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|Willa Cather - Leading American Author, 1922-1933|
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Leading American Author, 1923-1933Among the best-known critical statements Cather made was one she asserted in the prefatory note to a collection of essays, Not Under Forty, she published in 1936. There she wrote that "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and the persons and prejudices recalled in sketches slid back into yesterday's seven thousand years" (v). As she would later write of Clement Sebastian in Lucy Gayheart, Cather was herself "nearing fifty" (78) and after her own struggle with One of Ours (for various reasons a novel she had great difficulty with), her work after it had reached a different phase. With the awarding of the Pulitzer, her celebrity was assured, and her success and new relation with Alfred Knopf ensured that she could publish just what she liked. Her struggle to achieve completed, Cather entered a period of great productivity. 1923-1932 saw the publication of six books, five novels and a collection of stories. Some, A Lost Lady in 1923, parts of The Professor's House in 1925, and Obscure Destinies stories in 1932, looked back to Cather's own early experiences as much of her 1910s fiction did, but in the main new qualities were present--philosophical, historical, but above all meditative. Cather emerged as the leading American novelist of the 1920s, the person the likes of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway looked to and sought to supplant.
All of the books from this period of Cather's career have drawn considered critical attention, but three--A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, and Shadows on the Rock--relate especially to Cather herself and to her place in American letters. A Lost Lady, published in 1923, is something of tour de force example of the sort of fiction Cather called for in her well-known 1922 Modernist manifesto, "The Novel Démeublé." It is as sharply defined an "unfurnished" fiction as might be imagined (until Cather did herself one better with My Mortal Enemy in 1926), and its availability to Fitzgerald as he wrote The Great Gatsby is among the great instances of one novelist influencing another, almost immediately, in American letters. And what is more, A Lost Lady is nearly perfect structurally while shaping a clear feminist message. Cather moved from this novel, one borne of long memory of a lost lady Cather had known in Red Cloud as a girl to The Professor's House, an autobiographical tale of a fifty-two year old professor who had just won a major prize and, in personal crisis, was wondering how to continue to live. That is, much like Cather was herself then. Modernist that she was, Cather inserted "Tom Outland's Story," a story she had been working on intermittently since the mid-1910s and only completed in 1922, into the professor's story. It probes the meaning of Tom Outland's life; long dead in the Great War, valued by all the major characters, Tom and his story bring the Professor's to its crisis. Cather's conclusion, though often seen as bleak and dispiriting, cannot be gainsaid by any reader as an apt rendering of the human condition. Finally, after shift from caustic human decline with her professor and in My Mortal Enemy, Cather took up the past, but rather than a personal past she evokes a shared historical past in Death Comes for the Archibishop, where she tells the story of two French missionaries who brought the southwest into the United States after the Mexican War, one of whom built the cathedral at Santa Fe. She then takes up New France in the late seventeenth century in Shadows on the Rock. It recounts a father-daughter relation and so is something of a tribute to Charles Cather, who died in early 1928, just before Cather discovered Quebec and its history for the first time.
Shadows is also significant in that it was by far Cather's best-selling novel, a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and so the more widely read for that. In some ways, this popularity was a bane, since in the 1930s critics such as Granville Hicks and Lionel Trilling accused Cather of ignoring the economic and political crises of the era for a retreat into what Hicks called "supine romanticism because of a refusal to examine life as it is" (147). Without question, Cather's work was out of step with the sort of thing such critics as these called for, and her later response to such criticisms with Not Under Forty did nothing to change things. What such critiques do suggest though is Cather's standing in American letters at the time. She had accepted her first honorary degree from the University of Nebraska in 1917; there had been several other notable honors from that time on. In 1931 she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton; in 1929, Cather was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and later the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The latter awarded her its Howells Medal for Fiction for Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1930, and she received and the Prix Fémina Américain for Shadows on the Rock in 1933.
Apart from the recognition and appreciation such honors represent, they also suggest something of how Cather was seen as the 1930s move inexorably toward the Second World War. Whatever the quality of her fiction, to such critics as Hicks and Trilling, Cather was passé--part of their critique, certainly, had to do with the fact that Cather was a woman just as, equally, part of her response had to do with her political and racial attitudes. Their subjects and places were not hers, hers were not theirs. Their concerns were immediate, hers were historical. By the 1930s she was into her sixties, her close relatives and friends had died or were dying, her own health was uneven, the places and contexts which interested her were in the past.