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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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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."