Pipe down back there!

Terry Castle

  • Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism by Joan Acocella
    Nebraska, 127 pp, £13.50, August 2000, ISBN 0 8032 1046 9

First, a fiery allegory – the reviewer’s house is burning down! After tossing the cats out of the window, she has time only to save one object before fleeing: either a compact disc reissue of Sarah Bernhardt declaiming from Phèdre or an old sepia-tinted postcard of Eleonora Duse in D’Annunzio’s La Città morta. Quick! Which to choose? The Bernhardt has always been a source of deep hilarity: given the primitive acoustic equipment (the original recording was made in 1903), the fabled French actress sounds like Minnie Mouse on speed. She gabbles her way through ‘Oui, Prince, je brûle pour Thésée’ at a mad, cartoonish pace, r’s unrolling wildly in every direction. (Watch your head!) The reviewer dotes on her deranged-chipmunk tones, and has even been known to mimic them – along with accompanying pops and blops and funky squeaks – for the enjoyment of select companions. How to live without her?

Yet the carte postale of Duse might seem even more cherishable. Despite her Post-Modern household location – propped up like a jokey little icon next to the Body Shop bottles on the bathroom shelf – Duse exudes, well, a certain sublimity. She’s all in black, in some kind of elegant, judicial-looking, Portia-like robe, and leans against a Greek column on a terrace, head tilted up to the heavens. She’s obviously standing on a stage – there’s a pale cardboard mountain and painted cataract in the far distance – but something in the mute classicism of her pose undoes any sense of theatricality. She doesn’t lend herself to parody in the way that Bernhardt does: she’s austere, pure removed. Nor does she need to reel off alexandrines to make an effect. You can tell just by looking she’s One Tragic Babe. What to do? (Gasp, splutter, cough cough!)

It is clear what Willa Cather – lifelong connoisseur of big-bosomed tragédiennes – would have done: snatch up La Duse and let gabbly old Bernhardt go to hell. In her new book on the novelist, Joan Acocella speaks with some reverence of Cath-er’s ‘Duse revelation’: the young writer’s precocious verdict, having seen both actresses perform onstage in the 1890s, that Duse was the superior artist because of the classical restraint she invariably brought to her roles. Bernhardt ‘expressed’ tragic emotion, Cather wrote in a newspaper review, whereas Duse ‘almost concealed’ it: ‘She takes her great anguish and lays it in a tomb and rolls a stone before the door.’ Cather gravitated towards Duse, Acocella suggests, because the Italian actress’s understated style came closest to expressing Cather’s own evolving impulse as a novelist: to convey meaning subtly, through oblique hints and indirection rather than romantic grandstanding. When Cather came to compose the great, limpid narratives of Midwestern prairie life that made her famous – O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925) among them – it was exactly this quality of noble withholding that she sought to achieve.

Cather’s preference may have been shaped by emotional identification. Unlike Bernhardt, whose love affairs were notorious, the real-life Duse seemed to have no husband and no friends: ‘She is utterly alone upon the icy heights where other beings cannot live.’ ‘Cather was only 22 when she wrote this,’ Acocella notes, ‘but she seems to have seen her life before her: strait is the gate. Like Duse, she will not marry, not dissipate. And her art will be like Duse’s. She will not express things, but contain them.’ And indeed, like her chosen idol, Cather made a fetish out of proud self-concealment. She never married, and despite the tremendous popular success of her work – she won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours and had her picture on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 – she became reclusive and incommunicative in later years. She regularly refused interviews and before her death in 1947, at the age of 74, made sure that all of her private papers were burned. About the two major emotional relationships of her life – the first with Isabelle McClung, a Pittsburgh heiress and the beloved ‘best companion’ to whom she dedicated The Song of the Lark; the second with Edith Lewis, a fellow spinster from Nebraska with whom she lived in New York from 1913 to her death – we know next to nothing. The elusive Duse, one feels, would have approved.

