MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1037-1038
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The Writer and Her World
Janis P. Stout. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2000. xviii + 381 pp.
In the last two decades, scholarship has illuminated the versatility of Willa Cather's biography and work, its capacity for supporting widely variant, sometimes antithetical, critical responses and interpretations. Cather was complicated enough to present with convincing self-assurance all the faces that differing camps among her readers have wanted (or suspected, or sometimes feared): simultaneously prairie regionalist and urbane Francophile, emancipated woman and misogynist, freethinking Bohemian and conservative Republican, celebrant of immigrant experience and narrow nativist.
In Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, Janis P. Stout adopts this central quality of self-contradicting multiplicity as the exploratory instrument with which to address Cather's life and major fictions. "I see Cather," she begins, "as a deeply conflicted writer who fits comfortably into no box, a person of profound ambivalence [. . .] who therefore structured her writing in such ways as to control her uncertainty." She acknowledges that a "conflicted Cather" is by no means new to criticism and is not an approach to literary form as defensive symptom. As she notes, Hermione Lee and Merrill Skaggs have written book-length treatments of the internal divisions manifest in Cather's fiction. Sharon O'Brien established symptomatic reading as a dominant mode of Cather criticism in 1987's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Stout's project is to sustain a symptomatic reading of Cather's typical ambivalence across her entire career, and to refer it not only to biography (whose layered depth she ably invokes through an exceptional knowledge of Cather's unpublished letters), but also to the historical determinants and conditions of American literary modernism.
Stout explores the well-known flash points of Cather criticism in the last twenty-five years: cross-dressing, lesbianism, misogyny, crude racism, complicity in late imperialism. Her tactics are generally additive, not reductive, expanding cultural contexts rather than taking sides on questions of the "real" Willa Cather. Thus, for example, she refers Cather's youthful mannish rebellion of the late 1880s and early 1890s not only to "emerging lesbianism" but also to "the markings by which the New Woman was then being defined, available to her in the national magazines that [End Page 1037] her family purchased and kept." Such circumspection is unarguably fair-minded, and the extensive contextualizing that produces it provides a useful corrective to more idiosyncratic, selective readings. On the other hand, Stout's calmly reasonable analysis can be even-handed to the point of anticlimax, as it is occasionally in her discussion of Cather's inconsistent anti-Semitism, which concludes fatalistically that for Cather "the world was too complex to yield easy answers"--surely an evasive easy answer itself to the artistic and psychological puzzle of Cather's powerful, simple prejudices and loyalties.
On the whole, though, Stout's care and honesty pay off, and The Writer and Her World is a valuably comprehensive work. Stout writes most excitingly when she tracks her own deeply felt interests, as in her intermittent but coherently illuminating analysis of Cather's persistent occlusions and misreadings of Native Americans, weaving through the novels from O Pioneers! to Death Comes for the Archbishop. This thread is itself an important contribution to Cather scholarship, discovering in some unsuspected places a great American cultural anxiety and its repression. And the strength of Stout's reading lies in her personal alliance here with a dissenting voice in Willa Cather, a nearly silenced voice that found intolerable the unjust discourse of nation and race that her other, louder voices nonetheless vigorously deployed.
John N. Swift