- Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather’s Women by Frances W. Kaye, and: Willa Cather and The Art of Conflict by Patrick W. Shaw (review)
- Western American Literature
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 29, Number 4, Winter 1995
- pp. 344-345
- View Citation
- Additional Information
344 WesternAmerican Literature Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women. By Frances W. Kaye. (New York: Peter Lang, 1993. 204 pages, $43.95.) Willa Cather and The Art of Conflict. By Patrick W. Shaw. (Troy, New York: Whitston, 1992. 287 pages, $23.50.) Continuing the recent trend of interpreting Cather’s fiction through the alembic of her sexuality, Kaye and Shaw agree that Cather employed male narrators as “guises,” “mask[s],” or “masquerade[s]” for her own homoerotic point of view. However, although both authors rely on feminist criticism for their critical underpinning, they employ different critical methodologies and disagree sharply in their conclusions and attitudes. Taking a reader-response approach to Cather’s work, Kaye declares that literature is “political” rather than “universal” and admits that in choosing her focal works she has been “concerned less with how they express Cather as a person and as an artist than with how they impress the reader.”Looking back on Cather’s fiction from the perspective of today’s politically correct society, she chastises Cather for creating Carlylean heroines that are “exceptionalrather than exemplary,”for what she perceives to be Cather’s “distrust ofwomen as a class,” and for her inability to see and accept the value of organized women’s move ments—in short, for her individuality. Kaye also takes Cather to task for anti-Semitism and racism. Her reading of “Behind the Singer Tower” as anti-Semitic is perhaps supportable, but many readers—including this one—disagree with her beliefthat Cather’s portrayal of Louis Marcellus is anti-Semitic. Certainly, most Cather critics will believe Kaye goes too far when she declares that Cather’s “racism and anti-Semitism make her politics completely antithetical to the multicultural, non-hierarchal ideas that have effectively guided twentieth-century feminism.” Whereas Kaye’s emphasis is less “on Cather’s successes”than “on the costs of those successes”—on what she sees as the price “Cather would pay for discarding a female identity,”Shaw’s emphasis is on the positive artistic results of Cather’s gender conflicts. Shaw believes that “rather than being an obstacle which Cather had to overcome to produce her fiction, those conflicts—espe cially the homoerotic tensions—were the energy source for her creativity.” Shaw’s method is, as he says, “essentially psychoanalytical, but not purely Freudian.”Disagreeing with traditional Cather criticism, he—like Kaye—argues that other “visions” of Cather’swork are available (his subtitle is “Re-Visioning Her Creative Imagination”).Unlike Kaye, however, Shaw is clearly cognizant of the “retrospective fallacy” of attempting to revise the cultural and sociological context in which Cather wrote; instead, he attempts to reseethe art itself. Kaye has flashes of sharply insightful criticism. She points out a specific textual connection between Ovid’s portrayal of Ceres and Alexandra’scrushing glance at the clothing drummer in the first scene of OPioneers!which, as far as I know, has not been identified before. Moreover, Kaye probes deeply and Reviews 345 thoughtfully into the psyches of both Mrs. Harris and the often forgotten Mrs. Kronborg, and she perceptively connects the motif of androgyny in Thea’s Wagnerian roles with Thea’s own personality. Her discussions of Cather’s last four novels, while brief, are sound. Kaye’s analysis of Cather’s major novels is weakened, however, by being almost blindly thesis-driven. After connecting Alexandra with Ovid’s Ceres, Kaye inconsistently declares that the “absence of a Ceres figure underscores Cather’s rejection ofwomen as well as female roles.”Even more disturbing are Kaye’s lapses in textual accuracy. For example, the Anglo-Saxon who appears with Louis Marcellus in Professor St. Peter’s tableau is NOT Kitty McGregor, as Kaye asserts, but rather her husband Scott, and nowhere in The Song ofthe Lark does Cather use “Freddie,” as Kaye does, to refer to the masculine Fred Ottenburg. In addition to employing a different purpose and methodology from Kaye’s, Shaw’sstudy differs in its use of supporting evidence and in conclusions drawn from that evidence. I do not always agree with Shaw’sconclusions, but he keeps his focus clearly on the fiction itself, exploring in detail Cather’s use of point of view and...