The Standard Oil Treatment: Willa Cather, the Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy, and Early Twentieth Century Collaborative Authorship

By Squires, Ashley | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

The Standard Oil Treatment: Willa Cather, the Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy, and Early Twentieth Century Collaborative Authorship


Squires, Ashley, Studies in the Novel


It will be a great historical series, as great, perhaps, as the history of the Standard Oil, and to most people more interesting. It is not an attack on Christian Science, as most magazine articles have been. It is the history of a remarkable woman and a remarkable movement.

--"The Life of Mrs. Eddy," McClure's advertisement

The Willa Cather canon needs to be one book shorter. Two decades ago, it seemed that a century-old debate had been settled about the novelist's role in the production of the 1907 McClure's series The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy. So clear was the critical consensus surrounding her ultimate authorship of the text that David Stouck, in his introduction to the 1993 University of Nebraska edition, confidently declared that "Willa Cather is indisputably the principal author of The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science" (xvii). Newly available documentary evidence at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston strongly indicates that it is time to reevaluate that consensus.

The work in question--which ran as a series of articles from December 1906 to August 1908--presented the life of one of the most famous women of the day in scintillating, even scandalous detail. Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of the religio-medical sect that claimed that all physical suffering was the product of erroneous beliefs in physical matter. By the time the series appeared, she had attracted an international following, amassed a considerable personal fortune from her writings, and erected a politically and financially influential organization. For those who claimed to be healed by Eddy's techniques, which were practiced throughout the world by her students, Christian Science represented the very pinnacle of human efforts to conquer physical suffering and disease. For those who regarded her theology and healing practices as fraudulent, Mrs. Eddy was a public menace who amassed her largesse at the expense of a credulous public and threatened the very stability of American democracy. Ida Tarbell's 1904 exposure of Standard Oil in another McClure's biographical series on Rockefeller was frequently invoked by the magazine and its readers when discussing the Eddy project. As one admirer wrote to S. S. McClure after the publication of the first installment, "As the Standard Oil is the worst monopoly in the commercial world, so is 'Christian Science' the greatest, most criminal fraud in the religious field" (Adams, 12 Jan. 1907).

The editorial team responsible for meeting a complex set of public expectations included the credited author, Georgine Milmine; Ida Tarbell herself before she left the magazine in 1906; Burton J. Hendrick, future Pulitzer Prize winner; and Willa Sibert Cather, who had just taken the job at McClure's following the success of her early short stories. I argue--as Cather did herself--that rather than being the property of any one writer, the biography was a collaborative work, though critical preoccupation with the question of who deserves to be listed first (or listed at all) on the spine of the book has obscured that central fact of its production. Furthermore, the resultant habit of reading The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy within a single-author framework, mining it for evidence about Cather's supposed early development as a writer (based on inaccurate assumptions about what she was responsible for), has led to some questionable conclusions based on assumptions about what precisely Cather did. It has also precluded some interesting possibilities for critical inquiry into a rich symptomatic text that tells us much about Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science, and investigative journalism in the early twentieth century US.

Documentary Evidence and the Question of Authorship

Rumors about Cather's role in writing The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy circulated throughout the decades following its original publication. Once Willa Cather achieved a national reputation as a novelist--winning a Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1922--admirers began speculating that she was the true author of the McClure's series that had served as the basis for the many subsequent attempts to write the biography of Mary Baker Eddy, who died in 1910. …

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