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Willa Cather Expanded and Corrected : WILLA CATHER A Literary Life by James Woodress (University of Nebraska Press: $35; 583 pp., illustrated)

December 27, 1987|Vera Norwood | Norwood, who teaches American Studies at the University of New Mexico, is co-editor with Janice Monk of "The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art" (Yale)

"I have not a great deal of faith in women in literature . . . the great masters of letters are men, and I prefer to take no chances when I read." So wrote Willa Cather in her youthful days as literary and theater critic, years before the publication of "O Pionee1920150567Lark" and "Death Comes for the Archbishop," novels that established her as one of America's premier writers of the early 20th-Century. Cather was a male-identified author who preferred the masculine voice in her works. She also felt that most women had been unable to make the sacrifices an artist's life entails, in part because of the difficulty of combining a writing career with marriage. Her life mirrored these concerns in that she never married, was closest to other women, and, possibly, lived as a celibate. Such is the portrait of Cather painted in James Woodress' "Willa Cather, A Literary Life." This new text is an expanded and corrected version of the work Woodress published in 1970. While Cather's struggle with the roles assigned her sex is not the only theme Woodress touches upon in this monumental biography, it is certainly the issue that has spawned significant interest in Cather during the 1980s and so offers a good entry point into Woodress' study.

Willa Cather was born on Dec. 7, 1873 in Virginia of an "amiable" father and "handsome and domineering" mother. When she was 9, her family moved to Red Cloud, Neb., where she lived until she left for college. Woodress introduces her as a "precocious," independent child who cut her hair shorter than a boy's, wore boy's clothes, and signed her name William Cather Jr. It was not until her college days in Lincoln that Cather adopted women's clothes. At college, she fell in love with a brilliant older student, Louise Pound, but her affection was not returned. Upon moving to Pittsburgh in 1896 to work as an editor for the Home Monthly, she met Isabelle McClung, with whom she established a close relationship that survived Isabelle's marriage in 1916, and was ended only by McClung's death in 1938. After Cather moved to New York in 1916 to edit McClure's Magazine, Edith Lewis, a proofreader on the magazine, became her constant companion. They shared apartments in New York until Cather's death in 1947; Lewis is buried at the foot of her friend's grave in New Hampshire.

Such behavior has engendered a good deal of scholarly literature on Cather's sexual preferences and their influence on her fiction. Woodress acknowledges the work of such feminist critics as Sharon O'Brien, who find evidences of lesbianism in Cather's life and work, without himself appearing convinced by such arguments.

In counterpoint, he offers Cather as a child who took on a male persona because she had ambitions to be a doctor and thought such a profession open only to men; who later withdrew from loving relationships with men because of her fear that marriage would interfere with her commitment to her art; and who finally, in all likelihood, took a sort of holy vow of celibacy in order that she might pursue writing as a priest pursues his faith. Unfortunately, his emphasis on establishing the reasons for Cather's apparent personal attachments to women leaves open the broader issue of whether, in her art, she did write with a woman's voice, from within a woman's experience. I find it particularly curious that Woodress does not make use of Judith Fryer's "Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather" (North Carolina), which addresses how Cather's work springs from and adds to our understanding of women's culture.

One of the reasons that Cather's sexual preferences are a matter of contention is that she did everything in her power to maintain control of her public image, before and after her death. Many of her letters were destroyed by herself and Edith Lewis; in her will, she specified that no direct quotes may be made from the letters that are left.

Such a state of affairs presents Woodress with an interpretive and narrative problem that he solves by resorting to her fiction. Since much of Cather's fiction was drawn from her life, particularly her youth in Red Cloud, Woodress uses her novels both to buttress his vision of Cather's emotional and intellectual state at various points in her life and to enliven his text. Using this method, he offers up an intriguing woman keenly suspicious of the modern world that developed between World Wars I and II, distrustful of America's growing materialism and dependence on science and technology, and yearning for an Arcadian landscape located somewhere in her past in Red Cloud, but "civilized" by the older traditions of Europe.

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