Willa Cather

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Willa Cather American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cather is a rarity among writers: a woman who has managed to escape classification as a “woman writer.” As a novelist, she is closely identified with a particular region but has nevertheless avoided the label “regional writer.” It is the depth and universality of the themes that run through her work that have allowed Cather to transcend such limiting definitions of her voice as a writer, permitting its individuality to achieve full critical recognition.

Central to much of her work is Cather’s fascination with the men and women who struggled to build lives for themselves and their families in the sometimes hostile environment of the American frontier. As the daughter of a farmer and, briefly, a homesteader, Cather was intimately acquainted with the conditions faced by the pioneers, many of them immigrants adjusting to new lives far from their native lands and the level of courage, endurance, patience, and strength that was demanded of them in their efforts to tame the frontier. In books such as O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Cather creates vivid fictional portraits of the individuals who peopled the world of her Nebraska childhood. Her sensitivity to the problems faced by the immigrant homesteaders is especially acute, and her admiration for their ability to outlast the difficulties awaiting them in their new land is boundless.

In Cather’s world, the pioneer experience draws on the depths of an individual’s character. Cather’s particular talent lies in her ability to translate this experience into universal terms, turning a pioneer woman’s simple life into a glowing tribute to the human spirit. Cather sees in her characters—as she did in the figures surrounding her in her youth—people whose individual stories of courage and endurance form a heroic pattern that changed the face of a nation.

Cather also recognizes, certainly to some extent from personal experience, that a life tilling the soil can be restrictive and unfulfilling for anyone whose aspirations lie beyond the horizons of the Midwest’s farms and small towns. Claude Wheeler, the central character in One of Ours, is ill-suited to the life of a farmer and finds his escape in the battlefields of France. Jim Burden, the narrator of My Ántonia, is impatient to leave his small community for the larger world.

Cather also deals in her work with the passing of the frontier spirit as larger communities draw an influx of people to the region. There is a strong nostalgia for times past in many of her novels and an increasing dislike of modern society and modern ways that sometimes drew critical fire later in her career. In A Lost Lady, the charming Marian Forrester—a gracious, aristocratic presence in the small town of Sweet Water—gradually enters a decline that leads her to an affair with her husband’s friend and an association with the town’s unscrupulous lawyer. The book is sympathetic in its portrait of Marian, who represents the fading past, and harsh in its portrayal of Ivy Peters, the attorney whose ways represent a break with traditions such as honor and respect.

Hand in hand with Cather’s reverence for the pioneer spirit is her admiration for individuality. One of the recurring themes in her work is that of the individual whose dreams and ambitions place him or her at odds with society. The choices a person makes, and the repercussions those choices have, is the theme of both The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House. In the former, a singer sacrifices everything for her career, leaving behind her midwestern home and family and relegating her social life to secondary status in order to pursue her dream. When she has achieved her goals, she is able to look back, clear-eyed, on the decisions she has made along the way and accept that they were necessary in obtaining her goal. For Cather, this was a highly personal subject, and the novel’s story line has many similarities to her own life.

The Professor’s House examines the life of a man who has...

(The entire section is 3,889 words.)