Willa Cather, Queering America

Willa Cather, Queering America

Willa Cather, Queering America

Willa Cather, Queering America

Synopsis

Although it has been proven posthumously by scholars that Willa Cather had lesbian relationships, she did not openly celebrate lesbian desire, and even today is sometimes described as homophobic and misogynistic. What, then, can a reassessment of this contentious first lady of American letters add to an understanding of the gay identities that have emerged in America over the past century? As Marilee Lindemann shows in this study of the novelist's life and work, Cather's sexual coming-of-age occurred at a time when a cultural transition was recasting love between women as sexual deviance rather than romantic friendship. At the same time, the very identity of "America" was characterized by great instability as the United States emerged as a modern industrial nation and imperial power. Indeed, both terms, "queer" and "America," achieved fresh ideological potency at the turn of the century. Willa Cather: Queering America is an enlightening unpacking of Cather's writings, from her controversial love letters of the 1890s--in which "queer" is employed to denote sexual deviance--to her epic novels, short stories, and critical writings. Lindemann points to the "queer" qualities of Cather's fiction--rebellion against traditional fictional form, with sometimes unlikable characters, lack of emphasis on heroic action, and lack of engagement in the drama of heterosexual desire.

Excerpt

We would do well to construct queer theory, then, less as the site of what we communally want than as the want of any communal site. Queer theory is no one's safe harbor for the holidays; it should offer no image of home. … What, then, can one say of queer theory to those who are gathered to attend to its state? Reinvent it. Resist it. Refuse it. Pursue it. Get over it. Just do it.

—Lee Edelman, “Queer Theory”

This time, when Thea left Moonstone to go back to Chicago, she went alone. As the train pulled out, she looked back at her mother and father and Thor. They were calm and cheerful; they did not know, they did not understand. Something pulled in her—and broke. She cried all the way to Denver, and that night, in her berth, she kept sobbing and waking herself. But when the sun rose in the morning, she was far away. It was all behind her, and she knew that she would never cry like that again. People live through such pain only once;pain comes again, but it finds a tougher surface. Thea remembered how she had gone away the first time, with what confidence in everything, and what pitiful ignorance. Such a silly! She felt resentful toward that stupid, goodnatured child. How much older she was now, and how much harder! She was going away to fight, and she was going away forever.

—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

Willa Cather was not a Queer Nationalist, and neither am I. She might have been a Queer theorist, but I don't claim that lofty title for myself. Indeed, I didn't think I was even a Queer critic—merely a practicing lesbian whose work as a feminist critic occasionally attended to sex as well as gender—until I began searching for a . . .

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