The same preference for austerity informs Acocella’s view of Cather and her critics. Brief though it is (only 94 pages of full-blown text), Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism is a sort of gleaming, double-edged thing: both a brisk appreciation of Cather’s artistic achievement and a stern, even cutting assault on modern Cather scholarship. It grows out of a controversial article that Acocella, a well-known dance critic, published in the New Yorker in 1995. The original article was a fairly devastating attack on the various ways in which Cather – in Acocella’s view the only American novelist besides James to rival Tolstoy and Flaubert for beauty of style and moral depth – had been manhandled by contemporary academic critics. The story Acocella told was one of noble articulation – Cather’s poised, pared-down imaginative utterance – overwhelmed by idiotic jabber. Starting sometime around 1980, she said, Cather studies had been hijacked by a group of academic feminists, queer theorists and multiculturalists, all determined to subject her to various grotesque and self-serving ideological ‘paradigms’. So incessant (and obnoxious) was the resulting critical din, Cather’s true greatness as a writer was in danger of being obscured. Against the pretentious gibberish of the academy, Acocella presented her own cool, plain-speaking account of Cather’s genius as a necessary (if lonely) rescue operation: she would save Willa Cather from her critics. The piece was at once an elegant satire (almost Swiftian at times in its biting understatement) and a powerful valuation of Duse-like reserve over gabbly Bernhardt noise. Shut up, everybody, Acocella seemed to be saying: let Cather be Cather – in all of her sobriety, reticence and artistic self-possession.

Acocella’s targets were predictably outraged, but she garnered admirers, too – including a number of mutinously-inclined academics. The mid-1990s were an especially fraught and exhausting time in the so-called ‘culture wars’ in American universities, and for many professional literary scholars – myself included – Acocella’s essay registered as brusque and fierce and timely, and relievingly free of cant. By taking as her test case an author whose work was spectacularly resistant to the kinds of critical depradation then in fashion (being neither overtly political in its themes nor garrulously ‘Post-Modern’ in narrative mode), she seemed to point up the inadequacy of the critical models themselves. With a few sharp strokes, Acocella cut through the verbiage to offer a purified, if somewhat old-fashioned, model of literary appreciation: one distinguished, like Cather’s fiction itself, by modesty, tact and unshakable common sense.

If it all appears slightly less exhilarating now, it is not simply because a lot of the twanging and the racket seems to have died down. Acocella is the same lucid, obdurate force: an intelligent outsider challenging the norms of a somewhat decadent and in-grown professional clique. She is also a marvellous, canny writer. But in its new and expanded version (she has added a fuller account of Cather’s critical reception in the 1920s and 1930s and a concluding reflection on her ‘tragic sense of life’) her essay must also disquiet even the most jaded anti-academic. Were all the critical manoeuvres executed by Cather scholars over the past two decades as foolish as Acocella makes them sound here? Was everyone so dumb and self-serving? And even if they were, shouldn’t literary critics be allowed to take their inevitable (yet often illuminating) wrong turns? Do we not want any noise? Duse-like gravitas is all very well, but at times one craves a bit of babble and gabble and silly flamboyance – someone to careen around the stage like a banshee and stir everybody up. At the heart of Acocella’s enterprise – and this feature seems more noticeable the second time around – is the satirist’s morbid intolerance for human error: the kind of error so necessary, paradoxically, to intellectual exchange. This intolerance gives her argument its delectable polemical edge (what a glorious bunch of dunces inhabit English departments!) but also limits her ability to compel unalloyed assent. That Bernhardt CD, after all, was an awful lot of fun: can’t we make one last foray into the flames to get it?

None of which is to say that Acocella’s central points have lost either their charm or satiric force. She is in many ways perfectly positioned to unfurl a modern lampoon on academic folly, being both involved and not involved, close but not too close. An intriguing if fanciful essay might be written about the ‘symbolic distance’ at which individuals instinctively wish to place themselves when called on to examine or describe something. The distance (metaphorically speaking) an observer is inclined to choose can often be related to the intensity of his or her need for psychological intimacy with others. Canaletto – hardly known for emotional depth – typically views his human beings from about five hundred yards away; seen against his panoramic Venetian backdrops, his people are often little more than dots or tiny blobs. One suspects, in consequence, that he cared more for water, sky and architecture than people. By contrast, Ingres, in his uncannily absorbing portrait sketches, prefers to place himself (psychically as well as literally) a mere one or two feet from his subjects – close enough to capture the warmth radiating from their skin. Novelists such as Henry James and Proust seem to want to reduce the distance between themselves and their characters virtually to nothing – to bore into their characters’ skulls and take us with them. Cather, rather more conservatively, locates herself about four or five feet from her characters – near enough to tell us what we need to know about Antonia or Jim or the professor, Godfrey St Peter, but not so near as to infringe on their privacy or essential dignity. She observes her characters respectfully, as if across the width of a farmhouse supper table, or from a distance equivalent to that between one furrow and the next in a neatly ploughed field.

