English, Department of


Date of this Version

June 2003


A talk given at the Cather International Seminar, Breadloaf, Vermont June 2003.


All icons are ultimately equivocal: you can’t think of an icon without thinking about iconoclasm. Iconicity is a function of place. Cather turned the creation of icons, and the sceptical deconstruction of icons, into a form of narrative quest that could animate a whole fiction. After Cather’s death, her coterie, Midwesterners who had come East, were faced with what to make of an iconic heartlands figure who had moved to this re¬gion. Cather’s status as Midwestern icon became, after her death, a subject of struggle among E.K Brown, his widow Peggy Brown, Dorothy Canfield, Edith Lewis, Alfred Knopf, Leon Edel, and Rene Rapin. At the start of the Cold War the drive to position writers within an American literary canon began to structure the debate about Cather’s standing. Meanwhile, modernism’s culture of impersonality and authorial effacement gave way to a more fluid post-war culture of literary celebrity, image-making and pop iconicity.