(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 36)

Willa Cather: Double Lives is an extraordinarily rich work, weaving together biographical material and close readings of Cather’s fiction to illuminate the major themes and literary techniques of this important twentieth century American novelist. Like her subject, Hermione Lee conveys complex ideas with clarity and subtlety; her own prose style is one of the delights of the book. Lee also brings to her study the same kind of broad cultural background that Cather drew upon in her fiction, moving comfortably through discussions of classical literature, Wagnerian operas, and early American history.

Lee’s study is grounded on the premise that “Cather’s work gets its energies from contraries,” from the tensions between Romanticism and realism, Europe and America, the natural and the artificial, the individual and the group. These tensions are revealed in many different ways: in direct plot conflicts, in characters who are themselves split or who serve as doubles for others, in landscape and imagery, in subtle variations of language.

Many of these tensions, Lee suggests, developed out of Cather’s early experiences. She devotes much of the first quarter of her study to the author’s childhood and adolescence in Nebraska and to the period in her twenties and thirties when Cather worked as a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York. Lee points out that the struggle of the young artist to escape the pressures of provincial life is a recurrent theme in Cather’s work. Although Lee takes issue with contemporary critics who read Cather’s work as “an encoding of covert, even guilty, sexuality,” she finds Cather’s attraction to women and her questions about the nature of womanhood another strong source of conflict throughout her career. Lee also suggests that Cather’s ambivalent feelings about her mother underlie a number of her female characters, the “lost ladies” who entrance but disillusion their younger admirers. These characters also owe something to Isabelle McClung, Cather’s closest friend during her years in Pittsburgh.

Cather’s path to artistic success was not an easy one; she was in her early thirties before she published her first volume of short stories and almost forty when she completed 0 Pioneers! (1913), her first major success. Lee’s discussion of her life suggests that there were few, if any, periods of unalloyed pleasure in Cather’s mature years. Her greatest satisfaction seems to have come from her trips to the Southwest, whose Indian ruins gave her a vision of a society in which art and life were unified. This region forms the backdrop for her most affirmative novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather’s trips to France in 1902 and in later years were also significant in a more ambivalent way, arousing her recognition of the marvels of European culture, but also underlining the destructive effects of World War I.

Lee incorporates biographical material, but the heart of her study is in her thoughtful, detailed discussions of Cather’s novels and major short works. She treats these works chronologically, providing enough plot summary to make her comments understandable for readers who are not familiar with them, then exploring in detail theme, characterization, language, and imagery.

Cather’s earliest published works—the short-story collection entitled The Troll Garden (1905) and her 1912 novel, Alexander’s Bridge—show her preoccupation with the struggle of an artist to survive in a hostile environment, a theme carried out, Lee notes, in “powerful images … of a landscape which crushes and resists attempts to shape or transform it.” The struggling artist-protagonist of Alexander’s Bridge is destroyed by the conflict between freedom and conventionality.

The Song of the Lark (1915) provides a more positive treatment of the same theme. Cather used details of her own childhood in describing the youth of her heroine, Thea Kronberg, who, like her creator, felt trapped by her Midwestern environment. Thea transcends the limitations of past and gender to become a great Wagnerian soprano. Lee finds Cather’s symbolic use of landscape particularly effective here. In Panther Canyon, Arizona, a distinctively female place filled with caves and fissures, Thea discovers a culture in which there is not division for women between art and life. Thea’s voice is her equivalent of the ancient Indian women’s beautiful, functional pottery; like them, she “can make shapes in which to catch life.”

O Pioneers! and My Antonia (1918), the works written immediately before and after The Song of the Lark, are placed by Lee in the tradition of the classical pastoral, the centuries-old literary form that rests on artful simplicity in its search for a golden age in rural life. In each novel, Cather portrays a strong female figure: the almost mythic Alexandra Bergson, who successfully manages her family farm in O Pioneers!, and the warm, resilient immigrant girl, Antonia Shimerda of My Antonia.

While each work is on one level positive and affirmative, Lee finds in both an underlying melancholy....

(The entire section is 2120 words.)