Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 191-194
[Access article in PDF]
Critically speaking, Willa Cather has turned into something of a crossover hit in recent years. In a period of hyper-specialization in literary study, when scholars devote themselves to ten- or fifteen-minute chunks of literary history, Cather continues to draw the attention of critics who would likely not self-identify as "Cather critics." (For the record, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternate Fridays, I would claim that label for myself, having published a book on Cather, prepared editions of two of her novels [with a third underway], and attended a number of Cather conferences. On other days, I'm a feminist, an Americanist, and/or a lesbian/gay/queer critic, depending on what's on my to-do list.) Of the three books under consideration here, two were written by those whose official areas of expertise are far afield of Cather studies. Joan Acocella, author of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, is a dance critic and staff writer for the New Yorker who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Rutgers. Jonathan Goldberg, author of Willa Cather and Others, is best known as a scholar of the English Renaissance whose work on early modern sexualities has helped to transform the field. Only Janis P. Stout, author of Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World, has an extensive record of publication on Cather, with two previous books that focus in part on the writer, several articles, and a just published calendar of Cather's letters (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), an indispensable aid to a field that continues to be hobbled by the lack of a published collection of letters. Stout's The Writer and Her World is a book of careful claims and modest corrections to the record that aims, as its title suggests, to convey Cather's sense of culture and history and how this sense is manifested in her fiction. Stout's multifaceted analysis of Cather's ambivalences situates Cather in relation to both modernism and modernity and helps to dispel the view of her as a nostalgic celebrator of pioneer times and values.
The attention from "outsiders" like Acocella and Goldberg is of course a good thing, a measure of the vitality of Cather's contemporary reputation and her relevance to ongoing readerly and scholarly debates. Cather, whose stock in trade was the story of the immigrant outsider trying to succeed in a new country, would no doubt have welcomed such attention. The [End Page 191] "outsider," she often argued in criticizing efforts to Americanize immigrants, had much to offer the young culture of her or his adopted homeland, such as richness, variety, and resistance to the insular and homogenizing tendencies of modern mass culture in the United States. The value of Cather criticism by non-Cather critics is potentially the same, and one can point to numerous examples where that has actually been the case. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's 1989 essay, "Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others," and Walter Benn Michaels's 1990 essay, "The Vanishing American" (later expanded in his book, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism ), shook up the field by situating Cather in the middle of several contemporary theoretical debates and opening up new avenues of inquiry into the meanings of sex, gender, race, and nation in the writer's work. Their engagement with Cather has helped to assure that she will continue to matter to a generation of critics fascinated by the worldliness of literary texts, by their complex entanglements in social and historical processes.
Neither Acocella's nor Goldberg's book is likely to have...