Perhaps because of her background in dance – she has written a wonderful book on Mark Morris and edited an unexpurgated version of Nijinsky’s diaries[*] – Acocella locates herself, figuratively speaking, at a kind of middle distance from her subjects: as if she were watching them from a well-placed seat (perhaps thirty or forty feet away?) in a spacious auditorium. This vantage point, it is true, allows for an occasional focus on individuals, but what come across far more strikingly are larger, more abstract patterns of movement – a choreography, so to speak, of human effects. Reviewing the history of Cather scholarship over the past seventy-five years, Acocella tracks the shifts of critical fashion almost diagrammatically – as a set of temporary formations, each with its distinctive advances and retreats, signature turns and obsessional gestures, all kinesthetically linked to social and intellectual changes in American culture at large.

The story she tells is one of increasingly loopy, enfoliated movement. Once a sober pavane, Cather criticism has gradually degenerated, she suggests, into a nutty St Vitus’s dance, even as popular interest in Cather’s life and work has grown. (Red Cloud, Nebraska, the small Midwestern prairie town where Cather spent most of her early years and adolescence, has become a popular destination for tourist buses: Willa-embossed mugs and T-shirts proliferate.) It was not always like this. Cather’s early comment-ators were admiring to the point of boosterism, yet recognised, even so, what was original and distinctive about her work. In the first flush of her career, following the huge public success of O, Pioneers! and My Antonia, both tales about life in little Nebraska farming towns, patriotically-minded reviewers such as H.L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks hailed what they saw as her heroic break with effete European fictional models. ‘In their view,’ Acocella writes, ‘American fiction was choking to death on well-made plots about the suppressed emotions of wealthy people in Boston. The time had come for novelists to shove the teacups aside and give the country a “literature of youth”, about ordinary people – poor people, people outside the cities – experiencing real emotions and expressing them in plain American language.’ In the stark realism of My Antonia, about an illiterate Czech hired girl who bears and loses an illegitimate child yet struggles on to become the hard-working wife of an immigrant farmer, Cather took a story of ‘poor peasants’ – Mencken wrote approvingly in 1919 – and drew from it ‘the eternal tragedy of man’. Reviewing her early novels in the Nation, Carl Van Doren praised both her democratic outlook and ‘elemental’ vision of human suffering. ‘Passion blows through her chosen characters,’ he enthused, ‘like a free, wholesome, if devastating wind.’

Yet already by the mid-1920s, Acocella suggests, Cather’s critics had begun to execute some dubious trips and turns. Even as Cather continued to produce brilliant, irreproachable, often deeply intransigent fictional works – Acocella judges the haunting problem novel of 1925, The Professor’s House, about an ageing college teacher trapped in a loveless marriage, the most metaphysical and ‘terrifying’ of all Cather’s books – certain commentators seemed determined to misunderstand her. Some of this misunderstanding, it’s true, had to do with Cather’s refusal to cater to what she saw as the trivialisation of artistic and intellectual life after World War One. Firmly anchored in the moral and stylistic conventions of 19th-century realism, she was largely impervious to the avant-garde experiments of writers like Joyce or Woolf. Nor, for all her bleakness, was she interested in conveying that spirit of sophisticated cultural malaise and psychosexual malfunction so palpable in Hemingway or Fitzgerald. As Acocella puts it, Cather went on giving readers ‘stories about noble-minded people living in small towns, often in the past. She did not examine her characters’ stream of consciousness or, for the most part, their sex lives. She examined their ideals, which she took seriously. And she wrote about them in a prose that looked decidedly non-experimental – pure, classical, like something carved from white marble.’

Even so, a host of critics (mostly male) simply missed the point. Among other things, the decidedly odd and unsexy ‘Miss Cather’ was deemed to be insufficiently engaged with Big Social Issues. During the Depression she came under violent attack from left-leaning reviewers for attributing (as they saw it) the sufferings of her rural working-class characters to some ‘timeless tragic principle’ rather than to forces of social and economic disenfranchisement. Thus, when she evoked the harshness and sadness of American prairie life, the Marxist critic Newton Arvin wrote in 1931, she did so as if ‘mass production and technological unemployment and cyclical depressions and the struggle between the classes did not exist.’ Set against the fierce muckraking of Theodore Dreiser or Sherwood Anderson, another critic complained, Cather’s fiction was ‘harmless stuff that “could be read in schools and women’s clubs”’. Her Flaubertian classicism (and concomitant moral irony) went mostly unrecognised, and despite her huge popularity with general readers – her 1931 novel Shadows on the Rock was the most widely read book in the United States in the year following its publication – even such serious-minded critics as Edmund Wilson and the young Lionel Trilling regularly disparaged her as spinsterish, middlebrow and reactionary: a kind of tiresome maiden aunt in the back parlour of American letters.

