Review of Willa Cather and Others By Jonathan Goldberg
Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 291-92.
Readers picking up Jonathan Goldberg's recent book on Willa Cather may recognize the allusion to Henry James's 1913 memoir of his childhood, A Small Boy and Others. The focus of James's book is not only the "small boy" he had been, but also the relations, friends, teachers, and artists that surrounded him. Goldberg, known primarily for his work in Renaissance literary studies and queer studies, likewise situates his subject in a web of "others," including artists such as the poet Wilfred Owen and the photographer Laura Gilpin. The paths Goldberg has followed to sketch out this web of connections lead to fresh and illuminating readings in this well-researched and highly engaging book.
Willa Cather and Others is situated in its own web "of "others." In particular, Goldberg's title echoes the work of two friends and colleagues in queer studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon, who also employ James's title as a template. Sedgwick's essay "Willa Cather and Others" looms particularly large here. Goldberg has not only borrowed her title for his book, but is also, as he writes in his preface, deeply indebted to her in both personal and intellectual ways. He writes, "I have ... -I hope-borrowed from the wisdom contained in [Sedgwick's] unpresumptive insights into the always unpredictable ways in which gender and sexuality are inhabited, the ever ramifying and utterly contingent ways in which they cross in anyone's experience and in the relationships of identification that they make possible."
Sedgwick has had a profound effect on the field of queer studies. Goldberg's sensitive readings of Cather's ambivalent identification with the opera diva Olive Fremstad or of Tom Outland's haunting of the family in The Professor's House clearly owe a great deal to Sedgwick's skepticism toward ready-made categories of identity. (Such inventiveness is crucial in an approach to Cather, whose life and work can be read under the sign lesbian only with the greatest difficulty.) But the expansiveness of this queer reading practice shuts down at other moments, as in a footnote where Goldberg blasts Marilee Lindemann, the author of a recent study of gender and sexuality in Cather's work, for her "half-hearted" use of the word queer. The kind of collaborative thought that has, by and large, characterized contemporary queer studies has been energizing; one only hopes that the field's network of others keeps expanding in ways that are both productive and surprising.