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  • "A Losing Game in the End":Aestheticism and Homosexuality in Cather's "Paul's Case"
  • Claude J. Summers (bio)

Willa Cather's homosexuality, for years a well-guarded but scarcely well-kept secret, is by now widely acknowledged. Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice sensitively traces Cather's personal and artistic development, her emergence from the male-identified male impersonator of her adolescence and youth into the mature woman writer who created the first strong female heroes in American literature. Central to this transformation were Cather's eventual liberation from her early internalized male aesthetic after a long and difficult struggle and her acceptance of her lesbianism, even as she recognized the need to conceal her sexual identity as "the thing not named." As O'Brien remarks, "Throughout her literary career, Cather was both the writer transforming the self in art and the lesbian writer at times forced to conceal 'unnatural' love by projecting herself into male disguises" (215).1

What has not been sufficiently noted, however, is Cather's early contribution to gay male literature and to the debate about homosexuality sparked by the Wilde scandal. More particularly, "Paul's Case," the acclaimed story that marks the beginning of Cather's artistic maturity after a prolonged period of apprenticeship, has not yet been placed in the context of its author's growing awareness of the limits of the masculine [End Page 103] aesthetic that she originally espoused. Nor has the story's insight into the homosexual's plight in American society at the turn into the new century been adequately explored. In Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, Roger Austen briefly discusses "Paul's Case" as a depiction of a sensitive young man stifled by the drab ugliness of his environment and places the protagonist in an American literary tradition of "village sissies" (31-33). And more exhaustively, Larry Rubin argues that the title character of the story is "very probably homosexual by nature and temperament" and that "Cather is trying to show us the tragic consequences of the conflict between a sensitive and hence alienated temperament, on the one hand, and a narrowly 'moral,' bourgeois environment, on the other" (131). But both discussions tend to sentimentalize the protagonist's gayness and to reduce the story to a simple conflict between the individual and society. Neither study locates "Paul's Case" in the context of Cather's response to the aesthetic movement in general or to the Wilde scandal in particular. Consequently, they fail to grasp the complexity of Cather's story and of her perspective on homosexuality in it.

For the young Cather, Wilde was a profoundly disturbing figure. The target of a number of her early critical remarks published in the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier (now conveniently collected in The Kingdom of Art,2) he unmistakably challenged some of her most deeply cherished social and aesthetic notions and roused her to some of her most visceral expressions of contempt. Cather's attitude toward Wilde and the aesthetic movement in these early newspaper columns and reviews is unremittingly hostile. Regarding him as a poseur who betrayed his talent, she despises his "insincerity," his tendency to mock social conventions, his elevation of art at the expense of nature, and, most important, his "driveling effeminacy" (135). Interestingly, her hostility to Wilde is expressed so vehemently—indeed, so excessively—as to make one suspect that he represented for her not merely an artistic creed with which she lacked sympathy but a personal psychological threat. The early comments on Wilde are extraordinarily revealing of Cather's cast of mind in the mid-1890s, as contrasted with the period some ten years later when she wrote "Paul's Case," and they form an illuminating backdrop against which to explore the story.

In an 1894 review of Robert Hichens' "clever and inane" but insinuating satire on Wilde and his circle, The Green Carnation, Cather remarks that "it certainly ought to succeed in disgusting people with Mr. Wilde's epigrammatic school once and for all. It turns and twists those absurd mannerisms and phrases of Wilde's until they appear as ridiculous as they really are" (135...