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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.

Essays in the Companion offer two ways of dealing with what one might call "the Willa Cather problem" in Cather studies. The first is to not merely acknowledge but insist that Cather was a conservative and then write essays "calling her to the dock to answer whether she is as good as the critic," as Acocella puts it. The second alternative is to argue that Cather was not really so conservative. Wasn't she a lesbian, after all, and a proto-feminist, and maybe even some sort of political progressive?

Lindemann inclines to the first alternative, as her approach to My Antonia indicates. She notes approvingly that Leona Sevick's contribution on "Catholic expansionism and the politics of depression in Death Comes for the Archbishop" takes the novel's protagonist down a peg or two, reading "Cather's archbishop as a modern neurasthenic, subject to periods of depression and alienation." The lesson Sevick draws from Death Comes for the Archbishop is a good example of that reading "against the grain of Cather's escapism" championed by Lindemann:

Just as the historical Catholic Church's seeming alliance with the working man helped to promote the aims of an exploitative capitalist culture, so the bourgeois retreat into Catholicism as a means of combating its neurasthenia implicitly promoted the very consumer culture it sought to avoid.

Lisa Marcus, in a contribution entitled "Willa Cather and the geography of Jewishness," does her bit to combat both "the First Lady's appropriation of a bland, antiseptic Cather" and "Joan Acocella's reactionary crusade to cleanse Cather criticism of ideology." Marcus counterposes Cather's "ambivalent response to an increasingly Jewish New York" to her celebration in novels like My Antonia of what Marcus characterizes as "heroic images of white European immigrants settling the American West (that image that the Bush White House could so comfortably celebrate)."

Meanwhile, in "The Cather thesis," Joseph Urgo argues that a close reading of the fiction reveals that the personal aspirations of all Cather's characters are somehow affirmations of imperialism. In Urgo's words, "The cultural logic of imperialism suggested by Willa Cather implicates every American gesture towards individual distinction as contributing to American empire." Thus the artistic achievement of Thea -Kronberg in The Song of the Lark makes her "the textual personification of empire."

The second approach--to suggest that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Cather shared the leftist politics of the critic--is exemplified by Guy Reynolds's contribution: "Willa Cather as progressive: politics and the writer." In his attempt to find evidence for Cather's "Midwestern radical vision," Reynolds looks for signs of progressivism in the most unlikely places. The protagonist of Death Comes for the Archbishop may be a "neurasthenic" to Leona Sevick, but to Reynolds he is a progressive who carries out a "steady reforming mission."

What is important about Tom Outland in The Professor's House is not his communion with the ancient world of Cliff City but the "scientific progressivism" Reynolds associates with "his design for a jet engine." Alexandra Bergson's plan in O Pioneers! to improve the family farm "blends a Populist's fear of rural ruin with a Progressive's desire to move forward through the application of rationality and scientism."

Understandably, Reynolds does not mention the real populists--Alexandra's brother Lou and Frank Shabata--in O Pioneers! The narrator comments that "the trouble with Lou is that he is tricky, and his neighbors have found out that .  .  . he has not a fox's face for nothing. Politics being the natural field for such talents, he neglects his farm to attend conventions and to run for county office." Lou thinks it would be a good idea to "march down to Wall Street and blow it up," but Carl Linstrum's reply is supported by Alexandra's own farm and the book as a whole: "But what have you fellows out here got to kick about? .  .  . One only has to drive through this country to see that you're all as rich as barons."

The only character who shares Lou's ideas is Frank Shabata, who murders his wife and Alexandra's brother when he finds them together. Frank Shabata, the narrator observes, "was always reading about the doings of rich people and feeling outraged. .  .  . Frank and Lou Bergson had very similar ideas, and they were two of the political agitators of the county."

The Companion includes two essays on My ntonia. Anne E. Goldman's "Rereading My Antonia" exemplifies the approach Joan Acocella had in mind when she observed that "Some writers are willing to give [Cather] points on one scale, but not on another. One might say 'Cather was good on women, or pretty good, but she was bad on empire,' while another might condemn her political conservatism but praise her as 'a friend to gay rights.'"

Goldman faults My ntonia for supporting "a conservative reading of American political life," but she praises Cather for her "insistence on representing middle-aged women . . . the people most consistently under-represented across a wide range of arts." Objecting to Cather's affirmation of American society in general, Goldman gives Cather points for at least bringing out the "suffocating quality of small town life." She seems to be intending to praise one of the great novels of American literature by claiming that, in the episodes depicting the small town of Black Hawk, it "resembles filmic satires of suburban life such as The Stepford Wives or American Beauty."

The late Susan J. Rosowski's essay "Willa Cather and the comic sense of self" is something else again. Lindemann writes in the introduction that Rosowski "turns in a surprisingly different direction for her discussion of Cather's aesthetic principles." And it is, indeed, surprising to find in this anthology an essay that objects to "the general tendency to treat fiction as a psychobiographical document" and suggests "we return to [the] aesthetic principles underlying Cather's art."

