- Cather Among the Moderns by Janis P. Stout
In her latest book, veteran Cather scholar Janis P. Stout steers a course between two questions that have occupied literary historians for more than half a century: the Scylla of What is modernism? and the Charybdis of Was Cather a modernist? Refusing to provide a straightforward answer to either question, Stout chooses, instead, to situate Cather as a woman and an artist who lived and wrote within the modern world, sharing with her contemporaries the opportunities, complexities, excitements, and griefs afforded by their collective modernity. As Stout herself puts it: “my purpose is a book about Cather that positions her against a crowded backdrop of her contemporaries, many but not all of whom she knew personally, who shared modernity’s stage with her and were recognized as moderns and modernists” (xii). “How,” she goes on to ask, “did they come to share the same stage, and how—a rather different question—do they share the same stage in the theater of our own viewing today?” (xii).
Stout pursues answers to these questions across nine chapters that carefully balance biography and criticism, and which generally follow the trajectory of Cather’s life, from her initial departure from Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1896, to the publication of her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, in 1940. The early chapters, which discuss Cather’s magazine publishing career as well as her time living in the heart of Greenwich Village, do an excellent job of situating Cather as an intelligent, ambitious young woman who thrived in dynamic and decidedly modern contexts. The three middle chapters discuss the influence of the Great War on Cather’s life and writing, [End Page 902] Cather’s travels in New Mexico, and the question of Cather’s elitism. The seventh and eighth chapters, respectively, address Cather’s critical reception in the 1930s and the depiction of race in her novels. The ninth chapter concludes the book by addressing Cather’s modernism.
This reader found much to praise throughout these nine chapters. For one thing, Stout has populated her book with numerous literary and cultural figures whose presence in a study of Cather might strike us as unlikely. Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Virginia Woolf appear frequently in these pages, as do F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway. Stout’s triangulation of Cather in relation to William Faulkner and Charles Dickens struck me as particularly surprising and fascinating. In addition to the diverse cast of characters, Stout also deserves praise for some truly standout analyses of Cather’s writing. Her reading of the short story “Coming, Aphrodite!” in the third chapter feels especially revelatory, as does her nuanced reconsideration of that (in)famous outlier in Cather’s oeuvre, One of Ours (1922)—a book that, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, remains her least loved and most misunderstood.
Two chapters warrant special commendation. The third chapter, “Among Women,” discusses Cather’s well-known intimacy with Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis, but it also goes beyond the usual speculations about the author’s sexuality and love life to paint a fuller picture of her professional and affectional relationships with other women. Thus, in addition to Cather’s lesbianism, Stout addresses Cather’s thoughts on and correspondence with contemporary female writers, including a particularly moving letter Cather wrote celebrating the work of the Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset. Stout also brings Cather’s iconic female characters into the conversation, and navigates thorny questions regarding Cather’s apparent lack of interest in contemporary women’s rights activism. The late chapter “Among Critics” is also extremely valuable, particularly for its analysis of how the biases of Marxist critics failed to reckon with what was, in fact, sociopolitically relevant about Cather’s work in the 1930s. They failed, for instance, to see that despite being set in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock (1931) had a relevance to the Depression-era United States that was compelling if also indirect.
Stout’s emphasis on the indirectness of Cather...