Friday, December 7, 2012

Happy birthday, Willa Cather

Willa Cather
It is the birthday of writer Willa Cather (1873), who may be best known for her Prairie Trilogy — O Pioneers (1912), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918), her stories of ordinary people of the Midwestern plains. Critics such as H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis praised them, and readers loved them. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1923 for One of Ours (1922),  the tale of a young man from a Midwestern farm who seeks purpose on the battlefield in France during World War I.

One of Ours didn't fare as well as her earlier books. Former supporters were particularly critical. Mencken said it read like a Hollywood movie, and he didn't mean it as a compliment. Wrote Mencken: "… the second half was dreadful stuff indeed. It was so bad, in fact, that it won … the Pulitzer Prize of 1923." Sinclair Lewis was unconvinced by her depiction of soldiers, saying they seemed like violinists in disguise. The most scathing criticism may have come from Ernest Hemingway, who said the source for Cather's battle scenes clearly was D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation.

The beginning of Cather's career had been promising. After teaching, working on a women's magazine, and a newspaper in Pittsburgh, Cather joined the staff of McClure's Magazine in New York in 1906, where she wrote short stories and biographical profiles. McClure's published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), in serialized form. It is the story of a world-renowned bridge builder whose mid-life crisis leads him to reevaluate his marriage as he reconnects with a former lover. It received generally good reviews. The Atlantic magazine called her writing deft and skillful.

By the 1930s, however, Cather's conservative outlook and Midwestern values seemed to be out of step with prevailing liberal attitudes. Critics such as Granville Hicks and Edmund Wilson savaged her work. Scholars say she became reclusive, retreating to her cottage in New Brunswick, Canada. She burned early drafts, letters, and personal papers, and restricted the use of those that remained.

Today Willa Cather is considered to be one of the leading writers of American literary Modernism. Scholars continue to study her life and contribution to literature, particularly her skill at creating a personal intimacy between writer and reader.

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