Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs007.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 7


Willa Cather as Icon

That Willa Cather, in many ways the most elusive of early-twentieth-century American writers, might now be thought of as an "icon" is one of literary history's best jokes. Cather had a long career and moved through a variety of places and jobs and roles during her life. She was something of a moving target, able to transform herself from one literary identity to another. In the 1890s she was a wasp and a critical shrew, a precocious reviewer of books, plays, and music, armed with an acid pen. In the early years of the twentieth century she had become her mentor S. S. McClure's right-hand (wo)man, the managing editor of one of the age's leading magazines. Across her desk came works by many of the era's leading authors. She became an adept businesswoman. As she continually adjusted herself to the literary market, looking for cracks in the publishing industry, Cather took on odd projects that have to be fitted—somehow—into a map of her career. She helped to write, or "ghostwrite," McClure's autobiography, and she edited a muckraking exposé of the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, written by Georgine Milmine. Even before she became a novelist Cather had written across and within a number of literary discourses: reviewing, poetry, muckraking journalism, autobiography, short fiction.

One might put "novelist" in inverted commas, since Cather's inflection of this term was ongoing. Her novels sometimes seemed to their readers, in their plotlessness and episodic construction, to be barely novels at all. Cather herself would adopt the term narrative, in the 1920s, deploying this word in a flexible way to explain the experimentalism of her mature fiction. The range of her works, especially the geographical variety of their settings, would make Cather's identity problematic. Although Cather had achieved fame as a Nebraskan novelist and the author of those quintessential frontier or Old West texts, My Ántonia and O Pioneers!, her regionalist identity was in fact varied and even heterotopic. She wrote about Quebec, London, France, New York, Pittsburgh, New Mexico. There is probably more of North America's sheer geographical variety in her work than in fictions by her contemporaries. And at the end of her life she was working on a manuscript set in medieval Avignon.

These are the well-known facets of her career, but they need to be recapitulated because they bear on Cather's iconicity. An icon, one supposes, is singular. The religious and pictorial origins of the term suggest the meditative stillness of a medieval saint's image or, in the secular realm, the permanence of monarchical imagery (think of Elizabeth I as the Virgin Queen). A certain stasis is implicit in the original meaning of the term. But Cather's iconicity seems less fixed, less determined. In part, this is because Cather was in a continual and changing dialogue with the culture around her—and that culture was itself a highly mobile, commercialized, and transitional network of ideas, images, and narratives. In her relationship to iconicity and its associated themes (celebrity and publicity; literary canonicity and the place of the woman artist) one also senses Cather's ambivalent relationship to modern America. A good deal of evidence suggests that she disliked aspects of the contemporary culture of the icon. She became famous, was awarded honorary degrees, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But she also stepped away from Hollywood, unlike Faulkner and Fitzgerald, and eventually prohibited the filming of her novels. She seems to have become uncomfortable with her own fame, and there are accounts of her resentment at being recognized in public. Cather was an icon discomfited by iconic status.

These biographical details underpin her work's ongoing interest in icons and in a related nexus of themes and scenarios. As many of the writers in this volume note, her stories touch on motifs that derive from a reading of icons and iconicity. A relatively humble figure, Ántonia, might become an iconic figure in the memory of a man far removed from her in place and status (My Ántonia). A young man might flare in the imagination of an older man, and remain there as an embodiment of values lost in a tawdry age of commercialism (The Professor's House). A morally "fallen" woman, the cynosure for rumormongering, sustains an idealized allure for a younger man (A Lost Lady). Two Catholic priests move through a terrain where Christian and secular icons, and the iconic places of indigenous religion, present a varied and complex pilgrim's progress (Death Comes for the Archbishop). A female artist dies tragically and young, but resonates in the imagination of the man who loved her (Lucy Gayheart). Again and again, Cather's texts center on dynamic relationships between an onlooker (or secret sharer) and the object of fascination who achieves, for the viewer, the status of an icon.

The final proof of Cather's status, of course, is her steady movement to the center of the twentieth-century U.S. literary canon. This volume diagnoses a cultural transformation of which it itself is a symptom. But even here there are characteristically Catherian twists to the story. Cather is an icon for a good number of literary scholars (many of them represented in these pages), but she has achieved a status that extends beyond the immediate community that works on her texts. A commentary by poet laureate Robert Pinsky begins our book; Pinsky's poem An Explanation of America (1979) extensively meditated on Cather's work as the major artistic representation of the so-called frontier experience. In a further turning of the iconic circuit, Cather's texts now insert themselves into the works of a future generation of writers, becoming part of an evolving American iconography.