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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Willa Cather

Reading the Writer through Biographies and Memoirs

The portrait of a great artist, as it finally emerges, must come, I think, from many sources and from many minds. —Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living

It is a paradox of the practice of literary studies that as postmodernism has weaned us from earlier ideas of the author as great originator, as hero, as priest, as godlike creator and taught us instead that the figure of the author is a function of the text, a figure we help to invent as we read, we have all become even more interested in writing and reading about authors. Literary biography is alive and well even though critical attention has centered on literary texts rather than the makers of those texts. I think the answer to this paradox lies in what Michel Foucault says about the author as a human subject. Foucault, while agreeing with the viewpoint that the author is none of the romantic notions I have listed and that any writer, like any other human subject, is the result of ideological shaping in a particular society, nevertheless warns in "What Is an Author?" that "the subject should not be entirely abandoned. It should be reconsidered, not to restore the theme of an originating subject, but to seize its functions, its intervention in discourse, and its systems of dependencies" (137).

That is what I intend to do here, to use some of the memoirs and biographies of Willa Cather's life to speculate about what "system of dependencies" made her the author she was, able to "intervene" in cultural discourse to create a body of work unparalleled in her time and place. In doing so I reject notions that we can fully read a writer's work by simply reading her texts, no matter how sophisticated a set of critical tools we bring to those texts. If an author is a location where language, ideology, and an individual lived life meet, then it is always important to understand the linguistic, social, historical, familial, personal, and ideological contexts that enclosed the human subject who found writing such an essential act of self-definition. We carry on this biographical project in order to enrich our readings of the texts, but in making this broad search through the writer's life and times I think it is also important to remember that we bring ourselves, as human subjects shaped in our times, to the biographical and critical act. In Mapping Our Selves I have proposed that when we seek the figure of the author of works that we care for, we are engaged also in an act of self-construction, an act in which "I am tracing the pattern of the life of my own arteries of action, my own veins of response, searching for correspondence and difference, delighting indiscovery of the self [as well as] the other" (27). Therefore, in constructing the figure of Cather, I intend to be as honest as I can about my own agendas concerning the construction of female subjects in general.

In terms of salient facts, all the biographies and memoirs about Cather tell the same story: born in Virginia in 1873, the first child of a fairly well-off farming family, Cather moved with her family at nine years of age to Nebraska, spent a year on a farm on what is called "The Divide" before moving to the small pioneer town of Red Cloud, where she spent her teen years, followed by four years at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her early adult life was lived as a magazine editor and school teacher, first in Pittsburgh, then in New York at McClure's Magazine. In her late thirties she was able to begin to devote herself full time to writing, while moving between New York, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and later Grand Manan, New Brunswick. Trips back to Nebraska and to the Southwest were frequent and often of some duration. The biographies and memoirs also agree on the importance of a number of people who influenced her life, from her parents and siblings in her close-knit family through her many male mentors and employers and friends, as well as a series of female mentors and intimate female friends. But there the agreement ends. Although making careful use of often similar documentary material available to them at the time of writing, each memoirist, each biographer, constructs his or her own idea of the artist that is Willa Cather.

Since it would be too time consuming to go through each text comparing it to the others in detail, I have chosen two portions of Cather's life for comparison, to show how each biographer reveals his or her agendas of subjectivity through the handling of these two times. The two points for comparison are the phenomenon of Cather's concerted effort to dress like a boy, indeed to name herself William in her teens, and the incident of her brief but intense friendship with Louise Pound while at university. My choice of these incidents, while having the very practical benefit of their being time-limited events, happening at key moments in the early life of the artist and also referred to by all the biographers, are also chosen because of my own interest in the way writers deal with gender, especially how women play with and redefine issues of gender in order to enter into their art. By gender I do not mean simply biological sex or sexual orientation but a lifelong process involving these two categories plus many societal dictates and personal choices that make our gendering an evolving and ongoing life process. For me, consideration of gender is at least as important as the consideration of Cather's political and ideological commitments, her choice of mentors, her career history, or the growth of her aesthetic as a writer. Indeed, gender grounds and interweaves these contexts.

I find various versions of Cather in the five biographies I have chosen as my illustrations. The first biography, published in 1953, is by the Canadian scholar E. K. Brown, who died at an early age while he was still writing the text. His colleague and friend, Leon Edel, took up the task of completing the book from Brown's notes. Like the cover photograph on the 1987 reprint edition, the Cather Brown wishes to portray seems to be a kindly, intelligent lady school teacher who through the cultivation of her writing craft and an imaginative identification with the West, where she had spent her formative years, achieves great literature. In many ways Brown's biography has the effect of normalizing the sometimes amazing woman called Willa Cather, while extolling the kindly, literary craftsperson called Willa Cather.

Possibly this is the elderly Cather he knew, since there was an exchange of letters between them after he sent her a copy of an academic essay he had written about her work. She gently disagreed with his emphasis on place as a defining feature in a writer's life, but as James Woodress comments in his foreword to Brown's book the correspondence indicates a "remarkable" event in Cather's life. Not only does Cather exempt Brown from the "short shrift" she usually gave professors but she goes on "to reminisce about her life and work in a manner utterly uncharacteristic of her letters to persons she had never met" (vii). The two planned to meet, but Cather died before that could happen. Perhaps Cather, who worked hard at avoiding unorchestrated public images, including destroying much of her correspondence in later years, had found the biographer she wanted, one who took great pains with his cogent readings of her texts but, as Brown's biography indicates, knew when to draw the line in the revelation and especially the interpretation of the private life of the writer.

