Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism Summary

Joan Ross

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

After providing a brief biography of Cather, Joan Acocella demonstrates how literary critics’ political agendas have shaped their response to her fiction in Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. In the 1920’s Cather’s critics were misogynists; in the 1930’s Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway attacked her for not being sufficiently “realistic” and leftist; the New Critics of the 1950’s and 1960’s dismissed her work as not being sufficiently ambiguous and obscure; and from 1970 on, feminist critics, intent on establishing her in the American literary canon, have attempted to explain away the “problem” of her “unfeminist” literary debts, life, and protagonists.

Many of Cather’s protagonists are male; Cather was much closer to her father than to her mother, and her closest friends were men; and she criticized Kate Chopin and acknowledged her literary debts to Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James. Moreover, the feminists were uncomfortable with Cather’s male characters’ scathing comments about women. Since males frequently narrate the novels, some feminist critics used the unreliable-narrator theory to show that these comments are really meant to be ironic, thereby preserving Cather as a feminist. When this approach failed to convince all feminists, something else was needed to account for Cather’s unfeminist values and simultaneously to show her in conflict with those values. Using some biographical information, feminist critics hailed Cather as a lesbian and found in the “gaps” and “fissures” in her work what was missing, her lesbianism. Acocella proceeds to contradict many of the feminists’ claims and looks critically at the convoluted arguments for Cather’s lesbianism. She concludes that in the political debate Cather’s literary merits and her themes have largely been ignored.