Fall/Winter 2002

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Joan Acocella Speaks to the Cather Colloquium

by Andrew Jewell

"One thing I've always liked, or found curious, was the history of reputations," Joan Acocella told the Cather Colloquium on November 11, 2001. That curiosity, she said, is what led her to the composition of her celebrated book, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. When she read her first piece of Cather criticism, Acocella "realized that something very interesting was going on with Cather. On the one hand, here was this corpus of beautiful, beautiful work. On the other hand, here was a whole critical world, a whole world of people bringing meanings to her and having to process her through their meanings."

Image of Andy Jewell (left) and Michael Schueth (right) visit with Joan AcocellaAndy Jewell (left) and Michael Schueth (right) visit with Joan Acocella

As a critic herself on the staff of the New Yorker, Acocella feels she understands the nature of the critical world. "Critics influence each other, and move in packs," she said; "that's a whole world in itself, being a critic."

Her initial article, "Cather and the Academy," published in 1995 in the New Yorker, took her a year and a half to write. "It was a big job, and at times very discouraging. A lot of criticism'and that's not just academic criticism, journalistic criticism, too'is awful," she said, but her "job was to read all that stuff, because I was interested in the history of her reputation, how people responded to her, how she bothered them, or who she appealed to, and who was annoyed at her because she appealed to somebody else."

"My book, in many ways, is a satire," Acocella claimed. "If it was inspired by anyone, it was I hope by Jonathan Swift. I wanted to be the scourge of folly. To me a lot of this stuff is ridiculous; I wanted to show it as such."

Since the article and book have been published, Acocella has received a lot of attention, from prestigious reviewers of her book like Joyce Carol Oates and A. S. Byatt, to ordinary readers of Cather: "I have people stop me on the street. It's amazing how many Cather fans there are in the world, and how deeply they feel it. It's as if they thought it was their secret somehow. They all take her very personally. I think a lot of people have taken a lot of consolation in their lives from Cather, because her world has so much to do so directly with the most central problems of living."

When asked about her hopes for criticism, Acocella said she wished for a "synthesis of the ahistorical amnesia of the New Criticism with the political hysteria of recent criticism. I would hope that we could have a historically informed criticism which nevertheless takes some account of art, has some respect for the act of imagination as opposed to where she bought her clothes and who she was in love with."

For the future critics, Acocella claimed that all she had were "corny hopes." "Because of what we've been through," she said, "what I would hope is that literature would be sustaining to them psychologically and intellectually, and maybe spiritually. They should feel sustained by the beauty of the material itself."

And Cather, she says, can provide such material: "When other things fall away, Cather stays for people, because it has no sauce. It's just the real leg of lamb."