Brown only briefly mentions Cather's boyish attire and connects it with her other forms of rebellion against what he names "the conventionalism of Red Cloud . . . a network of caution, evasion and negation" (47). Thus it is not Cather who is strange. Indeed, the "young girl who dressed like a boy, preferred the conversation of unusual older men . . . who was reputed to hold dangerous opinions about religion as well as to enjoy cutting up animals" (48) must escape the town to the atmosphere of the university where Brown finds her much more at home. In order to construct a Cather who is much more at home in Lincoln than Red Cloud, he emphasizes her intellectual development at college, her beginnings as a writer, and quite rightly too, since Cather did not waste a moment of learning time at Lincoln. However, she did start university at exactly the age most of us do, eighteen, and almost certainly experienced gender as well as intellectual development. The friendship with Louise Pound is handled in a half-sentence by Brown: "Among her principal friends were Louise and Olivia Pound, the sisters of Roscoe and daughters of Judge Stephen M. Pound" (104). Thus Louise is placed safely in the company of her sister and both of them validated by their important male relatives. As Woodress points out, Brown was very dependent on Cather's longtime companion Edith Lewis for his information, and Lewis, as Woodress maintains in his foreword, wanted the kind of book that "touch[ed] on only such facts in [the] personal life as have to do directly with the work" (Lewis qtd. in Brown x). Indeed, it is in his handling of the works that Brown is strongest; his readings show a studied carefulness with text and an associative insight with metaphor and symbol that are compelling readings. As a critic writing at the height of New Criticism, the idea of locating the authors "systems of dependencies" would not be comfortable for Brown. To his eyes her "function" as author and her "intervention" in discourse were unproblematically those of a skilled artisan forging place and people into a great new literature of the North American West. Brown's subtitle, A Critical Biography, is well chosen since it is the critic's skill as a close reader that is most prominent in this text.

Phyllis Robinson's Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (1983) wants a Cather we can warm up to, as is indicated by the use of her first name as the main title and, accordingly, by her practice of calling her subject Willa rather than Cather throughout the text. Moreover, the pictures of Cather chosen for the inside of the text are ones that emphasize her considerable attractiveness as an adult woman. Robinson includes only one of the pictures of Cather in short hair and boy's clothing, and it is the one that I would describe as the most feminine of several shown in later biographies. Robinson's warm humanization of Cather, as opposed to Brown's low-key and rather distant approach to Cather's private life, gives us this narrative of her male clothing and activities: In the same way that Willa created a Nebraska and a Red Cloud that she could live with, she also created an identity of her own that satisfied her, one that was strong, independent, essentially masculine. According to one story, she cut her hair short because her mother was ill and couldn't comb her long curls, then decided that it suited her and wore it that way until she was halfway through college. She had the bluff and hearty manners of a boy and tried to dress as boyishly as possible and do the things that boys do. She liked to go barefoot and fish and canoe with her brothers on the Republican River, or hunt for buried treasure with them on the little island near the mouth of Indian Creek. (31) Robinson leaves us with the impression that all of this is mere healthy tomboyishness, chosen and shaped artfully by the budding writer, certainly not a jarring rebellion that might have shocked family, friends, and townsfolk and certainly not undertaken in conditions of stress or unhappiness.

Although Robinson calls the relationship with Louise Pound a "serious romantic attachment" and is forthright about the fact that Cather seemed "obsessed" and "infatuated" with Pound for two years, she suggests, through her descriptions of Pound—her intelligence, her beauty, her athletic accomplishments—that everyone was in love with her: "A fellow student, who knew both Willa and Louise, described Louise Pound in later years when she was teaching at the university and had become a world authority on folk literature, as having had a hold upon the imagination that was hypnotic"(59). Robinson does assert the importance of the relationship to Cather's youthful definitions of herself: "losing Louise caused Willa the most intense suffering she had ever known. In despair, she vowed to herself to bemore cautious and less impetuous in her affections in the future" (61). However, Robinson also argues that the "openness with which Willa talked about her feelings for Louise suggests that most people did not regard their friendship as perverse or as anything but a not uncommon college 'crush.'" She speculates that the principal effects of this event were to warn Cather off "the idea of loving women in any but a romantic sense" and to begin a life time habit of forming the "intimate relationships in her life . . . exclusively with women" (62).

Robinson exposes a number of the "systems of dependencies" of Cather's youth that would later mark her function as a producer of texts but she does so in order to normalize them or to show them as moderated by later life. Indeed, many biographers, while often emphasizing male difference and idiosyncrasy as proof of talent, seem to want to show that female subjects, no matter how talented, fit into our commonplace ideals of a good woman. While Robinson is the first biographer to suggest that the Pound episode is a marker event in the formation of the artist, she does not perform that necessary act of literary biography, the working through to the connections between life and art, the ways in which the gendering experiences of the young Cather become part of the package of insights and abilities that a writer brings to her work.

