In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

16
Willa Cather and Frederick Jackson Turner

In 1973 the University of Nebraska staged a conference in Lincoln on Willa Cather. Eudora Wolty spoke of Cather as seen by another writer of fiction. Leon Edel commented as a biographer. I was asked to discuss Cather from a historian's viewpoint. These and other conference papers were published as The Art of Willa Cather. Unsure as to whether there actually was "a historian's " angle as such on Cather, I ventured some introductory remarks -- here slightly abridged -- on historians' somewhat clumsy use of imaginative writing in their classes. Then I took up a particular question. How far were Willa Cather and the frontier-historian Frederick JacksonTurner aware of one another's work? So far as I know, the issue has not been followed up, though Hermione Lee touches briefly on the apparent Cather- Turner parallels in her incisive Willa Cather. Double Lives ( New York: Pantheon, 1990). Sharon O'Brien's recent interpretations take into account lesbian aspects, which while prominent in Cather's life are not necessarily the key to her writing. On Turner, Ray Allen Billington's remains the indispensable biography. As elsewhere, I have taken the opportunity to purge the essay of some stylistic faults, but the argument has not been tampered with.

In 1923 Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian of the frontier, remarked that "American history and American literature cannot be understood apart from each other." Yet, so far as I can determine, Willa Cather did not read Turner's essays, though they set the pattern for an entire generation of American historians from about 1900 to 1930; and Turner for his part, though in 1924 he

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