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.