- Willa Cather and Aestheticism: From Romanticism to Modernism ed. by Sarah Cheney Watson and Ann Moseley
Willa Cather and Aestheticism examines Cather’s debt to the Aesthetic Movement. Some of the essays in the collection also discuss her pursuit of beauty in art more generally. While Cather’s literary aesthetics have been the subject of previous studies (see, for example, John P. Anders’ Willa Cather’s Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition), this volume is the first to explore Cather’s relationship with the Aesthetic Movement. An opening section contains essays exploring this relationship, and some essays in later sections focusing on the visual arts and modernism contain further discussion of these connections.
While the volume provides scholars with useful information about Cather’s aesthetics, a collection of longer essays focused solely on her relationship to the Aesthetic Movement might have offered a more sustained analysis of this important aspect of her work. Moseley and Watson’s introduction offers a good overview of Aestheticism and Cather’s place within it. Of the essays in the first section of the book focusing on the Aesthetic Movement, Peter Betjemann’s “Willa Cather’s Time Machine” is particularly strong. Betjemann examines the interplay of “idleness and intention” (central to Aestheticism, he notes) in Alexander’s Bridge and finds surprising connections between the themes of labor and time travel. Connections to the concerns of the Aesthetic Movement are more tenuous in the essays of other contributors in this first section (e.g., Nicholas Birns or co-authors Sonja Froiland Lynch and Robert Lee Lynch).
Of the essays treating the subject of Cather’s aesthetics more broadly, several focusing on the visual arts are strong and compelling. Joseph C. Murphy draws parallels between American tonalism and Cather’s fiction, Mark Facknitz explores how the art of the Fauves and Nabis influences Cather’s work, and Angela Conrad demonstrates Cather’s revision of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s conventionally gendered portrayal of women. Many of the essays not specifically about the Aesthetic Movement are focused on Cather’s relationship to modernism, including one by Janis P. [End Page 277] Stout offering a corrective to Katherine Porter’s contention in a 1949 book review that Cather’s aesthetic did not qualify as modernism. The concluding essay is a longer piece by John J. Murphy, who examines Cather’s use of religion and art as a response to the “crises of her time,” influenced by her admiration of Henry Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartes.
While some readers might prefer a sharper focus on Aestheticism throughout the volume, and, as is sometimes the case with edited collections, a number of essays could use additional development (the essays’ short length might contribute to this issue), the book provides important insights into Cather’s relationship to the Aesthetic Movement and the visual arts.