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Encountering authors we thought we knew in unfamiliar contexts can be an ambivalent experience—sometimes disorienting, often enlightening. Willa Cather & Material Culture: Real-World Writing, Writing the Real World offers opportunities for both responses. The essays that editor and noted Cather scholar Janis Stout has collected in this volume address Willa Cather's life and work from the vantage point of cultural studies, inviting readers to reconsider Cather in relation to things: the things that appear in her written work and the [End Page 203] things that surrounded her in her daily life. Material objects, Stout notes, "are both ingredients and traces of human identity, human history, and human culture" (1). Her introduction promises that "it is as both—as ingredients or shaping contexts and as expressive traces—that we will here ponder the importance of material objects to the mind and art of Willa Cather" (1). For the most part, the essays in the collection accomplish this and more.
Stout's introduction, "For Use, for Pleasure, for Status: The Object World of Willa Cather," provides a cogent definition of material culture and defends the aims and outcomes of its study, particularly in relation to Cather. She debunks the idea expressed by "idealizing scholars and critics" (2) that Cather lived above and beyond her culture and was indifferent to the pressures of a capitalist nation, that things, material possessions, did not matter to her. The introduction catalogues and reviews an array of things that did seem to matter to Cather, including domestic, collectable, and status-conveying objects; it also addresses the function of clothing and food in Cather's life and persona. These inventories reveal the complexity of Cather's relation to things and demonstrate her real, material situatedness in American cultures of the early twentieth century. They also display the impressive depth of Stout's knowledge and understanding of her subject.
While "For Use, for Pleasure, for Status" highlights areas of misconception in established approaches to Cather, it simultaneously links the priorities of Willa Cather & Material Culture to the larger critical narratives surrounding the author, addressing the issue of the relation of her aesthetic to cultural and economic concerns and the issue of her position within modernism. Stout observes that "one of the main projects in Cather studies in the past two decades has been to reclaim Cather for modernism (to be sure, as a modernist with a difference)" (2). This idea of Cather as a different kind of modernist is variously interpreted throughout the collection, as the individual authors contend with the question of how the modernist dictum "no ideas but in things" plays out in her work (1). Stout argues that "if human beings can express themselves only in real, sensuous objects . . . it is perhaps equally true that we gain personhood, develop selves to express, only within the context of objects" (1). This provocative point is extended throughout the collection, but it does seem to me that the introduction and many of the individual essays would benefit from fuller, more searching discussion of issues of gender and sexuality in this object-based view of identity; gender studies approaches form another key thread of Cather criticism, which I was surprised to not see more emphatically in the foreground of scholarship dealing with selves-in-material-contexts. [End Page 204]
"For Use, for Pleasure, for Status" introduces a key concern of the collected essays: the fact that Cather herself helped to produce the idea that she is "more or less unconcerned with physical reality" (3). Most of the authors address Cather's essay "The Novel Démeublé (Unfurnished)," which famously mandates that fiction be enacted on a bare stage or in an empty room (4). Stout argues that while for the most part Cather "avoids clutter altogether" in her fiction, she does rely on "a few selected objects" that she positions to "convey essential meanings" (10). Many of the essays included in the volume proceed precisely along this line, focusing on particularly "expressive" (10) objects that allow for insight...