7 Later Novels by Willa Cather
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Willa Cather (1873 – 1947), it could be argued, wrote several Great American Novels, characterized by their stark beauty and economy of language. Her earlier novels include several that have remained classics, notably, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia — which came out in quick succession in the nineteen-teens. Several novels, all well received, came out in the twenties. One of Ours (1922) received a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Here we take a brief look at the seven later novels of Willa Cather, beginning with A Lost Lady (1923).
In the post World War I years, Cather was distressed by the growth of materialism and the loss of the pioneering spirit of the country that had informed so many of her most successful works. Cather is described in the Library of America omnibus collecting her later works as “among the most accomplished American writers of the twentieth century, are at once intensely lyrical and highly controlled. Their formal perception and expansiveness of feeling are an expression of Cather’s dedications both to art and to the open spaces of America.”
The following descriptions of the later novels of Willa Cather, with the exception of My Mortal Enemy, are from the 1990 Library of America edition of Cather: Later Novels, published by Library Classics of the United States.
A Lost Lady
A Lost Lady (1923) exemplifies Willa Cather’s principle of conciseness. It concerns a lady of uncommon loveliness and grace who lends an aura of sophistication to a frontier town, and explores the hidden passions and desires that confuse those who idealize her. The recurrent conflict in Cather’s work, between frontier culture and an encroaching commercialism, is nowhere more powerfully articulated.
The Professor’s House
The Professor’s House (1925) encapsulates a story within a story. In the framing narrative, Professor St. Peter, a prize-winning historian of the early Spanish explorers, finds himself disillusioned with family, career, even the house that reflects his success Within this story is another, of St. Peter’s friend Tom Outland, whose brief but adventurous life still shadows those he loved.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) tells the story of the first bishop of New Mexico in a series of tableaux modeled on the medieval lives of the saints. Cather affectionately portrays the refined French Bishop Later and his more earthy assistant within the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Southwest and among the Mexicans, Indians, and settlers they were sent to serve.
My Mortal Enemy
My Mortal Enemy (1928) From the very first sentence to the very last of My Mortal Enemy, Cather holds the interest of the reader by telling the story, not of an incident, but of a life. In just some 120 pages, the tragic story of a great artist is told. Has the author tried to undo her A Lost Lady? There is a definite mark of similarity between the two books, but one feels that she has not come up to her earlier mark, though she has done so admirably.
Shadows on the Rock
Shadows on the Rock (1931), though its setting and subject are unusual for Cather, expresses her fascination with the “curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite.” It is a re-creation of 17th-century Quebec as it appears to the apothecary Auclaire and his daughter Cécile: the town’s narrow streets, the supplies ships on its great river, its merchants, profligates, explorers, and missionaries, and towering personalities like Frontenac and Laval, all parts of a colony struggling to survive.
Lucy Gayheart (1935) returns to the themes of Cather’s easier writings, in a more somber key. Lucy, talented, spontaneous, and eager to explore the possibilities of life, leaves her prairie home to pursue a career in music. After a happy interval, her life takes an increasingly disastrous turn.
Sapphire and the Slave Girl
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) marks a conclusion to Cather’s career as a novelist. Set in Virginia five years before the Civil War, the story shows the effects of slaveholding on Sapphira Colbert, a woman of spirit and common sense who is frighteningly capricious in dealing with people she “owns,” and on her husband, who hates slavery even while he conforms to the social order that permits it. When, through kindness, he refuses to sell a slave, Sapphira’s jealous reaction precipitates a sequence of events that registers a conflict of cultural as well as personal values.
Willa Cather: Later Novels on Amazon
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