On Willa Cather

I am in love with Willa Cather, it turns out. Earlier in the year I read A Lost Lady and adored it, then a week or so ago I read The Professor’s House and was completely blown away by its brilliance. This past week I read My Antonia, which was beautiful and redemptive but suffered a little in comparison with those later, more sophisticated novels. I still thought it was a wonderful book. I’m working my way through as many of Cather’s writings as I can get my hands on, and I went to the university library last week and found a chunkster of a biography on her, to add to Hermione Lee’s apparently more literature-oriented account of her life.

The last time I felt this enthusiastic about an author’s work, the author was Colette, and there are nagging similarities between these writers even though their subject matter is ostensibly so different. In both cases landscape and circumstance are tremendously important to the way the narrative develops, whether it’s the Parisian demi-monde or the prairies of the New World. In both cases there are gentle but insistent preoccupations with women’s survival in a culture where their choices are few. And in both cases, the answer to the difficulties they encounter is a steadfast belief in women’s capacity for reinvention. We can see this at work in A Lost Lady and My Antonia, novels with very similar structures. The heroines, Marian Forrester and Antonia Shimerda, both suffer severe reversals of fortune and, since they are being judged through the eyes of idealistic male narrators, come in for some harsh criticism. In petulant frustration, Niel Herbert and Jim Burden both rush off to follow their own ascending career stars, but the magnetic pull of the homeland always brings them back, and their fascination with these women leads them to track down the next instalment of their stories. Marian and Antonia have both successfully pulled themselves up by their bootstrings and found ways to continue with the kind of life they longed for. Quite how they managed this cumbersome struggle is left delicately to one side, and the results are a little mixed and ambivalent, particularly in Marian’s case. But then, her narrator, Niel Herbert, is less able to forgive the cause of his disillusionment, whereas Jim Burden’s sunny disposition allows him to enter wholeheartedly into Antonia’s new life. In any case, women survive quite well and independently, Cather assures us, even though men may assume that they will fall to pieces once their admiring gaze is withdrawn.

Cather is also intrigued by the ebb and flow of energy across a life – how the good times are marked by surges of power and competency, and the bad times are marked by lethargy and sloth. Creative work, be it growing things or study (here the women tend to grow things – children, social networks, crops – and the men study) is the basis of mental health and physical wellbeing. But this never solidifies into a rigid prescription for life. Cather almost always takes the long view with her characters and follows them over extended periods of their lives; eras of triumph and disaster come and go, just as there will be good harvests and poor ones. Progress and nature exist in a slightly disharmonious partnership in the world, progress pulling us forward inexorably, whether we like it or not, nature reminding us how cyclical our patterns are, regardless of how we experience them. Our lives can feel (and Cather’s children often feel this) locked in an eternal, unchanging present, but they are fundamentally discontinuous. Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.

Where I think Cather is particularly brilliant is in her use of the frame. It’s a splendid device to have her heroines framed by the witnessing gaze of young male narrators, boys who are more than half in love with her pioneering women, but aware they can never possess them in the conventional way of marriage; our view of these women is enriched because we can see the emotions that distort their narrative image and must decide whether to agree with those male perspectives or not. And then My Antonia is essentially a narrative of interpolated stories, with each character either telling a story or embodying a story of how it was to live in the extreme conditions of the Western frontier. These vignettes are both legendary and yet real – they represent the indomitable human spirit in a series of variations, and they are also tales of individual hardship and survival. In a very gently plotted novel like My Antonia, they offer a mosaic of diversionary interest and a sort of ongoing education of the reader as to what possibilities there are for people in this very particular time and place.

In The Professor’s House this use of the frame becomes more sophisticated: the story of the Professor, who has just finished his life’s work and is suffering one of those still, dormant phrases, is used to frame the narrative of his favourite student, Tom Outland. Yet Outland’s story is not exactly what we expect, and the relationship between what happens to Tom and what happens to the Professor is not immediately obvious, although the frame insists that the two are linked. Cather is very brave here to include such an obviously significant but thematically different story and it makes the reader think very deeply indeed about the story of the professor that surrounds it. It’s a piece of formal experimentation on a par with Colette’s mischievous subversion of narrative authority when she was writing fictional autobiographies and autobiographical fictions. Cather and Colette were both literary pioneers in their way, and fascinated by people who refused to bow down to conventions or follow the stories dictated by their culture. They encouraged the reader to be brave in all sorts of ways, and I love that about them.

17 thoughts on “On Willa Cather

  1. On a more gossipy note, both writers also went through phases of dressing in masculine attire and both had somewhat vexed relationships with “Sapphism” and their close relationships with other women…

    Now that I have read this post, I can’t believe I never really considered Cather’s framing techniques, having read both My Antonia and The Professor’s House, but oddly it never occurred to me before. Now I will be on the lookout for it when I read more of her work. I have yet to utterly fall for her yet as you seem to have done, although The Professor’s House was really intriguing on a number of levels. Coincidentally, I read it just before going on a road trip to Arizona/New Mexico and visiting some of the ruins of hill dwellings as described – a very nice little tie-in.

