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The Bother of Business: Willa Cather, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Dawn Powell, Nella Larsen, and the Field of Cultural Production

Courtney Rebecca Lawton, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation concerns Willa Cather, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Dawn Powell, and Nella Larsen, and spans the years 1911 to 1929. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the field of cultural production, I consider the authorship of four women novelists from the first half of the twentieth century who wanted to be taken seriously as novelists while at the same time attracting readers and earning royalties. Cather, Fauset, Powell, and Larsen experimented with manipulating their fictional settings and themes to strike the right balance between audience appeal and cultural prestige. By examining their first two novels, I trace their strategic attempts at becoming professional writers through a combination of reputation, modest profitability, and intentional audience appeal. As middlebrow writers, they tried to reach a wide, mainstream audience without pandering to their readers. Chapter 2 considers Willa Cather’s first two novels, Alexander’s Bridge and O Pioneers!. Cather’s pose of autonomy was necessary to help her gain momentum and maintain a steady upward trajectory along the plane of the cultural field, by creating the appearance of artistic independence through a public attitude of studied indifference to her works’ financial success. Chapter 3 explores Jessie Fauset’s efforts to reform audience tastes with regard to Black-authored literature through her novels, There is Confusion and Plum Bun. Using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and disposition, I investigate how and why Fauset tried to alter for the better readers’ tastes for representations of Black people in literature. Chapter 4 considers how Powell’s novels, Whither and She Walks in Beauty, were reflections of her own struggles on the field of cultural production. Although her novels were generally critically well-received, financial pressures forced Powell to compromise her art. Chapter 5 is devoted to Nella Larsen, who promised to be one of the Harlem Renaissance’s more innovative writers, not only stylistically but also thematically. Quicksand and Passing , Larsen’s only two novels, were critically well-received; despite her accrual of vital symbolic capital, she was forced to retreat to economic safety and stability, and she left the field of cultural production.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Womens studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Lawton, Courtney Rebecca, "The Bother of Business: Willa Cather, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Dawn Powell, Nella Larsen, and the Field of Cultural Production" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10831194.