Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs008.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 8


Translating Cather's Worlds

Summarizing a 1931 estimate of New York critics that Willa Cather wrote to Norman Foerster, James Woodress notes that “Randolph Bourne, who died in 1918, and to a lesser extent Henry Canby . . . were the only critics she thought much of. They had an instantaneous perception about quality. It was like having an ear for music: you could tell when a singer flats or you couldn’t. It was instinctive; you couldn’t learn it.” Woodress concludes: “she really didn’t think much of professional critics. James and Pater—also Mérimée—were the critics she liked best” (423). Compared to such august figures, other critics paled, and academic critics were usually seen as nuisances. Yet whatever Cather herself thought of academic critics—and it should be acknowledged that she tried to enter university teaching after she graduated from college and later taught critic-to-be Foerster in her high school English classes in Pittsburgh—the very qualities that readers find paramount in her works require scholarly and critical analysis.

Among the critical pieces Cather’s French translator Marc Chénetier refers to in his wide-ranging, erudite, and witty keynote address to the Eleventh International Cather Seminar in June 2007 (which we have positioned to introduce “Cather and France,” the first group of papers selected from that seminar) is Henry Seidel Canby’s extended obituary “Willa Cather (1876-1947)” in the Saturday Review of Literature, 10 May 1947. Written by a critic who knew Cather well, was her very near contemporary, and closely followed her career since the 1910s, this essay is a knowing and detailed summing up of Cather’s work at the moment when, in Auden’s apt phrasing from his elegy on Yeats, she “became [her] admirers” (247). That is, at the moment when by her death she began to evolve into what Cather Studies 7 delimited in its title as a “Cultural Icon,” Cather’s ability to affect (or effect) her standing as a writer ended and posthumous assessments began in earnest—Canby’s obituary is one such piece. But Canby initially holds off that business in favor of a brief reminiscence of the Willa Cather he knew: “A personable woman, of finely cut features, with a delicate flush which deepened when ideas warmed her imagination, she was definitely an intellectual aristocrat. She had a way of summoning you to a tea or a conference which proved not the less stimulating because commanded.” Continuing this evocation, Canby asserts that “Willa Cather’s mind had the precision of a scholar’s, the penetration of a critic’s, and the warm intellectuality of a creative artist’s.” And she “was one of the few writers I have known who passionately desired to talk of the craft of good writing with only the most indirect reference to her own work” (22).

Chénetier, treating the challenges and joys he experienced in translating nine of Cather’s works into French, confirms Canby’s follow-up assertions: that Cather had “a Gallic mind” and that “the tradition of her craftsmanship was certainly French” (Canby 22). He then extends them in telling detail, offering a unique perspective on the effects Cather’s writing continues to have on readers generally, and on one reader—himself—in particular. For him, Cather’s prose and its meanings seem to demand only essential, vital response—thus translation—rather than critical analysis. In this, his last lecture before retirement, Chénetier analyzes Cather’s work for the first time. He asserts what those familiar with reader response to Cather’s works know that Cather, more than other writers, seems to demand a personal relation with each of her readers. Like Chénetier, we hear the intimate stories she is telling me as each of us reads her books.

Yet beyond these invocations of Cather the person, of the extent and craft of her works, and the imaginative effects of her prose, Canby’s obituary essay bears rereading today as a reminder of how she and her fictions were seen during her lifetime. He concludes: Her art is not a big art. It does not respond to the troubled sense of American might and magnitude realized but undirected, and felt so strongly by such men as Sinclair Lewis in the same decades. It is national in significance, but not in scope. Her colleagues among the men “sweated sore” over that job, whereas her books rise free and are far more creative than critical. She is preservative, almost antiquarian, content with much space in little room—feminine in this, and in her passionate revelations which conserved the life of the emotions. She knew evil, and suffered from the grossness of materialism and the smugness of cheap success, but preferred to celebrate the vitality of the good. The spiritual energy of our frontier, and passion nobly interpreted were her themes. (24) This characterization of Cather at the time of her death, incorporated into a longer essay in successive editions (1953, 1963) of Robert E. Spiller’s 1948 Literary History of the United States, doubtless contributed to the frequent condescension with which her work was seen in the 1950s and 1960s. Even though Canby saw that Cather was not naive (“she knew evil”), critics who followed caricatured her as a genial maiden aunt, pure in her sensibilities, deeply devoted to her “Art,” as very fine but not offering the real stuff seen in the works of others, of men—people like Lewis, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Read now, Canby’s benign overall assessment seems to finesse and extend Granville Hicks’s famous 1933 charge against Cather for her alleged “supine romanticism” (147).

