Willa Cather and Material Culture: Real-World Writing, Writing, Writing the Real World.
Two central arguments emerge in Janis Stout's helpful introduction to this collection of essays. Stout asserts, first of all, that cultural historians have long privileged "words ... above material objects" and that material culture studies represent a useful corrective to this tendency (2). Second, Stout says that Willa Cather has been historically misread as someone for whom the material world was unimportant and that this misreading has led scholars to detach Cather from "her culture" (2). It is not clear what this book contributes to the first argument, since what constitutes materiality is not so much theorized as assumed in most of these essays. It is clear, however, that the book makes useful contributions to the second argument, enabling us to understand the range of contemporary cultural contexts in which we can place Cather. The book is particularly strong in its demonstration of Cather's relation to consumer and to folk or indigenous cultures.
In the essays on consumer culture, contributors tend to agree that Cather was both involved in and critical of consumer culture. As part of this discussion, Jennifer L. Bradley analyzes Cather's discomfort with the ideology of female "passivity and dependence" when she worked on the Home Monthly (41). Park Bucker, likewise, discusses the ways in which "Neighbour Rosicky," challenges the "materialistic" values of the Woman's Home Companion, in which it was first published, endorsing instead "a material culture based on ... traditional feminine arts" (68). In the same vein, Honor McKitrick Wallace analyzes the modern association of femininity and consumption, arguing that Cather's "oft-cited turning away from modernity [was] ... a rejection of the modern female consumer in favor of premodern ideals of femininity" (145). Michael Schueth traces out the ways in which Cather's disgust with Warner Brothers' 1934 adaptation of A Lost Lady shaped her late-career attempt to provide her audience with "a set of principles by which to judge her work" (123). Finally, Robert K. Miller reads My Mortal Enemy in relation to the contemporaneous theories of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss about "competitive gift giving" (189).
If the book's essays on consumer culture tend to read Cather in similar ways, the essays that focus on Cather's relation to folk or indigenous culture are marked by quite substantial disagreements. Two of the authors read Cather as respectfully analyzing and synthesizing the practices of folk or indigenous cultural traditions in her texts. Ann Romines links Cather's "aesthetic concerns" about the relation of the individual to the community in Sapphira and the Slave Girl to nineteenth- and twentieth-century women's "quilt culture" (34). Likewise, Deborah Lindsay Williams reads both The Song of the Lark and The Professor's House as demonstrating Cather's sense that "Native American women" are "the wellspring of an alternative aesthetic tradition in the United States" (158). By contrast, two other authors see a much more complex relation between Cather and indigeneous cultures. Anne Raine's wonderful essay on The Professor's House places the novel in the context of Cather's oeuvre about the Southwest and in the context of fin-de-siecle nature tourism and the "expulsion of Native Americans from the national parks so that those parks could be redefined as 'pure nature'" (138). Raine thus argues that the novel can be read, on the one hand, as continuous with Cather's attempt in Song of the Lark to remove Natives from "modernity and history," but on the other hand, and more convincingly, as "a difficult 'letting go with the heart' of the primitivist fantasies that had fueled her own imagination and that of a generation of nature tourists and modernist writers" (138,141). Finally, Sarah Wilson argues that Cather depicts the "the mobility" of objects in the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop in order to create an "alternative to both precipitate progress and nostalgic stasis" (183).
The tensions in this collection are usefully capped off by Mary Ann O'Farrell's provocative meditation at the end of the book. Stating that she does not want "to correct our course back yet again toward words instead of things," O'Farrell nonetheless insists that if Cather's work is embedded in the material world; in the act of creating that world, Cather exuberantly insists also upon the materiality of words (216). O'Farrell's conclusion questions the generally assumed notion of materiality prevalent in the book, but also suggests a new line of thought: If we want to talk about material culture as literary historians, we must begin to theorize the difference between reading an object as a text and reading a text about an object as a text.
Reviewed by Francesca Sawaya, University of Oklahoma
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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