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

‘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.

By now her own short-story writing was taking up much of her time. These early stories, often heavily autobiographical, show her self-conscious, aspiring, fascinated with great or striking women – her male narrators, like her male pseudonyms, allowing her to write freely on female character and appearance – and hating conventional femininity. She moved on from journalism to translating in Washington and then, surprisingly, turned to teaching in Pittsburgh, an occupation which she seems quite to have liked, but that hardly at all impinges on her fiction. By now, the centre of her emotional life was another woman, Isabelle McClung, with whom she had a possibly sexual relationship for 17 years until it was traumatically interrupted by Isabelle’s marriage.

Direction was given to her artistic struggles by a stroke of good luck. She came to the attention of Sam McClure, the New York editor and reformist publisher, who liked her stories and published her first collection, The Troll Garden. This was the real beginning of her writing career. He employed her directly as well, and assigned her various muck-raking activities, though she never shared the magazine’s crusading zeal. The fruitful but often irritating association ended with her ghosting McClure’s autobiography in 1913, an occupation, she declared, which influenced her frequent habit of using male narrators.

During her McClure years she met Sarah Orne Jewett whose preference for ‘everyday people who grow out of the soul’ she much approved, though she mocked the old-fashioned life lived by Jewett and her female companion in Boston. In New York Cather formed a circle of admiring women friends – she rarely had friendships with equals – among them the wifelike, even at times servantlike, Edith Lewis, whose self-effacing hagiographical memoir of her after her death suggests some of the dynamics of the couple. Edith was buried at Cather’s feet. Isabelle remained her great love.

The next step forward was her first successful novel, O Pioneers!, inspired by a trip to the South-West in 1912 which had given her the idea that a region could be the subject of a book. Heroically titled from Walt Whitman, it concerned Nebraska, seen, as usual, through masculine eyes. The book provided a pastoral celebration of the late 19th-century pioneer centring on an androgynous heroine, the dominating Alexandra, who functions as a kind of life-force expressing both pioneering values and the land itself.

There followed the self-expressing, self-indulgent Song of the Lark, about the heroic female artist, a frequent figure in Cather’s writing, based partly on admired singers and actresses and partly on a younger self angry at not being regarded as special. In early works this artist – here the Wagnerian Thea, who transcends the sexual and puts grief for her mother’s death into music instead of attending the deathbed – wins out, though in later ones she tends to lose. The self-satisfaction of the portrait is exaggerated when subsidiary characters are given lines such as ‘There are a lot of halfway people in this world who help the winners win and the failers fail ... It’s a natural law, like what keeps the big clock up there going, little wheels and big, and no mix-up.’

Although it seemed that the new ideal could be found in art, another pioneering pastoral followed, My Antonia, finding value in the past as the present went to war. The ideal, much modified by inside and outside forces, may be kept going, it seems, by those who, like Antonia, make the best of things. As in the previous works, the subject of sex is avoided by the male narrator, and a relationship with the land is symbolised by an image of the plough against the sun, an image clearly at odds with the new modern world.

Her dislike of modern urban America had persuaded Cather to seek rural retreats in New Hampshire and on a Canadian island, where she spent as much time as possible. After the war she moved to the publisher Alfred Knopf, who gave her good advances and considerable control over the appearance of her books. She began here with a collection of stories, which included reprints of four from The Troll Garden, under the title Youth and the Bright Medusa, and which developed the theme which was always to shadow her enthusiasm for heroic art and the heroic artist – the dangerous seductiveness of art as an alternative life and of the sensual desires it stands for. A strain of anti-semitism runs through the new stories, in which a dangerous financial power over the arts is wielded by Jews. This feature may be related to Cather’s jealous feelings towards her beloved Isabelle’s husband. If so, she seems to have overcome them, since a later novel is dedicated to him.

