One of my favorite letters by Willa Cather was written to one of her former students, Norman Foerster. On January 14, 1931, Cather wrote to decline a speaking invitation from Foerster, who had recently been named the director of the School of Letters at the University of Iowa. In the letter, Cather shares her thoughts freely about contemporary literary criticism, and that she believed that the best criticism wasn’t written by critics at all, but by authors themselves.
Foerster himself may have been a bit disappointed by this response: he had just written his own work of criticism, Toward Standards: A Study of the Present Critical Movement in American Letters five years earlier. Cather, however, does leave Foerster with a compliment: that his book “does exactly what a book of that sort ought to do—[it] makes me want to come back at you and have it out with you, both where I agree and where I disagree” (The Selected Letters of Willa Cather 437).
In many ways, Cather critics have been “having it out” with each other since the early 1920s. My goal in my book, Willa Cather: The Critical Conversation, is to trace the contours Cather criticism from the 1920s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. One of the deepest and most lasting critical disagreements concerns Cather’s relationship with her contemporary period. Many critics in the 1920s viewed Cather’s stories of immigrants and pioneers in the American Middle West to be in-step with literary trends of the day; by the 1930s, however, critics argued that her work was nostalgic and that it failed to grapple successfully with events of national or global importance. Cather somewhat embraced this image of herself as an artist dedicated to crafting enduring works of art.
Some of the most fascinating scholarship in recent decades on Cather has upended claims that her work was disengaged from her contemporary moment. To name just a few examples: Sharon O’Brien’s 1987 biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, brought feminist interpretations to the forefront of Cather studies. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1995) challenged scholars to consider how issues of race permeate the works of white authors. Her chapter on Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) offered a vivid framework for analyzing one of Cather’s most understudied novels. The scholarship of Steven Trout, in his monograph Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War (2002) and his subsequent editorial work in Cather Studies 6: History, Memory, and War (2006), highlighted the deep extent to which Cather’s fiction engaged with issues related to war and imperialism. I don’t think that critics in the 1930s could even have imagined the routes that Cather scholarship would take by the century’s end.
More recently, the publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (2013, eds. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) has provided scholars and the public with unparalleled access to Cather herself. For decades, Cather’s executors had followed a dictate in her will that banned quotation from her correspondence. In 2013, that ban was lifted, and the public now has access to a much more complex portrait of Cather. Ultimately, the publication of Cather’s letters marks a distinct turning point in Cather criticism.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working on Willa Cather: The Critical Conversation was the opportunity to reflect on two communities that mean the world to me: the community of Cather scholars, and the community of my undergraduate students. As many professors know, literary criticism can be challenging to digest; I’ve found many volumes in Camden House’s Literary Criticism in Perspective series to be incredibly helpful, especially when I’m preparing to teach a new author in my classes. I hope that my book provides a useful guide – both for longtime fans of Cather and for new readers.
This guest post was written by Kelsey Squire, Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University.