Willa Cather is one of the greatest American Artists to ever set words to paper.  She wasn’t a “Gay Author” as some are wont to claim — she was a public writer who didn’t seem to care much for sexual definitions in her private life away from the page.

As a student of Nebraska literature — and you had to be one if you were an undergraduate English major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked on the Prairie Schooner literary quarterly  as an associate editor — you were left with no other choice but to bleed Cather and a vital want to protect her life with your own good deeds.

In my January 13, 2010 article — Singing the Vowel in the Vessel — I celebrated Cather’s immediately identifiable rhythm and cant in her 1915 novel, “Song of the Lark.”

One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, — life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.

Cather also knew how to set a scene.  Here’s the breathtaking first page of her “O Pioneers!” novel first published in 1913:

I have always been bothered by some scholars who choose to “read in” subtextual meaning into Cather’s books to somehow prove an undercurrent of homosexuality.  As a student, I read Cather, and her niche critics, and I came away unconvinced that what they were divining from her text was actually there.  We know Cather preferred the company of women, but that shouldn’t need to make her the new poster woman for Gay literature.

Today, I was thrilled to read a long article celebrating a new book of Cather letters that are finally being released for public inspection and total human consumption, and I was especially joyful to read this:

In the 1980s and ’90s that difficulty helped fuel intense polemics over Cather’s sexuality, as feminist and queer theory scholars began seeking disguised erotic turmoil under Cather’s placid-seeming literary surfaces, to the dismay of more traditionally minded critics.

In a 1995 article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella blasted new-style Cather scholars for their obsession with psychosexual subtext, declaring it was time “for the professional critics to give up and leave her books to those who care about them — her readers.”

It was a dim view shared by Charles Cather. “He was very hostile to scholarship, and personally aggrieved toward me,” said Sharon O’Brien, the author of an influential 1987 biography that dug deep into Cather’s sexuality and conflicted relationship with her mother. “I couldn’t get anywhere near him.”

Cather herself railed against critics who had been “violently inoculated with Freud.” But today her lesbianism is widely accepted by scholars and barely raises a ripple among the kind of small-town Nebraskans she often wrote about.

I was a UNL undergrad in the midst of that 1980’s and ’90s public “red washing” of Cather’s private white picket fences.  The clearly politically motivated attempt to paint her writing with sapphic passions was always disturbing because it felt like an orchestrated movement by a cunning, select few, to move ahead a PhD research career with “new insights” into Cather’s work that did not actually appear on the page — they were merely suggesting ghosts of inference and hinting at an undead reckoning. Those scholars argued — wrongly, we now know — the reason Cather didn’t want her personal letters released for publication was because they would definitively “out” her as a Gay woman.

The new Cather book of letters provides evidence the real reason Cather didn’t want her correspondence released was because they indicated a deep, and longtime, depression when she was younger that humiliated her in later life.  In the Nebraska farmland, you didn’t have time to be depressed, because you had to milk the cows and hay the horses.  Depression was viewed, in Cather’s time, and even my time, as an indulgence for idle minds and a privileged constitution.  If you wanted to fit in, you sat down and shut up and started smiling.  Feeling sorry for yourself was an intellectual luxury that real, working, people could not cotton. One could argue, in Cather’s time, it was easier to be a closeted homosexual than it was to be condemned as openly depressed.

By wanting to hide her depression, Cather unwittingly gave the “lesbian clue hunters” ammunition in the assumptive unknown where any wild idea could fill the vacuum of the unknown and the unrepentant.  The lesson we must take from Cather’s mistake is that to live a non-transparent life gives power to nefarious others who choose to define who you are and what you intended when you are not around any longer to claim the stake of your own mind.

By demanding to control the documents of her private life, Cather gave rise to a whole scholarly strata of sexuality conspiracy theorists who, only now, have been proven to be misguided, and rather wanton, in their need to empower their own movement by indicting Cather’s words against her by twisting her meaning into their meme.

28 Comments

  1. Intriguing. Though I enjoyed all my art history and other humanities classes and the discussions about what an artist really meant by placing certain objects in a painting, or what a poet was hinting at with the use of a phrase, I was always left wondering – “How do YOU know?” Of course knowing a bit of history sometimes will confirm theories, but other times I think it might just be in our nature to invent what we don’t know.

    I think I will head to the library this weekend though and see what else I can find on Willa Cather.

    1. I do think that sort of “this is what they really meant” scholarship is dangerous because they are only guessing and that’s why people who create things cannot be obscure or indefinite — because someone other than you will fill that space for you!

      Here’s a good place to start for Cather info:

      http://cather.unl.edu/

      1. Thank you for the link. I personally love art that leaves interpretation up to the viewer – I am all about symbolism. In my own work I use objects that are meaningful to me and tell the story of what the piece means, but others might not get it. Of course, I definitely don’t have to worry about how my “art” will be interpreted when I’m gone – if you know what I mean. 🙂

        1. I think it depends on the type of art. A statue and a painting are what they are — open to interpretation. Unless, of course, you’re Georgia O’Keefe and blatantly painting vaginas as flowers…

          http://goo.gl/CMj2a

          Text, I think, is more prone to obfuscation and re-interpretation because words can have different meanings in different contexts. I immediately think of Playwright Samuel Beckett and his play “Waiting for Godot.” As long as he was alive, he had to personally approve every production or the play could not be produced. He wanted to protect the integrity of his play by refusing any off-the-page interpretation other than what he sparsely placed on the pages of the play.

