- Recent Books on Willa Cather:An Essay Review
Critics have discovered that Willa Cather's lucid, apparently simple fiction is a fertile field for the most sophisticated and intellectual of theories. She is, it turns out, grist for the academic mill, which is turning out an avalanche of writing about her—now averaging over 60 articles and several books a year. [End Page 131]
Dramatically different in approach, two biographies published in 1987 are complementary in announcing possibilities for Cather studies. James Woodress' Willa Cather: A Literary Life provides the full-length biography that any major writer deserves. Building upon his earlier work, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (1970), Woodress takes into account newly discovered and available letters (the number of letters had increased by 50%), speeches, interviews, and public statements, and he expands his treatment of historical background and criticism. Materials previously unknown or unavailable are provided, errors are corrected, and speculation corroborated. Willa Cather: A Literary Life includes, for example, the first reprinting of Cather's high school graduation speech, corrected population figures for Lincoln during her university years, and an extended description of her Pittsburgh period. The index provides the standard items: names, places, and events relevant to Cather, as well as lists of her attitudes toward various subjects, names of persons and works relevant to her, and a chronology of her life. The notes review scholarship and criticism.
The result is the biography that is, and promises to remain, basic to scholarship and criticism on Cather—full, accurate, and accessible. For persons asking about her reading of popular writers, Woodress provides the starting place. For those interested in gender and lesbianism, he provides details about Cather's relationships with family and friends, her adopting male names and dress as her use of male personae in her writing. Cather's Lincoln, Pittsburgh, and New York journalistic periods receive extended attention, as do her travels in Europe, including her 1908 trip to Italy. And so on.
Throughout, Woodress' stance is that of the objective scholar, providing relevant materials in a clear and accessible manner, acknowledging questions about her life and writing, then refusing to speculate when "available data give up no objective answers" (56). Ironically, this refusal to speculate has frustrated some reviewers, yet it is precisely such rigor that will insure the book's longevity. Indeed, Willa Cather: A Literary Life is a book that reveals its depth with increased familiarity with Cather's writing. For the person newly come to Cather, the forward-looking narrative presents the details of Cather's life as she is living it; yet for the person familiar with the fiction, there is the added dimension of recognizing the genesis of the art that lies within the carefully crafted biographical scene.
In 1925, the year her most psychological novel, The Professor's House, was published, Cather write to a friend recommending The Doctor Looks at Literature: Psychological Studies of Life and Letters by Joseph Collins. "The best thing that fiction writers can do is to depict that problematic in life in all...