Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Overview

In this brilliant, impassioned and controversial book, New Yorker critic Joan Acocella argues that twentieth-century literary critics from the Left and Right have misused Willa Cather and her works for their own political ends, and, in doing so, have either ignored or obscured her true literary achievement. In an acute and often very funny critique of the critics, Acocella untangles Cather's reputation from decades of politically motivated misreadings, and proposes her own clear-headed view of Cather’s genius. At...
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Overview

In this brilliant, impassioned and controversial book, New Yorker critic Joan Acocella argues that twentieth-century literary critics from the Left and Right have misused Willa Cather and her works for their own political ends, and, in doing so, have either ignored or obscured her true literary achievement. In an acute and often very funny critique of the critics, Acocella untangles Cather's reputation from decades of politically motivated misreadings, and proposes her own clear-headed view of Cather’s genius. At once a graceful summary of Cather's life and work, and a refreshing plea that books be read for themselves, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism will also inspire readers to return to one of America's great novelists.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A first-class book, a landmark of sorts. . . . Cather emerges as what she really is, a person of great literary accomplishment, a true cultural beacon. --RWB Lewis

“She is…a marvelous, canny writer.”–Terry Castle, London Review of Books

"Acocella’s book shines with exemplary good sense. . . . She is a sure witted judge of books." A.S. Byatt, The New York
Review of Books

“As a study of the politics of literary reputation [this book] is exceptional; as a serene appreciation of a great writer's life and work, it is poetic; as a reminder to critics of a the function of criticism, it is harrowing. This book needs to be read."
--Robert Thacker, American Literature

“This devastatingly concise book isn’t going to win its fearless author any prizes — she marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia — but anyone who has had it up to here with political correctness should buy a copy . . . and get ready to cheer” — Terry Teachout, National Review

