Date of this Version
Published in American Literary Realism 50:2 (Winter 2018), pp 164–179.
The ability to quote from and publish Willa Cather’s letters is a relatively recent development for scholars. However, the republication of her critical prose began shortly after her death, when Cather’s partner, Edith Lewis, appointed literary executor in her will, facilitated the publication of Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art (1949). In line with Cather’s own approach to her early career, which she often dismissed or mischaracterized, this volume collected only her critical prose published from 1920 forward, including magazine essays, prefaces, and one previously unpublished fragment. This volume supplemented Cather’s own collection encompassing critical essays she had published during roughly the same time span, Not Under Forty (1936). However, beginning in 1893 as a university sophomore and for a year after her 1895 graduation, Cather was an active and strongly opinionated critical presence in Lincoln, Nebraska, publishing regular columns in the Nebraska State Journal and later also the Lincoln Courier in which she reviewed stage productions passing through Lincoln and wrote widely about literature. When she moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, she continued her career as a critic, writing under her name and pseudonymously in Pittsburgh magazines and newspapers and also sending work back to the Journal and Courier. Bernice Slote in The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896 (1966) and William Curtin in The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893–1902 (1970) located and republished this early critical prose. In their wake, bibliographer Joan Crane enumerated Cather’s critical writings in Willa Cather: A Bibliography (1982), and more recently, the Willa Cather Archive, edited by Andrew Jewell, has made more accessible many of Cather’s known, but relatively inaccessible, critical essays published before 1923.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a previously unrecorded Cather critical essay published in Vanity Fair in 1920. The 1927 publication of a photographic portrait of Cather by Edward Steichen in Vanity Fair has received scholarly attention,1 and, indeed, my attempt to find correspondence about the production of this image led to my discovery of the critical essay. The Condé Nast corporate archivist informed me that there were no editorial files for Vanity Fair in the 1920s because editors simply took their files with them when they left. As a sort of consolation prize for this absence she sent me an image of a “manuscript card” documenting that on April 20, 1920, Vanity Fair paid Willa Cather of 5 Bank Street in New York City $80 for an item with the title “Nexoe.”2 Although designated space on the card for the issue in which the item ran was left blank, I quickly located her brief (less than 1500 words) essay on Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren) by Danish novelist Martin Andersen Nexø (alternately spelled Nexö or Nexoe) in the July 1920 issue of Vanity Fair, which is reprinted below for the first time. I further preface this reprinting with some remarks introducing Nexø and his four-volume social realist novel, which has largely disappeared from the consciousness of English-language readers, and place Cather’s response to it in relation to her own novels and to Vanity Fair as a venue. As will become apparent, Cather’s response to Pelle provides a fresh perspective on Cather’s place in literary culture at a moment of friction between the established realist tradition and the then-emerging modernism.