Thomas, Susan Ann (1988)
Willa Cather: A critical study.
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Willa Cather (1873-1947) has been seen by many critics as a regional novelist of marginal importance. Attention has largely been confined to her portrayal of the American Midwest during the pioneer age and it has been assumed that she was primarily an elegist for the passing of the frontier. This study attempts to view her work in the larger context of European culture and to demonstrate that she is not, as has so often been suggested, an old-fashioned local colourist but a major writer of international significance. The thesis makes extensive reference to Cather's unpublished letters which are housed in over sixty separate collections. Due to the stipulations in Cather's will, several libraries do not permit her letters to be reproduced in any form but I was able to read them in person. This unpublished material confirms that Cather's main themes are the interaction of the Old World with the New and the power of art to sanction life. The thesis begins with a short biography, showing particularly the influence of Cather's immigrant neighbours on her early life, and an account of how her preoccupation with the European heritage informed her perspective of America. It also outlines briefly the contrast between Cather and most of her contemporaries and the special difficulties faced by American women writers. This study analyses Cather's novels, in loose chronological order, in the light of her absorbtion in Wagnerian music drama, Virgilian epic and nineteenthcentury French and Russian literature, in order to reveal how her particular cultural awareness influenced her experiments with narrative form and the development of her distinctive style. I hope to show how, through this means, Cather's work acts not only as a corrective to the aggressively masculine tendencies in the literature of the American West, but how she endowed local concerns with universal significance and appeal.
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Institution: University of London, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (United Kingdom).