In fact, Robinson seems to accept one of Cather's estimations of her own psychology and artistic life as trouble free and rather incidental. Robinson quotes Cather's letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher after Fisher had written a rather lionizing piece lauding Cather as a "Daughter of the Frontier" and theorizing that the "one real subject of all her books . . . is the effect of a new country . . . on people transplanted to it from the old traditions of a stable, complex civilization" (Robinson 272). Cather wrote back, thanking Fisher for the compliments but disagreeing. Robinson summarizes the letter: "Willa had her own ideas, and she wrote to Dorothy that the common denominator of her books was escape. She had always fled the less agreeable for the more agreeable, she said, and she had never made a sacrifice to art"(272). Although the artist should be taken seriously when she expresses opinions regarding her life and work, biographers need not take them as the only authority on the subject. Indeed, their words should be treated with the same hermeneutic subtlety as other sources. In fact, "escape" is an intriguing symbol for understanding the life and work of this illusive woman, and it needs to be read as more symbolically complex than perhaps Cather meant Fisher to understand it or than Robinson understands it in her turn. As well, in estimating an author we should not underestimate the effect of gendering on women's ideas of themselves as artists. It has certainly been very acceptable for women to make light of their talents and skills, pretending they do it all for their own pleasure, to amuse themselves, and if others should take pleasure in their work, well then, all the better. At any rate, statements by authors concerning their own lives and art need to be viewed in the same critical light as others' assessments, with an awareness of personal bias, motivation, and cultural context.

Whereas the Brown text is an able critique of the writer's achievement that largely leaves out the woman, Robinson's is an absorbing narrative of the woman that in many ways leaves out many of the difficulties, challenges, and achievements of the writing. This is consistent with a biographical problem in the treatment of female subjects that Alison Booth explores in "Biographical Criticism and the 'Great' Woman of Letters." Examining the treatment of both George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Booth states: "biographical criticism of women writers, obeying dichotomous conventions, assumes that behind the great creative mind must be a woman who suffers, and, conversely, that the more the woman comes forward in the work. . . , the less great the work" (90). This cultural dichotomy forces biographers to choose between "ambitious" and "erotic" plots for women. If women are to be great writers they must be defined as ambitious for their work, as "the imperial masculine self" is (98). If they are to be defined as women then they are eroticized (or domesticated), made more "womanly," but unfortunately such a figure is "incompatible with greatness" (98).

The publication, in 1987, of James Woodress's Willa Cather: A Literary Life indicates the degree to which the choice of the "ambitious" plot can elevate the writer while denying her full humanity. Woodress is the beneficiary of his own previous book on Cather as well as Bernice Slote's lifetime of work on the biographical detail of Cather's life. He is warmly appreciative of his subject and her many accomplishments and talents without making any attempt to hide her faults. (It was Woodress who shocked my sensibilities as an ex-high-school teacher by relating that Cather sometimes "humiliated students whose ineptitude irritated her by reading their compositions aloud in class" [154]. She was the kind of teacher who was absolutely devoted to the brilliant student and intolerant of those who did not learn quickly.) Woodress's revelation of Cather's elitism fits with the kind of Cather he is constructing. It is, as his subtitle indicates, the "literary life" that concerns him, the way in which the life experiences are shaped to the purposes of a higher goal, literature, that matters to him. Woodress sees the artist as the crafter of herself, as master of her "systems of dependencies," as fully conscious intervener in language, the purposeful builder of a career, of masterworks. As he asserts in his preface: "The person who moves through these pages is an extraordinarily gifted woman. From her Virginia childhood and Nebraska adolescence she made her way through the world with energy and dedication. She went from college journalism to professional journalism, then to magazine writing and editing, pushing steadily towards her artistic objective. . . . It is the task of the biographer . . . to search among the shards to discover the abandoned designs and crudities later perfected" (xvi). From Woodress, then, we receive the sense of an artist as an architect of the self, purposeful from the start. Even if in later life that artist attempts to break the ties with her youthful self, the self is like a treasured ruin of an ancient building for Woodress, "shards" and "abandoned designs" waiting to be pieced together by the literary archeologist. The cover picture on the paperback edition of his biography indicates this aesthetic of biography. The mood of the portrait supports the intelligent, confident, even exacting purposefulness that Woodress's Cather displays. In fact, what Woodress makes of Cather is a kind of Cather heroine, larger than life, above us mere mortals. She is human, of course, but in grand ways that attract and win us.

His handling of the two exemplary incidents I have chosen are predicated on his firmly stated premise regarding Cather and the gender issue: "To state the matter simply, Cather was married to her art and sublimated her sexual impulses to her work. Throughout her life she gave art her highest priority, preferring her work to society, to family, to friends. Few people, of course could follow such a program rigorously, and Cather recognized her obligations to others" (A Literary Life 125). Woodress admits the extreme degree of Cather's teenage "show-off tomboy" ways and notes that they must have made her conspicuous in Red Cloud. He also admits that Cather did not just bob her hair as young women would a generation later but "cut it shorter than most boys," signed her name William Cather Jr. or Wm. Cather, M. D., and "wore boys' clothes, a derby, and carried a cane." He also speculates that "such a child must have taken her knocks from the local busybodies" (A Literary Life 55). However, for Woodress this is simply Cather's way of defying "Victorian norms of behavior for adolescent girls. Her goal in life was to become a surgeon, but that option was not open to girls, or so she must have thought, living in a little prairie town. As a result she refused to be a girl, adopted male values and attitudes and continued the tomboy life she led in her prepubescent years" (A Literary Life 55-56). Once again it is Cather's purposeful and very practical actions taken in the furtherance of a goal that are foregrounded. Woodress justifies his analysis of this stage of Cather's life in terms of her early construction of a masculine young protagonist in her story "Tommy, the Unsentimental." Just as the neophyte writer Cather reads no psychological significance into Tommy's gendering, neither does Woodress into Cather's. For Woodress, speculations about sexual orientation are of "considerable interest," but since "available data gives no objective answers" he sidelines these issues for issues closer to the portrait of the artist as master artisan that he is building. While not averse to speculating on other aspects of Cather's early life and to proposing a purposefulness in career matters that some facts of Cather's life may deny, he is adverse to speculation, analysis, and theorization about her gendering.

