restricted access Willa Cather: Queering America (review)
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Reviewed by
Marilee Lindemann. Willa Cather: Queering America. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. xvii + 185pp.

Marilee Lindemann’s book contributes to the agenda of cultural work set by the editors of Columbia University Press’s Lesbian and Gay [End Page 1030] Studies series, “Between Men—Between Women.” Pointing out that in recent studies of Willa Cather “sexuality has been relegated to the background,” Lindemann foregrounds the lesbian identity Cather has recently acquired and reads her fiction through a self-consciously queer lens. Lindemann’s thesis is that Cather “‘queered’ America by examining axes of difference—psychosexual, racial/ethnic, economic, and literary—that made the nation a space of vast energy and profound instability.” Scholarship here rests on the slippery term “queer,” itself a queerly indefinable category. In the statement above, it resembles the Russian formalist notion of defamiliarization, a term from Cather’s own era. However, Lindemann employs it as well to refer to the unmasking of homosexuality (in a brilliant presentation of Cather’s epistolary use of the word “queer”), and also to label deviant, non-monogamous, or cross-ethnic heterosexuality, departures from realist modes of narrative, defiance, recognition of social constructivism, racial and sexual ambiguity, the creation of a more inclusive literary canon, and, ultimately, “a broad-based assault on social constructions of the ‘normal’,” in favor, one presumes, of alternative models. “Queer” thus emerges as an umbrella for oppositional politics and aesthetic experimentation of many varieties and ambitions. Such inclusiveness, though, belies Lindemann’s claim that she invokes “the queer” to signal “skepticism toward any kind of programmatic thinking.”

Lindemann’s statement that “the further Cather moves away from realism as the structuring principle of her narratives, the more likely it is that white heteronormativity will be challenged by a ‘queerness’ marked not as individual pathology but as forceful oppositionality” is irrefutable. The question remains whether and how such formalist departures may be tied to the author’s sexuality, and, in turn, how that linkage informs or becomes useful to cultural politics today. Cather wanted her sexuality to remain private—not secret, not hidden, but private. Lindemann tells us that “Willa Cather didn’t want you to know” what she wrote in her letters and so a large part of this book’s purpose is to “out” those letters and this lesbian. We do this in the name of a serious cultural agenda that seeks justice in the public realm. Cather is dead, she cannot be harmed, but her sexuality can be brought to bear on progressive change, the reasoning goes. However, one ought not to forget that such work, which claims to make a theoretical assault on social constructions of the “normal,” amounts in its own way to a strategic [End Page 1031] assault on very conscious constructions of the “private.” Cather’s lesbianism is of value; her privacy is of no consequence. That may sound priggish until it is your privacy that is devalued.

Nonetheless, Lindemann’s book is a work to be reckoned with. On matters of literary history, Lindemann is particularly strong. Revealing Cather’s introduction to Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs to be a response to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, and then following that connection to see it inform Cather’s depiction of the scholar’s work in The Professor’s House, is a brilliant example of intertextual scholarship. As the practice of what queer studies brings to and elicits out of literary studies, Lindemann’s is exemplary. To “queer America” is to find oneself on the borders of what has been known (without irony, in the United States) as the process of naturalization. Cather thus “queers” the prairie by revealing the typical human body to be “never fully the property of the ‘person’ who inhabits it, never fully in control of the symbolic resonances arising from it, never stable in its relationship to official and unofficial notions of citizenship or to medical notions of the normal and the abnormal.” By this point, intellectually speaking, the notion of “queer” has traveled far from its sexual connotation to achieve a kind of panhumanistic applicability. Yet what significance will the word...