New York Times Book Review
Beginning at this formative period in Cather's life and career (her family's move to Red Cloud), and proceeding through the history of her critics, in all their folly, before returning to Red Cloud in its final pages, Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism is at once a portrait of the artist and a chronicle of American literary criticism as it came into its own---often at the expense of the integrity of its subjects. . . . Acocella's book, like a Cather novel, is a story of exile, as Cather's aesthetic intentions became distorted or disregarded. . . . Acocella is clearly determined to rescue Cather's reputation from the academy, and, equally clearly, is devoted to her subject. Her achievement, though, lies not so much in what she says about Cather as in her use of the critical response to Cather's work as a perspective from which to trace the changing preoccupations of a nation rewriting its identity.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Expanding her 1995 essay "Cather and the Academy," New Yorker dance critic Acocella wittily charts decades of politically influenced Cather criticism and suggests an approach that balances politics with "a sustained attention to what the artist is saying." In the 1910s and early '20s, Acocella says, the author of My Antonia (1918) was considered by Mencken and others to be part of the new "antiestablishment, democratic" American fiction of poor rural people. By the 1930s, she was seen by Granville Hicks and others as a backward romantic unwilling to join the movement to "destroy and rebuild" American society. In the 1950s, Acocella continues, Cather became the "Classical/Christian Idealist." Since the 1970s, Cather has been outed as a lesbian in essays and a "dreaded psychosexual biography," allowing her to be "captured by the Left." Such politically oriented criticism, Acocella concludes, is ephemeral and limiting, yielding only "one-note criticism: all excoriation, all easy triumphs." She bemoans: "Is this the most important question we can ask artists of the past: whether their politics agree with ours?" Pointing to another method, Acocella examines patterns in Cather's life to determine her unabashedly unpolitical (and overlooked) "tragic vision" of an unfair but possibly dignified life. Acocella is pointed and funny in her analysis (on current critics: "No tree can grow, no river flow, in Cather's landscapes without this being a penis or menstrual period") and compelling in her request to move beyond politics. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Booknews
Expanding on her controversial 1995 article, Acocella makes a significant contribution to Cather studies and at the same time points out the follies of political criticism in the study of all literature. In nine chapters, she examines the politics of Willa Cather criticism, i.e. how Cather's work has been seized upon and often distorted by critics on both the left and the right. She argues that the central element of Cather's works was not a political agenda but rather a tragic vision of life. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The Economist
"[A] sane and sometimes very funny critique of the critics."—The Economist
New York Review of Books
"(Acocella's book) shines with exemplary good sense. . . . When I read Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism I realized I had gloomily expected that it was virtually impossible these days to write, or to publish, so sensible a book."—New York Review of Books
Times Literary Supplement
"[Joan Acocella] has written a cogently argued, persuasive, and often very
National Review - Terry Teachout
"[An] eloquent, wholly admirable book. . . . This devastatingly concise book isn't going to win its fearless author any prizes—she marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia—but anyone who has had it up to here with political correctness should buy a copy of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism and get ready to cheer, long and loudly. But Acocella, though she has assembled quite a nifty little chamber of critical horrors, is not your ordinary outrage-collecting cultural conservative. In fact, she is not a conservative at all, but an old-fashioned, determinedly non-radical feminist who insists that the proper goal of art is to describe life in all its proliferation, ideology-transcending complexity. . . . Far from being a purveyor of proto-identity politics, Cather was in fact an artist of extraordinary breadth, and the more I read her, the surer I am that she is not merely a woman novelist, or even an American novelist: She is a great novelist, clear-eyed and strong-hearted, who describes the harshness of the world in words of calm and consoling beauty."—Terry Teachout, National Review
New York Times Book Review
"Beginning at this formative period in Cather's life and career (her family's move to Red Cloud), and proceeding throughout the history of her critics, in all their folly, before returning to Red Cloud in its final pages, Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism is at once a portrait of the artist and a chronicle of American literary criticism as it came into its own--often at the expense of the integrity of its subjects."—New York Times Book Review
New Yorker
"This overview of almost a century of inadequate Cather criticism concludes with the follies of feminist academics, who chide their subject for her politics, expound portentously on her 'gaps' and 'fissures,' and attempt to shove her into just the sort of sexually defined identity that she scorned throughout her life."—New Yorker
London Review of Books
"Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism is a sort of gleaming, double-edged thing: both a brisk appreciation of Cather's artistic achievement and a stern, even cutting assault on modern Cather scholarship. . . . Acocella is . . . [a] lucid, obdurate force: an intelligent outsider challenging the norms of a somewhat decadent and in-grown professional clique. She is also a marvellous, canny writer."—London Review of Books
American Literature
"Every critic of American modernism should read this book. It has more to say about the present moment in American literary criticism and about the making of literary reputation than most larger studies. It is apt in myriad ways—a little well-made book replete with sharp, well-informed distinctions, a fine sense of historical context, and a humane appreciation of those qualities that first drew readers to Cather's fiction, and despite the politics of many of her critics since, continue to do so. . . . Acocella treats Cather, her work, and her critics in an evenhanded, informed, and precise fashion. There is nothing vicious here, only good sense and a fine aesthetic sensibility, buttressed by solid scholarship conveyed in sharp prose. . . . As a study of the politics of literary reputation, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism is exceptional; as a serene appreciation of a great writer's life and work, it is poetic; as a reminder to critics of the function of criticism, it is harrowing. This book needs to be read."—American Literature
Choice
"This slender volume is rich in content on a subject that should not even exist, and yet it does. Willa Cather should of course be read as Willa Cather, but Acocella skillfully argues that this is far from the reality of Cather criticism as it exists today. . . . A splendid study, this book goes beyond Cather to literary criticism in general. Highly recommended for upper-division undergraduates through faculty."—Choice
Frederick Crews
"Does criticism owe any fidelity to the manifest values of great authors? No one has posed that question more instructively than Joan Acocella. This shrewd, wry, and pithy book—at once a critical case history and a manifesto—should be read not only by everyone who admires Cather but also by literary academics who suspect, with good reason, that their profession has taken leave of its senses."—Frederick Crews, editor of Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend
Resources for American Literature Study - Susan J. Rosowski
"So far as I know, no one in Cather studies has engaged seriously with the issues that Acocella and her reviewers raise concerning the relationship of scholarship to criticism, of literature to culture, and of English departments to literature."—Susan J. Rosowski, Resources for American Literary Study
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375712951
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/1/2002
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,502,167
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Acocella is a New Yorker staff writer. Her books include Mark Morris and Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder. She lives in New York.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Darkling Plain


Cather is traditionally regarded as the elegist of the pioneer period, the repository of what America thinks of as its early, true-grit triumphs. She did write three novels, her so-called prairie trilogy—all based on her childhood in Nebraska—that can be read that way. In the 1913 O Pioneers! a young Swedish immigrant, Alexandra Bergson, raises a blooming farm out of the barren Nebraska plain. Then comes The Song of the Lark, in which Thea Kronborg, another little Swede, stuck in another prairie town, dreams of becoming an artist, and actually makes it. In the third book of the series, the beloved My Ántonia (1918), the struggle is crueller, the rewards fewer, but still the heroine—a Czech girl this time, Ántonia Shimerda—has what you could call a happy ending.

    My Ántonia contains a scene that to many people is the essence of Cather's meaning. Ántonia and her friends have had a picnic, and the day is ending. They look toward the setting sun, and there they see an amazing sight. Outlined across the face of the sun is a plough that someone has left standing in a field: "Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, [the plough] was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun" (237).