Although Woodress gives a detailed account of the Pound incident, he prefaces his narration with this framing remark: "To call this a lesbian relationship, as some critics have done, is to give it undue importance. Pound did not return the affection with anything like the fervor with which it was given. She had many admirers of both sexes, was not inclined to focus her attention on any one individual." Woodress subsumes the "infatuation" into what he calls "a tempestuous psychological experience during this period. [Cather] confessed to Fisher years later that during her youth she was mixed up, tormented; those were years of frenzy, she said" (A Literary Life 85). Importantly, Woodress's characterization of the period of the Pound relationship takes the emphasis off issues of gender and puts it onto issues of the development of the uniqueness of the individual functioning as a writer unencumbered by dependencies. The curious way in which the relationship ended, when Cather published a wounding lampoon of Pound's brother Roscoe, is not interpreted as the vengeful act of a rejected lover or even a woman "frenzied" by unfair gender expectations but as part of Cather's general and often unwise outspokenness, part of her early "crudities" that would later be melded into the courage to speak the truth that is part of art. Woodress concludes that "Cather was a long time learning tact and discretion" (A Literary Life 87).

The adoption of the "ambitious" plot as a yoke for the impressive body of evidence Woodress compiles leaves his biography in the ironic situation of allowing the reader to counter Woodress's arguments with Woodress's own evidence. For example, even though he insists on a Cather who is devoted to art, merely paying attention to others because she "recognized her obligations" (A Literary Life 124), his detailed chronology of her life shows that much of her time and imagination were involved in promoting very rich relationships, especially family relationships, often going out of her way, inconveniencing her art, in the short run at least, to further her relational life. For example, Woodress records without comment or interpretation that after the death of her parents Cather organized a family reunion, reshingled and opened the family house in Red Cloud (closed for the four previous years), and got everyone to come back for a successful celebration of their continuation as a family (A Literary Life 436).

Another result of adopting the "ambitious" plot is the appearance of a feature in Woodress's subjectivity agenda that is endemic in traditional biography: the degendering of the subject. I don't mean the desexualization or the deeroticization of the subject, although these may accompany degendering. I refer to the way in which many traditional literary biographies do not take gendering as seriously as they take categories such as race, class, religion, ethnicity, nationality, historical period, aesthetic training, or any number of contexts in which the literary artist can be considered. And this is true of male gendering as well as female gendering. A biography that is as detailed as Woodress's on its subject is Richard Ellman's James Joyce. As with Woodress's biography of Cather the model of the artist is that of a god above the fray. One has to read Brenda Maddox's Nora, the biography of Joyce's wife, to get a hint of the complex male gendering that both enlivened and tortured this talented man. It may be the wish of a writer to be portrayed as a distant, disembodied small god but it is not necessarily the job of biographers to paint the artist in the tones the artist would wish.

Certainly the author of Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice did not paint Cather as the artist would have wished. Published in the same year as Woodress's text, Sharon O'Brien's biography is self-conscious about exposing the biographical aesthetic that informs the work: In this book I do not intend to represent my subject's core, essential self, a futile project since the self is always changing, always in a process of self-creation. But some patterns can be discerned. . . . Willa Cather was creating rather than discovering a self by drawing on the cultural fictions available to her: the romantic story of self-discovery and the American story of self-transformation. So I use the romantic notion of the unique, essential self to explain Cather's literary and personal development because, in her social and historical environment, she used that belief to fashion the first half of her life.(7)

O'Brien is just as open about her intention to treat Cather as a gendered subject, in O'Brien's view a lesbian gendered subject: "I did not refer to her as a lesbian in the early drafts of the manuscript. But when I came across Cather's love letters to Louise Pound, written during her college years, I changed my mind. This important correspondence persuaded me that 'lesbian' did in fact capture Cather's self-definition and that my biography should consider the impact on the creative process of her need both to conceal and to reveal her experience of desire" (6). Concealing and revealing are at the center of O'Brien's concept of Cather, as shown in her choice of cover picture. This photograph was taken of Cather in 1910 when she was still the managing editor of McClure's Magazine. It presents a very concealing face and dress, opposed by a flamboyant hat, hinting at something quite different than the bland face of the successful editor.

Instead of devoting a page or two to the Cather-as-boy phenomenon, O'Brien names it cross-dressing (thus bringing the weight of feminist criticism on that subject to her argument) and devotes an entire chapter to the youthful gendering. She also includes six pictures of Cather in her boy phase. The chapter "Enter William Cather" uses an artist-as-performer approach, observing that Cather had a number of pictures taken by a professional photographer while in her boy's costumes and notes that there is often a sign of the feminine in her costume "a scarf, a ruffle, a ribbon" (The Emerging Voice 96). O'Brien reads both the deliberateness of having her portrait taken and the deconstructive feminine costume touches as conscious performance of gender experimentation. To illustrate to what degree Cather was breaking the rules of her contemporary milieu, O'Brien uses newspaper advertisements and social pages of the time to find Red Cloud standards of femininity and quotes local historian Elmer Thomas saying, "I remember Willa Cather most for her masculine habits and dress... . This characteristic in those days was far more noticeable because it was very seldom that women appeared dressed other than in strict feminine attire. . . . [she] even boasted that she preferred the masculine garb . . . [the] masculine sex. . .. To me she was never attractive . . . and I remember her mostly for her boyish makeup and the serious stare with which she met you. It was as if she said, 'stay your distance buddy, I have your number.' Enough. I did" (The Emerging Voice 97). O'Brien points out that even in 1973 when she visited Red Cloud, she was told that Cather "had been a 'hermapherdite' who 'wore men's shoes—had'em made special'" (The Emerging Voice 97).

