O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers.
Thus wrote Walt Whitman, 1865, on how the West was won. The women came behind with the pack animals.
The romantic notion has it that it is the conquest of the wilderness that formed the American character – open, robust, democratic and optimistic. When the pioneering is done, when infinite space proves finite and you have fenced it in, what do you do with your pioneering virtues? You tell stories about them, put them into verse. You speak of lost Edens. The marching song becomes an elegy. Survivors have the task of turning their memories into myths.
Willa Cather took on this task in a manner unique among the female writers of her time. She won a Pulitzer prize, and became required reading for American students. Later her sentimental patriotism made her deeply unfashionable. More recently, feminist criticism has grappled her to its manly chest.
She was born in 1873, into secure well-ordered Virginian society. When she was nine years old, her family immigrated to Nebraska, to a territory ‘as bare as a piece of sheet iron’. As they drove into the country, she wrote later, ‘I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything – it was a kind of erasure of personality.’
She grew up in a town called Red Cloud. Hermione Lee describes it in the introduction to her proficient and readable critical biography. Red Cloud’s population was 2500 when Cather was a girl, but now it is 1300 and falling. The Nebraska State Nature Conservancy have set aside 600 acres as ‘Willa Cather Memorial Prairie’. Lee finds what Cather found; an immense landscape, a remote provincial ignorance. ‘Do they have cancer in London?’ a waitress asks her. ‘Do you have negros in England?’
Although Hermione Lee tells us that ‘her fiction is not satisfactorily accounted for in biographical terms’ – whose is? – a major theme of Cather’s novels and short stories is the struggle to escape – to escape from the family to an independent life, to escape from the farm to the city, to escape rural ignorance and replace it with metropolitan culture, to escape America for Europe. And yet she celebrated the pioneer life, presuming to approximate its masculine values, and by so doing to fit herself into the ‘great tradition’ of American writing. She was no simple ‘laureate of rural America’; her work, Lee tells us, gets its energy from the tensions within it, pulled as it is ‘between the natural and the artificial, the native and the European.’
When Cather was growing up in Nebraska, Sinclair Lewis was growing up in Minnesota, and Dreiser in Indiana, each of them cherishing similar dreams of the necessary exile that would turn them into artists. For a woman it was more difficult to break the domestic mould and begin to fulfil her ambitions. Cather was well aware of the hostility of comfortable self satisfied people towards any serious effort, and of how little help she was likely to get from her own sex: while ‘strong women…go out and fight with fate, and with art that is so much more relentless than fate, their amiable sisters sit behind a fortification of cradles and tea-towels and carp at them.’
In 1890 Cather went away to Lincoln University, intending to become a scientist, but soon became involved in student journalism. She dealt with her femininity by denying it, dressing as a man and calling herself William Cather Jnr. Later, as a Pittsburgh journalist, she turned out her copy under masculine by-lines. The women in her work are strong and dominant, the men ‘contemplative, passive, sensitive and withdrawn’. She distanced herself from the work of her feminine contemporaries (‘so subjective’) and did not hesitate to express her contempt for them. Critics in the past have been coy about her ‘special relationships’ with other women. She was in love with one, and lived with another; there is no proof that these were physical relationships, but in recent years her work has been ‘reinterpreted’ as that of a feminist and a lesbian pioneer. She would not, Hermione Lee says, have recognised herself as either, and adds that ‘to account for Cather’s fiction by reading it as an encoding of covert, even guilty sexuality, is, I think, patronising and narrow.’
Cather began her literary career as a short story writer, and produced over 60 stories between the age of 19 and her death in 1947; Virago have now issued the first substantial collection. There was a huge demand for short stories in the periodicals of the day, but the art of writing them was not over-delicate. ‘Put a snapper at the end’ Jack London advised, ‘so if they are crowded for space they can cut off your contents anywhere, reattach the snapper, and the story will retain form. ‘Cather sometimes fell foul of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and whilst protesting about the need to turn everything into ‘family reading’, she permitted her work to be bowdlerised. But it is hard to believe that she could ever have taken Jack London’s advice. She admired Katherine Mansfield’s ‘powerful slightness’; she obtained her effects, she claimed, by ‘the force of the thing not said.’
