The Willa Cather online archive

There’s a wonderful web site that’s got a great deal of information, essays and photographs about Willa Cather, along with the full text of a lot of her work.  (Seth and I have gotten much material from this site.)  Created at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it’s called The Willa Cather Archive.   Highly recommended.

Vanity Fair on Cather (1927)

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Another portrait by Steichen was published in Vanity Fair magazine in 1927, accompanied by the fascinating blurb below.  Recall that it wasn’t until 1926 that Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, his first big success, so that at this point in literary history, the appreciation of “spare, muscular prose” had not yet been usurped by the mystique of machismo – and a woman writer could be praised for her transparency of style and her economy of expression.

An American Pioneer – Willa Cather
The Noted Novelist Has Just Completed Her New Work “Death Comes for the Archbishop”

Since the publication in 1915 of The Song of the Lark, each new story by Willa Cather has won an increasing recognition as a picture and an evaluation of the American landscape. Today, after twenty-four years of scrupulous craftsmanship, she is the heir apparent to Edith Wharton’s lonely eminence among America’s women novelists. Her contradictory avocations include landlord-farming in Nevada and a one-time editorship on McClure’s Magazine. Daughter of pioneers, graduate of a prairie farm and the University of Nebraska, her position in American letters is an absolute one by right of sheer artistic stature, beyond the categories of literary schools or genres. She writes in a way that seems utterly transparent and forthright but that conceals in its overtones a vast and subtle interplay of ironical intelligence. The depth and variety of her understanding is implicit in a swift, muscular style, wrought with an economy that discovers the inevitable word and the inevitable idea. No one else has so well expressed the new philosophy, the urge “to live out our potentialities” because no other novelist has so deeply felt the need of it, yet so vividly seen that such a philosophy should not make a break with our past but an enrichment. Miss Cather’s intellectual roots go deep into the soil of early America yet her spare beautiful style has the poise and elegance inherent in the great tradition of English prose.

More photos of Willa

I’ve added a few more photographs of Willa Cather, younger and older.  In her biography of Cather, Sharon O’Brien writes about how Willa dressed in the late 1880’s and early 90’s:

Willa Cather’s unorthodox dress and manner brought her “considerable notoriety” and made her the subject of “much talk around town,” remembers Elmer Thomas in his history of Webster County [1888], where he gives us our only eyewitness account. “I remember Willa Cather most for her masculine habits and dress,” he writes. “This characteristic in those days was far more noticeable because it was very seldom that women appeared dressed other than in strict feminine attire.” But she was impervious to criticism, he continues, and “even boasted that she preferred the masculine garb” as well as the “masculine sex.”

Thomas was evidently disconcerted by his cross-dressing neighbor: “To me, she was never attractive,” he explains, “and I remember her mostly for her boyish makeup and the serious stare with which she met you. It was as if she said, ‘stay your distance buddy, I have your number.’ Enough, I did.” Other young men seem to have kept a wary distance as well, for, Thomas reports, Cather did not have a “romantic love entanglement” with any of Red Cloud’s eligible bachelors. Even though Cather’s male role-playing lasted only four years [age 14-18], her overturning of feminine norms was so unsettling that the talk endured and became legend. When I [Sharon O’Brien] first visited Red Cloud in 1973, I was told that Cather had been a “hermaphrodite” who “wore men’s shoes–had ’em made special.”

(Thanks to Katheine Messina for collecting much of this material for us.)


Excellent introduction to My Ántonia from the Norton Critical Edition

Seth and I have both enjoyed Sharon O’Brien’s Introduction to My Ántonia in the Norton Critical Edition.  O’Brien gives a most helpful overview of Cather’s process of writing and the history of the books publication;  then she tracks the fascinating shifts in critical opinions from the day of publication to the present moment. You’ll find a link below to a PDF of O’Brien’s essay.  I will also bring hard copies of the piece to our meeting on Saturday.       – Tom

Cather vs Hemingway: Unfurnished Rooms and Icebergs (Much revised!)

Note: I posted a draft of this entry Friday morning in the midst of a flurry of house-renovation activity. I now realize that I made some big mistakes in my analysis and overstated a few points (surprisingly enough…).  Apologies – and here’s a somewhat more reasonable discussion.

Perhaps because I’d just spent several weeks with Dickens and Trollope, the first thing I noticed when I started reading My Ántonia was the modernity of her style:  her simpler diction;  her use of shorter, more declarative sentences; her careful deployment of adjectives and adverbs (they often don’t appear in passages where you might expect to find them) … in general, a leanness in her voice on the page. Yes, she can evoke vivid pictures of the landscape using colorful language and large, expansive imagery – but, to my ear, these passages, too, exhibit a compactness, or a compression, that suggests as much reserve as rapture.

