'A Consummate Artist'
Silman, Roberta, The Virginia Quarterly Review
'A CONSUMMATE ARTIST'
BY ROBERTA SILMAN
Willa Cather and The Politics of Criticism. By Joan Acocella. Nebraska. $20.00
Like her character, Mandy Ringer, in Sapphira and The Slave Girl, Willa Cather was "born interested." She wrote from many vantage points: autobiographical, historical, male, female. She understood that producing literature was not finding your subject, then repeating yourself endlessly, but approaching each new work with a fresh and inquiring eye. Thus she fit no type. Although Alfred Kazin called her "a consummate artist" in 1942, most critics, who were male, did not know what to do with her.
The trajectory of Cather criticism is the subject of Joan Acocella's brilliant new book, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, which grew out of a New Yorker essay she published in 1995. Not only does it discuss the criticism; it is also a stimulating, sensible, insightful appreciation of Cather as well.
Cather was born in 1873, less than a decade after the Civil War, shaped by the 19th century, yet very much of the 20th. The early novels are more conventional, the later ones very modern. Although an almost exact contemporary of Dreiser, she was not interested in the plight of man in the city or the usual approach to issues of class; nor did her portrayal of small towns resemble Sherwood Anderson's. Because of her late start she seemed to be a contemporary of Hemingway and Dos Passos and cummings and Fitzgerald; in reality she was a generation older. Yet she wrote about their concerns: the dreams and euphoria of the young in the settling of the West (0 Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia), the growth of the artist, (The Song of the Lark, "Coming Aphrodite"), the terror of a life unlived which seeks redemption in war (One of Ours), the pain of love and the onset of age (A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy, The Professors House), and the gap between desire and memory in all of her novels, in the stories "The Old Beauty," "A Death in the Desert," and the heartbreaking last ones in Obscure Destinies.
In the '20's she was patronized, in the '30's castigated by the Left, in the '40's taken up by the Right for the religious overtones in Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, in the '50's and '60's ignored or considered a gifted, unfashionable spinster, "a Prairie elegist." But as Acocella points out, "to neither [the Left nor the Right] did she seem central to American literature." Her resurrection was almost as bad as her neglect: in the '70's and '80's she was embraced by the feminists who read her work and life with a homosexual bias.
A writer's lot often depends on luck. E.K. Brown, the first scholar to understand Cather's greatness, died in 1951 while writing a critical biography, which was completed by his friend, Leon Edel. It is an even-handed narrative of her life and a fine exegesis of her work. Things might have been different had Brown lived and done for Cather what Edel did for Henry James.
What has been done to Cather is Acocella's subject. She has read virtually all of the extant Gather criticism, and likes the work of Brown, David Daiches, Hermione Lee, and several others. But she questions the value of regarding a writer's work with a homosexual lens and heaps scorn on what is truly lunatic criticism of some feminists. She also has the courage to ask: what does a lesbian take on Cather's work do not only to it but to future interpretations of her work? And to go even further and imply: isn't it time that this great original got the kind of criticism she deserves?
In a review as brief as this it is impossible to go into all the points Acocella makes. Her arguments are impressive, and her concern tactful, as when she examines the influential theory postulated by Sharon O'Brien (based on the work of Nancy Chodorow): that Cather's problem was her continual conflict with her mother, "seeking fusion with her and fleeing engulfment by her. …