Willa Cather's "Manly Battle Yarn"
Writing in the Lincoln Courier in 1895, Willa Cather announced her profound disgust with women writers who could not transcend such limited feminine subjects as romantic love to attempt such universal masculine subjects as war. "I have not much faith in women in fiction," she wrote. "Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before."1 Although by 1895 Cather had discarded the masculine dress she first began to wear during her Red Cloud adolescence, she identified with males no less than she had at fourteen when she transformed herself into William Cather, jr. Associating maleness with the power and autonomy she wanted for herself, Cather saw in war and combat (what historian Jackson Lears calls the late nineteenth century's "martial ideal" 2) the apotheosis of masculinity, a temporary refuge from social definitions of feminine identity, linked in her mind with passivity and victimization.
The young journalist's belligerent advice to the aspiring woman writer reveals the hearty endorsement of masculine aesthetics, plots, and values that we can see elsewhere in Cather's writings of the 1890s. In an 1893 commentary on football, for example, she praised the sport as a rousing, bone-crushing cure for foppishness, "chappieism," and Eastern effeminacy. After conceding impatiently that football was "brutal," she went on to say: "So is Homer brutal, and Tolstoi; that is, they alike appeal to the crude savage instincts of men. We have not outgrown all our old animal instincts yet, heaven grant we never shall! The moment that, as a nation, we lose brute force, or an admiration for brute force, from that moment poetry and art are forever dead among us" ( KA, 212).
Admiring and associating "brute force" with sport, warfare, and creative power, during the 1890s Cather applied the decade's cult of virility to her literary opinions. Her ideal artist was a heroic war-