Still relevant after all these years
Willa Cather is one of those quietly achieving American writers, whose works are quietly appreciated in the shadow of the era's Great Writers but, going on a century later, are still being quietly appreciated when many of the once great ones are no longer read.
She did have a spell of relative fame in her forties with critical and popular acclaim—even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1922—but by her late fifties her work was being reassessed as somewhat outdated. It would surprise many of her then-detractors to learn that so many years later so many of her books are cherished by so many readers.
Some of her most enduring stories centre on strong, hardworking women, stepping in to build lives in harsh settings where weaker men folk faltered. Which might make you think Cather would be regarded as a feminist writer. But she undercut this interpretation of her work by often selecting male narrators or male perspectives on the women characters. Moreover, her heroines got ahead by mixing allegedly male traits of hard-nosed practicality, rationality and business sense in with the supposed feminine charms of empathy and intuition.
She was born Wilella Cather in Virginia, U.S.A., but moved to rural Nebraska as a child, like the male narrator of one of her most famous novels, the moving and delightful My Ántonia. After university, she moved back east to Pittsburgh and later New York where she worked as a teacher and magazine editor until she gave them up to concentrate on her writing.
Her first two books were, respectively, collections of poetry and short stories. The latter includes her most anthologized story, "Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament", about a young man who flees dull middle-class life in Pittsburgh for the bright lights of New York but ends up killing himself. Although no explicit sexuality is disclosed, "Paul's Case" has gained a reputation recently as concerning gay suicide. It seems more likely though that, it is the artistic temperament Cather is studying in this story.
These collections were followed by a co-authored critical biography of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.
Her first novel was Alexander's Bridge (1912) about an engineer torn between two women: his wife and a former lover. The book was well reviewed and led her to launch a new series of novels that mined her experiences in the west and Midwest with immigrant settlers.
Cather's so-called prairie trilogy starts with O Pioneers! (1913), a heart-felt account of the life of one Alexandra Bergson, an immigrant Swedish girl who, upon her father's death, takes over the struggling family farm in Nebraska. Acting boldly and wisely, she expands and drives the farm to success, bringing wealth to her largely ungrateful family but denying herself personal happiness. The story is told in simple but lyrical language, similar to the early work of John Steinbeck two decades later, expressing the poetic relationship of the people and the often unforgiving land.
The trilogy's second novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), tells the story of a small-town girl in Colorado who pursues artistic achievement as a singer through the big cities of Denver, Chicago and New York, jettisoning her familial and romantic relationships along the way. It is thought to have been inspired by the life of Cather's friend, the Swedish-born opera singer Olive Fremstad, who was raised in the American Midwest before eventually finding fame in New York.
Cather's most lasting work may be My Ántonia (1918), the third book in the prairie trilogy, in which a middle-age man recounts his lost love, the plucky Bohemian girl he grew up with in Nebraska and whose story he has kept up with over the years. Ántonia was supposedly based on Cather's own childhood friend with whom she kept up a long friendship.
My Ántonia was acclaimed a masterpiece upon publication and has remained popular ever since. Along with each of the other members of the trilogy, it's been adapted for a television movie.
Subsequent works include the Pulitzer-winning One of Ours (1922) about a Nebraska boy fighting in the war; The Professor's House (1925) which shares certain thematic characteristics with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Grea Gatsby; and the bestsellin Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which takes place i nineteenth-century New Mexico and which rivals My Ántonia as her most highly regarded work.
In the 1930s however, as the Depression and public discontent grew, the acclaim for Cather's work faded, while grittier, harder-edged writers came to the fore. She was called old-fashioned and nostalgic, even overly sentimental. This must have irked her, since she had established herself as a female writer who eschews supposedly soft feminine values and whose lead characters often face hard times with gritty stoicism.
But there is some truth in those charges. Cather's characters usually do manage to overcome adversity through their hard work and determination—a conservative pipedream—even if the writer has to go back in history to times when such seemed possible. This must have come across as romantic dreaming during the social collapse of the Dirty Thirties. And when Cather does stray into contemporary times or issues, her novels seem unrealistic and melodramatic.
Yet, despite being deemed socially irrelevant, her writing retained a steady readership. And long after her death in 1947, a new recognition of the feminist elements of her work sparked a resurgence of interest in Cather.
This may also have been helped since the 1980s by reinterpretation of her work in some critical quarters as work of a lesbian writer—although it is not certain that Cather was in fact homosexual. Her female characters sometimes appeared to be able to stand alone, without the support of men, but it is clear in my reading that they had a healthy interest in the opposite sex. This could well be, as some claim, a cover for homoeroticism that could not have been expressed openly in her time. But what would that matter? Her stories are not about sexual relationships per se, but about human relationships, some of which are intimate and some of which are as broad as the earth from which we derive our lives. I don't find her novels have anything particularly of value to say about any supposedly unique nature of either heterosexual or homosexual love.
The fact that her novels—especially those of the 1910s and 1920s—still appeal to a broad range of readers would seem to argue against slating them into categories of either reaction or progress. Like many of the greatest literary works, they deal with real people at specific times while remaining open to new interpretations for different ages.
— Eric McMillan