Nothing could be further from the truth, as we now know. The contending views of Cather and the significance of her fiction announced by Hicks and his ilk—and responded to by Cather herself in Not Under Forty in 1936 and by E. K. Brown in “Willa Cather and the West” in 1935 and again in “Homage to Willa Cather” in 1946—have been eclipsed since the 1970s by Cather’s arrival as a major critical subject. Numerous instances of that arrival might be cited—major biographies by Sharon O’Brien and James Woodress in 1987, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition (1992–), and a plethora of critical studies, including the Cather Studies series (1990–)—but probably the best single indicator of the popular arrival of Cather as a major critical subject was the appearance of Joan Acocella’s “Cather and the Academy” in the New Yorker in 1995, a piece Acocella later incorporated into a small but impressive book, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (2000). However seen, all this critical work has now established a very different—although in some ways merely much deeper—version of Cather and her works than Canby offered in 1947. Without question, Cather is now a writer to be reckoned with—a figure of genius who drew deeply from numerous sources, traditions, and “worlds”—one whose reckonings with things “not named” (“Novel Démeublé” 50) have ranked her among the leading American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, perhaps even the leading one— without qualification or apology.

Such grand assertions are of dubious worth, of course. As critics, we gravitate to those writers whose works attract, impel, and hold our imagination and interest—connections that vary from person to person, critic to critic. Yet as Cather’s reputation has been ascendant, there is ample evidence that her works increasingly attract both a broad range of readers and, equally, critics of sharp intellect and scholarly persistence. Such interest as this—seen most recently in the ubiquity of My Ántonia as the choice of so many National Endowment for the Arts–sponsored “Big Read” programs across the United States—owes to the quality of Cather’s writing itself and to the feelings it evokes. One need only sit for a while with the explanatory notes in a Cather Scholarly Edition of one of the novels (though Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock serve this purpose best) until the deep allusiveness of her art, its imaginative and learned scope, and the craft that transports them become clear.

This means that Willa Cather, more than other American writers of her time, requires “translation” from her critics—and whether she wanted us or not, whether she appreciated academic criticism or not, we are “her critics”—in more than the literal sense of translating from one language to another that Chénetier addresses so well. What Cather’s art continues to reveal again and again in myriad ways despite its apparent simplicity— famously commented on by Wallace Stevens after the publication of Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), that “you may think she is more or less formless” (381)—is its deep need for critical investigation and explanation of hidden recesses. And these recesses, beneath apparently clear surfaces, contain complex celebrations of the “great facts” of the American process of accommodating cultural precedents. Cather transforms such facts and makes them new through profound art. As Canby notes, her “feeling for vital passion in any of its forms . . . gave her power over a theme unique to the nineteenth century, the overflow of vigorous men and women from the old world into a new country, after a thousand years of stability” (24). Yet by the time Cather died in 1947, this assertion was well known—Dorothy Canfield Fisher had made substantially the same point in a 1933 profile in the New York Herald-Tribune, and the centrality of Old World precedents in Cather’s work informs E.K. Brown’s essays and the Cather biography he would later undertake. But the scope of this theme is still being discovered, as is so much about Cather’s worlds.

The qualities of her fiction become most clear in her appropriations of the cultural mores of the Old World, its aesthetic traditions and assumptions, in the ways she brought them to the New. In her stories Cather transformed them utterly. She certainly was—if any American novelist from the first half of the twentieth century can claim to be—the writer who, like Virgil, “was the first to bring the Muse into [her] country’” (My Ántonia 256). What is more, and in this regard it might even be claimed that her view was even larger than Henry James’s, Cather’s intellectual intercourse between the Old World and the New was a two-way street. If James primarily sent Americans to Europe, Cather experimented with that approach in early fictions (later returning to it in a particular guise in One of Ours) but with O Pioneers! largely reversed the flow, moving people and culture, as Fisher and Canby both noted, from the Old World to the New.

Thus far, we have been delineating Willa Cather, her reputation, and her works in order to introduce this collection of essays from the Eleventh International Cather Seminar, held in Paris and Provence from 24 June to 1 July 2007. Sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation of Red Cloud, Nebraska, and titled “Willa Cather: A Writer’s Worlds” to reflect the many locales and cultures informing Cather’s fiction, this was the first Cather seminar to be international in every sense of the term—participation, location, and focus. A lifelong Francophile, Cather first visited France in 1902 and came back repeatedly throughout her life—to Paris, Aix-les-Bains, Avignon, Arles, and other places. On that first visit, at age twenty-eight, she was introduced to Provence and its landscapes. Just under ten years later, in April 1912, when she visited the American Southwest for the first time—the region that was to be so important to her subsequent work—The Song of the Lark, The Professor’s House, and most significantly Death Comes for the Archbishop—she saw its landscapes through the prism of her memories of Provence. In 1920, when she was working on One of Ours, Cather and Edith Lewis spent that summer in the Latin Quarter of Paris near the Cluny museum because Cather wanted to “live in the Middle Ages,” as Lewis wrote in Willa Cather Living. “And we did live in the Middle Ages, so far as it was possible” (119).

