Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs010.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 10

Cather's Jewett: Relationship, Influence, and Representation

Most Cather scholarship assumes, if not makes the case for, the enormous impact that Sarah Orne Jewett had upon Cather as both a model of female authorship and a mentor whose intervention was essential in helping to foster Cather's emerging confidence and authorial aspirations. Cather's biographers—especially Woodress, O'Brien, and Lee—spend time chronicling the relationship between the two writers, as does Judith Fryer in her 1989 essay about the circle of women into which Cather was introduced in 1908, "What Goes On in the Ladies Room? Sarah Orne Jewett, Annie Fields, and Their Community of Women." Beginning at midcentury several literary critics have also identified specific influences within Cather's fiction that they argue derive directly from Jewett. Eleanor Smith, in a 1956 essay that was the first to offer a complex, detailed examination of Jewett and Cather, notes parallels between the two writers in both style and content: "The emphasis which both place on character and the ennobling values in life overshadows plot, dramatic action, and emotional situations. And the provincial atmosphere of their stories, revealing a discriminating choice of material, sympathetic portrayal of old people, and intimate response to the beauty of nature, is strengthened by their desire for simplicity of effect" (473).

Two decades later Richard Cary articulated the first skepticism about Jewett's unquestioned influence on Cather and her work, noting that while Cather "certified several mutualities of taste, feeling, and appreciation with Jewett," she nonetheless "manifestly bypassed vital improvements in line with Jewett's dicta on psychic distance, mood, characterization, theme, and idiom" (178). More recently, Ann Romines, Elaine Sargent Apthorp, and John J. Murphy have all investigated specific traces of Jewett in Cather's oeuvre, from Romines's examination of female hermits in The Country of the Pointed Firs and Shadows on the Rock, to Apthorp's location of Jewett's principle of "sympathetic imagination" (4) in the narrative voice of Cather's Lucy Gayheart, to Murphy's argument that Cather's major fictions inherit from Jewett both elements of the "paranovel" (155) and their focus on characters that are "considered inferiors" by their society, particularly, in Cather's case, "foreign immigrants (especially those from Eastern Europe)" (156).

It is not my intent in this essay in any way to undermine the important and rich critical work that has assessed the effects—whether biographical or textual—of the relationship between Jewett and Cather. Indeed, some of my own scholarly work has drawn upon Jewett's role as a mentor to Willa Cather to explore teachers and guides in Cather's major fictions ("'Someone Young and Teachable'"), so I am clearly invested in the reality of that relationship and in its effects on Willa Cather throughout her career. But I wonder if previous readings of the Jewett and Cather relationship—including my own—have perhaps relied overmuch on a narrative of Jewett and Cather as already and forever linked in a tight circle of relation and salubrious influence that constructs, a priori, our interpretation of the literary association between them. What insights do we gain, and what do we lose, when we encounter the already read story of Cather as Jewett's grateful student, whose early, powerful fictions were shaped by the elder writer's generous advice and encouragement and who was therefore necessarily influenced in her own fiction by that relationship? Because I think it is always worth revisiting the critical truisms we have inherited as scholars, I propose in this essay to reexamine Cather's representation of Jewett, which, I believe, complicates the accepted paradigms of how we have heretofore read and interpreted the seemingly uncomplicated relationship between Jewett and Cather. I will argue that it is, in fact, Cather's representation of Jewett—"Cather's Jewett," if you will—that undergoes an evolution, from the powerfully enabling guide of the almost universally laudatory interviews Cather gave from 1913 through 1925, to a different, distanced, increasingly shrunken and memorialized figure who comes to embody nineteenthcentury artistic constraints from which Cather distinguishes herself in the 1930s as an established, twentieth-century writer.

