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  • Canonical in the 1930s:Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in the Modern Library Series
  • Lise Jaillant (bio)

In 1931, the Modern Library series reprinted Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and sold it for only ninety-five cents.1 For Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the young owners of the Modern Library, this was a victory after years of unsuccessful attempts to include Cather titles in their series. However, Archbishop stayed only five years in the Modern Library. At Cather’s insistence, Alfred Knopf, the original publisher, refused to renew the contract, and Cerf and Klopfer had to drop the novel from their list. While Sharon O’Brien has argued that “Willa Cather possessed canonical status during the 1920s only to lose it in the 1930s” (111), my essay contends that some of Cather’s works became canonical in the early 1930s—when these texts were included in cheap series of reprints such as the Modern Library and Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside Library, and marketed to a large audience of students and their professors. As John Guillory puts it, “canonicity is a function of the reproduction of a work over time, and the market for such reproduction is the school” (53 n5). The canonicity of Archbishop and other Cather titles was indeed the product of the education system (the principal canon maker for Guillory) but also of reprint series, which made these titles easily available to the school market. At the time when the study of American literature was being institutionalized in universities, many instructors selected the inexpensive editions of Cather titles for classroom use. Cather’s opposition to such dissemination of her fiction had long-term consequences: as she was increasingly attacked by a new generation of Marxist critics, Cather made little attempt to reach the academics that continued to admire her work. She was competing with other American writers whose novels were easily available in the Modern Library and other cheap series, and yet, she underestimated the importance of these series in canon making.2 [End Page 476]

The Modern Library series can be seen as a middlebrow enterprise that, in Trysh Travis’s words, “offered to mediate literary culture for modern audiences in need of guidance” (340).3 When Albert Boni and Horace Liveright launched the series in New York in 1917, they targeted the growing number of readers interested in contemporary literature. The first list of the Modern Library included H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica and War in the Air, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Guy de Maupassant’s Mademoiselle Fifi, and plays by Ibsen, Shaw, and Strindberg. Unlike Everyman’s Library and other cheap publisher’s series that specialized in out-of-copyright works, the Modern Library reprinted not only older classics but also recent, copyrighted texts. Consumers were encouraged to buy the Modern Library to increase their confidence and social status. One of the first advertisements for Boni and Liveright’s series proclaimed: “The ‘Modern Library’ appeals to people who consider good books a necessity, not a luxury. People are judged by the books they read” (“The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books,” original emphasis). Readers were promised that “the world’s best books” would shape their taste and their personality. In short, advertisements for the Modern Library revealed the main characteristics of the new middlebrow ethos: the emphasis on education, the ideal of self-improvement, and the explicit link between culture and social success.

Although Willa Cather has traditionally been seen as an elite writer who preferred “fewer readers and better readers” (WC to Greenslet, 31 Oct. 1932), recent scholarship has illuminated her involvement with a commercialized middlebrow culture. As Melissa Homestead points out, Cather “quietly exploited middlebrow institutions, such as book clubs and mass-circulation women’s magazines, as a way to reach and engage the common reader” (78). Mark Madigan has shown that the Book-of-the-Month Club chose two of her books as main selections (Shadows on the Rock in 1931, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940), and recommended many of her titles as alternative choices for members who declined the main selection (72-79). In 1927, Death Comes...