An intense scholarly analysis attempts to show that Pulitzer-winning Cather was far more than just a storyteller of the prairies.
Stout, a novelist (Home Truth, 1992) and professor (English/Texas A&M), does not flinch at such embarrassing aspects of Willa Cather’s thinking as her racism, imperialism, and anti-feminism. Born in northern Virginia in 1874, Cather experienced the disruptive tragedy that marks her fiction when the family barn burned and they relocated to the Nebraska prairie town of Red Cloud. Willa wore mannish clothes, enjoyed horses and the outdoors, and considered a medical career when, at the University of Nebraska, she began to publish articles and reviews. Disdainful of women writers (“they have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable”) and given to what would now be considered racist put-downs of Jews and blacks in print, she supported herself by teaching in Nebraska and later in Pittsburgh, where she enjoyed a live-in relationship with socialite Isabelle McClung, who later married. After publishing short stories in the manner of Henry James, Cather in 1906 became an editor at McClure’s magazine and in 1911 began to write novels. Her first notable successes were O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), Nebraska-based tales of hardship, violence, and strong female characters emphasizing American virtues of hearth and home. She achieved fame (and critical scorn) when her romantic WWI novel, One of Ours, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. A restless traveler prone to dark depressions, Cather distorted history by praising Anglo dominance and colonization of the southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), then toyed with the problems of pre–Civil War society in Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). She died in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in 1947.
Stout proves that Cather’s work is more complicated and contradictory than it may seem, but her densely wrought exegeses and lack of strong biographical detail leave her subject as dry and dusty as the landscape Cather loved. (28 b&w photos)