Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2000-06-01
  • Publisher: Univ of Nebraska Pr

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Expanding on her absorbing and controversial 1995New Yorkerarticle, Joan Acocella examines the politics of Willa Cather criticism: how Cather's work has been seized upon and often distorted by critics on both the left and the right. Acocella argues that the central element of Cather's works was not a political agenda but rather a tragic vision of life. This beautifully written book makes a significant contribution to Cather studies and, at the same time, points out the follies of political criticism in the study of all literature.

Author Biography

A staff writer for the New Yorker, Joan Acocella is the author of Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder and Mark Morris, and the editor of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix
Prologue 1(2)
The Darkling Plain
Cather and Her Critics: 1910s--1940s
Cather and Her Critics: 1950s--1960s
Cather and the Feminists: The Problem
Cather and the Feminists: The Solution
Politics and Criticism
The Tragic Sense of Life
Red Cloud
Notes 95(14)
Bibliography 109(12)
Index 121


Chapter One

The Darkling Plain

Cather is traditionally regarded as the elegist of the pioneer period, the repository of what America thinks of as its early, true-grit triumphs. She did write three novels, her so-called prairie trilogy--all based on her childhood in Nebraska--that can be read that way. In the 1913 O Pioneers! a young Swedish immigrant, Alexandra Bergson, raises a blooming farm out of the barren Nebraska plain. Then comes The Song of the Lark , in which Thea Kronborg, another little Swede, stuck in another prairie town, dreams of becoming an artist, and actually makes it. In the third book of the series, the beloved My Ántonia (1918), the struggle is crueller, the rewards fewer, but still the heroine--a Czech girl this time, Ántonia Shimerda--has what you could call a happy ending.

    My Ántonia contains a scene that to many people is the essence of Cather's meaning. Ántonia and her friends have had a picnic, and the day is ending. They look toward the setting sun, and there they see an amazing sight. Outlined across the face of the sun is a plough that someone has left standing in a field: "Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, [the plough] was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun" (237).

    This plough in the sun is the most famous image in all of Cather's work. (It is the logo of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation.) Presumably, it expresses Cather's belief that however small you are, you can nevertheless be grand--you can triumph. People who cherish this scene often forget that it ends with the plough's being blotted out. The sun sets, the world is plunged into darkness, and "the forgotten plough had sunk back into its own littleness somewhere on the prairie" (238).

    Another thing that is sometimes forgotten is that Cather didn't originally come from the prairie, and that her removal there was shattering to her. She was born on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley in 1873, at the beginning of what was to be the flood tide of the westward expansion. In the 1880s more than a million people, most of them from Europe (hence Cather's immigrant heroines) but many from the eastern American states, packed up their households and moved to the plains of America's Midwest. Cather's grandparents had relocated to Nebraska in 1877, and her parents were thinking of joining them. Finally, in 1883, the family's barn burned down, and that was it. The Cathers sold their farm and boarded the train for Nebraska.

    To the nine-year-old Cather, raised in the snug comforts of Virginia's hills and valleys, the flat, empty plain came as an utter shock. There was nothing there, nothing but space. She seems to have felt that all her coverings had been taken off. She had been stripped, skinned. "It was," as she later said, "a kind of erasure of personality" ( The Kingdom of Art , 448). This experience became for her what the delayed goodnight kiss was to Proust, and as in Proust, we find the catastrophic event recalled at the beginning of a crucial novel. In the first chapter of My Ántonia a ten-year-old boy, Jim Burden--he is the narrator of the book--journeys from Virginia to Nebraska. Significantly, he is not only exiled; he is orphaned. Both his parents have just died, and he is going to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. At the end of the chapter the train arrives, and Jim is met by one of his grandparents' hired hands. The man packs him into the back of a farm wagon, which then takes off across the plain:

I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue.... Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries are made.... I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had even left their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. (7-8)

    To readers of the early-twentieth-century novel, this should be a familiar scene: the human soul facing a great emptiness, and feeling that prayers will no longer be of use. Cather came by it honestly, and it became the pattern of her imagination. To it she assimilated her later experience. The two writers who probably influenced her most--Virgil and Henry James--were both poets of exile, and almost all the major characters in her novels are exiles, people trying to make their way in circumstances strange to them. Hence the inexpressible sadness of Cather's work. "Even the street cars will not stop for me here," says a Czech violinist, stranded in New York, in one of her stories ("The Diamond Mine," 417). Yes, Cather shows us some triumphs, at least in her early novels. Bur Alexandra Bergson, though she gets her farm, loses the one thing she cared about more, her brother Emil, who is murdered at the end of O Pioneers! Thea Kronborg gets to become an artist, but in the process her life empties out. She is translated; she becomes only her art.

    Others of Cather's pioneers fare far worse. In one of her early stories, "The Bohemian Girl," a Scandinavian farmer who has lost all his hogs to cholera returns home quietly and strangles himself. In another story, "The Clemency of the Court," a Russian girl, "one of a Russian colony that a railroad had brought West to build grades" (26), gives birth to a fatherless child and then goes off and drowns herself. In My Ántonia a hobo comes upon a group of people threshing in a field and, waving good-bye to them, throws himself into the threshing machine. These events are described very plainly, almost laconically--"The machine ain't never worked right since" (115), says the narrator of the hobo's suicide--and therefore their meaning is easily missed. Their very clarity is baffling.

    Also, all the while that Cather is describing life's terrors, she never stops asserting its beauties: the dome of heaven, the flaming sun. The dream is still there; we just can't have it. Jim Burden's arrival in Nebraska is recounted with the same lethal modesty. What we have is just the thought of a ten-year-old boy, and he wouldn't even have had the thought if the jolting of the wagon hadn't kept him awake. No tears are shed. ("I don't think I was homesick.") The situation is too serious. A boy and, by extension, the human soul are cast out into emptiness, and the prose swells to tell us this ("Between that earth and that sky"). But then it contracts again, Jim presumably falls asleep, and the wagon goes on bumping across the darkling plain.

Copyright © 2000 Joan Acocella. All rights reserved.

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