- After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather
The title of this book alludes to a remark Willa Cather made in the preface to her 1936 collection of essays, Not Under Forty: "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." Skaggs summarizes the various analyses Cather biographers have offered in explanation of this cryptic observation, then goes on to offer one herself: that Cather feared criticism of One of Ours, just finished in 1922, a novel in which she had invested much of herself, and that hostile criticism did indeed follow.
Whether or not 1922 marked some deep crisis in Cather's life (possibly she was merely noting the great cultural shift following World War I), Skaggs' attempt [End Page 731] to write an "intellectual history" from Cather's last eight novels is a fascinating one. After two initial chapters detailing her general thesis, Skaggs considers all the novels from One of Ours on, treating each as an individual work and as part of a group with reverberating themes.
"Intellectual history" generally focuses on a set of consciously held ideas or assumptions, but here—perhaps constrained by the framing 1922 trauma—Skaggs refers equally to struggles of passion or emotion (with phrases such as "Cather's distress had intensified," or "she reasoned out an effective strategy for survival") more often found in psychobiography. Doubtless Cather, like her fellow Romantic Keats, felt philosophical axioms "upon the pulses," and it is certainly possible that she conducted an intense argument with herself through her writing. To trace this argument, however, Skaggs first outlines a web of ideas, themes, stylistic traits, symbols, and attitudes that becomes so intricate as to be an encumbrance for the reader, especially when, as Skaggs observes, "In this fiction the opposite is always true as well."
Once these initial chapters are past, difficulties lessen. The discussions of the individual novels show a keen literary mind at work. Skaggs is willing to take risks, and the result is a set of analyses that is always challenging. And the risks she takes usually pay off, although often one's first reaction to, say, the proposal that in One of Ours Cather deliberately constructs a Freudian Oedipal drama is to think "Preposterous! Cather rejected Freud," only to be convinced that this dynamic elucidates each member of the Wheeler family.
Skaggs is particularly keen at perceiving where Cather's reading informs and shapes her fiction: Pascal permeates Death Comes for the Archbishop, even the Pascal of projective geometry, as Skaggs shows brilliantly. And Emerson pervades Lucy Gayheart, helping to make its lightweight heroine understandable.
One hesitates to carp when the interpretations are so courageous and provocative, but Skaggs' unflagging effort to wring several significances from characters' names finally becomes numbing—Yes, Nat Wheeler is a "wheeler-dealer," and yes, Claude at home was both "clod" and "clawed," and finally happy with the French pronunciation of his name, but should we think of Lucy Gayheart as both light (luce) and "morally lax" ("Loose-y")? [End Page 732]