A gorgeous, hard-bound book that lives up to its title, Willa Cather and Aesthecism is a pleasure to handle and to read. A glossy image of Lady Lilith painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti adorns the rich red-and-black cover. Inside, readers find a diverse yet cohesive grouping of essays on the subject of Willa Cather’s relationship to the Aesthetic Movement. This collection challenges commonly received assumptions about Cather’s artistic influences, revisiting well-known texts through a new lens and exploring more deeply many of Cather’s works that have received less critical attention. The authors engage a wide range of approaches, focusing on everything from painting to architecture to material objects in establishing their claims about Cather and aestheticism. [End Page 481]
The editors shape the book into four parts to better group common themes that emerge through the assortment of essays. After their introduction, which cements this study’s place in Cather scholarship, the critiques that more directly address the Aesthetic Movement are grouped under part 1. The section moves chronologically through the Cather works discussed. For experienced scholars of the movement as well as less academic readers of Cather, these contributions are richly researched and enlightening in their approaches. Timothy Bintrim’s observation in the first essay on “Paul’s Case” that “Cather makes Paul’s swan dive a work of art” represents many of the authors’ positions that Cather wrote aesthetic art into her prose (26). Threading through interactions with “dandyism,” Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and H. G. Wells, redefining aestheticism through Cather’s lens and an Epicurean Aestheticism, the first section offers opulent and practical perspectives on Cather’s prose and her interaction with aestheticism.
Part 2, “The Visual Arts,” is replete with black-and-white photographs that illustrate connections the authors make between Cather’s prose and a wide variety of artists. From the Arts and Crafts movement to tonalists to the Barbizon Realists and the Nabis to the Pre-Raphaelites and finally to her contemporary Fernand Léger, who began in cubism, these essays each offer unique entries to Cather’s beautifully rendered characters and scenes. These observations offer physicality to Cather’s descriptions, a literalness emphasized by having photographs of the art available to compare with the authors’ arguments, Cather’s writing, and the works of art.
The editors bridge the first two sections with essays that show how Cather’s particular form of aestheticism is really a modern aesthetic of her own. In part 3, “Movement toward Modernism,” Janis Stout opens the charge with a rebuke against Katherine Anne Porter’s notion that Cather was not modern, instead proving that Cather was receptive to and interested in modern music and especially modern art. With proof from Olga Aksakalova that Cather’s minimalist views pair well with Walter Pater and with Jo Ann Middleton’s thesis that Cather’s aestheticism incorporates the best of older literary traditions, this third part of the collection establishes room for the multiple perspectives that work so well with Cather’s prose.
Perhaps a little unsettling given the book’s overall structure is the singular essay in part 4, “Art and Religion.” However, John J. Murphy sustains his own section by reading Cather’s “Catholic novels” alongside Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Charters (1986) to prove that Cather’s religious structures provide sheltering spaces, suggesting by contrast with Adams that the faith in her works is more alive than the spaces he finds empty and dead in his own prose.
Well worth adding to personal libraries for its aesthetic appeal as a lovely material object and a well-written, diverse collection of essays, Willa Cather and Aesthecisim is an important addition to Cather scholarly studies. As is expected in a compilation, researchers need to explore the assortment to find their specific interests, yet the organization and [End Page 482] layout make these discoveries easy. For those interested in Cather and the idea of aestheticism, each essay is a gem—the entire...