WILLA: The Life of Willa Cather by Phyllis C. Robinson

WILLA: The Life of Willa Cather

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Once a dismayingly gushy preface is out of the way (""I set out to look for the author of my girlhood. The author who stirred my heart. . .""), Robinson settles down to offer a generally respectable, if dullish, biography of much-loved novelist Cather--weak on literary criticism, stronger on life/work parallels and domestic details, only occasionally fatuous. Stressing Cather's Virginia childhood as well as her growing-up years in Nebraska, Robinson extensively explores the family/community material that would later appear in the novels; without much new insight, but with somewhat more candor about Willa's developing homosexuality, she tells the familiar story of Red Cloud's loner/tomboy/bluestocking. (""In the same sense that Wills created a Nebraska and a Red Cloud that she could live with, she also created an identity of her own that satisfied her, one that was strong, independent, essentially masculine."") Similarly, there's inconclusive re-consideration of Cather's anti-Semitism, her mysterious feud with Nebraska-born Roscoe Pound--whose sister was Cather's first great crush. (""Perhaps he called the friendship unnatural. . . . We do not know."") And Robinson dutifully follows Cather from confining Nebraska to journalism and teaching in Pittsburgh (where she found her great, unfulfilled love, Isabelle McClung); from first stories and poems to her major move, to work at McClure's magazine in N.Y.--motivated by ambition and, perhaps, by the dead-end relationship with Isabelle. ""Willa undoubtedly needed sexual fulfillment,"" so she settled for the marriage-like companionship (never openly acknowledged) of un-adored Edith Lewis; ""she wrote romantically about women again and again, but always in the person of a man""; and, on the basis of the nostalgic, youth-fixated novels, ""it is impossible to escape the implication that Willa. . . felt unfulfilled in her adult life."" There is some lively material here--in the relationship with charismatic S. S. McClure, in the crossfire of personalities (Witter Bynner et al.) at the magazine. But the stodgy later chapters alternate, for the most part, between travel itineraries and uneven novel-by-novel appreciations (helpful on autobiographical elements, otherwise naive). And, neither absorbing as life-history nor penetrating as literary biography, this well-researched study is primarily for Robinson's fellow Cather fans--or, in spots, for those with a keen interest in the public and creative adjustments made by homosexual artists prior to the Capote/Williams era.

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday