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Fall/Winter 2003

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Cather Studies, Volume 5: Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

Edited by Susan J. Rosowski
University of Nebraska Press, 2003
Paper: $35.00
Reviewed by Derek Driedger

The 16 essays included in the fifth volume of Cather Studies derive from the focus of the 2000 International Cather Seminar held at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. Following the first themed volume, Willa Cather's Canadian and Old World Connections (volume four), this latest collection applies elements of ecocriticism to Cather's literature. By applying ecocriticism—a field that bridges the gaps between literature and the sciences—these essays analyze Cather's depiction of place with a number of approaches. Therefore, in reading this volume, one will come across many topics discussed in accordance with Cather's literature, such as: geography, history, architecture, gardens, conservation, agriculture, botany, music, imagination, national parks, war, art, language, identity, immigration and more. Along with these widespread issues, the essays also cover varied localities of North America that were important to Cather: Arizona, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Quebec and Virginia. One might judge that a themed issue serves to focus or limit the range of topics published; however, anyone who has read Cather recognizes the several rich thematic layers that she weaves within her literature. Such layers coupled with the interdisciplinary approach of ecocriticism makes one quickly realize that the variety of topics is not a weakness, but a tribute to the craft of a writer whose literature invites such diverse readings.

Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination contains a number of essays from recognized ecocritics who supply readers with several insights to Cather's writing. For example, in "Nature and Human Nature: Interdisciplinary Convergences on Cather's Blue Mesa," Glen A. Love explores how The Professor's House provides a clear opportunity for scholars to use principles of evolution and ecology to consider literature "from a fresh, new perspective." Cheryll Glotfelty explains in "A Guided Tour of Ecocriticism, with Excursions to Catherland," that it was a series of conference papers centered on Cather and the environment that lead her to ecocriticism. In "Willa Cather: The Plow and the Pen," Joseph W. Meeker analyzes several Cather texts to question whether her "environmental imagination" reaches the level found in the writing of Muir, Thoreau, and Eiseley. Thomas J. Lyon's "Willa Cather, Learner" does place Cather among the great nature writers, suggesting that her use of history was not nostalgic, but a "reinhabiting" because of the affectionate way that many of her characters view nature. With such important scholars included, a a reader interested in ecocriticism might be introduced to Cather because of this themed volume.

Many of the other contributors are names those who have read Cather criticism will recognize. For example, Joseph Urgo's "My Ántonia and the National Parks Movement," examines Jim Burden and finds the influence of the conservation debate, as well as a visit Cather took to Mesa Verde in his thoughts and actions. In "Willa Cather's Great Emersonian Environmental Quartet," Merrill Maguire Skaggs mixes a discussion of music, gender, landscapes, and Emerson to analyze four consecutive novels "designed around environments" (The Professor's House, My Mortal Enemy, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock). In "Admiring and Remembering: The Problem of Virginia," Ann Romines delves into Cather's memories and use of Virginia in her work, suggesting that Sapphira and the Slave Girl allowed Cather to explore the problems associated with remembering her first home, but did not provide a definite resolution. These and other Cather scholars bring a wide range of views and interests, providing readers with essays of a quality that readers have always found in Cather Studies.

While the essays included offer responses for every Cather novel, a reader also recognizes the ongoing discussion of Cather in academia that is expanding to utilize more fields of study. Cather Studies not only covers, but also more importantly advances the expansion of Cather's work with this fifth volume. Grouped together, all five published volumes of Cather Studies provide an excellent resource for one to learn of, and contribute to the growing discussion of Cather's life and vocation, whether through conference papers, published texts, informed teaching, contemplative discussions, or engaged readings. What this fifth volume specifically indicates is that the writing of Cather will remain of special interest to scholars even as fields of study develop and become more interdisciplinary.