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Woman of Letters

Can Willa Cather be saved from her academic admirers?

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather

Edited by Marilee Lindemann

Cambridge, 254 pp., $24.99

When Joan Acocella surveyed criticism on Willa Cather in Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (2000), a little book based on her much-discussed 1995 New Yorker article "Willa Cather and the Academy," she found Cather studies in a state of disrepair.

In both her article and subsequent book, Acocella argued that it was the politicization of academic criticism on Cather that accounted for the failure of contemporary critics to illuminate either the wisdom or the aesthetic achievement of Willa Cather. Acocella, it should be emphasized, did not demand that the literary criticism of Cather or anybody else become a politics-free zone; her objection to the current influential views of Cather was "not that they contain politics, but that they contain almost nothing else."

The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather is clearly meant as a response to Acocella, a demonstration that her thesis was misconceived from the beginning, and today more wrong than ever. It is true that the editor, Marilee Lindemann, previously provided inadvertent support for Acocella's thesis in her own "rethinking" and "reassessment" of what is often considered Cather's greatest novel, My Antonia. Lindemann began that essay by observing that she had previously "avoided working on" My Antonia because she had been "distracted and annoyed by the insipidness of its narrator, Jim Burden."

Lindemann still didn't like Jim, but she was now able to see both the novel and its narrator in a new and relevant way: "Jim Burden now strikes me as the narrative equivalent of the Senate Judiciary Committee listening in the fall of 1991 to Professor Anita Hill's testimony about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas." It was clear to Lindemann that "Jim's narrative is as racked by ideological pressures and discursive uncertainties as the .  .  . Senate hearings"; thus " ntonia functions for Jim much as Anita Hill functioned for the inept yet powerful senators."

The message of the novel in her new interpretation is no longer mysterious but straightforwardly political: "My Antonia thus allegorizes the extreme precariousness of women's claims to power and property. .  .  . On Cather's prairie as on Capitol Hill, a woman speaks, but men retain the power to transcribe, interpret, and render judgment upon her words."

Lindemann was right to caution readers that her "reading of the novel will no doubt seem to have demonized Jim Burden and perversely turned Cather's elegy of pioneer life into a paranoid feminist allegory on the evils of male authority."

In Lindemann's introduction, "Cather's place in contemporary cultural politics" is best demonstrated by the efforts of Laura Bush, who "featured [Cather's] work as part of a White House symposium on the literary legacy of women in the American West in September, 2002." Laura Bush, like Joan Acocella, wanted the discussion of Cather to focus on literature rather than politics, but Lindemann was not fooled. The choice of Sharon O'Brien, one of Lindemann's critical allies, as a keynote speaker, and the invitation of Lindemann herself, as well as other contributors to the Companion, might have suggested that politics was not considered in selecting the guests.

Lindemann, however, found the "mere presence" of Lynne Cheney among the invitees a reminder "that literature and literary criticism--and the arts and humanities generally--are deeply political." Lynne Cheney, after all, is "a well-known conservative culture warrior," whose bad faith is demonstrated, according to Lindemann, by her attempt "to discredit postmodernism by associating it with moral relativism," a charge apparently credible only to other "conservative culture warriors."

Lindemann disposes of Lynne Cheney to her own satisfaction, but it turns out that Laura Bush has another, more formidable ally: Willa Cather herself. Lindemann gamely acknowledges that

Willa Cather might well have agreed with Laura Bush's assertion about American literature being apolitical, and she probably would have been delighted to have been read and celebrated in a White House occupied by conservative Texans. She was a lifelong Republican whose fiction avoided overt political crusading and can be construed to uphold a traditional American value system of hard work and rugged individualism.