MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 855-856
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John N. Swift and Joseph R. Urgo, eds. Willa Cather and the American Southwest. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. xi + 180 pp.
This collection of essays grew out of a conference that was by all accounts one of the best and liveliest in what is now a well-established series of Cather conferences. To reflect the unusual frankness in debate at the conference, the organizers, John N. Swift and Joseph R. Urgo, gathered together essays in which constructive differences of opinion, though somewhat muted, remain valuably in evidence. The resulting volume, Willa Cather and the American Southwest, is a valuable contribution to the flourishing field of Cather studies.
There is always some degree of unevenness among the essays in such volumes, if only in the various writers' intentions and assumptions. Even so, the prevailing quality here is high and the significance of the individual topics, almost without exception, equally so. If this reviewer values some pieces above others, it is with the awareness that another reader might well choose differently.
A particularly noteworthy quality of the volume is that it often provides, not just new critical comment, but actually new information. In this connection, I would especially single out Matthias Schubnell's "From Mesa Verde to Germany: The Appropriation of Indian Artifacts as Part of Willa Cather's Cultural Critique" and Mary Chinery's "Willa Cather and the Santos Tradition in Death Comes for the Archbishop." Schubnell brings to the discussion of The Professor's House important, previously undiscussed contextual information about German involvements in collecting southwestern artifacts for museum collections, and he shows us how that information can be used to enhance our reading of one of Cather's most enigmatic novels. Similarly, Chinery brings real information and understanding to bear on the presence and significance of regional religious objects in the novel that Cather sometimes named as her best, a text now being increasingly read for its ambiguities and fractures. Marilee Lindemann, too—always a thought-provoking scholar whether one fully accepts her readings or not—both pushes beyond her own previous reading of The Professor's House (in her polemically charged 1999 study Willa Cather: Queering America)and adduces valuable information about Theodore Roosevelt and his presence in the wings of this novel. All three of these writers provide fresh information that will enrich future readings of these texts, even while they draw on that information in offering insightful readings of their own.
Other particularly strong essays among the thirteen here assembled include those by Richard H. Millington, who discusses the juxtapositional way in which meaning occurs in The Professor's House; Christopher Schedler, who elucidates shifting assumptions of anthropology [End Page 855] in Cather's day and ties these to her professor's, and her own, "meditation on the epistemological problem of how one knows others and ultimately one's self"; and John Swift, whose piece on "Mother Eve" and the novel's concerns with "covering, gender, and value" whets the reader's appetite for fuller exposition. Notably less satisfying to this reviewer is John Murphy's "Holy Cities, Poor Savages, and the Science Culture: Positioning The Professor's House," with its dismissiveness toward native cultures as "merely . . . pre-Christian," "pagan," and "deficient." It is especially startling to encounter such an argument if one happens (as I did) to be reading Sherry L. Smith's Reimagining Indians at the time, with its elucidation of how anthropologists and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectuals came to reject notions of cultural evolution that labeled Indians inferior and, instead, grew to accord respect to native cultures and spirituality. Nor would many Cather scholars agree with Murphy's assertion that Cather's return to writing about the Anasazi in Archbishop was only "a pretext for thoughts about God and Christianity" (not to mention that, actually, in that book, Cather wrote about living or quite recently dormant nineteenth-century native cultures, not the Anasazi).
As my comments make clear, the rewarding essays assembled here afford many opportunities for strong...