an elaborate charade with his two sons-in-law as Richard Coeur de Lion (Berengaria was his wife’s name) and Saladin. These references connect to Cather’s ideas of crusaders, explorers, and women and families left behind, set out in an essay she wrote as a student in which she compares the crusaders to the artist—both have given up domestic life to be alone in the desert with “Death and the Truth.” Real meaning is available to modest scholarly curiosity, without the need for meaningless puns. In any event, Cather was much more interested in death than in sex, and death is not a metaphor for sex in her work.

If Cather the novelist is not the conflicted or reconciled lesbian of the critics, what should we be looking at? She wrote about men and women whose dedication to their art, or later to their religion, disabled them for ordinary human relations. Acocella says her real subject was “the great subject of early twentieth-century literature, the gulf between the mind and the world.” We could add that she wrote about the subject of Ecclesiastes, the rising and setting of the sun, the brevity of life, the relation between dailiness and the rupture of dailiness, the moment when “desire shall fail.” Acocella sees a natural break from the idealism of her youth, in the tragic grimness of her middle “problem” novels, The Professor’s House, A Lost Lady, and My Mortal Enemy, and the slow tempo of the “religious” novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock (1931). She sees the early, hopeful The Song of the Lark as a novel about the vocation of a woman artist. It does not end in despair. Its heroine, Thea Kronborg, from Moonstone, Cather’s fictive version of Red Cloud, becomes a great opera singer, the heroine, as Acocella points out, of the “first completely serious female Künstlerroman.” It is the only novel of hers that constantly and steadily brushes a sentimental as opposed to a grim romanticism, evading it perhaps because Cather cut the book ruthlessly when it was reissued, removing nearly a tenth of the original text, particularly scenes about Thea’s success.

One of the virtues of Cather’s writing that I notice all the time and find hard to describe is the distance at which she stands from her text. More than any other novelist she see her people’s lives as whole and finished—they feel stress and passion, they discover and lose, but they are bounded by birth and death, by nothing and nothing, and they move between the two, adjusting their consciousnesses as they go. Cather said she took the title of Death Comes for the Archbishop from Holbein’s Dance of Death and she more than once expressed a wish to make works of art with the simplicity of frescoes. The painter she particularly referred to was Puvis de Chavannes:

I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of St Geneviève in my student days, I have wished that I could try something like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt on than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note—not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.

Edith Lewis recorded Cather’s comparison of her own fluid, unaccented prose and narrative structure to the landscape of the prairie, which she seems to have remembered with both delight and terror: “The land has no sculptured lines or features. The soil is soft, light, fluent, black, for the grass of the plains creates this type of soil as it decays.” The sentence is pure Cather—the sensuous yet abstracted adjectives, the color (black), the life of the grass, and the continuity between “creates” and “soil” and “decays.” This vision is behind the professor of The Professor’s House quoting Longfellow:

For thee a house was built
Ere thou wast born;
For thee a mould was made
Ere thou of woman camest.

Everything in Cather is contained in this steady vision of light, fluent decay—the suicide of a tramp by jumping into a threshing machine, &#193ntonia’s father’s suicide with its frozen blood and boots carefully laid out to avoid staining, the paradisal orchard murder of the two young lovers, Emil and Marc, by the jealous husband in O Pioneers (1913), the frontier brutalities in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. There is a nasty death from snakebite in The Professor’s House and a revolting and chilling moment when Ivy Peters puts out the eyes of a woodpecker in A Lost Lady.

Van Gogh said that Puvis de Chavannes’s work represented a “strange and providential meeting of very far-off antiquities and crude modernity.” Cather’s classicism, her fresco-like structures, and her violence represent the same collision. They bear some relation to the American modernism of William Carlos Williams, with his creed of “no ideas but in things,” his simply stated red wheelbarrow, and his anthology of the Western discovery of America, In the American Grain, with its patchwork of voices of the dead who struggled to describe what had not been described in the language they spoke and wrote. One of the best tributes I know to the art of Willa Cather is the work of Alice Munro, who has learned to depict whole lives from a distance in the same strangely unworked-up and unaccented way, while also making it entirely new, as her landscape and moeurs are new.