O'Brien theorizes on the possible sources of Cather's gendering. She takes up Adrienne Rich's idea of the mother-daughter relationship as the great unwritten story of our culture, using Nancy Chodorow's theory of the more complex nature of the separation from the mother that is the girl-child's route to maturity and connects this theorizing to the female characterizations in Cather's texts. O'Brien asserts that although Chodorow is correct in saying that the daughter's turn to her father in her identity role, "is both an attack on her mother and an expression of love for her," (The Emerging Voice 103), "as long as Cather devalued women, she devalued herself; as long as she devalued herself, she could not commit herself fully to writing. In reconciling the seemingly contradictory identities 'woman' and 'writer,' she would ultimately challenge and revise social definitions of gender" (The Emerging Voice III). For O'Brien this struggle is the most important "system of dependency" in the development of the author function in Cather. The author cannot intervene meaningfully in discourse until she reconciles her contradictory definitions of femaleness.

This is the process O'Brien traces as the "emerging voice," of her subtitle, and the Pound affair is an important part of that tracing. In the chapter "Divine Femininity and Unnatural Love" she summarizes the letters to Pound and letters to Mariel Gere in which Cather's worries about her relationship with Pound. As well, O'Brien examines the context of attitudes toward female friendships at this time: "Whereas earlier in the century women's friendships were consistent with their dependent status, the affection between women who were declaring their equality—or even more unsettling, their similarity—to men threatened the social, moral, and sexual order. The creation of a category of 'deviance' then served as a means of social control as well as of boundary-setting" (The Emerging Voice 133). O'Brien posits an important social change happening at the historical moment of Cather's love for Pound. Formerly, when women were seen as nonerotic creatures, their friendships were safe; under these new conditions such friendships were not to be condoned. A teacher of Cather's had called love between women "unnatural" and Cather's discussion of this in one of her letters to Pound is the evidence that encourages O'Brien to identify Cather as lesbian: "When Cather told Pound that it was unfair that feminine friendship should be unnatural, she nonetheless agreed with Miss De Pue [her teacher] that it was, she betrayed a self-conscious awareness shared by her community, that women's friendship constituted a special category not sanctioned by the dominant culture" (The Emerging Voice 132).

For O'Brien, this knowledge of the nonsanctioned nature of the friendship supports her argument that Cather has knowledge of her own lesbianism and marks the Pound affair as the beginning of her search for a way to have a voice in a repressive society. O'Brien proposes that midway through college Cather shed her male costuming because "at the end of her Lincoln years Cather was ready to abandon overt signs of male identification since they had served their major function, aiding the adolescent girl's separation from her mother and her rejection of the feminine role" (The Emerging Voice 140). O'Brien disagrees with critics who see male identification as continuing for Cather because of her choice of male narrators and male personae. She sees these choices as in part a necessary concealment for a lesbian and in part Cather's strategy for confronting "erotically compelling women" who represent "the daughter/writer's psychological need to place the barrier of gender between herself and erotically powerful maternal presences" (The Emerging Voice 139). O'Brien traces the gendering of Willa Cather up to the publication of O Pioneers! and Song of the Lark, arguing that through her relationships with maternal surrogates, loving women who gave her emotional and physical spaces to write, Cather comes to discover her voice as a woman writer. O'Brien's readings of the stories and novels cannily bring together her theory of Cather's gendering with Cather's literary production, offering ananalysis of O Pioneers! that posits the artful joining of Cather's masculine and feminine self-definitions in the voice of the mature writer.

On the one hand, in my effort to shift from an exploration of the writer's "dependencies"—her "function" and "intervention" in art—to an exploration that appreciates gender as an underlying factor, I am very much indebted to O'Brien. On the other hand, I have a lingering dissatisfaction with O'Brien's work. Part of it has to do with the naming of Cather as "lesbian." Some epistemological problems arise with this naming. First, for people unaware of the debate going on in feminism concerning the meaning of that word and its rich history, the word can be limiting, positing that the need to hide one's desire for same-sex relationships programs the art. But more importantly, I find that once we name the gendering process by any name that we, in ordinary discourse, associate primarily with a sexual orientation—heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian—we tend to leave out what I consider the most important aspects of the gendering process, the way in which our personal desires are shaped, interact with, and confront a whole ideology of gender that is not simply about sexual orientation but about roles, power, politics, social order, and the aesthetics of cultural production. Gendering, as a lifelong process we are all involved in, is much bigger than our decisions to repress or follow our sexual desires for one sex or another as partners in our lovemaking. I am not suggesting that O'Brien neglects these factors. I am proposing that her biography, by ending where it does, fairly early in Cather's life story, tends to emphasize sexual orientation as the only important aspect of the gendering process.

