- The Stuff of Our Forebears: Willa Cather’s Southern Heritage
Although Willa Cather is usually associated with the Midwest, she was born in northern Virginia into a family steeped in Southern traditions, customs, and manners. After a move to Nebraska when she was nine, Cather grew up in an extended family of exiled Virginians. For many years she appeared to ignore her Southern background, but McDonald asserts that throughout her career her themes and literary modes, especially her use of the pastoral, reveal her Southern sensibility and link her to Southern literary tradition. The new West, which Cather uses as the setting for her short stories and early novels, is ideally suited to the pastoral mode, but McDonald suggests that in 0 Pioneers! Cather changes the relationship between women and the land and thus transforms woman’s role in the pastoral myth, in which she had usually been equated with property. In The Song of the Lark Cather envisions a pastoral chapter in Native American history; however, My Ántonia and A Lost Lady reveal the dark underside of the pastoral. Through the juxtaposition of myth and history, says McDonald, Cather creates a historical antipastoral and invites her readers to explore the factual dimensions behind the myths. In Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, Cather examines history as pastoral, considering the positive impact of European culture in the New World. Here the heroic pioneers of her early novels are replaced with churchmen. After years of dismissing her Southern heritage, Cather turned to her ancestral past for her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Set in the place where she was born, the novel is a fictional composite of memory and history, family stories, and childhood experiences. Although pastoral motifs are present in the text, other narrative elements work against them, subverting the conventional assumptions and presenting a finely tuned study of the negative effects of chattel slavery. Concerning the entire body of Cather’s work, McDonald concludes, “Although she had not lived in the South for many years, her use of pastoral modes and the course of her journey paralleled a direction unique to Southern [End Page 592] literature: from the pastoral ideal, to alienation and disillusionment, and finally to historical reconciliation—to an acceptance of her own historical past and a reclamation of her ancestral roots” (107).