Critical Essays Willa Cather's Art


Decades before the term throwaway society came into vogue, Willa Cather was concerned that progress and technology were eroding society's appreciation of art. In a speech at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, on May 13, 1925, she warned:

The novel has resolved into a human convenience to be bought and thrown away at the end of a journey. The cinema has had an almost devastating effect on the theater. Playwriting goes on about as well as usual, but the cheap and easy substitutes for art are the enemies of art.

She went on to relate a story of how she had tried to find Longfellow's Golden Legend at a bookstore in Portland that day. The bookstore didn't have it, and the manager told her he wouldn't sell it even if he had it. "He said he was cutting out all his two dollar books," Cather told her audience, "because people wanted Zane Grey and such."

One of Cather's complaints was that people who knew they had no talent for painting or music believed that they could sit down and write a novel, a good novel — if they chose to take the time. In other words, most people think that it doesn't take talent to write a novel.

A true artist, Cather says, should stretch the limits of his or her creativity, in order to strive for something new, rather than something that has been done many times before. In her essay, "On the Art of Fiction," Cather writes:

Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand — a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods — or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values.

Cather believed that no book fewer than a hundred years old should be called a classic. Contemporary novels, she felt, should not be taught in schools. They should be discovered by students reading on their own. She believed that no teacher could discourage students from falling in love with silly books, but students who stumbled across good ones would treasure them far more than if a teacher assigned them.

When Cather first started writing novels, it took her several years and four books to settle on a style that suited her. Song of the Lark, for instance, was a stylistic departure from O Pioneers!. Whereas reviewers lauded O Pioneers! for its simple, straightforward style, they found Song of the Lark wallowing in detail. Her London publisher, William Heinemann, rejected it because of its complexity. Heinemann personally admired the book, but felt that Cather "had taken the wrong road, and that the full-blooded method, which told everything about everybody, was not natural to [her] and was not the one in which [she] would ever take satisfaction."

In her essay "My First Novels," she writes about returning to her earlier, simpler style with her next book, My Ántonia:

Too much detail is apt, like any other form of extravagance, to become slightly vulgar; and it quite destroys in a book a very satisfying element analogous to what painters call "composition."

Unlike many writers, Cather did not become attached to her prose. She revised her work carefully, but once it was set in galleys, she would rarely make artistic changes. This was fortunate because after a book is set in type, it is costly for the publisher to change it, and most publishers charge authors for making other than critically necessary corrections. Occasionally, however, the muse would strike, and Cather, rethinking her story, was unable to control her urge to rewrite. This happened when she read through the proofs of My Ántonia, which resulted in the publisher billing her for nearly $150 for proof corrections.

Rose C. Field, in an article for the New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1924, asked Cather if My Ántonia was a good book because it was a story of the soil. Cather denied that the novel had anything to do with the country, or the city, or that it had a formula. She declared that it was "a story of people I knew. I expressed a mood, the core of which was like a folk-song. . . . The thing worthwhile is always unplanned. Any art that is a result of preconcerted plans is a dead baby."

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