Resources for American Literary StudyOn the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather.  [David Porter].  Resources for American  Literary Study. Vol. 33 (2010). [PDF]


[EXCERPT] Willa Cather (1873-1947) was a consummate artist devoted to the truth; she was at the same time a fierce promoter of her own work. This is the particular divide in Willa Cather that David Porter explores in his study On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Numerous biographers have grappled with the complex personality of this great author. Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (1987) looks specifically into Cather’s early years and her developing artistry, gender, and sexuality; Hermione Lee’s Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up (1989) looks also at the disjointed quality of Cather’s life, work, and sexuality; and Janis Stout’s Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World (2000) explores Cather’s Southern inheritance and the uncertainty with which Cather faced a modem world. Porter offers new insight into the human being that was Willa Cather by first discussing four autobiographical vignettes and the dust­ jacket copy used for promoting several of her early works, promotional materials we now know Cather had a hand in writing-if she was not wholly responsible for them.

Although Cather is well known for her penchant for exaggeration and, at times, outright lying when it came to the details of her biography, Porter makes clear that his point is “not to impugn her as a liar.” Even so, the opening section is rife with accounts of the lies we know Cather made: she (quite famously) altered her birth date from 1873 to 1876; “Her claim that she graduated from the University of Nebraska at age nineteen is not true”; “she exaggerates the length of time she lived on the prairie”; “She also implies … that she had no schooling prior to attending high school”; it is “also not true that after finishing university she ‘immediately went to Pittsburgh”‘; and she did not, as she claimed, “become head of English at Allegheny High School” after leaving her position at the Leader (14-15). The list of “facts fudged,” as Porter so kindly puts it, goes on. And yet is clear that Cather did seem honestly to depict the emotions and plots behind her novels. When this focus on honesty is added to the numerous not-so-honest moments in Cather’s (auto)biography, Porter’s central argument that there were two Willa Cathers-the writer and the promoter-begins to take a solid form. As he notes, “[W]hen an author who in both her essays and her fiction puts such store on truthfulness herself crafts advertising copy that is false, the issue becomes more complicated” (58).



“For the Love of Women: Willa Cather, Homosexuality and Trauma,” Presented at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2009 [program]


[EXCERPT]  Willa Cather never married.  We know she had opportunities; at least two marriage proposals were offered her and shunned.  That is not to say, however, that she did not have intimate relationships.  It would seem apparent to anyone looking closely that Willa Cather had at least three serious love affairs in her life.  That these three were with women has been the topic of much discussion and debate.  For scholars, the argument has been a polarizing one.  On one side, critics argue that Cather forwent the traditional man-woman union because she was a lesbian.  On the other, critics argue (sometimes vehemently) that Cather was asexual or too committed to her work to enter into a union which she so clearly disdained.

It was in Pittsburg that Willa Cather received two marriage proposals: one from a young doctor of whom Dorothy Canfield approved and another from the English teacher, Preston Farrar.  Woodress notes, “After deciding not to marry Preston Farrar in 1898, Cather never had any close relationships with men whose friendships could or were likely to lead to matrimony” (141).  Some scholars have agued that Cather’s lack of interest in marriage and, seemingly, in men at all, are indications of her sexual orientation.  However, it is clear that “Women with a history of sexual abuse are said to experience a set of intensely ambivalent feelings (e.g. disillusionment, mistrust, idealization, devaluation and hostility) about men in general (Briere, 1996), and compared to nonabused women, survivors may experience less satisfaction in platonic interactions with males (Edwards & Alexander, 1992)” (DiLillo 562).  It is entirely possible that Cather chose women as her friends and companions not for reasons of sexual orientation, but simply because she felt more comfortable with women.  Additionally, there are generally two patterns of sexual functioning that emerge out of a history of trauma:  “one suggesting that CSA is related to a variety of high-risk sexual activities….The second trend across studies [is] a strong association between early sexual victimization and behavior indications of diminished sexual satisfaction” (DeLillo 565).

