Date of this Version
Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association (2009) 42(1): 198-202.
Willa Cather and William Faulkner represent an intriguing and potentially productive pairing for comparative study. Their works and careers are located at the rich intersection between regional ism and modernism, and both early 20th-century writers often looked back to the 19th century in their fiction. Even in the absence of influence or intertextual reference, these commonalities would give a literary historian much to say. However, in her study of these two authors, Merrill Maguire Skaggs exhaustively catalogs similarities and differences as proof of a decades-long competition between the authors at the expense of depth and subtlety in her analysis of individual texts. Even more troubling, her claims for influence and what she calls (adapting the title of a Faulkner novel) "reiving" (literary theft) often depend on unstoppable claims about knowledge and access.
Although their novelistic careers overlapped for two decades, Cather was a generation older than Faulkner. Cather was middle aged when she published her first novel, Alexanders Bridge, in 1912, while a relatively young Faulkner published his first novel, Soldier s Pay, in 1926. Furthermore, as Skaggs concedes, Cather acknowledged Faulkner's existence only once (in an odd, backhanded reference in an essay in Not Under Forty in 1936), while Faulkner named Cather publicly several times as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. These facts seem to establish a higher probability of Cather's influence on Faulkner rather than vice versa, especially before the 1930s, but Skaggs nevertheless begins her study in the 1920s with a claim that a minor character in Cather's One of Ours (1922) is William Faulkner. Indeed, this character, Victor Morse, is something like the young Faulkner -- an American who trained as pilot with the Royal Air Force in World War I and who takes on British airs and manners but Skaggs's claim that Cather must have met Faulkner in the fall of 1921 rests on chronological coincidence alone -- both Cather and Faulkner were physically present in Greenwich Village in New York City for an overlapping period of a few weeks. Even if Cather met Faulkner, why would she incorporate this young nobody from Mississippi (not yet an author) into her novel? And even more to the point, what does literary history gain from reading Victor Morse as a portrait of William Faulkner?