The life of any serious writer is a story of conflict and contradiction. Willa Cather's is no exception.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia into a life of relative ease and established order; then, at an early age, she was uprooted and transplanted to the Nebraska frontier. Cather reacted against the hardships and cultural deprivations of frontier life, moving east, first to Pittsburgh and, later, to New York. In her early writing she tended to idealize the American East and the great cultural centers of Europe, particularly France, and to write scathingly of the frontier. Early literary influences were Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and Walter Pater. Later, persuaded by Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather returned imaginatively to Nebraska for her material.
Cather sometimes preferred to write from a male point of view. She was reared a Protestant but was attracted to the ritual of Catholicism and the beauty of Catholic art and architecture. She was dismayed by some of the results of industrial expansion and condemned commercial sharp-dealing, but she was charmed by the trappings of great wealth and large-scale success. As she grew older, Cather felt more and more cut off from the life around her and turned in her fiction to places and times remote even from her own early experiences: the American Southwest of the mid-1800s, Quebec in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and pre-Civil War Virginia.
Early commentators were content to deal with the surface of Cather's fiction and to label her a regionalist, a celebrator of pioneer virtues, a writer of pastorals, and—according to some left-leaning critics—a member of a genteel tradition that had turned its collective back on present realities and retreated to a safe, dead past.
There was some truth in these early views, as well as some literary politicking. There were also some questions left unanswered and some [End Page 3] anomalies ignored or glossed over. Sexuality and, especially, Cather's treatment of male-female relationships are the most obvious. Her ambiguous attitude toward the frontier is another. Her obsession with art and beauty and their role in shaping her moral sense and imagination is fundamental, as is the more comprehensive question, under which all the others may to some extent be subsumed: the nature of Cather's peculiar values.
Book-length studies, such as David Daiches' Willa Cather (1951) and, especially, J. H. Randall III's The Landscape and the Looking Glass (1960), helped put Cather's career in perspective. Randall's study was particularly important for establishing the influence of Pater and the art for art's sake movement. More recent criticism, beginning perhaps with Blanche Gelfant's essay, "The Forgotten Reaping Hook: Sex in My Ántonio" (American Literature, 1971), have begun to probe the darker recesses of Cather's world, to modify and even to challenge earlier readings. The essays in this special issue continue in that spirit, eschewing traditional labels and examining Cather's work from a more sceptical vantage point.
In conclusion, a note of acknowledgment. I wish to thank my colleague Margaret Moan Rowe for her generous assistance in assembling this issue, particularly in the making of difficult final decisions. [End Page 4]
William J. Stuckey, Guest co-Editor of this special issue, has guest-edited another special issue of this journal (Women Writers of the American South). He reviews frequently for MFS, is one of its Advisory Editors, and is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Narrative Technique. He has published essays on Cather, Wharton, Welty, Hemingway, and others as well as several short stories.