O'Brien herself expresses interesting opinions about her biographical efforts. In her autobiographical article, "Feminist Biography as Shaped Narrative," she says that "knowing what I do now, I might have chosen to end my biography with some intimations of the darkness that was awaiting Cather after her literary emergence, providing a more muted ending than I did. . .. But such an ending was not consistent with the story of artistic emergence I then wanted to tell" (266). As well as her desire for shaping a happy—indeed, a victorious ending for Cather—O'Brien also confesses, in "My Willa Cather: How Writing Her Story Shaped My Own," that her positioning of her own subjectivity as "power-less daughter" with a fear that "powerful, self-involved" women would leave her "feeling annihilated" (3) was also a factor in her decision. Not only does the biography suggest, by ending at the moment of "emergence" of voice, that a resolution of the gender issues has been reached but also, by avoiding the years when Cather's power drive sometimes had eccentric and negative expressions, O'Brien's gender theory cannot approach the life of a woman of high achievement past the youthful stages, past the happy endings of breaking into the male-dominated world of public language. As a result, O'Brien's Cather, shown as successfully separated from her mother and matured through relationships with women mentors and friends, seems less a gendered person at the end of the biography and thus, by more traditional masculinist standards, a better writer. O'Brien concludes that gender is less central to the later novels.

Here I part ways with O'Brien. I would contend that gender—whether you are heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, celibate, impotent, merely bored, or obsessed with your sex life—gender, as opposed to sexual practice, because it is a socially produced factor interacting with the daily experience of living in a body, is always important no matter what your age. O'Brien ends her book with the words "the disclosure of a woman writer's power" (The Emerging Voice 448), and I believe that it is exactly when a woman takes up power, any kind of power, that gender conditioning becomes most problematic. Far from having arrived at a comfortable place in gender with her first successful novels, Cather's increasingly complex gendering is just beginning. Even though her sexual life may seem absent or at least settled by middle age, the ways in which she is defined as woman and writer are just beginning to come to the fore. I think there is much still to discover about the gendering of Cather in the second half of her life, discoveries that will help explain that "darkness" in the midst of public success that O'Brien notes in Cather's life, a darkness that plagues the life of any woman who takes up power in the public world.

I also think more biographical projects are necessary because, with the publication of O'Brien's and Woodress's contrasting biographies, Cather is starting to become the kind of cultural figure that Virginia Woolf is in England: the woman whose life and writing allow prismatic access to a particular cultural era. As a cultural figure she embodies salient features of her times and helps us characterize the age in which she lived. In characterizing that period we ultimately are seeking a way of knowing our own selves as products of these times of great change that have preceded our own. This possibility underlies Hermione Lee's argument in Willa Cather: Double Lives.[1] In this first major British biography of Cather, Lee proposes to show that Cather is part of a larger "project to take over a male tradition of writing" (13) that involves writers such as Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Gertrude Stein. Her cover picture of Cather (on the American edition) reflects the large role she sees for Cather: it is a substantial, older Cather, suitably androgynous and strong looking under her unisex hat and enclosed by the natural space that O'Brien sees as essential to her part in the feminist project. Cather's function as writer in this feminist project is a critical one, "to appropriate the dominant male critique of female weakness and emotionalism" (Lee 13) and to "intervene . . . in a masculine language of epic pastoral" (5), a task Cather is perfectly situated to undertake as an American, a Westerner, and a successful professional woman and writer. Lee sees Cather as redefining the human relationship to space, by managing to stage the continuing "fracture" in the "American imagination between romance and realism, space and confinement, pioneering energy and elegiac memorialization" (12). She insists that Cather's ability to do this has "everything to do with her sexual alienation from conventional femininity" and is "emotionally defined by her deep feeling for one woman and her lasting companionship with another" (10). So although Lee avoids naming lesbian identity, she does insist on the gendering of her subject as a vital ingredient in the "project" in which she places her. Given this, it may seem surprising that Lee gives the boy phase short shrift, easily explaining it as "the symptoms of a furious resistance to parochial narrowness and the genteel conventions dictated by her mother"(38). Her judgment on the Pound relationship is equally swift, "Even if the whole Louise episode makes rather silly reading . . . it reveals for us . . . a touching mixture of bravado and anxiety about her sexuality"(42).

I find that this short shrift given to gendering is symptomatic of the arms-length distance Lee keeps from Cather's life as a girl growing up in Nebraska and her life as an American (not a British) woman throughout her text. I get the impression that Lee would prefer to move Cather to Europe with the other expatriates and that she often sees Cather's middle-class upbringing in Nebraska as entirely a negative feature to be shed by Cather. Lee observes at the end of the chapter called "Home": "Her re-vision of Nebraska was to be a struggle between sentiment and revulsion. Her return home would fill her each time with the old fear of never escaping and a recognition that this was the place which would always 'get' her" (44). Despite the fact that it is a welcome turn in Cather biographical representation to see a critic begin to place Cather in terms of both American and European literary histories as well as in a feminist enlargement of those histories, I think it is wise for biographers from outside the American context to investigate their own attitudes toward America when writing about American subjects. I think Lee's experience of Red Cloud, which she recounts in the introductory chapter, "Journeys," is an important statement of her relationship to her biographical subject. After deploring everything from Red Cloud's redneck attitudes to the eating habits of Nebraskans (she seemed to have met a very narrow range of them) she concludes, "I couldn't help feeling the extraordinary contrast between the immense landscape and the little, claustrophobic, provincial town, or noticing, even at a glance, the signs of cultural assimilation and stagnation Cather had anticipated" (3). Biographers coming from outside America to consider the life and work of this quintessentially American figure need to investigate their own national and cultural agendas concerning such subjects as margin and center and the class values that construct aesthetic values. In my own case, as a Canadian, I try to keep in mind how Canadians' experiences of space, western settlement, and national myth making have differed from those of our American neighbors, and I think British scholars will need to examine their attitudes toward high and low culture and the way in which America blurs boundaries in this regard. Critics like Lee also need to give special attention to the way English identity is especially informed by an intense and very specific class consciousness. Although America is not a classless society, class works quite differently in America than in England, and some of those rural stereotypes she found in the "Prairie Pizza" in Red Cloud may not be, in fact, as easily placed as she seems to think. However, I hasten to add that it is Lee's self-revelation in "Journeys," like O'Brien's in her articles on biographical process, that allow me as reader to better understand the biographer's construction of subjectivity. This treatment of the self of the biographer is welcome to the critic wishing to theorize the relationship of biographical subject and biographer, a necessary practice in a time when we no longer believe in the definitive biography.

