Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism


EXPANDING on her absorbing and controversial 1995 New Yorker article, Joan Acocella examines the politics of Willa Cather criticism: how Cather's work has been seized upon and often distorted by critics on both the left and the right. Acocella argues that the central element of Cather's works was not a political agenda but rather a tragic vision of life. This beautifully written book makes a significant contribution to Cather studies and at the same time points out the follies of political criticism in the study of all literature.


Near the end of her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark,Willa Cather serves up what is probably the most unsentimental betrothal scene in all of Western fiction. Fred Ottenberg has been pursuing Thea Kronborg for many years. He now tells her that he has pretty much given up on her. Thea, a great opera singer, says she doesn't blame him at all:

"I don't see why anybody wants to marry an artist, anyhow. I remember Ray Kennedy [another suitor] used to say he didn't see how any woman could marry a gambler, for she would only be marrying what the game left." She shook her shoulders impatiently. "Who marries who is a small matter, after all. But you've cared longer and more than anybody else, and I'd like to have somebody human to make a report to once in a while. If you're not interested, I'll do my best, anyhow. I've only a few friends, but I can lose every one of them, if it has to be." (389)

She then excuses herself. Her car is waiting. She's singing Sieglinde on Friday, and she has to get her rest.

This scene is a turning point in the history of Western literature. "Who marries who is a small matter, after all," Thea says. In the vast bulk of literature about women prior to The Song of the Lark, who marries whom, or at least who goes to bed with whom, is not only not a small matter, it is the subject. From Penelope and Dido on down to Anna Karenina and Lily Bart, the woman might be a great soul—brave, intelligent, fine-minded—but only within the confines of a drama of marriage or adultery, only in relation to love. What if portrayals of men had been similarly restricted? This is a question that Virginia Woolf asked in A Room of One s Own:

Suppose . . . that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers . . .

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