restricted access On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather (review)
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Reviewed by
David Porter. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. xxviii + 372 pp.

“The Divide” is a phrase familiar to Cather scholars. It refers to a relatively high stretch of prairie where the natural drainage divides, part going northward to the Republican River and part southward to the Little Blue. Willa Cather lived there for much of her childhood, and she sometimes refers to “the Divide” as if it were a famous geographic site that everyone should know about. In his title, On the Divide, David Porter uses the phrase in a punning way for the division in Cather’s mind or self that is his subject.

The idea of a dual or bifurcated Cather is not in itself new; it was most influentially voiced, perhaps, by the late Merrill Skaggs in her 1990 book After the World Broke in Two. But it has not previously been explored in the way Porter develops it here, as a division between “two different Willa Cathers” patterned on two “alter egos” (xx–xxi): one the ambitious and self-promoting Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, whom Porter terms “a woman of modest talents but boundless ambition” (59) and whom Cather wrote about on assignment for McClure’s in 1906; the other alter ego Porter identifies was Sarah Orne Jewett, whom Cather met in 1907 while working on the Eddy material, an idealistic artist whose care was solely the craft and honesty of her work, not publicity. Although Porter pursues the linkages between Cather and these two women more relentlessly than one might wish, he is indeed correct in seeing both elements in Cather, and he gives us much to think about in making that point.

The trouble with interpretations of Cather grounded in the concept of duality or bifurcation is that they reduce her complexity and multifacetedness to just two terms (“two different Willa Cathers”) and thereby oversimplify her and flatten the subtlety of her ambiguities. Porter recognizes this; he refers (quite correctly) to Cather’s “complexity” (59). But complexity and duality are not the same thing. His title, in fact, by its juxtaposition of “divide” and “many,” puts a spotlight on the incommensurability of the two. Moreover—and this is quite a separate matter—the subtitle, The Many Lives of Willa Cather, implies that the book is a biography; it is not, though it does, like much good scholarship, draw on biographical insights.

Porter provides new and quite valuable information in On the Divide, as well as stimulating readings, notably his reading of My Ántonia. He has both located (as a collector of rare books) and made available (by his transcriptions and facsimiles, as well as discussions, here) much unfamiliar publicity material. In chapter 1, “Three Autobiographies and an (Auto)interview,” he develops more fully and makes more widely available a pair of articles that first appeared in [End Page 639] the Willa Cather Newsletter and Review, in which he demonstrates that three biographical sketches used by Cather’s publishers as promotional materials were in fact autobiographical sketches written by Cather herself—despite her various disclaimers about self-promotion. Porter also shows us that a supposed interview with Cather at Grand Central Station in 1926, reprinted in Bohlke’s Willa Cather in Person, is actually an “(auto)interview” (a clever term for it) (3). This last, in particular, is head-turning news for those Cather scholars who, in spite of much of the critical work of the past two decades, have tended to idealize her as a disinterested artist pursuing nobler goals than money or fame. We can all be grateful to Porter for making available and also for explaining these materials that point toward a more inflected view of Cather and for his perceptive commentary on her long-neglected dust jackets.

In the important facsimile of the interview at Grand Central (figure 6), Professor Porter notes that a holograph paragraph at the end of the typescript is written in an unknown hand, not Cather’s. Surprisingly, he does not point out that there are also superscripts in figure 7 not written in Cather’s hand. These are recognizable as...