This is not to say that Willa Cather was not a lesbian. However, it would appear that many of the indicators typically used to support the claim that she was can also be used to support the claim that she had been sexually traumatized.  When added to the other indicators in her life and fiction, the case for sexual trauma appears just as cohesive and all-encompassing as the case for homosexuality.


Violence, the Arts and Willa Cather ‘At the Center of her Mystery’: Willa Cather and Sexual Trauma.  Violence, the Arts, and Willa Cather, edited by Joseph R. Urgo and Merrill Maguire Skaggs, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007, pp. 137-148. [PDF]

To speak is impossible, to not speak is impossible.  —Schreiber Weitz, Holocaust Survivor

She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming. She wished she could waken up and see what was going on.

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark


[EXCERPT] Willa Cather’s reputation for secrecy and desire for privacy is well known. The clause in her will forbidding the publication of her letters, the ritual burning of all letters she and Edith Lewis could lay hands on, and the destruction of unfinished manuscripts could be seen as the work of an intensely private person, a reclusive individual. However, many who have traveled the path of extant correspondence and literature have discovered her more willing to talk than appearances let on; and those willing to accept the possibility of another force behind Cather’s actions may discover a Cather actually seeking a venue for disclosure of events so personal the writer herself may have been unaware of their impact. L. Brent Bohlke writes in his preface to Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches and Letters that Cather “gave speeches quite frequently; during the twenties she seemed almost compelled to do so” (xiv). Indeed, there does appear to be a compulsion behind much of Cather’s work at this time and in none more so than in The Song of the Lark where the sheer volume of words indicates her inability to stop, or as Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant recalls, “to keep pace with it; it went so fast” (128). In fact, the most telling section of the novel, “Friends of Childhood,” was “begun and almost finished in Pittsburgh in 1915” (135) according to Sergeant; and Cather had “deeply—by her own account—identified with her character, who had many of her traits and had undergone many of her own experiences” (137). These early experiences are the subject of Sharon O’Brien’s biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, which traces Cather’s early years and her journey toward becoming a woman and a writer. While O’Brien’s biography goes a long way toward answering the questions to which Cather seemed reluctant to leave clues, it misses the potential for a different reading on the clues Cather did leave behind. Perhaps short-sightedly, it accepts criticism Cather resented in the 1930’s as her reason to destroy her letters and manuscripts. O’Brien argues that Cather’s retraction and destruction of her correspondence is her attempt “to control interpretations of her life and her fiction in the only way that seemed certain—by reducing or eliminating the evidence on which interpretation could be based” (3). Rather than pushing for other reasons Cather wished to control interpretations of her life, O’Brien focuses on Cather’s denial of her womanhood. I believe there is another, better reason which explains Cather’s choices, as well as the attitudes she would hold for the rest of her life.

If we accept Candace Lang’s pronouncement that “[a]utobiography is indeed everywhere one cares to find it,” (qtd. in Anderson 1) then we must also accept that “if the writer is always, in the broadest sense, implicated in the work, any writing may be judged to be autobiographical, depending on how one reads it.”1 In Cather, childhood memories of The Song of the Lark, stories built upon real characters from her life as in My Ántonia, or the very presence of her name as final signature of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, reveals the author implicated in her work. This repeated imposition of the self into her works of fiction can be seen as a desire for the subjectivity of autobiography which Mary Jean Corbett argues “resituates the writer in his work, thus mitigating the dangers of the anonymity and the alienation of modern authorship” (Anderson 7). In this way, the presence of actual events from Cather’s childhood, characters based on real persons in her life, and her name “inscribe the text as belonging to [Cather], who becomes ‘knowable’ to [her] readers and inseparable from [the] text as a function of that self-representation.”2 Yet for all that, Cather worked hard to destroy any shred of evidence which would allow us to “know” her. What would compel Cather to continually implicate herself in her fiction? What would also cause her to disguise what is clearly autobiography as fiction? One possibility is that she was seeking closure and healing from events which may have been, to use a problematic Freudian term, repressed childhood memories too painful to acknowledge. Obviously, the idea of trauma in Cather’s childhood is not new. Numerous scholars have identified her move from Virginia to Nebraska as the central trauma of her childhood. In addition, the account of a child’s threat to cut off her hand (Lewis 10) has frequently been acknowledged as the cause of Cather’s consistent return to images of mutilation in her work—especially mutilation of the hands. The opening pages of The Song of the Lark, however, provide the beginnings of the possibility of a different reading of Cather, one that finds new reasons for images of mutilation in her work and a more specific explanation of why the move to Nebraska did in fact change her life.