To draw any two writers together under the rubric of "influence" is to create a relationship between them, regardless of whether that relationship is historical or merely one of imaginative coupling. The historical relationship between Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather, while brief, is important, not only for the lasting impact it made upon Cather's career priorities but also for the way it has been read as deeply influential upon Cather's career trajectory. In the late winter of 1908 Willa Cather was escorted by Mrs. Louis Brandeis to meet her friend Annie Fields at 148 Charles Street in Boston. There Cather encountered not only Annie Fields but also her companion, Sarah Orne Jewett, with whom Cather formed a correspondence that lasted until Jewett's death sixteen months later. Cather was then a successful thirty-five-year-old editor of McClure's magazine and aspiring novelist, having published a single collection of poetry and one of stories in her early career (April Twilights in 1903 and The Troll Garden in 1905). Sarah Orne Jewett was fifty-nine years old and had compiled a writing résumé that included the publication of five novels, ten short story collections, four children's books, and over two hundred magazine and newspaper pieces. She was also seriously debilitated by a fall from a carriage six years earlier and no longer able to write fiction. The two women had known of one another before this meeting through their writing. Jewett was one of the very few women writers whose work Willa Cather admired when she was in her midtwenties; despite the antagonism toward realist fiction that she expressed in Lincoln and Pittsburgh newspapers in the 1890s, Cather gave her Pittsburgh friend George Seibel a copy of The Country of the Pointed Firs after its release in 1896. By 1910, two years after meeting Jewett, Cather announced to Elizabeth Sergeant that she considered Jewett to be America's "best woman writer" (40). Jewett was also acquainted with Cather's writing, having been the recipient of Cather's 1905 foray into storytelling, The Troll Garden, sent to her that year by Cather's colleague at McClure's Witter Bynner. In her 3 May reply to Bynner, in a letter housed at Harvard's Houghton Library, Jewett lauded Cather's early stories as "full of talent," though she also expressed reservations about their pessimism and despair, qualities she associated with literary naturalism, which she characterized as "the bleaker realism of twenty years ago." Yet her final assessment was positive: "I was very glad to read The Sculptor's Funeral again—and again. It has touched me profoundly." She ended her letter by requesting that Bynner "give my best to Miss Cather," adding, "We should have much to say if we could talk together" (qtd. in O'Brien 343).

Cather and Jewett did indeed have much to say to one another after their initial meeting at 148 Charles Street, most of it through letters that they exchanged until Jewett's death from a second stroke on 24 June 1909. And it is the record of this correspondence that has cemented for all of Cather's biographers and the majority of her critics the centrality of this relationship as the crucial turning point in Cather's career, from false starts and Jamesian imitations toward the material and the style that would characterize her fiction and shape its unique and powerful voice in twentieth-century American literature. Two of these letters, in particular, have received the majority of critical attention. The first is a letter Jewett sent to Cather on 27 November 1908, in which she reveals to the fledgling writer that her story "On the Gull's Road" filled Jewett with "deep happiness . . . recognition . . . surprise and delight" (quoted in Carlin, "Country" 268). In it she also famously advises Cather not to write through a male persona when narrating a romantic relationship with a woman character since, according to Jewett, such embodiments are always "something of a masquerade." She further counsels Cather to "not try to be he," arguing that a woman could love and wish to protect the female character just as passionately as could a male, which Jewett underscores by noting that the love itself in the story is "close . . . tender" and full of "true feeling" (268). Given Cather's success with both My Ántonia and A Lost Lady, that she obviously did not heed this advice has been less remarked upon in the critical literature than has the difference between Jewett's nineteenth-century assumption that describing love between women is perfectly acceptable and Cather's far more dangerous twentieth-century navigation of the treacherous terrain of same-sex love in which homosexuality and deviance become synonymous.

