Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice

About twenty-five years ago I read many of these letters, in libraries and archives, for a book on Willa Cather published by the British imprint Virago, dedicated to breathing new life into classic, neglected, or forgotten women writers. Cather wasn’t exactly neglected in Britain in the 1980s, but like many notable twentieth-century American women writers (Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Glasgow, Jean Stafford) she did not have the status she deserved. I wrote my book in the hopes of attracting more British readers to her work.

In the quarter of a century since then, there have been dramatic shifts in Cather’s reputation. Fierce Cather wars have raged in the American literary and scholarly world, not entirely unlike the battles that are fought over Jane Austen’s legacy. The celebration of Cather as an American pastoralist, a kind of midwestern Robert Frost, which greeted her books when they were published, still continues. Since her death in 1947, many readers still take her to their hearts as the standardbearer of a sentimental nostalgia for vanished American values. It is an appropriation at odds with the harshness, violence, and cold truthfulness that run like dark steel through the calm, lyric simplicity of her writing.

In 2002, Laura Bush hosted a White House symposium on the legacy of women in the American West, in which Willa Cather was a prominent figure. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, founded in 1955 in Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska (where many of her letters are housed), was awarded a large National Endowment of the Humanities grant in 2006 to develop its work, which includes maintaining a slice of Nebraskan prairie as “Catherland,” curating the Cather childhood home, holding Cather conferences, and publishing a Cather newsletter.

Some hagiographical reverence colors these activities, and sustains the legend of an essentially Nebraskan Cather, rather than a Cather who belongs to the international modern world. Pitched against the Cather “legacy” industry has been the feminist critical approach to Cather that started with Sharon O’Brien’s influential biography of her early years, published in 1987, identifying Cather as a lesbian artist writing a story of desire in her fiction that had to remain coded and covert. That “outing” of a queer Cather in the late 1980s, a literary movement very much of its time, was followed by an interest in Cather as a writer more concerned with politics, economics, race, modern life, and multiculturalism than her traditional admirers have allowed.

It began to seem as if Cather’s fate was to embody the rifts in the American academy between theory (or “political correctness”) and humanist aestheticism (or “conservatism”). If this is lowering to the spirits of the nonspecialist, nonacademic reader of Cather, it is also a mark of her status. Sixty-six years after her death, Cather has become, once again, after a period in the doldrums, a central figure in the American literary pantheon.

Now, Cather’s posthumous life is being transformed again by a publication that, for all Cather scholars and biographers, has been a very long time coming. In the will she made in 1943, Cather embargoed the publication of her letters—and the dramatization and adaptation of any of her work “whether for the purpose of spoken stage presentation or otherwise, motion picture, radio broadcasting, television and rights of mechanical reproduction, whether by means now in existence or which may hereafter be discovered or perfected.” As, in old age, she became more famous and sought-after, and at the same time more alienated from the postwar world, she frequently “begged” her friends to “destroy all her letters,” and not to show them to anyone. When the great love of her life, Isabelle McClung, died in 1938, Cather had her letters returned and burned them. She deployed evasive action with fans and journalists. She frequently insisted that it was for her work she wanted to be known, not for her life story, and made great efforts to preserve her privacy.

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