Willa Cather and Others
By Jonathan Goldberg
Duke University Press Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-2677-9
Chapter One Other Names
The basso ostinato that sounds throughout this chapter is the principle Cather enunciated in "The Novel Démeublé" as "the thing not named." In a groundbreaking essay, Sharon O'Brien affiliated Cather's artistic principle with her sexuality, and one translation of "the thing not named" is, undoubtedly, the love that dare not speak its name. Whether that love is unspeakable because it is prohibited, or whether what it is in itself is unnameable as such is one complicating question that I bring in these pages to this primary translation. If a logic of identity cannot be mobilized to unfold what only can be said otherwise, the possibility of reading Cather's texts in terms of questions of sexuality cannot work from the assumption that sexuality and gender are aligned. Hence, in the pages that follow, Judith Butler's arguments about the lack of symmetry between identity and identification have been crucial. If, as I argue, "the thing not named" ramifies in a number of directions around an unnameable numinosity, further ranges of meaning can be posed, and not least important among these are the ways in which lesbianism and male homosexuality may be entangled and represented eventhrough ostensible heterosexual figurations. These displacements along the axes of gender and sexuality do not exhaust the paths I wish to open here, the ramifications of Cather's phrase, for the crossings involved both facilitate and frustrate, and they can be charged with ambivalence, aggression, denial. These paths of sex and gender are involved in other crossings, most notably across the terrain of race, raising further complications and discomforts. None of these paths, none of these complications, can be separated from the kind of artistic project Cather pursues and the difficulty her work represents for a criticism that wishes or attempts to name what cannot be named, to respond in some way, however inadequate, to the stunning resonances of her laconic texts. In the pages that follow, I try out some initial mappings of the career of Cather's thing not named. The lack of specificity in Cather's phrasing provokes multiple possibilities that cannot be reduced to each other; each section of this chapter depends upon a signature-effect to lend precision in specifying these differences, but even the last of these, Cather's proper name, does not offer a singular translation of "the thing not named."
Willa Cather repudiated her first novel twice, first in a preface she wrote when Alexander's Bridge (1912) was republished in 1922, the second time in 1931 in The Colophon, where she once again compared Alexander's Bridge invidiously with O Pioneers! (1913). Whereas the first novel everywhere betrayed the act of "inventing" (her scare quotes), in O Pioneers!, she claimed in the Colophon essay, "everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong." It was, she continued, like riding through "familiar" country, its subject matter "a kind of country I loved," its interest further heightened, she went on, "because it was about old neighbors, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it." Alexander's Bridge, on the other hand, was superficial, based on recent impressions, a working up of material chosen because it seemed artistic.
Cather's judgment is, in many respects, unexceptionable; the machinery of Alexander's Bridge is readily apparent, the archness of its language often shy-making, its tone frequently pseudo-Jamesian, its adultery plot the sort of thing that Edith Wharton did again and again. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Cather's piece in The Colophon carries a rather ambivalent title, "My First Novels (There Were Two)." Ostensibly elevating O Pioneers! to an originary position, the essay also promotes what was probably by then-after the triumphs of novels that built upon the success of O Pioneers!-a forgotten first effort. Even as Cather ejects Alexander's Bridge from serious consideration, she includes it-there were two first novels. Indeed, by the end of the piece, the first first novel has its own germinative force; The Song of the Lark is seen as in its "road" and is compared (invidiously) to My Ántonia, the latter claimed as another spontaneous piece of writing-"it took no direction from me"-which nonetheless (unspontaneously?) followed "the road of O Pioneers! not the road of The Song of the Lark" (100). Cather's essay thus affirms herself as a writer with two origins, two paths. The repudiation of The Song of the Lark here is consistent with her ongoing discomfort with the novel (as I detail further in the second chapter, "Cather Diva"), a book that she nonetheless sometimes affirmed as a favorite. Even renunciation provides The Song of the Lark with a place, a genealogy in Alexander's Bridge. Cather does not merely begin twice; she continues along a double route. Denial is not quite to be taken at face value. Claims of spontaneity versus invention cross divided paths.