          He famously shut down productions of his plays he did not like. One example was a re-staging of Godot with an all-Black cast placed in the depths of the NYC subway tunnel system. Beckett won in court, but a lot of theatre people were furious.

          Of course, after Beckett died, and money began to speak for his productions, all those interpretive protections dissolved because the will wasn’t alive any longer to defend the original work. Art needs to be able to stand on its own throughout time. People will mess with you and meaning and the object needs to be impervious to the prattle:

          http://bolesblogs.com/2011/03/23/art-as-the-object-division-of-an-equal-three/

          1. Very interesting about Samuel Beckett. So much to be learned on Bolesblogs!
            I had to laugh at your remark about Georgia O’Keefe, I immediately thought of her flowers after I posted that comment. But I think I recall seeing her in an interview and she was surprised that the public interpreted her work this way. And I wonder what of her skulls with those sharp horns and all…

            Your right, text is a completely different medium. My example is not as literary or intellectual as yours though. I just think of the way text messages can easily be misunderstood. I am always so nervous about posting comments on blogs because I just don’t know how my words, or lack of, will be interpreted. That is one reason why I only took one online college course and realized i just couldn’t communicate very well in that setting. It was too easy for others to find the wrong meaning in your words. I much prefer face to face interaction where body language and vocal tone fill in those otherwise questionable spaces. But perhaps if I were a better writer….

          2. Yes, I’ve read that O’Keefe had no idea what she was painting in her flowers, and to that I wonder how well she knew herself and her Art. I don’t know if those vagpetals are her repressed psyche eking out of her hands onto a canvas or not — and I really don’t care — because I can clearly see vaginas! As Freud didn’t say, “Sometimes a flower is always a vagina.”

            That is the risk of Abstraction and Realism in Art. You allow what you create to have individual meaning in lots of different people. Look at the Realists and what you see is what you get — there’s no interpretation necessary. It is what it is.

            Living and working online is tough because the visual and aural clues are missing. That’s why sometimes its good to go guttural in your text like “Oooof!” and “Gah!” and “Jinkers!” and also SMILE! and GRIN! and SMACKO!!! a lot, too, so people can add more information to their interpretation of what you’re really saying. Zonkers!

    1. Thanks for the kind words and I look forward to your return! SMILE!

      I think people like to make things more difficult and complex than they really are — because then they feel as if they’ve figured out something nobody else knows.

  2. twistnpout —

    We ran out of reply room, so I’m starting a new thread.

    I never use LOL. There are WordPress emoticons that help, but when we switch blog hosting services, those proprietary emoticons like my favorite, “Mr. Green” — :mrgreen: — don’t show up.

    So, I’ve stayed with text emoticons. They translate better across platforms. SMILE!

  3. How have I gotten this far in life as an English major without knowing about Willa Cather? Thanks so much for sharing some of her work. That first page of “O Pioneers!” drew me in right away– I know what I’ll be reading over spring break!

    1. That’s a good question, Michael. She explicitly did not want her letters published. Her will forbade it. Every living relative after her blocked publication.

      Now that she, and everyone related to her, are finally dead, and the power to control her letters is now in the hands of institutions and foundations, and lawyers and money speaks in the name of “information” and her letters are going to start to get published. There are over 3,000 surviving letters and 566 will be published in the new book:

      http://www.randomhouse.com/book/217597/the-selected-letters-of-willa-cather-by-willa-cather

      For many years, scholars thought not many letters survived. The letters she received from the real love of her life — a married woman — were burned by Cather, and after that woman died, her husband sent Cather the letters she had written, and Cather burned those as well. Of all her letters, those letters are believed to be the most personally intimate.

      The letters that survive do have a value in helping round out Cather’s personal life in her own words, and I think that’s important. Instead of others telling us who she was in private life, let her tell us what she felt was important enough to write and mail to someone else.

      There’s an old saying in the Midwest, “Never write down what you don’t want read in public.” I’ve always lived that mandate, and so there’s nothing I’ve ever written that I wouldn’t mind published and shared with the world.

      You can’t really ever keep a piece of paper a secret. It will eventually be revealed and discovered and read by others — palmam qui meruit ferat. In that mindset, I appreciate having her letters published because we’ll know more about her without the “scholarly others” telling us who she was by trying to divine her personal life from the public novels.

      J.D. Salinger is about to get the same “Cather Treatment” in an new documentary:

      http://goo.gl/TZODV

      http://goo.gl/HuOGc

      1. I suppose the fact that she burnt the letters to and from the love of her life but did not burn her other letters indicates that it was less important to her that that these other letters remain private…

        Plus, if her character is being twisted out of shape by the people who write about her, perhaps her letters will set things right again – and anyone whom she might have written about is long dead now, so there’s no risk of offending anyone.

  4. I,do like reading a lot and strangely enough out of all of the strange books I read and all of the authors I’ve heard of, I have never heard of Willa Cather. I definitely can’t wait to find a piece that interests me. I’m glad to learn something new when I come here.