This November letter is followed closely by another sent by Jewett on 13 December 1908, a letter that Edith Lewis said became a "permanent inhabitant of her [Cather's] thoughts" (qtd. in O'Brien, Willa Cather 343). In it Jewett expresses her concern that Cather's editorial work is taking too great a toll on her artistic energies. Sensing intuitively that Cather is at an important crossroads in her development as a writer, Jewett urges her unambiguously to take "time and quiet to perfect your work" and "to be surer of your backgrounds," which Jewett identifies as Cather's Virginia childhood, her Nebraska life, and the "'Bohemia' of newspaper and magazine-office life" (qtd. in Carlin, "Country" 269). Jewett encourages Cather to continue striving toward the achievement of confident artistic distance vis-à-vis her material: "[Y]ou don't see them yet quite enough from the outside . . . you stand right in the middle of each of them [these backgrounds] when you write, without having the standpoint of the looker-on who takes them each in their relation to letters, to the world" (269). Instead, Jewett argues, "you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country—in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up" (270). Realizing that Cather could be disheartened by such a strong argument advocating a radical new direction in her life, Jewett ends the letter by assuring the younger writer that "you have been growing I feel sure in the very days when you felt most hindered, and this will be counted to you" (270). "I have been full of thought about you," she writes at the end of the letter, closing with a rhetorical query that signals her desire to remain in a relationship with Cather: "You will let me hear again from you before long?" (270).

Cather's biographers have remarked on the profound effect of this letter upon Cather, and it is Hermione Lee's succinct paraphrase of what she characterizes as Cather's "long, despondent [and] revealing reply" on 17 December, four short days after receiving Jewett's letter (79), that gets to the heart of the psychological issues underlying Cather's mental state at this juncture:

The work at McClure's, she said, made her feel like a trapeze artist who had to keep catching the right bar or fall into the net; she was using up so much energy on the magazine's concerns—what McClure called "men and measures"—that she was too exhausted to write in the evenings. The images she used for her editorial work were all of entrapment and undernourishment: she couldn't breathe, she felt as if she were living in a tepid bath, she was getting as much food as she would from arithmetic, she was turning into a card catalogue. Though she was loyal to Sam McClure, he was beginning to have a stultifying effect on her. He wanted her to write nothing but clear-cut journalism, like Ida Tarbell, and was now telling her that she was a good magazine executive but would never be a very good writer. And perhaps he was right: she knew that her writing had not improved since The Troll Garden, and that it should have done, but she didn't know how to make it better. Every time she started a story she felt like a newborn baby, naked, shivering, with everything still to learn. Perhaps she shouldn't set out to do the one thing at which she felt inept? But meanwhile she was worn out. She might be called an "executive," but inside, she was more like a hunted animal. The psychologists had a new word for it, she believed: split personality. (79-80)
Despite Cather's demonstrated loyalty to McClure—and she would not leave his employ until 1911—one can detect a seismic shift in Cather's affiliations here, as she admits her vulnerability to McClure's harsh assessment of her fiction-writing potential, even in the face of Jewett's loving encouragement, support, and unequivocal belief in her promise expressed so recently. And the "split" that Cather locates within herself—one of hope versus despair, of competence versus paralysis and infantilization—is also manifested in the outward contradictions and conflicts of her professional life: journalism versus fiction, becoming Ida Tarbell or Willa Cather, listening to Samuel McClure or to Sarah Orne Jewett. It is, I think, safe to say that this letter marks the moment when Cather consciously chooses Jewett as her mentor over McClure, expressed poignantly in the repetition of questions that begin with "perhaps," questions to which Jewett had already articulated the answers in her vision of what Cather must do in order to liberate the artist Jewett had no doubt that she already was.

Jewett's death in 1909 was, consequently, a painful loss for Cather. She was in London when she heard of Jewett's death, and in a 27 June 1909 letter to Annie Fields Cather she wrote, "When one is far away like this one cannot realize death. . . . I know that something has happened only by the numbness and inertia that have come over me. I find that everything I have been doing and undertaking over here I have done with a hope that it might interest her. . . . And now all the wheels stand still and the ways of life seem very dark and purposeless" (Selected Letters 126). Cather visited Jewett's house several times during 1910 and 1911, and during one of these visits, as reported by Elizabeth Sergeant, she felt that "[t]he old house had stirred something up—she felt goaded. . . . It was as if Miss Jewett's spirit, which filled the place, had warned her that time was flying" (60). And thus it was that in 1911, the same year that Annie Fields published her edition of Jewett's letters, Cather heeded the late writer's advice, quit her job at McClure's, and embarked on the fully committed artistic career she had come to believe, with Jewett's encouragement, she was entitled to pursue.