True, Cather had her defenders – but as Acocella grimly notes, they were prone to loading up her novels with ‘pious readings completely out of line with the text’. ‘The great shame of the left-wing attack on Cather in the 1930s,’ she suggests,

is not just that it removed her from serious consideration by some of the best minds (Wilson, Trilling), but that it polarised the discussion of her work. The more she was senselessly dismissed by the Left, the more she was senselessly exalted by the Right and used as a stick to beat the Left – indeed, to beat anything that the Right disliked.

Social and religious conservatives sought to corral her. Though Cather was herself a doom-blasted Episcopalian – the kind that Sophocles might have been, had he been born in Red Cloud in the 1870s – Catholic commentators in particular sought to make her over as a sentimental co-religionist. Thus according to a writer in Commonweal, Obscure Destinies, the bestselling book of stories she published in 1932, radiated ‘a living light, like candles on an altar in a shrine dedicated to human pity and love’. Cather, for her part, again didn’t seem to mind playing along: in various essays published towards the end of her life, she freely lambasted Freud, Marx, Roosevelt, the New Deal and all politically or ideologically motivated art: ‘An artist should have no moral purpose in mind other than just his art. His mission is not to clean the Augean stables; he had better join the Salvation Army if he wants to do that.’

Yet far worse was to come in subsequent decades – notably in the misplaced piety department. If critics during Cather’s lifetime mostly failed to register what was centrally and supremely important about her – her majestically unillusioned vision of human experience – those who came along after her death claimed to find virtues in her work by which the novelist herself would have been shocked and appalled. And here is where Acocella, dance aficionada-cum-satirist, really gets her mojo working: in her ghoulishly funny account of the feminist ‘rediscovery’ of Cather in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This (for Acocella) comically wrong-headed project – launched by a veritable Maenad-horde of Amer-ican academic feminists sometime around 1975 – was in itself hardly unexpected. One of the much-bruited goals of the new Anglo-American feminist literary scholarship of the 1970s, after all, was precisely to recover neglected women authors and restore them to prominence within a gloriously ‘female-centred’ literary tradition. That Cather – a novelist of undoubted genius and appeal whose rightful place in American letters had somehow been subverted by male critics (Trilling et al) – should become a candidate for such rehabilitation will surprise no one who lived through those heady days. (Bliss was it in that dawn to drink herbal tea, read Adrienne Rich and have no penis!) The time seemed ripe for a major re-evaluation of a pioneering woman writer.

There was only one problem, as Acocella, now gimlet-eyed, points out. Cather herself was a full-bore raving misogynist, at least on the subject of female authorship:

‘Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts [literary] talent in the hands of women, they usually make such an infernal mess of it,’ she wrote in 1895. ‘I think He must do it as a sort of ghastly joke.’ Female poets were so gushy – ‘emotional in the extreme, self-centered, self-absorbed’. As for female novelists, all they could write about was love: ‘They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable … If I see the announcement of a new book by a woman, I – well, I take one by a man instead … I prefer to take no chances when I read.’

Unlike Virginia Woolf, she saw no point in identifying herself polemically with any second-rate ‘female’ literary tradition: she preferred real writers, like Virgil and Tolstoy. True female genius, she thought, was a rara avis. Perhaps because her own earliest intellectual mentors had been male – a music teacher in Red Cloud, an English professor at the University of Nebraska – she held fairly unabashedly to the idea that whatever intellectual or artistic gifts a woman might happen, freakishly, to possess inevitably came down to her from some paternal source. Even the great Duse, she believed, was first and foremost a ‘daughter of Dante’.

Cather scorned the idea that being a woman novelist meant she was confined to dealing primarily with female characters or conventionally ‘feminine’ topics such as love and courtship. Some of her best novels (The Professor’s House, One of Ours, Death Comes for the Archbishop) have no memorable female characters at all. In My Antonia she devotes far more attention to the male narrator – the elusive, artistic Jim Burden – than she does to the eponymous, somewhat stolid heroine. That buoyant structuring device of so much female-authored fiction since the 18th century – the traditional marriage plot – held little interest for her. (She is, on the contrary, one of the great poets of failed marriage, as the marvellous, catastrophic, strangely neglected novel of 1922, One of Ours, might suggest. The death of love in that work is like the slow, sad seepage of air out of a balloon.) And even when she probes, ever so delicately, some of the more intimate turns in her characters’ emotional lives, a fierce sense of decorum keeps her from any kind of sexual candour. She remains by far the most Tiresian, androgynous and erotically remote of all the great female novelists. Austen seems positively sluttish in comparison; Ivy Compton-Burnett a bedizened Jezebel. On the rare occasions when Cather does focus on a major female character, as in The Song of the Lark, heterosexual love barely figures in the story at all. A flawed, off-kilter, yet absorbing Bildungsroman about a Swedish-American girl from the plains who dreams of becoming an opera singer, the novel is Cather’s sole portrait of female artistic ambition triumphantly fulfilled. Well into her career as an internationally celebrated Isolde, the book’s heroine, Thea Kronborg, marries her loyal suitor-manager – the somewhat bathetically named Fred. But if you blink too languidly, you are likely to miss the happy nuptials altogether. No humpy Tristan he.

