Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cather in the Dock, Critics in the Stocks

A selection of Willa Cather's letters has just been published, as I learned from Band of Thebes.  This is an event, because the lore for many years was that Cather had destroyed her correspondence and / or forbidden her estate to let it be published.  It turns out that while she did burn the letters she'd written to her great love Isabelle McClung after the latter's death, she let most of her private letters elude her grasp.  Still, it's a bit odd for the New York Times reviewer to dismiss as "a persistent urban legend" the notion of Cather as "the fanatically secretive author eager to erase any record of shameful desire."  Cather did, after all, instruct her estate not to let her letters be published, and the ban was enforced until her last executor died and "the copyright passed to a Cather Trust happy to violate her wishes" as BoT puts it.  Whatever knowledge about herself she wanted to suppress, she did try to suppress it.

For some reason Band of Thebes also quotes a new article by Joan Acocella, the New Yorker writer who in 1995 attacked academic literary critics for accusing (that's how she saw it) Cather of being a lesbian.  BoT reports that Acocella is "particularly glad to have the ban lifted now", but in the new article she basically repeats the same allegations she made before: suggesting that Cather was lesbian is still an accusation, though
Most of the Cather scholars I have talked to about this have told me that, long before O’Brien produced her putative proof in 1984, they had figured that Cather was homosexual. Furthermore, at that time, the gay rights movement had been going on for over a decade. To say that a person who lived in the early part of the century was an undeclared homosexual was not a big deal.
If that were true, then why is it an "accusation" to say so?   Notice the familiar closeting strategy: Oh, come on, why bring it up, everybody already knew she was a dyke!  But Acocella lies: saying that someone who lived a century ago was "an undeclared homosexual" is still a big deal, and still fought about in the media and even in scholarship.  BoT knows this, if Acocella doesn't: he often complains about "degaying."

Acocella attacked Cather biographer Sharon O'Brien for speculating about Cather's life by interpreting her works, but Acocella proceeds to do the same thing: "She may have died a virgin," Acocella writes hopefully, based on "not just on her life but also on her fiction, which very rarely represents a heterosexual relationship that has any romantic or sexual glow to it."  Joanna Russ read Cather's unhappy heterosexual couples as a reflection of Cather's own experience with women, but that infuriated Acocella.  (She half-forgave Russ, though, for calling Cather "innocent," which she took to mean "asexual.")  Only she was allowed to root around in Cather's knickers.
No, the problem was that once she was tagged as a closet lesbian, it was assumed that she lived her life in fear and unhappiness. At that time, proponents of the new modes of literary analysis already believed that the very center of art—its motor, almost—was conflict, but that the conflict was hidden. You had to ferret it out, and for years critics had been doing so, with artist after artist. But Cather was a special treat, because she was an intimidating, conservative woman. To have her in the dock was like getting to interrogate J. Edgar Hoover. The critics went to work, with joy.
Again Acocella posits that critics who said Cather was lesbian were hostile to her, but most of her targets are feminists and lesbians, who certainly didn't think being lesbian was a bad thing.  Acocella attacked the lesbian novelist Jane Rule simply for being, she thought, the first critic to say in print what everyone supposedly knew.  Nor was feminist academia as eager to "accuse" Cather of lesbianism as Acocella thinks.  In a preface to the book republication of her essay on Cather, Joanna Russ recalled that
The first (feminist) journal I sent this essay to gave it -- with my name on it -- to six readers. two of whom liked it and four of whom objected to it in the strongest terms, all denying that Cather was a lesbian, all insisting that I hadn't conclusive evidence of her gayness, and one calling my description of her an "accusation" ... The essay finally came out in 1986 in The Journal of Homosexuality.*
Acocella is still riding the homophobic hobbyhorse I discussed at length in a 2007 post; she hasn't learned a thing since her 2000 book on Cather criticism.  I say "homophobic" not as a clinical term, but to indicate that her denial evidently comes from a strong emotional reaction against the idea that Cather could have had sex with a woman; she can allow her to be queer, as long as she died a virgin.  The same goes for her kneejerk assumption that for anyone else to recognize Cather's lesbianism is an "accusation" and puts "her in the dock".  Her armchair psychoanalysis of others who write about Cather is ironic, given her hatred of psychoanalytic criticism.  Still, in 2013, homophobia can find a platform in elite print media.

The Times article quotes another revealing pronouncement of Acocella's:
In a 1995 article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella blasted new-style Cather scholars for their obsession with psychosexual subtext, declaring it was time “for the professional critics to give up and leave her books to those who care about them — her readers.” 
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I find plenty of fault with academic critics, but I don't see how they keep "readers" from the books.  I doubt that one ordinary reader in a hundred reads academic literary criticism anyway.  Some of the ideas filter down through journalism and popular biographies, but the ordinary reader is more likely to dismiss any idea he or she dislikes with complacent (if not philistine) common sense.  For better or worse, academics and lay readers live in different worlds, with different interests and approaches.  Cather's books have always been there for anyone who wants to read them, and there's something paranoid and conspiracy-theory-ish in Acocella's implication that academics are hogging Cather's writings like dogs in the manger, growling at any prole who tries to glance at their pages.  And what is Acocella herself but a "professional critic"?

* "To Write 'Like a Woman: Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather," in Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Indiana, 1995), p. 149.