- Willa Cather's Queer Economy
Economics and art are strangers.—Willa Cather, "Four Letters: Escapism" (1936)
Whenever she found that monied interests were shaping aesthetic taste in American culture, Willa Cather decried the deleterious effects their contrary values had on what she called genuine art. In interviews, essays, stories, and novels written throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century, Cather's critique of consumerism, in particular, took on what John N. Swift calls a "protest against a pervasive materialist commodity culture" and led her to create characters that Guy J. Reynolds claims "embody Cather's suspicion of the corrosive impact of acquisitiveness, allied to her wariness about how economic modernism [was] producing an increasingly consumerist society."1 Swift reads the narrative structure of The Professor's House (1925) as juxtaposing "Godfrey St. Peter's claustrophobically material world of mean people and things against Tom Outland's empty but redemptive Blue Mesa, the 'world above the world'" ("Fictions of Possession," 176).2 Cather's dismay grew as the economy expanded after World War I. Widespread prosperity—both real and speculative—was fueled by the availability of installment plans and lines of credit, financial instruments that induced consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have afforded.3 Systemic changes in acquiring wealth lent an axiological dimension to Cather's critique that raised her concern over the devaluation of certain kinds of craftsmanship, including her own.
For Cather, machine-made imitations compromised the dignity of hard-won material comfort and eroded good taste. In a 1923 essay about the changes transforming her adopted home state of Nebraska, Cather lamented "the ugly crest of materialism" [End Page 425] that had overtaken "the old sources of culture and wisdom."4 She blamed easy prosperity for "too many moving-picture shows, too much gaudy fiction" coloring "the taste and manners of so many of these Nebraskans of the future" (Cather, "Nebraska," 238). A younger generation appeared to have relinquished their heritage for "a frenzy to be showy," cheating their "aesthetic sense by buying things instead of making anything" (238). Cather sometimes assumed a patrician tone in her contempt for Americans' appetite for mediocrity, dismissing readers who bought cheap books to amuse themselves on commuter trains. They "haven't yet acquired the good sense of discrimination possessed by the French," she told one interviewer, explaining that the problem lay "in our prosperity, our judging success in terms of dollars."5 These comments are from a writer who began her career as the managing editor of a woman's magazine dedicated to interior design, elegant dress, and fashionable gossip.6 Cather's engagement with these topics exemplifies what Jonathan Freedman has identified as the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, which by the 1920s had established itself as a faux-aesthetic standard of taste.7 As a result, the cultural role Cather assumed walked a "delicate line between insulting and indulging the middle-class audience who patronized [artists] with increasing avidity" (Freedman, Professions of Taste, xxv).
Cather's antimaterialism is never quite free of ambivalence. Valentine Ramsay, the talented musician in "Uncle Valentine" (1925) is a divorced expatriate who learns his ex-wife—to whom he refers as "a common, energetic, close-fisted little tradeswoman"—plans to buy the land surrounding his home.8 "[T]here are some things," Valentine remarks, that "one doesn't think of in terms of money" (Cather, "Uncle Valentine," 243). He continues: "If I'd had bushels of money … it would never have occurred to me to try to buy Blinker's Hill, any more than the sky over it" (243). As Mr. Harsanyi, the piano teacher in The Song of the Lark (1915), says of Thea Kronborg's musical talent, "Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials."9 This is different, though, from her father's calculation of his daughter's abilities when he explains, "the sooner [Thea] gets at it in a business-like way, the better" (Cather, Song of the Lark, 94). He realizes the improbability of "Thea bringing up a family," instead imagining a lucrative singing career as the most productive thing she can do. Thea herself distinguishes between wage...