How did ‘the feminists’ manage to drag the incorrigible Willa over onto their side? According to Acocella, by way of some wishful, even prurient biographical manipulations. She reserves the central and most caustic satire of her book for one of the blockbusters of 1980s Cather criticism: Sharon O’Brien’s influential Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, a massive, often ponderous study of the writer’s early life and career published by Oxford in 1987. O’Brien’s claim to fame, put somewhat cartoonishly, is that she was the first major scholar to ‘out’ Cather – to take up the issue of the novelist’s sexuality (long-rumoured to be lesbian) and relate it directly to her creative enterprise. Though deeply closeted, Cather was patently homosexual, O’Brien argued, and her secret homosexuality explained much – not only about her fiction, but also about her misogynist attitudes. In love for years with Isabelle McClung, the ‘garden fair’ who had spurned her by marrying in 1916, Cather remained enthralled by – yet deeply conflicted over – the power of the feminine. While longing all her life for some primal ‘maternal-erotic’ figure to whom to cleave, she also despised her own yearnings, and sought to identify herself, self-protectively, with boys and men. Much of the strange reticence of her fiction, its odd peripatisms and withdrawals, could be attributed, O’Brien ventured, to this impacted authorial ambivalence. Cather both ached for and feared her ‘maternal goddess’; she found psychic refuge in a pose of virile detachment and intermittent hostility towards other women.

In fact, O’Brien went on to claim, precisely by recognising Cather’s lesbianism openly and forthrightly, it became possible for the modern reader to regard her sympathetically – as a kind of underground feminist-in-the-making. Cather was a victim of patriarchal attitudes, to be sure, but in that her deepest emotional commitments were to women, and her fiction full of the coded signs of hidden ‘gynocentrism’, she might be forgiven her less flattering comments on her own sex. One could even consider her, paradoxically, a sort of sexual heroine: someone who sought, courageously, to channel her unorthodox erotic yearnings into artistic creativity of the highest order. ‘Her love of women was a source of great strength and imaginative power to her,’ O’Brien concluded, but ‘she feared misunderstanding and repudiation if this love were to be publicly named.’ (As a cub reporter in Pittsburgh in the 1890s, Cather had covered the Wilde debacle – with horrified revulsion.) She loved in secret, but love she did, and like a hidden flame, her surreptitious devotion to members of her own sex both animated and refined her art.

However turgid, O’Brien’s psychosexual portrait of Cather was not without its compelling features – nor, one felt, entirely off the mark. One of O’Brien’s biographical coups was to include among her book’s illustrations an extraordinary set of studio photographs (now in the Nebraska State Historical Society archives) of the 14-year-old Cather dressed as ‘William Cather, Jr’. For four years of her adolescence – even as bewildered relatives and neighbours looked on – the tomboyish Cather doggedly adopted this male alter ego as her primary public identity. She cut her hair short, wore boys’ jackets, ties and caps around town, and regularly signed herself ‘William Cather MD’ in friends’ albums and yearbooks. The denizens of Red Cloud were agog at the pubescent cross-dresser among them. As late as the 1970s, civic folk legend held that the intrepid young Cather had been a ‘hermaphrodite’ and wore men’s shoes – indeed ‘had ‘em made special’.

The pictures themselves are fabulously bizarre. In one, ‘William Cather’ wears a jaunty Civil War cap embroidered with his/ her initials; in another, a kind of miniature pork-pie hat, shiny cravat and goofy, insouciant smile. In perhaps the most startling, Cather sports, anachronistically, the same brusque, perfectly manicured flat-top last seen (by this reviewer) on the lesbian folksinger Phranc, a minor musical cult figure of the 1980s. As images go, these juvenile self-portraits are full of charm and aplomb and baby-butch esprit; they are also unutterably weird. At the very least, they allow one to imagine for the strange boy/girl who chose to present herself thus an interesting, if not uncanny, sexual future.

