Willa Cather: Simply the best novelist?

Willa Cather

Joseph Epstein calls Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, the 'best novelist of the 20th century.' Here he reviews a new collection of her selected letters.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Knopf)

- Joseph Epstein, The American Spectator

Willa Cather’s literary reputation is even now, nearly 70 years after her death, less than clear. In her day - born in 1873, she published her main novels and books of stories between 1912 and 1940 - she was regarded as insufficiently modernist, both in method and in outlook.

She was later found to be a poor fit for academic feminism, for she wrote about the great dignity of female strength and resignation in the face of the harshest conditions.

The powerful critics of her day and of ours have never lined up behind her. All she has had is readers who adore her novels and stories.

I am among them, and if pressed I should say that Willa Cather was the best novelist of the 20th century.

Not all of her novels were successful, but those that come off—O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918)A Lost Lady (1923),  The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931)—do so with a grace and grandeur that show a mastery of the highest power. 

Cather’s great subject was immigration to America, chiefly among northern Europeans, their endurance in the face of nature’s pitiless hardships, and what she calls ‘the gorgeous drama with God.’

Cather’s favourite of her own novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop, her account of two missionary French priests settling what will one day be New Mexico, strikes so exquisite a note of reverence that many people took its author for a Catholic.

She wasn’t. Born a Baptist, she later became an Episcopalian.

In one of the letters in the recently published collection The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Cather writes to a sociologist at the University of Miami named Read Bain that she was not a Catholic nor had she any intention of becoming one.

‘On the other hand,’ she wrote, ‘I do not regard the Roman Church merely as “artistic material.” If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that it is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.” 

In one of the last of her letters, she writes to one of her early biographers: “…we learn a great deal from great people.’

When Willa Cather wrote that, did she know that she herself had become one of those great people? One hopes so, for she indubitably was. 

Read full review: The heart of the heartland (The American Spectator

Buy the book: Garrat Publishing

Related material:

The great and the good by Greg Sheridan (The Australian)

The Willa Cather Archive (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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