Willa Cather: The Grande Dame of American Letters

My inaugural post is a tribute to my favorite American writer, Willa Cather.  To me, she is the Grande Dame of American letters, highly underrated and much-ignored.  We scarcely find her works read or discussed in academia, her novels have still not claimed her rightful place in the academic canon.  Why not?  She is incredibly intelligent, and, like Tolstoy, very sympathetic, warm, and caring for her characters.  There are some writers in whom the reader can immediately sense an element of misanthropy; this is not the case with Cather, who takes a tender view of the individuals who populate her books.  She knows all the great classics of the Western canon, is highly literary (just look at the numerous cultural references throughout The Song of the Lark), and very cultured.  Despite all her knowledge of European high culture, her writings reflect a uniquely American sensibility, for Cather is careful to distinguish between the Old World and the New, and is able to recognize what the latter can offer—-the strength of America’s people, who are all virtually immigrants.  Her aesthetic eye is strong; she has a keen sense of beauty, an appreciation of the finer things in life.  There is always a tension in Cather’s lead characters, because they seem to embody the Oscar Wilde quote that “All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”; they are aspiring to something better than what their circumstances can provide.  Cather’s writings frequently use an omniscient narrator, one who is worldly, gracious, and wise.  Like Tolstoy, she is a social critic, for she sees the follies of humanity, the petty sides of human nature, but yet tries to find something beautiful in human nature that is beyond that, something bigger in life.  There is always a touch of humor in her works.  Cather is like a wise, old, kindly aunt, who, after years of experience, is gently recounting her tales for you.  Or, perhaps, she is more like a seasoned, old professor whose vast erudition keeps the listener spellbound at her feet for hours.  Her compassion, wisdom, culture, humanity—-these are the qualities that make Cather such a joy to read.

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