The weeklong seminar program began at the Café Solférino on the Boulevard St-Germain of a clear, crisp Sunday morning, continued through museums and Cather-related sites, and included a day of presentations at the Sorbonne. We then traveled by TGV to Avignon and Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet near Tarascon and were immersed in Provence and its culture as Cather saw and valued it. We were joined at the Abbaye by another keynote speaker, novelist A. S. Byatt, whose address “Telescope, Microscope, Window—Cather’s Distance from Her Texts” detailed one novelist’s deep insight into another’s methods and techniques. Byatt remained to spend the balance of the week with us, sharing her appreciation of Cather and exchanging ideas with participants. From the Abbaye—the site of most conference sessions—excursions left for Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence, and Avignon, where we visited the Palace of the Popes, the setting of “Hard Punishments”—potentially Cather’s only exclusively Old World novel.

Although the Eleventh International Cather Seminar was sponsored by the Cather Foundation, it was indebted to other institutions and individuals and the work of many hands. Because of the costs involved, the seminar was supported by several educational institutions in both the United States and France through financial contributions and the funding of participants, and by significant donations from private donors as well. The University of Nebraska system was especially generous, as was one anonymous donor. Certain individuals need to be singled out for their significant labor. Our colleague John J. Murphy, who directed the first Cather Seminar in 1981 and is the leading scholar on Cather’s use of French culture, was the driving force behind this project; his unflagging energy and commitment from first to last were crucial to both the seminar and to this collection. In many ways they are the apogee of his lifelong unwavering commitment to Cather studies. Sally Murphy’s lifelong, unwavering commitment to John and to their family has led her to work as hard and as continually on the seminar and on this collection as any of us have. Betty Kort, then Executive Director of the Cather Foundation, was characteristically precise, thoughtful, and diligent about the preparations the seminar required. At St. Lawrence University, Nancy Alessi kept track of all the logistics with dedication and good humor, just as she did for the 1995 International Cather Seminar in Quebec City. Equally, too, we thank Louis Dupont of the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)—long a friend of the Cather effort—who found his way through bureaucratic mazes to ensure the transportation of the seminarians both to and from Provence and all about the region.

We offer here a broad selection of the presentations given in France—all peer reviewed and revised since then—that well represents the several worlds in play in Cather’s works. Not surprisingly, the first group of essays focuses on Cather’s relation to France, most of them treating her most direct use of France and French culture in a single novel, One of Ours, but others exploring the influences of French writers on subsequent Cather novels. Such considerations open out to other worlds and other books—quite like “the square window” to “the feeling of the sea” in certain Dutch paintings of domestic scenes that Cather noted in her published letter “OnThe Professor’s House” (31). The second cluster of essays pairs Cather innovatively with additional influences: theological, aesthetic, even gastronomical. The concluding group of essays examines Cather as tourist and traveler cautiously yet assiduously exploring a diverse range of places, ethnicities, and professions. These three components are framed by a prelude and a postlude that attempt, respectively, to assess Cather’s application of past writers to a broken twentieth-century world and to examine characteristics of her modernism that secure her a place among the consummate fine artists of fiction.

As Stevens wrote, “you may think that she is more or less formless. Nevertheless, we have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality” (381). In their various ways, each of our critics takes up one or another of Cather’s worlds and confronts the very complexity that makes her work seem untranslatable, that apparent formlessness which ever strikes her readers as effortlessly capturing, as she put it in The Song of the Lark, “life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose” (254–55). She gives us her worlds to inhabit, the sweet and the strong, just like life itself.


Acocella, Joan. “Cather and the Academy.” New Yorker 27 Nov.1995: 56–66, 68–71.
Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000.
Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Collected Poems. 1976. Ed. Edward Mendelson. New York: Vintage, 1991. 247–49.
Brown, E. K. “Homage to Willa Cather.” Yale Review 36 (1946):77–92.
Brown, E.K. “Willa Cather and the West.” University of Toronto Quarterly 5 (1935–36): 544–66.
Canby, Henry Seidel. “Willa Cather (1876–1947).” Saturday Review of Literature 10 May 1947: 22–24.
Cather, Willa. Letter to Norman Forester. 14 Jan. 1931. Archives and Special Collections, U of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries (ms008).
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Charles W. Mignon with Kari A. Ronning. Historical Essay James Woodress. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
Cather, Willa. “The Novel Démeublé.” 1922. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936. 43–51.
Cather, Willa. “On The Professor’s House.” 1938. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Fore. Stephen Tennant. 1949. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 30–32.
Cather, Willa. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Ed. Sherrill Harbison. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. “Daughter of the Frontier.” New York Herald-Tribune Books 23 May 1933: 7, 9.
Hicks, Granville. “The Case against Willa Cather.” 1933. Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ed. James Schroeter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1967. 139–47.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. 1953. Fore. John J. Murphy. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000.
Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.