Page 1 of 8Concluding her fine study of Willa Cather's fiction After the World Broke in Two, the late Merrill Maguire Skaggs asserted that the author "whose portrait emerges from this arrangement of her facts is complex and brilliant," and that "she knows at all points what she is doing. Above all else, she is self conscious" (187). Writing this concluding assessment in the late-1980s, Skaggs knew that beyond her own readings that there existed a growing body of evidence to support such a claim: Sharon O'Brien's influential psychobiography Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice and James Woodress's extended Willa Cather: A Literary Life had each appeared in 1987; about that time too another leading Cather critic, Susan J. Rosowski, published a review essay focused on nine new Cather-related volumes in a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies on Cather's work.
This critical interest in Cather as one of the leading figures of American literary Modernism has not flagged in the years since: the multi-volume Willa Cather Scholarly Edition and Cather Studies have emerged from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, seminars and symposia on Cather have been frequent as have "Big Reads" focused on My Antonia, and the relation between Cather and her critics have become subject in their own right, most famously with Joan Acocella's "Willa Cather and the Academy" in the New Yorker in 1995 and the book that essay was extended into, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism in 2000. Critical interest proceeds unabated today-the 2003 International Cather seminar asserted "Cather as Cultural Icon" and, under the sponsorship of the Cather Foundation, the 2007 seminar explored "A Writer's Worlds" in Paris and Avignon, France. Without question, the complex brilliance Skaggs saw in Cather is a critical consensus and, more to the point, this view has been borne of Cather's fiction itself. As Skaggs also maintained, Cather "fashioned fictions of such intricacy and resonating depth that all of them-even the meanest-are still astonishing to read and explore today" (187).
While the reading and understanding of Cather's twelve novels and various other works are the primary attraction, in many ways Willa Cather the person looms large in the critical interest her works have drawn. More than her contemporaries and those figures from the generation which succeeded hers--most especially Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway--Cather's fiction creates a personal intimacy between writer and reader which both creates a deep bond and feels authentic, special. This bond is borne of Cather's ability to create on her pages an intimate understanding of characters understood in relation to their personal and cultural places. Most often such places owe to Cather's own best place, Red Cloud, Nebraska, such as in her novels of prairie pioneering, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but there are a succession of other places found there too: the desert southwest of The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop; the tiny enclave of French culture that was Quebec City at the end of the seventeenth century in Shadows on the Rock; and the cultural intricacies of her own birthplace, rural northern Virginia, in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In the mid-1930s, having returned to Nebraska from Quebec in her penultimate novel, Lucy Gayheart, Cather offers a description of a character which is revelatory of the accomplishments of her own art and, more than that, of herself as a person. The character in question is the book's antagonist, Clement Sebastian, who "had missed the deepest of all companionship, a relation with the earth itself, with a countryside and a people. That relationship, he knew, cannot be gone after and found; it must be long and deliberate, unconscious. It must, indeed, be a way of living" (78).
About the Contributor
Robert Thacker is Professor of Canadian Studies and English and Associate Dean at St. Lawrence University. He has published extensively on Alice Munro, Cather, the Prairie West, and Canada-U.S. literary comparisons. His books include The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (1989) and the recent biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (2005). He coedited Willa Cather's Canadian and Old World Connections (Cather Studies 4, 1999) and is now coediting Willa Cather: A Writer's Worlds (Cather Studies 8, forthcoming 2009). He was codirector of two International Cather Seminars (Quebec City, 1995, France, 2007) and has special interests in Cather's relationship with S. S. McClure and the two decades of Cather's career before her move to Alfred A. Knopf.