Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1983, pp. 206-18.
Despite the wealth of critical and analytical treatments of the life and work of Willa Cather, few have noted the relationship between her writing and the Populist movement of the early 1890s. Some have specifically described Cather as nonpolitical or even antipolitical. The two exceptions, John H. Randall III and Evelyn J. Hinz, base their conclusions on sources other than the Populist movement in Nebraska. Cather's writings, nonetheless, exhibit clear evidence of the impact of both Populism and its ideological successor, Bryanism. Cather did not like either variant of agrarian radicalism, and she expressed her distaste both explicitly and implicitly.
John H. Randall III was the first major critic to discern extensive Populist influence in Cather's work. In its treatment of Populism, The Landscape and the Looking Glass (1960) draws heavily on Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform, the 1956 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. Unfortunately, the definitions of Populism that Randall adapts from Hofstadter were neither unique to Populist thought nor central to Populist political rhetoric. Furthermore, Hofstadter's views on Populism have not been shared by any recent student of the movement. In an article published in 1972, Evelyn J. Hinz also describes a relationship between Cather's work and Populism. Like Randall, she relies on Hofstadter to define Populism, even while acknowledging the significance of the work of Norman Pollack, one . of Hofstadter's earliest and most severe critics. Her essay is a rewarding exercise in Cather's use of the yeoman-in-the-garden metaphor, but the provenance of that metaphor owes at least as much to Jefferson and Rousseau as to Populism. The logical place to begin to understand the influence of Populist thought on Cather is not with Hofstadter but with a survey of Populism as it existed in Webster County, Nebraska, and in Lincoln, the two places where Cather lived when Populism was most prominent.
Nebraska Populism emerged out of more than a decade of agitation by such groups as the Farmers' Alliance, the Greenback party, and the Knights of Labor. A state party was formed in Nebraska in late July 1890, taking the name Independent party and dominated by leaders of the Farmers' Alliance. Similar organizations also formed in nearby states. The Nebraska and Kansas parties had the greatest electoral success that fall, spurring formation of a national third party. Calling themselves the People's party-or Populists-this new organization met in Omaha in July 1892 to nominate candidates for president and vice-president. In 1894, Nebraska Democrats forced themselves into a coalition with the new party when the young Democratic congressman from Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, led his party to endorse a number of the candidates who had been nominated by the Populist state convention some time before. In 1896, the Populists returned the favor when Bryan won the Democratic nomination for president and the Populist national convention tendered Bryan their nomination as well. Thereafter, the Populist and Democratic parties in Nebraska and surrounding states became a permanent coalition until the Populist party finally withered away in the early years of the twentieth century.