Fall/Winter 2004

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The Burden of Letters:
Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, and the Literary Tradition of the American West

By Linda Karell, Montana State University

For the last several years, my research has focused on authorship, and particularly on the ways in which authorship behaves unexpectedly, wrenching us away from our expectations about it as a privileged display of individuality and original creativity and shows itself in more collaborative, dispersed guises. In 1981, Nina Baym famously argued that we never read American literature except through the perspectives allowed by theories—theories of authorship that constructed female authorship as incompatible with a truly American literature. It follows that we also never read Western literature except through the perspective of theories—theories of authorship that inevitably shape for us what is western about Western American literature. More recently, Nathaniel Lewis's new study of western regional literature, Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship, rereads Foucault's theorization of the "author function" from the perspective of western regional literary production. For Foucault, the term "author" functioned to limit meaning, to provide for us the comforting illusion that certainty was at hand—certainty over the text and its meaning, but also certainty about the author in his role as individual creative genius. In a move I wish I'd thought to make, Lewis argues that "The West" rather than the "the author," takes over the function of limiting meaning: "the West can be understood not as a geographical region that inspires or influences its own representation but as the inscribed site of cultural power that serves to categorize discourses and ideologies, ways of knowing and speaking-canons, pedagogies, and reading practices" (198). If Lewis is correct, then for readers and writers of Western American literature today, it is notable that we are frequently uncertain about what constitutes Western American literature, its canons, pedagogies, and reading practices. What I want to focus on here is one of those moments when authorship behaves strangely. In an oddly elegant parallel, both Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner made decisions regarding personal letters that have fascinated, frustrated, and mystified their readers, creating, in each instance, literary circumstances that leave us groping for interpretations while allowing us an unexpected vantage point from which to view the issues of authorship surrounding each writer as Western writer. However Western Literature is defined—and many recent critical studies take up that question—Cather and Stegner inevitably show up in those critical studies, and on reading lists and syllabi as stalwart literary forebears whose presence in the canon of Western literature is unshakable. Whose influence is undeniable. Whose reputations are sometimes fiercely, and tellingly, protected. Both in practice and in theory, the canon of Western literature begins here for many people.

Personal letters pose a theoretical problem in regard to authorship: to what degree, if at all, should personal letters be considered a portion of an author's literary work and thereby deserving of the privileges of authorship, which include the attribution of originality and the protection of copyright? Legally, the answer is clear: letters become the property of their recipient, but the sender retains copyright. Because they are implicitly autobiographical, personal letters are rarely penned with posterity in mind, raising the vexed issue of authorial intention. Willa Cather's most notorious act is in some ways her least literary one: destroying as many of her personal letters to friends and acquaintances as she could get her hands on before her death and, in her will, prohibiting direct quotation from any letters that escaped her deliberate purge. Reading her actions as indicators of her attitudes toward authorship, we can assume that Cather considered her letters as something apart from her literary production, and therefore hers to destroy in a way her published writing had ceased to be. But for her readers and critics, the surviving letters—not to mention the endless and ephemeral speculation about the burned letters—functionally constitute a rich portion of her work, one that requires every bit as much interpretative skill as any of her novels. One of Wallace Stegner's presumably most literary acts—creating an epistolary novel of sorts—led to lingering accusations of plagiarism against him when he included, without citation, numerous personal letters by writer and artist Mary Hallock Foote in his 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning novel,Angle of Repose. Reading Stegner's actions as indicators of his attitudes toward authorship, he also must have considered Foote's correspondence as separate from her "literary work," although once incorporated into his novel it became identical with his. But for his readers and critics, the distinction is not always so cleanly drawn.

I. Willa Cather's Ashes

To approach these issues, let's turn first to Cather's notorious and well-documented attempts to destroy extant letters and to prevent published quotations from any surviving letters, actions that have become a pro forma component of her biographical narrative and, as such, constitute another text that requires interpretation. As Foucault noted, our privileged conception of author-as-inspired-genius dictates that all writing by that author is potentially infused with literary genius. With the equally problematic belief that an individual author's biography can explain and locate the meaning of the text, personal letters may seem particularly valuable in establishing claims to final meaning. And Cather was a prolific letter writer. Therefore, to destroy letters is an act of literary violence, one that, to judge by critics' responses to her, demands an interpretation. The uncontrollable danger of interpretation, of course, is the problem that Cather's actions were presumably "intended" to forestall. Indeed, few writers are as concerted and diligent in their attempts to limit the range of possible interpretations and thus to posses the identity of the author, as was Cather. If we "read" her actions clearly, recognizing, of course, that even this reading is an act of invested interpretation of Cather's biography, she seemed consumed by desires to define and possess her authorial self, although as many before me have pointed out, her attempts to limit interpretation have, ironically, led to the recognizable proliferation of ever-more expansive interpretation.

