- Determining How Readers Responded to Cather's FictionThe Cultural Work of The Professor's House in Collier's Weekly
"The Professor had noticed before that whenever he wrote for popular periodicals it got him into trouble."
"Studying texts only in our contemporary reprintings erases the original historicized meanings of the [works] and renders even readings that aspire toward the historic or political only a back-projection of an illusory politics fantasized in the present."1
When copies of the Collier's Weekly magazine issue dated June 6, 1925 arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands across the United States, purchasers were confronted with a cover image that was both puzzling and unusually dark and mysterious for the magazine: a gaunt, dark-skinned man sporting a goatee and mustache, wearing a weird type of red headgear, with two rather suspicious men and two women peering out from behind him (Figure 1). The only thing prospective readers knew for certain was that the image was in some way connected to a fiction announced by large black type at the bottom of the cover: "The Professor's House A NEW NOVEL by WILLA CATHER." What did Collier's readers make of this cover? Moreover, how did they interpret the texts of the serial installments themselves, which would eventually appear in a total of nine different weekly issues, concluding on August 1?
Thus far, scholars have not asked these types of questions regarding the historical readers of Cather's fictions, either in periodical or in book form. A significant body of New Historicist scholarship certainly has been produced during the past few decades that demonstrates how Cather was far from the Jamesian artistic recluse she was long [End Page 68]
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believed to have been and instead was fully engaged with her contemporary culture. Cather is now recognized as having been attuned to societal debates about the National Parks movement, the effects of materialistic affluence in the 1920s, mass-cultural standardization, immigration reform, and how to properly memorialize the service of World War I soldiers. Many scholars have shown how Cather incorporated her views on these topics into her fictions, and some have gone further and asserted that these fictions performed significant "cultural work" at the time.2 Such assertions, however, have been supported almost solely with rhetorical references to "Cather's readers," with no investigation into who her actual readers were or how they might have interacted with her texts.
Rectifying this situation and creating more reliable hypotheses about the reception of Cather's literary productions among large numbers of readers in the past requires a reorientation away from focusing almost solely on how Cather's culture influenced her intentions and texts and towards devoting more energy to investigating how Cather's culture understood her and her works. While Cather's texts did of course affect readers' constructions of their meaning, the ideological and print contexts in which readers encountered the texts also strongly influenced readers. Explicating the complex interplay of these literary texts and their contexts with readers, however, requires the application of new types of textual studies methodologies.
Scholars investigating the cultural work of Cather's fictions will also need to be especially attentive to her generally undervalued serialized texts, because these played a substantial role in creating contemporary readers' understandings of Cather and her works, just as much as, or more so than, the book versions of her texts did. In the case of The Professor's House, for example, Cather's statements of authorial intention and the first trade book edition of 1925 are not very helpful in answering how most readers in the mid-1920s interpreted the novel and the ways in which it possibly affected their ideological outlooks or personal behaviors. After all, even though Cather expended a great deal of time and energy on crafting the text of the book version and on its material manifestation, with the clear intention of leading its readers to focus on certain themes and ideas and to view them in particular ways, only a relatively...