    This plough in the sun is the most famous image in all of Cather's work. (It is the logo of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and EducationalFoundation.) Presumably, it expresses Cather's belief that however small you are, you can nevertheless be grand—you can triumph. People who cherish this scene often forget that it ends with the plough's being blotted out. The sun sets, the world is plunged into darkness, and "the forgotten plough had sunk back into its own littleness somewhere on the prairie" (238).

    Another thing that is sometimes forgotten is that Cather didn't originally come from the prairie, and that her removal there was shattering to her. She was born on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley in 1873, at the beginning of what was to be the flood tide of the westward expansion. In the 1880s more than a million people, most of them from Europe (hence Cather's immigrant heroines) but many from the eastern American states, packed up their households and moved to the plains of America's Midwest. Cather's grandparents had relocated to Nebraska in 1877, and her parents were thinking of joining them. Finally, in 1883, the family's barn burned down, and that was it. The Cathers sold their farm and boarded the train for Nebraska.

    To the nine-year-old Cather, raised in the snug comforts of Virginia's hills and valleys, the flat, empty plain came as an utter shock. There was nothing there, nothing but space. She seems to have felt that all her coverings had been taken off. She had been stripped, skinned. "It was," as she later said, "a kind of erasure of personality" (The Kingdom of Art, 448). This experience became for her what the delayed goodnight kiss was to Proust, and as in Proust, we find the catastrophic event recalled at the beginning of a crucial novel. In the first chapter of My Ántonia a ten-year-old boy, Jim Burden—he is the narrator of the book—journeys from Virginia to Nebraska. Significantly, he is not only exiled; he is orphaned. Both his parents have just died, and he is going to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. At the end of the chapter the train arrives, and Jim is met by one of his grandparents' hired hands. The man packs him into the back of a farm wagon, which then takes off across the plain:


I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue.... Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries are made.... I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had even left their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. (7-8)


    To readers of the early-twentieth-century novel, this should be a familiar scene: the human soul facing a great emptiness, and feeling that prayers will no longer be of use. Cather came by it honestly, and it became the pattern of her imagination. To it she assimilated her later experience. The two writers who probably influenced her most—Virgil and Henry James—were both poets of exile, and almost all the major characters in her novels are exiles, people trying to make their way in circumstances strange to them. Hence the inexpressible sadness of Cather's work. "Even the street cars will not stop for me here," says a Czech violinist, stranded in New York, in one of her stories ("The Diamond Mine," 417). Yes, Cather shows us some triumphs, at least in her early novels. Bur Alexandra Bergson, though she gets her farm, loses the one thing she cared about more, her brother Emil, who is murdered at the end of O Pioneers! Thea Kronborg gets to become an artist, but in the process her life empties out. She is translated; she becomes only her art.

    Others of Cather's pioneers fare far worse. In one of her early stories, "The Bohemian Girl," a Scandinavian farmer who has lost all his hogs to cholera returns home quietly and strangles himself. In another story, "The Clemency of the Court," a Russian girl, "one of a Russian colony that a railroad had brought West to build grades" (26), gives birth to a fatherless child and then goes off and drowns herself. In My Ántonia a hobo comes upon a group of people threshing in a field and, waving good-bye to them, throws himself into the threshing machine. These events are described very plainly, almost laconically—"The machine ain't never worked right since" (115), says the narrator of the hobo's suicide—and therefore their meaning is easily missed. Their very clarity is baffling.

    Also, all the while that Cather is describing life's terrors, she never stops asserting its beauties: the dome of heaven, the flaming sun. The dream is still there; we just can't have it. Jim Burden's arrival in Nebraska is recounted with the same lethal modesty. What we have is just the thought of a ten-year-old boy, and he wouldn't even have had the thought if the jolting of the wagon hadn't kept him awake. No tears are shed. ("I don't think I was homesick.") The situation is too serious. A boy and, by extension, the human soul are cast out into emptiness, and the prose swells to tell us this ("Between that earth and that sky"). But then it contracts again, Jim presumably falls asleep, and the wagon goes on bumping across the darkling plain.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix
Prologue 1
1 The Darkling Plain 3
2 Youth 7
3 Cather and Her Critics: 1910s-1940s 17
4 Cather and Her Critics: 1950s-1960s 31
5 Cather and the Feminists: The Problem 37
6 Cather and the Feminists: The Solution 45
7 Politics and Criticism 67
8 The Tragic Sense of Life 77
9 Red Cloud 91
Notes 95
Bibliography 109
Index 121
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