Spring 2004

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Cather Sessions at Inaugural Regionalism and the Humanities" Conference

by Derek Driedger, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

On Saturday, November 22, 2003 two sessions at the inaugural conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers focused on the life and work of Willa Cather. The conference, hosted by the Plains Humanities Alliance at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln from November 20-22, devoted session 33 to "Approaches to Regionalism in Cather Studies." Steven Shively of Northwest Missouri State University served as Chair, with three papers presented. Amy Ahearn of Saddleback College presented the first paper, "Performing Regionalism: Synge, State Irish, and Willa Cather's Alexander's Bridge." Ahearn examined Cather's first novel as one centered largely on the importance of regional identity for an artist, drawn from Cather's knowledge of the Irish Galway culture on stage in London. Ahearn pointed out that Hilda represents the prosperous artist because she maintains ties to her Irish roots while living and performing in London, while Alexander, a man with few links to the past or region, signi- fies the failed artist.

Mark Robison of Union College then presented his paper, "Great Plains or One Big City?: Dreiser, Sinclair and Cather go to Chicago." Robison compared Cather's portrayal of Chicago in The Song of the Lark to The Jungle and Sister Carrie to indicate how Thea Kronborg and Cather were able to make connections between urban and rural worlds, while Sinclair and Dreiser portrayed the city as a dangerous place where rural morality was lost. Making use of William Cronon's concept of the hinterland, Robison emphasized that Cather recognized the interdependence of city and country early on, noting the opening of O Pioneers!, which suggests emerging prosperity, and that Theas ascension from Moonstone matches the procession of rural products heading to Eastern markets.

Michael Schueth of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln presented the final paper of the session: "Main Street Meets Bank Street: Cather's Celebration of Regionalism." Schueth discussed the challenge Cather faced of marketing O Pioneers! to a sophisticated, urban book buying public, suggesting that her early strategy of finding transitive space between regions set the tone for her later career. Schueth also examined Cather's public image as a woman writer who chose Sarah Orne Jewett as her mentor, and her ensuing shifts in identity as she balanced her cherished Nebraskan roots while living, traveling and writing elsewhere.

The second session of the conference devoted to Cather was "Willa Cather's Great Plains." Richard Edwards, UNL's Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs served as chair with two papers presented. Guy Reynolds of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln presented the first paper, entitled "Willa Cather's Case: Region and Reputation." Reynolds discussed the diversity of America and the influence of a literary culture dominated by binaries and reductionism that classified Cather as a pioneer writer, even when she moved her settings and career away from Nebraska. Closely analyzing reviewers' views of Cather's regionalism, Reynolds explained how the familiar assaults on the Midwest, and the classification of the frontier derived from Frederick Jackson Turner were often incorrectly applied to Cather because she broke away from Midwestern provincialism.

Steven Trout of Fort Hays State University presented the final paper of the session: "The Pleasures and Perils of Home: Willa Cather's Great Plains." Trout began his presentation by mentioning the current perception of the Midwest as often being empty and limited, and then noted that many of Cather's characters such as Jim Burden, Victor Morse and Jim Laird provide severe critiques of her regional roots. Discussing the desire for art that led Cather east, Trout explained how Cather was able to maintain ties to her region by both writing towards and away from Nebraska. Focusing on Jim Burden's discontent in Black Hawk, yet lack of fruition in the East, Trout analyzed how Cather's characters often suffer from a problematic relation to region because self and place most often fail to unite.