Willa Carter led a doubly “literary” life. She sought, in typically realist fashion, to transform contemporary reality into lasting art, but unlike the realist writers with whom she is often and wrongly connected, the reality upon which she drew was more personal than public, and the special appeal and force of her essentially Romantic writing derive from this fact.
Cather tended to fictionalize life in another and, for the biographer, more challenging way, however, in that when relating her own life to interviewers and interested scholars, she often omitted certain aspects and falsified others. Indeed, prompted by her growing “desire to preserve the inviolability of the self"--her own self as well as that of each of her literary protagonists--Cather either destroyed or had others destroy much of her personal correspondence and in her will prohibited quoting from all surviving letters, further complicating the biographer’s task.
Woodress overcomes these formidable obstacles but proves less successful in meeting two other challenges. In his discussions of individual works, he tends to substitute lengthy summary for trenchant analysis, to succumb to the biographical fallacy of making one-to-one correspondences between a fictive situation or character and a real-life event or person, and finally to be indiscriminate in his praise of virtually everything Cather wrote. More important, while certainly aware of recent feminist criticism of Cather’s literary life, including claims that she was a lesbian, he manages only to deny what the feminist critics claim without bothering either to refute those claims or to pursue them more fully. In the final analysis, WILLA CATHER: A LITERARY LIFE is not only exhaustive and generous but rather innocent as well, yet it is this same innocence that makes this book, as well as its subject, so appealing.