Cather Among the Moderns
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Willa Cather is often pegged as a regionalist, a feminine and domestic writer, or a social realist. In Cather Among the Moderns, Janis P. Stout firmly situates Cather as a visionary practitioner of literary modernism, something other scholars have hinted at but rarely affirmed. Stout presents Cather on a large, dramatic stage among a sizable cast of characters and against a brightly lit social and historical backdrop, invoking numerous figures and instances from the broad movement in the arts and culture that we call modernism.
Early on, Stout addresses the matter of gender. The term “cross-dresser” has often been applied to Cather, but Stout sees Cather’s identity as fractured or ambiguous, a reading that links her firmly to early twentieth-century modernity. Later chapters take up topics of significance both to Cather and to twentieth-century American modernists, including shifting gender roles, World War I’s devastation of social and artistic norms, and strains in racial relations. She explores Cather’s links to a small group of modernists who, after the war, embraced life in New Mexico, a destination of choice for many artists, and which led to two of Cather’s most fully realized modernist novels, The Professor’s House and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The last chapter addresses Cather’s place within modernism. Stout first places her in relation to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot with their shared ties to tradition even while making, sometimes startling, innovations in literary form, then showing parallels with William Faulkner with respect to economic disparity and social injustice.