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ON MY ANTONIA
Few American novels are likely to be read longer than My Antonia. In it, theme, character, myth, and incident ride together comfortably on a clear, supple prose style. It is probably Willa Cather's greatest work. Everything went right- a splendid concept executed with perfect taste and mastery. Willa Cather combines the yea-saying vision of Whitman with a disciplined artistry learned from James, Flaubert, Sarah Orne Jewett, and others, and the novel goes considerably beyond either of its immediate predecessors.... The wonder of it all is that the novel, so rich in suggestiveness, is so artfully simple....
Emerson to Whitman to Willa Cather: The line in American literature is direct and clear. Although her methods were modern and her subjects the immigrant farmers of Nebraska, she belongs to the tradition of American romanticism.
James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, 1970
ON CATHER'S WORK
Where to place Willa Cather will always puzzle the literary historians. But the reader of her best novels is not likely to worry about that. These novels have a strength and an individuality that it is not easy for the critic formally to describe, virtues which can be experienced even if they cannot easily be talked about. Her position among American novelists is unique; no other has brought to bear quite her kind of perception on the American scene.... [Her work] transcends national problems to illuminate one of the great questions about civilization. To put the matter briefly, Miss Cather's novels are civilized; and if we interpret that term too narrowly, that is because we have not read Willa Cather carefully enough.
-David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, 1951
It is customary to speak of Willa Cather as an "elegist" of the American pioneer tradition. "Elegy" suggests celebration and lament for a lost and irrevocable past; but the boldest and most beautiful of Willa Cather's fictions are characterized by a sense of the past not as an irrevocable quality of events, wasted in history, but as persistent human truth repossessed- salvaged, redeemed- by virtue of memory and art.
Her art is a singular one. The prose style is suave, candid, transparent, a style shaped and sophisticated in the great European tradition; her teachers were Homer and Virgil, Tolstoy and Flaubert. But the creative vision that is peculiarly hers is deeply primitive, psychologically archaic in an exact sense. In that primitivism was her great strength, for it allowed the back door of her mind to keep open, as it were, to the rumor and movement of ancestral powers and instinctive agencies.
Dorothy Van Ghent, Willa Cather, 1964
All of what Willa Cather wrote, it seems to me, is ultimately a metaphor of the conflict which Miguel de Unamuno referred to as an "inward tragedy," the conflict "between what the world is as scientific reason shows it to be, and what we wish it might be, as our religious faith affirms it to be." For Willa Cather, this conflict was most broadly expressed in terms of the world she knew in her childhood- the pioneer era which she clearly idealized and ennobled in her fictional recreation of it- and the post-World War I wasteland she so thoroughly repudiated. It is easy to lose sight of the essentially symbolic nature of this conflict and to read it too narrowly in terms of literal past versus literal present. Her theme was not the superiority of the past over the present, but, as Henry Steele Commager observed, "the supremacy of moral and spiritual over material values, the ever recurrent but inexhaustible theme of gaining the whole world and losing one's soul." Rather than being irrelevant to the modern world, the moral thrust of Willa Cather's art, her concern with pioneers and artists as symbolic figures representing the unending human quest for beauty and truth, places her among the number, not of the backward-looking (which she saw herself as being one of), but of the true spiritual pioneers of all ages in whose lives or work other men continue to find inspiration.
Dorothy Tuck McFarland, Willa Cather, 1972
...She thought the traditional themes of love and despair, truth and beauty, the struggle for artistic honesty, far from exhausted; indeed she held, with Henry James and Ellen Glasgow, that these were the only themes capable of inspiring great art. "Ideals," she wrote, "were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men," and unlike so many of her contemporaries- Hemingway, for example- she was not embarrassed by this vocabulary. Sarah Orne Jewett had admonished her, when she was scarcely more than a girl, that "you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength... is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation, sentiment falls to sentimentality- you can write about life but never write life itself."... [She] wrote life itself, wrote it so passionately that the characters she created seem to us more authentic than the characters of history.
Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind, 1950
ON WILLA CATHER
It is time to remove some of the pink and blue from our image of the apple-cheeked and prairie-blue- eyed Willa Cather. This writer we think of as Middle Westerner spent most of her life in the East. She chose to be a New Yorker. She was the hard-driving editor of a successful magazine and didn't start writing fiction full time until she was 40. Her literary ties were to Europe. The girl next door of American letters hated small-town America, rejected heterosexuality, and distrusted the family as the enemy of art. It is time to establish Willa Cather's complexity and her stature as a writer.
Phyllis Rose, "The Point of View Was Masculine," The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983
We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts