Cather Studies - Vol. 2

Cather Studies - Vol. 2

Cather Studies - Vol. 2

Cather Studies - Vol. 2

Excerpt

LORETTA WASSERMAN

The question of whether Willa Cather’s writings betray an underlying anti-Semitism is not new. James Schroeter developed the accusation at some length in the mid-1960s, and Bernard Baum and John H. Randall III had made it explicit somewhat earlier. They conclude that indeed Cather was anti-Semitic in that she slipped into dismissive stereotypes—a characteristic she shared with other early modernists, Schroeter adds—stereotypes of the “poolroom” variety that identify Jewishness with “commercial exploitation, secularization, and destruction of traditional values” (Schroeter 376–77). His list of the writers who casually label a character “the Jew” or picture the Jew as outsider and spoiler includes stellar members of Cather’s generation (Anderson, Dreiser) and of the generation succeeding (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound).

However, Cather is an especially painful case, because she alone had dignified immigrant Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians in her fiction, making them, indeed, her heroes and heroines. Such a defiance of literary decorum appears now so mild as to be invisible, but at the time it was a daring position. Hence, for Schroeter, it is doubly disappointing to find that Cather’s sympathetic imagination faltered when she confronted the most recent immigrants, the Polish and Russian Jews who arrived in this country in such numbers in the 1890s and early 1900s.

In the thirty-some years since Randall and Schroeter were writing, two developments have necessitated another look at Cather’s treatment of Jews. First, the wheel of critical attention in general has taken a decided turn. Attitudes toward race, class, and gen-

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