Such an art—pared down, precisely selective, wrought—is peculiarly vulnerable to excessive and violating biographical interpolations and distortions. There are novelists whose lives and works illuminate each other and are interdependent—Fitzgerald’s Crackup and his life with Zelda illuminate everything, except the formal perfection of Gatsby. I suspect that Cather was a writer who could not work until her people had detached themselves from any “original” and lived their own lives, in which those objects and incidents she selected shone like lights. I think that My &#193ntonia is less satisfactory for me than O Pioneers partly because the real &#193ntonia and her fate, her marriage and nine children, as discussed by biographers and critics, distract attention from Cather’s created &#193ntonia, and confuse our response. Whereas Alexandra puzzled the early critics because she wasn’t exactly the “right” kind of “heroine” or “ideal vision” of what fits perfectly into her world of life and decay and death. “Her mind was slow, truthful, steadfast. She had not the least spark of cleverness.” What a brave word the Bunyanesque “steadfast” is in that context—a description of Alexandra sitting in a chair reading the Swedish Bible. So, too, the later, historical, religious novels about real people succeed because of the way in which Cather has abstracted, isolated, and arranged objects and incidents—especially the gardens and herbs brought and made by the Europeans, the churches and the older stones around them.

Shadows on the Rock turns on a contrast between the fluid shadows and mists and light flowing over the solid rock of Quebec and the colored light trapped in a bowl of glass fruits. The bowl, a pot of parsley protected from the rigors of winter, and the stones (and the flesh and blood) are simple things seen from a distance. Both the bowl of artificial fruit and the pot of living parsley are fragments of European civilization loved and cared for by the settlers in their harsh surroundings. Both are beautifully shown by Cather as visible objects, unforgettable once imagined by the reader. But they are diminished when they are interpreted as sexual symbols, as the people are diminished and flattened by being given the referential life of “originals” from Cather’s own life. Biographical critics undo the artist’s work, and may kill the life of the art. I do not think Cather protected her privacy so violently because she feared Sharon O’Brien. I doubt if she could have imagined her or the language she uses.

Sharon O’Brien is anxious, in her introduction to her reissued biography, that she didn’t sufficiently castigate Cather for saying that the Nebraska plains were previously unseen, empty, and unbuilt-on. What about Native Americans, she asks—a reasonable question, but in the wrong place, and insensitive, for Cather knew that people had been on the American continent, had made buildings and pots, had worshiped and died, and had been exploited. She wrote about villains like Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady, who is shown making shady money by exploiting land deals on the Indian reservations. It is unimaginative and surely pointless to accuse Cather—or most of her generation—of not standing up for gay rights, or equal opportunities, or multiculturalism, or anti-imperialism. It is possibly because I am living through it that I feel that the fanciful partisan misdescriptions of the 1970s and 1980s are more dangerous to real literature, more dangerous to accurate and careful—even to meaningful—thought, than the errors of Cather’s immediate contemporaries, or those of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

F.R. Leavis named a book for the “common pursuit of true judgment,” and in the 1950s I think a reader of criticism could feel that canons were constantly being revised, judgments modified, new criteria introduced. I knew as an undergraduate, without thinking hard about it, that T.S. Eliot’s harsh judgment of Milton and Lea-vis’s curious dismissal of Dickens were both aspects of fashionable preoccupations, and would be superseded by different evaluations, which would bring different criteria to critical discussions. But political frenzy which judges everyone by ahistorical absolutes, without any sense of an obligation to see what an author was trying to do, is at best intolerant, and at worst meaningless.

When I read Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism I realized I had gloomily expected that it was virtually impossible these days to write, or to publish, so sensible a book. Most criticism attacking a theory or a political point of view is a kind of mirror image of the object it is attacking, often tending to jeer or make vulnerable debating points. But when Acocella says, “It is terrible to imagine what will be the next generation’s revenge on this generation,” she has earned the word “terrible” by the studied precision and balance of her argument. At first she offers a small defense of the “political causes in question,” that “having been ignored for several thousand years, they were very urgently felt in our time, even to the point of such absurdities.” But, she concludes, “What historical understanding can these critics expect, who showed none?” Exactly.

  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.