Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Date of this Version

Fall 10-26-2012


Matthew J. Lavin. "Material Memory: Willa Cather, “My First Novels [There Were Two]”, and The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly" Western Literature Association. Lubbock, TX. Nov. 2012.


This paper should not be treated as complete scholarship, but I invite anyone who is interested to read it and provide comments. If you'd like to use it as a source for your own work, please cite me as an author and the University of Nebraska Digital Commons as the publisher/platform.


Willa Cather's 1931 essay "My First Novels [There Were Two]" is an often-cited statement on place in the author's literary oeuvre. In the essay, Cather distances herself from her first novel 'Alexander's Bridge' (1912) and its imitative, Jamesian motifs and setting. Her second novel 'O Pioneers!', she writes, was a kind of second "first" novel, one written "entirely for myself" and preoccupied with the story of "Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska." As Merrill Maguire Skaggs, Robert Thacker and Emmy Stark Zitter have argued, "My First Novels [There Were Two]" is also an important document in the author's retrospective construction of authorial identity.* Yet scholars have not, to date, fully explored the occasion for this essay's publication nor the periodical in which it was published. "Material Memory: Willa Cather, 'My First Novels [There Were Two]', and The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly" shows how Cather came to publish her essay of literary debut in The Colophon: A Book Collector's Quarterly. The paper follows George's Bornstein's approach in Material Modernism, which connects literary modernism to a distinct set of material concerns and manifestations. The presentation documents Cather's participation in an intermittent series for the periodical in which various writers of national renown told stories of their first novels and traces connections between Cather and Colophon founder Elmer Adler.

*See the following sources: Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. "Cather's Violent Assimilation of Henry James's Art." In 'Violence, the Arts and Willa Cather'. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007; Thacker, Robert. "She's Not a Puzzle So Arbitrarily Solved: Willa Cather's Violent Self-Construction" In 'Violence, the Arts and Willa Cather', Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007; Zitter, Emmy Stark. "Making Herself Born: Ghost Writing and Willa Cather's Developing Autobiography" Biography 19.3 (1996): 283-301.