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From Cather Studies Volume 12

Introduction: Willa Cather and the Arts

Cather scholarship has always recognized her wide and rich interests in a variety of arts. Richard Giannone’s Willa Cather and Music (1968) was in some ways the prototype for the work gathered in the current volume. Giannone’s careful mapping of the wider musical context for Cather’s fiction, coupled with close and detailed readings of specific novels, suggested a way to marry text and context. The 1960s also saw the publication of early compendia of Cather’s own criticism and journalism—and there, too, the focus was often on her responses to art, drama, opera, and music. Bernice Slote’s collection, The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896 (1967), remains both a key and a suggestive resource, not least because it demonstrates how the very young Cather, at the start of her career, had already worked out “principles” she would then act on and explore in her life as a creative writer. The early Cather had a complex relationship to a late Victorian artistic movement—aestheticism—and as these early reviews and essays demonstrate, she had also taken on board aestheticism’s valorization of art and culture in all their myriad forms, from opera to home décor.

The essays in this volume reach back to that early stage of Cather criticism and demonstrate the continuities across Cather’s life and career, showing that she repeatedly engaged with (entered into dialogue with; reimagined) multiple forms of art. Here is a Cather fascinated by opera and theater, a Cather deeply immersed in the new centers of cultural production that late nineteenth-century America had developed (notably Pittsburgh, where she launched her career as a journalist in the 1890s). This is a Cather fascinated by art and by the arts: performance is central, but also the domestic arts of cooking or craft production, not to mention the narrative arts that had led writers, including Cather, to imagine how African American speech might be represented in prose. “The arts” as they are understood by this volume’s writers, are broad, diverse, and bracingly nonhierarchical. Opera and fine art play their part, but so do the practices of homemaking and what Ann Romines called, in an essay we can now see as one of the first explorations of this wide cultural praxis, “domestic ritual.”

Two developments in Cather scholarship underwrite this volume. First: new forms of contextualization. Literary historians increasingly see Cather as a pivotal or transitional figure working between and across very different cultural periods. Her career, extraordinarily long as it was, began in the early 1890s, only to conclude in the early 1940s. Through five decades of what we might call “cultural encountering,” Cather responded to, and entered into dialogue with, shifts in the terrain of American life. An earlier volume in this series, Cather Studies 10: Willa Cather and the Nineteenth Century, traced her engagements with (rereadings of; revisions of) earlier writers and artists such as Sarah Orne Jewett and historical events such as the Civil War. The previous volume of Cather Studies was dedicated to her imaginative meetings with “Modern Cultures” and situated Cather in dialogue with modernism. Thus a doubled Cather (friend of Sarah Orne Jewett, but also the author whose narrative shaping of A Lost Lady influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own experiments in unreliable narration) is very much this volume’s presiding authorial figure.

A second major and recent development in Cather scholarship is the publication of her correspondence. The 2013 publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, marked a turning point in scholarship about the life and work. Cather’s will forbade the publication of those letters, which led scholars over many decades to paraphrase them rather than quoting verbatim: a significant lacuna has always sat at the heart of the scholarship due to this legal proviso. Following the decision by the Willa Cather Literary Trust to permit the publication of her correspondence, Jewell and Stout’s volume (to be followed by more extensive digital work on those letters) creates a further context in which to understand Cather’s sense of artistic production. Moving between the fiction, Cather’s journalism, and the correspondence, scholars have begun to map the continuities and interconnections between her writing in all its forms. What emerges is a life that was deeply embedded—devoted, in fact, to myriad forms of art and culture. Opera connoisseur, amateur art critic, actress, theater reviewer: Cather was a multifaceted cultural critic, and perhaps one of the first examples of such a figure to emerge in the United States.

Given that so much of Cather’s work was based in historical fiction and looked to the past, such a claim might seem baffling. But as writers in this volume show, even when Cather was writing about the past she was often addressing contemporary questions. Janis Stout’s essay on black speech in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, for instance, shows how Cather might be read within the context of 1930s debates about the African American vernacular.