Although, I hope, there will be future biographical projects on Cather, ones that make use of the now solid foundation of research that has been established, no biography can ever accomplish the special intimacy that a well-written personal memoir does. Even though I agree with O'Brien and other feminist biographers that a relationship exists between biographer and subject, that literary relationship cannot replace an actual relationship. The personal memoir, unlike biography, is always based on a relationship with the subject, and through detailed descriptions—not only the physical appearance, manner, dress, voice, and gesture of the other but also the quotidian details of conversation; the physical settings of meetings in homes, gardens, restaurants, and libraries; the telling of shared jokes, favorite sayings, and pet peeves; the narration of disagreements over everything from summer vacations to socialism—the memoirist embodies the subject for the reader. Biographers need to heed these details in making their dramatic reconstructions of their subjects and in heeding them they also need to acknowledge their debt to them.

I will quote at length from two memoirs of Cather, Edith Lewis's and Elizabeth Sergeant's, to illustrate what I mean by embodiment of the subject. Both reconstruct their first meetings with Cather. Lewis met Cather in the home of another admirable western woman, Sarah Harris: Willa Cather and Sarah Harris were having a spirited discussion about something,—I have no idea what—and after I was introduced, they paid no attention to me, but continued their conversation. Willa Cather, a rather slim figure, in a gray and white striped cotton dress, was sitting very upright in a straight-backed chair. She had curling chestnut-brown hair, done high on her head, a fair skin; but the feature one noticed particularly was her eyes. They were dark blue eyes, with dark lashes; and I know no way of describing them, except to say that they were the eyes of genius. . . . Willa Cather's eyes were like a direct communication of her spirit. The whole of herself was in her look, in that transparently clear, level, unshrinking gaze that seemed to know everything there was to be known about both herself and you. (xi-xii) Lewis does not stop at the physical description but goes on to describe Cather as an interactive person:

I had been silent, a fascinated spectator, while Willa Cather and Sarah Harris carried on their duel of words; but when I got up to go, Willa Cather accompanied me to the door, and there she stood and talked with me for fifteen or twenty minutes, giving me her whole attention. She talked to me as if we were fellow-students, both pursuing the same vocation [Harris had published Lewis's college themes] . . .

Willa Cather asked me how many hours a day I worked, and what I found the best time of the day for writing; what I liked best to write about. I do not think it was tact, or that she was trying to put me at ease. She had always a warm, eager, spontaneous interest in people. It was impossible for her to make a perfunctory approach to anyone; she wanted at once to get beneath the surface, to find out what they were really like.(xii-xiii)

In Sergeant's account Cather is framed by her career accomplishments, as the managing editor of McClure's (I have excerpted considerably as it is a long description): "Her eyes were sailor-blue, her cheeks were rosy, her hair was red-brown, parted in the middle like a child's. As she shook hands, I felt the freshness and brusqueness, too, of an ocean breeze. Her boyish, enthusiastic manner was disarming, and as she led me through the jostle of the outer office, I was affected by the resonance of her Western voice, and by the informality of her clothes—it was as if she rebelled against urban conformities." Once they are in Cather's office, where she is to look at Sergeant's writing, the breezy tomboy is gone: "Watching her with a beginner's tremor I felt the impact of something beneath her editorial mask: crude oil, red earth, elemental strength and resoluteness. Her sheer energy was alarming to a shy New Englander. . . . Nebraska had been mere geography to me till I met this tense dynamic person, with her homespun brilliance. Now I wanted to know where she ended and Nebraska began." Cather examines the manuscript and after some political sparring that is to become typical of their relationship, she judges it worthy of revision, introduces Sergeant to her chief, McClure, and officially becomes Sergeant's editor. Then, unlike a typical magazine editor, she accompanies Sergeant down in the elevator, in the same way as she escorted Lewis to the door, making a literary friend of her as she goes: "'There are only three or four people in the whole world with whom I can talk about books,' Willa Cather said to me with a confiding look and that hesitation in her voice which I already associated with emotion. . . . Flaubert, Balzac, Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sarah Orne Jewett—we were deep in them in two seconds, so deep that when the elevator stopped Miss Cather motioned it imperiously on its way" (33-40). Personally, I like this image of Cather and Sergeant riding up and down in an elevator, making literary critique:

Then as the elevator insisted on coming to a full stop, she gave me a little push, a sort of pat and cried effervescently, as the door slammed:

"To our next meeting!"

It was as if I had had a cup of champagne. (41)

As I read the ways that these women embody the charismatic Cather they knew, I was brought closer to the Cather that had been forming in my head while I read the biographies but that could not embody itself until I read these memoirs. An insistent set of related questions kept popping into my head: What was it like to raise a child as precocious and charismatic as Cather? What was it like to be in the same family, to be her grandparent, her sibling, her niece? What was it like to parent a child who was at once so insistently individualistic and at the same time so terribly needy of intimate relationships? What was it like to have a child who could equally charm anybody in town she wanted as a friend or shock the entire county with her goings on? How do you raise such a child so as to keep her safe while not perverting or destroying her special qualities? I realize that these are maternal or parental questions and I willingly admit that they stem from my own subject position as a family person, which makes me put myself in the place of her parents, her siblings, her extended family, and the townspeople of Red Cloud, the whole village that they say it takes to raise a child.