Image of Wallace Stegner

Yet, it is not at all certain that we are reading Cather's actions clearly, because like all texts, they are opaque, ambivalent, and self-contradictory. The most common reading constructs a Cather who is something of a control freak, albeit a failed control freak, since some letters slipped by her, creating yet another gap-riddled narrative requiring further interpretation. But it is just as easy and just as persuasive to argue that Cather's methodical destruction of her personal letters reinforces the performance of language and meaning so often apparent in her fiction: interpretation moves ceaseless onward, regardless of the apparent "certainty" of the text. The persistence of the mystery (Why did she burn those letters? What did she want to hide?) ensures our recognition of the persistence of interpretation. Curiously, this second reading also constructs a Cather who is crafty, and in control. Both of these versions of Cather as author hinge on authorial intention: she meant to hide something, or she meant for us to think she meant to hide something. Either way, as traditional author, Cather stands leagues ahead of us, genius, already in control of the readings of her texts, limiting them through the very actions that seem to require new avenues of interpretation.

II. Too Manly, Or not Manly Enough?: Cather and Western Authorship

It is no coincidence that questions about Cather's sexuality frequently underlie attempts to interpret her decision to destroy her letters, that answers to those questions are so often what we want the letters to reveal. While we in 2005 are largely enthusiastic about the possibility of women as authors, authorship is, historically, complexly connected to masculinity. Praising Cather for her realistic treatment of frontier life in My Ántonia, Wallace Stegner critiques her artistic forays in Shadows on the Rock as follows: ". . . it's all in pastels, it's static, like a mural. There's no activity going on, there's no conflict, and there's not much depth of color or perspective. They pass like shadows on the rock. It's less virile. Maybe that's not quite the word for Willa Cather, but it is less virile than what she was doing when she wrote about people like Ántonia"(Stegner and Etulain 134). Cather is having trouble here, Stegner observes, but it's nothing a little authorial viagra wouldn't cure. But Stegner is also having a difficult time of it—difficulty telling the difference between characters and people, which is to say difficulty recognizing Cather as an author (capital "A," trailing clouds of genius) when the text isn't explicitly "about" the west in what he defines as realistic ways, difficulty seeing her art as legitimate when she strays into French Canada or into a kind of writing that questions the possibility of veracity: ". . . she was a first-rate novelist only when she dealt with what she knew from Red Cloud and the big grasslands. They were what she was born to write; the rest of it was got up" (Sparrow's Fall 7). The essentialized, gendered dichotomy Stegner expresses is hardly new: writing seen as active, adventuresome, replete with conflict is masculine, while deviations from that—which include much of Cather's experimental and most challenging writingare seen as passive, flat, female, deviant. And when Cather writes that way, she's no author at all. She's just making stuff up.

When Stegner complains that Cather strays from the appropriately realistic western material, that her imaginative ventures out of the West are "got up," or when he implies that, although women may write (and write well), real authorship requires virility, he speaks the discourse authorized by the West, where, as Nathaniel Lewis points out, authenticity and realism are the coins of the realm. In other words, its not so much that Stegner was wrong (about Cather, about authorship), as that he unwittingly displays the theories of authorship that dictate how we interpret western literature. And because Stegner had—and continues to have—palpable influence among western scholars, he helps keep those theories in play and unacknowledged. Not coincidentally, the very theories of a virile literature that uphold his critique of Cather function to fortify Stegner's reputation as a Very Important Author.

