Pioneering

Janet Todd

  • Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up by Hermione Lee
    Virago, 409 pp, £12.99, October 1989, ISBN 0 86068 661 2

‘Catherised’ was how Ernest Hemingway described the portrayal of the Great War in One of Ours by Willa Cather. Despite lifting scenes from the movie Birth of a Nation, it made Cather rich and won her the Pulitzer Prize. H.L. Mencken was as dismissive as Hemingway, finding in it a ‘lyrical nonsensicality’ that ‘often glows half pathetic’; its setting was that of ‘a Hollywood movielot’. Fitzgerald mocked the bucolic Cather and her intervention in the absurd history of the idealised inarticulate farmer: Cather ‘turns him Swede’, he wrote. Edmund Wilson accused her of failing at characterisation and storytelling: she may be a ‘good craftsman’ but she has ‘an anemia of the imagination’ and is given ‘to terrible lapses into feminine melodrama’. Discussing ‘the subtle failure of her admirable art’, Lionel Trilling saw Cather’s emphatic nostalgia as a rejection of the modern, an enrolment in the ranks of ‘the backward’ with no shadow of awareness that this movement must make her talent irrelevant not only to her own time but to any time. He mocked her ‘mystical concern with pots and pans’, which he glossed as an oblique defence of gentility and domesticity; he accused her of caste and culture snobbery.

This kind of male establishment hostility, itself a response to the extraordinary popular appeal of Cather in the 1910s and 1920s, in part explains the recent female protectiveness. Because she was so widely dismissed, she naturally appeals to those who see the business of feminist criticism as a modification of the canon created by male authority. So a succession of critics, mainly American, has made a powerful case for her by placing her in the ranks of victimised or ignored women writers, and by explicitly discussing her lesbian psychology and female-directedness.

Others, noting that Cather never called herself a lesbian and gave no support to women’s political movements, enjoy what Trilling finds so reprehensible, her dislike of the modern, her reactionary nostalgia, her vision of a simpler rural America sustained by pioneering values. Perhaps it’s primarily this appeal that makes pilgrims walk around her Nebraska shrines. I suspect there aren’t many British feet on this trail, for it’s notoriously difficult to appreciate other people’s nostalgia, though she has her fervent admirers here – among them, presumably, the editors at Virago, who are also responsible for reissues of The Song of the Lark and the short stories.

Cather was born in 1873 of a quiet father and a dominating mother. At the age of nine she went with the family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where, like any aspiring girl, she was attracted by other homes seeming to open onto some wider culture, and, less like other girls, she cropped her hair and adopted male dress. In due course her father borrowed money to enable her to become a student at Lincoln University. Much of this early life is caught in a late story ‘Old Mrs Harris’, tapes of which are used to accompany the modern pilgrim round the Cather shrine. At University she settled into literature when a teacher published a paper of hers on Carlyle in the Nebraska State Journal. She was soon reviewing theatrical productions for a local paper, embarked on a lifelong fascination with the other life of the theatre and the transformations of personality it allows. Lured to Pittsburgh by the offer of a job on the Home Monthly, a rather prim journal which hardly seemed to suit her robust talents, she moved on to a general paper in Pennsylvania when the journal folded. All she needed for this translation, so she claimed, was some knowledge of foreign affairs, the ability to write headlines for 12 different suicides on the one day, and the discretion to decide whether to place a lady suicide next to an Ohio convention. She used disguises in her journalism, many of them masculine, a masquerading habit that was to continue throughout her writing life.

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