- The Transatlantic Virtual Salon:Cather and the British
People often ask me how I got ideas for the magazine. An editor, of course, gets ideas from his interest in what is going on in the world; being interested is a large part of an editor’s vocational equipment.—S. S. McClure, My Autobiography (Cather 247)
How can an American writer be ‘in’ a foreign culture? How is a literary reputation made outside of one’s own country? How does it spread and become established? Catherine Morley has noted: “Cather’s work has long been unpicked for its European allusions, intertexts and influences. But what has not been sufficiently analyzed is why the author was so intent on cramming her writing with references to such works. Why was she so interested in bridging that Atlantic gulf?” (127). The answer, I want to suggest, is that if we think of Cather as a writer placed within a transatlantic salon, a literary world that was conversational and also business-like, then it was almost inevitable that she would then create a “transatlantic imaginary” (125). In this essay I want to present a series of vignettes that illustrate how this transatlantic imaginary functioned, first by tracing Cather’s writings about British literary culture, and then by examining how the British author Rebecca West in turn helped to create a very distinctive vision of a “European” Cather in a notable critical essay.
In 1925, as Cather’s reputation was becoming decisively established, her friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wrote a New Republic sketch that seemed to place Cather decisively (as an American, as a western American) while simultaneously presenting that self as something recognized (performed, even) in places far from Cather’s putative imaginative origin on the prairies. Cather here seems to embody both rooted authenticity (placedness, as it were) and a form of displaced, cosmopolitan literary mastery that slips away from its original moorings. [End Page 349]
Her life, her work and her personality have a simple unity and consistency that are frequently found in Europe but rarely in our own country, though she is the very sort of American whom Londoners would enjoy as ‘characteristic’—a woman with a western flavor in her speech and bearing that twenty years or so of residence on Manhattan Island have not rendered less invigorating.(Sergeant 71)
This is a moment when we recognize Cather’s “literary-cosmopolitanism glass” (Lutz 118) standing before us. For Tom Lutz, that glass is “more than half full” (118), and we see in Sergeant’s comment how a review, character sketch, memoir, or appreciation helped to shape such cosmopolitanism, creating a networking effect where Cather’s American or regional identity would be read in terms of broader, extra-national relationships.
“America’s most distinctive literary circles transacted business in informal, yet ritualized and codified, methods of building social capital involving sharing both financial resources and professional support through guidance, inspiration, and collaboration” (Dowling 3). David Dowling’s comment applies to nineteenth-century literary circles, but is also suggestive when we think about how Cather’s career developed at the turn into the twentieth century. Cather was at the center of her own literary circle: a network that included, at various points, many significant editors and writers: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Edith Lewis, S. S. McClure, H. L. Mencken, Louise Pound, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Rebecca West. Cather collaborated with these figures, quite directly in the case of S. S. McClure and Edith Lewis, if we accept the findings of some important strands in recent Cather scholarship (Homestead and Kaufman; Thacker). In this essay I discuss one particular aspect of a literary circle that merits more attention: the potential of the literary circle to metamorphose into virtual salon, which in turn enables the circulation of literary works, and the creation of a literary reputation across national borders. Sergeant’s review is a contribution to a very specific ‘virtual salon’ (Gardner 169), a form of Habermas’s public sphere. In Cather’s case, this virtual salon shaped itself around the reviews and largely journalistic writing produced by Cather, and by friends and colleagues writing about her. A form of written conversation developed, a...