Date of this Version
“Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the Historiography of Lesbian Sexuality.” Willa Cather and the Nineteenth Century. Cather Studies 10. Eds. Richard Millington and Anne Kaufman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 3-37.
Since the publication of Surpassing the Love of Men in 1981 and Sharon O'Brien's biography Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice in 1987, Cather's fiction has been subjected to scores of queer readings. These readings are, in many respects, premised on a very different understanding of gender, sexuality, and identity than Faderman and O'Brien deploy in their biographical identifications of Cather as a lesbian. Nevertheless, these queer readings rest upon a biographical foundation, and in particular upon an understanding of Cather as secretive, private, and afflicted with shame. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in an influential reading of The Professor's House that inspired many critics to produce their own queer readings of the novel, proclaims that its structure and its focus on bonds between men register "the shadows of the brutal suppressions by which a lesbian love did not in Willa Cather's time and culture become freely visible as itself" (69). Building on Sedgwick's reading, Christopher Nealon maintains that characters in Cather's fiction create "affect genealogies" "linking the lonely dreamers who populate her fiction within their privacy" ("Affect-Genealogy" 10); he links this fictional dynamic to Cather herself, "who also knew the pathos of secrecy" (II). 2 In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History Heather Love places Cather's fiction in a tradition of other "dark, ambivalent texts [that] register their authors' painful negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality" with their emphasis on "feelings such as nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness. These feelings are," Love argues, "tied to the experience of social exclusion and the historical 'impossibility' of same-sex desire" (40).
Even though Cather entwined her life with Lewis's as much as Jewett did with Fields', in the realm of art Cather made crucially different choices. Responding to Jewett's letter of advice about leaving McClure's, Cather writes, "I have been reading again this evening 'Martha's Lady.' I do think it is almost the saddest and loveliest of stories. It humbles and desolates me every time I read it" (19 December 1908, Selected Letters 120). Cather reported that reading this Jewett story, about a serving maid's lifelong love of the "lady" she serves and from whom she is separated for decades after her lady marries, served as a sort of substitute for talking to Jewett face-to-face about her struggles with her career; however, Cather never wrote a story like it. Certainly, her choice not to do so was consequential. Furthermore, Cather and Lewis lived in a different historical era from Fields and Jewett, one in which love between women was labeled as deviant and pathological and in which lesbians could be subjected to discrimination and brutal repression-some of Cather's letters from the 1890S show her struggling to come to terms with this emerging historical reality. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to read, in circular fashion, the absence of literary representations of romantic love between women in Cather's fiction back onto Cather's life as evidence that she was afflicted with shame and lived a secret life in the closet. To understand how she experienced her sexuality in the early twentieth century, we need to read other evidence documenting Cather's life as she lived it from 1908 through 1947, openly in a deep and abiding partnership with Edith Lewis. Recovering their relationship, a seemingly impossible survival of the nineteenth-century institution of Boston marriage into the twentieth century, can enrich and complicate the historiography of lesbian sexuality, as well as suggest new queer approaches to interpreting her fiction.