Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

By Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

The Comic Form of
Willa Cather's Art
An Ecocritical Reading

SUSAN J. ROSOWSKI

Applied to literary studies, ecology's principle of interconnection might be that reading a book in isolation is akin to reading a single chapter from a novel. It is a principle especially true for Willa Cather, who exhibited a lifelong attempt to see things whole, who understood wholeness to involve the fundamental biological pattern shared by all living things, and who recognized in the great dramatic form of comedy the artistic expression of that life rhythm. Indeed, Cather's genius lay in giving voice to what philosopher Susanne K. Langer calls “the pure sense of life [which] is the underlying feeling of comedy” (327). The purpose of this essay is to trace the ways in which she did so.

To begin we might remember that ecology shaped Cather's conception of the world as surely as the Bible did her sense of language. Within her family the young Willa had the model of a favorite aunt, Frances Smith Cather, an accomplished amateur botanist who with her husband emigrated from Virginia to Nebraska a decade before Willa's own family did so. Coming into her own as a student at the University of Nebraska, Cather witnessed the creation of the science of ecology, which arose not (as writers today often assume) from the transcendental naturalism of Emerson and Thoreau, argues historian Ronald C. Tobey, but rather from the struggle of grassland ecologists in Nebraska “to understand and to preserve one of the great biological regions of the world” (2). At the core of that struggle were the scientists centering around Charles Bessey along with his students

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