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Spring 2001

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Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews

Edited by Margaret Anne O'Connor
Cambridge University Press, 2001; $120
Reviewed by Kari Ronning

Anyone who has been reviewed knows what strong feelings a review can rouse, and how even the praise can seem as wrong-headed as the blame. Maggie O'Connor notes in her useful introduction to this comprehensive collection of the reviews of Cather's books how Cather followed the reviews, even sending clippings (and sometimes comments) home to Red Cloud. Not that O'Connor's task has been so simple as reprinting the contents of a scrapbook! She has sought out reviews from the major and minor periodicals, like the New York Times or the London Mercury; from local and regional ones, like the Nebraska State Journal, the Frontier (Missoula, Montana), or the Santa Fe New Mexican; and from academic presses, like the Yale Review. Many are difficult or expensive to obtain even through Inter-Library Loan.

Almost all of the known reviews are printed in this volume; those that are not are listed at the end of each section. Whenever possible the reviewer has been identified; some of the names are a surprise-who would have expected Randall Jarrell or J. Middleton Murry or I.A. Richards? The student of Cather has known other reviewers by Cather's response to them; James Woodress's biography tells us that Cather wrote her letter "On Shadows on the Rock" in response to Governor Wilbur Cross's review of the book-here is the review. She allowed E.K. Brown to become her biographer in part because she liked an article he had written on her-here is the article.

The arrangement of the book follows the chronological order of Cather's work; each section begins with a reproduction of the title page of the book under discussion (just looking at these is an engaging study). The reviews are printed in order of their appearance, enabling the reader to follow the exchanges of opinion, in say, the controversy over One of Ours, as reviewers responded not only to the book but to earlier reviewers. O'Connor does not stop with responses to the first appearance of a book: reviews of the 1923 April Twilights follow those of the 1903 edition-a particularly good illustration of how standards in poetry have changed in 20 years-and the reader will also find reviews of the 1925 and 1934 movie versions of A Lost Lady, and of the later versions of My Ántonia and The Song of the Lark.

O'Connor's book is handsome, comprehensive, well-organized, and well-indexed. Though it is expensive, serious scholars will want it for their own library, and other Cather readers and students will need it in their public and institutional libraries. It has filled a large gap in our knowledge of Cather and her times.

Ronning is assistant editor of the Cather Scholarly Edition.