Willa Cather

Snippet 1: Willa Cather and the Politics of the Passionate Self

Willa Cather (1873-1947) is a complicated figure to talk about, in part because she guarded her privacy ferociously and threw roadblocks up in front of anyone who wanted to delve too deeply into her personal life. Born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, she was uprooted at the age of nine to live first in Webster County and then in Red Cloud, Nebraska, both of which, initially at least, she hated. Good in school and a book-lover, Cather had a complicated girlhood, a part of which she devoted to being a boy. She dressed in male clothing and insisted upon being called William. Her neighbors probably found her behavior odd and may have shown it because Cather didn't stay in Nebraska any longer than she needed to. As soon as she finished college, she headed East, to spend most of her life in Pittsburgh and New York City, returning home only for visits. Still, it's the land of her childhood that became the inspiration for her two best novels,O Pioneers (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), both of which focus on immigrant families homesteading in Nebraska.

The heroines of both books—Ántonia Shimerda and Alexandra Bergson—are typical of the early Cather women. They are sturdy, hard-working, and passionate. Emotionally tougher and spiritually stronger than the men who rely on and admire them, the women push themselves to the limits of endurance to take control of the land that always threatens to overwhelm them. Cather's other famous heroine, Thea Kronberg, the central figure in Song of the Lark (1915), has left the farm behind. Still, she has the same fierce, single-minded drive of the other two women. An opera singer, Thea will do whatever is necessary to take her place on the stage and in the spotlight, and Cather dwells on the hard, relentless training of Thea's profession. Yet despite her celebration of powerful, ambitious women, Cather wasn't interested in anything resembling a feminist movement. She was an individualist, who believed in the force of the passionate self, rather than the group, a fact which has endlessly troubled more politically minded critics, who want to see her work as a rebellion against some form of oppression. As Joan Acocella points out in her lovely little book on Cather, Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism, politically attuned critics are always finding "'gaps' or 'silences' or things not named—great holes in which, they decide, Cather is hiding something. Then they tell us what the thing is: homosexuality, gender conflicts, American Indians...." [p. 78] Perhaps Cather was hiding clues to her personal life or her politics in her books. But who cares? The stories on the page—and they are wonderful, compelling stories—are all we need to know.

Snippet 2: Cather's My Ántonia, or "How the West Was Really Won"

The journalist H. L. Mencken was no pushover when it came to literary criticism. If anything, he seemed to delight in savaging writers he didn't think worthy of their chosen profession. But when it came to Willa Cather, Mencken was a pussy cat. He adored her novel My Ántonia (1918) and said so without equivocation: "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as MY ÁNTONIA." Since Cather is often treated as a second-rate novelist, not fit to have her name spoken aloud in the same sentence with, say, Henry James, it's a pleasure to see someone as tough to please as Mencken give her first-rate novel its due. But it's odd to see My Ántonia described as a "romantic novel," because there is no shred of romance in it. My Ántonia is the story of Ántonia Shimerda, a young Czechoslovakian girl, who, along with her family, struggles to make farmland out of Nebraska's hard, unforgiving soil.

What Mencken may have meant is that Cather, despite her focus on the harsh struggles facing the Shimerdas, gives Ántonia's story mythic overtones. My Ántonia tells the story of a struggle between a woman and the land, and in the end, the woman wins. When the story opens, Jim Burden, the narrator, is newly arrived in Nebraska at the age of ten (just about the same age Cather arrived in the state). Jim is awed, maybe even scared, by the seemingly endless, wide-open landscape he encounters: "Between the earth and the sky, I felt erased, blotted out." Ántonia, however, feels nothing of the sort. In contrast to Jim's anxious and well-behaved self, she is portrayed as a veritable force of nature, an extension of the land rather than an inhabitant. It's no coincidence, then, that at the novel's end, Jim, ever the watchful narrator, memorializes her as a goddes of fertility:

"She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."

Snippet 3: Cather and the Critics

The critics haven't been especially kind to Willa Cather. When she died in 1947 of a cerebral hemorrhage, the Nation called her a minor novelist,"remote from...the problems of the last two anxious decades." The New York Times, in a left-handed compliment if ever there was one, said she would be remembered for her "charm of manner." More recent critics have tended to focus on her political or sexual orientation, insisting that she was a closet feminist and lesbian (No wonder Cather guarded her privacy like a lion.) and paid far less attention to her pitch-perfect gift for making even symbol-laden speech seem natural and her talent for making nature come alive with a light-drenched, spell-binding beauty. In particular, they generally have ignored Cather's most important theme, what the very astute Joan Acocella has called "the gulf between the mind and the world."

But that's the critics. Cather's fellow writers tell another story. Writers have embraced Cather as warmly as literary critics have tended to disparage or mis-read her. Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne porter, A.S. Byatt, and Wallace Stevens number among her numerous admirers. They seem to see automatically what so often gets missed in Cather, her graceful, memory-stirring writing and her sure grasp of a haunting theme—how to forge a life in the face of a world that seems always on the verge of overwhelming us with its unmanageable force and mind-numbing tragedy. Cather's novels suggest she believed that attention to nature and the embrace of art made survival, even joy, possible in such a world. But she also believed in the sheer vitality of the human spirit. As she wrote not long before she died:

"Nothing really matters but living. Get all you can out of it. I am an old woman, and I know. Sometimes people disappoint us. And sometimes we disappoint ourselves. But the thing is to go right on living."

Last change made to this page: May 22, 2011