I am not the first person to think that connections can be found between Cather's double starts. "In her second novel," Sharon O'Brien writes, "Cather revises Alexander's Bridge when she turns Alexander into Alexandra"; "the similarity of the names," she continues, "shows what close relatives these two characters are." Bartley Alexander, Alexandra Bergson: the orthographic play is insistent. Alexander's Bridge, moreover, reverses the initials of its hero in its title; Alexandra Bergson, the central figure in O Pioneers!, has initials that match the alphabetic order of the first novel: A. B. When, in 1931, Cather said she had written two first novels, she was only saying, in other words, what the play of alphabetic beginnings in her two first novels had intimated. Charting her forward movement along two "roads," she was perhaps saying something implicit in the alphabetic play of A. B. In choosing these originary letters (of the alphabet) to mark her beginning, she marked it twice from the start. A. B. are her initial initials. "Hers"-or do they belong to the alphabet, an order and origin in which she "spontaneously" found herself?
O'Brien connects Alexander and Alexandra only, in a Cather-like way, to deny the connection. For her, Alexander is Cather's "failed masculine hero," Alexandra the opposite; where he is riven by his " 'double nature'," she integrates the two sides (392-93). For O'Brien, "double nature" is to be translated into male and female, and resolution will always be coded in the feminine. The difference between A. B. and B. A. is the difference that gender makes. Only when Cather can represent her artistic ambition through a heroine, O'Brien argues, wholeness, integrity, a proper mastery (no different from submission to a story that simply tells itself) will follow, lined up in neat symmetry. A=A. Identity is achieved.
Gender does make a difference, I would agree, but not necessarily this one. For I would notice first of all that the desire of the hero of Alexander's Bridge matches Cather's as enunciated in her 1931 piece. Alexander's adulterous affair begins when he encounters Hilda Burgoyne some dozen years years after having ended an affair with her that preceded his marriage: "He had not thought of Hilda Burgoyne for years; indeed, he had almost forgotten her" (21). This is exactly what Cather says in The Colophon about the material that came to her for O Pioneers!, a past almost forgotten, a love lost and necessarily so in order to learn the ways of the world. That, too, has been Bartley Alexander's experience; as soon as he met the marriageable Winifred, he married her, dropping Hilda to pursue a professional life that brought him middle-class comfort, indeed that has made him a poster boy for success: "There were other bridge-builders in the world certainly, but it was always Alexander's picture that the Sunday Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look," all "rugged, blond good looks" (8). When he sees Hilda again, Alexander realizes that it has not been worth it. Indeed, even before he has resumed the affair, even before speaking to her, he knows that "none of the things he had gained in the least compensated" for what he had lost (26). Not success as an engineer, not his marriage, not his money and position, not what he summarizes as his "popularity," his having become a public person, having found out, as Cather says too about herself, what the world was like and what it took to have a place in it.
In these ways, then-as someone catalyzed by something almost forgotten in the course of meeting strenuous demands to conform to the ways of the world-Bartley Alexander is Cather's surrogate. The crisis of the novel (abandoning convention for passion, breaking the bridge) enacts Cather's own alphabetic move, her revisitation of Alexander as Alexandra. The "failure" of the first novel is the desire realized in the second. Or, to put this more exactly, it is the desire of the first-Bartley's for Hilda-that is embodied in Alexandra. Cather intimates this in another way when she ends her Colophon piece by recalling that William Heinemann, who had published Alexander's Bridge in England, rejected The Song of the Lark; "he thought in that book I had taken the wrong road," Cather paraphrases his letter to her-in the very terms she will appropriate a moment later, or has foisted upon him, to describe her various paths shuttling between her two beginnings, "and that the full-blooded method, which told everything about everybody, was not natural to me" (99). Cather faults Alexander's Bridge and The Song of the Lark essentially for being conventional realistic novels in which a narrator fairly cuddles up with the reader in offering a view of life as we know it (the procedures that, as D. A. Miller tellingly claims, mark the affinity between the novel and the police). Yet, as Cather says here (or has Heinemann say in her paraphrase), the conventional is, for her, "not natural"; it is the wrong road. Which is also to say that it is far more revealing than the unconventional novels upon which Cather's fame rightly rests, novels which, contra O'Brien, I would suggest do not offer the perfect symmetry of an identitarian achievement; rather it is the fact that they do not tell everything about everybody that makes them so powerful. Cather calls books like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia spontaneous, but they are the product of exaction. Alexander's Bridge fails, insofar as it does, because it is a tell-all book.
