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Making a career of play: Willa Cather and the recreation movement

Mark Alan Robison, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Throughout her career Willa Cather engaged in a national conversation about play, depicting current practice, reflecting contemporary moral debates, and revising theoretical stances. Cather's writing career commenced just as the US recreation movement began in earnest to advocate for access to play facilities and activities, not only for urban children but also for factory laborers, office employees, and rural families. In turn-of-the-century journalism and short fiction, stories such as "The Prodigies" and "The Treasure of Far Island," Cather illustrates play theory and promotes play movement initiatives. In later stories, such as "Ardessa," "The Bookkeeper's Wife," and "Her Boss," Cather reflects how recreation theory and praxis were carried out in offices resembling the editorial department at McClure's Magazine where she worked from 1906 to 1911. The author not only integrates the phenomenology of play into her fiction but incorporates the recreation movement's central trope of renewal: recreation revitalizes those whose mental, physical, and spiritual reserves have become depleted. Engaging in play helps humans maintain vitality but also develops elasticity, as Cather demonstrates in "Coming Aphrodite!" and "The Old Beauty." Furthermore, recreation (especially restful repose and playful activity within natural landscapes) generates and sustains creativity in Cather's fictional artists such as singer Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark and composer Valentine Ramsey in "Uncle Valentine." Cather herself discovered this salutary effect on productivity when rest and exercise in the quiet town of Cherry Valley, New York helped launch her novel-writing career. Cather's engagement with play also manifests in the unlikely setting of World War I. In One of Ours the author demonstrates that recreational benefit can be derived even in a war theater. In later works such as Sapphira and the Slave Girl and "Before Breakfast" Cather claims recreation's value for aging characters as they resist a decline of vitality. A study of Cather's novels, short stories, letters, and non-fiction reveals a life-long interaction with play that enlivens her writing even as it sustains the writer.^

Subject Area

History, United States|Literature, American|Recreation

Recommended Citation

Robison, Mark Alan, "Making a career of play: Willa Cather and the recreation movement" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3331443.