III. Wrangle of Repose: Western Manhood and Wallace Stegner's Reputation Stegner's Reputation

We are all invested readers guided by theories of reading and interpreting to which we may be devoted but of which we are frequently unaware. Just as Stegner had of Cather, we have peculiarly western investments in Stegner's authority as a western writer. Recalling Foucault then, our expectations of the western author Stegner work to limit interpretations of his writing, something we can see in readers' and critics' opposing responses to Stegner's use of Foote's letters: defending him as a creative writer who rightly (but merely) took appropriate creative license with Foote's personal correspondence and thereby transformed them into his own unique creation or rejecting him as yet another white male whose sense of entitlement-in this case, to another writer's letters-amounts to a plagiarism for which he should be held responsible. Stegner's reputation as a western writer is at stake in either view, because what we call Stegner's reputation is best understood as a screen onto which we project our theories of western authorship and, importantly, its connection to masculinity. While in my view, Cather's writing reveals a capacity for decorum and stodginess that outpaces just about anyone I've ever read, it's Stegner's reputation that is so fiercely guarded, Stegner's ghost that causes us to whisper and apologize for the slightest hint of a noncelebratory interpretation. In Cather studies, she's read as an undercover feminist, a prescient modernist, a covertly suffering lesbian or a covertly crafty one, a cranky old writer, and a daring experimentalist. No one agrees with all of these readings, and some may even offend, but as a rule, Cather scholars frolic in the interpretative possibilities. Not so with Stegner, and as a result, his work is emphatically under theorized. Another way to put this might be to say, not that I want "the" Stegner, and especially not "the definitive" Stegner, but that I want more competing and contradictory Stegners because that means a deeper and richer understanding of the literature over which he has (they have) such influence.

IV. Theorizing Stegner

One of the more interesting recent projects to theorize Stegner has yet to receive much attention: Arizona playwright Sands Hall's unpublished play about the Stegner/Foote controversy, Fair Use. Presented in abbreviated form—and with some trepidation—at our Tucson meeting, this complicated and decidedly feminist play sets forth a fictional meeting between Stegner and Foote, and engages critical questions surrounding our interpretation of Stegner's actions, including copyright, creative license, and gender. Hall's stated intent is for the play to prompt audience members to try to find the answers to some of the many questions the play hurls at us, although I would argue that the play functions less to assure us of answers than to persuade us of their contingency.

On the whole, Fair Use paints Stegner as more guilty than innocent, and the play's feminist approach asserts Foote as the unacknowledged center of the novel. But the play's polyvocal presentation prevents that typical dichotomy from stabilizing: the many intertwined voices, the multiple character depictions and timelines, and the simultaneous presentations of the material from various viewpoints make the blame game hard to win. By staging a sometimes-acrimonious and often laugh—out-loud humorous meeting between these two historical writers, Fair Use represents writing itself-including personal letter—as an inescapable challenge to interpretative finality. As these characters talk, argue, and come to recognize one another's viewpoints,Fair Use expands our definitions of authorship by expanding our understanding of subjectivity as not simply raced and gendered—leading us down that tedious path where Stegner was the predictable white male patriarch and Foote (and her two female descendents, who failed to keep a good eye on the patriarch) the passive white female who, although duped posthumously, haunts his pages—but as raced, gendered, and functioning within historically changing constructions of what counts as individual authorship.

Moreover, the play's ephemeral setting and staging, where characters are simultaneously presented as "real" and imagined, as "themselves" and as projections by other characters within the play, avoids versions of reality and authenticity privileged by gendered definitions of Western literature like those Stegner articulates in his critique of Cather's Shadows on the Rock. The play constructs a fictional Stegner who is by turns arrogant, articulate, uncomprehending, astute, defensive, persuasive, and repentant. While Fair Use makes use of Stegner's status as a male patriarch of Western literature, it refuses to credit that status as determinative of its interpretations of him and it is that move that makes the play dangerous to his reputation. I consider this a good thing. Working against both the playwright's stated intention to prompt answers in the audience and the tone of right and wrong that underlies the dramatic confrontation between Stegner and Foote, Fair Use theorizes those multiple Stegners.

For some audiences—certainly for my students—this approach to Stegner is hard to accept. They prefer their Western icons be more durably indivisible and their West more reliably transcendent. No surprise: Foucault predicted the author function would be replaced by another system of restraint, and Lewis picks up on this with his discussion of the West as a site of cultural power. But as we can see in the complex responses to letters by both canonical Western writers and their readers, responses that reconstitute letters at the boundaries of literary production, authorship is never an isolated, individual activity—and that multiplicity of interpretation, of meaning, of Cathers, of Stegners, is the exciting future of Western literature.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton, 1988.
—. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 890-900.
Hall, Sands. Fair Use. Unpublished ms.
Lewis, Nathaniel. Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2003.
Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. 1971. New York: Penguin, 1992.
—. Marking the Sparrow's Fall: The Making of the American West. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
Stegner, Wallace and Richard W. Etulain. Stegner: Conversations of History and Literature. Rev. ed. Reno and Las Vegas: U of Nevada P, 1996.