Although the famous Nebraska novelist Willa Cather never identified herself as a lesbian, queer scholars still try to claim her as one of their own. Based on her lifestyle and writing, it’s easy to find evidence that she would probably be labeled a lesbian today, whether or not she would claim the title for herself. The question here is should we try and “queer” Willa Cather because her lifestyle was almost definitely homosexual? Do we have the right to “queer” a person who is now dead even if she didn’t identify this way herself (at a time when homosexuality was less acceptable, certainly)? Does it even matter if she was gay or not—can’t her work stand on its own without its author's personal biography?
Here's what we know about "lady lovin'" Cather:
Although her primary relationships were with women, Cather didn’t identify as a lesbian and denounced homosexuality several times in writing. During her college days, she published a scathing criticism of Oscar Wilde, who had been convicted of sodomy, writing, “Civilization shudders at his name, and there is absolutely no spot on earth where this man can live.” Even if her attitude changed post-graduation, writings such as these suggest that Cather needed to publicly declare a hatred of homosexuals. In the early 20th century, homosexuals were becoming more visible in places like New York City. Although Cather lived in New York City with her longtime companion Edith Lewis when her most famous novel, O Pioneers! was published, Cather didn’t identify herself with any of these newly-emerged groups. In fact, Cather remained private about her sexuality throughout her lifetime, which caused later critics to search for proof of her homosexuality in the margins of her writing.
Furthermore, even if Cather was not or did not identify as a lesbian, she lived a life outside of the gender norms for women of her era. As a child and into her university days, Cather experimented with gender expression, alternating from crew-cut hair to very feminine dress, and adopted the names William Cather, M.D. and William Cather, Jr. through her first two years at university. Additionally, Cather never married a man and had a series of female companions throughout her life.
Queer scholars offer a reason for Cather’s consistent skewing of the marriage plot, or the idea that the conclusion of traditional novels was a wedding, saying that Cather couldn’t write a believable heterosexual romance because lesbian, or false, undertones would always ring through. It seems impossible to say Cather couldn’t write a believable traditional heterosexual plot because she was a lesbian—this same argument could be applied to a black author never being able to write a believable white character, a man about a woman, and on and on.
Instead, I would say that Cather hid many subversive aspects of her private life, while maintaining a conservative critic-figure in print—she chose what she wished to be disclosed about herself, and carefully shaped her literary output to create herself in the way she wished to be viewed. Cather’s pseudo-double life, the more conservative writer and the rebel person, helps to explain why Cather may have subverted many traditional plot trajectories and innovated aesthetically her writing, while still making less drastic stylistic and thematic changes than other modernist writers.
It has become popular in the last 20 years to dig through writers’ public personas to find their personal histories. Maybe I notice this in particular, but it always seems like people are digging for homosexuality—Cather was a lesbian! Hemingway has gay undertones! McCullers wrote him that way because she slept with women and hated men! I think we need to be careful in chiseling away what writers wanted to hide from the public and dismantling the public personas that they created. Instead, perhaps we should be viewing the personas they gave to the public as their most important contributions and our urge to uncover the “real” person as the most destructive.
Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather & the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Herring, Scott. “Catherian Friendship; or, How Not to Do the History of Homosexuality.” Modern Fiction Studies Volume 52, No. 1 (2006): 66-91.
Love, Heather. “The End of Friendship: Willa Cather’s Sad Kindred.” Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007: 72-99.
Nealon, Christopher. “Affect-Genealogy: Feeling and Affiliation in Willa Cather.” American Literature Volume 69, No.1 (1997): 5-37.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Rosowski, Susan J. “Willa Cather’s Subverted Endings and Gendered Time.” Cather Studies Volume 1 (1990): 68-88.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others.” South Atlantic Quarterly Volume 88, No. 1 (1989): 53-72.