On Willa Cather

I’m hoping to sneak in just before the finishing post on Virago Reading Week, which has been such a hit across the blogosphere. I am a huge fan of Virago, with their distinctive forest green covers and that emblem of the bitten apple, reminding us via Snow White and her evil stepmother that so-called ‘domestic’ stories retain some of the greatest power and punch in literature. Plus you have to admire a publishing house that has remained true to its ideals for over 30 years in a turbulent market place. Anyway, those Virago novels represent the kind of works I often like best – exquisitely observed stories of profound human interest, written with timeless elegance.

And my goodness me, did I find that in bucketloads with Willa Cather. I’ve long been meaning to read her and having finished A Lost Lady, I instantly ordered three more of her novels. She is wonderful! Why didn’t you tell me? Oh, well, yes, I suppose several people did in fact mention it. A Lost Lady is a portrait novel, recounting the story over many years of Mrs Marian Forrester, the young, vibrant wife of an elderly railroad pioneer. ‘There could be no negative encounter, however slight, with Mrs Forrester’, the narrative tells us. ‘If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking.’ Marian Forrester is a rich creation, delicately balanced over triumphant femininity and its darker, needy, unsteady underside.

The marriage to Mr Forrester might, in less accomplished hands, become an empty caricature, with the much older husband always seeming beyond the reach of his delightful young wife. But Mr Forrester is also a beautifully drawn character, and we understand their mutual attraction: ‘When he laid his fleshy, thick-fingered hand upon a frantic horse, an hysterical woman, an Irish workman out for blood, he brought them peace; something they could not resist. That had been the secret of his management of men. His sanity asked nothing, claimed nothing; it was so simple that it brought a hush over distracted creatures.’ This portrait of a marriage is delivered from the perspective of Niel Herbert, a young boy at the start of the novel, a middle-aged man by its end. He worships Mrs Forrester with a young boy’s idealism, but his own trite conservatism and his tightly-grasped ideals mean that he can neither understand nor help her when she falls on troubled times. Willa Cather manages quite brilliantly to sustain sympathy for Mrs Forrester, and it is Niel we judge, for his uptightness and his ineffectual attempts to save her from herself.

When I’d read the book and was having a quick look around the internet at other reviews, I came across a quite brilliant one by Rachel, who is co-hosting Virago week with Carolyn. So I suggest if you click on the link if you want to read any more about this novel.

I have to say I have become quite fascinated by Willa Cather herself, one of those extraordinary writers who shot to fame in her own lifetime for doing something different and unusual. I just love this picture of her, taken in 1927 by Edward Steichen.


She was in the middle of writing Death Comes to the Archbishop when it was taken, and on a creative roll, having written in steady succession, Song of the Lark, My Antonia, A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House. In my introduction to A Lost Lady, A. S. Byatt suggests that what interests her most in writing is energy: ‘She has a great novelist’s capacity to show human beings almost as forms of energy: children and adolescents unable to imagine death: the transient sexual ferocity of youth: the unusual power of those who are survivors: the decay of power in all, even in those passionate creatures she most admires.’ And passion was paramount for Cather; she had written in one of those old-fashioned autograph book memes that it was the fault she could best tolerate in others, whilst she was most disdainful of ‘Lack of “nerve”’. Can’t you see that from this photo of her here? She looks rooted in the ground, a powerful and steadfast oak tree of a woman, bearing her creative fruit with casual good nature and charm. Her authority, her good will, her sparkling intelligence, all I think are plainly visible in her face and her stance. She knew exactly who she was, right then, and her life and her vision were unfolding, unapologetically, as she wished.

One of her biographers, Rachel Cohen, felt that Cather had received vital writerly advice just at the moment she needed it. A very young Cather had become friendly with Sarah Orne Jewett shortly before she died and a strong bond of affectionate respect grew between the women. But Jewett felt that Cather was writing for the wrong audience, and so she sent her a letter, telling her ‘In short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality – you can write about life, but never write life itself…To work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writer’s lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world.’ This letter had a significant impact on Cather, and she took up all of her suggestions. ‘She grew into a writer of unshakeable discipline and conviction,’ Cohen writes, ‘she wrote of Nebraska and her Virginia childhood; she became, as the years went on, increasingly solitary; she was known for her wide outlook upon the world; and as she wrote more and more of history, worked with just those subjects in which Jewett would most have delighted.’
That’s what interests me about Cather: she was never a lost lady, but one who found herself and her perspective and held onto it with steady grace.

12 thoughts on “On Willa Cather

  1. Fantastic, wonderful, insightful post! I love Willa Cather – she is marvellous. I adore how you summed her up and express her sheer force of energy – it really is visible in that photo! I wish I had been able to meet her. Thank you so much for taking part in Virago Reading Week!

  2. Pingback: Virago Round Up: The Final Countdown! | Book Snob

  3. What a lovely post. I want to rush off and start reading her immediately. I have two of her novels waiting here for me. How lucky for her to have found someone who could give such wonderful advice. The picture is quite something.

  4. Booksnob – it’s been a fantastic week, and I really did think your post was outstanding. I’ll be looking out for your reviews now! What you say about meeting Willa Cather is so true – there’s not many authors I’d like to spend time with, but she is definitely among them.

    Simone – oh what a lovely comment, thank you! Cather is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers, too.

    Harriet – yay! another fan. She really is wonderful – I need to do some serious catch up reading on her. Not that that is a chore!🙂

    Lilian – I was bowled over by her character portraits in particular. I’m having a mini-obsession with character right now, so she was a perfect find. I’d love to know what you think of her.

    Caroline – I would love to know what you think of those novels. And wasn’t it great advice? I’m taking it to heart, because good eavesdropped advice, is still good advice!

  5. Willa Cather is one of America’s best kept secrets. I am glad you have discovered her and like her so much. I read My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop many years ago and loved them both. I have several other of Cather’s books on my shelf and I keep thinking, gee, I need to get around to reading those!

  6. You have reminded me of a big gap in my reading. I’ve yet to read Willa Cather other than a short story. You are encouraging me to move her up my list of authors to read in the near future.

  7. I read A Lost Lady in grad school and liked it quite a lot; later I read My Antonia and enjoyed it very much too. Now I’m looking forward to The Professor’s House, and who knows what else! I really like the way she gives us the “lost lady” from the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite understand her.

  8. I had much the same response to Cather when I first read her as you did–why didn’t anyone tell me?! Of course I spent the last couple of years of high school having my English teachers tell me ‘you must read Willa Cather’, but did I listen? It took a while, but now I am a convert, too. Interesting about the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett–another author I must read. And I have The Lost Lady on hand as well!

  9. Pingback: Slim Paperback Three: The Professor’s House « The Art of Reading

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