Greatest Novelists of the 20th century
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
(Knopf, 752 pages, $37.50)
Willa Cather’s literary reputation is even now, nearly 70 years after her death, less than clear. In her day—born in 1873, she published her main novels and books of stories between 1912 and 1940—she was regarded as insufficiently modernist, both in method and in outlook. She was later found to be a poor fit for academic feminism, for she wrote about the great dignity of female strength and resignation in the face of the harshest conditions. Advocates of gay literature who inhabit universities under the banner of Queer Theory have attempted to adopt her, taking her for a lesbian—she never married and had no serious romantic relationships with men—but her lesbianism remains suppositious at best. The powerful critics of her day and of ours have never lined up behind her. All she has had is readers who adore her novels and stories.
I am among them, and if pressed I should say that Willa Cather was the best novelist of the 20th century. Not all of her novels were successful: One of Ours, Lucy Gayheart, Sapphira and the Slave Girl don’t really come off. But those that do—O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923) The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931)—do so with a grace and grandeur that show a mastery of the highest power.
Willa Cather’s great subject was immigration to America, chiefly among northern Europeans, their endurance in the face of nature’s pitiless hardships, and what she calls “the gorgeous drama with God.” Her prose was confidently cadenced and classically pure, never—like that of Hemingway or Faulkner—calling attention to itself, but instead devoted to illuminating her characters and their landscapes. (No one described landscape more beautifully than she.) Snobbery, egotism, politics never marred her storytelling. She wrote with a fine eye for the particular without ever losing sight of the larger scheme of the game of life.