Taking as her epigraph George Santayana's dictum that "Everything in Nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence," Rosowski argues persuasively that My Antonia may be seen as "one of the great comic narratives of American literature." Rosowski clarifies her conception of the comic perspective by a comparison with the tragic view of life:

Whereas tragedy celebrates the heroic of a great but doomed assertion of ego, comedy celebrates the capacity of human beings to lose themselves in the regenerative and adaptive rhythm of life. Whereas tragedy features a consolidation of self, comedy requires a blurred, indeterminate sense of self.

Whereas Lindemann is "annoyed" by the "insipidness" of the narrator, Rosowski sees that the stories Jim tells on himself express the "expansive comic spirit" of the novel, so that when Jim finally visits ntonia after 20 years, "The expansive spirit of self-negligence means that Jim fully accepts ntonia as she is" and, likewise, "Jim fully accepts in himself the follies of his youth." Rosowski praises Cather for expressing the "comic spirit" which she identifies, in a gesture unique in the Companion, with the American spirit:

Cather confirmed principles of comedy for herself and for America when she wrote My Antonia: of finding faith in the life spirit's adaptability, and flexibility; of celebrating that faith with full knowledge of individual mortality; of blurring boundaries between the self and the not-self and, in doing so, fully accepting one's own identity.

Rosowski's success in making use of George Santayana's vision to gain insights into Cather's fiction suggests the possibility of other parallels between the world views of the philosopher and the fiction writer. When Godfrey St. Peter, the historian who is the protagonist of The Professor's House, tells his class that "Art and religion . . . are the same thing, in the end, of course," he is repeating Santayana's thesis that "religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs."

Santayana's point about the virtual identity of art and religion is not only explicitly supported by St. Pierre but borne out by the ancient Cliff City explored by Tom Outland in the same novel. The remains of Cliff City architecture reveal what the priest Father Duchene calls a "natural yearning for order and security" that, the text makes clear, is satisfied by both art and religion. The archbishop of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour, could not, of course, admit an identity between the two realms, but at some level he feels the affinity: "As he had a very special way of handling objects that were sacred, he extended that manner to things which he considered beautiful."

Many readers of My Antonia cannot understand why Jim Burden does not want to marry ntonia but is taken up with the "idea" of her. About to leave ntonia for two decades, he tells her "The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."

Santayana would have understood. In his autobiography, he describes "a change of heart" he went through around the age of 30, as he came to realize that "to possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare." The hero of Santayana's novel The Last Puritan, Oliver Alden, comes to the same awareness only after his marriage proposals are rejected by two women:

Now affection and kindness are all that I have felt or ever ought to feel about the real Rose, or about the real Edith .  .  . my image of them in being detached from their accidental persons, will be clarified in itself, will become truer to my profound desire, and the inspiration of a profound desire, fixed upon some lovely image, is what is called love. And the true lover's tragedy is not being jilted; it is being accepted.

Willa Cather would seem to agree: The happy marriages in her fiction, like that of Antonia and Anton Cuzak, or Anton and Mary Rosicky, are indeed expressions of "affection and kindness," not the sort of idealization of another that Jim Burden instinctively (and Oliver Alden eventually) both realize cannot be fulfilled except by absence.

Early in My Antonia, the young Jim Burden falls asleep in a pumpkin patch, "entirely happy." The adult Jim Burden muses that "Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge." He concludes his reflections with a line that is engraved on Willa Cather's tombstone: "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

This acceptance of dissolution is part of what Susan Rosowski has in mind in finding a link between Santayana's philosophy and the comic view she finds in Cather's fiction, especially My Antonia. The comic perspective blurs "distinctions between the self and the not-self." The comic spirit accepts "individual mortality" with "full knowledge" but does not regard one's own end as tragic because it is capable of finding a continuity beyond the individual self. The philosopher who sees things "under the form of eternity" sees a continuity beyond his own life: "A man who understands himself under the form of eternity .  .  . knows that he cannot wholly die .  .  . for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part for ever of the infinite context of facts."

Cold comfort, perhaps. But Willa Cather's fiction suggests that it is not only philosophers who are able to see death, including one's own, as something other than a tragedy. Jim Burden is one witness; death as continuity is perhaps affirmed most lyrically in Cather's fiction in the last sentence of O Pioneers! which tells the story of Alexandra Bergson: "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!"

These parallels between the fiction of Willa Cather and the philosophy of George Santayana are not meant to suggest that the key to Cather's fiction, if such a key were possible or even desirable, could be found in Santayana's ideas. They are meant to suggest that a vision of the world of the quality and depth found in the work of Willa Cather is perhaps best understood when interrogated with the assistance of minds--like Santayana's--whose works reveal a similar quality and depth.

Unfortunately, with some outstanding exceptions, such as the work of Susan Rosowski, much of the recent criticism on Willa Cather renounces any assistance except what is provided by the dominant academic trends, so that a large part of contemporary Cather studies amounts to, as Joan Acocella puts it, "the interrogation of this author as to whether her views were sufficiently antipatriarchal, anticolonial, antihegemonic."

In her introduction to the Companion, Marilee Lindemann responds to Acocella, and those who share her sense that contemporary criticism has distorted and diminished Cather's literary reputation, by asserting: "I am pleased to offer this volume as a way of saying that the patient is doing very well, thank you, and the doctors are justifiably proud of their efforts."

The image of contemporary critics as "doctors" and Willa Cather as the "patient" reveals all too much about the state of Cather studies today.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.