- Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture by Julie Olin-Ammentorp
According to the critical narrative established during the first decades of the twentieth century, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, although contemporaries, inhabited very different worlds and wrote about very different subjects. These characterizations have been difficult to dislodge; as Olin-Ammentorp accurately states, even today “Wharton is usually perceived as a New York ‘literary aristocrat,’ while Cather is usually thought of as the midwestern chronicler of the lives of ordinary people,” a “prairie populist.” In this volume Olin-Ammentorp contends that this sharp dichotomy deserves to be rigorously interrogated. As an established, well-respected scholar of Wharton who has increasingly devoted more attention to Cather, Olin-Ammentorp is eminently qualified to carry out such a project.
There has certainly been no shortage of scholarship about the relationship between Wharton’s and Cather’s works. Over 100 journal articles, dissertations, and books have been published that discuss both authors, with some of the important books being Judith Fryer’s Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (1986), Elsa Nettels’s Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton and Cather (1997), and Stephanie Thompson’s Influencing America’s Tastes: Realism in the Works of Wharton, Cather, and Hurst (2002). Discovering an original basis on which to compare the two is thus not an easy task. Nonetheless, Olin-Ammentorp does just that, correctly noting that “the ways in which Wharton’s and Cather’s thinking about place intersect and the larger patterns emerging from their geographic thinking have not been commented on.”
In the book’s six chapters, Olin-Ammentorp uses the word “place” in a variety of inventive ways; at some points it refers to actual geographic locations, in others to “cultural landscapes,” and elsewhere to “inner landscapes [End Page 177] of the mind.” Olin-Ammentorp ultimately concludes that instead of accepting the usual view of Wharton and Cather being differentiated largely due to the places—broadly defined—with which they are commonly associated, we should acknowledge that in their attitudes towards these places, their lives and works shared a great many similarities.
In chapter one, Olin-Ammentorp argues that even though Cather and Wharton never met each other or even wrote to each other, they “lived, worked, and published in the same world.” Then in chapter two, by documenting “the many ways in which Wharton and Cather shared the same literary tastes and were shaped by the same literary heritage,” Olin-Ammentorp amply demonstrates that “Within the Land of Letters Wharton and Cather were rooted in the same literary territory, that of nineteenth-century realism.” One result of their love of realism, Olin-Ammentorp asserts, was their mutual distaste for modernist writing; another was their lifelong pursuit of beauty, both in their own personal living spaces and in their writing.
Olin-Ammentorp then, in chapters three, four, and five, provides case studies to support her more general statements, examining Wharton’s and Cather’s relationships with three different places: New York City, the American West, and France. Drawing on a wealth of biographical and textual detail, she first establishes that even though Cather was arriving in New York from Pittsburgh (a way station on her way east from her home state of Nebraska) just as Wharton—born in New York in 1862—was leaving it for good, around 1906–1907, both shared experiences of certain places in the city and incorporated them in their fictions. The West, too, Olin-Ammentorp contends, was important in the minds and works of both authors, despite the fact that the furthest west Wharton ever ventured was Detroit in 1906. In this chapter Olin-Ammentorp asserts that “they and their works participate[d] in the larger cultural struggle to determine whether American identity was ‘eastern’ or ‘western.’” And which side did Wharton and Cather come down on? One thing they agreed on was that the Midwest and West were places where commercialism and materialism were valued more than beauty...