To say this invites the supposition that the secret in Alexander's Bridge-its open secret, indeed-is Cather's sexuality. Moreover, this suggests that the difference between one first novel and the next has everything to do with how Cather's sexuality is implicated in her writing. Since these are the guiding suppositions in the chapters that follow, it seems worth indicating what such a claim does not mean. I agree with Hermione Lee, for example, that "it is important not to collapse Cather's imaginative life into a simple matter of repression, nor to condescend to her for her lack of 'openness'." For Lee, these are the only ways to take Cather's sexuality into account, and since they seem misguided, Lee ignores Cather's sexuality insofar as possible in the analysis of her life and work, attending only to the so-called larger issues of artistic meaning that transcend sex or gender, rather than enlisting Cather for a cause, whether feminist or lesbian. There is, however, a clear alternative to this procedure once one grants that Cather's sexuality can be treated beyond the parameters that Lee provides, which are based on the assumption that sexuality is merely a narrow question of personal identity.
The procedures that Lee decries do continue in Cather criticism, although as Marilee Lindemann notes in the closing pages of Willa Cather: Queering America, the decade since the publication of Sharon O'Brien's 1987 Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (the first book to make a connection between Cather's sexuality and her writing) has not exactly teemed with readings of gender and sexuality in Cather-in part, no doubt, because critiques like Lee's have denigrated such work as unimportant and misguided. Cather would not have wanted to have been outed. Indeed, Lindemann's book continues in the familiar vein of the lesbian feminism that Lee deplores. Approaching the secret similarity of Alexander's Bridge and O Pioneers!, for example, Lindemann finds that both novels exhibit "an ambivalent fascination with the chaotic force of illicit sexuality, a fascination that ultimately leads to the elimination of threat and the restoration of a conservative social order" (49). For Lindemann, there is no chance that Cather could be out; since she couldn't be, that must mean that she internalized society's homophobia; therefore her novels must echo social condemnation. That narrative, however, doesn't tally very well with the Cather of The Colophon essay, decrying convention, or even with the hero of Alexander's Bridge, repudiating the sacrifice of passion for the sake of passing as a model married man.
That even as late as 1931 Alexander might still serve as a surrogate for Cather would seem to be ruled out when Lindemann asserts that "Bartley Alexander is by no means 'queer'" (49). "Queer" thereby functions as an identity category, and there is no chance that Cather could possibly identify with her hero. Lindemann spends pages of her book-as well as the introduction to the edition of Alexander's Bridge that she edited for Oxford University Press-condemning his desire as infantile, regressive, sick, self-absorbed, narcissistic. Homophobia unleashed in the name of queer study; misandry in the name of feminism (Lindemann comes by the latter honestly enough; for O'Brien there is similarly no hope for Alexander simply because he is male; building bridges is always something one should not do since it is a form of masculine domination). Lindemann offers an instance of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick terms "punitive/pedagogical reading" that answers the question, How could this novel have been prevented? The point is not that Cather simply endorses Alexander; the novel ends in his death, after all, but this does not exactly mean that she condemns him, although it does indicate the impossibility of his having his desire. The bridge that collapses marks the end of Alexander's "road," his path as a public person, his supposed maturity. But there is very little to suggest that Cather disagreed with the thought she assigns him, about how little these things mattered. These are, after all, the very terms in which she marks her first novel as failed-for attempting to accommodate herself to the ways of the world.
Cather's 1931 Colophon essay basically repeats what she had written in the preface that she provided for the 1922 republication of Alexander's Bridge. There, she repudiates the novel for a "subject-matter" in which she no longer finds herself at home; O Pioneers!, contrastively, invidiously-and in a stunning metaphor-is said to arise from material that the author can simply depend upon, a "something else" than the false consciousness of her first novel: "the thing by which our feet find the road home on a dark night, accounting of themselves for roots and stones which we had never noticed by day." Alexander's Bridge once again-or, rather, at first-is said not to be in touch with what lies "at the bottom of consciousness" where the true materials are located, those that stimulate an author "whether he is aware of it or no" (94).
Excerpted from Willa Cather and Others by Jonathan Goldberg Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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