Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Date of this Version

March 2004


Published in Studies in American Fiction 32:1 (Spring 2004), pp. 59-80. Published by Northeastern University Department of English. Used by permission.


Two assumptions confront anyone exploring Willa Cather's relationship to Greenwich Village. First, that Willa Cather, who lived in the Village from 1906 until 1927, and made New York her permanent residence until her death in 1947, was at American modernism's geographic center: around her in these years was the highest concentration of artistic talent that twentieth century America ever knew. According to Ann Douglas, "Modern American culture ... is unimaginable without New York City." To Alfred Kazin, Greenwich Village "ushered in the first great literary society in America after Concord." "Nowhere did the instinct for the new flourish more extravagantly," Christine Stansell writes, "than in New York City, where a group of writers who collected in Greenwich Village between 1890 and 1920 transformed an unexceptional shabby neighborhood into a place glowing with a sense of the contemporary."

The second assumption is that, living in the heart of the American avant-garde, Willa Cather ignored it. Most critics who have commented on Cather's relationship to Greenwich Village have presumed she willfully distanced herself from Village bohemia due to her particular frame of mind, one that preferred quiet, elegant domesticity to raucous party-hopping. In her friend Elizabeth Sergeant's words, Cather "had more natural affinity for la vie de famille than for la vie de bohéme." James Woodress reports that "Cather was an observer rather than a participant in the yeasty ferment in Greenwich Village." Joan Acocella states that, despite her Greenwich Village address, "she had no contact with the partisans of Freud, Marx, and free verse who constituted Village bohemia in those days." Deborah Lindsay Williams, however, considers Cather's aloofness from the bohemian community a willful attempt to protect her "public persona" and "remain free of any obligations that might interfere with her writing." Williams paints a picture of Cather as a writer ruthlessly establishing imaginative "boundaries" for her literary career that will not allow her to publicly acknowledge any sort of identification with the literary community of Greenwich Village.

Whatever the analysis, virtually every critic who has written about Cather in the Village has begun with a presumption of Cather's unwillingness or inability to enter into the vibrant arts community around her. They have assumed a split between Cather and the community as if it were a given and irrefutable fact. These interpretations fail, however, because they inaccurately circumscribe the experience of early-twentieth century Greenwich Village.