Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 210-17.
Willa Cather has been fairly well studied as a novelist of the Nebraska pioneer, a writer whose books have a lyric nostalgia for other times that were nicer than ours. This maybe an oversimplification. One might say, for example, that she wrote about Nebraska no more than she wrote about Rome; that it was not man's retreat that concerned her so much as man's extension into other planes, other powers; that she may belong not with Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton but with Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. I suggest these possibilities after several years of fortunate exploration into the first twenty years of Cather's writing career-the twenty years before her first novels, Alexander's Bridge (1912) and O Pioneers! (1913). I say "fortunate" because it has been like opening the curtains wider on a stage, revealing other windows and a new landscape. The room is larger than we thought, the design grander, the problems more complex.
Perhaps we are better equipped to address those problems now. More than a half century has passed since she did her major work, but the gap that sometimes comes between the artist's creation and the reader's understanding may be a time for the tuning of the ear. Critical terms and concepts now at hand seem curiously appropriate: alienation and the search for identity, archetype and myth, antinovel and antihero; theories of simultaneous time, of double selves, masks, and images. Cather would understand some of these concepts, as she would understand Andre Malraux and the search for the Grail, because she knew Homer, Virgil, and Ovid; Heine, Lucretius, and Ruskin; Keats's Endymion, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and a good many generations of the alwayschanging gods.
When Cather began her career as a novelist she was forty, with one career of some distinction as a journalist and editor already behind her. Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), was published when she was in her late sixties. The public novels, stories, and essays that appeared during this second career are nearly matched in volume by the body of writing-much of it in a journalistic underground- that was published during the twenty years of her first career: newspaper columns, articles, reviews, and stories. This is not too different from the careers of other writers who began as journalists except in two respects. First, little of her early writing has been read, even by Cather scholars; and second, all of the early writing relates to the major work after 1912 in an unusual way. The two careers were not separate; rather, the writing (both good and bad) shows extraordinary continuity, with links, repetitions, recurrences, developments, and personal relationships-almost, in a Proustian sense, one book, with the writer more at the center than she ever intended or wanted to be.