Because their relationship was brief and ended with Jewett's death, it is Cather's representation of Jewett that necessarily moves to the forefront during the years of her career as a successful and established writer. In other words, Sarah Orne Jewett the person becomes Willa Cather's imaginative, memorialized, and published version of Jewett the writer, precursor, and mentor: in interviews Cather gave throughout the years; in the 1925 preface to the collection of Jewett's work that Cather edited and that she later revised and expanded for inclusion in her 1936 essay collection, Not Under Forty; and in the brief mention of Jewett that appears in the essay "148 Charles Street," contained in the same volume. Relationship and representation are inextricably linked because relationships always, already exist in the imagination and are shaped, represented, every time we speak, or write, about one of our friends or acquaintances. This quality of construction of the other becomes even more complicated when one artist, like Cather, discusses another artist, like Jewett, for much is at stake; the integrity of one's own artistic aspirations are reflected in what one admires, praises, and selects about other artists. You are what and who you reference, to some degree, so it is important to recall that as Cather constructs Jewett she is also constructing herself, not as a reflection of Jewett, but as an inheritor of specific principles that shape her own artistic originality. And the Jewett Cather creates throughout various interviews from 1913 to 1925, with one notable exception that I will discuss below, is a figure of aphoristic wisdom whom Cather characterizes as a model of how to locate your own, "true" subject material for fiction.

In her earliest interview in which she references Jewett, for the Philadelphia Record in 1913, Cather introduces Jewett by mentioning her, along with Henry James and Mark Twain, as not only one of her "favorite American writers" (Bohlke 7) but also one of the "great ones" (Bohlke 8). Citing Jewett as one of the writers who stylistically seek "to simplify" (Bohlke 8) their ideas—a precept to which she would return in her 1920 essay "The Art of Fiction"—Cather illustrates this claim by quoting from a letter that she discovered in Jewett's papers at South Berwick after the elder writer's death: "Ah, it is things like that, which haunt the mind for years, and at last write themselves down, that belong, whether little or great, to literature" (Bohlke 9). "It is that kind of honesty," Cather continued,

that earnest endeavor to tell truly the thing that haunts the mind, that I love in Miss Jewett's own work. Reading her books from the beginning one finds that often she tried a character or a theme over and over, first in one story and then in another, before she at last realized it completely on the page. That wonderful story, "Martha's Lady," for instance, was hinted at and felt for in several of her earlier stories. And so was the old woman in "The Queen's Twin."

I dedicated my novel O Pioneers! To Miss Jewett because I had talked over some of the characters in it with her one day at Manchester, and in this book I tried to tell the story of the people as truthfully and simply as if I were telling it to her by word of mouth. (Bohlke 9)

Truth, adherence to one's origins and the rich artistic material that can be drawn from it, and a devotion to simplicity in both subject and style become recurrent motifs in Cather's published comments about Jewett. In a 1915 piece in the Pittsburg Dispatch May Stranathan quotes Cather as predicting for Jewett "lasting fame, since she wrote from the heart of life, depicting the New England character with truth and beauty" (Bohlke 144). In a 1919 article in the Chicago Daily Cather alludes to advice given to her by Jewett that is clearly Cather's interpretation and amplification of Jewett's comments, owing to its combative directness: "Write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that. You can't do it in anybody's else way [sic]—you will have to make it your own. If the way happens to be new, don't let that frighten you. Don't try to write the kind of stories that this or that magazine wants—write the truth and let them take it or leave it" (Bohlke 18). What is fascinating about this alleged quote from Jewett is Cather's working through, and increasing confidence in, her own artistic direction; the Jewett she constructs advises in injunctions that Jewett herself was far too reticent ever to pen: Write it your way, not anyone else's. Make it your own. What you're doing is new and original. Don't be afraid. Write the truth and ignore the magazine market. Written one year after the publication of My Ántonia, at a time when Cather had three successful novels to her credit and was poised to begin her major, experimental fictions of the 1920s, this exhorting representation of Jewett signals both Cather's increasing confidence in her direction and the transformation of Jewett from a person to an internalized touchstone of artistic self-belief. A similarly internalized, paraphrased Jewett appears in a 1921 interview Cather gave to Eva Mahoney of the Omaha WorldHerald. Lauding Cather for having "done a new sort of thing in American literature," Mahoney quotes Cather's Jewett—and again because the quote is so clearly drawn from the language of Cather herself—as insisting to Cather that "[w]hat you really care for is new material that has never been used. Don't write about other things. If you have to create a new medium, have the courage to do it" (Bohlke 34). Other 1921 interviews stress the regional nature of Cather's material, which she attributes to Jewett's influence and advice, as in her well-known Bookman interview with Latrobe Carroll in which she again paraphrased Jewett: "She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn't tell about it truthfully in the form I most admired, I'd have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process" (Bohlke 22).

All of Cather's public remarks about Jewett are consistently respectful, with one notable exception. The one notable exception to Cather's portrayal of Jewett as an inspiring, even admonishing internalized mentor, and a hint of the more dramatic distance she will take from Jewett in subsequent comments, is the 1924 lunch interview she gave to journalist Burton Rascoe. During this meeting Cather, in an uncharacteristic moment of critical frankness, criticizes Jewett as "too much cuddled by her family. They'd have kept her in cotton wool and smothered her if they'd had entirely their own way about it. She was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving" (Bohlke 66). This anomalous comment may be tangentially related to Cather's frustration with Jewett's sister Mary's insistence that the story "Decoration Day" be included in the volume of Jewett's work Cather was then editing and for which she was writing the preface. According to biographer James Woodress, Cather deemed "Decoration Day" a "feeble" story and wrote to Houghton Mifflin publisher Ferris Greenslet that "he would have to persuade her [Mary] to omit that story. She explained that in her preface she had made high claims for the stories, but no critic could make a claim for that story. If it had to go into the collection, she would withdraw her preface" (356-57). Cather won that battle, and the last part of her 1924 comments to Rascoe, when she speaks not of Jewett's family but of her work, signals the direction that her argument for Jewett's enduring artistry would take in that preface. "A small balance" of Jewett's work, she continues, "enough to make two volumes—is important. She was a voice. She spoke for a slight but influential section of the American people. She was clearly a voice, an authentic voice" (Bohlke 66).

In the preface to the 1925 Jewett collection Cather moves from internalizing Jewett's voice and making it, through paraphrase, literally her own to a more distanced assessment of what in Jewett's work will stand the test of time. Cather emphasizes voice, subject, and dialect as the three artistic qualities that create what she calls "almost flawless examples of literary art" in Jewett's body of work (Cather, preface 6). Several of her pronouncements also make their way into later essays contained in Not Under Forty, so clearly, qualities that Cather associated with Jewett did remain as tenets of her own artistic credo. Cather's argument in the 1925 preface about Jewett's narrative voice, for example—"that every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique. A quality which one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden" (preface 7)—immediately calls to mind another famous statement about the elusive, intangible qualities that constitute great art, what Cather calls in "The Novel Démeublé" "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself" (Not Under Forty 50). Jewett also embodies for Cather another late precept of great writing in this preface, that of accepting and working within your given subject matter. The great writer, Cather counsels in the preface, "[i]f he achieves anything noble, anything enduring, it must be by giving himself absolutely to his material. And this gift of sympathy is his great gift; it is the fine thing in him that alone can make his work fine" (preface 7). Jewett, Cather notes, achieved this perspective absolutely: "She early learned to love her country for what it was. What is quite as important, she saw it as it was" (preface 10). This, Cather argues in "The Novel Démeublé," is the essential quality of realist art. "But is not realism," she writes, "more than it is anything else, an attitude on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme?" (Not Under Forty 45). Finally, Cather praises Jewett's ear in the 1925 preface, noting that "the language her people speak to each other is a native tongue. No writer can invent it" (preface 10). And the eleven short stories she chooses for the volume, in addition to The Country of the Pointed Firs, embody these three qualities of voice, subject matter, and native speech. Ranging from the gentle satires of "The Dulham Ladies" and "The Guest of Mrs. Tims," to the quiet and oxymoronically understated exuberance of "The Flight of Betsy Lane" and "The Hiltons' Holiday," to the clear-eyed examination of poverty that haunts elderly women in rural America in "Going to Shrewsbury" and "The Town Poor," to the melancholic and gentle containment of female emotion and energy in "A White Heron," "The Only Rose," "Miss Tempy's Watchers," "Martha's Lady," and "Aunt Cynthy Dallett," the stories continue to be impressive as brilliant economies of narrative, full of subtle feeling and rich psychological observation, never heavy-handed, and always emotionally affecting without venturing into either sentimentality or melodrama. And by making the claim at the end of the preface that The Country of the Pointed Firs, along with The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, will be one of three American texts to stand the test of time, Cather both pays homage to Jewett and, in the light of what she later writes, seems to fulfill what she feels is her final, artistic obligation to her friend and mentor as well.

