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E V E L Y N J. H I N Z University of Massachusetts Willa Cather’s Technique and the Ideology of Populism “ But give to thine own story Simplicity, with glory.” T o have enduring value and universal appeal a story must have “inherent, individual beauty,” wrote Willa Cather, “the kind of beauty we feel when a beautiful song is sung by a beautiful voice that is exactly suited to the song.”1 Admirers of Cather’s writing agree that her most successful works are her prairie fictions; but, perhaps because of her own emphasis upon their demeuble quality, the tendency has been to locate the beauty of her stories in the philosophical and historical implications of her songs—the popular and populist concept of the noble farmer2 — rather than in the suit­ ability of the voice—“Yance Sorgenson and not Henry James.”3 Certainly many thematic and biographical studies do include nar­ rative and stylistic analyses, but as yet no specific attempt has been made to demonstrate systematically the ways Willa Cather’s themes depend upon technique for their success. The purpose of this essay, therefore, will be to examine and categorize the ways in which Cather’s artistic theory and practice are exactly suited to fa th e r, On Writing (New York, 1949), p. 49. Henceforth all quotations from Cathers's writing (unless otherwise specified) will be identified by page number within the text. In addi­ tion to On Writng (OW) the following texts and abbreviations will be used: My Antonia (Boston, 1949), M.A; O Pioneersl (Boston, 1962),OP; "Neighbour Rosicky,” Five Stories by Willa Gather (New York, 1959), “ N R” . All italics are mine. 2E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York, 1953), mentions that she was influenced by the Populist Movement, but it is John Randall’s comprehensive study, The Lanscape and the Looking Glass (Boston, 1960), that examines this influence in detail, although in terms of theme rather than in consideration of style as this paper does. Since, as Randall observes, it was the emotional rather than the economic aspects of Populism that appealed to Cather, the reader should also see Norman Pollack's The Populist Response to Industrial America (Cambridge, 1962), which provides an interesting and informative discussion of the philosophic basis of the movement.«Willa Cather, quoted by Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (New York, 1951,), p. 201. William M. Curtin, “Willa Cather: Individualism and Style,” CLQ_, VIII (June, 1968), 37-55 provides an incisive discussion of Cather’s stylistic techniques with respect to her theories of art but his concern is with her writing in general and focuses more on theory than practice. 48 Western American Literature express the ideology of populism,4 and at the same time how they enabled her, for the greater part, to transcend its provincialism and romanticism. “ He was a very simple man,” says the narrator about Neighbour Rosicky (p. 88), providing us with a paradigmatic example of the way Cather simultaneously relies upon and asserts a fundamental principle of populism. The principle is that lack of sophistication is a virtue; but confirmation comes as much from the simple structure of the sentence as from its paraphrasable content. The most characteristic way in which Cather lends a prairie tone to her fiction is through her reproduction of the homely and concrete language patterns of the pioneer. “Don’t be scared if you see anything look out of that hole in the bank over there,” says Grand­ mother Burden in My Antonia (p. 14); “Now don’t yell at me like I was a hog in de garden,” Anton Rosicky warns his wife (“N R ”, 82); “Alexandra ain’t much like other women-folks. Maybe it won’t make her sore” (OP, 173), Lou Bergson hopes, after he and his brother have committed the unpardonable sin of reminding a woman of her age. But in capturing and faithfully reproducing the vernacular a writer does more than merely add a note of local color, according to Cather: “ The ‘sayings’ of a community, its prov­ erbs, are its characteristic comment upon life; they imply its history, suggest its attitude toward the world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 47-61
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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