Boundaries and Marginality in Willa Cather’s Frontier Fiction

  • Conrad Ostwalt
Part of the Studies in Literature and Religion book series (SLR)


The announcement for the 1994 ‘Dissent and Marginality’ conference described frontiers as having ‘disconcerting properties — neither inside nor outside, neither known nor unknown. They are where change takes place, and certainties are questioned’. In the case of the American frontier, we might add that ‘frontiers are neither old nor new’, and in the case of popular American mythology, we might describe frontiers as places ‘where self-definition and self-understanding emerge from change’. Certainly, few images have contributed as much to the sense of self-understanding for North Americans as that of the American frontier, at one time boundless and inviting, a testament to courage, it represents the impulse for exploration and the relentless drive to conquer and master the environment. Indeed, in much American literature and popular thought, the American frontier, the Western boundary, exists as that which provides opportunity, unbounded freedom, and prosperity. In American iconography, the Western frontier has and in many ways still symbolizes the New World experiment of the Americas and the democratic experiment of the United States.


Natural World American Literature Marginal Character Wild Land Literary Life 
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  1. 1.
    Portions of this chapter are based upon chapter two of Conrad Ostwalt’s, After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cather scholarship is characterized by the critical biography. There are numerous studies that draw inferences between Cather’s life and the effect her experiences played upon the creation of her fiction. Since my primary objective is not critical biography, I shall mention the best of these studies here for further reference. The best full length biographies of Willa Cather are Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1951)Google Scholar
  3. E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953)Google Scholar
  4. James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (New York: Pegasus, 1970, reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975, 1982)Google Scholar
  5. Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: the Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  6. James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  7. Susan J. Rosowski’s insightful book, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986)Google Scholar
  8. Henry James Forman, ‘Willa Cather: A Voice from the Prairie’, Southwest Review, XLVII (Summer 1962) 248–58.Google Scholar
  9. See also David Stouck, Willa Gather’s Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Shelley Saposnik-Noire, ‘The Silent Protagonist: The Unifying Presence of Landscape in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia’, The Midwest Quarterly, XXXI (1990) 171–9.Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    Willa Cather, The Kingdom of Art: Willa Gather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967) p. 448.Google Scholar
  12. James Woodress in Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987) p. 36.Google Scholar
  13. See also Demaree Peck, ‘“Possession Granted by a Different Lease”: Alexandra Bergson’s Imaginative Conquest of Cather’s Nebraska’, Modern Fiction Studies, XXXVI (1990) 5–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 6.
    Russell Blankenship, American Literature As An Expression of the National Mind (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1931) p. 677.Google Scholar
  15. See also David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (New York: Cornell University Press, 1951) p. 18.Google Scholar
  16. 7.
    John H. Randall, III, ‘Willa Cather and the Pastoral Tradition’, in John J. Murphy (ed.), Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium (North Andover, Massachusetts: Merrimack College, 1974).Google Scholar
  17. 8.
    For this understanding of setting or ‘atmosphere’, see Wesley A. Kort, Narrative Elements and Religious Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) p. 20ff.Google Scholar
  18. See John H. Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather’s Search for Value (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960).Google Scholar
  19. See Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom, ‘Willa Cather’s Novel’s of the Frontier: A Study in Thematic Symbolism’, American Literature, XXI (March 1949) 71–93.Google Scholar
  20. See Lionel Trilling, ‘Willa Cather’ in James Schroeter (ed.), Willa Gather and Her Critics (New York: Cornell University Press, 1967) pp. 148–55.Google Scholar
  21. 9.
    Conrad Ostwalt, After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1990) p. 38.Google Scholar
  22. 10.
    Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913) pp. 21–2.Google Scholar
  23. 11.
    Willa Cather, My Ántonia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918) p. 159.Google Scholar
  24. 12.
    Robert Edson Lee, From West to East: Studies in the Literature of the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966) pp. 114–15.Google Scholar
  25. 13.
    Eudora Welty, ‘The House of Cather’, in the Alderman Library, Miracles of Perception: The Art of Willa Cather (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1980) pp. 22, 21.Google Scholar
  26. See also Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass, p. 84.Google Scholar
  27. 14.
    Arnold, Willa Cather’s Short Fiction, p. 88.Google Scholar
  28. See Dorothy Canfield Fisher, ‘Review of Sapphira and the Slave Girl’, in John J. Murphy (ed.), Critical Essays on Willa Cather (Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1984) p. 285.Google Scholar
  29. 15.
    Marginality in Cather’s work is best identified in the prevalent theme of cultural complexity. Although Cather usually appears to be a regional writer, this conception is much too narrow for her. As Elizabeth Monroe writes, Cather writes of ‘a new settlement of the frontier by Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, Slavs, Bohemians, and the French, the contrast between the civilizations involved in this settlement, the sweep of American religious history, and the triumph of great personalities over the hardships of American life’. See Elizabeth Monroe, The Novel and Society (UNC Press, 1941), quoted in Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel: From the Birth of the Nation to the Middle of the Twentieth Century (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1952) p. 319.Google Scholar
  30. Howard Mumford Jones, The Frontier in American Fiction: Four Lectures on the Relation of Landscape to Literature (Jerusalem: The Magness Press, 1956) p. 78ff.Google Scholar
  31. Cather, ‘Old Mrs. Harris’, in Cather, Obscure Destinies (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1974).Google Scholar
  32. 16.
    Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1971) p. 274.Google Scholar
  33. 20.
    See Judith Fryer, ‘Cather’s Felicitous Space’, Prairie Schooner, LV (Spring/Summer 1981) 196Google Scholar
  34. Fox, ‘Proponents of Order: Tom Outland and Bishop Latour’, 111–12Google Scholar
  35. Schneider, ‘Cather’s “Land-Philosophy” in Death Comes For the Archbishop’, p. 81 for descriptions of the Indian’s sacred understanding of and approach to the land.Google Scholar
  36. 25.
    Phyllis C. Robinson, Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1983) p. 175.Google Scholar
  37. 28.
    See Emmy Stark Zitter, ‘The Unfinished Picture: Willa Cather’s “The Marriage of Phaedra”’, Studies in Short Fiction, XXX (1993) 153–8Google Scholar
  38. Jeane Harris, ‘Aspects of Athene in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction’, Studies in Short Fiction, XXVIII (1991) 177–82Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Conrad Ostwalt

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