Willa Cather and Modern Cultures

By Melissa J. Homestead; Guy J. Reynolds | Go to book overview

1 Willa Cather in and out of
Zane Grey’s West

JOHN N. SWIFT

In her fictions and elsewhere in her life Cather frequently invoked the landscapes and themes of the American “Western”: the Protean, multimedia genre, rooted in the fantastic inscription of European desires on the American continent and people, which achieved its most self-conscious and finished form in almost exactly the period of Cather’s writing career, from Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 to the midcentury films of John Ford and others.1 The popular Western of the early twentieth century was a quintessentially modern project, made possible by emergent transportation technologies and large-scale commodity tourism, and by the advent of film, radio, and eventually television. All of these dramatically expanded the reach of and audiences for a new kind of exotic regionalism, one suited to a new age. Moreover, the Western’s pastoral individualism (and its mysterious, ambivalent relation to American indigenes, or “ancient people,” as Cather called them in The Song of the Lark) made it a broadly available site for the expression of vague antimodern anxieties. As an avid tourist, a self-conscious regionalist, a hard-headed commercial writer, and (eventually) a cultural conservative, Cather explored the Western in all these functions.

The Western doesn’t begin with Wister; its antecedents stretch back past Twain and Cooper, perhaps as far as Cabeza de Vaca.

-1-

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