Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice 
by Sharon O’Brien.
Oxford, 544 pp., £22.50, March 1987, 0 19 504132 1
Show More
Show More

Willa Cather is one of those American writers whose fictional accomplishments were both applauded and judged harshly when she was alive. Now, forty years after her death, they are the subject of increasing critical interest. In her lifetime she was praised by H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Louise Bogan, but Edmund Wilson said that One of Ours,* her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was a complete failure and that My Antonia ended on the level of a Ladies Home Journal serial. Lionel Trilling called The Professor’s House ‘lame’ and Ernest Hemingway thought Cather had found the war experiences described in One of Ours in D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation.

After her literary success, Willa Cather led a secure, lofty, comfortable, solidly middle-class life. But it took her forty years to do so. Born in 1873 among the lush hills and greenery of Winchester, Virginia, to a feckless gentleman farmer and his beautiful Southern belle wife, she was removed from the landscape she loved at the age of nine, when the family moved to the harsh, flat, frozen prairie town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. This, the first rude trauma of Cather’s life, was possibly what caused her to form a strong resistance to any change in her life and surroundings. In O Pioneers! she wrote, of Nebraska: ‘Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.’

The Cathers were clannish. Willa grew up in a large family – five brothers, a sister, parents, grandmother and maid – and discovered in herself needs that ran counter to familial closeness. She wanted privacy, to know music, and literature, to be a doctor, to learn science. She loved the stories told to her by Bohemian, Norwegian and Spanish immigrants, farmers for whom her family had an Anglo-Saxon scorn. Freedom for her was masculine: she longed to be a boy. These were her crucial years. She was to write that everything we are to be is decided between the ages of eight and 15. It was in these years, riding the prairie on her pony, that she acquired the material for her fine works on Nebraska.

We know of her adolescent years before college from ‘Old Mrs Harris’, a story published much later in Obscure Destinies. It reflects the poignant discontent of Victoria (the young Willa), living too close to the crowded miseries of an always-pregnant mother, an improvident father, an obediently slavish Southern grandmother. Willie Cather Jr, as she signed herself in her books, yearned to leave for the University of Nebraska, and was selfishly oblivious to the suffering around her. Once there, she worked hard, dressed in men’s clothes, absorbed Classical literature, and fell deeply in love with an upper-class student, Louise Pound, to whom she wrote passionate letters which have only recently been discovered.

Cather’s career as an independent journalist started after college in Pittsburgh. From its theatres, opera house and concert hall, she sent sharp, highly critical reviews to Nebraska papers. She formed a new attachment to Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a Pittsburgh judge in whose house she resided during the next five years while she taught English to high-school students. Cather’s fragile psyche was dealt a second blow when this warm relationship was brought to an end by Isabelle’s marriage to a Russian-Jewish violinist. The world broke apart for her, she wrote in 1922, and for a year she was unable to write anything except two markedly anti-semitic stories.

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was in the manner of her admired Henry James, but it did not please her, nor did it make any mark in the world of fiction. (Her earlier book of poetry, notable in no way, had been self-published.) At college and afterwards, she had written stories about pioneer life, but she saw no special value in that subject-matter until the Maine regional writer, Sarah Orne Jewett (whom she came to know in Boston while she was researching articles for Mc-Clure’s Magazine) wrote to her, in 1922: ‘Of course, one day you will write about your own country. In the meantime, get all you can. One must know the world so well before one can know the parish.’

It is questionable how well Cather came to know the world contemporary to her. She disliked heartily what she knew of it, and most of her later fiction represents a systematic retreat into the past: 19th-century mid-America, the 18th-century American South-West (Death comes for the Archbishop), turn-of-the-17th-century Quebec (Shadows on the Rock), antebellum Virginia (Sapphira and the Slave Girl) and an unfinished novel about Avignon in the 14th century. For her the past came closer to genuine goodness, nobility and the virtues of stability, innocence and grace. The present she saw as venial, selfish, materialistic, always changing for the worse.