With her enthusiasm for the heroic, she tried to take on the war, of which she’d little first-hand experience. The point is illustrated in the correspondence with her friend Elsie Sergeant in which she describes picturesque American boys returning to New York to an Elsie wounded while looking at a battlefield before the Armistice. One of Ours, the novel which so upset Hemingway, was based on research in newspapers and on eye-witness accounts, as well as a trip to France, and it also took something from her own reactions to Europe as a young American twenty years before: but many felt that it idealised war, and it had a dismaying tendency to accept the language of soldiering which writers like Cummings, Pound and Dos Passos stigmatised as obscene. The book shows a fear, or, at all events, an avoidance, of explicit heterosexual or homosexual love. The hero has a tender friendship with another man, but supports the killing of a decadent German officer with white hands, effeminate clothes and the picture of a pale, blue-eyed young man round his neck. Not homosexuality but spiritual androgyny is the right thing, clearly – she had called Oscar Wilde’s habits ‘infamy’ – and the same preference is apparent in the friendships described in The Professor’s House and in the short story ‘Two Friends’.

By now, she was stridently opposed to the modern world. The pioneering values had justified an initial conquest of property; but commercial values put this in doubt. Her disgust at the present was exaggerated by the depression and ill-health of the early and mid-Twenties. A mid-life crisis, menopause and a peripatetic existence fed into a mood which contributed to some of her finest fiction: A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925) and My Mortal Enemy (1926). In these novels of betrayal and loss the energetic pioneers have become tyrannical older women who can never be at peace, or failed dreamers remembering a vision of integration. An often snobbish conservatism is combined with an almost Burkean desire that the decent draperies of life – such as the rituals of old religions – should remain, and with a yearning for a transcendental nature which makes ordinary things symbolic.

The period of distress, which included Cather’s entry into the Episcopalian Church and an unsuccessful visit to Isabelle in France, came to an end in the mid-Twenties, when she travelled again to the South-West, making trips that would result in Death comes for the Archbishop. This work is based on stories of a 19th-century priest and told rather like a Medieval legend: Cather described writing it as providing ‘a happy vacation from life’. The book provides a mood more than a story, the landscape being again the real hero; the central pair are chaste priests presided over by the Virgin Mary. An accepting Catholicism seems to have superseded the questing Protestantism of the pioneers, and this gives Cather an easier philosophical time since the religious goal, unlike the pioneering one, remains undisputed. In Trilling’s words, she’d marched from the pioneering West ‘back toward the spiritual East – toward all that is the very antithesis of the pioneer individualism and innovation, toward authority and permanence, toward Rome itself’.

Establishment critics might carp, but by now Cather had the aura of the successful writer. Her books sold well and brought in good money. She had a secretary and domestic staff; awards were showered on her and she was much in demand for interviews. On Friday afternoons she entertained with Edith Lewis rather as that other great literary lady Gertrude Stein entertained with Alice B. Toklas. But she remained at odds with her times, castigating an amoral society for its lack of virile simplicity – masculine imagery comes quickly to the fore – and its loss of a sense of sin. Her dislike of the modern extended to modern art as well. In ‘The Novel Démeublé’ and ‘Katherine Mansfield’ she attacked popular mass fiction, Modernism and literalism, praising earlier masters like Hawthorne, that most secretive of authors. Mansfield was approved for her concentration and sensitivity to atmosphere. Cather wanted to get rid of what she termed the furniture of the novel, the social facts of fiction – the banking system, the Stock Exchange and the factory, as well as ‘physical sensations’ which should have no ‘proper place in imaginative art’. She wanted instead the unspecified, the thing not named but felt, ‘the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed’. Despite her reactionary stance, Cather here sounds close to Virginia Woolf and her experimental writing.

Cather and Lewis had to move from their apartment to make way for a subway. The griefs of age came on. Her father died and her mother had a stroke in California, where Cather travelled to see her, feeling the old tension between the writer’s need for solitude and the woman’s need for domestic responsibility. She visited France and Isabelle – who would die in 1938 – adding her love of France to that of Quebec, where she set her 17th-century novel: Shadows on the Rock rather sentimentally describes, through a child protagonist, the gracious, admired culture of the past.

