This collection of essays on one of the most significant novelists in American literary history will, perhaps, disturb some notions of what it means to study a novel. In this collection, you’ll find few examples of critics analyzing the textual content of Cather’s novels to evoke the meaning they make or critiquing the way the works imaginatively comment on the world in which she was writing. Instead, this collection of essays is fixated on other aspects of the life of novels: their creation, their design, their reception, and the biographical and professional contexts that brought them into being. This is a collection of essays about novels as objects in history and about the novelist as one agent in the complex social and professional scenario that births creative work.
In many ways, the approaches represented in this collection might be more accurately brought together in a journal titled Studies in the Novelist rather than Studies in the Novel. In this collection, Cather’s works are never considered independent of their creator, or, rather, their creators. Cather’s works, and Cather herself, are situated in the reality of editors, designers, publishers, translators, reviewers, and colleagues. The books she authored are explored as artifacts that had a cultural life determined by the literary marketplace and the individual relationships of the collaborating parties. This book historical approach is extremely enlightening; the gathered evidence disrupts any simple notions of authorship, of canonicity, and of reception. As these essays demonstrate, we are only just beginning to understand the multiple agents that determine the nature and reception of works of literary art.
More specifically, Robert Thacker, Richard Harris, Melissa Homestead, and Ashley Squires all explore distinctive relationships—professional and personal—that brought creative works into being. Some of these important relationships, like those between Cather and her editors S.S. McClure, Ferris Greenslet, and Alfred Knopf, have obvious impact on the production of Cather’s work. Others, like the relationship between Edith Lewis and Cather that Homestead explores, are more nuanced in their effect on the works and, arguably, more profound, [End Page 324] as Lewis was both a professional editor that helped shape Cather’s prose and a woman Cather shared her home with, traveled with, and loved. As Homestead makes clear, the previously-held notions of Lewis as Cather’s “helpmate” significantly undervalue the serious and multifaceted role Lewis played in the development of Cather’s fiction. Likewise, Thacker, Harris, and Squires detail the professional contexts that brought a wide swath of Cather’s works into being and demonstrate the real and powerful effect of relationships—congenial or not, supportive or not—on the development of Cather’s oeuvre.
In other essays, the relationship among collaborators is less important than the psychological and creative relationship of Cather to her own works. Sarah Clere, for example, painstakingly investigates dozens of pages of recently-discovered manuscript pages of Sapphira and the Slave Girl to draw some conclusions about Cather’s imaginative evolution during the writing of her last novel. Sharon O’Brien considers Cather’s distinctive personal relationship to her breakthrough 1918 novel, My Ántonia, with special attention to her post-publication sense of the book as it was pursued for re-issues, adaptations, and special editions. Lise Jaillant, on the other hand, explores Cather’s preference to limit paperback publication of her works with specific focus on the inclusion of her 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in the Modern Library series. Guy Reynolds’s essay, though also concerned with the literary marketplace, veers away from the specific choices Cather made regarding her works once she became a professional novelist and instead examines Cather’s own virtual exploration of a kind of transatlantic literary salon and, specifically, the way British models of authorship informed Cather’s own professional self-definition.
Charles Johanningsmeier and Francoise Palleau-Papin are also interested in Cather’s European connections, but they take a different approach than Reynolds. Both of these scholars explore Cather’s impact on specific and important literary communities in Germany and France. These essays are important foundational works in what I hope will be a growing focus of scholarship: Cather’s...