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  • The Making of “Die Tochter der Prärie [Daughter of the Prairie]”Willa Cather’s Fictions in Germany, 1926–1952
  • Charles Johanningsmeier (bio)

In der vordersten Reihe der Dichter, die das wahre Amerika offenbaren, steht ein Frau: Willa Cather. Ihre Werke errangen Erfolg und werden auch in Deutschland freudig begrüsst werden

[In the first row of the poets revealing the true America stands one woman: Willa Cather. Her works have achieved unparalleled success in America and England, and they will be hail`ed in Germany as well]

—Dust jacket copy of Willa Cather’s Frau im Zwielicht [“Woman in Twilight,” also known as A Lost Lady], 1949.

Despite her deep and abiding love of, and respect for, various elements of German culture, Willa Cather never personally set foot in Germany. Her fictions, on the other hand—both translated and in English—had a significant presence there during her lifetime. Before her death in 1947, six German-language translations of her works were published, and nine different English-language editions of her novels and short story collections were produced and distributed throughout Germany and the rest of Europe by the Bernhard Tauchnitz firm of Leipzig, Germany. Many of these editions were reviewed in various German periodicals, acquired by German libraries, and used for English instruction at both the secondary and post-secondary level. The result was that, as attested by the dust jacket copy cited above in the epigraph, Cather was fairly well-known in Germany at the time of her death.

Despite the numerous editions of her works available from German booksellers and libraries today, however, Cather is not nearly as well known or as critically respected as her American contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. For a brief time in the 1990s, it appeared as if Cather’s reputation in Germany was about to rise sharply, in large part due to the efforts of Sabina Lietzmann, a German journalist who served as the [End Page 559] American correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper from 1961 until her retirement in 1984. Lietzmann became enamored with Cather and worked tirelessly to promote her works to German readers; one major result was the publication in 1992 of an eleven-volume set of Cather’s works by Albrecht Knaus publishers in Germany. Judging from a 1993 overview of Cather’s career published in Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s most respected general circulation magazines, this set appears to have briefly achieved Lietzmann’s desired effect. Writer Susanne Weingarten confidently asserted about Cather: “Jetzt erlebt sie eine grosse Renaissance [She is now experiencing a great Renaissance].” A few years later, Cather was even included in a volume entitled, Berühmte Frauen: Dreihundert Porträts [Famous Women: Three Hundred Portraits] (Pusche and Gretter). Yet, after this period of heightened promise for Cather’s reputation among Germans, it never did rise as fully as it has in the United States. As Verena Lueken concluded in a Frankfurter Allgemeine review of a new edition of a Cather novel published in 2009, “Willa Cather ist bei uns immer noch viel zu wenig bekannt [Willa Cather is still very little known in Germany].”

The reasons for Cather’s current lack of significant recognition in Germany can be at least partially understood by tracing the early history of the translations of her works into German and by analyzing the German commentary on Cather during her lifetime. Due to space limitations, this essay focuses almost exclusively on those Cather texts translated into German before her death, and thus it does not discuss the Cather titles translated only afterwards, such as My Mortal Enemy and The Professor’s House; it also refers only briefly to the English-language editions by Tauchnitz, a topic I am currently researching. Analysis of these early German editions and the various commentaries on them reveals that from the beginning, most readers of her works in German viewed her—and were prompted to view her—as a relatively middle-brow, Regionalist, Realist writer whose ostensibly straightforward writings about the American West and the “pioneer” experience were valuable largely for the ethnographic insights they provided about American life and about Americans themselves. Almost completely...


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