The collection’s three opening essays explore the ways Cather encountered and represented high and low cultures. Diane Prenatt’s essay focuses on the sheer “thinginess” of Shadows on the Rock, reading out the object-world of that novel to interpret Cather’s depictions of domesticity and family dynamics. Janis Stout’s essay also focuses on late Cather (here, Sapphira and the Slave Girl), situating her use of a “racialized vernacular” within a network of debates about African American speech, its origins, and how it might be depicted in written forms. This essay clearly demonstrates how a contextualized Cather criticism, alert to textual nuance and historical circumstance, then enables a reader to sense Cather’s ongoing relevance. Stout sensitively raises questions of cultural appropriation, investigating the detailed processes whereby the white writer represents black speech. With Sarah Young’s “The Singer as Artist: Willa Cather, Olive Fremstad, and the Artist’s Voice” we are back with a familiar touchstone, namely, the female singer and how such a figure operated as cynosure and inspiration throughout Cather’s career. Young shows how the complexity and richness of cultural criticism helps us see how important real-life singers such as Olive Fremstad were to Cather’s representations of vocality and female power. Young’s Cather is an author fascinated by embodiment and presence—a writer engaged with performative corporealism.

The next set of three essays demonstrates how detailed historical research, often focusing on local features of Cather’s fiction and its production, maps out into larger contributions to our understanding of American culture. John Flannigan’s essay,“Cather’s Evolving Ear: Music Reheard in the Late Fiction,” draws on a great range of musicological sources to show just how detailed Cather’s understanding of composers such as Mendelssohn and Schubert was. Cather here emerges as a figure fashioning complex narratives with their roots within diverse art forms. In “Memory and Image: Graphemics for a New Frontier Icon in My Antonia,” Joyce Kessler revisits W. T. Benda’s illustrations for that novel, exploring the complex interplay between word and image. Her essay shows a pathway from book production (which here involved extensive use of Benda’s images) to the reader’s understanding of a multivalent narrative. Next we move to the city of Pittsburgh, where Cather inaugurated her career as a journalist. In James Jaap’s essay we see the power and complexity of that town’s culture. Jaap’s tracing of the industrial, philanthropic, and cultural development of Pittsburgh sheds new light on Cather’s 1890s preoccupations with “the Kingdom of Art” and the figure of the philistine. She had found herself in a place where debates about the role of art in society were being staged with particular vivacity as Andrew Carnegie developed his philanthropic remaking of urban culture.

The final trio of essays demonstrates the variety of current scholarship. Stephanie Tsank’s “Under the White Mulberry Tree: Food and Artistry in Cather’s Orchards” stakes out fascinating terrain for a food studies approach to the fiction. Her reading of O Pioneers! shows how Cather subtly deployed cuisine, food production, and taste itself as subjects for fiction. Tsank’s readings return us (as do so many of the essays in this volume) to established questions in Cather criticism (here: the significance of place and the role of immigrant experience), but then turn the lens of that investigation by adopting a fresh cultural studies approach. Her writing about food is suggestive and powerful. This essay focuses on the everyday, the domestic, and the ordinary. The next essay, Matt Hokum’s “‘The Passionless Bride’: Love, Loss, and Lucretius in The Professor’s House,” takes us toward the classical world and into a tracing of Cather’s use of intertextual references to ancient philosophy. This is a “high” Cather, if you like: the contrast and complementarity between this essay and that of Tsank is telling. The final essay, Erika Hamilton’s “Advertising Willa Cather as Product,” is a somewhat mischievous addition to a collection of essays on Cather and the arts. Here we see the sheer artfulness that went into the advertising of Cather’s work—the ways her reputation was burnished and the conscious creation of Cather’s literary identity as a kind of hallmark that would guarantee the quality of a forthcoming novel. Hamilton’s excavation of the literary archive reveals the role played by a literary circle (of publishers, marketers, and her agent) in the forging of her public identity.

Cather’s upbringing on the Nebraska prairie and her education at a land grant university might almost define her as a “provincial” intellectual. The essays in this volume demonstrate the very opposite, revealing an endlessly curious Cather whose career in writing might be thought of as not only a journey toward art but also as a lifelong encounter with very many and varied arts.


Cather Studies 10: Willa Cather and the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2015.
Cather Studies 11: Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2017.
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.