English, Department of


Date of this Version



Cather Studies (2011) 9.


Copyright 2011, University of Nebraska Board of Regents. Used by permission.


To some, linking Willa Cather to "the modern" or more narrowly to literary modernism still seems an eccentric proposition. As Richard Millington has pointed out, "one will look in vain for Cather's name in the index of most accounts, whether new or old, of the nature and history of Anglo-American modernism" (52). Perhaps she fails to feature in these accounts because in her public pronouncements and certain recurring motifs in her fiction, she appeared to turn her back on modernity. Cather was skeptical about many aspects of the culture that took shape around her in the early decades of the twentieth century, in that most modern place, the United States of America. Born in rural Virginia during the decade following the Civil War, Cather felt herself to be part of a vanished world. She was already in her twenties when the generation of canonical American modernist novelists (F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway) was born, and late-Victorian culture formed her childhood world. By the time the modernist moment had decisively crystallized in the 1920s and 1930s, Cather was issuing jeremiads condemning aspects of modern life she felt to be cheap or "gaudy." In her essay "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle" (1923) she attacked movies, consumerism, and education policy (including the changes at her alma mater, the University of Nebraska, that, in her eyes, made it a "trade" school). Cather's title for her notorious collection of literary-cultural essays, Not Under Forty (1936), conveyed her sense that those younger than that age would not understand her cultural positions, prejudices, and beliefs.