cover image Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Joan Ross Acocella. University of Nebraska Press, $25 (127pp) ISBN 978-0-8032-1046-2

Expanding her 1995 essay ""Cather and the Academy,"" New Yorker dance critic Acocella wittily charts decades of politically influenced Cather criticism and suggests an approach that balances politics with ""a sustained attention to what the artist is saying."" In the 1910s and early '20s, Acocella says, the author of My Antonia (1918) was considered by Mencken and others to be part of the new ""antiestablishment, democratic"" American fiction of poor rural people. By the 1930s, she was seen by Granville Hicks and others as a backward romantic unwilling to join the movement to ""destroy and rebuild"" American society. In the 1950s, Acocella continues, Cather became the ""Classical/Christian Idealist."" Since the 1970s, Cather has been outed as a lesbian in essays and a ""dreaded psychosexual biography,"" allowing her to be ""captured by the Left."" Such politically oriented criticism, Acocella concludes, is ephemeral and limiting, yielding only ""one-note criticism: all excoriation, all easy triumphs."" She bemoans: ""Is this the most important question we can ask artists of the past: whether their politics agree with ours?"" Pointing to another method, Acocella examines patterns in Cather's life to determine her unabashedly unpolitical (and overlooked) ""tragic vision"" of an unfair but possibly dignified life. Acocella is pointed and funny in her analysis (on current critics: ""No tree can grow, no river flow, in Cather's landscapes without this being a penis or menstrual period"") and compelling in her request to move beyond politics. (Feb.)