But Acocella will have none of it. Think of the tomboy Jo, who cuts off her hair and dresses as a boy in Little Women. It was not ‘that remarkable’, Acocella tells us, for rebellious adolescent girls in the 19th century to wish to escape the burdens of femininity through such role-playing. ‘Those were the days before such sentiments placed one under suspicion of being a lesbian.’ And Cather’s masquerade was after all only temporary: she went back to a conventionally feminine appearance as soon as she left for college. Nor is Acocella convinced, more broadly, that one can – or should – make knowing pronouncements about Cather’s sexuality. The jury is still out, she suggests, on the question of whether Cather was homosexual: even the impassioned relationship with McClung may simply have been one of those fervent ‘romantic friendships’ so common between women in the late 19th century. Her own best guess on the subject, reluctantly proffered, is that the adult Cather may have been ‘homosexual in her feelings and celibate in her actions’. Which is not to say, she hastens to add, that the novelist suffered from any sexual ‘complex’ or that her love life (or lack of one) had any deducible impact on her work. ‘Many of the notable women writers of the 19th century were celibate – “spinsters and virgins”, as Ellen Moers calls them. If Emily Brontë and Jane Austen managed without having sex, why not Cather? Because we think she was homosexual?’ To appreciate a great book, she asserts, we need not gossip, like silly adolescents, over its author’s life between the sheets. To subject someone as dignified as Cather to such treatment seems particularly demeaning and beside the point.

Having chastised O’Brien – not just for overreading but for nosiness and vulgarity as well – Acocella proceeds to let rip, satiric afterburners on high, at just about everybody who has written about Cather in O’Brien’s wake. Following O’Brien’s putative revelations ‘the feminists now had what they needed, the hidden conflict. Since it was homosexuality, it had to be very heavily defended. Hence the surface of Cather’s fiction could no longer be taken literally; it had to be read through.’ Among those ‘reading through’ in this manner – with mostly foolish results – Acocella finds not only the usual academical drones and poseurs, but some touted names in contemporary North American literary criticism and theory: Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Jonathan Goldberg, Judith Fetterley, Jean Schwind, Elizabeth Ammons. Acocella takes no prisoners. She is queen of the devastating citation, and more than happy to let the jargon-mad professors hang themselves.

Thus poor Robert Nelson, author of a 1988 book on the novelist, gets mercilessly dinged for writing about Cather’s oscillation between a ‘phallocentric hegemony’ and a ‘vaginocentric’ one. (According to Nelson, as cruelly quoted by Acocella, Thea Kronborg, standing ‘in erectile sublimity’ on a peak in Panther Canyon in The Song of the Lark, ‘is, symbolically … the linear and upright form of the male phallus.’) She wickedly lampoons Ammons and Patrick Shaw for finding lurking sexual symbols, such as giant wombs and fallopian tubes, in Cather’s frequent descriptions of Midwestern scenery. (‘No tree can grow, no river flow, in Cather’s landscapes,’ Acocella notes, ‘without this being a penis or a menstrual period.’) And she has morbid fun at the expense of those commentators – fairly numerous lately, it is true – who have attributed secret homosexual feelings to various Cather characters:

Not just Antonia and Jim, but most of Cather’s main characters are shown to be ‘masked’ homosexuals: Alexandra in O Pioneers!, Thea in The Song of the Lark, Claude Wheeler and David Gerhardt in One of Ours, Euclide Auclair in Shadows on the Rock, and of course those two priests in Death Comes for the Archbishop. In The Professor’s House we hit pay dirt: according to various commentators, not just Professor St Peter and Tom Outland and Roddy Blake, but also Louie Marsellus and Lillian, the professor’s son-in-law and wife, respectively, are homosexuals. Another lurking invert is Sapphira Colbert, the paralysed old woman in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. You can tell, says Robert J. Nelson, because her name is close to Sappho’s.

Acocella’s most magnificent potshot is reserved for Eve Sedgwick, reigning doyenne of ‘queer’ literary studies in the United States and occasional commentator on the new crypto-homo Cather. In a 1989 essay on The Professor’s House, Sedgwick argued that while the novel might seem painfully ‘heterosexist’ on the surface, a queer-friendly reader could nonetheless discern in it its author’s powerful covert rebellion against hegemonic ‘heteronormativity’. Sedgwick’s signal piece of evidence (alas) was the multi-syllabic name that Cather bestowed – in the last sentence of the novel – on the ship on which the professor’s wife and daughter sail home from Europe: the Berengaria. Deconstructing this odd nautical monicker, Sedgwick finds it burgeoning with erotic puns and Gertrude Steinian word play:

Berengaria: ship of women: the {green} {aria}, the {eager} {brain}, the {bearing} and the {bairn}, the {raring} {engine}, the {bargain} {binge}, the {ban} and {bar}, the {garbage}, the {barrage} of {anger}, the {bare} {grin}, the {rage} to {err}, the {rare} {grab} for {being}, the {begin} and {rebegin} {again}.

