English, Department of
Middlebrow Readers and Pioneer Heroines: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, and the Popular Fiction Market
Date of this Version
Along with repositioning Cather in a new reading context, this essay aims to bring Aldrich and her novel into literary history (and college classrooms) by putting her work into dialogue with Cather’s. I do not, however, elevate Aldrich to the status of elite artist, a move that she herself would disavow. Instead, I seek to revalue the middlebrow as a mode of authorship, circulation, and reading for the literary history of the American West and to place Ántonia and Lantern together on that oft-scorned terrain. When Aldrich is taken note of in Western literary history, she receives only glancing attention after being categorized as “sentimental,” a word seldom defined but seemingly associated with pandering to readers and their emotions. What if, instead, we take seriously the “sentiments” of the legions of ordinary, nonacademic readers who have kept both Aldrich and Cather in print? Certainly, Cather’s embrace of the literary market and the tastes of ordinary readers were more tentative and covert than Aldrich’s. For instance, when she wrote to Mencken in 1922, prior to the publication of One of Ours, seeking (fruitlessly, as it turned out) to avert a negative review of her World War I novel, she reminded him that “they were both enemies of a debased, popular American literature” and were “both committed to overturning Booth Tarkington platitudes and raising American literature to a higher plane” (O’Brien 114). Certainly, Aldrich’s current critical reputation more closely resembles that of the best-selling Indiana novelist Tarkington than Cather’s, and Cather probably would have disavowed any connection to Aldrich as she did Tarkington. Nevertheless, locating Ántonia and Lantern together in the middlebrow recovers with more precision the terms on which Cather engaged the literary market and a popular readership. It also throws new light on the deep investment of a national readership in fictional depictions of Midwestern pioneering.
Published, as Chapter 4, in Crisscrossing Borders in Literature of the American West, edited by Reginald Dyck and Cheli Reutter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Copyright © 2009 Reginald Dyck and Cheli Reutter.