Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism by Joan Acocella (review)
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venture on her own terms that stands in significant contrast to the predominant social conventions of her time, Mulrooney's story is both inspiring and refreshing ; it is a valuable addition to the history of women in the United States and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mayer and DeArmand's close examination of Mulrooney's life and times ends on a sadly ironic note; when Mulrooney died at age 95, "her death certificate ... described [her] as a housewife, the one occupation she assiduously avoided" (343). StakingHer CUim celebrates one woman's life and entrepreneurial spirit, while demonstrating that significant human accomplishments need not be limited by such factors as harsh geographical territory, economic disasters, or constricting social conventions. Joan Acocella. WilL· Cather andthe Politics ofCriticism. Lincoln: University ofNebraska Press, 2000. 127p. Paulette Scott Eastern Washington University This book is an expansion of an essay, "Cather and the Academy," which was published in the New Yorker in 1995. The author's main concern is with die recent political criticism ofCather's novels, but she also includes chapters on Cather criticism from the 1910s to die 1940s and from the 1950s and 1960s. She points out that "Cadier is traditionally regarded as the elegist ofthe pioneer period, the repository ofwhat America thinks ofas its early, true-grit triumphs" (3).The first two chapters, "The Darkling Plain" and "Youth" provide some interesting facts of Cather's biography. When she was nine, Cather's family moved from Virginia to the flat, open plains of Nebraska. Like the writers who influenced her most — Virgil andJames— Catherwrites ofexiles, people caught in circumstances strange to them (4-5). As a teenager, Cather was unsure ofher plans for the future. At the age offourteen , she got a crew cut and began dressing like a man in jackets and suspenders. Her ambition was to become a doctor (9). Although her family could not afford it, she insisted on going to college. When her college essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska StateJournal, she changed her mind about becoming a doctor and decided to become a writer. She continued her education at the University ofNebraskawhilewritinga column for the NebraskaStateJournal(11). During this period she developed her ideas on art, one of her main one's being that the best art did not focus on reality but evoked die state of the soul. In her third chapter, "Cather and Her Critics: 1910s-1940s," Acocella finds that critics praised Cather for her broadening ofsubject matter to include the lives 120 + ROCKY MOUNTAIN REVIEW + SPRING 200 1 ofpoor immigrant farmers and for her prose style. Her war novel, One ofOurs, is according to Acocella both a good and bad novel. Its depiction ofNebraska is firstrate , but the transformation of Claude into a brave infantryman happens too quickly. Although Cather received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, she was criticized for her positive stance on war. In the 1920s she wrote four novels, including Death Comesfor the Archbishop in which after the Archbishop builds his cathedral , he is left without any dreams. According to Acocella, for Cather "the only real life is in the imagination, in desire and memory" (21). Acocella judges Death ComesfortheArchbishop Cather's most perfectwork. But by the late '20s, Edmund Wilson and other critics found Cather old-fahioned because ofher prairie novels. Experimentalism and subjectivity were in vogue, but Cather did not use stream of consciousness or deal with her characters' sex lives. Since Cather was thirtyeight when her first novel was published, she did not share the values of the younger Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos. Yet Acocella sees her forwarding a modern perspective: "Her austere style is part of modernist classicism, her tragic vision, part of modernist pessimism" (23). Condecended to in the '20s, Cather was openly attacked in the '30s for her lack ofinterest in economics and her conservative politics. Dismissed by the Left, she was exalted by the Right for writing Catholic books, a label that did not help her reputation. Discouraged by negative criticism of her work, Cather became reclusive, burned letters, and forbade anyone publishingher letters. Like Faulkner, Joyce, and Eliot, she was denigrated by the critics. Having...


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