International Cather Seminar 2007“why don’t you ever hit back?: Impotence and Power in Cather’s Short Fiction,” Presented at the International Cather Seminar, Provence, France, 2007


“I’m afraid ‘t was all because they had the wrong doctor.”

“The Joy of Nelly Deane”


[EXCERPT] The prevalence of medical professionals in Willa Cather’s writing is overwhelming; virtually no novel or short story is missing an actual physician character or a direly ill character desperately in need of one. Yet, there has been little discussion on what Nadeane Trowse calls this “use of disease tropes” in her article titled “Willa Cather’s Condition: Disease, Doctors, and Diagnoses as Social Action” in which she argues that Cather’s “antimedico-scientific bias is connected with the medico-scientific establishment’s naming of lesbianism as disease or dysfunction.”2 Trowse argues that Cather was responding to the late nineteenth century inclusion of lesbianism into the “canon of medically named diseases” and uses illustrations of Cather’s proclivity to characterize the doctors in her novels as unable to be of any good use as evidence of Cather’s “defiance” against the medical community. When placed next to Cather’s “presentation of heterosexual ‘love’ as diseased, disturbing, and frequently fatal,”3 Trowse concludes “[i]f Cather’s obsessing and inspiring burden [of writing the “thing not named”] is the stigmatizing, medico-scientific naming of lesbianism as disease, then unnaming must be her action in response.”

While Trowse states her aim to be the teasing out and weaving together of the “disparate threads” of Cather’s life and work to counter critics’ attitudes that Cather was ambivalent and inconsistent in her approach to her work, she misses the potential for another possible weaving which could eradicate all semblance of ambivalence and inconsistency. When taken together, Cather’s disdainful portrayal of the medical profession and her own real-life response to illness point not to a burden of unnaming the medicalization of lesbianism (an identity she never claimed); rather, real life and art came together for Cather time and again in a way which could point to an early childhood sexual trauma.

While Trowse’s article deals primarily with Cather’s portrayal of medical practitioners, patients and heterosexual love, Sharon O’Brien’s article, “Willa Cather in the country of the ill,” focuses on the role of illness in Cather’s life. O’Brien argues that Cather’s “felt experience of illness (in Arthur Frank’s definition) was marked by shame and stigma”5 and, after breaking down a chronological listing of Cather’s illnesses from 1914 onward, concludes that “further exploration of both her experience and representation of illness would be useful”(154). Indeed, O’Brien states: “Looking back through the Akins collection [of Cather’s letters] and Cather’s life-long experiences of disease and illness, I find it impossible to separate out the ‘physical’ and ‘mental’” (152). This could be because many of Cather’s physical illnesses were either somatic expressions of trauma or were exacerbated by Cather’s emotional response to illness which, as O’Brien argues, was typically depression. While Trowse’s belief that the threads of Cather’s life and work, when woven together, form a consistent picture is correct, her argument does not take into account the very real reaction Cather had to illness (which O’Brien brings to light) and neglects to explore the connection between Cather’s portrayal of the medical profession and her attitudes toward her own illnesses.

Setting aside the numerous doctors in Cather’s novels which have been explored in Trowse’s article, this article will focus on Cather’s portrayal of doctors in her short stories published between 1893 and 1912 and will illustrate that Cather’s consistent portrayal of the medical profession as one completely impotent in professional, social and personal situations began long before the writing of her first novel and work as a precursor to her later issues with her own physical well-being.