Because when we turn to Cather's comments about Jewett written nearly a decade later, in the expanded version of the preface entitled "Miss Jewett" and in "148 Charles Street," contained in the 1936 volume Not Under Forty, we witness a distinct pulling back from the influence of Jewett, who no longer seems to be Cather's as much as she now belongs to a fading nineteenth century, symbolized by the image of Jewett in "148 Charles Street" as "the youthful picture of herself in the game of 'Authors'" (Not Under Forty 54) Cather had played as a child that is simultaneous with Cather's first meeting of the woman who would aid her so much in her own development. Seen retrospectively in this highly charged moment, Jewett is both alive and already consigned to the past, the memory of the playing card from Cather's childhood as much an artifact as the lock of Keats's hair kept under glass in the long drawing room of Mrs. Fields.

It is Cather's reframing and, I would argue, diminishment of Jewett as artist that is most notable in the expanded preface published as "Miss Jewett," and it is conveyed through subtle touches that camouflage the force of the critique. Cather begins by describing Jewett's personal attributes, her graciousness and wit, and then asserts that "[s]he had never been one of those who 'live to write'" (85), that her "stories were but reflections" of the "personal pleasure" she derived from "the Maine country and seacoast" (87). With this quick stroke of the pen Jewett has been demoted from one of the three greatest nineteenth-century American authors to a woman who penned "reflections" of "personal pleasure" rather than tightly designed, emotionally nuanced, and artfully rendered fictions of a region and of a time. Jewett the artist disappears into Jewett the woman so quietly it is easy not to notice the decided shift in emphasis. And in a curious backhanded compliment Cather insists that "Jewett had read too widely, and had too fine a literary sense, to overestimate her performance" (89) and that one of her virtues was to admire "contemporary writers of much greater range than her own" (90). Though the boundaries of Maine have never been mentioned as a limitation in any of Cather's interviews or published writing before this, Cather extends the distinctive diction of restriction she employs in the revised preface when she records that Jewett "confined herself" (91) to her narrow medium of rural Maine life and the short story form, and she cites the end of the story "Marsh Rosemary" as an "unconscious piece of self-criticism,—or perhaps as a gentle apology for the art of all new countries, which must grow out of a thin soil and bear its fate" (89-90). Rather than her work being declared a "masterpiece," as it is by the young, enthusiastic student of American literature in the 1925 preface, Cather suggests in this 1936 revision that what she calls "Jewett's little volumes" (92) "must always remain a special taste . . . for a limited audience" (92), an audience that Cather insists must be one with a "sensitive ear . . . trained in literature" (92, 95). Cather's Jewett, in this final analysis, might have written of the people but would not be appreciated by them. Her "little" volumes, their "confined" scope, and their "limited" audience script a figure from whom Cather must and does distance herself, and the reasons for this shift in alliance seem to lie in the realms of both the cultural and the personal.

