Magazine article The Spectator

A Pioneer at Heart

Magazine article The Spectator

A Pioneer at Heart

Article excerpt

Richard Davenport Hines on thomboy from Red Cloud whose evocation of the vast, unforgiving landscape of the prairies is unrivalled.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout Knopf, £24.65, pp. 715, ISBN 9780307959300 Willa Cather is an American novelist without name-recognition in Europe, yet she had a wider range of subject and deeper penetration of character than other compatriot novelist of her century. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow and Roth vie with, but never beat, her emotional force and the beauty of her prose. The great obstacle is that she is a woman, with a name that sounds silly. She knew more about survival in extreme conditions than other novelists, she wrote in 1913, 'but I could never make anybody believe it, because I wear skirts and don't shave'.

As a young woman, Cather feasted on Virgil and Shakespeare - and it shows. In O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918) she celebrated heroic young women struggling for fulfilment, and proving their powers of leadership, on brutal, impoverished homesteads in 19th-century Nebraska. The Song of the Lark (1915) depicts the fierce, ruthless concentration required by artistic ambition. Her flawed but powerful novel on the first world war, One of Ours (1922), would have been hailed if it had been written by a man. A Lost Lady (1923) is a miniature masterpiece: Madame Bovary set in a philistine town called Sweet Water - and my favourite of all her work. Her historical novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931), are set in New Mexico and Quebec. In all her books, the evocations of American landscape are sumptuous.

The imaginative sympathy that devised her characters, like the passion with which she made them live, is prodigious. Her short story 'Paul's Case' conjures the cravings, snobberies and fantasies of an epicene lower-middle-class youth: it is astonishing for the date of its publication (1905). Arguably she and George Eliot are the only non-Jewish Anglophone writers who have created rounded Jewish characters.

After Cather's death in 1947, her executors fulfilled her wishes by prohibiting film adaptations of her books and publication of or quotation from her letters. With the recent lifting of this interdiction, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, who have long cherished her memory, prove themselves to be the most considerate of epistolary editors.

Their book is hugely informative for anyone who already cares for Cather's work; it will be an appetiser for anyone who has not read her; it is a steadier guide to her character and conduct than any existing biography; and it provides a beguiling picture of Cather - a romantic, a disillusioned American, a sophisticated creative intelligence with oddly artless reactions, a semi-recluse capable of gregarious affections.

She grew up on her family's ranch at Red Cloud, Nebraska, near the Kansas state line. It was a bleak, almost treeless expanse, where droughts drove farming neighbours to bankruptcy, insanity and suicide. She was a tomboy who, when young, took a male alias. She had an intense, lifelong devotion to two of her brothers, but squabbled with sisters who feared her physical toughness and dominant imagination, and envied her successes.

There are suppressed Sapphic thrills in the early letters: 'I was in rapture because I had accidentally touched her hand', she wrote of one girl. …

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