- Willa Cather Here and Now, Out West
Willa Cather was always clear about where she stood as an American writer. In the often quoted 1913 interview she gave after the publication of O Pioneers! she summed up her early life: "When I was eight years old, my father moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to that Western country" (Bohlke 9). In 1925 the established novelist reported, "Next to writing I love to prowl around the Western country, seeing little towns and how people live in them. To me the real West begins with the Missouri [River]" (Bohlke 76). When Cather wrote about Nebraska, she saw herself as writing about the beginning of "the real West," a region she claimed and shared with writers such as Mary Austin, Zane Grey, and Mari Sandoz. As Austin once explained, "there are some American writers who simply write about the West, and there are others so intrinsically western in their point of view that any book by them becomes a western book. Foremost in this latter class is Willa Sibert Cather" (89). So it goes without saying that in the world of western American [End Page 95] literature, a new edition of a Nebraska novel by Willa Cather, edited by an accomplished scholar, deserves special attention.
Now consider the fact that in 2015 not one but two such editions appeared: Lucy Gayheart, as a Willa Cather Scholarly Edition (wcse), edited by Frederick M. Link and Kari A. Ronning for the University of Nebraska Press, and My Ántonia, edited by Sharon O'Brien for Norton Critical Editions. Each volume is a superb example of a particular kind of scholarly publication and a sign of the times. As instruments for scholars and students, they demand scrutiny. As artifacts of the present moment, they tell us a great deal about where we have been and where we are going as scholars studying "western books."
Because both editions take their places in established series, the editors follow standard organizational templates. Directed toward scholars and produced with the imprimatur of the Modern Language Association, the wcse series offers a newly edited text, historical essay, explanatory notes, and a detailed section on the "Textual Apparatus." Aimed at undergraduates, the Norton Critical Editions series provide an introduction, annotated text, contexts, and criticism. Against these normative backdrops, a number of editorial choices stand out in these editions from 2015.
Take, for instance, the editors' framing essays and the way they do and do not discuss Nebraska. In both novels, Cather was writing in vivid ways about elements of the western country she knew so well. Introducing My Ántonia, O'Brien treats Cather's Nebraskan connections with concision. True to its title, David Porter's "Historical Essay" for Lucy Gayheart ambitiously guides us through Cather's long life while concentrating on the many ways music mattered to the author. But Porter pays only cursory attention to "nonmusical Nebraska" in his essay. In keeping with the wcse template, detailed explanatory notes pinpoint and clarify the most important Nebraskan elements and their transformations. Following the essay, vintage photographs showing iconic sites from Cather's hometown of Red Cloud suggest some of her inspirations. Ultimately, it would be an exaggeration to say that Nebraska is neglected in these volumes, but a shift seems to have occurred.
To appreciate the alternative, one has only to glance back to the version of My Ántonia published in 1994 as a wcse. In that volume, [End Page 96] James Woodress opens his historical essay with a section titled "Basis in Early Experience" that expands to nearly a third of the whole (369). In the 1997 scholarly edition of A Lost Lady, Susan J. Rosowski and Kari A. Ronning devote nearly half their essay to what they call "Materials and Models" (191). By contrast, in 2015, priorities seem to have changed, reminding us that the importance of Cather's western roots...