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  • Dorothy Canfield, Willa Cather, and the Uncertainties of Middlebrow and Highbrow
  • Janis P. Stout

Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.

–Willa Cather

Gordon Hutner launches his study of “novels that were better than formula fiction but not as good as high art,” What America Read, with two questions: “Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands are forgotten? Is our literary history incomplete without accounting for these books?” (1). The first question is impossible to answer; the processes of canonization are too complex, too variable (sometimes case by case), and too enmeshed in social patterns that may have little to do with literary merit per se—even if we assume such a thing is definable. The second is easy: yes. Partly this is true precisely because of the vagaries of canonization; we cannot assume that a forgotten novel is, or was, of less moment than a remembered one. Certainly we cannot assume that the bases for making such a judgment have remained consistent over the years—they have not. Moreover, incomplete simply means incomplete. If certain novels have fallen out of remembrance, our opportunities for reading pleasure and for thinking are, to that extent, incomplete.

Dorothy Canfield is one of those “better” novelists of the early to mid-twentieth century who have largely been forgotten.1 What I undertake here can be seen, then, as one more effort, by no means the first, to “revaluate” her and restore this one, among other “modern realist women writers” (Hutner 119), to readerly attention. Much of the writing of women authors has required such reclamation efforts. But renewed evaluation and appreciation are not my central purposes here. In part, my purpose is rooted simply in biographical and [End Page 27] literary interest in Canfield and in Willa Cather. By tracing the history of their personal and textual interactions, however, I hope not so much to shine a light on particular novels by Canfield that lie on the darkened side of literary history, in contrast to Cather’s now glowingly illuminated place on the modernist bright side, as to insist on the blurriness of the line itself.

More precisely, the line I refer to is that between the middlebrow and the highbrow writer. Both Cather and Canfield insistently constructed their positions on the two sides of the line, Canfield conceiving her broad middlebrow appeal (a status powerfully reinforced by her role on the selection committee of the Book-of-the-Month Club) as a function of her educationist mission, while Cather, who disparaged any sense of mission for fiction as a detraction from its intrinsic value as art, worked hard to identify herself as a writer of high quality.2 Except incidentally, I do not propose to argue here the merits of middlebrowness itself—though it does have merits; Jaime Harker and others have demonstrated the valuable cultural work performed by middlebrow writers (see Harker, “Progressive Middlebrow”). I do propose to demonstrate how, in this particular instance, the middlebrow and the aesthete remained in conversation and the extent to which, ironically enough, the aesthete Cather borrowed literary ideas from her middlebrow friend.

Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield met in 1891 at the University of Nebraska, where Canfield’s father, James Hulme Canfield, was chancellor. Dorothy was just verging on her teens at the time, while Willa, the elder by six years, was completing a year of qualifying studies before entering the university proper. Their friendship survived the Canfields’ move to Ohio State University in 1895, for Professor Canfield to become president, and Cather’s move to Pittsburgh in 1896 to accept her first job. In 1905 they fell into a bitter disagreement over a story called “The Profile” that Cather meant to include in her volume The Troll Garden. Essentially this was a disagreement about literary ethics. The main character of “The Profile” was based on a young woman with a disfiguring facial scar to whom Canfield had introduced Cather some two years earlier. Canfield urged her to withdraw the story lest the original of the character recognize herself and be deeply hurt. Cather refused, citing the effort she had put into writing it and...


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