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Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism
Joan Acocella. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000. 127 pp.
Joan Acocella is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her book on Cather criticism grew out of a smart essay called "Cather and the Academy," published in 1995. As a New Yorker broadside commenting on academic criticism, it was witty and provocative journalism. As a university press book, the wit turns sour. Her work's lasting importance is undercut by an absence of sympathy for almost any critical school of thought that is more speculative, interrogative, or caustic than celebratory. There are a few critics whom Acocella endorses; some she loathes; others she ignores or fails to mention--the judgments are idiosyncratic. New material at the end of the book reveals what it is that Acocella advocates in literary criticism: she produces a patchwork of memorable quotations, paying homage to an author she clearly loves. I don't think we want to return to rote memorization in literary studies, but that might not entirely offend her.
The conceptual base of Acocella's book is important. Critical trends pass over literary texts like shadows on a rock, to invoke Cather, and while authors are products of their time, so are critics. This point is made eloquently on the dust jacket by Merrill Skaggs: "if the truths of literature are mutable, so are the abilities of academics to find or focus on them." One would expect extreme self-consciousness by such meta-critical engagement; however, Acocella seems unaware of her own very postmodern stance in her refusal to be implicated in, or duped by, any critical school or approach. Nonetheless, by the logic of her own argument, she must be a guilty critic, too. Acocella's perspective is what she calls that of a "grown-up." To be a grown-up is to exist above the fray of critical self-serving actions and naïve earnestness. On A Lost Lady, for example, Acocella states, "As novels of adultery go, this is extremely grown-up." Cather was grown-up, too. "That's what she wanted to be, grown-up. Which to her meant breaking through the boundary of the sex-plot--indeed, breaking through the boundary of sex altogether: living not as a woman was expected to live at her time, as a wife and mother, but operating freely, and doing her work." I doubt anyone would quarrel with that statement, no matter what she thought about the current controversies in literary studies. [End Page 488]
Cather has been read in peculiar ways, some of which, over time, don't stand up very well. She was judged too apolitical in the 1930s; too simplistic and elegiac in the 1940s and 1950s. Today she is read in categories as divergent as gay and lesbian, cultural studies, postcolonial, historicist; in fact, there are few current approaches that do not find her work stimulating. Yet Acocella has little patience for such specialized practices. She refers to "the political critics' revenge on the 'liberal humanism' of the fifties and sixties" and suspects that the next generation will show little mercy to what contemporary critics are doing to Willa Cather--saying her sexuality is a major issue, for example, or that her attitude toward other races and to imperialism should be examined. "But what historical understanding can these critics expect, who showed none?" Alas, as Emerson said, every generation must write (and I would add, read) its own books.
Acocella's frustrations are understandable. Critical excesses are frequent. The reaction against New Criticism's effort to depoliticize literary studies--itself a reaction to the hyper-political generation of critics before it--has produced wildly extravagant claims for the meaning, consequences, and purpose of literary study. Cather once wrote that most writers are "ruined by their successes." So are some critical schools of thought. In a sense, Acocella asks, "why can't we just love the books?" And to be sure, loving...