Willa Cather Newsletter and Review


“Willa Cather’s Autobiographical Act and the Need for (Dis)Closure.” Willa Cather Newsletter and Review, vol. XLIX, no. 2, 2005, pp. 34-35. [PDF]


[EXCERPT] Though there is no verifiable evidence of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in Cather’s childhood, if we are to read The Song of the Lark as autobiography, we must account for the undercurrent of violence and sexual desire that flows uninhibited between the characters of Thea and Dr. Archie. The novel’s opening scene of a direly ill Thea does more than “cast the doctor in… a nurturing role” (O’Brien 91); it also asks the reader to witness what on the surface looks like a doctor caring for a very ill child. However, if we look more closely at Cather’s word choice and the psychological implications of the event, we find a much grimmer image:

Presently she felt him taking off her nightgown. He wrapped the hot plaster about her chest. There seemed to be straps which he pinned over her shoulder …. That, she felt, was too strange; she must be dreaming anyhow, so she succumbed to her drowsiness …. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming. (300)

Not only is there a blatant sense of force being used against the child who is stripped, strapped, pinned and eventually forced to succumb, there is also clear evidence of the dissociation commonly described in victims of child sexual abuse. The feeling of being separated from the body has long been associated with the mind’s defense against abusive or violent situations best described by Judith Herman in her book, Trauma and Recovery:

Sometimes situations of inescapable danger may evoke not only terror and rage but also, paradoxically, a state of detached calm, in which terror, rage, and pain dissolve. Events continue to register in awareness, but it is as though these events have been disconnected from their ordinary meanings . . . The person may feel as though the event is not happening to her, as though she is observing from outside her body, or as though the whole experience is a bad dream from which she will shortly awaken. These perceptual changes combine with a feeling of indifference, emotional detachment, and profound passivity in which the person relinquishes all initiative and struggle. (43)

Yet, it is not only the reader who bears witness to Dr. Archie’s improper behavior; Thea’s sister is portrayed as suspecting some impropriety: “Dr. Archie’s whole manner with Thea, Anna often told her mother, was too free. He was always putting his hand on Thea’s head, or holding her hand while he laughed and looked down at her” (411-12). Even Ray Kennedy, who “often turned to her a face full of pride, and frank admiration,” knew that “his glance was never so intimate or so penetrating as Dr. Archie’s” (390).

It is curious that Cather would choose to open The Song of the Lark with a very ill Thea Kronborg, aged eleven–about the age of Cather herself when her family moved into the town of Red Cloud from the Divide–as if her life began with that episode. That year also marked the beginning of town doctor Gilbert McKeeby’s appearances in Cather’s home and life, as well as his appearance in the life of Cather’s mother, Virginia. Sharon O’Brien writes: “Willa Cather’s attraction to the medical profession in general and to Dr. McKeeby in particular should be connected with the daughter’s relationship to her mother” (91). Indeed, Mildred Bennett reports that in the year of the Cathers’ move to Red Cloud, Virginia Cather became extremely ill and Dr. McKeeby was “practically forced” to minister to her. Bennett writes: “[w]hen Mrs. Cather opened her eyes and saw the capable looking, dignified man, she relaxed, confident he could save her” (110). This singular ability to miraculously effect a cure for Cather’s mother must have contributed to the “almost magical power over the environment” (91) that O’Brien says Cather believed doctors held, and the fact that Cather’s apprenticeship to McKeeby began immediately after this episode might indicate a pathological attachment to the very man who was abusing her. More important, though, is Bennett’s report that soon after Dr. McKeeby tended to Virginia, “he cared for Willa during what was probably a siege of poliomyelitis”(110). While there is some legitimate speculation as to whether Cather had polio as a child, there is no reason to doubt that she did suffer some illness at this time which would have required Dr. McKeeby’s attention. In fact, though it is likely Cather did not have polio, it is possible that the disease Bennett describes as probable “infantile paralysis” (40) was actually a case of nineteenth century hysteria. Jean-Martin Charcot, the French neurologist who preceded Freud and Janet in their work on hysteria, in 1880 demonstrated that the symptoms of hysteria were psychological rather than physical. These symptoms included sensory loss, convulsions, amnesias, and motor paralyses (Herman 11). Judith Herman admits that modem “descriptions of the psychology of incest survivors essentially recapitulate the late nineteenth-century observations of hysteria” (32).