Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 63-68.
PLAIN TRUTHS AND SEXUAL POLITICS IN NEW CATHER CRITICISM
One wonders what Cather, arguably one of the country's finest novelists and an astute observer of human nature, would make of the tendency among critics of her work to choose opposing sides as earnestly and pugnaciously as they have throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Are the stakes really so high? Are Cather and her work such contested terrain that we need to expend so much energy and, indeed, rancor in defending our interpretive claims? Must others be wrong because we (however these affiliations are constituted) are so clearly right?
Rhetorical questions all, for the two books under discussion here-John P. Anders's Willa Cather's Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition and Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism-speak directly to a divide in Cather scholarship between what Anders terms "traditional Cather criticism" (xii) and readings informed by theory. Both are currently practiced in Cather criticism, and both are performed by subtle, smart thinkers and writers. Traditional Cather scholars, Joan Acocella argues, focus on the textual nuances of Cather's language, imagery, and motifs and, in giving their intelligence and deft interpretive abilities over to the text, articulate the themes that haunt Cather's fiction: the loss of home and exile with its attendant sorrow and anxiety; the harsh requirements of a life devoted to art; time; music; life's inevitable losses; ambition; intimacy; love; acceptance. The presumably less traditional critics, those who bring questions of history, economics, race, gender, psychoanalysis, and sexuality to Cather's texts, are represented by Acocella as antipathetic to textual criticism and common sense alike. Anders, on the other hand, seeks to bridge this critical divide. His intent is not to challenge "traditional Cather criticism," but "to go beyond it, drawing from it while at the same time leading it in new directions" (xii), most clearly into a dialogue with gay studies. The literary arguments presented in both books are, essentially, conservative. Acocella's is a call to arms and bludgeoning of her perceived feminist and political foes, whereas Anders employs a carefully constructed compendium of Cather's readings in the American and continental traditions, highlighting themes of gay male writers that he believes appear in Cather's homosocial fictions of the 1920s. It is, in short, an influence study, based in bibliography and his own close readings of Cather's criticism and fiction. Both writers take as their primary audience these "traditional Cather critics," Acocella to defend, Anders to persuade. And both, sad to say, fail in their attempts at defense and persuasion, though for very different reasons. Yet Acocella and Anders also offer useful and sometimes illuminating insights into Cather's texts and into the politics of reading swirling so contentiously around them. They are timely and provocative books, if not wholly successful ones.
Willa Cather's Sexual Aesthetics and the Male Homosexual Literary Tradition is both a brave and a limited book. Its courage derives in part from its bold argument, made in as unthreatening a way as possible, that Cather's focus on male friendship in her fiction not only draws upon her own wide reading of the European and American male homosexual literary traditions, but is shaped by them. Anders spends much of his argument painstakingly recreating the bibliography of homosexual texts that Cather read throughout her life, particularly in her youth, and then illuminates their traces in her novels of the 1920s. Crediting Cather with the creation of "revisionary texts on manhood," Anders is most interested in revealing how she evokes "homosexuality to re-envision a masculine ideal" (5). Male friendship in particular is his focus, and he sees in Cather's works "a continuum from the social to the sexual" (xii). Ultimately, he concludes that Cather ought to be designated "a writer of gay fiction" because her texts reverberate themes and linguistic traces from a male homosexual literary tradition. Yet even as he makes this claim, Anders backpedals furiously, professing that his monograph is "a work of advocacy, it is not meant to be sexual politics; I emphasize instead a new aestheticism" (xii). These terms are never clearly delineated, however- especially the putative difference between advocacy and sexual politics. Nor is it entirely clear how the "new aestheticism" Anders outlines falls outside the realm of sexual politics, especially as it appears in Cather's fictions.