Selected Criticism

Cather, Willa (1873–1947)
Singley, Carol J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Willa Cather, American novelist, journalist, and critic, is best known for her fiction about immigrant life and pioneer experience in the Midwest and Southwest. Her novel O Pioneers! (1913), named for Whitman's poem, incorporates Whitman's lyrical style and sense of cosmic unity in all of nature.

Cather may have first read Whitman between 1891 and 1895, while attending the University of Nebraska. Her early attitude toward him was mixed, reflecting the competing influences of European and American models on her artistic development. Susan Rosowski argues for British rather than American romantic influences on Cather. Carl Van Doren and Edward Wagenknecht, however, compare her with Whitman and Sarah Orne Jewett, and Judith Fryer, citing a column that Cather wrote for the Lincoln Courier (1895), calls Whitman and Henry James her literary masters. In a column in the Nebraska State Journal (1896), Cather criticizes Whitman's all-inclusive, prosaic language, but she praises his "primitive elemental force" (The World 1:280), passion for nature, and celebration of life. As she matured, her attraction to Whitman deepened.

O Pioneers! evokes Whitman in style and theme. Bernice Slote notes its loose structure, contrasts, and repetitive symbols; James Woodress its epigraphic poem celebrating the land and the pioneering spirit of those who cultivate it (Willa Cather); and David Stouck its epic qualities. John Murphy finds parallels with "Song of Myself": a unity of self and nature, achieved through Alexandra Bergson's love of the land; a procreative urge, evident in the rich seasonal harvests and Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata's romance; and an assurance of life after death. Cather also borrows from Whitman in her depiction of comradeship between Alexandra and Carl Linstrum. Whitman's influence is also apparent in other fiction by Cather. She alludes to "Passage to India" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in her novel Alexander's Bridge (1912), to Whitman's doctrine of the "open road" in her novel My Ántonia (1918), and to "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" in her 1932 story "Two Friends."

Cather's use of Whitman places her in a predominantly male American literary tradition; as Hermione Lee notes, however, Cather transforms as well as reflects masculine forms. She also combines romantic celebrations of nature and westward expansion with modernist regret and nostalgia.


Cather, Willa. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893–1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.

Comeau, Paul. "The Doctrine of the Open Road in My Ántonia." Approaches to Teaching Cather's "My Ántonia." Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989. 150–155.

Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up. London: Virago, 1973.

Murphy, John J. "Cather's 'Two Friends' as a Western 'Out of the Cradle.'" Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 31.3 (1987): 39–41.

———. "A Comprehensive View of Cather's O Pioneers!" Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Ed. John J. Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1984. 113–127.

Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather: The Secret Web." Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium. Ed. John J. Murphy. North Andover, Mass.: Merrimack College, 1974. 1–19.

Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.

Van Doren, Carl. Contemporary American Novelists, 1900–1920. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Wagenknecht, Edward. "Willa Cather." Sewanee Review 37 (1939): 221–239.

Woodress, James. "Whitman and Cather." études Anglaises 45.3 (1992): 324–332.

———. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.


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