Willa Cather is an easy writer to undervalue. I’ve noticed, over the years, that many of the people who express admiration for her books (which I recommend often) are the sort of people who don’t usually read “serious” novels. Even in 7th grade, when I first read My Àntonia, I remember thinking, excellent, she doesn’t make you work too hard – and hard work and confusion, I assumed, for quite a long time, were the signs of a really great book. Cather, though, tends to make it clear enough what effect she’s aiming for: her symbols are monumental and apparently obvious, and when she has an idea, she doesn’t try to conceal it in some elaborate way; she tells you as clearly and gracefully as she can. Her books often feel artlessly constructed: one scene after another, and stories that seem inserted wherever the author felt like it.
But when I finished My Àntonia, all those years ago, and began the usual, unconscious process of assimilating the novel into my way of looking at the world, it stopped seeming so simple. There was something dark there that wouldn’t spread itself thin in my imagination and disappear. So I read the book again, several years later, and never felt like I was covering old ground, the simplest test of a classic. And as I read Cather’s other great books – A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, her short stories and essays – the outlines of a disturbing vision became apparent. Most of them are stories of disappointment, where everything good has already happened – and where hope for anything but a deeper appreciation of the past seems destined for failure.
Joan Acocella, in her wonderful little book on Cather and her critics, identifies this vision more precisely than I’d ever been able to manage myself: “Each of the four novels [from My Àntonia to Death Comes for the Archbishop],” she writes, “makes the same point: to desire something is to have as much of it as you will probably ever have.” Proust, Acocella points out, on the other side of the ocean, had a similar insight, and spent many more pages – wonderful pages – laying it out.
It is an insight, though, that it is difficult not to eventually rebel against, especially when an author insists too much: insists, for example, that mature romantic love is largely a lie, that most of our deepest feelings for other people are fantasies spun out by the imagination – and are, in fact, somehow more beautiful for being self-created, since this means we might actually be able to hold on to them. There can be something sickly and self-defeating about this outlook, and I got annoyed about halfway through Cather’s bitter, accomplished novella, My Mortal Enemy, which I wrote about a few years ago.
In Cather’s greatest books, however, the vision is bracing and honest – there is a convincing world on the page that gives the philosophy life. Each of these books is, in Cather’s own wonderful description of Norris’s McTeague, as “disagreeable as only a great piece of work can be.” Disagreeable in its deeper implications, I mean, but still filled with beauties, because Cather’s outlook is entirely compatible with humor and an appreciation of the world – especially the natural world – and its gifts.
As Acocella discusses, Cather has been ill-served by critics since the beginning. She never dealt explicitly with the concerns – political, economic, feminist, and now sexual – that serious, committed people, in various eras, wanted her to deal with. And so she was patronized, given faint praise, and occasionally condemned. In recent years, critics have started taking her very seriously indeed, but only because it has been decided (admittedly, with some evidence) that she was a lesbian, and so everything she wrote – as an outpouring of subconscious, repressed desires – has become relevant in the right ways.
Acocella makes these academics look pretty silly, but that isn’t too hard to do – all you have to do is quote, after all – and I became a little impatient with this part of the book, because I just don’t believe that these professors make much of a difference to ordinary readers. The majority of the book, luckily (minus a short, interesting biography), is simply an appreciation of Cather’s work, the best I have ever read. We have so little decent criticism in America that it’s easy to forget how useful and even stirring a real reading of great work can be.
Acocella looks closely at individual passages and shows how tightly knit they are, despite the illusion of artlessness - and manages to convey a sense of joy at getting closer to the source of their power. And she doesn’t treat the books as closed systems – networks of imagery and language that refer only to themselves – but as arguments for a way of looking at the world. She teases the author’s changing vision and its contradictions out of the books, and looks at it seriously for its value as a philosophy of life. You get the sense that she believes that how you read a book is a matter of genuine consequence. Her criticism – even her dance criticism, which I’ve read despite my complete lack of interest in dance – is consistently excellent, and her recently published collection of essaysis entirely worth reading.
As for Cather, I think she’s one of America's best writers – up there with Melville and Twain as a writer of imaginative prose. Until recently, I’d never realized just how much great writing she produced. Apparently she only allowed one of her stories, “Paul’s Case,” to be anthologized, but there are dozens of others, virtually unknown, that are just as great, and her essays in Not Under Forty, along with many of her reviews – which, by the way, show sparks of genius even when Cather was in her mid-20s – are all worth owning. The good people at the Library of America have put out a volume called Stories, Poems, and Other Writings,which has been a real education for me. I recommend it to everyone, along with Acocella’s book.