So she turned back to her own past, giving herself up to ‘the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten.’ She dedicated the first fruits of the journey backwards, O Pioneers!, to Miss Jewett, who died in 1909, 16 months after Cather met her and almost four years before O Pioneers! appeared. On the flyleaf of a copy she sent to a friend she wrote: ‘This is the first time I walked off on my own feet ... everything before was half real and half imitation of writers whom I admire.’

Which brings me to Sharon O’Brien’s new biography of Willa Cather, an impressive and reliable account of Cather’s life until O Pioneers! was published in 1913. Cather lived until 1943 and wrote 13 more works of fiction, but O’Brien ceases her narrative where she does because her interest is in demonstrating the ways in which the novelist discovered her own fictional voice. Once it is found, in the first Nebraska novel, O’Brien has accomplished her purpose. The biography is a careful, often original, gracefully written work. If I sometimes question a judgment or conclusion, attribute it to the carping of a fellow biographer in the cheerless and uncomfortable position of having a fine biography precede the completion of her own.

O Pioneers! was praised by a critic in the New York Times for creating ‘a new mythology’. As O’Brien points out, she replaced the traditional American hero with three heroines, Alexandra, Maria and the land, and, in the words of a home-town reviewer, offered a most suitable prose for the material: simple, unaffected, ‘American’. O’Brien treats the other Nebraska novels (The Song of the Lark, My Antonia and One of Ours) in passing, as she does the subsequent démeublé novels A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy; she mentions The Professor’s House, arguably Cather’s finest work, only when it provides evidence for her theses. We do not see Cather at work on these books. When we last see her she is ‘drawing upon her, own memories, affections, fears and experiences’. She has ‘taken command of the language ... a simple and more resonant prose’ after ‘the convoluted, stilted style of her Jamesian story’. Her voice has emerged.

O’Brien adds immeasurably to the vast literature filling five shelves in my study. Much of it is memoir: sentimental, romantic, often almost adoring. Everyone who knew Cather seems to have felt it necessary to write about her, certainly every literate citizen of Red Cloud or scholar at the university – most notably Bernice Slote, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Mildred Bennett and Elizabeth Moorhead. Her earlier biographers had all been men who shielded her gallantly from any disrepute and in some cases – E.K. Brown, James Woodress – raised her to the rare air of perfection of her own fictional goddesses, heroines like Alexandra, Antonia and Thea.

Her female friends idolised her and her male biographers romanticised her. Sharon O’Brien has given some facts a new look, uncovered others, and added to our knowledge of the writer in three areas: her relationship with her mother, the influence of her lesbianism upon her writing, and the importance of her earlier, apprentice work in her achievement of a fictional voice. Carefully, and with a sympathetic eye on feminist theory, O’Brien examines the bond between boyish, plain-faced Willa and her handsome, theatrical, feminine mother who bore seven children, read romantic fiction – including Sir Walter Scott – and dominated her family. There seems to have been much struggle against her daughter’s adolescent ‘William Cather Jr’ role: Willa wanted none of the Southern lady posture and decorum. But the mature Cather came to acccept the unspoken bond to her mother. She left the genteel parlour and became a bohemian writer in whose last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, we see the daughter’s need for separation and then connection satisfied. Drawing upon recent explorations of the mother-daughter bond in the formation of women’s consciousness (the bond Adrienne Rich said was patriarchal society’s ‘great unwritten story’), O’Brien posits this strong current in Cather’s life, ‘possibly more intense for her as a lesbian than for heterosexual women, since her lovers directly reinvoked the dynamic of the mother-daughter bond’. O’Brien finds ample illustration in the stories of Cather’s feelings of rejection, ambivalence, and mature acceptance of her relation to her mother. Having first ‘lost’ her feminine mother, and seeing that her strength in the family was denied in the outside patriarchal world, Cather compensated by loving women, and became a strong professional woman in a man’s literary world, using her memories of ‘lost ladies and distant landscapes’ in a loving, creative way.

