Tuesday, August 22, 2017
August 22, 2017: Famous Virginians: Willa Cather
[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
On why it mattered when the famous author finally returned to Virginia.
Willa Cather was born and spent her first nine years of life near Winchester, Virginia, but she is far better known for writing about two other American settings. The family moved to Nebraska in 1883 (when she was nine), and the books that launched her literary career a few decades later were her second through fourth published novels, the Nebraska trilogy of O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). As far as I can tell she never lived for any length of time in the American Southwest, but she nonetheless wrote, in The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), two of the most prominent and important novels in English about that complex and compelling region. While Cather wrote seven other novels (including One of Ours, a Pulitzer-winning story of World War I), those five remain her most famous and frequently read, and so Cather has become closely and justifiably tied to the literary and communal histories of both the Nebraska plain and the Southwestern canyons.
There are of course numerous reasons why an author might hesitate to write about her childhood home, but one factor in Cather’s unwillingness to write about Virginia for almost her entire career might have been a reticence—or even perhaps an inability—to write about African Americans. In My Ántonia, for example—a novel that deals with nuance and grace with the ethnic heritages and communities of a number of immigrant character and families—we find Blind d’Arnault, an African American (or rather mulatto) pianist whom Cather describes in baldly stereotypical and even animalistic terms. Yet in what would be her last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather both returned finally to the setting of her childhood and linked that setting entirely to race: the body of the novel is set in antebellum Virginia and features the story of a mulatto enslaved woman (Nancy) who eventually escapes her jealous mistress (Sapphira) on the Underground Railroad to Canada; and the epilogue, set twenty-five years later in the postbellum South of Cather’s childhood, reveals the novel’s narrator to be a stand-in for Cather herself, who has (per the novel at least) heard stories of this slave and her escape throughout her young life.
I don’t want to overstate the cultural importance of Cather’s 1940 historical novel. This was the same year, after all, that saw the publication of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel that illustrates how far beyond the plantation tradition (in which Cather’s novel at least partly, if certainly uneasily, sits) African American and American literature had gone by this time. Yet at the same time, 1940 America (or at least its popular culture) was dominated by the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind, just as the prior few years had been dominated by Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Mitchell famously wrote to another Southern novelist, Thomas W. Dixon, that she was “practically raised on” his trilogy of racist historical novels, and she very much continued that particular Southern tradition in Gone. So it seems to me to be no small thing that when Willa Cather finally wrote a novel about her native Southern state, in the same era so influenced by Mitchell’s story, she chose to create a Southern slaveowning female protagonist who is far less attractive (in every sense) than Scarlett O’Hara, and again whom a young female slave wins an important and heroic victory.
Next Virginian tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?