Willa Cather and the Arts

Cather Studies presents new work about Willa Cather’s diverse writings (fiction, journalism, correspondence). Essays focus on her interesting relationships with other writers, the textual history of her works, as well as the cultural aesthetic and social contexts to her oeuvre. Appearing biennially, Cather Studies is the major forum for scholarship on this key American writer.

The newest installment in this series Cather Studies 12: Willa Cather and the Arts edited by Guy J. Reynolds contains essays that reassess Cather’s lifelong encounter with, and interpretation and reimagining of, the arts.

From the introduction by Guy J. Reynolds: 

The essays in this volume reach back to that early stage of Cather criticism and demonstrate the continuities across Cather’s life and career, showing that she repeatedly engaged with (entered into dialogue with; reimagined) multiple forms of art. Here is a Cather fascinated by opera and theater, a Cather deeply immersed in the new centers of cultural production that late nineteenth-century America had developed (notably Pittsburgh, where she launched her career as a journalist in the 1890s). This is a Cather fascinated by art and by the arts: performance is central, but also the domestic arts of cooking or craft production, not to mention the narrative arts that had led writers, including Cather, to imagine how African American speech might be represented in prose. “The arts” as they are understood by this volume’s writers, are broad, diverse, and bracingly nonhierarchical. Opera and fine art play their part, but so do the practices of homemaking and what Ann Romines called, in an essay we can now see as one of the first explorations of this wide cultural praxis, “domestic ritual.”

9781496217646-Perfect.inddTwo developments in Cather scholarship underwrite this volume. First: new forms of contextualization. Literary historians increasingly see Cather as a pivotal or transitional figure working between and across very different cultural periods. Her career, extraordinarily long as it was, began in the early 1890s, only to conclude in the early 1940s. Through five decades of what we might call “cultural encountering,” Cather responded to, and entered into dialogue with, shifts in the terrain of American life. An earlier volume in this series, Cather Studies 10: Willa Cather and the Nineteenth Century, traced her engagements with (rereadings of; revisions of) earlier writers and artists such as Sarah Orne Jewett and historical events such as the Civil War. The previous volume of Cather Studies was dedicated to her imaginative meetings with “Modern Cultures” and situated Cather in dialogue with modernism. Thus a doubled Cather (friend of Sarah Orne Jewett, but also the author whose narrative shaping of A Lost Lady influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own experiments in unreliable narration) is very much this volume’s presiding authorial figure.

A second major and recent development in Cather scholarship is the publication of her correspondence. The 2013 publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, marked a turning point in scholarship about the life and work. Cather’s will forbade the publication of those letters, which led scholars over many decades to paraphrase them rather than quoting verbatim: a significant lacuna has always sat at the heart of the scholarship due to this legal proviso. Following the decision by the Willa Cather Literary Trust to permit the publication of her correspondence, Jewell and Stout’s volume (to be followed by more extensive digital work on those letters) creates a further context in which to understand Cather’s sense of artistic production. Moving between the fiction, Cather’s journalism, and the correspondence, scholars have begun to map the continuities and interconnections between her writing in all its forms. What emerges is a life that was deeply embedded—devoted, in fact, to myriad forms of art and culture. Opera connoisseur, amateur art critic, actress, theater reviewer: Cather was a multifaceted cultural critic, and perhaps one of the first examples of such a figure to emerge in the United States.

For more books in this series, please visit the series page.

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