Wednesday, February 11, 2009

But if she was not a lesbian?

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:

Just as Cather’s identity as a woman, and probably also her lesbianism, enabled her to appreciate the position of ethnic minorities, so too was the mainstream critical denunciation of the works closely tied with the preconceptions of her critics.1What is striking is how much is taken for granted in this little passage. How much is set off, like a holy of holies, from argument! There is no external evidence whatever that Cather was a lesbian; not a single reference to sexual relations, not even in passing, is found in her extensive correspondence.2 Nevertheless, Cather’s lesbianism is now the common opinion of literary scholars. And this merely suppositional lesbianism is then supposed to be fons et origo of what is in fact one of Cather’s great literary achievements—her “appreciation,” her deep imaginative sympathy, for “ethnic minorities.” It is nothing for which she deserves praise. It is a “preconception.” All lesbians—all women, for that matter—share it.

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:His fat face was irritatingly stupid, and had the grey, oily look of soft cheeses. The corners of his mouth were deep folds in plumpness, like the creases in a baby’s legs, and the steel rim of his spectacles, where it crossed his nose, was embedded in soft flesh. He said not one word during supper, but ate as if he were afraid of never seeing food again. When his attention left his plate for a moment, it was fixed in the same greedy way upon the girl who served the table—and who seemed to regard him with careless contempt. The student gave the impression of being always stupefied by one form of sensual disturbance or another.Perhaps she lived with Lewis precisely to avoid “sensual disturbance,” and to put all her creative energies into her writing instead. I advance this merely as an alternative explanation of the known facts, which has the logical effect—not that literary scholars are affected by logic—of invalidating the assumption that Cather was a lesbian. Outside a political preference for lesbianism over chastity, there is no reason to accept one explanation over the other. Except, perhaps, that the alternative explanation also accounts for Cather’s clear tendency, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, to sympathize with Bishop Latour’s celibacy over Padre Martínez’s debauchery. It is, as the Bishop says, a question that had been “thrashed out many centuries ago and decided once for all.”

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.