Many biographers take quite a stereotypical attitude toward the artist's family: it is either a site marking early influences to be shaken off as soon as possible in order to become the self-defining individual artist or it is seen merely as a passive vehicle of the ideological interpolation of the child. However, Cather was an artist—and I think the facts of her life bear this out—who was integrally and interactively involved with her family all of her life; that relational bedrock, more than any necessary separation from early influence, helped make her art possible. I offer a few family facts that I find biographers have not yet fully considered: Cather was her parents' first and only child for four long years. They thought her so special that when she went to college not only did they finance her (not a typical act for parents of a girl in that time) but they also locked up her room and despite the crowded household no other child was allowed to use it. Cather not only spent her childhood in intimate play with her brothers but actually went on holidays with them, at their enthusiastic instigation, when she was a middle aged woman. Cather's mother, the strong-willed imperious beauty noted by all biographers, was also the kind of mother who, when it was pointed out to her that young Willa was wasting the music teacher's time by asking questions about topics unrelated to music, is said to have retorted that the teacher had better come twice a week instead of once. Cather's relationship with her mother continued to be one in which her mother held great authority. For example, knowing how the heat depressed her daughter and made her cranky, her mother had to tell her, when she was old enough to know better, to please delay her annual summer trip home, she would be wise to come after the weather cooled a little (that was the year she and Lewis found Grand Manan). Cather was a special person to all her family members. Even her nieces remember fondly the pleasures of unpacking their aunt's wonderful, expensive clothing and shoes when she came on her many visits home. And in her old age Cather not only yearned to be with her extended family as often as possible and managed it as often as she could but she also took on a whole surrogate family, the Menuhins.

My reading of Cather's life and works convinces me that Cather remained her mother's child all her life. This does not mean she remained childish, as a Freudian separation analysis would read adult mother-attachment. Rather, her continuing intense bonding with her mother allowed her to be childlike in ways that creative people, especially creative women, must be. The fluid and vulnerable ego boundaries that result from such a bond can make life difficult at times, can cause many self-protective, eccentric behaviors but they also allow that necessary ability for the creative person wishing to express an art based on a relational universe: the ability—in a very dramatic and intensely physical, emotional, and psychological way—to become the other. The way that Cather, in her art, takes on the guise of so many very different others is a sign of that ongoing relational bond with the personal mother. As critics and biographers we need to entertain the idea that the dominance of the mother (and mother surrogates) in the psychic life of her offspring to the point that even as an adult the child never quite believes in her own separate existence, may well be a mark not of a failure to achieve maturity but of the achievement of a maturity based on the imaginative ability to put oneself intensely in the place of the other.

Therefore, when I analyze those two dramatic times in Cather's early life, I see in the cross-dressing a creative person able to enter so fully into the role of the other that she adopts costume, manner, attitude, and a full embodiment of the other. Her actions do not surprise me; I am surprised only by the wisdom of the parents who tolerated and permitted it. The intensity of her love for Pound indicates the degree to which she was intensely involved with the figure who is each person's first love, the mother. The negative side of this "system of dependency" has been theorized by many biographers of many artists; however, the positive and ongoing nature of the bond, the ways in which it enables the artist's function, her intervention in discourse, has not been considered. I find that Cather's ability to be her male characters and to construct female figures of such complexity rests in this system of dependency. And if, as Cather asserted to Fisher, her life theme was "escape," it was an escape that she undertook on behalf of that mother who could not escape the boundaries and conventions that held her.

As well, because Cather was an unmarried woman, I think biographers have overlooked how much she was a family person and how central a fuller understanding of that family life is to a richer reading of her fiction. Just as we need new insights into the nuances of gendering we also need to connect those insights to a more nuanced view of family. In putting Cather more completely back into her family we should not seek to give her any of the stereotypical familial roles in which unmarried women are cast by popular psychology: for example, as victim of unimaginative maternal conventionality or as unproblematically daddy's favorite girl or as selfless maiden aunt. So I would like to propose that future biographers begin to look at Cather as a family person and at Cather's family in a new way. To indicate one of the first directions that investigation might take, I think an extension of O'Brien's work on the mother-daughter relationship would be a good place to start. Chodorow has said that "daughters never abandon the intense preoedipal attachment to their mothers" (qtd. in O'Brien, The Emerging Voice 104) and Lewis records that "Willa Cather always said she was more like her mother than like any other member of the family" (7). For me, as for a number of feminist theorists, this relationship is the central "system of dependency" that forms the author function and builds and shapes the power to intervene in discourse. Bernice Slote has observed that "Willa Cather's imaginative world was one of subtle human relationships in settings of extraordinary physical reality" (ix). I propose that the most subtle relationship and the most extraordinary physical reality of Cather's life, both in her early development and in later life, were those with her mother followed very quickly by her grandmothers. Some of the exploration of the early effect of the mother-daughter bond has been done. However, in terms of the effects of the bond in Cather's later life—with all the illnesses and deaths, the bittersweet results of fame, as well as the considerable literary output and the central importance to her of female intimates—the subject has hardly been touched.


 1. In changing the subtitle for Lee's text from A Life Saved Up to Double Lives, the American edition subtly changes the way we read the text. I try to read it with both namings in mind. (Go back.)


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