Critical Essays On Willa Cather

Along with Faulkner, Cather has become one of the most contested twentieth-century novelists.Current debate lies in the intersection of ideology and feminism, with a specific focus on how “progressive” a writer Cather was.

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Lindemann is probably the first scholar to arrive at a way of “doing” Cather criticism that matches the author’s own proliferating and multiple discursiveness.

The skein running through this critical quilt might be crudely summarized as follows: Cather, a lesbian, “queered” America by radically questioning and critiquing traditional modes of representation. In fact, as Lindemann applies it in a range of contexts, the word at times becomes bleached of meaning.

Recently compiling a large selection of essays on Willa Cather for a critical compendium, I was struck by the sheer range and variety of scholarship.

All writers attract various, if not disparate, schools of interpretation, but Cather criticism is remarkably heterogeneous for a writer often seen as rather straightforward (the “pioneer novelist.”) Even during her lifetime, she progressed from enjoying H. Mencken’s warm review of The Song of the Lark (1915) to experiencing Granville Hicks’s assault, ‘The Case Against Willa Cather’ (1933).

Now God be praised for prejudice, for it is prejudice which makes predilections what they ought to be. But to talent, prejudice is a friendly guide, shaping it after its natural bent. She dislikes all that Walter Scott used to call the Big Bow-wows. She shuns the crowd, and the things the crowd care for. For her fastidious talent America has especial need.

Neither Miss Cather’s prejudices nor her predilections have undergone much change since she came out of the West.A dozen novels, the first of which appeared in 1912, half a dozen honorary degrees, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1922, and the Prix Femina Americaine for 1933, all attest the literary achievement of Willa Cather.Readers should pay heed when in her first collection of essays she pays tribute to those writers and critics who represent good literature in her mind.During the post-war period, Cather scholarship became a case study in academic trends.Mythic Cather, New Critical Cather, Christian Cather, psychoanalytical Cather, feminist Cather: her oeuvre is at best a testing-ground and at worst a battleground for new readings.Katherine Mansfield, she remarks, has ‘a powerful slightness.’ How excellent the phrase!When Miss Cather says that a second rate writer can be defined, but one first-rate can only be experienced, she codifies a law of universal criticism.She put away from her the proffered gift of an authentic Flaubert letter. She loves to live remotely, protecting herself from too common an admiration, and ever half afraid to draw near divinity lest she discover some touch of clay. The Fields legend went back past the demigods to the gods themselves, and as Miss Cather sat beside her hostess, reclining as ever on her sofa, the past became present, and the present had no being.It is the same oblique approach she makes to the New England tradition. From Nebraska to Charles Street, Miss Cather had come far, but it was her road home.The most delightful of her essays is that in which she approaches the greatest of her gods, Flaubert, whose clairvoyance means hardly more to her than his intolerance of imperfection.Rather than to presume to stand directly before his altar, she makes her oblation vicariously, sitting at the feet of his niece, Madame Franklin Grout, the Caro of the They met by merest chance, but to sit beside one who had held an immortal hand was thrilling to Miss Cather, and the electricity of that touch lights the chapter.


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