For what is most startling about Cather's description of Jewett and her work in the revised 1936 preface is that it internalizes and echoes the attacks that the critic Granville Hicks made on Jewett's work in his 1933 volume, The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War. Like Cather, Hicks argues that The Country of the Pointed Firs, "a kind of miracle in pastel shades, varying between a delicate humor and a delicate pathos, is, within its limits, the finest American achievement in its genre and a work of which we can be permanently proud" (103). Yet he also spends the majority of his analysis listing "Miss Jewett's limitations," such as his allegation that "[s]he was lost the moment she stepped outside of her Maine villages" (103), a comment that Cather seems to reiterate in the preface by choosing self-confinement to Maine as part of Jewett's narrow geography of subject matter. Cather also seems to reprise Hicks's diction of diminishment in his characterization of Jewett as "a master of a tiny realm" whose "people live and breathe" in the "little world" she fashions from a "decaying New England" comprised of "a dying world of old men and old women" (105).

Why on earth does Cather do this? What possesses her to deploy such similar language to Hicks, especially since he is also her public antagonist, as he demonstrates in his contentious and unflattering essay "The Case against Willa Cather," published in the same year as The Great Tradition, an essay in which he indicts Cather for the "nostalgic, romantic elements" in her work and for what he regards as her descent "into supine romanticism because of a refusal to examine life as it is" (710)? Sharon O'Brien, in her important overview of how Cather's reputation was shaped throughout the twentieth century by critics and academics, "Becoming Noncanonical: The Case against Willa Cather," suggests that Cather purposefully revised the 1925 preface in an effort to counter critical "dismissals of Jewett as a minor writer whose spinsterish eccentricity and genteel prudishness prevented her from addressing important subjects" (120). Cather, O'Brien argues, attributed the blame for Jewett's "limited audience" not to Jewett herself, but instead "to the development of a new class of unsympathetic readers: young urbanites, born in New York City and educated at New York universities, 'violently inoculated with Freud,' and most likely of foreign descent, perhaps Jewish or German" (120). While it is true that Cather does make these assertions in the revised preface, O'Brien's explanation seems insufficient in that it doesn't even attempt to address Cather's quite specific references to—and veiled critiques of—Jewett's work, rather than that of Jewett's audience, in the revised preface that I have delineated above. Instead O'Brien contends that "[n]owhere does Cather suggest that she was changing her own estimation of Jewett's work or that her own fiction was declining in quality; rather, her essays and letters throughout the 1930s suggest her recognition that the social, political, and institutional structures defining the production and the reception of literary texts were changing, relegating both Jewett's and her fiction to marginality" (121). While this may be broadly true of the essays contained in Not Under Forty, it sidesteps the literal language in the revised preface itself. O'Brien must necessarily ignore the contradictions of affiliation, alliance, and influence contained within the two versions of the preface if she is invested in a narration that preserves the bonds between Jewett and Cather, and in one that admits no ambivalence in Cather herself about what her inheritance as Jewett's mentee just might be.

I would like to suggest that reasons for Cather's complex revision of Jewett as her artistic precursor in the 1936 "Miss Jewett" might be located in domains that are both cultural and personal. As far as culture is concerned, Hicks's attacks (as well as those from other influential critics during the 1930s and 1940s) forced Cather to insist on her proper designation as a twentieth-century writer not burdened by nostalgia for an irretrievable past by consigning Jewett to an enclosed nineteenth-century province. Only by distinguishing Jewett through the limitations imposed by nineteenth-century artistic sensibilities can Cather subtly reassert her reputation established throughout the 1920s as a novelist whose modernist experiments with form signal her centrality both to and—perhaps more important—in her time. By mirroring, albeit unconsciously, I would argue, Hicks's language of littleness and narrowness in her characterization of Jewett, Cather steps away from the mirror and removes herself as the reflected image of Jewett's pupil and mentee. In iterating those characteristics of Jewett that both define and confine her to a specific—and increasingly contracted—space in the American literary tradition, Cather (dis)appears in "Miss Jewett" as "the thing," or perhaps more trenchantly, the writer "not named," the unspoken twentieth-century artist who appreciates what Jewett has achieved even as she dissociates and, quite literally, absents herself from the ethos and the effects of such a nineteenth-century sensibility. It is not so much that Cather simply consigns Jewett to Hicks's pyre in service of her own reputation; rather, she attempts to douse the flames through a language of appreciation at the same time that she positions herself as the spectator rather than the sacrifice when the incendiary critique of a nostalgia, romance, and sentimentality rooted in a feminine nineteenth century is the fuel that lights the fire.