‘What a shame that feminine friendship should be unnatural,’ ‘Willie’ Cather wrote to Louise Pound, her friend at the university in 1892. Cather was 22. She wore men’s ties, braces and men’s dark suits, and abused the feminine culture in her college writing. Entirely misogynist in those years, she disguised her sexual preference, ‘reassuring herself that the reader fills the absence in the text by intuiting the unwritten subtext.’ O’Brien’s account of Cather’s sexual and emotional preferences is careful, showing a scrupulous concern for evidence. It is the first time, to my knowledge, that an attempt has been made to describe the novelist’s work and life as a unity. Cather’s preference for ‘divine femininity’ (first her mother, then Louise Pound, then Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis, her companion for forty years) is seen in her heroines, the lost ladies Marian Forrester, Myra Henshawe, Sapphira Colbert. A portrait of George Sand hung in an honoured place in the Cather-Lewis apartment in Greenwich Village. Visions of accomplished, larger-than-life women (Sappho, actresses, Wagnerian singers) deeply affected her fiction.

In an astute reading of Cather’s early journalism and literary criticism, O’Brien traces the change from her initial Victorian view of art as masculine – she keenly admired Stevenson and Kipling – and her scorn of ‘lady writers’ who she believed ‘lacked discipline, shaping intelligence and craft’, to her later recognition that female artistry was feasible. She saw the possibility first in great singers and actresses – women such as Louise Homer and Olive Fremstad. Her lifelong devotion to music is explained by O’Brien as an affection for art which has ‘a text without words ... nothing is named’ – like ‘intense friendships with other women which were never named’. The female voice she took on later became ‘a powerful symbol to counter her early identification of creativity with masculinity’. She was to discover women writers she could admire: Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf. O’Brien examines the disguises Cather adopted in an effort to hide herself under an appropriate structure.

There is one step into interpretation beyond the many valuable ones O’Brien has taken. It seems to me that, in many places in her fiction, Cather used pairs of male characters to disguise her fear of social exposure: she needed to hide the central truth of her life and, at the same time, explore its implications in an appropriate parallel mode. She utilised a series of such pairs to project sympathetically her convictions about friendship between members of the same sex. Such affection, certainly not heterosexual love, was for her the Edenic state. Frail Professor Graves and his affection for the student who had ‘the gentle eyes and the manner of a girl’ in ‘The Professor’s Commencement’, 1902; Anton Rosicky, the cabinet-maker, and Zichec, in ‘Neighbour Rosicky’, 1928; Claude Wheeler and his war comrade, David Gerhardt, in One of Ours; Godfrey St Peter and Tom Outland in The Professor’s House; James Mockford and Clement Sebastian in Lucy Gayheart; the compatible and tragic Russian friends, Pavel and Peter, in My Antonia; the dead sculptor Harvey Merrick and Henry Steavens, his devoted student, in ‘The Sculptor’s Funeral’, 1905; the two priest friends in Death comes for the Archbishop: all these paired masculine figures illustrate Cather’s knowledge of the pains and pleasures of homosexual alliances. The subject of the unfinished Avignon novel, Hard Punishments, was to be the friendship between two boy heroes: simple, outcast Pierre and André, intelligent and handsome, whose tongue has been torn out for blasphemy.

It is clear to me that Cather never came to direct terms with her lesbianism, as O’Brien believes, even while she moved to a respect for heroic feminine figures. Recurrent male pairs were her way of revealing the sometimes troubled, comfortable, easy, companionate and loving nature of single-sex relationships.

This fine biography ends with the years 1912 to 1915, when Willa Cather had found her parish, first in the long short story, ‘The Bohemian Girl’, had published her first Nebraska novel, and, in the summer of 1912, had travelled to Arizona, where her almost mystical experience of an old Indian civilisation gave her the subject-matter for The Song of the Lark (1915). Cather died more than thirty years later. Having described the vicissitudes that formed her ‘emerging voice’, Sharon O’Brien leaves the rest of the life and work to others or, it may be, to her own sequel.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences