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Fall/Winter 2003

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Assessing Willa Cather

I spent the early part of the 1990s researching and writing my own book on Cather (Willa Cather in Context, 1996), but I spent the latter part of the decade working on a collection of other critics' work. That project has now reached completion, with the publication of Willa Cather: Critical Assessments, a four-volume compendium of scholarship issued by Helm Information, an independent British company that specializes in niche markets in literature and the natural sciences. The compilation of this material tells us a good deal about how Cather scholarship has evolved, and illustrates as well the changing culture of academic publishing.[1]

The Critical Assessments series has covered many writers, including a number of "classic" Americans (Twain, Hemingway and Fitzgerald amongst them). The editions tend to be large, if not very large (four volumes; around two thousand pages in all)—they are focused on authors where a solid accretion of material has taken place. In one way, they are versions of a now-common publishing phenomenon, the collection of early reviews of an author's work. In the Cather field, we already have Margaret O'Connor's collection of early Cather reviews (published by Cambridge).[2] As well as the intrinsic scholarly value of this material (reviews tell us about how a writer's reputation was forged, and are essential sources when we want to think about an author's canonical or non-canonical status), there is an additional attraction for publishers. Much of this material is now out of copyright; the costs of such a text are low since reprint fees are often miniscule. In the case of the Cather Assessments I include a large number of these reviews, but since the O'Connor text appeared as I was working on the book, it seemed futile to follow an editorial strategy that was already out there. I thus followed and expanded the other strategy of the Critical Assessments series, by drawing in a very wide selection of writings on Cather: essays on individual works; overviews of her career; biographical pieces; general accounts of twentieth-century American writing that include analysis of her oeuvre. What patterns can we see in this material?

First, the Critical Assessments series has usefully incorporated a section called something like "Writers on the Writer." This is a catch-all for essays or memoirs or reflections written by other authors about the chosen figure; it constitutes an important corrective to the overly professionalized view of literary criticism that would see academic writing as the sole means to understand an author. There are memorable and telling articles on Cather by figures such as Rebecca West, Dorothy Canfield, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, A. S. Byatt. Cather has always been a writer's writer.[3] Many of these pieces (and especially those by West and Byatt) are especially attentive to style, and tend to see Cather as the creator of a unique written signature. Given that much academic criticism has now moved away from the forensic attention to texts that was the hallmark of the New Criticism, it's important to be reminded that it is here, in the detailed texture of her style, that Cather has meant most to her fellow-practitioners. For other writers, it is Cather the conscious stylist who holds sway—as we can see, for instance, in A.S. Byatt's praise for the sinuous, muscular strength of Cather's sentences.

Second, a long view of Cather criticism reinforces one's sense that it was literary-critical feminism in the 1970s that helped to secure her place. One senses a real explosion of criticism after that time; but one also notes some really fresh readings of Cather entering into the mainstream and fructifying later criticism. I'm thinking here of Ellen Moers's Literary Women—a study that seems to have stood the test of time.[4] We can also chart from this moment a movement toward a more expansive, freewheeling interpretative relationship to Cather, after the solid editorial work of the 60s by Slote, Faulkner, and Curtin. Moers's pages on Cather illustrate this well—they are speculative, suggestive, provocative, and open to question in the most positive way. One comes away from reading Moers with a renewed interest in returning to the texts. Of course, earlier criticism had this virtue too (one thinks of Canfield's "Daughter of the Frontier" essay), but the post-70s criticism shows decisively that Cather's work was weighty and dense enough to sustain the imaginative and exploratory criticism we associate with the finest writers.

Third, to re-read a swathe of Cather criticism is to realize that there are a good number of pathways into her work that remain relatively unfashionable. Here, I'm thinking of that "history of ideas" criticism, blended with an analysis of religious themes, that has been developed by John Murphy. Although outsiders tend to think of Cather's work as now "colonized" by feminist criticism, there is a great pluralism to the scholarship. One might even argue that there remains a real radicalism in the ways that Murphy and others have charted Cather's spiritual themes. Death Comes for the Archbishop, above all, has been enriched by the forensic criticism that shows how deep, sustained and idiosyncratic was Cather's engagement with a range of religious sources.

Fourth, this theme of pluralism steadily becomes a dominant motif in the scholarship. What is the "center" of Cather criticism today? Well, it would be hard to put one's finger on a center or even a number of centers. Clearly, criticism that grows out of the 70s revolutions remains important, and has now evolved into a range of schools of thought that embraces queer theory and psychoanalytical work, too. And there has been an increased interest in the contexts of Cather's output, as scholars have sought to position Cather back in that American culture which she so often seemed to be distancing herself from. But there are limits to pluralism. I wanted to include a number of essays on Cather and "modernity" or on "Cather's modernism"- essays that would relate Cather more generally to the seminal figures in American modernism, to Fitzgerald or Stein or Hemingway. I was struck by how few and far between are the arguments that do this convincingly. To be sure, we have Walter Benn Michaels's analysis of Cather, race and nationalism in Our America.[5] His essay on The Professor's House remains a major step in the development of a critical Cather community. But there remains a lot of space to explore here. It's notable, for example, that Ann Douglas's study of modernist New York, Terrible Honesty, touches on a whole range of artists, writers and performers but nowhere mentions Cather as a significant Greenwich Village figure in the inter-war period.[6] Scholars have yet to create truly compelling and wide-ranging accounts of Cather's contribution to a distinctively American formation of modernism.

A further limit might be seen in the inevitable focus of critics on certain texts at the expense of others. There is a continuity across decades of Cather criticism in the centrality of O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop. At the same time, there are striking discontinuities in the rise to fashion of certain other texts, or the (relative) disappearance of other parts of the Cather canon from the critical radar screen. Compiling essays on Sapphira and the Slave Girl, I was struck by how recently it has emerged as a prime text for scholars (largely, of course, because of our heightened sensitivity to the literary representation of race).[7] The same might be said, in general, of "late Cather"—the work from 1930 onwards. This is not a problem unique to Cather scholarship; late periods in many writers' careers tend to be overlooked. Few readers, for instance, recognize that a key modernist such as John Dos Passos continued to work on well after the Second World War. But Cather is special, perhaps, in that the early parts of her career also remain relatively marginal. The poetry has received little attention; and important works such as the McClure autobiography and the Mary Baker Eddy text are difficult to write about because the extent of her involvement is somewhat hazy.

So the final impression was that although Cather has now achieved the sustained critical attention we associate with canonical status, the scholarship remains sketchy in places, both in terms of simple coverage and in terms of the major questions that need to be asked. But we also need to acknowledge that developments in the larger arena of literary studies also impact decisively on the understanding we have of the specific author. New approaches work their way through the research community, and are then steadily applied to individual texts. Here, the multiplicity, variety and sheer imaginative depth of Cather's work is likely to create that "critical sustainability" which proves, in the final analysis, to be one hallmark of canonicity. By and large, my collection concludes with material published in the early to mid 1990s. If I had continued onwards, I would have chosen work that marks the "new materialism" in criticism: essays on Cather and tourism, on Cather as icon, on the publishing industry, on advertising and consumer culture. And then there is the vital paradigm shift mobilized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler, whose commentaries have introduced the ideas of performative sexuality and queer reading into Cather studies: the journey, the Cather journey, continues.[8]


 1. Guy Reynolds, ed., Willa Cather: Critical Assessments, 4 Volumes (Robertsbridge, East Sussex: Helm Information, 2003); Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996). (Go back.)
 2. Margaret O'Connor, Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). (Go back.)
 3. See the various accounts in Sharon Hoover, ed., Willa Cather Remembered (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002). (Go back.)
 4. Moers's study was originally published in 1976, and reissued in the 1980s; it remains in print. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London: Women's Press, 1986). (Go back.)
 5. Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). And see David Stouck's significant evaluation and critique of Michaels in his review of Our America: College Literature 24.3 (1997): 164-168. (Go back.)
 6. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995). (Go back.)
 7. Here the key intervention was Toni Morrison's account of Cather in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992). (Go back.)
 8. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others," South Atlantic Quarterly 88.1 (1989): 53-72. (Go back.)