(Consider the moments in which Cather conjures up in the surrounding landscape a sense of impenetrable grandeur and frightening vacuity, of human insignificance and individual powerlessness; in sum, intimations of that failed pastoralism that’s been so much a part of 20th and 21st century America.  These moments are vivid and strong – but they seem to pass quickly from the page … though, of course, they may well linger much longer in the reader’s mind.)
And, indeed, it isn’t only Cather’s technique of composition that so strongly struck me in my first encounters with her:  it was my response as a reader that made me realize how different was her 20th century sensibility to that of the 19th.  So many times a passage in My Ántonia produces within me a sharp, unsettled feeling that I’m missing something … that something’s not been said … that the writer’s meaning is either implied or (worse) left vacant so that I, a reader, must fill in the blanks myself.
(For example, consider in My Ántonia the number of times a scene of vivid action or violence  ends with a couple of short declarative sentences, containing spare, understated images which do not appear to resolve anything and whose connection with the previous drama is obscure – at least, at first reading.)
And it was in my responses to these “ellipses” in Cather’s story, along with my awareness of her pared-down prose, that I began to hear echoes of another, far-too-familiar, American voice … who chops away even more adjectives and adverbs, who speaks not only with apparent simplicity but also, sometimes, with a laconic dispassion or even a mordant arrogance.  Ideologically, morally, sexually there couldn’t be more distance between Hemingway and Cather … yet during the years of Cather’s greatest fame, the younger Hemingway began writing in ways that echo aspects of Cather’s prose – and that generate a similar response in a reader’s imagination.
The more I read Cather the more I wondered to what extent her prose had been connected to or compared with Hemingway’s by critics.  I was quite shocked when I found not a single reference to Cather’s and Hemingway’s prose innovations in all the essays in the Norton Critical Edition.  Searching online, I found only one article that made any reference to this question – and Steven Trout’s piece commented specifically on the lack of such a discussion, except for a single essay, written by Glen A. Love in 1990.
What’s especially curious about this absence is that the theories about writing that Cather expressed directly (see “The Novel Démeublé” below) and that Hemingway mentioned more elliptically, are remarkable similar.  Cather speaks about the need to get rid of all the furniture that cluttered English prose in the 19th century and that central to the finest writing was the thing not named.  For his part, Hemingway once famously described his prose as being like an iceberg – with most of its meaning hidden beneath the surface
Hemingway hated Cather’s work and Cather commented very little about Hemingway.  In the culture of the mid-20th century, the macho man and the gay woman obviously would not have much sympathy for one another.  But Trout observes that this antipathy should not cause readers to overlook possible points of connection between the writers – imaginatively, stylistically, and historically.
For anyone who might be interested in all this, I have posted three versions of Steven Trout’s essay to make for easier access.  Below are links to a 2-page summary and a 6-page condensation of Trout’s 13-page essay – which I also make available.
— Tom

“The inexplicable presence of the thing not named…” – Cather on her style

In 1922 Willa Cather wrote an essay in which she discussed her writing style – or, rather, the aesthetic that lay behind it.  The essay is important as it begins to define one of the major features of 20th century prose – and how it differs from that of the previous century.  It’s also significant, I think, that the essay predates Hemingway’s earliest publications – because, as I will discuss elsewhere, I find an astonishing similarity in the “prose aesthetic” (in its simplest form, the writing style) of these two authors – in every other way so different, and, indeed, in Hemingway’s case, so antagonistic.
Below I attach a downloadable PDF file of Cather’s entire essay.  It only runs two pages, but I’ve edited the piece down to an even shorter version – less than a page – to encourage everyone to take a look.

Here some teasers from the Willa Cather’s essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” [with its furniture taken away] (1922)

There is a popular superstition that “realism” asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects, in explaining mechanical processes . . . and in minutely and unsparingly describing physical sensations. But is not realism . . . an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague indication of the sympathy and candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme? . . .  If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism.


[In praise of what Hawthorne leaves out of The Scarlett Letter] . . .The material investiture of the story is presented as if unconsciously by the reserved, fastidious hand of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department-store window-dresser. As I remember it, in the twilight melancholy of that book, in its consistent mood, one can scarcely ever see the actual surroundings of the people; one feels them, rather, in the dusk.

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

Cather, the Canon, and the Classics Book Club

As many of you know by now, I enjoy worrying about what, if anything, makes the things we read in the Classics Book Club classics. This nice essay by Sharon O’Brien follows the twists and turns of Willa Cather’s literary reputation. It shows how My Ántonia seemed to cement Cather’s status as a big American voice, only to be demoted to a minor American woman writer during the 1930’s and ’40’s, and then promoted again, this time in the academy, by feminists scholars, and by Classics Book Club members, too, to her current rank of important American woman writer. Take a look: Becoming Noncanonical: The Case Against Willa Cather.


My Ántonia’s Illustrations

As our edition of My Ántonia leaves out the illustrations Cather commissioned from W. T. Benda for the novel,  I thought I’d show them here.

Cather considered these illustrations as much a part of the novel as her written words. Through all her time at Houghton Mifflin she was adamant that they always be included in any new edition. And when Houghton Mifflin published an edition without Benda’s plates in 1930, Cather considered it unauthorized. In 1937, she convinced her editor not to publish a “deluxe” edition with color plates by Grant Wood.

W.T. Benda was a commercial artist she probably knew from her time working at McClure’s Magazine in New York.

Along with the illustrations, take a look at this article by Jean Schwind, who convinces me that Benda’s plates provide an alternate take on Jim Burden’s Ántonia:  The Benda Illustrations to My Antonia (.pdf)

Plate 1 Shlmerda family on train platformPlate 2 Mr ShimerdaPlate 3 Woman gathering mushroomsPlate 4 Bringing home the Christmas treePlate 5 Antonia plowingPlate 6 Jim and Antonia setting sunPlate 7 LenaPlate 8 Antonia in winter

My Ántonia Schedule

young catherolder cather

Saturday, July 14th 2:30-4:00 Amherst Room
Saturday, July 21st 2:30-4:00 Amherst Room
Saturday, July 28th 2:30-4:00 Amherst Room