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  • On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather
  • Michael Schueth
On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. By David Porter. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. xxviii + 372pp. $50.00/$29.95 paper.

In On The Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather, David Porter argues that the author lived a "divided life" that can be seen in "manifold ways" throughout her narrative themes and characters, "from the beginning of her career to the end her life" (xx). Porter begins with two introductory chapters exploring Willa Cather's invention of herself as a public figure. In the first, he looks at how she constructed her image in promotional biographies, and, in the second, he showcases her self-authored advertising copy for dust jackets. He proceeds with chapters organized thematically around the development of her career, primarily following the succession of her novels and short story collections, [End Page 230] among other works. Throughout, Porter traces the contrasting roles that Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Baker Eddy imaginatively represented for Cather and the echoes of these two figures in her fiction. They are, according to Porter, "alter egos, with Jewett embodying dedication to one's art, Eddy exemplifying what one can achieve through self-promotion" (xxi).

Porter begins his study by looking at four short biographies published between 1903 and 1926 that show likely signs of Cather's authorship. These biographies, not widely available, are here published in full and could be interesting material to bring into the classroom. Rather than seeing these texts as promotional pieces with little value, Porter argues that they reveal "[t]he complexities in Willa Cather that emerge from the advertising materials she helped craft correspond to the complexities in the woman herself" (59). Porter critiques these self-authored biographies, arguing that the author constructed a public self who closely resembled Cather but who also showed considerable differences, including a new birth year and a simplified life story. Here Porter notes the complications that arise between Cather's fictional reshaping of her life story for promotion and works that put "such store on truthfulness" (58).

Porter also traces the development of the promotional copy Cather wrote for the dust jackets of the books she published throughout her career. Although scholars have long noted her attention to detail, Porter's expert critical analysis of these documents suggests the specific ways she used her promotional copy to "give a prospective reader" a glimpse "into the very souls" of her books (44). For example, in his final chapter, Porter provides a compelling reading of the changes she made to the dust jacket copy of Sapphira and the Slave Girl set against the original copy that Knopf proposed.

Throughout the rest of the chapters, Porter provides close readings of Cather's texts. He offers excellent analyses of several works, including The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, Youth and the Bright Medusa, My Mortal Enemy, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Further, Porter's attention to the lesser-known works, including the Mary Baker Eddy biography and S. S. McClure's autobiography, together with a number of short stories, as well as her promotional copy, offers a reading that stitches together an array of her professional writing, showcasing her talents both as a professional writer and promoter of her own texts.

Porter's overall analysis of Cather's divided selves would be strengthened by a more sustained discussion of her sexuality. While Porter mentions lesbianism in the introduction, pointing out "she often felt alienated from society, 'queer,'" which "both added to this sense of division and encouraged her to explore it in her writing," he does not pursue this fascinating division in the book itself (xx). Some important points could be drawn from such a discussion. First, it is suggestive, in his argument about "alter egos" (xxi), that Cather creates tension [End Page 231] between a lesbian, Jewett, and heterosexual, Eddy. Because she constructs Jewett as a positive artistic force in her kingdom of art and Eddy as a symbol of materialism, ambition, and even evil, there is an underlying argument that she repositions the usual sense of "queer." That is, no longer is the...