Such readerly jouissance proves costly, however. Zeroing in on this ballast-heavy, deliciously listing target, Acocella does not hesitate to blow Sedgwick out of the water:

This list of anagrams, which must have taken a while to work out, supposedly reveals the maelstrom of lesbian energies churning beneath the surface of The Professor’s House, energies that Cather was venting when she gave the ship that strange name. Yes, Sedgwick says, the name has a historical meaning – Berengaria was the wife of Richard the Lion-Hearted – but otherwise it is a ‘nonsense word’. She apparently does not know that it was the name of a real ship, a famous Cunard ocean liner, on which Cather had returned from Europe immediately before starting work on The Professor’s House.

Amusing enough, to be sure. Yet after a while one begins to view some of the torpedoing with mixed emotions. True, Acocella’s satire has its wholesome, head-clearing, ‘tough love’ aspect. Like a good cop on the beat, she is not going to put up with any more juvenile mischief-making at a great writer’s expense. You kids! Pipe down back there! And drop those spray-paint cans right now! When she itemises – sardonically – just what makes Cather so unfit for ‘politically correct’ analysis, one may find oneself going all weak and wobbly and compliant in the presence of such steely-eyed moral authority:

Nina Baym has written with discouragement of the tendency of feminist theorists to ‘excoriate their deviating sisters’, the ones who do not toe the theoretical line. Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in Cather studies, and for obvious reasons. Other women writers uphold the feminists’ description of what it means for a woman to try to enter the patriarchal literary tradition. Emily Dickinson cowering in her room, Mary Shelley trying to work between pregnancies, Kate Chopin hounded out of print, Harriet Beecher Stowe writing with one hand while holding a baby with the other: these women tell the story that the feminists are trying to tell. But Cather? If anything, she is a rebuke to the feminists. All the things they say a woman can’t do – learn to write from men, create a life centred on writing, with no intrusions – she did them, and with very little wear and tear. No alcoholism, no abortions, no nervous breakdowns. She jumped the gate, and therefore she makes the gate look perhaps not so high after all. Add to this her other crimes: her male identification, her attacks on Kate Chopin, on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Finally, keep in mind that she was a strong, bossy woman, one who cowed people, scared people. Isn’t this somebody the feminists might want to bring down a peg? And if she, this flinty old Republican, this staple of Catholic school curricula, should turn out to be a closet lesbian, a frightened person, a person whose most intimate secrets we know and, from our comfortable, post-gay liberation perspective, can understand, even as we express our regret over her lack of courage – if, in other words, we were superior to Willa Cather – wouldn’t that be nice?

No, it w-w-wouldn’t be nice, we whimper. You’re right, Joan! Willa’s great! We’re rotten little punks in comparison! And the cowardly baby-tears start to flow …

But while it’s a relief not to find oneself in Acocella’s index – thank God I never wrote about Cather; Jane Austen was bad enough – one can still have a twinge of sympathy for the unfortunate souls who do. Acocella is not always fair, and once she’s pegged you, she is seldom forgiving. You would not know from her account that the hapless Sharon O’Brien is actually fairly illuminating on Cather’s early career, nor that O’Brien writes clearly and interestingly on Cather’s complicated, often rivalrous literary relations with male novelists such as Henry James. Nor would you know that Judith Butler – caricatured here as a critic who leaves Cather ‘bound and gagged’ in the coils of Lacanian theory – can be as witty and grown-up as Acocella herself, as when she analyses the various linguistic and sexual inversions in Cather’s 1896 short story ‘Tommy the Unsentimental’. In this comically surreal tale – about an eccentric country spinster who changes her name from Theodosia to Tommy, wears men’s trousers, and likes to perform chivalric love-errands on behalf of pretty young neighborhood lasses – the usually lugubrious Cather comes shockingly close to a kind of Dadaist, Firbankian camp. Acocella never mentions this story – in part, one suspects, because lurking within it is precisely the sort of flip, self-ironising joke that the serious-minded Cather she reveres should not have been capable of making: this funny old gal is a whopping dyke! Butler both gets the joke and parses it nicely.

