Reading the scholarship on Death Comes for the Archbishop, I stumbled upon the following passage from a ten-year-old article. The author is discussing the eclipse of her reputation during Cather’s own lifetime. Critics like Granville Hicks, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling—all three on the intellectual Left—attacked Cather for “her neglect of contemporary social realities, her retreat into a nostalgic past that forswore the complexity of modern life.” But more was involved. The attacks derived not merely from their politics but “from the critics’ fundamental misogyny.” Their “ideas of radicalism seldom extended beyond the white male identity.” (Not surprisingly, our author finds all three “tremendously overrated.”) Then he tries to explain how Hicks, Wilson, and Trilling could have been so short-sighted:
But what if Cather was not a lesbian? What if she captured “The Hired Girls” so memorably, not because she lusted after them, but because she could imagine herself as one of them? What if she understood the Navajo and Hopi so well (“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it”) because she studied them closely, and not because, as a lesbian, she too felt as if she belonged to an ethnic minority. (Cather never once uses the terms ethnic or minority in her letters.) What if scholars never learn the complete facts about Cather’s friendship with Edith Lewis? They observe that she and Lewis lived together from 1912 until Cather’s death in 1947, and they snicker knowingly. If the known facts admit another possible explanation, though, and if nothing further can be determined, then how can a lesbian relationship between the women be so positively assumed? Why wouldn’t the alternative explanation be equally plausible? (Because it doesn’t enjoy lesbianism’s prestige, that’s why.) What if Cather sought, with Edith Lewis, a refuge from the stupefaction of sensuality that she describes repeatedly, and with obvious distaste, in Death Comes for the Archbishop:
1. Nicholas Birns, “Building the Cathedral: Imagination, Christianity, and Progress in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Religion and the Arts 3 (1999): 1–19.
2. James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p. 141.