  2. I loved both My Antonia and The Professor’s House (O Pioneers is also good but more similar to My Antonia). I love that framing device and have noticed it in other books as well (strangely in a crime novel by Thomas Cook I’m reading at the moment). I thought The Professor’s House was amazing and when I finished knew it was an amazing book but couldn’t quite explain why (the stories really are very different aren’t they). That’s one to go back and read again, but I think I will always love My Antonia particularly. I want to read more of her work as well and should pick up A Lost Lady since I have it on hand. Some day I really do need to visit her home in Red Cloud since it’s not so terribly far away from where I live.

  3. I’m looking for something to read just now–I can’t remember if I found The Professor’s HOuse at Gutenberg or not. Something to check. I do think I have the others.

  4. Coincidentally, I also read My Antonia that past week and fell in love with Cather’s writing. My Antonia is my first exposure to her work, but it will not be my last. I am considering purchasing the Library of America 3-volume set of her work. Thank you for the educational post!


  5. Wonderful post and puts me in the mood to finally read one of her novels.Ii would never have thought that there are similrities to Colette. This reminds me that I wanted to do some serious reading and rereading of Colette. She is a fantastic writer. Do you still like her? My favourite was a story, La Lune de pluie. I can’t tell you why but this is one of my favourite short stories of all time.
    Anyhow I’m all excited now and looking forward to discoveries. I actually discovered a great writer too – Nella Larsen – and hope to post on her soon. I’m embarking on a Harlem Renaissance project.

  6. I have only previously read “Death Comes to the Archbishop” and frankly, I found it dull. I only read it because it is one of those books one is supposed to have read, like Joyce and Faulkner. But your post was so enthusiastic and such a pleasure to read, I will give Cather another chance.

  7. Emily – you are so right about the cross-dressing! Although Colette chose it as a mature woman (on the rebound from a bad marriage) whereas it seems to have been a period in Cather’s adolescence when she was frustrated at the lack of opportunities for girls. But still. How lucky to have been able to see the hill dwellings – the descriptions of them are amazing. I can quite see that Cather wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s something about the way she writes that just pierces me. As a verbose person, it could be the economy that I admire so! 🙂

    Danielle – I remember you reading My Antonia and your lovely review spurred me on to pick Cather up. I am so very glad I did. The Professor’s House is a hard book; I’m quite stumped by it, although fascinated too. Do try A Lost Lady; that was my first one and I thought it was very beautiful. I did wonder if you lived anywhere nearby – the descriptions of the area are amazing. To think you live in the middle of all that space!

    Lilian – I loved The Professor’s House. If you read it, do let me know what you think!

    Lezlie – you are very welcome! I’m delighted to find another convert to Cather. I am already jealous of the three-volume set, which sounds wonderful.

    Charlotte – I didn’t realise you had read her! I think she is a real writer’s writer – the effects she creates with such economy of words are quite something. Do try A Lost Lady – that’s genius.

    Plashing Vole – hurray! another Cather fan, but then, you are a vole of good taste.

    Caroline – oh Lune de pluie is one of my favourite of her short stories! (Bella-Vista is the other). Colette survived a three-year PhD with my admiration for her perfectly intact. That is quite something, I think. I’d love to know what you make of Cather and I SO want to read Nella Larsen’s Passing. That’s been on my list for ages.

    Ruthielle – It’s good of you to give Cather another go. Try A Lost Lady if you do. I can quite see how Death Comes To The Archbishop wouldn’t be a book to win the first time reader over. My Antonia struck me as just the kind of book that gets prescribed for a classroom in ordero t bore the children senseless with it. But I read A Lost Lady first, and it is very accessible, and much more of an intriguing story. Do let me know how you get on if you try her again!

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  9. I’m a hopeless Cather addict, too. I was introduced to The Professor’s House in and American Lit module at uni and couldn’t believe how this wonderful writer had slipped under my radar when I was younger. I wasn’t keen on the Lee biography – it didn’t sparkle for me.

  10. Nicola – So glad to find another Cather fan! I haven’t read the Lee biography yet, but she can be a little dry. I can’t recall the author of the other bio I have – I’ll begin there.

  11. I’ve been wanting to read The Professor’s House for a while now, and this post makes me even more eager! I loved A Lost Lady and liked My Antonia, so she has always seemed well worth reading more of. I too love books that use frames in interesting ways — there’s so much room for ambiguity and complexity, and it’s so much fun.

  12. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on Cather, particularly since she’s been a writer who has come to mean so much to me over the past year, in which I’ve read My Antonia, The Professor’s House , My Mortal Enemy and revisited O! Pioneers!. I just read an article about Cather on npr.org, and I thought I’d send you the link to it. The author is spot on in many places, I think. http://www.npr.org/2011/05/02/133811309/return-to-the-prairie-to-revisit-my-antonia

  13. Dorothy – oh you must read The Professor’s House, it’s such a good one. I love these later novels more than the early pioneer ones (although they’re good too) because they are so intriguingly playful with form. It’s almost exciting, isn’t it, when an author dares to do something different that way.

    mbolit – thank you for that link! I have literally just picked up your comment and will follow it through now and read it. Cather is my new project – sort of like a new love affair for the summer months! She is such a compelling writer. It seems to be quite a regular occurrence that if you love her work, you have to read as much of her as possible. So there will definitely be more Cather here in the future.

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  15. I love Willa Cather I have read almost everything, I think there are 2 books of hers that I haven’t read. I had trouble with a Song of the Lark but there is a part in it where she talkes about these people who carved holes in cliffs to live in and it was so vividly beautiful that I can still feel it.

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