On Cather and homosexuality, Acocella is too grim by half. Is it really so vulgar or inane to be curious about a great writer’s erotic life? A case might be made that the most significant methodological development in Western biography since Boswell has in fact been precisely the attempt to correlate the intimate, even psychosexual aspects of an individual’s character with his or her public achievements. The older one gets the more one realises how deeply everything that one is – everything one believes oneself to be – is bound up with whom one loves. Most of the world-class biographies written in English over the past fifty years – Leon Edel’s James, George Painter’s Proust, Michael Holroyd’s Strachey and Shaw, Richard Ellmann’s Joyce and Wilde, John Richardson’s Picasso, Maynard Solomon’s Mozart, Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein and Russell, Hermione Lee’s Woolf, Judith Thurman’s Dinesen and Colette – have been distinguished by their intense, liberating attention to sexual-emotional themes. It may be true that Cather’s peculiar, mysteriously configured homoeroticism has not yet had the sort of intelligent analysis it demands, but that is no reason to exempt her from inquiry of this kind.

Indeed, with Cather’s sexuality ruled out of bounds as a topic, whole swatches of her work become unnecessarily opaque. Again, one would not know it from Acocella but Cather was one of the great, over-the-top diva ‘groupies’ of the late 19th century: a woman who seldom went for long without an ardent adolescent crush on some touring opera singer or actress. No reticence here: her newspaper articles of the 1880s and 1890s are full of engorged love-paeans to Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Olive Fremstad and Lillian Nordica – not to mention the redoubtable Clara Butt, best-known for her foghorn renditions of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. (The boomiferous Butt possessed an ‘ocean of voice’, Cather rhapsodised, ‘like the moan of the sea or the sighing of the forest in the night wind’.) The displacement of homoerotic emotion onto female performers was a common phenomenon among cultivated women in the 19th and early 20th centuries: George Sand and Queen Victoria had similar serial pashes. But the psychic mechanism seems especially strong in Cather. To dismiss this giddy, enraptured side of her – simply because it makes her seem undignified, or because Outing People is Wrong – is to miss an important and fascinating element in her imaginative response to the world. The Song of the Lark – that curious soul-kiss of a novel – makes little sense without it. Great women artists clearly intoxicated Cather, and however subtly, she sought to pass on to her reader the lovely poison she imbibed from them.

Which brings us back, perhaps not so circuitously, to Bernhardt and Duse. Even as one finds oneself agreeing with Acocella about many things – for example, that much of what passes for academic literary criticism today is indeed a kind of self-indulgent, histrionic ‘noise’ – one resists the slightly apocalyptic (and repressive) drift in her argument: that for the sake of Cather’s reputation, the noise should stop. At her direst moments, Acocella is a pull-the-plug sort of person; she wants rackety Bernhardt brought down off the stage, and Duse, moody model citizen, put up in her stead once and for all. Enough with the pc tirades about Cather and patriarchy, Cather and Native Americans, or Cather’s views on the ‘economic exploitation of Nebraska farmers by “larger corporate entities”’. ‘How wearying,’ Acocella exclaims, ‘is the tone of recent political criticism of Cather, so aggressive, so righteous, calling her to the dock to answer whether she is as good as the critic.’ How much better simply to absorb Cather’s ‘tragic sense of life’ with the appropriately humble and silent awe.

But criticism – in order to be anything at all – needs its noisemakers and vulgarians as well as its noble and refined types. The People Who Get It Wrong, paradoxically, are as necessary to the enterprise as the People Who Get It Right. Criticism is an ongoing negotiation between truth and error, and sometimes, by an irritating yet ultimately productive dialectic, error is for a while in the ascendant. ‘In academic criticism,’ W.K. Wimsatt once delicately put it, ‘you see less genius than in some other kinds, but more deliberacy, self-consciousness, programme, literalism, and repetition.’ To put it more bluntly: sometimes even professional literary critics (most of whom are not geniuses) say dumb, pretentious, and off-the-track things.

Yet without such error, no critical dialogue. And without such dialogue, now to quote Kundera, ‘the discoveries effected by art go unnamed and thereby remain absent from the history of art, for a work enters history and becomes visible there only if its discoveries, its innovations, are specified and recognised. Without the meditative background that is criticism, works become isolated gestures, ahistorical accidents, soon forgotten.’ Interestingly, while Cather (the critic) preferred Duse, she was open-minded enough to recognise – and honour – Sarah Bernhardt’s very different mode of artistic expression. Bernhardt had an uncanny power, she wrote, to project feelings ‘more lifelike than life’. She was heroic, grandiose and, in her very excess, blasphemously present – someone who by ‘a thousand little things’ could unleash dizzying emotions in her audience. Even as she prepared to do something different in her own art – and in that difference resides our gain, as Acocella points out so well – Willa Cather was willing for a while to let go, to drift in the noise, and let the strange importunate sounds roll over her.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Andrew O’Hagan (20 July).