Now in her sixties, Cather was monumental in character and achievement, rocklike to many, stern, undoubting, assured, severe and undemocratic. To some – especially to those she patronised – she appeared patient and good humoured; to others intolerant and abrasive. She disliked the politics of Roosevelt and the New Deal, and was appalled by modern manifestations such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, creative-writing courses and media hype. She burnt her letters and manuscripts and warned her friends not to show or publish her writings; in her will she ordered that there be no dramatisations or representations of her work, ‘whether by means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered’. It is said that when she walked out in New York Edith Lewis went before her to frighten off autograph hunters.

In 1932 she moved into a palatial apartment in Park Avenue. She wrote Lucy Gayheart, a repeat performance of the story of the artist from the restricted Midwest, except that the heroine, instead of having the vocation of Thea in The Song of the Lark, simply feels a yearning for an impossible romanticism. Despite trouble with her hand, Cather followed with Sapphira and the Slave Girl, set in the Virginia which she had promised her dying father to use in a novel. This further story of struggle and selfhood has considerable autobiographical resonance but is now rather embarrassing in its treatment of blacks, while her hatred of modernity led her into a bizarre nostalgia for feudal Ante-Bellum Virginia. In the crippled, authoritarian old lady of the title, there is perhaps a last image of the ageing author finally losing control. Cather wrote little in the seven years before her death in 1947.

This interesting life and oeuvre needs interrogation. The novels seem to me rarely completely successful: their prose style is contorted; their emotionalism is often trite – and yet they remain compelling. Cather praised the ‘not said’, but her own apparent fear of speaking is not quite covered by this notion. She’s splendid on the wide open spaces, the smell of fresh air, and she makes the past a clearing in the mind, her pioneering heroines riding out as literary equivalents of the cowboy movie heroes. Her similes are good, better than her famous symbols: a wild pumpkin looks ‘less like a plant than like a great colony of grey-green lizards, moving and suddenly arrested by fear’; New York is like an indoor stage or open-air drawing-room, its tamed winter ‘like a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady’. But having read Willa Cather: A Life Saved, I feel she guards the secret of her greatness, if that is what she has, and leaves an impression of talents sold short. Hermione Lee, so sensitive an interviewer on television, has not quite interviewed Cather successfully.

This may be because Lee refuses to discuss so many cruxes. She says that she wants to avoid the special pleading of unnamed feminist critics who blithely appropriate ‘Cather as a lesbian-feminist’, and is so reticent about gender ambiguities that an uninformed reader has some difficulty coping with throwaway lines that mention Cather calling herself William and preening herself in men’s clothes in a small Western town. Lee criticises the idea, expressed by Bonnie Zimmerman, that Cather may have adopted a male persona in order to express safely her emotional erotic feelings for other women, and accuses Zimmerman of displaying ‘the disadvantages of openness’, of patronising Cather and making a coward of her. I’m not sure that openness is ever really a disadvantage, though over-simplification is; the autobiographical must be important for a writer who insists on the authenticity of her stories as memory. Her alienation from conventional femininity may be the expression of a great androgynous artist, as Lee suggests, or simply that of a cross-dresser in life and art.

Cather’s attitude to the decadent and theatrical is not really aired. Lee doesn’t come to terms with the fact that Cather appears fascinated with Nineties decadence and yet grows hysterical in her condemnation of Oscar Wilde’s sexual proclivities. Is this a cultural muddle of Cather’s, or does it point to a deeper confusion and anxiety? The arch-conservatism of the later Cather isn’t questioned either. Lee makes a just and well-argued claim for Cather as a regional writer of great distinction. But she goes further in seeing her as the only woman of her time to have appropriated a ‘great tradition’ of male American writing. ‘The western frontier was a man’s world, subjected to masculine pioneering and male speech.’ Surely this is so only if one goes along with this masculine notion and ignores the copious writing on the frontier by women.

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