Whatever influence Jewett might have exerted on Cather's early fictions in terms of style and subject matter is no longer acknowledged in the 1930s by the mature writer who has already made both her name and her reputation. Whatever lessons Jewett taught Cather about writing, whatever ways Cather used her as a personal model for how to be a woman writer, are not only no longer relevant but actually under attack in the public sphere. A separation must be effected both in the public realm, to preserve her own reputation, and in the psychological one as well, to preserve her own fiction of a singular, coherent self who has earned, and who fully possesses, her own artistic achievement, especially in the face of critical disparagement. Cather, however, does not simply flee Jewett; traces of the literary "mother" cannot be erased so easily. Instead Cather's unconscious strategy is to incorporate Jewett into herself, to internalize Jewett as mentor, and consequently to sublimate Jewett the artist into the formidable artistic force that was, is, and remains Willa Cather. And this process, I would suggest, arises not only out of cultural exigency but also out of maturation, self-actualization, and the changing self within the life cycle. Paradoxically, the more Jewett is a part of Cather, the more Cather distances herself as apart from Jewett. And I see this as the moment when Jewett's Cather ceases to exist in Cather's imagination and when Cather's Jewett is unambiguously transformed from living influence into literary past, from a woman remembered into memory itself.


Apthorp, Elaine Sargent. "Re-Visioning Creativity: Cather, Chopin, Jewett." Legacy 9.1 (1992): 1-22. Print.
Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Print.
Carlin, Deborah, ed. "The Country of the Pointed Firs" and the Dunnet Landing Stories. Peterborough: Broadview, 2010. Print.
———. "'Someone Young and Teachable': Dimensions of Mentoring in the Fiction of Willa Cather." American Literary Mentors. Ed. Irene C. Goldman-Price and Melissa McFarland Pennell. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1999. 131-46. Print.
Cary, Richard. "The Sculptor and the Spinster: Jewett's 'Influence' on Cather." Colby Library Quarterly 10.3 (1973): 168-78. Print.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. 1936. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. Print.
———. Preface. "The Country of the Pointed Firs" and Other Stories. By Sarah Orne Jewett. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1956. (Originally published as The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. Houghton Mifflin, 1925.) Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.
Fryer, Judith. "What Goes On in the Ladies Room? Sarah Orne Jewett, Annie Fields, and Their Community of Women." Massachusetts Review 30.4 (1989): 610-28. Print.
Hicks, Granville. "The Case against Willa Cather." English Journal 22.9 (1933): 703-10. Print.
———. The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War. New York: MacMillan, 1933. Print.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989Print.
Murphy, John J. "William to Willa, Courtesy of Sarah: Cather, Jewett, and Howellsian Principles." American Literary Realism 38.2 (2006): 145-59. Print.
O'Brien, Sharon. "Becoming Noncanonical: The Case against Willa Cather." American Quarterly 40.1 (1988): 110-26. Print.
———. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.
Romines, Ann. "The Hermit's Parish: Jeanne Le Ber and Cather's Legacy from Jewett." Cather Studies 1 (1990): 147-58. Print.
Sergeant, Elizabeth. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963. Print.
Smith, Eleanor M. "The Literary Relationship of Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Sibert Cather." New England Quarterly 29.4 (1956): 472-92. Print.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987. Print.