Perhaps the finest of the stories, and the one most nearly biographical, is called ‘Old Mrs Harris’; of novella length, it has the limpidity, the controlled pathos of the author at her best. Mrs Harris has left Tennessee to make new life in Colorado with her daughter’s family. In the South, young girls were indulged, encouraged to be frivolous, not bothered over-much with education. The young wife and mother was cosseted, spared worry and work. The widow put on her bonnet and her black gown, and made herself a servant to her family; she ran the household, and had her own kingdom in the kitchen and on the back porch.
But Mrs Harris now finds herself in a ‘snappy little Western democracy, where every man was as good as his neighbour and out to prove it.’ The family increases, their means decrease, and the old woman’s burden of work becomes too much for her; but she cannot bear to think of her elegant daughter, a lady, playing the housewife in a gingham frock and dust cap. Neither can she understand why her granddaughter wants to wear out her you thin studying for a university scholarship; but in the end it is she who contrives to finance the granddaughter’s escape into the wider world.
To read this story is like stepping into the water on a gently shelving beach; it has a luminous, slowly deepening charm. Cather’s apparent simplicity conceals her artfulness. Shifting attention from one character to another, she does nothing so crude as to manipulate the reader’s sympathies, but gives them a gentle, cat-like nudge.
Cather’s short stories often prefigured her novels, tried out their themes. She became a novelist in middle life; and having reached middle life she flits from Hermione Lee’s narrative, to reappear in the last chapter in old age. From this point, Lee concentrates on an exploration of her work. Cather cultivated the legend of her own artlessness. She presented herself as a repository of memories, and her task, she implied, was simply to cast these memories into written form. But of course her memories were mixed with confabulation, her portraits were composites, her technique was complex and not homespun at all.
Some of her own feelings about her creativity are explored in ‘The Song of the Lark’ where the heroine is a musician, Thea. Thea spends her childhood in a small town in Colorado; she achieves international recognition as an opera singer. A S Byatt remarks in her introduction on Cather’s stern, ruthless view of the requirements of the creative life. From an early age Thea is estranged from her brothers and sisters:’ Nothing she would ever do in the world would seem important to them, and nothing they would ever do would seem important to her.’ Every artist must effect a split within her own personality, Cather seems to suggest, so that the creative self is not harried out of existence by ‘colds, brokers, dressmakers, managers’. Hermione Lee points out how often the motif of the double, shadow or twin occurs in Cather’s fiction. The Song of the Lark is not a wholly satisfactory book, but Cather herself was its severest critic, pointing out that its narrative ‘describes a descending curve’ and that’ success is never so interesting as struggle, not even to the most mercenary forms of ambition’.
The other Virago reissue is an oddity. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a historical novel about nineteenth century French missionaries in the South-West, for whose civilizing ministry to the Indians Cather had great admiration. She designed the book less as a novel than as a ‘narrative’, and eschewed a dramatic treatment of events, preferring ‘the style of legend’; accordingly she chose language that was ‘a little stiff, a little formal…the old trite phraseology of the frontier.’ The result has an aridity that is not immediately appealing; whatever its merits, it is not the place to begin reading Cather.
In later life, Cather beat a grumbling retreat from the modern world. Her Nebraska childhood came to represent ‘the best years’, but nostalgia never spoils her clarity of vision and tone. As fame overtook her, she became obsessive about her privacy; and for that reason, she was not an easy subject for Hermione Lee. She attempted to reclaim and destroy all her letters; Lee says ‘she wanted no tourists inspecting her life’. Lee found her’ a resistant subject, almost an obstructive one. When you setout to write about her, you feel she would not have liked what you are doing, and would not have liked you either.’
All the same, the biographer’s enthusiasm for her subject illuminates every page. Despite her special place in American letters Willa Cather has never been much read or studied in England, and Hermione Lee and Virago must be congratulated for bringing us to her ‘measured, humane, unflinching voice.’