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Cather, Willa (1873-1947)  
page: 1  2  3  

She seems to have sensed that the tide of American literary history was shifting against her, as Lawrence set the stage for the canonization of Hawthorne and Melville in part by lashing out at America's New Women as "subtly diabolic."

All the less likable or powerful female figures who crop up in her fiction of the 1920s may be viewed as signs of this anxiety, but none is more poignant or fascinating than Mother Eve, the Indian mummy discovered in The Professor's House with her mouth frozen open "as if she were screaming." As an emblem of the female voice, Mother Eve's "scream"--silent, eternal, indecipherable--indicates how far Cather had moved from the optimism that had issued in Thea Kronborg's commanding soprano.

In 1925, Cather sought to intervene in the sexual politics of American literary history by formulating an alternative to the Lawrentian model in her preface to The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, a volume she edited for Houghton Mifflin.

There, she pays eloquent tribute to her mentor's "gift of sympathy," her form and technique ("the design is the story and the story is the design"), and her favorite materials ("Miss Jewett wrote of the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment").

She also sketches out a mini-canon of American fiction by identifying The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn as "three American books which have the possibility of a long, long life." Cather's choices, aside from reflecting a significant change in her judgment of Twain, argue for inclusivity and diversity in the discussion of American masterpieces that Lawrence's book had helped ignite.

In promoting Jewett as a writer of the first rank, she in effect promotes herself, seeking to secure both her and her foremother's place in history by establishing a favorable climate of reception for nondramatic narratives lacking in heroic "individuals at war with their environment." In making the case for Pointed Firs, she implicitly makes one for her own austere masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, which was in the planning stages as she prepared the Jewett volume.

Cather lived for twenty years after the publication of Archbishop, but she would not sustain the level of productivity or success she enjoyed in the 1920s. During the 1930s, she was devastated by personal losses (the deaths of her mother, a brother, and her beloved Isabelle McClung), pained by the suffering the Depression created for many of her friends, and embittered by attacks from leftist critics who accused her of nostalgia and escapism.

She would publish three more novels--Shadows on the Rock (1931), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slavegirl (1940)--and a collection of short stories, all generally well received, yet she seems to have felt that her earlier concerns about literary history were justified by her apparent rejection by a younger generation of readers.

She retreated during these years into despair over the course of world events--a despair that would deepen with the advent of World War II--and an obsessive desire to protect her privacy. Perhaps fearing exposure of her lesbianism, Cather went on a rampage near the end of her life, destroying all the personal letters in her possession, asking friends to destroy any they had, and finally stipulating in her will that quotation from and republication of any surviving letters be forbidden.

The author's actions resulted in inestimable losses to Cather studies and to gay and lesbian history, as silence creates ambiguity and forces speculation about how Cather experienced her sexuality in the transitional moments of the early modern era. Nevertheless, her extraordinary career amply demonstrates what matters most--that is, that the maverick "William" Cather transformed "her"self into one of the twentieth century's premier literary artists.

Marilee Lindemann

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Adams, Timothy Dow. "My Gay Antonia: The Politics of Willa Cather's Lesbianism." Historical, Literary, and Erotic Aspects of Lesbianism. Monika Kehoe, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1986. 89-98.

Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Fetterley, Judith. "My Antonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990. 145-163.

Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Lighting Out for the Territories: Willa Cather's Lost Horizons." Sexchanges, vol. 2 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. 169-212.

Irving, Katrina. "Displacing Homosexuality: The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Antonia." Modern Fiction Studies 36 (Spring 1990): 91-102.

Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Russ, Joanna. "To Write 'Like a Woman': Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather." Historical, Literary, and Erotic Aspects of Lesbianism. Monika Kehoe, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1986. 77-87.

Sedgwick, Eve. "Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others." South Atlantic Quarterly 88.1 (Winter 1989): 53-72.

Summers, Claude J. "'A Losing Game in the End': Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's 'Paul's Case.'" Modern Fiction Studies 36 (Spring 1990): 103-119.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lindemann, Marilee  
    Entry Title: Cather, Willa  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 7, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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