Willa Cather

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Sharon O’Brien has said that her interest in Willa Cather was heightened by the curious fact that biographies she read “didn’t seem to treat [Cather] as a woman, but as a disembodied, genderless writer.” What puzzled O’Brien was how a woman “who so strongly identified with men in adolescence and college” could “create such strong, autonomous female characters in her fiction.” O’Brien’s self-professed aim in her biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, is to provide a solution to this mystery by answering two fundamental questions: “How did [Cather] manage to move from male to female identification” and “how did [Cather] become a creative artist?” The resulting study is the first biography to regard Cather, in O’Brien’s words, “not simply as a writer who happened to be female but as a woman writer, one whose apprenticeship was distinguished by her struggle to resolve culturally imposed contradictions between femininity and creativity.” Moreover, while Phyllis C. Robinson’s Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (1983) was the first biography that explicitly acknowledged Cather’s lesbianism, O’Brien’s study is the first to treat that subject in depth, in the context of Cather’s development as an artist.

Until now, biographers of Willa Cather have tended to concentrate on the American and regional influences on her life and work. E. K. Brown’s Willa Cather (completed in 1953 by Leon Edel) was written at the request of Edith Lewis expressly to illuminate Cather’s art rather than her private life. Although Robinson’s biography acknowledges Cather’s effectual “marriage” to Lewis, it too focuses primarily on Cather as an American regional writer. O’Brien has said that delving into Cather’s lesbianism was a difficult decision for her because Cather cloaked her life in a privacy she wished others to respect; yet in order fully to define Cather as a woman artist, O’Brien concluded that she had to violate that privacy.

O’Brien’s biography fixes the emergence of Cather’s voice at roughly the time her first major work was published. By age forty, Cather had come into her own—a process O’Brien chronicles in sections entitled “Backgrounds” (childhood and adolescence), “Apprenticeship” (the years of her college writings and first published stories), and “Emergence” (the years in which Cather wrote Alexander’s Bridge, 1912, and O Pioneers!, 1913). Structured chronologically and thematically, O’Brien’s study is a detailed analysis of biographical and literary documents that...

(The entire section is 1068 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, December 1, 1986, p. 543.

Library Journal. CXI, December, 1986, p. 113.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, December 14, 1986, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXIII, February 23, 1987, p. 136.

USA Today. February 6, 1987, p. 2D.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, February 8, 1987, p. 1.