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literature

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Cather, Willa (1873-1947)  
 
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Most important, she found in Jewett a successful woman writer who cared deeply about Cather's future. Though they knew each other only for the last sixteen months of Jewett's life and her health was fragile, Jewett generously mentored Cather, reading and commenting on her work, advising her in a letter to leave journalism and "find [her] own quiet centre of life" so that her talent might mature.

Jewett's attention came at a propitious moment since Cather was feeling depleted by the demands of her job and concerned that she was making little progress as an artist, having published only one volume of poetry, April Twilights (1903), and one collection of short stories, The Troll Garden (1905).

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When finally she took Jewett's advice and left McClure's, Cather produced her first two novels, Alexander's Bridge (1912) and O Pioneers!, in quick succession. She acknowledged her debt to the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) in the dedication to the second book: "To the memory of Sarah Orne Jewett in whose beautiful and delicate work there is the perfection that endures."

Once freed from the distractions of journalism, Cather achieved in her own work a perfection that has proved equally enduring. During her lifetime, she enjoyed both popular and critical success, earning a Pulitzer Prize for her novel of World War I, One of Ours (1922).

However, no single critical label seems adequate for describing the elusive yet undeniable power of Cather's fiction. For her close attention to the rigors of pioneer life, she has been described as a realist. For her use of symbols and celebration of the transcendent value of art, she has been termed a romantic. For her faithful depictions of Nebraska and the American Southwest, she has been called a regionalist.

For her restless experimentation with the form of the novel, she has lately been claimed as a modernist. She has been embraced as a feminist and rebuked as a misogynist. Clearly, the "perfection" of Cather's work is neither simple nor uncontroversial.

Cather is difficult to pin down because the range of her interests was wide and the shape of her career complex. Her early novels focused primarily on powerful, memorable heroines who dare to take control of their lives and of the less powerful male figures who surround them.

In O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson has both the will and the intelligence necessary to succeed as a prairie farmer, whereas her dull brothers Lou and Oscar can do little more than follow orders.

In The Song of the Lark (1915), Thea Kronborg is aided by a series of male teachers and admirers, each of whom is marked by some personal failure or disappointment, on her way to becoming an internationally famous opera singer.

In My Antonia, the eponymous heroine is a Bohemian immigrant who revels in working "like mans" but winds up producing a huge brood of children. Her vitality and her fecundity earn for Antonia awe tinged with ambivalence from the childless male narrator who compulsively remembers her. In the end, Jim Burden describes Antonia as "battered but not diminished" by her difficult life and pays tribute to her accomplishments by comparing her to "the founders of early races."

Jim Burden is a sign, however, of the puzzling shifts Cather's fiction would take in the 1920s since, in the wake of World War I, she seems to have grown increasingly pessimistic about women's power in a culture that remained stubbornly masculinist.

In My Antonia, the male narrator creates and appropriates the female character, for he possesses a linguistic authority the immigrant woman clearly lacks. Jim may be a mask for Cather's lesbian desires, but he is also a means of exploring gender's role in shaping perception and interpretation. Throughout the 1920s--Cather's most productive decade--such questions would haunt all of her major works, creating fissures and tensions that are absent or less apparent in most of the earlier novels.

During this brilliant, disturbing middle phase of her career as a novelist, Cather's female characters are either large and dangerous (as, for example, are Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady [1923] and Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy [1926]) or small and powerless (as are Lillian St. Peter in The Professor's House [1925] and all the women who hover in the background of Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927]).

Male characters are in thrall to or flight from women who are duplicitous, vulgar, grasping, or destructive. This pattern culminates in the celebrations of male relationships and male worlds that are central to both The Professor's House and Archbishop.

Cather's marginalization of female characters may be, as some readers have suggested, a rejection of the feminine that signals internalized misogyny or , but it may also be a complex interrogation of the gender troubles that characterized post-World War I America.

In particular, as a woman writing at a moment when the nation's "official" literary identity was being formulated in increasingly narrow and masculine terms--in works of criticism like D. H. Lawrence's influential Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), which completely ignored literature by women--Cather had to have been anxious about her own and other women's cultural authority.

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