Spring 2001

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The Making and Remaking of Cather's First Principles:

A Review of American Literary Realism's Special Issue: Willa Cather

Edited by Susan Rosowski
Volume, 33, Number 2, Winter 2001
University of Illinois Press
Reviewed by Kynan Connor

A must-have for all students of Cather is the Winter 2001 edition of American Literary Realism. Guest-edited by Susan Rosowski, this special issue contains seven essays, with an introduction, that collectively trace Cather's developing engagement with issues of realism, some in connection with her early journalistic career, some in connection with her fiction. As if that were not enough, there is a previously undiscovered article by Cather herself!

Cather's article, the gem of the collection, was discovered by Douglas J. Colglazier in the November 1, 1892, issue of the Hesperian. In her essay on Henrik Ibsen, Cather contrasts the current American and British literature-writing based on "the mass of false, conventional, inorganic conceptions of goodness to which we are all slaves" (101)-with the literature of Russia, France, Denmark, and Norway, which is based on the reality of common life, saddened by the "worldliness and materialism" (100) of human life. Cather even suggests that literature which serves the ideal is disingenuous. Real literature is that which expresses "confidence in the native integrity of humanity" to face up to the challenges brought on by the truth to the harshness of human existence. In our contemporary world, governed by the "Post-Modern democratization of ideas" (Wiseman, 13), where politically minded iconoclasts replace old icons with new ones, propagating the very behavior they so detest, Cather offers a refreshing contrast to those who continue to sacrifice truth while in pursuit of it.

The second essay comes from Debra J. Seivert. In "Responding to Romance with Realism," Seivert compares Barrie's Sentimental Tommy with Cather's follow-up "Tommy, the Unsentimental." While Barrie's Tommy-a character moved by "lofty ideals and romanticism" (104)-struggles and stumbles in the real world of adults, Cather's Theodosia/Tommy moves capably through a man's world of banking and finance. Cather juxtaposes her protagonist, an "intellectually sensible young female"-a representation of young Cather herself-against a "young male protagonist," the effect of which Seivert argues is to keep Cather grounded in realism while constructing a romantic response.

The third essay, by Paul R. Petrie, addresses Cather's connection, not with representational realism, but with social realism and aesthetic response in her short story, "Behind the Singer Tower." While examining Cather's only work overtly concerned with "issues of social justice and cross-class communication," Petrie explores how Cather's social commentary can be viewed less in terms of political activism and more in terms of a "celebration of abstract ideals of the human enterprise" (111). While making the case that marginalizes W. D. Howell's formative contribution to Cather's art-art should be indistinguishable from the life of the common man-Petrie argues that Cather's realism in "Behind the Singer Tower" results not from her desire to be "real," but from her aesthetic need to "suggest something eternally valid and temporally transcendent about human experience" (120).

In his essay evaluating the place of Cather's biography of S. S. McClure in Cather's aesthetic development, Robert Thacker suggests that My Biography represented a significant moment in Cather's creative life. Thacker begins by locating My Biography between O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, "books that both signaled and confirmed her rejection of the realist Jamesian mode" (124). Thacker goes on to compare My Biography with My Ántonia, suggesting that the method used to write My Biography, namely "listening to and then composing McClure's words" (131), served as template for Jim Burden: Antonia lived through his memory of her or, as Jim himself notes, "It's through myself that I knew and felt her" (qtd. in Thacker 128). Thacker goes on to trace this "autobiographical aesthetic" template through The Professor's House, suggesting that "Godfrey St. Peter, the unnoted hearer and effecter of the text called 'Tom Outland's Story' . . . is precisely analogous to Willa Cather when, during the summer of 1913, she sat at her Bank Street apartment and listened sympathetically to S. S. McClure" (137).

Amy Ahearn's article "Full-Blooded Writing and Journalistic Fictions" examines Cather's journalistic influences in The Song of the Lark. According to Ahearn, Cather embraced a "'full-blooded' manner of writing" early in her journalistic career, a "conventional design that told everything about everyone" (144), which accounts for the seeming incongruity of Song amid the novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia. But it is not the formalist realism of Howells, James, and Wharton that Cather admires; it is the biological realism ("naturalism") that Cather supports and explores in Song, that explains why there are so many references to the body. Cather's naturalistic approach is also evident in her criticism. Ahearn points out that even though Cather was often misogynistic in her criticism of women writers, she "creates a counter-discourse within a naturalist criticism: she uses the logic of the mainstream discourse while she simultaneously subverts the discourse" (149). Combined with her earlier statements on Ibsen, it's safe to say that Cather was more interested in the aesthetic authenticity of good art rather than an art viewed in terms of representationality where beauty and "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (The Novel Démeublé 41) have no role.

In his essay "Composing Realism to Idealize a War," John J. Murphy explores the unrealism of Wharton's The Marne in terms of Cather's realistic practices in One of Ours. Murphy contends that The Marne loses its realism as coincidences mount, while One of Ours maintains realism through the juxtaposition of American life away from the war with the horrors of trench warfare in France. While Wharton's Troy finds "the reality of people and places intolerable" (158), Cather's Claude understands the lifeless materialism of realism's commonplace life" (159).

In the seventh and final essay of the collection, Janis P. Stout describes Cather's realistic method and how that method manifests itself in at least two ways. According to Stout, Cather's method of realism involves "the feelings that surround specific experiences or memories without exaggerating them" (170). This perceptivism allowed Cather to be realistic both on the surface, as in the detailed descriptions of things, and underneath, as in the impressions of character. For example, Claude Wheeler's attitude toward the war, in One of Ours, is romantic. This does not mean that Cather is romantic, but it does mean that she is being realistic when she creates a character who views the world through rose-colored glasses, because many people do. That's the subtlety of Cather's realism.

Taken together, the essays presented here contribute significantly to the ongoing dialogue about Willa Cather, her realistic practices, and the theory of realism itself. Cather's "grounded" realism not only expanded the boundaries of the form, but exploded them as well. This collection helps us see that.

Kynan Connor is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His dissertation topic includes Cather's use of allusion.

Works Cited

Wiseman, James. "Camelot in Kentucky." Archaelogy. January-February 2001:10-14.